Sunday, November 29, 2015

New Traditions (Tree Day)

Family traditions are rarely planned; they tend to sprout from various seeds and mature over the years.

For the Clan McAlpine, the beginning of December brings one of our favourite family gatherings: Tree Day.

Even calling it "Tree Day" just kinda happened. And in our family, it has become just as eagerly anticipated as Christmas Day.

The origins of Tree Day started about twenty years ago, in Victoria BC. It began one hot summer's day when I walked into our rented townhouse, and overheard the unmistakable melodies of Frosty the Snowman emanating from our television via our VCR.

In July.

That just seemed... wrong.

I remembered the thrill I had as a kid, waiting for the annual showings of Frosty, Rudolf, Snoopy, and Scrooge on television. It was part of what made the Christmas season special: the anticipation of once-in-a-year celebrations, music, and tv shows.

Now, with the advent (pardon the pun) of digital media, we no longer have to wait. We can watch Frosty in July if we feel like it.

Or... we could practice self-restraint.

Wendy & I talked it over, and starting that very year, we made a change to our routine: from then on, the Christmas videos and CD's were packed away with the Christmas tree ornaments. And the first day of December became the day that the kids would accompany me to pick out a Christmas tree, and the Christmas ornaments, music, and videos would be brought out again for the month of December.

Very quickly, the traditions surrounding Tree Day coalesced: the traditional soundtrack for tree decoration is always A Charlie Brown Christmas. Eggnog is purchased and consumed as the tree and living room gets decorated. Afterwards, we watch our traditional first video: The Muppets Christmas Carol. We know all the lines. We sing along to the songs. (We marvel when meek little Beaker uncharacteristically gives Scrooge the middle finger salute.)

Our children are all adults now; only one still lives at home. But the excitement and anticipation of Tree Day continues unabated. It is still one of our favourite family traditions.

And no-one has ever complained about not being able to watch Frosty in July.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

541 Eatery & Exchange

Every now and then, you come across a really creative and well-thought-out approach to being missional. During a recent trip to Hamilton Ontario, Wendy & I had the privilege of visiting one.

The 541 Eatery and Exchange is a remarkable ministry set in the Barton Street area of Hamilton; the area is recognized as one of the top three most-impoverished urban neighbourhoods in Canada.   
Hamilton, the "Steel City", has a significant place in my family's history: it was where they settled after emigrating from Scotland. Also of great significance: my grandfather first heard the gospel at the Caroline Street Mission during the Great Depression, and Christianity was introduced to our family. Many years later, Wendy & I lived there as newlyweds.

Driving to "the 541", as everyone calls it, I was a little shocked at how run-down the area has become. This was once a vibrant neighbourhood. Today, I'd estimate that about 70% of the shops we passed were either boarded up or empty. The side streets revealed houses, block after block, that were occupied but in various levels of disrepair.

But in the midst of this area, there is the 541 Eatery and Exchange. It is a testimony to what can happen when large suburban churches, local businesspeople, and missional-minded Christians put their heads together.

Without the financial backing of the businesspeople, and the generous donations from the larger churches, the 541 couldn't exist. Many of their volunteers who make it happen day-in and day-out are also from the churches that helped create the ministry. It's a great example of what can happen when resources are pooled.

But it's the Button Jars that everyone talks about. You'll hear stories about the Buttons long before you even see the front door of the 541. Everyone knows and loves the Buttons.

When you purchase a coffee or snack or sandwich, every patron has the opportunity to "buy" a button for one dollar. You then transfer your button from the "Buy A Button" jar, and place it in the "Take A Button" jar. Simple as that. Buy as many as you'd like.
What makes this so awesome is that other patrons -- the ones who live in the area and are struggling to make ends meet -- can use up to four buttons per meal from the "Take A Button" jar, if they don't have enough money to pay for it.

Wendy & I sat in the 541, drinking our coffees while hearing stories about the local people who were being positively impacted, and we noticed how the clientele was pretty evenly divided between people supporting the ministry, and those benefiting from it. Some people were buying buttons, and others were using them. Everybody was friendly, and the tables were crowded with people.

As we left the 541 and drove away, it was clear that there is a lot of work to be done in that area of Hamilton. But it was very exciting and encouraging to see what some local churches, businesspeople, and missional-minded Christians have planted on Barton Street.

And now I've joined the ranks of those who love to talk about the Buttons.

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Position of Strength

The past week has been pretty overwhelming, hasn't it? At least, that's how I found it.

