Month: June 2011

how NOT to change the world

When Natalie and I were undergraduates (before we were even dating), we regularly discussed how to change the world.

We were both idealistic youngsters with more or less well-formed inclinations towards socialism as well as being evangelical Christians who wanted to take Jesus and the Bible seriously.

And so our conversations developed what we would come to see as a fairly predictable pattern:

  • Start with an observable cultural problem — racism, social exclusion, war, or crime and punishment.
  • Pull it apart — was it primarily a structural evil or something that was more a matter of personal agency? (I can’t quite remember, but my guess is that we always found every problem to be an inextricable mix of both.)
  • Then mull over solutions — oscillating between full-blown political solutions (get the right people into positions of power and influence) and something more pious (‘We just need to preach the gospel and when enough people believe it, things will change’).

As it turns out, this predictable pattern wasn’t even unique to our conversations!

According to James Davison Hunter, this kind of response to questions of cultural engagement and changing the world is fairly typical — especially of Christianity in the USA over the last 5 decades.

Worse, it rests on a massive oversimplification about what culture is and an equally massive misunderstanding of how it’s changed.

Hunter rams his conclusion home in To Change The World (page 45):

[A]gainst Christian pietism, which biases us to see the individual’s “heart and mind” as the primary source and repository of culture, we now see … that it is not so much individual hearts and minds that move cultures but cultures that ultimately shape the hearts and minds and, thus, direct the lives of individuals.

I’m loving this book. It’s manages to be a bracing and compelling read while maintaining the dense texture of the best in social-historical and sociological analysis.

So expect more to come! (Especially as I grapple with the positive alternative Hunter articulates.)

do we lack a common vocabulary of shared life?

One of the things on my plate this week is putting together a seminar on Christian apologetics — answering those curly questions we often face when we try to bring Jesus into our everyday conversations.

I’ve been particularly challenged by the observation James Davison Hunter makes of Evangelical Christianity in the United States (in his excellent book, To Change The World, page 87):

Evangelicals … offer little by way of a common vocabulary of shared life informed by faith but not exclusive to it.

What Hunter has latched on to is that there’s this yawning wasteland between two extremes.

On the one hand, while many Evangelicals can draw from a deep reservoir of subtle, sophisticated and comprehensive ways of making sense of life and experience in light of Jesus and his Kingdom, they’re usually near-inaccessible for those who don’t share our faith.

On the other hand, many lack any distinctively Christian way of speaking about life and the experiences we share with our fellow human beings, falling back instead on the incoherent variety of non-Christian ways that lie to hand in the media and popular culture.

I suspect this is probably true of us here in Australia too.

It’s obviously a much bigger project than one seminar allows. (I guess I was already trying to have a crack at something like it in my recent series on grace without guilt.)

But I want to develop — and to help others develop — a better vocabulary (as well as more conversation ‘moves’) that allow us to speak of the shared realities of life in a way informed by faith in Jesus yet also reaches out and resonates with those without this faith.

grace without guilt … when you’re weak

At the heart of the gospel is the proclamation that ‘Jesus is Lord’. Because he is Lord, the Christian allows Jesus to be the very focus of life. We will learn to value and serve people as he does, but at the same time will be kept from expecting these people to meet all of our needs. What needs they do meet in our lives we will value and thank God for, and in so doing will be reminded that they are gifts to us from our Lord. When others, even those closest and dearest to us, are viewed like this, we are free to minister to them without expecting them to meet our needs. (Peter Brain, Going The Distance page 72)

I wanted to pump my fist in triumph when I stumbled across this sentiment. But it didn’t take long for reality to kick in — since my everyday experience only intermittently lives up to what’s described here.

I regularly fail to value and serve people as Jesus does — preferring to withdraw and let things play out their course, or else to push hard to get my own way.

And I often expect others to meet my needs (whether for security, significance or transcendence) in ways only Jesus can.

