Month: February 2011

drawing out of our Christian hope

I don’t think I could tell you much about the houses or gardens on my street. I tend to use it almost exclusively to get from my home to the tram (for which I always seem to be running late). And so I rarely ever notice things about it — let alone enjoy them.

I’m sure that the Nineteenth Century English intellectual John Ruskin would rebuke me for this. Ruskin was keen that everyone learn to draw — not so much to flood the world with bad art as to restore to us the habits of curiosity and attention:

Now, remember … that I have not been trying to teach you to draw, only to see. Two men are walking through Clare Market, one of them comes out at the other end not a bit wiser than when he went in; the other notices a bit of parsley hanging over the edge of a butter-woman’s basket, and carries away with him images of beauty which in the course of his daily work he incorporates with it for many a day. I want you to see things like these.

The issue isn’t how such curiosity and attention gets expressed. It doesn’t matter whether it’s drawing, painting, poetry, music … even science.

The issue is that it’s incredibly difficult to stoke the fires of curiosity and attention when you’re at home, surrounded by the familiar (as I am when I hurry down my street).

Yet I’m sure you’ve noticed how, in an unfamiliar environment (such as when you’re travelling), even the most mundane things can invite the kind of attention Ruskin wants us to display.

Which brings me to our Christian hope. Because, as 1 Peter puts it, the ‘living hope’ secured for us by the risen Jesus makes us ‘aliens and strangers’ — wherever we are. It puts us out of joint with our culture and society, rendering them oddly unfamiliar.

As a result, curiosity and attention should be second nature for us. Shouldn’t it?

Surely we should be those who draw — or paint or compose or study — out of our Christian hope…

why the church does NOT have a mission

The church does NOT have a mission?

Huh? That’s pretty controversial. How could someone who spends a whole lot of time talking about being missional say something so outlandish?

It’s not just because I’ve decided that Fridays are a good day for lobbing ‘theological hand-grenades’ (you may or may not have noticed that things continue to heat up in the discussion of last Friday’s post).

It’s because it’s God’s mission first and foremost.

Yep. I’m talking about the so-called missio Dei.

The wha…?

The missio Dei — the ‘mission’ or ‘sending’ of God. In a tremendously helpful article on the UCCF theology network site, Glen Scrivener puts it this way:

If you want to appear hip among a gathering of pipe-smoking, microbrew-drinking theologians, drop missio Dei into conversation. It guarantees instant credibility. The phrase … means this: From eternity the Father has always sent forth His Son who is Himself the shining out of the Father’s glory. God’s very being is as a sending God, even before the world began. Sending (i.e. ‘mission’) is therefore not just an action that God wills, or a response to the world. It is the nature of His eternal life.

The church is a product of God’s mission. Hence, the church doesn’t have a mission — at least in the first instance.

Of course, as a result of God’s mission (although only as a result) the church is graciously invited to participate in mission with him.

I take it this is part of why biblical scholars can’t seem to settle the argument about whether Paul wanted his congregations to actively engage in mission and evangelism — and if he did why he didn’t say so more clearly (a question on which Michael Gorman has some musings well worth reading)…

conversational tack-tics

It’s Orientation Week at La Trobe Uni. So between that and the release of Radiohead’s new album, The King of Limbs, it’s fair to say I’ve been a bit … distracted.

The Christian Union’s been getting out there this week. We’ve been contacting people — chatting as they decorated one of the scores of cupcakes people have baked for us, showing people around the campus, and letting them know what we’re on about and what opportunities there are to take Jesus seriously on campus.

It’s been terrific to see and be part of!

And it’s got me reflecting on how my conversations are going — and particularly how I’m going doing what I’m most passionate about: talking with people about Jesus.

I did a bit of sailing as a kid. And I quickly learnt that there are two ways to play it when the wind isn’t at your back, filling your sails and driving directly towards where you want to go.

Either wait and hope that the wind will change. Or get tacking — zig-zagging across the wind so that you’re never heading exactly where you want to go, but you are making some progress.

I think that my conversations tend to fall into a wait and hope kind of pattern when it comes to my desire to speak about Jesus.

But I’m gradually learning the art of ‘conversational tacking’.

Not that I’m trying to force things or that I want to sneakily get to the position of being able to preach at whoever I’m talking to for as long as it takes to argue them into the kingdom.

But rather that I’m getting better at sharing short sharp things — relevant moments from Jesus’ life and ministry (what John Dickson calls ‘gospel bites’) or brief ‘mini-testimonies’ about aspects of my own experience with the Lord or questions that display genuine interest in the person by pressing beyond ‘What are you studying?’.

