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Living in faith

Discipleship that leaves a mark

By Keith Howard

Canadians are among the most globally engaged citizens on Earth. In a 2007 study, the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that of 47 populations surveyed, Canadians were the fourth most likely (after Germans, Malians and the French) to keep up with international news.

Environics Research finds that “eight in 10 Canadians report that they follow issues and events in the world outside Canada very or somewhat (79 percent) closely. This is nearly as high as the proportion of Canadians who follow provincial (84 percent) or national (80 percent) news and events at least somewhat closely, and marginally exceeds the proportion who follow local news (75 percent).”

And yet, with the rise of the Internet and the decline of traditional newspapers, some worry that investigative reporting will wither due to lack of funding, that the story behind the headlines will slip further into the background.

I received an e-mail from a friend, Emily, who commits part of her holiday time each year to volunteer in an orphanage for children with disabilities in Haiti. During one of her trips there, riots occurred. Along with teammates, she was escorted back to the relative safety of a guest house.

“The people are hungry and are trying to make a statement,” she wrote. “They cannot afford to eat, so it is not surprising. Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas.”

What I found most interesting was the paragraph that followed the one describing the riots: “Although there was stress in the country itself and it was hard sometimes to work with the children who have multiple disabilities, it was still so rewarding. I just want to stay with the feeling and not get into the rat race again!”

Emily is not alone in her desire to offer her gifts in a way that makes a real difference. Six in 10 Canadians express interest in travelling abroad for three months or more to do volunteer work. The reasons run deeper than good intentions.

Emily’s witness carries power because of its authenticity and integrity. It speaks not only to personal motives, but to a desire for an experience of the sacred.

Observing the frenetic pace of North American life, we might ask, “Does any of it make a difference that counts — to me or to the world?” At its root, this is a spiritual question. Those who ask it might look for answers, not in dogma, but in a different way of living.

Diana Butler Bass researched mainline congregations that are not only surviving, but thriving. Her findings, published in Christianity for the Rest of Us (HarperCollins), suggest that congregations that exhibit vitality are those whose members embody faith in their daily practice.

Other commentators on the new type of church emerging from mainline roots note a fundamental shift in how life and discipleship are perceived.

Previously, people curious about faith were first given guidance about what to believe, then taught how to behave, and finally, they were deemed to belong. Now the order of “belief, behave and belong” has flipped. People now seek a community, effort or mission to belong to. That community, over time, influences behaviour, which in turn affects beliefs.

I wonder sometimes where Jesus would fit into this scheme. Certainly, he was not averse to challenging beliefs and behaviours — particularly of the self-designated religious. The most powerful stories, though, are those where he reaches out and connects with the most unlikely folk — Samaritan women, fishers, tax collectors and terrorists. Somehow, almost in the moment, he seemed capable of establishing a profound sense of acceptance and belonging, which led people to change their behaviour and to see themselves and the world in a different way.

In these times, the church is called to be that community of witness. The yearning for such Gospel runs deep even within a consumer, communication-obsessed society. Authentic discipleship leaves a mark.

Now home in Canada, Emily writes: “I still keep going back to Hope Home and Haiti in my mind and remembering the youth and our experience there as a team that worked together, came alongside the people, reflected daily, prayed and planned for the next day. I wonder what would happen if all our teams at work did that.”

Hymn: 115 (More Voices), Behold, Behold

Scripture: John 14:1-14
Author's photo
Rev. Keith Howard is a Victoria writer and executive director of the United Church Emerging Spirit campaign.
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