Our Pastor – Daniel Zylstra

Dear reader, 
Welcome to the “Pastor’s blog.”  My perspective on things is shaped by many things, including who I am. I am first a follower of Jesus, then husband to my beautiful wife, Gwyneth, father to three beautiful children, and pastor to Athens Christian Reformed Church. I believe very deeply that Jesus was serious when he said that the first greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength” and to “Love your neighbour as yourself. You, dear visitor, are my neighbour-no matter who you are, what your past might be or how near or far you may be to God. God loves you, and so do we at Athens Christian Reformed Church!

From “Professionalism” to Ministry

As some of you readers may know, I’ve been working through the little book In the Name of Jesus, by Henri Nouwen as part of my Arrow Leadership professional development. In my reading today, I cam across this quote:
Somehow we have come to believe that good leadership requires a safe distance from those we are called to lead. Medicine, psychiatry, and social work all offer us models in which “service” takes place in a one-way direction. Someone serves, someone else is being served, and be sure not to mix up the roles! But how can we lay down our life for those with whom we are not even allowed to enter into a deep personal relationship? Laying down your life means making your own faith and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear available to others as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life.
We are not the healers, we are not the reconcilers, we are not the givers of life. We are sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for. The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.
All I have to say about Henri Nouwen’s words here is: “Amen!” May I always be that kind of leader!

Completely Irrelevant

I have recently started a new professional development program with the support of the congregation and Council here at Athens CRC. The program is through
Arrow Leadership. I’m really excited about learning and growing more as a Christ-follower, husband, father, and pastor. One of my initial assignments is to read (or rather re-read for me) the book In the Name of Jesus
, by Henri Nouwen. The first chapter in this book is entitled “From Relevance to Prayer”. In this chapter Henri goes through the temptation to be “relevant” and the call instead to be a person of prayer and reliance on God alone.
Interestingly, at this same time I have been struggling a bit with a resurgence of my own struggle with depression. Don’t worry–I’m doing all right, and God is by rock. He is taking care of me; as is my wife and the loving community of Athens. I’ll be alright.
While I’m sitting here at my desk with my “happy light” shining on me and giving me a needed boost of artificial sunlight, and while the snow is starting to fall outside, and while I’m starting to read 
In the Name of Jesus again, and while I’m listening to Steve Bell sing “About Love” from his album Kindness
, and while I’m contemplating the sermon for this week from my good friend Chris Fluit, entitled “Cast All Your Cares on God” I am seeing it all converge in a message for me: “Don’t worry,” God says, “Give all your cares to me. I will care for you.”
Henri Nouwen, in this little book of his says about the start of his time in the L’Arche community for mentally and physically disabled people, ,
I was suddenly faced with my naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, smiles and tears, all dependent simply on how I was perceived at the moment. In a way, it seemed as though I was starting my life all over again. Relationships, connections, reputations could no longer be counted on.
This experience was and, in many ways, is still the most important experience of my new life, because it forced me to rediscover my true identity. These broken, wounded and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self–the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things–and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.
I am telling you all this because I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love. The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s Word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life. (pp. 29-30, “In the Name of Jesus” by Henri Nouwen–emphasis added).
This fits very much with what I was hearing from Steve Bell as I started to read today:
It’s not about science
Or benefits the dead contest
But there’s some strange reliance yet
On particles to fix the mess

Who knows if this thing we call life
Looks fine in another one’s eyes
Or bellies up with the goods
Everyone can approve of

One thing that i’ve learned in my time
You can’t win if you have to draw lines
When it comes to the struggle
To show and to prove love

Oh – it’s always been about love

It’s not about borders
Borders have their place no doubt
But who gives the orders

To abandon hope for common ground
It’s not about anything else, really. It’s always been about love–God’s love for us, and our grateful love for Him and each other in return. The more that you and I can let go of our relevance, our accomplishments, our ambition, our pride–the more we can live in the fullness of His love alone.
That is my prayer for today: to live in His love alone for this moment,…this moment,…and this moment,… etc…

