Month: April 2009

becoming a church of irresistible influence (1)

Few would argue with the assertion that gospel-shaped Christian community is fundamentally about sharing. In this sense it’s like all community — at least if O’Donovan’s on the money when he suggests that meaningful sharing is the essence of community (Ways of Judgement, pp 250-251).

But this leaves the question: What makes Christian community distinct? What is it a sharing in?

The good (and thoroughly sound) evangelical reflex is to shout: ‘The gospel!’

Suspension Bridge in Pemberton, WA (Jan 09)

Suspension Bridge in Pemberton, WA (Jan 09)

Surprisingly that wasn’t Paul’s response. Or at least not the whole of it. Writing to the relatively new believers at Thessalonica he says: ‘So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our very selves’ (1 Thess 2.8).

Can you imagine … if we really believed in such whole of life sharing, what our churches might look like?

I’ve just finished reading The Church of Irresistible Influence, and I’m pondering what would be different about the way we structure and organise the various programmes and activities that come under the local church umbrella if this whole of life sharing were bigger than just an ‘in house’ thing — as it surely was for Paul who (presumably) shared like this with the Thessalonians before as well as after their conversion?

What difference might it make to our churches — and the networks in which they’re embedded — if this was part of our DNA? And we became churches of irresistible influence — salt and light in the world?

the Trinity and the “network” mistake

web

In Save the World on Your Own Time Stanley Fish highlights something he calls the “network” mistake (p 100) — ‘the mistake of thinking that because an entity or practice has a form only in a network of relations, it is incoherent to speak of its properties, or of the boundaries that separate and distinguish it from other nodal points in the network. Since identity is network-dependent, the reasoning goes, nothing can be spoken of or examined as if it were freestanding and discrete.’

He goes on to explain why this is a mistake (pp 100-101):

Yes, everything is finally interconnected and has a diacritical rather than a substantive existence (and is therefore, in some sense, not identical with itself), but it doesn’t follow that there is nothing distinctive to say about “it”, any more than it would follow that because the heart and lungs and spinal cord are what they are by virtue of the system of which they are components, they perform no isolable function, display not special characteristics, obey no special laws, and cannot be studied in their own right.

What strikes me is how necessary it is to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest this point when it comes to our thinking about the Trinity. Continue reading

In praise of Dave Eggers

‘Wunderkind’ is the kind of descriptor someone unimaginative would give to Dave Eggers. Glorious, deeply incisive, and sublime would be appropriate adjectives. His first book is modestly entitled A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The preface (which you’re instructed not to read, but which you undoubtedly will anyway) indicates just how self aware and ironic Eggers intends the title to be:

…he [the author] is fully cognizant, way ahead of you, in terms of knowing about and fully admitting the gimmickry inherent in all of this, and will preempt your claim of the books irrelevance due to said gimmickry by saying that the gimmickry is simply a device, a defense, to obscure the black, blinding murderous rage and sorrow at the core of this whole story…

And the thing is, it really is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Neither AHWOSG and his more recent book What is the What are novels in the strictest sense. Both are fictionalised accounts of real life; AHWOSG of Egger’s own and What is the What that of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achek Deng. You can’t walk away from either of these books unchanged. In What is the What the narrative flips between the present, in which Deng is a victim of a home invasion in the USA, and his experiences in Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia. Both experiences are horrific and yet the story is somehow also beautiful and hopeful. This is a moment from the home invasion:

 Finally he [Deng’s boy-captor] emerges from the kitchen with a phone book. He carries it over to me and holds it over my head.

“Young man! What are you doing?”

He drops the book. It is the first time in my life I have seen something coming toward me and been unable to properly react. I try to turn my head but still the book lands squarely on my face. The pain is compounded by my headache and the ricochet my chin makes against the floor. The phone book slides off, toward my forehead, and rests there, against my temple. Thinking he has accomplished his goal, he returns to the kitchen and the volume goes up again, This boy thinks I am not of his species, that I am some other kind of creature, one that can be crushed under the weight of a phone book.

The pain is not great, but the symbolism is disagreeable.