Sometimes they get me nowhere of course. But that’s OK. Sometimes you inch your way forward. And sometimes, in God’s kindness, the wind turns…

3 ways your church can get side-tracked from mission

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about church and mission lately. Last week I shared with you the ‘missional critique’ of stained glass windows — and as the ensuing conversation revealed, the Stained Glass Window mindset was a much deeper problem than the mere presence of stained glass.

Now I want to share 3 ways I reckon church can get side-tracked from mission by focussing too much on itself.

To do so, I’m going to borrow from what Tim Keller says about how churches can get side-tracked from worship — hopefully the connect will become apparent:

  1. Practice gate-keeping habits of speech and behaviour. This is all about reinforcing your sense of being right — because you lack confidence or feel embattled or whatever. The subtext of everything that goes on is: ‘Hey everyone who’s already in the church, aren’t we great?’
  2. Constantly ‘sell’ yourselves. This one’s a bit paradoxical, since it’s explicitly aimed at any ‘outsiders’ who are visiting. But this is symptomatic of an anxiety to perform and show any visitors that we’re good and plausible and worthy of respect. The subtext is still, ‘Aren’t we great?’ only this time it’s aimed at outsiders.
  3. Make everything about training. This one’s more controversial (obviously). But you get off track if you’re overriding aim is to tell people things they don’t know and give them skill they don’t yet have. The subtext of this kind of behaviour is: ‘Isn’t knowing stuff about Jesus great?’

According to Keller, none of these behaviours (except perhaps the first) is harmful in and of itself. The problem comes when one or other of them becomes the dominant or overriding aim — the thing towards which everything else drives.

Instead we want to drive towards: ‘Isn’t Christ great?’ And we want to do this in a deeply compelling way.

I reckon this holds as true for mission as it does for worship (where Keller applies it). And it certainly holds as true for edgy ‘missional communities’ as it does for those with a more traditional Sunday public gathering.

the missional critique of stained glass windows

I should say first up that I’ve grown to appreciate and even love stained glass windows. But in my time I’ve heard — and, especially in my younger days, made — numerous criticisms of them. Criticisms such as:

  • They promote idolatry.
  • They don’t ‘teach’ much of anything without significant interpretation.
  • They put off and intimidate unchurched newcomers.

I’m sure the list could be extended.

Although, I never really heard this one — let’s call it the missional critique of stained glass windows:

[T]he Church can never be satisfied with what it can be and do as such. As His community it points beyond itself. At bottom it can never consider its own security, let alone its own appearance. As His community it is always free from itself. In its deepest and most proper tendency it is not churchly, but worldly — the Church with open doors and great windows, behind which it does better not to close itself in upon itself again by putting in pious stained glass windows. It is holy in its openness to the street and even the alley, in its turning to the profanity of all human life — the holiness which, according to Rom. 12.5, does not scorn to rejoice with them that do rejoice and to weep with them that weep. Its mission is not additional to its being. It is, as it is sent and active in its mission. It builds itself up for the sake of its mission and in relation to it. (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1 (pp 724-725)

What’s your feeling? Do stained glass windows risk undermining our identity, turning us in upon ourselves rather than turning us outward to face the world in mission and service?

‘help my unbelief!’

How we respond to doubt is a big deal. Lots of Christians struggle with doubt (whether or not they say so). Sometimes they get the impression that their doubts or questions aren’t ‘allowed’ — I’ve even heard someone say, ‘Maybe I’m going to hell for thinking this…’

I found this diagnosis particularly insightful (it’s fromthis article from last November’s issue of Christianity Today — you can also read an accompanying interview with the author at The Other Journal):

Christians often have one of two opposite and equally harmful reactions when they talk with someone who has left the faith: they go on the offensive, delivering a homespun, judgmental sermon, or they freeze in a defensive crouch and fail to engage at all.

Whether it’s someone who’s left the faith or someone currently wrestling with doubts, my pastoral instincts and experience tell me that there’s got to be a better way to respond.

But what is it?

Here are a few random thoughts:

  1. Give each other permission to work through our doubts. I suspect a large part of this would come from Christian leaders taking risks and sharing their own struggles — and not always just the ones they’ve struggled with in the past (although, of course, we’d need to model constructive engagement with them as well).
  2. Help each other with appropriate resources and opportunities to ask questions and express doubt (and hear others ask questions and express doubt). Is it any wonder people who struggle with doubt move to the periphery of Christian community we never giving them the space to do it in fellowship with us?
  3. Inspire each other to face doubt Christianly — e.g., point to the stories of ‘trusting doubters’ (from the Bible as well as contemporary and historical experience). Doubt isn’t necessarily the enemy of faith but often leads to deeper faith — for example, expressing doubt honestly in prayer enacts a much deeper trust in God’s goodness than playing your cards close to your chest out of fear.