In the Name of Love

We just finished a sermon series on 1 Corinthians 13:1-8 with Paul’s statement that “Love never fails.” Toward the end of delivering the message I suddenly felt—like has occasionally happened in the past—that there was something missing. I realized, as I was standing there at the end of my sermon outline that I had shared, as God had asked me to, all about the various aspects of God’s love—what that love looks like and what our loving response ought to look like. But I felt, in that moment, that I had not managed to convey just how important LOVE really is.
I’m not sure that I even could communicate just how important it is. Sometimes, I confess, my heart and mind just feel like they are going to burst within me because there is something fundamental that I just can’t put into words. 
This happens sometimes too when I’m painting or drawing. There ends up being something there that I could not possibly describe in words. It is sometimes quite frustrating! It makes me feel like I’d like to grab folks by their collars and say, “Don’t you get it!?! This is the most important thing in the universe!” 
It’s in moments like that that I understand why Paul, in the midst of writing his letters could break into a poetic interlude praising God for who He is and what He has done/is doing/will do. Read what Paul write in Phil. 2:5-11

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father (NIV)
Yes! Praise be to God our Father who has given us every good thing through Jesus Christ. 
GOD LOVES YOU!!! Yes, even you—even me. And through His love we can be healed. We can LOVE because he first loved us. Praise God.

No Outsiders — “Snob & Silver Spoons”

Canadian MoneyOne of the realities of our society is that there are outsiders everywhere. Even people we don’t normally think could possibly be considered outsiders are just that often. In this chapter we’re going to look at the wealthy outsiders. Yes, believe it or not, the rich can be treated like outsiders by Christ-followers.
Listen to what some Christ-followers have had to say about other Christ-followers who are wealthy:
Elevation Church pastor Steve Furtick recently came under media scrutiny for building a 16,000 square-foot-home for his family in Charlotte, North Carolina. After making news, he apologized to his congregation—not for the luxury of the home—but for the “uncomfortable conversations” resulting from the headlines and criticism.
Furtick is one of many Christian pastors, preachers, and authors who have prospered from their ministry, whose wealth often does make us as Christians feel uncomfortable. Stanley Hauerwas, of Duke Divinity School, called Furtick’s lifestyle an “offense to the gospel.” Shane Claiborne implied that Christian leaders who’ve accrued wealth “missed the simple commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.” (Emphasis added. “Fellow Christians, I’m Rich and I’m Sorry”, Christianity Today, Oct., 2013, http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/october/fellow-christians-im-sorry-im-rich-really.html, accessed on Sept. 21, 2016).
The rest of that small article is an interesting read, by the way. Helps to put things in perspective for us.
I did a quick survey of the richest people in the world, to see what Christians have said about them. Here’s the list:
  1. Bill Gates is still the “wealthiest person in the world”, with a net worth of $81.2 billion dollars. According to this site, admittedly somewhat dated, he may very well be the anti-christ.
  2. Amancio Ortega is #2 on the list, with a net worth of $79 billion. According to this site, Amancio Ortega will be one of the “9 Emperors of the World” when the “New World Order” comes in.
  3. Warren Buffet, the world’s 3rd richest man ($65.9 billion net worth) is purportedly a member of “The Good Club”, who are part of “Rolling Out the Red Carpet for the AntiChrist” according to this book of the same title.
A little deeper digging finds that Christians sometimes teach a brand of Christianity that is “anti-rich”. This article, entitled, “Three Reasons Why Jesus Condemns Rich, Favors Poor” from EthicsDaily.com 
seems to purposely misunderstand the teaching of scripture. The author (Drew Smith) states that, “…it seems that Jesus condemns the rich and favours the poor.” He then goes on to say that “[Jesus] clearly believed that God was not on the side of the wealthy, but that God favored the poor.” But this is not really what scripture says, is it? Mr. Smith also quotes Jesus as saying that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). He then neglects to add that “with God all things are possible,”, which is an essential part of Jesus’ teaching here.
It may be a strange thing for many of us to think of the rich as being “outsiders”, however, it is sadly true that on many occasions the rich are rejected simply for being rich. There is irony in this for many of us, as many who read this article (including me), are really, globally speaking, the rich ourselves. If we reject those who are rich compared to us, how much more can we expect the rest of the world to whom we are wealthy beyond imagining to reject us? 
But of course, that is not what the God advocates. Some of God’s most faithful followers throughout the ages have been wealthy. Look at Job, or David, or Joseph (in the end). God certainly does caution us about wealth throughout the scriptures. No where that I can find, however, does He advocate rejection of the wealthy simply because of their wealth.