Either way, I’m left feeling weak and inadequate.

Day to day, I’m often far from being the ‘perfectly free lord of all, subject to none’ and ‘perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all’ that Martin Luther tells me I should be.

Which is why I so desperately need to hear Paul’s parting words about being empowered by God —  readied for spiritual battle (Ephesians 6.10-20).

The famous image of a fully kitted-out Roman soldier isn’t a checklist of weaponry and tactics available only to elite spiritual troops. Paul’s evocative language is far too hard to pin down for that.

Rather, it’s a portrait of someone who simply embraces the gospel.

Believing it. Enacting it. Working it deep into their heart and life.

I’m more and more convinced that it’s the profoundly unsexy spiritual disciplines that are the key to this.

For it’s things like regular Bible reading, prayer and financial generosity that keep us exposing ourselves to the message of grace and actively entrusting ourselves to the Lord who meets us there clothed in his promises.

There are no short-cuts to spiritual empowerment in the face of weakness and inadequacy.

grace without guilt … when you’re frustrated

I can’t tell you how often I find myself feeling stuck, irritated or frustrated.

I know I need to guard my heart here. Apparently, anger becomes more and more of a temptation the longer someone stays in Christian leadership.

And that freaks me out.

The way we respond to frustration says a lot about how we’re approaching life. And what passes our lips is usually a pretty accurate barometer of this.

Think about it.

What’s your knee-jerk response when things don’t turn out how you’d hoped?

Complaining? Blaming other people, the circumstances or yourself?

Here is where Ephesians 4.15-5.20 speaks its message of grace and power.

It’d be easy to overlook the focus in this passage on how we use our mouths. But that would be a mistake. One that would mean we’d miss the liberating potential of this vision of a people of pure speech.

Christians are called to speak the truth in love to each other. To put away all falsehood and speak plainly to their neighbours.

Their words are to give grace. And build others up.

They’re to be marked by thanksgiving not obscenity, emptiness or vulgarity.

And they’re to sound like we’re filled with the Spirit.

But the engine room of this transformation is the new identity God gives those who are united to Christ (Ephesians 5.1-2):

Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

This is such profoundly good news!

Through Jesus, God makes us his dearly loved children.

That is why dealing with frustration so that our speech can be transformed and purified isn’t about following the rules. It goes far deeper than that.

At the same time, it doesn’t flow naturally from our hearts without further ado. We’ve got to learn how to imitate God by loving and giving ourselves up for others like Jesus.

And this has a pretty steep learning curve.

 Because it demands that we look to our gracious Heavenly Father rather than any merely human person to meet our true needs.

For there’s nothing else that can displace our natural Self-centredness apart from God-centredness. Not even Other-Self-centredness.

grace without guilt … when you’re overwhelmed

How do you react when you’re overwhelmed?

What’s your natural inclination when you’re up against a tough relational problem, a difficult conversation you know you need to have (but have been putting off), or some kind of project or assignment you can’t quite get my head around?

Sometimes I panic.

Before I even know it, I’m way past the point of no return and plummeting over the brink.

Anxiety grips my chest. My sense of inadequacy in the face of the challenge leaves me feeling dizzy. And the implications of failure start churning my stomach.

More often though, I experience an extended period in which the signs that I’m feeling overwhelmed are more subtle than outright panic.

Often it’s procrastination that gives it away.

Left to myself, I’ve almost no way to arrest my slide towards panicked freefall.

Sure — I’ve got a few ad hoc and pragmatic strategies. But unless I have my wits about me and notice that I need to start employing them, I tend to just bury my head in the sand and procrastinate even harder.

But in his grace and mercy, God gives us two very good gifts that come in mighty handy when we’re feeling overwhelmed.

We get a glimpse of them both in Ephesians 4.1-16.

There, Paul shows us how God blesses us (i) in Jesus and — through Jesus — (ii) in each other.

