Joy, Sadness, and Success in Vancouver

If you’re a regular reader then you know that in December my family and I packed up our lives, left our church community in Burnaby, BC, and emigrated to Scotland so that I could begin a PhD. It’s been a wild ride, and we’ve been busy! In May we were privileged to return to Vancouver for a wedding. It was a great experience, and it allowed me a special perspective from which to reflect back on my own ministry. I thought I’d share a few of those reflections with you today.

First, leaving a church is never easy. (Or, at least, it never should be easy!) You are leaving relationships, many of them deep, with people for whom you have prayed, laboured, and with whom you have suffered in ministry, people you have married, people whose parents and friends you have buried, and children whom you have dedicated. A minister gets slowly but deeply integrated into the life of a community—you can’t possibly leave without some discomfort!

However—and this was an enormous blessing that I in no way take for granted!—we were able to leave on great terms. From day one, the church knew that further studies were part of my life goals. What is more, God’s provision for our studies had been so evident, and the story of His provision so compelling, that it gave my people (and us with them!) a real sense of God’s call. This made the pain of leaving truly bittersweet—happiness about God’s self-evident work mingled with sadness over the loss of relationships.

What wasn’t so good is that, although we were on good moral and social terms with our church members, we left town badly. We had a firm deadline for when we were to leave Canada (mid-December), and we were leaving both without visas and without a place to live in Scotland. In the midst of that uncertainty, the overwhelming business of packing, saying goodbye, cleaning our house, selling our cars, preparing boxes for storage and shipping, and tying up all our other affairs left our heads spinning. Not only that, many of these things—such as the final packing of our storage facility, the selling of our cars, and the cleaning of our house—happened after we left and were done for us by our church members! Leaving was ugly, but in the midst of it our people were absolutely beautiful!

Originally, in planning our final days in Vancouver, my wife and I had slotted the last two days for eating at some of our favourite restaurants, visiting a few of our favourite locations, and saying goodbye to the various houses we’d lived in. Instead, a snowstorm on those last days (and our own insane busyness) made a mess of that plan. Three days before departure we slept for about four hours. Two days before we slept for about two hours. The day before we left we may have slept for about an hour on the floor of our nearly empty apartment. Rather than an easy departure in the early afternoon we left late at night, exhausted, drained, and almost completely miserable. (Did I mention that throughout this process my wife was in the early months of pregnancy?)

The only consolation, then, was the knowledge that in about six month’s we’d be back for a wedding, and in my mind I lodged the thought that maybe with that trip we could make up for the ugly departure we’d just been through.

Fast forward six months. We’ve moved to Scotland, found a place to live, and settled in to a new life in a new world. May has come, and it’s time to pack up our bags and head back to Canada. We’ve slated 13 days for the trip, have a list of restaurants to visit, people to see, baby clothes to collect, and a few things to buy. What I didn’t—and couldn’t—expect, were the things I would learn visiting my “home” community again, as a former minister. I want to talk for a moment about the following five.

1) I am humbled by the quality of people in our Vancouver life, and honoured to call them friends. The people in our church life—the friends we’d built up over the past 8.5 years—are some of the most amazing people I know. They housed us, and loaned us a car, and fed us, and loved on us and on our kids in an unremitting way for all 13 days we were there. For my part, each and every day I ate at least three meals a day with our church friends, and sometimes more than three. I came back to Scotland with my belly fatter but my heart full. Again and again as I sat with them (and ate!) I couldn’t help but think how much I appreciated each and every person I saw, how much I valued their lives, their faith, their stories, their children, and their parents. I was struck and humbled as well by the sheer excellence and quality each person. For so many of them, six months had passed, and yet it felt as if no time at all had transpired. For me, that only happens with my closest of friends, and yet I felt it with so many of my former members. It was a shock!

2) I succeeded in ministry, but I could never have realized it until I left. On paper and in public I set myself to operate a ministry based on friendship. I didn’t want relationships which were based solely on my office or the power of the pastorate (although I wasn’t shy to utilize that power as appropriate and necessary). Instead, I wanted to highlight the fact that we shared a common faith, a common lord, and that my purpose as pastor was to strengthen their personal relationships with the King in such a way that it would never depend on the pastor. While I was active in ministry, I couldn’t really gauge my success. I was too busy, and had too many relationships to maintain, and not enough time to invest the way I would like in each person. Ironically, it was only leaving the ministry that could reveal its success—so, to return, and then to receive the love of so many people who are friends left me gobsmacked. But this led to a third lesson:

3) The fact that I was too busy to enjoy these friendships is a HUGE problem. On one late afternoon and early evening our kids had a play-date with church friends. I ended up sitting on a couch, casually reading a book, while my wife and the other mom visited. Later, we ate together, walked to the park, and enjoyed a quiet evening in beautiful Vancouver. It struck me in that moment, “Why didn’t we do this before?” Immediately I knew the answer. I would have been too busy. I would have been at my office, or at a meeting, or speaking at an event, or working on some other project, or handling an emergency, or resting in exhaustion from the execution of some combination of each of the above tasks. I would have sent my wife and kids on their own to the play-date and would never have made it to the house of the very friends whose everyday faith would have restored me. It is a deeply ironic situation. I can only conclude, in the future, that if I am in full-time ministry again I must create those spaces simply to be with people. They may be as important to my ministering soul as are times of devotion and rest. They are rest.