On Being a Pastor

Tonight I and my family will have the pleasure of heading over to Kanata Community CRC to celebrate with them the installation of their new pastor, I am excited for them, as I always am on such occasions. Installation or Ordination services always call me to remember my own calling as Pastor… both my specific calling to Athens Christian Reformed Church for this time of our lives, and my overall calling to be a “Minister of the Word” in the Christian Reformed Church of North America.
I am reminded of the questions I was asked when I was first ordained, and when I was installed at Athens CRC as well:
Brother/Sister (name), in order that all God’s people assembled here may witness that you, in the strength of the Lord, accept the responsibilities of this office, you are requested to stand and answer the following questions:
Do you believe that in the call of this congregation God himself calls you to this holy ministry?
Do you believe that the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and life?
Do you subscribe to the doctrinal standards of this church, rejecting all teaching which contradicts them?
Do you promise to be a faithful minister, to conduct yourself in a manner worthy of your calling, and to submit to the government and discipline of the church?
(name), what is your answer?
Answer: I do, God helping me.
I think of the tremendous burden that this kind of calling could be, but then I am reminded that none of it is asked of me without God’s help. That’s why I love the “Answer” that the being-installed/ordained pastor is supposed to give to these weighty questions: “I do, God helping me. 
How else could anyone do these things?
What a joy to do them in His strength alone!

Going LIVE!

Today, Lord willing, will be the day that we go live with this website!!! Hopefully you will all get to see it soon!

A Quote about Belonging

A quote for us to ponder about belonging:

If the problem with the [roman] empire was that it imposed religious, ethnic, cultural and economic divisiveness and marginalization, then the alternative of the kingdom is a community in which Christ is all and in all (Colossians 3:11). So Paul writes in 3:9-11:

“You have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of it’s creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”

…, the church is the beginning of the new humanity for the new creation….

 In Paul’s vision [Christian] community not only abandons the discourse of violence and exclusion that characterizes the [roman] empire; it manifests an ethos that embraces the pain of the world, a compassion, a shared passion, that pays attention to the deepest brokenness of its human and nonhuman neighbours. This is an ethic of compassion, because the God of Israel revealed in Jesus is a God of compassion who hears his people’s cry and knows their suffering (Ex. 3:7). Jesus calls his followers to be compassionate just as their Father is compassionate (see Lk. 6:36).

— Walsh, Brian, and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, “Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire”,  InterVarsity Press, 2004, pp. 172-174.

Who am I?

Stepping back for a moment, dear readers, it was pointed out that there are some really good questions that I ought to face before I write too much. Those are the questions of: “Who is this Daniel Zylstra anyway?” and “What right does he think he has to write a book like this?” In order to try and address those questions, I penned the following this morning…it’s probably a bit rough, but that’s why this blog exists! So check it out, and please tell me what you think!

You might, dear reader, be asking yourself some questions as you prepare to dive into this book. Questions such as: “Who is this Daniel Zylstra fellow anyway, and why does he think he has the right to write a book such as this one?” Those being wonderful questions, I feel led to answer them here. Seeing as (to me at least) the second question—the question of whether I am, in any way, qualified to write this book—is the more important question, I will address it first. I’m afraid my answer is an oxymoron: I believe that I have no right at all to write this book, and I believe that I have every right to do it.

On the one hand, I believe that I have no right to pen this work at all. I believe that on a couple of levels. The first level, to me, is on the theological level. I do not at all mean to be flippant when I say that I believe, theologically, that I have no rights to anything at all, let alone to being able and/or qualified to write this book or any other book. The denomination from which I hail believes the Heidelberg Catechism to be a faithful summary of the teachings of the scriptures, and so when it says that “…we are so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined toward all evil.”, And when the apostle Paul says, in his letter to the people of Ephesus, “By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.”  I read in that, that, in and of myself, I deserve nothing but eternal separation from my God. All that I have been given is pure grace undeserved. I do not deserve to write this book, I don’t deserve the beautiful family God has given me—my wife, nor my children. I do not deserve to be pastoring the congregation of which I am a part, nor do I even deserve the air that I breathe, the physical body of which I am a part… the very fact of my existence is beyond my deserving.

I believe that the theological question of my deserving (and all of our deserving) is one that, when we truly grab hold of it and understand it in our very bones, would go very far to help us all eliminate the concept of those who do not belong from among us—not that we would ignore the problem, but that it would truly cease to be a real problem. Realizing that I (and you, and all of us) do not deserve anything—from our existence to our affluence and everything in-between—is a great humbler and equalizer of people. How can I honestly look down upon or reject anyone when I myself am no more deserving than any other human being?