Attacks in Paris. Syrian refugees. Shrill rhetoric. Chronic knee-jerking coupled with self-righteous finger pointing -- from all sides.

Life was so much simpler when a contrived controversy involving disposable red coffee cups was the pressing issue of the day.
The questions and answers surrounding the refugee situation are complex. There's no doubt about that. At times, it was enough to make you want to adopt the Ostrich as your patron saint, and just bury your head in the sand and block it all out.

But that's not an option. Or at best, it's an unacceptable option.

There are already quite a number of churches across Canada that are sponsoring refugee families. And while the vetting process needs to be done responsibly (ie. the original deadline of December 31 is being reconsidered), I'm thrilled that the Canadian government is committed to bringing in 25,000 refugees.

But the rhetoric remains shrill and harsh. You can't go anywhere online without being inundated with fervently held opinions (both informed and uninformed).

As Christians, we need to come at this from a position of strength. We must have our internal compass firmly set, and hold the course through any and all assailing storms.

Our position of strength is, unsurprisingly, different from that of the world:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. 
He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. 
He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. 
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 
Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Psalm 23)

As we continue to wrestle through the multi-layered issues of welcoming the stranger (Matthew 25:31-46), we must not allow our hearts to become combative and/or dismissive towards anyone with a differing opinion.

We start from a position of strength: resting and trusting in God. And then, secure in our identity in Him, we roll up our sleeves and dive into the work.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Book Release: Tracker (a novel)

As of today, I can now add "sci-fi writer" to my publishing resumé.

I've blogged before about my earlier misadventures as the young writer of several sci-fi drecklets. At the time, I was blessed with the earnest-but-clueless audacity to think my drecklets were actually worthy of publishing (insert sheepish shrug here - hey, I was only 13).

Still, science fiction has always been one of my favourite genres, and when I decided to try something completely different (write a novel), science fiction seemed the most natural choice.

As a writer, I've always enjoyed creating characters and exploring how they interact with each other. The Younger & the Elder have long been favourite characters on this blog, and made several cameos in Detoxing from Church before being given their own book, The Genesis Cafe. Likewise, the fictional characters of the "Charismatics Anonymous" support group gave expression to some of the issues being explored in Post-Charismatic.

This time around, I had a great deal of fun exploring the story with the characters. This is different from the narrator-commentary approach, where the author functions as the omniscient voice explaining to the reader things which the characters do not know. In Tracker, readers will walk the same journey of discovery with the characters, as the story unfolds with all its twists and turns.

You can read more about Tracker by clicking on the book cover at right, or the appropriate tab above. Or you could just take a shortcut, and click here.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Genre Menu: Please Pick One

One of the hardest questions that Amazon asked me about my forth-coming novel Tracker was to choose which genre of writing best describes it.

Well, duh. Science fiction, Sherlock. It's not like rocket science or something.

Except that when some people hear science fiction, what pops to mind is the image at left. Uh, well... ahem... no, that's not exactly what I meant.

Turns out that science fiction is a sub-category of what is known as "speculative fiction". And within the larger genre of science fiction itself, there are a surprising number of sub-genres.

First off, there's "hard" science fiction, which basically means it's based very rigorously on current scientific technology. Even if the story is projected ten or twenty years into the future, it must be based in real science. No Lord of the Rings fantasy here. Hard science. Michael Crichton is a good example, as is Isaac Asimov.

Then there's "soft" science fiction, which can be much more speculative, and can often include elements that are more sociological, psychological and anthropological in nature. Ray Bradbury and George Orwell are two examples. And this is where the plethora of sub-genres kicks in.

For example (definitions not exactly as Amazon might choose to word them):

Basically, technology has kicked society really hard in the nether regions and now we have to deal with it. Think: Blade Runner or The Matrix.
Time Travel
Just like it sounds. Machines or wormholes or whatever moved you from point A to point B (future or past). Don't date that cute girl; you don't want to become your own grandfather.
Military SF
War in space. Things go boom (usually aliens). If not based on actual X-Box games, it sure reminds you of one or three.
Space Opera
Heroic, large scale stories of infinite epic-ness set in space. All of space, not just a few measly planets. Think: Star Wars.
Living in paranoid terror of the imminent Big Boom. Oops, too late. Nice knowing you.
The Big Boom is in the past. Welcome to society's "new normal" (watch us put the 'fun' back into dysfunctional).
And just in case the newbie sci-fi writer, such as yours truly, is starting to get a handle on where his book might fit, there's always the dichotomy of utopian versus dystopian.

