Month: February 2009

this is God’s World…

I just finished running a 4 week course at church introducing people to an summary of the Christian faith called God’s World.

I really enjoyed getting into the material.

There’s a real depth and theological sophistication to it — although some of the key claims and distinctions might be a little too open to misunderstanding (I’ll reflect more on this in a future post).

But it was a conversation I had with Ben yesterday that crystallised what I appreciate most about God’s World:

It sells the benefits of the good news about Jesus (without selling out in terms of faithfulness).

What do I mean?

Well … according to Ben, Apple do this superbly. They don’t tell you that your iPod has an 8 gig or 16 gig capacity. They tell you that it holds 5000 songs or whatever.

And God’s World is a lot like that.

It’s like that because it pays attention to the problem of evil, a problem that almost everyone has a nodding familiarity with.

Better, it integrates it with the basic gospel outline (as it is in fact integrated in Scripture — you’d have to say that the gospel of justification as Paul presents it in Romans at least includes God’s self-vindication, the demonstration of his justice).

So it doesn’t just say, ‘Here’s the message about Jesus and some context in which that makes sense, would you like to believe it?’

Instead, it says:

You know this problem that you already feel more or less acutely? Well, the Christian message actually takes it seriously. It has something to say. And what it says is that God hates evil even more than you do. And, in his love for us, he’s done something decisive about it — he’s sent Jesus to live, die and rise again to defeat it. All that remains now is for him to implement that fully… Do you want in?

Awesome.

providence and the absurdity of evil

Devastating bushfires in Victoria. Floods in Queensland. Australia certainly is a country of extremes!

How should we feel about this? What should we say in response?

Should we echo the response of Danny Nalliah’s ‘Catch the Fire Ministries’, which claimed that the bushfires are the direct judgement of God on Victoria for its abortion law reforms?

Surely not! Every pastoral bone in my body cries out against this.

fireTo say that some tragedy is the judgement of God against a particular sin feels callous, arrogant, and high-handed. Hearing this kind of talk gets me all churned up.

Although … to be fair, the confidence underlying it runs in the right direction.

It’s right to be confident that God is good. It’s right to trust that no matter how bad things get, he’s not powerless against evil and suffering. He’s the sovereign Lord.

There even seems to be a general sense in which the Bible forges a link between human sin on the one hand and suffering and evil on the other. Jesus himself suggests as much (Luke 12.58-13.9).

But does this mean that God approves evil? That he’s behind suffering and tragedy? Do we have to think this horrific thought?

Alternatively, are we locked into a kind of schizophrenic flip flop between empathy and a hardline insistence on pinning down the wrath of God?

I’m not sure I have all the answers. But I feel like David Bentley Hart’s work has some real promise — his hostility to Calvinism notwithstanding.

Check out his essay on the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. It’s clear-sighted and deeply compassionate. Read it!

beginning in the middle of things

looks like snowWell, it’s my final year at that fine institution — Moore Theological College.

And I hope to spend a bunch of time this year reflecting on theological method.

My reading list is already longer than my arm. And I’ve barely even started any assignments!

But I have a strong sense that you’ve just got to start. A wise one once said, ‘Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh’ (Ecclesiastes 12.12). Throat-clearing can only go on so long.

Ultimately, you can’t help but begin ‘in the middle of things’ (in medias res for you classicists).

We always come at any topic with our ideas, hunches, questions, blindspots and other assorted other baggage. What’s more, this isn’t crippling but enabling (although the threat always looms that we’ll cling so tightly to our baggage that we overlook, distort or suppress whatever’s inconvenient or difficult to reconcile in what we’re looking at).

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a fresh perspective on christian unity?

In Paul: Fresh Perspectives, N. T. Wright makes an astute observation about church unity:

We who live with the disunities of the late-modern church can easily forget that church disunity was a fact of life from almost the very beginning — from, at least, the dispute between Hebrews and Hellenists reported in Acts 6. Almost always it had, right from the start, at least an element of ethnic or tribal sympathy at war with the baptismal call to die to old identities and to come alive in and to the new one, the solidarity of the Messiah.

He’s riffing on an old, well established theme. The occasional nature of the NT letters, just like the polemical edge of the creeds, reminds us that most theological formulations are thrashed out in a context of conflict.

This ought never dull our passion for church unity — Paul avidly pursues it throughout 1 Corinthians as a precondition for the call to cross-shaped living.

But I suppose it should temper our efforts with realism.

solid joys and lasting treasure

John Newton’s stirring hymn ‘Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken’ finishes triumphantly:

Savior, if of Zion’s city,
I through grace a member am,
Let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in Thy Name.
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion’s children know.

I don’t know about you, but I often find this difficult to believe. 

sunset_denmarkwa

It’s incredibly hard to trust that our hope is solid and lasting — more so than even the most alluring pleasures and absorbing concerns of life here and now.