One could argue that I am skirting the true question by throwing up a theological smokescreen in the face of the question: “Why does a white, heterosexual male, living in affluence (compared to the vast majority of the rest of the world), having no significant disabilities think that he can write a book about “outsiders”—about groups of people of which he has never been a part?” I don’t believe that to be the case, but I do believe that it is an important question for me to address. The truth is that this question highlights the second way in which I believe that I have no real right to write “No Outsiders.” The truth is that I am part of a privileged class of people in pretty much anyway you might look at it. I am white. I am male. I am heterosexual. I am married, have children, live in a beautiful home in one of the most affluent societies the world has ever known (Canada). I was privileged to receive private, christian education all the way from my kindergarten days to my seminary days. I have spent the vast majority of my life living among people like me in many ways, and I have never had to live on the street. I have never been ostracized because of my race. I have only in relatively small ways felt myself to be an outsider—ever. In short, looking at me you could easily say that I have no right to pen these words at all, based on who I am and the privilege that I experience. If you said that, I would have to agree with you. As I write this book a friend of mine has pointed out that my voice—simply because of my privileged position in the world—is far more likely to receive an audience of some kind than some true outsider might receive. If a female, homeless, indigenous-canadian, lesbian were to, through some miracle, be given the tools and opportunity to write this book, chances are good that not many people would listen to her, and this book would never see the light of day.

That reality galls me tremendously. I would almost rather not write the book. I would almost rather have no one ever read it. I would almost rather burn my book in effigy than propagate that kind of situation. To have my book read, while the voices of the true outsiders are ignored! I hate the very idea. And yet I know that, if one were to look at my book shelves, they are largely—shamefully—filled with books written by white, european males.

Again we come to it: theologically, and personally I cannot say that I have any right to write “No Outsiders.” There are countless others who, at least on a personal level, are more qualified and more deserving of this voice—whatever it may end up being—and this audience—however big or small it might end up being.

On the other hand, I have to say that I believe—yes, even at the same time as fully believing what I have written above—that I have every right to write this book. Theologically, since I believe that none of us deserves any good thing—not existence, not air to breath, not the love of God—nothing—then I also believe that all that I have received—including the heart to write this book—the burning desire within me—is grace from God. My very lack of deserving, combined with His overwhelming grace to me gives me the “right” to write…. NOT because of anything I have done. Not because of any qualifications that I might have (slim though they may be), but only by His grace.
It would be easy to say that I am once again skirting the issue with theological, ivory-tower hair-splitting. Please believe me that, for me, this is more real than any qualifications that I may or may not have. I truly believe that, given a proper theological understanding, it is perfectly legitimate for me (or for anyone else) to write whatever book they feel led to. The “right” comes from God alone.

Having said all that, I believe it is legitimate to share that, personally speaking—and even though some (or maybe even many) will see these as weak qualifications indeed—nonetheless, my life experiences and who I am work together in me to make this a book that I must write.

My son, who is 10 years old as of the writing of this section of the book, has always been one of those kids who will go into the fish store to buy gold fish and who will pick the ugliest, most decrepit looking fish to bring home. My wife and I firmly believe that this is because he has a heart for the underdog—for the lost and alone, for the “other”, for the “outsider.” This has always been in my heart as well. I can not remember a time when it was not important to me to care for the people who did not belong. I remember, as a child, not fitting in very well with my peers—at least the “insiders”—the “cool” kids—partly because I wanted to be with and care for those who were the “nerds”, the “geeks”, the outsiders.

When I was a child visiting my grandparents in Waterloo, Ontario, I would sometimes wake up on a Saturday morning, and, before I had had breakfast, I would go door-to-door, saying hello to all the neighbours. They would invite me in for breakfast (which I would accept). My parents and my grandparents were convinced that this was just a really clever way to get all the breakfast I could handle, but, for me looking back, it was really about embracing all of them. They were my neighbours—even though it was my grandparents neighbourhood. I loved them. Throughout my life, my best friends have been the people who, in various ways, didn’t fit.