He’s a pretty impressive person too. He’s committed to writers, writing and creativity more generally, establishing magazines that nurture writers and artists and setting up writing programs for kids. This is a guy who practices what he preaches. Similar to the way we expect the faithful to bear ‘fruit’ for the gospel — I reckon Eggers bears fruit for writing and creativity.

high and low culture

At our wedding, our delightful friend Sam reflected that we curiously exhibit a love for both high and low culture. So, perhaps it ought to come as no surprise that after going to see Tom Stoppard’s wonderful play Travesties, which discusses the very nature of art, we followed up by going to see Fast and Furious, which doesn’t have anything much to say at all. But it was awesome. I like fast cars. And cheesy dialogue. And things that explode. All of which it had in spades.

On a related matter, going supermarket shopping has become much more entertaining since I’ve realised you can (kind of) ‘drift’ shopping trolleys.

too much ‘page time’?

A few years back Natalie had quite a bit to do with a family that talked about limiting their kids’ ‘screen time’ — as an umbrella term for watching TV, using the computer, going to the movies, etc…

Is it too outrageous to suggest that perhaps we — Bible-believing evangelicals — might need to limit our ‘page time’?  Our commitment to Scripture’s page is rightly a significant factor in our identity. But remember James’ warning about the person who looks intently into the mirror but walks away forgetting what he or she looks like?

For those whose privilege and delight is spending lots of time in God’s word, there’s the corresponding responsibility of faithful obedience. Trusting and obeying is what it’s about, right?

I’ve been particularly convicted by these words from the very stimulating book, The Church of Irresistible Influence (p 47):

In my quest to discern how my pastoral ministry could be more effective, I saw that more preaching is not the answer to today’s spiritual hunger. Neither is the writing of more books, the hosting of more conferences, better technology, or special effects. For the most part, we are simply talking to ourselves. Meanwhile, the church grows increasingly isolated from its community and culture, glorying in a biblical “witness” it often does not really possess.

Close to home?

Of course, effective ministry is the fruit of the gospel. But if you’re anything like me then although you may talk the talk, your walk probably lags more than a short way behind! Thus, the upshot of all this for me is:

  1. I’m resolving to blog less frequently — to help free up the physical and mental space to get out more (even if that does involve much prayerful standing and waiting).
  2. I’m hoping to redirect the conversations I try to spark here towards directly facilitating — evaluating, sharpening, and extending — biblically-informed, gospel-focussed and … dare I say it, Spirit-anointed Christian living and ministry.

pious impudence

I’ve been getting my head into the fourth-century theologian, Gregory of Nazianzus (G-Naz to his friends). He’s the one who blessed the church with the pithy and powerful formulation, ‘the unassumed is the unhealed’ — which so beautifully and forcefully articulates the need for Christ to be fully human, entering completely into our situation, to win our redemption.

One of the other things he spoke about was something he called ‘pious impudence’. Pious impudence is an approach to the God who elects, adopts and sanctifies us that reverently but boldly asks Him to intervene for His glory and our good.

King David wrote many psalms full of pious impudence

David's psalms brim with pious impudence

Here’s an example from Gregory’s oration On His Sister Gorgonia at her funeral. It’s the conclusion to his account of the way a bout of serious illness occasioned a spiritual ‘growth spurt’ for her (Oration VIII.18):

What then did this great soul, worthy offspring of the greatest, and what was the medicine for her disorder, for we have now come to the great secret?  Despairing of all other aid, she betook herself to the Physician of all, and awaiting the silent hours of night, during a slight intermission of the disease, she approached the altar with faith, and, calling upon Him Who is honoured thereon, with a mighty cry, and every kind of invocation, calling to mind all His former works of power, and well she knew those both of ancient and of later days, at last she ventured on an act of pious and splendid effrontery…

Gregory goes on to describe how his sister begged God for healing — and was miraculously answered.

Gob-smacking details aside, it’s important to see how this moment of ‘pious and splendid effrontery’ caps off a sequence in which God is reminded of His ‘former works of power’. God’s intervention isn’t sought cavalierly. Rather, the appeal occurs within the context of a recollection of those events which express God’s character. Yet in faith an impudent appeal is launched, calling upon God to behave like Himself.

Sadly, my pious deference to God’s sovereignty often stymies any honest expression of my needs to Him — let alone a confident expectation that He will intervene for my good!