Even in those time when I have looked most longingly to the future that God has in store — when I’ve been sick or struggling with sin (my own or others) or facing disappointment — I think lots of my hoping has been thoroughly negative.

Such ‘negative hope’ consists largely in wanting to escape, to get away, not to be bound by this body or these circumstances.

In contrast, the picture Newton’s hymn paints is much more positive — solid and real.

This is resurrection hope!

is God on our side?

I’ve said it before. But it’s worth going on record about it. In the context of global Anglicanism at the present moment, the prayer for Unity in AAPB is rapidly on its way to becoming my theme song:

God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
our only Saviour, Prince of Peace;
give us grace seriously to lay to heart
the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions.
Take away all hatred and prejudice,
and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord:
that, as there is but one body, and one Spirit,
and one hope of our calling,
one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
one God and Father of us all,
so we may be all of one heart, and of one mind,
united in one holy bond of truth and peace,
of faith and charity,
and may with one mind and one mouth glorify you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Seriously, I can barely keep it together when I pray it out loud — it rips my guts out.

It’s not just the stunning and richly biblical vision of unity that we’re calling on God to hammer out amongst us. It’s the white-hot passion to feel as God feels about the situation. As well as the willingness to disown exclusive possession of grace and truth. And grant that God isn’t necessarily on our side…

demonising and contemporary psychology

A psychologist friend of mine has pointed me in the direction something called narrative therapy. I’m fascinated by the vistas it opens up, and not just for psychological practice.

scream

It’s spurred me to address one of the gaps in my theology (which John has laid his finger on over at Skunk Egg Brick Walnut) — spiritual warfare, demons, demon-possession, that sort of thing.

Crucial to this is the emphasis on ‘extenalising the problem’ in narrative therapy, which is (once again) about how you tell the story…

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it depends how you tell the story…

In the interests of concrete illustration (rather than the vague, hand-waving generalities of the previous post), let me quote from Total Church itself:

“God is a missionary God and God’s primary missionary method is his covenant people. Humanity was made in the image of the triune God. The purpose of an image is to represent something and we were made to represent God on earth. God made us as persons-in-community to be the vehicle through which he would reveal his glory. But humanity has grasped for autonomy from God. We fell under the curse of God, and human community has become fractured. The image-bearers of God fall short of his glory…”

You can probably see already what a big difference it makes to tell the story this way. God’s loving purposes for you and me need to be set in the wider context of his loving purposes for humanity and the world. Thus…

“God begins his plan to create a new humanity with his promise to Abraham. By focusing on Abraham, God has not abandoned the rest of humanity, for through Abraham, blessing will come to all nations (Genesis 12:1-3).”

No surprises then that the church finds a natural and obvious home:

The church […] is not something additional or optional. It is at the very heart of God’s purposes. Jesus came to create a people who would model what it means to live under his rule. It would be a glorious outpost of the kingdom of God: an embassy of heaven. This is where the world can see what it means to be truly human.

So, next time someone says to me, ‘I can be a Christian without going to church, can’t I?’ (as though it’s an optional extra) — even though I sympathise with not wanting to make church membership a precondition for a right standing with God — I’ll just take a deep breath and start: ‘Well, it depends how you tell the story…’

too English to church plant?

plantWhen Mark Driscoll came to Sydney, he told us (us Anglicans, that is) that we were too slow and too English to be entrepreneurial church planters.

Interesting, then, that it’s been Total Church, a book by a couple of English guys, which has fanned into flame the sputtering embers of my passion for church planting.

That’s right, it’s The Crowded House guys — who’re getting some press over at Acts 29, by the way — Tim Chester and Steve Timmis who’ve got me excited about church planting!

I really like their idea that church planting is not just the job for a macho, omnicompetent guy who’s young, maybe not deeply theologically trained and has a kind of ‘mover and shaker’ personality. Church planting is a job for all of us.

It’s when every church member pitches in and serves according to their gifts and as there’s need that church planting really gets going. Of course, this can be slow and hard and even a bit … mundane (especially after the initial excitement of doing something ‘new’ wears off).

But it’s where we start working with the grain of the NT vision of church.

Which is where Total Church really comes into its own. It makes us reflect on what church is and what we should be on about. Without making church everything, it helps us see how it fits into the gospel story.

And it’s all about the way we tell the story. We only get the place of the church in salvation-history in focus when we recognise that God’s achievement in Jesus fulfils his longstanding intention to redeem, gather and sanctify a people for himself.

This is the beating — gospel, community, and missional — heart of the NT vision of church, within which there’s plenty of scope for different models of church government and polity.

(Although never mentioned in the pages of Total Church, there seem to be strong connections between this and Tom Wright’s work — e.g., his discussion of the interrelation of creation and covenant in Fresh Perspectives. But we’ll leave that for another time…)