Later, in my university days, I had the tremendous privilege of working with a group of other, like-minded students, in the East Hastings area of Vancouver. We called it “Street Evangelism”, but it wasn’t about giving a successful “sales-pitch” to the homeless of Vancouver and thereby winning them into the community. Instead, the brilliant people who led this ministry taught us to simply go and be with those we found in that neighbourhood. We would play chess (I invariably lost), we would eat supper together, we would talk, we would sing, we would share stories, we would sometimes cry, often laugh—in short we would be in relationship with people who were, in many ways, on the furthest margins of Canadian society.

More recently, as a pastor in Oshawa, Ontario, I was involved with the foodbank that the church had run for many years. It was, and is, one of the most respected food banks in the area—by the patrons—because, when they go there, they are treated with respect. We did not ask them to prove their need by having them show us income statements. We served them fresh fruit and vegetables and bread—high quality foods that we ourselves would be happy to eat—and we did so with a smile, and a hello, and a story and a listening ear.  As we continued on this fabulous ministry, God worked in my heart to have us build relationships more than we were already. We started a worship service before the food bank opened. Instead of forcing everyone to go to the worship service before they could get their food (which a surprising number of places do), we threw open the doors for anyone to come. Instead of having the “congregation” sit there and receive the “word of God” from the “pastor”—we went around and shared prayer requests and thanksgivings. I too shared my concerns and praises—it was mutual. Instead of a sermon, I shared the passage of scripture I felt God calling me to work on for that week, and I asked anyone who wanted to to share their thoughts and feelings about what they had heard me read. There were many times when I received inspiration for the sermon that coming Sunday. Instead of me picking the songs (if we had anyone who could help lead us in worship), we always did “favourites”—anyone could chose any song from the hymnal that we could sing for any reason. And last, but not least for me, I shared with them what an honour it was to have them there with me and that I longed to bless them in God’s name, which I would then do.

Often, those who attended the worship service, and the food itself were “outsiders”—they were from the LGBTQ+ community, they were of minority faith groups (in no way were the people who came to the worship service limited to Christians!), they struggled with substance abuse, and felt free to confess those struggles. They were poor, they were needy. They had various physical and mental disabilities. We shared it all—and through God’s grace, when it came time for me to move on to another congregation—we shed tears and parted ways in His love.

One of the reasons that I could relate to the folks at the food bank, and to those on East Hastings, in Vancouver was my in-born character. Part of who God made me to be, right from the beginning. I can’t really help it. But part of it also was that I am not a total stranger to some of their struggles. The particular one that comes to my mind immediately is my struggle with mental health. Battling with depression is something my family does. I have many family members who have fought that demon more or less successfully for most of their lives. I myself am no stranger to that battle. I remember very vividly, at a time when my oldest daughter had just been born, and all seemed to be going extremely well in my life, wrestling with thoughts of suicide. Finding myself in the middle of the work day isolating myself and researching the best ways to kill myself. Even though I was surrounded with family and a community who loved me, I felt so alone. Everything was so dark and hopeless.

It wasn’t until then, and with God’s help, that I realized that something was desperately wrong in my mind and heart, and, further, that I had experienced these feelings before. I was then that I realized that, for a large part of my high school career, I was depressed. In my high school days I truly felt that no-one cared about me, that I was a complete loser, that I was good-for-nothing, lazy, stupid, and would never amount to anything. I felt so alone. Everything was so dark and hopeless.

Praise be to God, He, through counsellors, medication, the love of family, and good theology (yes, I’m serious about that last one too!), I have been brought through to a place where we can manage my disease quite successfully. But it was not easy getting here, and along the way God has deepened my heart for the outsiders to the point that I feel that I must write this book. Even if no one ever reads it.

And so that is, as it were, my abbreviated resume. On the one hand, I have no right to write a book about the outsiders. On the other hand, I believe that I have every right—through His grace alone. Please join with me.

