Month: February 2009

Hauerwas and the broken

I’ve started doing some hospital visiting this year. And, although I’m still feeling my way in terms of meaningful conversation, I’m hoping that the irrepressible Stanley Hauerwas is on the money:

That the deaf, the mute, the blind, the poor, those rendered helpless in the face of suffering, recognize Jesus is not accidental. To be disabled does not make one a faithful follower of Christ, but it puts you in the vicinity of the kingdom. To be disabled is to be forced to have the time to recognize that Jesus is the inauguration of a new time constituted by prayer. To be disabled is to begin to understand what it means to be an infant vis-a-vis the kingdom brought in by Jesus (Matthew, p 116).

(I reckon Hauerwas is what Harold Bloom would call an ‘independently interesting’ author — someone who’s worth reading on whatever topic, even though he’s not always going to be a reliable guide to that topic!)

the temptations of community #2

Community verges on an obsession in our culture. The collapse of the Western metanarrative — the ‘grand story’ of civilisation and progress and reason — has catapulted into prominence a multitude of local stories, rooted in particular communities each bearing their own concrete traditions and ‘forms of life’.

And this has got people in some quarters of the Church quite excited….


The Roman Catholics are into it, obviously — they still lay claim to an unbroken communion and tradition stretching back to Jesus.

Likewise, the nebulous emerging church movement makes much of community — it’s underwrites both their taste for traditional liturgy, forms and architecture and their emphasis on worship as a bring-your-contribution-so-we-can-enrich-each-other ‘farmers market’ kind of thing.

In theological circles, too, ecclesiology is a boom industry. Which means community’s in the limelight there too.

First we developed social trinitarian models and remade God in the image of our communities. Then it was only a matter of time before we elevated the Church, talking of its participation in the life of God and crowning it as a de facto fourth member of the Trinity — christus prolongatus as suggested in the depiction of Mary in much Christian art and iconography.

Now, to be fair, this isn’t really a big danger for the Total Church guys.

Sure. They emphasise the relational heart of the gospel — and thus of the community it creates — since God’s achievement in Jesus draws us into fellowship with him and each other: the creation of the Church is the aim of the Atonement. Indeed, united to the Messiah and sealed by the Spirit we are adopted as God’s children and accorded the same rights as the Son. In this way we do in fact participate in the inner life of God.

But, as far as I can tell, Chester and Timmis don’t allow all this to blur the distinction between God and the Church. The Church is still — without a doubt — the creature of the Word. Christ rules us in his Spirit as his word dwells richly amongst us in our mutual teaching, exhorting and singing (Col. 3.16).

What I would love to see, however, is an attempt to ‘think together’ these themes — after all, the one in whose Sonship we share by adoption is the same Word who creates, sustains and rules over his Church in the Spirit and for the Father’s glory! While I’m not entirely sure what it would look like to do this successfully, I imagine we could do worse than take our cue from John Webster (Holiness, p 56):

The account I want to offer here of the relation between the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Church’s holiness […] makes the miracle of election central to the Church’s existence and nature. Where the social trinitarian language of participation emphasizes the continuity, even coinherence, of divine and ecclesial action, the language of election draws attention to the way in which the Church has its being in the ever-fresh work of divine grace. The Church is what it is in the ceaseless gift of its being through the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit who accomplish the will of the Father in gathering a holy people to himself.

Right on.

…just regular church ministry?

I’ve heard this one around the traps at College: “If you’re interested in a church planting ministry — or even just regular church ministry…”

The implicit hierarchy here is appalling! Church planting must never be played off against ‘regular’ church ministry. Why not?

Because church planting is a strategy for gospel growth.

Let me break it down…

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of the making of lists…

Late last year we visited New Zealand, and made an astonishing discovery. While waiting for the ferry to get us from the South to the North Island, we stumbled across the ninth oldest ship in the world:




Ninth oldest! Seriously.

How awesome is it that someone, somewhere made a list! A top 10 perhaps?

It’s got me thinking, if I ever publish a list — a favourite pastime for bloggers the world over — I won’t be able to get the image of ‘The Edwin Fox’ out of my head. And, even more distractingly, I’ll start to wonder … what about the top 8?

the problem of Christian leadership

sheepI’m preaching this Sunday on 1 Peter 5.1-5

It’s a passage aimed squarely at the ‘elders’ of the congregations to which Peter writes.

Apart from the slightly terrifying demand that elders do their work of shepherding ‘willingly’, ‘eagerly’ and as ‘examples for the flock’ (each of which can make me wince as I cast my mind back over the ‘eldership’ roles I’ve had), I’ve been grappling with the problem of Christian leadership that passages like this raise.