Perfection: Huzzah, the Garden of Eden! Fig leaves are available at the salad bar. Don't talk to the snake.
A world where even the cockroaches are appalled. Think: POTUS Donald Trump.
Actually, all these sub-genres kinda reminded me of the endless permutations of the term "Protestant denomination", but that's probably a blog post for another time.

Stay tuned: genre-antics aside, the book launch of Tracker is trembling in the starting blocks. It could be, like, any day now...

(I eventually flipped a couple of toonies and settled on "dystopian" and "post-apocalyptic", if anyone was wondering how my genre-choosing conundrum was finally resolved.)

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Power of Story

Two things reminded me recently about the power of our stories, or in oldskewl church terms, "testimony".

One was a memorial service, and the other a coffee conversation with an older Christian who I really respect.

The memorial was for the aged mother of some good friends of ours. Wendy & I never had the pleasure of meeting her, but we went to the funeral in support of our grieving friends (aided and abetted by the fact that their son is dating our daughter).

A recurring comment throughout the memorial was "the phone calls" that this woman was famous for. Throughout her lifetime, she had made it her mission to pray for people and give them words of encouragement. Even in her later years, despite her growing infirmity, this continued. The phone became her point of contact out of necessity, but the prayers and encouraging words never stopped.

One of the early speakers at the memorial asked "how many here have gotten one of her phone calls?", and easily 90% of those present raised their hands. It was a remarkable testimony. Her story of a lifetime of prayer and encouragement was inspiring.

The other was a private, one-on-one conversation over coffee with a long-time Christian mentor. He is a brilliant analytical thinker, and is quite adept at logical, philosophical and theological discussions.

The topic that we were discussing would produce an instant rabbit trail if I even mention it, but suffice it to say that this topic was causing him a great deal of grief. I'm not sure if he would choose this expression, but I would describe it as "tied up in knots".

We spent a couple of hours over coffee that day, talking and listening back and forth. And towards the end of our time together, I was silently praying a very desperate, "oh God, help!" kind of prayer. And then it hit me.
"Can I tell you about the night I became a believer?"
In some ways, that was a totally ridiculous thing to say. He has known me for years. He has always been the older, wiser mentor. My little testimony story certainly didn't answer any of the questions that were tying him into knots.

And yet, it felt like God was prompting me. So, I simply recounted the events of that night. My story as a teenager, and the first time (despite being raised in a Christian family) that I really "got" that Jesus was real.
(Unlike the apostle Paul, I didn't fall off my donkey because of a light from heaven and the audible voice of God (Acts 9:1-6). However, the night of my surrender to Jesus did feel sorta like being ambushed by the Holy Spirit.)
There is a supernatural element to our faith that goes beyond logical, beyond the rational. That doesn't mean that faith is illogical or irrational -- but faith transcends them both.

I've always resonated with Anselm's famous phrase: "faith seeking understanding". I love learning; I love researching and trying to grapple with issues of faith and life, and how to communicate it to others.

But my faith doesn't rest on how much or how well I understand every nuance. Nobody convinced me with rational arguments. Nobody manoeuvred me into becoming a Christian with logic. My faith rests on an "experience": the night that Jesus knocked me off my donkey. I still don't have "all the answers", but I will always remember the reality of that night.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Teaser: Tracker (a new novel)

The count-down continues...

The genre is science fiction.

The setting could be described as "dystopian" or "post-apocalyptic".

For the main characters, it's just another day of survival.

- inside front cover teaser -

The lights inside the café dimmed abruptly, plunging the outside wall of the building into darkness. Jane froze almost mid-stride, crouching down, low to the ground, every muscle tense. Aubrey imitated her action as best as she could, but she skidded as she tried to halt her forward progress, sending a few small pebbles skittering ahead. It sounded like an avalanche to her frightened ears.

Jane made no move, not even to glare at Aubrey for making that slight noise. It was Jane's lack of caustic rebuke that scared Aubrey the most. They were perhaps two meters from the back door. Did the lights going out mean something? Was it a signal? A warning?

Aubrey didn't realize she was holding her breath until she heard herself gasp. The doorknob was turning, slow and stealthy. The faint light leaking out around the doorframe also vanished, mimicking the extinguished lights in the rest of the café.

Someone was coming out.

Or some Thing.

coming soon...

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Lead On 2015 (BC Vineyard Gathering)

photo credit: Coral Lee Photography

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the annual BC Vineyard Regional Gathering in Chilliwack. A year previous, it was my attendance at the same Gathering that began a process of reconnecting with the Vineyard movement here in Canada.