Who are the Outsiders: Breakin’ it Down…

For the remainder of this chapter we’re going to take some time to broadly identify the various kinds of “outsiders” that exist in North American society currently. No doubt there are corresponding groups of outsiders throughout all of the cultures of the world, and throughout all history. We’re going to focus on the groups in North America, however, simply because of familiarity… I am somewhat familiar with categories of outsiders here. I am not familiar with them elsewhere.
You may notice that the titles for the upcoming subsections could be construed as offensive and/or flippant. Please be aware that I mean them to be neither. Rather, my goal in choosing these sub-headings is to emphasize immediately that the groups that I am about discuss are indeed “outsiders” in some sense. The very fact that we have words with distinctly negative connotations to describe these various groups indicates that people who could be said to fit into these categories have been and are ostracized by at least some other portions of our society.
You may also notice that I have tried to avoid judgment about how outsiders are treated in these upcoming sections. That is not because I don’t have opinions about how the outsiders have been and are treated in our society. And it is certainly not because I don’t believe the Bible has anything to say about how the outsiders ought to be treated. Rather, it is because we are trying, in this first chapter, to simply identify who the outsiders are. After we have identified the outsiders, we will examine how Jesus dealt with outsiders (chapter 2). We will then go “back to the future”, as it were, and examine how the church, in the centuries following Jesus’ earthly ministry, dealt with (and deals with) the outsiders (chapter 3). 
After the historical overview of the church’s relationship to the outsider in chapter 3 we will look once again to the Bible. This time, however, we will look to the “God of the Old Testament” and His relationship to the outsiders—not because there is any difference between the “New Testament God” and the “Old Testament God”, but rather the opposite: because many people struggle with seeing the unity of God in these two sections of our holy scriptures, we will take time to illustrate that God’s dealing with the outsiders in the Old Testament is, at heart, really no different than Jesus’ dealings with them.
After we have looked at the Old Testament in chapter 4, we will then move back to the New Testament and see how the apostle Paul and the other New Testament writers, outside of the gospels, deal with the outsider in chapter 5.
In chapter 6, we will wrestle with the question of “So What?”—what does all of this historical and biblical overview mean for how we ought to relate to the outsiders of today? I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could try to skip right through to chapter 6—if you just want to see the bottom line, as it were. I would encourage you, dear reader, to bear with me though, and try to walk through the first parts with me. I believe that it is important for us to hear the fullness of our failure, as a church, to relate to the outsiders as God would have us do. If we do not know the fullness of our sin, how can we genuinely repent and turn to His way for us?
My goal is not for us all to go away from this book wearing hair shirts of guilt, or participating in guilty self-flagellation. Rather, my hope is that we may honestly repent, put our guilt behind us, and turn (back) to the path that our Lord has laid out for us—the one in which all of us “outsiders” strive, through his love, to welcome all his creatures “in” to His family. Hence we end this book, not with guilt, but with hope. 