Leadership in our culture’s terms is all about power and influence. Even when strategies like consensus-building, team-building exercises, getting in amongst your team in an open plan setting, etc so often serve the self-interested purposes of the leaders.

It’s all about finding ways to get people to do what you want. To drag them along with you on your mission.

All this is on a collision course with lives lived after the cross-shaped pattern of service left for us by Jesus:

Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10.42-45)

Leadership in the community of the Crucified and Risen Messiah will be profoundly unnatural. Counter-cultural. It will run against the grain. (I think this is why Ben lays his finger on something when he tells us he’s uncomfortable about things like this.)

Yet, although Christian leadership is unnatural in an important sense, the context in 1 Peter 5.1-5 points to an even deeper truth…

The backbone of this passage — the ultimate context in which its teaching makes sense — is fact that ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’ (1 Peter 5.5b).

This means that servant-leadership on the one hand, and willing submission on the other, are natural in the deepest possible sense. Lives lived after this pattern, shaped by this template, may well run against the grain of our culture. But — much more significantly — they follow the grain of the universe…

you can never have too much training, right?

A few of years ago I co-wrote a training course about one-to-one ministry with a couple of other people.

Ever since I read Ben’s post on ‘conversation tips’, I’ve had a niggling sense that I should try to post some of it. Still, I have some hesitations…

Not only have I not asked the others for permission to post it. I’ve also started wondering about the whole emphasis we place on ‘training’.

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a sophisticated theological distinction

Preaching on 1 Peter 4.12-19 last night, Andrew Katay highlighted the highly sophisticated theological distinction Peter draws in v. 15:

But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief-maker.

That is, there’s a difference between suffering because you’re treading in Christ’s footsteps — experiencing the same opposition and hostility he experienced — and suffering because you’re a jerk.

If I had a dollar for all the times I’ve said to myself, ‘Well done! You’re suffering for being a Christian’, when I was just being a jerk…

I’d have a lot of dollars.

beach formal?

We attended our third wedding in 8 days on Friday.

It was a civil ceremony down at Whale Beach — on the beach. And so the dress code was ‘beach formal’.

Now, I usually struggle to know what to do with ‘smart casual’. So things weren’t looking good.

But it was fascinating to see how different people interpreted it.

I reckon I nailed it. What do you think?

(To be fair, out of the blokes it was only me and the photographer who wore flip flops — there were an awful lot of guys with sandy business shoes!)

Jesus the superhero?

Hollywood doesn’t always do so well with superhero movies.

At the very least you’d have to admit that they don’t always nail the transformation from comic book page to screen.

Think Daredevil with Ben Affleck. Or the Incredible Hulk (either recent version — the fact that last year’s one was totally controlled by Marvell notwithstanding). Or … to plumb the disastrous depths, Spawn.

But two real crackers from last year Hancock and The Dark Knight buck the trend.

There are all sorts of reasons for their success — e.g., massive budgets and stellar acting talent (Will Smith and Jason Bateman in Hancock, the show-stealing Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight).

But what I find particularly intriguing is the way both films make the nature of heroism their explicit theme.

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the temptations of community #1

elephant_rocksI want to pick up the thread of my reflections on Total Church

As I hinted in an earlier post, I think there are some potential pitfalls.

There’s no problem with their emphasis on community. (After all, the gospel is about God fulfilling his eternal purposes to gather and sanctify a people — a community — for himself.)

But there is a danger with the way they emphasise it, I think.

Let me take my cue from Dietrich Bonhoeffer…

He begins the magnificent first chapter of Life Together by singing the praises of the Christian experience of gospel community.

And the rich, risky and deeply rewarding texture of the experience he evokes — of knowing and being known — sounds very much like what the Total Church guys are on about.

Bonhoeffer is genuinely thankful for such nourishing experiences. But he is forced to sound a warning:

Such experiences are the gift of grace, so we cannot — must not — presume on them.

My sense is that the whole first chapter really spins out of this…

  • Because community is God’s gift not a human achievement, it’s an indicative before it is an imperative.
    It’s about a status and identity we’re to accept and live in. Not something to be sought and produced by us (through the kind of techniques and strategies we might dream up, and which can slide over so easily into manipulation).
  • Because it’s a matter of grace, Christian fellowship dispossesses us rather than leaving us in control of community or our participation in it.
    Thus, we’re to accept each other as those who’ve been graced. We’re a family. Given to each other. Whether we find that comfortable and convenient or not.
  • Finally, because such fellowship cannot be presumed upon, we need to be very careful about making its creation (or cultivation) our aim.
    ‘God hates visionary dreaming … The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly’ (p 2).

Any insistence on the importance of community — right and proper as it is — must be tempered by a recognition of God’s dispossessing grace.