This year, I was also privileged to play bass with an assortment of worship leaders from around British Columbia, which is always spiritually meaningful and also just plain fun (musically speaking).

Reviewing my notes from the weekend, one of the recurring (if unofficial) themes of the conference was the phrase, "stay in your own lane". Roughly translated: You're Vineyard, so act like it; don't try to be anybody else.
One of the major (and most lamented) limitations of online writing is that you can't get the "tone of voice" or "feel" of how something is said. In light of this, it's entirely possible that -- if you weren't at the Regional Gathering -- the phrase "stay in your own lane" could come across in several different ways.
For example:

1. It could be a Rebuke.
Yes, it's possible that saying: "stay in your lane" could be taken as a rebuke. A strong word of course correction to people who were straying off-course. Sometimes a rebuke is the most loving thing to give. But that's not how it came across at the Gathering.
2. It could be a Warning.
If you read the Old & New Testaments, and even a short summary of church history over the centuries, you would probably notice that we humans have a strong tendency to wander off into the weeds. And if this were the case at the Gathering, a word of warning would be appropriate. But it wasn't like that, either.
3. It could be an Encouragement (note: this is the correct answer).
"Stay in your own lane" came across very strongly as pastoral encouragement: we need to embrace a "bold humility" that unapologetically (and un-obnoxiously) states who we are as a movement, what our values & practices are, and our paradigm of the Kingdom as "already-and-not-yet".

To paraphrase the theologian called Pop-eye, "We yam what we yam."

And as our guest speaker, Christy Wimber, reminded us more than once, we shouldn't be surprised when the things we affirm are often the things most under spiritual attack: Ie. worship, community, and the charismata (grace gifts) of the Holy Spirit.

David Ruis also reminded us (this is not verbatim but the general gist): "Vineyard Canada has enough loaves and fishes to offer Jesus for His use". In context, this was also an encouraging word, reminding us that despite the vastness of our region -- and the many small Vineyard churches scattered here and there -- we serve a God who is in the business of taking a little and using it to bless many.

This was only the second Gathering I've been to, but each time, I have come away with a greater appreciation for my Vineyardian tribe, and also a sense that a new chapter is being written.

And Wendy & I are more than ready to roll up our sleeves and join in.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Apples Are Not Oranges

Sometimes, those of us who call ourselves "Christian" can say some pretty dumb things.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it's unintentional and does not come from any deliberate desire to spread disinformation.

Most of the time, it's simply the mistake of comparing oranges to apples and discovering that (gasp!) they're not the same thing. And then blaming the apple for not being an orange, as if the apple has somehow failed -- or even worse -- deliberately deceived us.

Let's cut to the chase:

I've lost track of the number of books, articles or blogs that I've read, or preachers/teachers I've heard say it, but it goes something like this:
"God has been showing me a lot recently about (insert topic here: community, justice, intimacy with God, worship, etc.), and let me tell you, they didn't teach me that in seminary."
And the audience nods and chuckles; after all, can anything truly spiritual come from seminary?

I'm surprised that they are surprised. Were they not paying attention in class? Did they somehow become confused about the difference between seminary and the Holy Spirit?

Bible colleges & seminaries are designed to provide training in theology, skills in biblical interpretation and a variety of other disciplines, and be a time of preparation and honing for people who are already following the Spirit's leading (why else would they be there?).

The Holy Spirit has a different job description, and works in different ways within each Christian. He alone is our source of spiritual vitality and vision. He can use Bible colleges & seminaries to hone and sharpen us, of course, but they were never meant to replace Him.
(And let's be fair: Bible colleges & seminaries always challenge students about the difference between head knowledge and heart transformation.)
To borrow a more commonly known proverb: "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink". Training facilities like Bible colleges & seminaries can only lead you so far -- you have to encounter the Spirit on your own. Nobody can "make" you.

So please, let's stop belittling seminaries because they aren't the Holy Spirit. It's like blaming an apple for not being an orange.

I, for one, am grateful for my years at Providence, even if they (really, really, really) don't like the Vineyard. Terrence Tiessen (author of Who Can Be Saved?) was one among many professors I was privileged to study under.

I am also thankful for my years at Tyndale, even if they had a tendency to roll their supralapsarian eyes at non-Calvinists like yours truly. I learned a great deal and was challenged by teachers like James Beverley (author of Holy Laughter & the Toronto Blessing).

Allow me to repeat myself (I'll try not to make it habit):
Please, let's stop belittling seminaries because they aren't the Holy Spirit. It's like blaming an apple for not being an orange.