As the saying goes, however, “it’s always darkest before the dawn.” Therefore, let us go into the dark night of seeing all those rejected by our society (and by the church, largely). Let us not go there without hope, however!
The first group of outsiders that we will examine are the “Down-and-Outers”—those who are ostracized from many parts of North American society due to a lack of economic resources. These people are often called “the poor”, and though some would argue that even the poorest of North Americans is better off in many ways than many “regular people” in the rest of the world nonetheless, the North American poor face limitations and restrictions. They are often not welcome, or not able to participate in societies activities or become members of other societal groups.
In contemporary Western society economic outsiders are more plentiful than many of us think, and the number of these particular outsiders is generally increasing throughout the world. In Canada, roughly 1 in 7 people lives in a low income situation, or approximately 4.8 million people, as of 2011?1.
According to the United States Census Bureau’s report: “Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012”, 46.5 million people (emphasis mine) lived in poverty in 2012, up from 37.3 million in 2007.?2
Worldwide, according to Hunger Notes, approximately 805 million people were “hungry” in the period 2012-2014.?3 
But beyond the questions of who is hungry, or who is poor, or even what those terms mean, although they are very important questions, there is this question: How are the poor treated?
In the country in which I live, Canada, the oppression of the poor may seem subtle to some of us, may even perhaps seem to be non-existent, but sadly the illusion is just that—illusion. Recently in Canada there has been a focus on child poverty. This focus has been somewhat successful in not only raising awareness of the issue, but also in reducing the number of children living in poverty.
However, recent (as of 2011) news reports have once again highlighted for us that there are many, especially among our far northern first nations communities, who suffer the deprivations of poverty.
But for our purposes the question is not so much whether or not there are poor people among us (there are), nor is it whether or not they need help (they do), but again, how are they treated among us?
2 “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012” https://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p60-245.pdf
3 WorldHunger.org “2015 Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics” http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world%20hunger%20facts%202002.htm
If you wonder about how the poor in our society might be ostracized or oppressed think about this example:
For a small portion of our lives, my wife and I lived in the United States—in a medium sized city. When we moved there, we were pretty excited about the adventure. I was going to do some studying, and my wife, who was on maternity leave, and the kids were along for the ride.
The neighbourhood that we could afford to live in was more “diverse” than any we had lived in before. We were students, and on a tight budget, and so we took the rental opportunity that we could afford. That happened to be in a location within this city that was primarily african american and latino.
Having gone to school previously at a very multi-cultural school, but having lived in a Canadian city that was very “white” demographically previously, my wife and I were both excited that, at least for a little while, our children would have an opportunity to experience some of the diversity I had enjoyed at school.
We settled into the neighbourhood pretty quickly. Our white landlords who also lived in the neighbourhood, invited us on the very day we arrived to a neighbourhood “block party” that was coming up within the next couple of weeks. We eagerly accepted the invitation, thinking that it would give us an opportunity to be introduced to some of the folks in the area.
On the day of the party we went to the house designated as the party place and met lots of wonderful people. Everyone we met was friendly and welcoming. My wife even got to meet a fellow Doula and had a good, long conversation with her.
After a while, though, it dawned on us that the demographic makeup of the party-goers didn’t seem to match the makeup of the neighbourhood. Almost everyone we saw at the party was white, whereas almost everyone who lived in the neighbourhood, that we had seen, was not!
We didn’t know what was going on. My wife and I decided to “investigate” the matter quietly.
Gwyneth started attending a regular ladies’ tea hosted by the local homeowners’ association (the same group that had sponsored the block party), and I made some quiet inquiries at the school I was attending. 
Between the two of us we pieced together the puzzle. It seemed that the hosts of block party, being members of the homeowners association, had naturally extended invitations to all the homeowners. The only reason we had received an invitation was that we happened to be, so to speak, “in the right place at the right time.” However, most of the people who actually lived in the neighbourhood (the african americans and latinos) weren’t actually homeowners—they were renters. Therefore they didn’t receive an invitation.
Now put like that, I’m afraid that I may have painted a more sinister picture than I’ve meant to. As I mentioned, all of the people that we met at the block party were lovely people. I’m quite certain that if one were to talk to them about racism they all would’ve protested strongly against it. I’m quite certain that none of them considered themselves racist.
But that’s a part of the problem, isn’t it? Here we were confronted with a systemic exclusion of a couple of racial groups based, not explicitly on their race, but on their socio-economic status, which happened to coincide with their race. An exclusion that the “perpetrators” were more-than-likely totally unaware of. People had been made into outsiders. 
I don’t want to give you the impression that my wife and I were the “good guys” here and that the homeowners were the “bad guys” either here. The truth is that when it sunk in with us just what was happening, we started to question ourselves and ask, “who do we exclude without even knowing it?” This led me to first nations peoples in Canada, where my wife and I normally live…

To Belong, or Not to Belong?

Many of you don’t know this, but I’m trying to work on writing a book. The book I’m working on has a working title of “No Outsiders”, and in it I am trying to focus on what I believe God would like me to share from insights I believe He has given me over the years about the question of belonging within the Church of Christ. I believe it to be a trickier and more important topic than it might first appear to be.

Sure, the question of whether or not we “belong” somewhere is important to all of us. But for the church, I believe it is absolutely critical to the mission for which the church was created–the mission of, as we’re going, making disciples of all nations, and baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. I firmly believe that this critical mission is being hampered by our understanding (or, rather misunderstandings) of whether or not the church should embrace the “outsider”, and if so, how.

Over the next number of posts, I’d like to run through the basics of what I hope will be my upcoming book. I long to hear your thoughts and feelings, critiques, and praises…I’m hoping that blogging about this will help sharpen the end result to a fine, fighting edge. To that end, I thought I’d start off with trying to define what it means to be an “outsider”. So here it is, the first rough draft of what I hope will be a much more substantial offering:

“One could simply define the outsider as the person who is, for whatever reasons, kept “out” of another human societal grouping. If we were to accept this definition, then we would have to acknowledge that there are two basic reasons why one might become an outsider. One of those would be that a person might choose to be an outsider. I, for example, have chosen not to become a follower of Islam. I have also chosen not to become part of the local curling club (though I might like to do that at some point). Although those two examples clearly exist on different planes of importance, it is evident that my not “belonging” to those groups is my choice. For the purposes of this book we will almost completely ignore this kind of “outsider-ness”, taking it as clear that this is the kind of “not-belonging” that no one really minds, and with which there is no significant problem. 