I reckon I’m usually most inclined to feel overwhelmed when I’m relying on myself to secure what makes for a full and satisfying life.

But the good news that God is victorious in Jesus. And, as a result, we’re blessed in him.

In his grace, we’re caught up in his victory. Apart from any merit of our own, we share in his life.

What’s more, God doesn’t bless us in Jesus alone. He gives us to one another, making us interdependent and throwing us together in the project of building one another up towards maturity.

In pouring out his blessing on us like this, God enables us to meet our feeling of being overwhelmed by addressing its root cause — namely, our self-reliance.

And that is good news!

grace without guilt … when you’re hurting (ii)

The grand arc of Paul’s thought in Ephesians 1-3 brings us to this point: the church is an oasis of healing and reconciliation in the vast desert of hurt (suffered and inflicted).

At least, that’s what it’s meant to be.

But if your experience is anything like mine, this can seem like a mouth-watering mirage.

The everyday experience of Christian community can be anything but peaceful. For it groans under the strains of our competing desires — to win, to be right, to be recognised, to be comfortable and secure.

How can we enter into the reality Paul describes when the wounds are still raw? When the insults are still ringing in our ears? When we’re struggling to trust … again?

Here are two simple strategies that have helped me take small but significant steps:

1. Treat conflict as an opportunity to understand not blame, judge or condemn

Because we belong to Jesus, we don’t need to go all out to win. And we don’t need to get frustrated or crushed when we don’t (appear to) win.

Instead of getting frustrated we can get fascinated and seek to discover what happened — in a spirit not of fault-finding but of working out how we got to this point so we can increase our chances of not ending up here again.

Hence, it can be helpful to talk about the different contribution different people may have made (rather than simply who’s to blame).

2. Distinguish between feeling hurt and being hurt

It’s all too easy to read motive into actions or words that hurt. When we’re hurting it’s hard not to assume the worst and put the worst construction on what’s been said or done.

So it’s at least worth pausing before we draw too direct a line from our experience to the other person’s intentions.

If we want to work with the grain of God’s grace, we need to verbally and mentally train ourselves for this.

“I” statements are the classic way to do this. E.g., “I felt humiliated when you said…”

They let us take ownership of our feelings, while giving space for the other person to identify the gap between intention and outcome.

This is good practice even if the other person did intend to hurt us. At the very least, it can slow things down enough to explore what happened.

grace without guilt … when you’re hurting (i)

Hurting others and feeling hurt are often tangled up with each other.

On the one hand, when we hurt others that can leave us feeling hurt ourselves. On the other hand, our own hurt can lead us to lash out and hurt others.

I don’t imagine it’d be too hard to produce a typology of hurt:

The more desperately you’re seeking comfort, the more you’ll suffer when you’re stressed and the more likely you’ll be to inflict hurt on others by outsourcing or defaulting on anything that might stress you out.

If it’s approval that drives you, then you’ll hurt when you’re rejected and hurt others — either by walling yourself off against them if you don’t get approval or smothering them if you do.

If your hunger for control is insatiable, then it’s uncertainty that will hurt you most — just as it’s blame and condemnation that you’ll direct at others who seem to challenge your control.

And if you’re out for power then humiliation (or perceived humiliation) will cut you deepest, while others will probably feel used by you.

What can we say in the face of such an overwhelming variety of ways to be hurt and oppressed or to hurt and oppress others?

Well, if Ephesians 3.1-13 is anything to go by, we can say two things on the basis of the good news of God’s grace in Jesus:

  1. There is comfort for the oppressed.
  2. And there is hope for the oppressor.

The good news of God’s grace in Jesus — what Paul calls ‘the mystery’ that ‘has now been revealed … by the Spirit’ — effects the long-awaited victory over the powers that bind and enslave human life, and that produce hurt and hostility between people.

This is why, in Paul’s thought, the church is such a big deal.

For the church is where God’s wisdom is triumphantly displayed — where it’s brandished aloft like a trophy.