4) Preaching again was an experience in discernment. One joy was to preach again after the six month hiatus of moving-to-Scotland. I got to tell the story of our adventures, travels, and things I’d learned so far in Scotland. I got to encourage my members to take risks, to step out in faith by following Jesus. But while I stood in front of their welcoming faces a few key things ran through my head. One was a sense, again, that no time had passed. Preaching remains one of the things I am called and equipped to do, and there was an easy comfort to stepping back into that space. At the same time, as sometimes happens at these moments, there was no hint of nostalgia—no inner sense of, “I could come back and do this again…” In its place was a clear sense of, “Your time here is done.” For what it’s worth, preaching again showed me that I’m supposed to be in Scotland, and supposed to be pursuing this PhD right now. There was a satisfying comfort in that moment of discernment.

5) I’m seriously considering a book about Second Generation Ministry. My 8.5 years in full-time ministry with Vietnamese and Chinese churches has taught me enormously. In the process, I’ve had to reflect (creatively!) on the dynamics that make my churches operate—cultural, structural, interpersonal, and so forth. In the process I’ve tried to share these insights with my members, whether in the big public spaces of preaching or in private conversations. The result is a notebook with quite a few jottings about these issues. Not being Asian myself, I’ve hesitated to write such a book—I don’t want to present myself as another non-Asian telling Asians how to run their lives as Asians. But maybe, just maybe, as a friend who cares deeply for my many friends who happen to be Asian, I can write something that will articulate things going on in their lives, as well as encourage, bless, and enrich their faith.

Of course, such projects might be slightly delayed by the 80,000 word thesis I’m supposed to be writing for the University of St Andrews. Between that, and dinner with my children as often as possible, we’ll see how my spare time shapes up!

Dear James (F)–Greed, Which is Idolatry

Dear James,

I agree that the more we look at sin, and look into sin—especially that sin which sits lurking in the quiet unexamined spaces of our hearts—the more we look the more we’ll see. It’s almost neurotic, like the student of pathology or psychology who finds, through study, that she bears the symptoms of every disease and disorder she encounters! But where with the student such a thing is a necessary phase, one out of which she ought rightly to grow, the analysis of sin for us is both accurate and unending. It is also a worse experience. Sin is not limited to its bodily effects, it is also psychological, and indeed goes beyond the psychological to touch the very soul. The pathology runs throughout the entirety of the human person. It’s a scary business, looking into your own heart.

I trust, despite your note of alarm, that throughout this season our exercise together hasn’t slipped into despair. We’ve tried to balance the grim with the good, and while I admit that I haven’t made much of forgiveness, it’s worth remembering that our salvation from sin hasn’t really been the point so far. In Christ we’re both saved already, are we not? What we want for is an act of transformation in the inner man to root out the twisted evil of our hearts. To get at that, we’ve got to commit to the long, hard look inward.

It’s possible that one of the hardest places to look today is at Greed, if only because our political and economic systems are crafted to sanction and shape human Greed. Acquisition is at the heart of capitalism, and the system claims to free men by freeing their capacity for acquisition. It is interesting to remember that the Hebrews had strict injunctions against charging interest, if only because application of those same laws today would destroy our economies. In this way, and others, Greed is hard to look at; we can’t imagine living without it.

Greed has to do with stuff, and with the desire for stuff, but of course it goes much deeper than that. At its root, it’s about the danger of stuff to stand between us and God. When Jesus talks about Mammon in the Sermon on the Mount he’s speaking about a deity—the god of things—which wars with God for our allegiance. Greed’s power is to help us to think that our things will save us, that acquisition really is the meaning of life. It lends power to the belief that a sufficient buffer of money, power, and influence will be what I need to protect me against the day of trouble. “You fool!” Christ says, “This very night your life will be required of you.” In these ways, Greed keeps us from trusting in God.

But Greed also flattens our human relationships. Rather than seeing my fellow man as someone made in God’s image and likeness, a brother or sister in need, I see dollar signs. I see someone who can be used to make money, or someone whose needs will cost money. Greed reduces persons to things, and relationships to economics. (Which suggests, ironically, that Marxism’s materialism actually generates a politics to rival capitalism’s Greed.) In the end, the old phrase becomes true—rather than using things and loving people, in Greed I use people and love things.

And this, it seems to me, is the greatest danger of Greed, that it wars against Charity. Here the word Charity is important in both of its senses—that of giving alms, and that of the love that is proper to Christians. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to be truly Charitable when I am in the grip of Greed—not only because I believe that these things are mine, and therefore not fit for another, but also because I have permitted the weight of my stuff to stifle the right response of my heart. Properly Christian love sacrifices itself for the benefit of another. Greed throws checks in this process, and by so doing perhaps fundamentally inhibits our growth in grace.

All of this is part of that hard, inward look, and yet it seems to me that we as the Church haven’t got the best track record for this process. Far too many people still seem to think that—or at least act as if—“accepting Jesus” were the end of the story. Not only do we appear to have an aversion to the hard work of faith, we categorically dislike being forced to look into the mirror of God’s truth. I wonder if Greed might actually play an important part in this aversion. Greed, as it manifests itself in a belief that I deserve something, that I am owed certain things in life, extends outward to mean that I am owed a good life (from God), and owed an easy faith journey, and owed peace, and security, and happiness. When I don’t get those things, I feel at liberty to make them happen by my own power. With Greed in control, I get to be my own master. With God in control, I don’t. This indeed is the Greed, in Paul’s words, “which is idolatry.”

I think there might be two clear answers to Greed in the human heart. The first, of course, is Charity itself, in the sense of sacrificial giving. We ought to be giving away from what God has given us. And I don’t think we ought only to be giving to the Church, but we ought also to review those charitable options available to us and allow ourselves to be moved by the other kind of Charity. Where our heart is touched, we ought to give. The other answer is to commit to the work at your local church, and to allow your heart to be touched by the needs you see there. Where you see needs, attempt to meet them. Above all, both these activities ought to generate in us a sense that we are seeing people and using things.

All the best to you as you prepare your heart for Holy Week.

Jeremy Rios