Of course, there is another way in which anyone can “choose” not to be a member of a group, and thereby make themselves into some kind of “outsider.” It is possible, for example, for a manager of a business to defraud his employers of money, breaking company policy, and thereby opening himself up to being forcibly removed from employment there. In this way, the manager’s “rebellion” against the norms of the group to which he belongs is very likely to result in his becoming an “outsider”. Though the manager has not chosen to leave the company directly, the actions which he chose to undertake resulted in his no longer belonging. This kind of “outsider-ness”, which we will call “the rebellious outsider” is certainly more significant to our discussion in this book, and so we will focus on it to a degree within each chapter. The rebellious outsider, however, is still not the major focus of this book, and so the vast majority of what follows will focus on the next type of outsider: the “outcast outsider.” 

The outcast outsider is the person who, not through a kind of clean liberty, nor through a rebellious act (or set of acts) is kept out, or cast out of a particular societal group. Often these outcast outsiders are kept away from societal groupings in spite of their own desires. Our focus in this book will be those who are often outcast outsiders in the western world at large, and how the western church tends to relate to them (or not). As an example, we will look at those who are economic outcast outsiders—those who do not “belong” in certain societal circles as a result of their available wealth (or lack thereof).  

One of the things we must keep in mind, and preemptively deal with before we move on is the fact that, as presented above, the issue of what kind of “outsider” a person is appears to be very clear. It seems to be an either or. Either you are not an outsider at all (in any negative way, that is), or you are a “rebellious outsider”, or you are an “outcast-outsider.” That is very rarely the case in reality, though. The vast majority of the time we can assume that there is more at play than a simple not/either/or. It could well be said, by some middle class people, that the wealthy are “outsiders” to them because those same wealthy people have exploited the middle class in various ways to get to the point where they have the wealth that they do. Therefore, it could be said by the middle class person, “The wealthy are not “outcast outsiders” to us. Instead they are “rebellious outsiders”—their acts have made it so that they deserve to be cast out from among us.” It could even be true that a particular wealthy person has made those “rebellious” choices against the social mores of the middle class, and that, therefore, they have been correctly excluded from middle class society. Additionally, the wealthy person in question may have no desire to associate with middle-class people, in which case the wealthy person would consider themselves to be a “free-will outsider”—they have no desire to belong to the particular societal group, they do not miss that association, and they are perfectly content without it. Lastly, it is almost inevitably true that the reasons, causes and motivations which lie behind the wealthy person’s “outsider-ness” amongst middle class folk involve some things that were none of their doing, and some things which they had done which could be legitimately considered as morally wrong, selfish or corrupt (for example, they may have inherited a significant portion of their wealth, and they may have chosen to squeeze every dollar of profit they could out of their businesses on the backs of the regular, everyday employees). 

As we can see, the question of how it is that someone might be an outsider is not as simple as we have portrayed it in the previous two sections. I hope, however, that you will bear with me as I attempt to acknowledge this complication here and in other sections of the book—especially those dealing with the question of various “categories” of “rebellious outsiders.” 

The truth is that, since this book seeks to deal with the question of belonging from a biblical standpoint, we can receive some help with the complications here from Jesus in His dealings with the outsiders. Jesus, we believe, understood human beings better than anyone else ever could. As the Creator of humanity, and of each human life, and as the Sustainer of all human life, and further, as a human being Himself, His depth of insight into humanity could never be characterized as naive. And yet, as we will see in Chapter 2 particularly, Jesus again and again seems to give the “outsider” the benefit of the doubt. Not that he believes the outsiders to be purely “victims” of an evil society, but rather that, while acknowledging each person’s responsibility to an appropriate degree in the question of their belonging, He treats them as though they belong on some fundamental level. In other words, Jesus’ default approach to people seems to be to welcome them into community first—regardless of their past, their attributes or their rebelliousness. 

As we go through some categories of outsiders, we’ll need to keep these complications in mind. We’ll also have to keep in mind that often, just as people are not purely victims, perpetrators, or non-participants, so to people are often not “just” outsiders in one way only. Many people who are economic outsiders, for example, are also treated as “mental” outsiders because of their struggles with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses.”

Please, please, please feel free to comment!