For Paul, the church is the place where hurt gets healed (most astoundingly in the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles).

Oh, that it might be true of our churches!

[To be continued…]

grace without guilt … when you’re mixed up

Who am I?

It’s the million dollar question — and not just when you’re playing a ridiculously high stakes game of Guess Who?.

Christians know that we are made (and are being remade) in God’s image.

God created us to be lovers like him — lovers of God, others and his world. And we’re answerable to him for how we live and love.

We know this in our heads. But the way we live doesn’t always align.

It’s all too easy to get mixed up.

It happens to me most often when I ‘forget myself’. In the heat of the moment on the sporting pitch. In that split second when someone cuts in on me on the road.

Sure I’d ace the test on what the Christian response is meant to be.

But in the moment … I blow it.

Of course, I know that Christian growth isn’t meant to be easy. Progress isn’t always going to be one triumph after another. You know, Up And To The Right? Automatic. No effort required.

But Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2 that we are different — if we’ve come to trust in Jesus.

Whether you’re looking at the Before And After story from the ‘vertical’ perspective of our relationship with God or from the ‘horizontal’ angle of our relationships with others, God in his grace has changed us. One hundred percent.

He’s done the hard yards.

He’s answered the Who Am I question for us — in the most decisive, surprising and (humanly) impossible way. We are his dearly-loved children, a new family, the start of a whole new humanity.

The trick is remembering.

And helping each other to remember…

grace without guilt … when you’re tired

If you’re anything like me then lots of different things can contribute to making you tired.

Sometimes it’s mainly physical factors — lack of sleep, spending a day doing physical labour. Other times it’s more emotional or even spiritual factors.

Expectations are one of the biggest contributing factors to tiredness.

Whether they’re realistic or unrealistic, self-imposed or laid on you by others, expectations can drive you to push yourself physically.

They can also be a source of stress (or shame if — especially if you’ve failed to meet some expectations, letting yourself and others down).

And they can prove spiritually crippling.

Which is where passages like Ephesians 1.3-14 can provide a tonic. Paul’s great prayer of thanksgiving is informed and animated by a remarkably theocentric vision — in the light of which any expectations on me fade mercifully.

When my vision shrinks, I tend to wring myself out as I start acting like the universe revolves around me: “I’m indispensable”, “I have to do that, otherwise it won’t get done (and that, you understand, is unthinkable)”.

But if the God who stands astride history itself pours out every spiritual blessing on those who’re united to Christ, then everything’s different.

We’re freed from needing to feel like everything depends on us. Because everything depends on him. And he’s supremely reliable — not to mention supremely able!

And if it’s not all about us, then we’re also freed to take small steps.

Worthwhile action doesn’t have to be an All Or Nothing thing. We can acknowledge our limits, start in a modest way, and relax a little…

why we should keep the sabbath

Last night at Bible study, someone (not me) made a profound observation on Exodus 20.8-11:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

What was the observation?

God tells us to keep the sabbath because that’s what he did.

I’ve often heard it said that we should down tools one day a week because we’re not God and taking time off is a concrete way of saying, ‘The world will keep turning without my input — at least for 24 hours’.

This sort of argument tends to get wheeled out when touting the wisdom of sabbath-keeping for Christians now. I know I’ve done it.

But the logic of the commandment runs in the opposite direction.

We’re to rest one day a week because we’re like God.

Brilliant! Right?

What’s more, I think it sheds light on the reason Jesus gives in defence of his notorious sabbath behaviour: ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath’ (Mark 2.27).

Likewise with the whole ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working’ discourse in John 5 — which includes a cryptic reference to Jesus being the Son of Man.

How are these illuminated by the logic of the sabbath command?

Because Jesus doesn’t heal and do his Father’s work on the sabbath in a divine breach of the commandment but in a human fulfilment of it!

Jesus shows us what the sabbath was always for: entering into and sharing the fullness and joy of God in creation.