Maybe you could add to the list?

there is a genuine gospel humanism

I’ve been getting back into John Webster lately — reading his slim little book on Barth’s Earlier Theology and working my way through his Kantzer Lectures on ‘The Perfection and Presence of God’ from back in 2007.

I’m loving it!

Here’s a gem from the end of his second Kantzer Lecture (from about 54 minutes in):

Because God is who God is, there is a proper gospel humanism. But it can’t be seized precipitately. We need to approach it slowly and patiently through the doctrine of God. Indeed, only when we approach it in this way do we attain to a real humanism — one in which being human means being a creature in the presence of the perfect God. But the fact that we may arrive at this stately affirmation of creaturely dignity is not the least of the gospel’s glories.

Rough translation:

When we trust and follow Jesus, it won’t ruin our lives. Putting Jesus first won’t be a disaster for our dignity and freedom. It won’t leave us unfulfilled and empty (although it will probably unsettle more than a few of our notions of fulfilment).

It will richly satisfy us.

Think of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler. His call is fierce and uncompromising: ‘Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’ (Matthew 19.21).

But the promise is of real satisfaction and restored dignity: a life free from the love of money (a love which can only shrink and diminish us) and rich towards God.

Any theology that suggests otherwise — even in the name of magnifying God’s sovereign grace and initiative — is deficient. For it will have bought into the assumption of classical liberalism that for God to be great, man must become less (and vice versa).

a massive love FAIL

As over-commercialised as Valentine’s Day is, I thought it might be a good day to reflect on love.

And with the recent sequence of natural disasters in Australia and elsewhere, I’ve been reflecting on the danger of turning tragedies into moments for theological debate rather than loving attention and action.

In particular, I’ve been rebuked by the story of Jesus’ encounter with a man in John 9 — a man born blind:

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

There’s a huge contrast between Jesus and his disciples here.

Jesus sees the man and responds with power and compassion. Instead of being drawn into speculation about the origin or cause of the man’s condition he points forward to the works of God being revealed in him — and promptly does one of those works.

The disciples presumably also see the man. But the way they attend to him is different. You could say that they see the affliction but are blind to the man. The man — and his very human need — is eclipsed by the theological dispute they want resolved. It’s a massive love FAIL.

Worst part is I know who I tend to resemble more. And it ain’t pretty…

what it feels like to forget God in prosperity

In the last week or so I’ve gradually begun piecing something together. I’m slowly gaining a sense of what it feels like to forget God in prosperity. And it’s freaking me out.

Now, I don’t claim to have an unblemished record when it comes to remembering and thanking God for his constant provision. But that I think I’m finally starting to pay attention to the dynamic Moses lays bare in Deuteronomy 8.

You see, for possibly the first time since I started getting paid to work in church contexts, I’ve found myself waking up full of energy and ideas.

What’s the problem with that?

The problem is that I’m struggling to switch off.

I suspect this is bad for my long term sustainability and mental health. And I’m sure it’s bad for relationship with Natalie — especially while we’re both working from home (as we have been for the past month or so).

Worse, it’s caught me totally unprepared.

My struggle in the past was always working out how not to be overwhelmed by my responsibilities and the things that needed doing. Learning to switch off was a matter of survival — it was about keeping my head above water.

But now I walk away from every planning meeting buzzing, itching to tackle my ever-lengthening To Do list. And rather than feeling crushed by the burning pastoral issues afflicting the people I’m serving among, I’m thoroughly energised by the whiff I’ve got of what God might do in and through us.

It’s not even that what’s happening is necessarily any more or less successful and prosperous objectively. Simply that I feel differently about it this time around.

So to adapt the words of Deuteronomy 8.17-18, I fear I’m in mortal danger of saying, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this’ — forgetting that it’s God who gives the power in fulfilment of his promises.

toilet humour theology

I once sat in a lecture room full of would-be theology students buzzing with a heady mix of anticipation and apprehension. A very wise lecturer stood in front of us and told us to remember that we were creatures as well as being Christians.

There are so many ways that advice has proven significant for me, I hardly know where to start.

But this week I’ve been thinking about that advice in relation to humour — and one oh-so-human brand of humour in particular: toilet humour.

Admit it. You love toilet humour. I love it. We all do — as much as we secretly pretend to be too mature for it or appalled by it as Christians.

Two great examples landed in my RSS reader this week.

The first came courtesy of Mike Bird. Speaking of the humanity of Jesus he serves up this gem: ‘We only believe in the incarnation if we can affirm that the historical person Jesus of Nazareth experienced a physical resurrection after his death and a normal male erection during his life.’

And the second is Mike W’s brilliant exposé of gospel assholes, drawing on the opening scene of The Social Network

It’s great to see contemporary evangelicals carrying the torch of Martin Luther. Not only using toilet humour to communicate gospel truth but, better still, rubbing our noses in our creatureliness…