‘schnitzos’

Yesterday we turned up at our local pub thinking it was cheap steak night. Turns out it was actually schnitzel night. But that wasn’t the only twist. Part of the ‘schnitzel package’ was your choice of — who’s ever heard of this? — topping!

This is the chicken schnitzel with ‘Mexican’ topping:

Mexican schnitzel

Mexican schnitzel

That’s right, those are corn chips on top! Natalie dubbed it the ‘schnitzos’ — a cross between schnitzel and nachos. I’d love to meet the genius who dreamt it up…

Some of the other options include ‘french’ — asparagus, cheese and sour cream — and ‘italian’ — bolognaise and cheese (so you can get beef on your choice of chicken or veal). Cool, huh?

ignorantly in unbelief?

In Fellowship Group the other night we read the passage containing these puzzling words of Paul (1 Tim 1.13):

I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

What stumped us was the logic. Why does he say ‘because I acted ignorantly in unbelief’? Is this the reason why God showed mercy to Paul? (For the Greek nerds out there, it’s a hoti and causal force is about the only thing that fits.) 

Caravaggio's 'Conversion of St Paul'

Caravaggio's 'Conversion of St Paul'

So is it a matter of: ‘Sure, I’ve done the wrong thing. But I didn’t know what I was doing. In fact, I thought I was doing the right thing by hunting down followers of this so-called Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. So it makes sense for God to be lenient and forgive me, right?’

I’m not sure that’s it. The way the beginning of the verse relates to v. 12 tells against it:

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.

Paul knows that his salvation and appointment to Christ’s service is totally a matter of grace. It cuts right across his previous character and direction, which although it may have seemed right to him ran painfully against the grain of reality. He might have convinced himself (and everyone else) the he was a faithful servant of God. But the reality was far different.

What then does Paul mean when he cites the ignorant unbelief of his actions as the reason why he was shown mercy?

silence

We went to the Blue Mountains this weekend for a delighful engagement party. It’s the journey that I found interesting though. We didn’t talk much, but it felt profoundly reinvigorating to share quiet time together. I want to reflect on shared silence…

One of the first (and possibly best) compliments I ever gave to Chris was how easy it was to share silence together. I think that the better you know someone and the more confident you are in their presence, the easier it is to share silence. With an acquaintance I find silence feels awkward and so I try to fill the space with conversation. I don’t think I’m the only one — I’ve just read this advice from a Community Services Training Course I’ve been working through on how attentive silence is a strategy for effective communication when dealing with clients:

We are generally uncomfortable with silence. Commonly, after a few moments’ pause in a conversation, many of us start asking questions, make comments or even give advice. This can create a problem for the speaker who may use the silence to think about something in more detail. During periods of silence the listener also has an opportunity to focus on the speaker’s non-verbal communication and to think about what they are communicating.

These two events have made me reflect — I don’t think I spend enough time with God in silence.

I assume you have a reason for that

I’ve been pondering how to give feedback, especially when I disagree with the point or approach.

This has cropped up because I’m involved in a preaching group — workshopping a different person’s sermon each week — as well our fourth year Issues in Theology class — which consists almost entirely in listening and responding to presentations by class members often dealing with topics of particular pastoral interest (e.g., sin in the life of a believer, the problem of evil, the environment).

My tendency when confronted with disagreement is to say nothing for as long as I can. With the result that minor annoyances quickly become major frustrations — even more so because no-one else picks them up! Needless to say, this Dam It Up Until I Can’t Hold It Back approach is hardly constructive. Nor has it won the love and admiration of my peers.

I really want to improve at this. So I plan to follow the advice of a very wise colleague: assume the person I’m giving feedback to has a reason for what they said.

This puts flesh on the bones of the principle, ‘Don’t get frustrated, get fascinated’. Better, it allows for a thoroughly Christian approach to giving feedback. It lets you explicitly and directly challenge the point you disagree with — and be completely honest about disagreeing. Yet it keeps you humble enough to be taught. Rather than initiating a cycle of attack and counter-attack, it functions as an invitation to enter a conversation.

Can you imagine how differently things might unfold if I gave feedback like this?

I was interested to see that you said this/took this approach, where others may have made another point or approached it a different way; I’d love to hear about why you headed down the path you took…

Fremantle, WA (April 2009)

Fremantle, WA (April 2009)