Month: January 2013

gratitude and gratification

I’ve often tripped over this verse from 1 Timothy 6:

17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

It’s not the warning to the rich that I catch my foot on. I get the idea that having stuff can lead us to haughtiness or an inclination to try to rest the weight of our hope for the future on the illusory solidity of stuff.

What gets me is the exhortation — or rather the reason for the exhortation to set our hope on God: because he “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment”.

I wouldn’t have chosen to dispense this as the remedy for proud, self-sufficient wealth-creation.

Maybe that’s because the leftist bent of my idealistic youth is enjoying something of a revival in my thinking of late.

Or maybe it’s because I need to inwardly digest the message Tim Keller recently got to broadcast on the NY Times website.

But ultimately I suspect it’s because my sense of enjoyment — as in “God richly provides … everything for our enjoyment” — is way too cramped and narrow.

Lingering beneath however I might like to define the word, for me ‘enjoyment’ always connotes something furtive. Stolen. Something I’ve gotten away with. Or jumped through the hoops of respectably delayed gratification to attain.

I guess I could stand to learn a thing or two from my sixteen month-old son, who clasps his hands repeatedly in a prayer of gratitude every meal time — especially when he’s served up his favourite foods (currently grapes, crackers, sultanas, and banana muffins).

For my son, the more he anticipates enjoying something, the more he is moved to express his thankfulness. So much so that it seems like thankfulness enhances his enjoyment of something.

Gratitude isn’t a necessary and more or less unpleasant prelude to gratification. It’s essential to it!

Oh, how I wish I could recapture that…

a summer of truthful conversation

One of the things I’m most thankful for about summer is the way it affords lots of opportunities for conversation.

Sporadic conversation while watching the cricket. Intensive conversation on long drives with visiting family. Immensely gratifying conversation with old friends who drop by — no minor feat when they mostly live in Sydney and we live in Melbourne.

In between the various conversations this summer, I’ve been meandering my way through Christ The Stranger — Ben Myers’ masterful and generous exposition of the theology of Rowan Williams.

It’s a terrific book!

It helps that Williams massively interesting. But Myers expertly teases apart the dense weave of his thought.

And I find myself wanting to post almost every second sentence of it online.

(I seem to have this experience with pretty much every book I pick up lately. Whether it’s Marilynne Robinson’s lyrical and vigorous defense of Calvinism, When I Was A Child I Read Books. Or Doug Harink’s densely theological commentary on 1 & 2 Peter. Or a book on bristling Marxist-Lacanian philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s curious relationship to theology. Or — most recently — Francis Spufford’s acerbic and insightful manifesto for Christianity, Unapologetic.)

I’ve refrained, however. For which you may well breathe a sigh of relief.

But I couldn’t resist sharing this little gem about the fruit of Williams’ reengagement with Hegel (page 54):

Authentic social exchange occurs wherever different persons mediate meaning to one another. Just think of the way understanding emerges from conversation: in a good conversation, something new appears which is not reducible to any of the individual speakers. For Williams, truth is that new thing that springs into being when different selves engage in the hard work of sustaining their differences. Openness to truth, therefore, is an experience of dispossession. We must give up our desire to possess the truth, in order to receive it and share it freely with others.

I think I can gratefully say that my summer has had an ample supply of this kind of conversation…

the burnt toast syndrome

Is it just me or are all toasters pretty much designed to either undercook your toast first time down — and then overcook it the second time around?

We just replaced our toaster. Our old one did it. And our new one does it too.

Unless you hover attentively throughout the second cooking cycle, it inevitably emerges as burnt toast.

As the smoke rose from the charred wreckage the other morning, I had this thought:

The ‘burnt toast syndrome’ more or less accurately describes how things seem to go with me in life and ministry.

Hmmmm… What do I mean by this?

Well, things never seem to go that well the first time I do something new — or that I implement a new ministry initiative.

I may be convinced that it’s right or addresses weakness in how things currently stand or whatever. But that doesn’t guarantee that it’ll work well straight away. There’s often a lag as I learn the ins and outs of the new thing — and sometimes discover unanticipated downsides that need to be mitigated against.

But, assuming I don’t want to make do with the equivalent of a piece of underdone toast, I’ll usually have another go a it — better armed this time with a sense of the probable outcome and the challenges along the way.

However, my tendency (as it is with the toaster) is to be less attentive the second time around. I get too confident and start trying to multitask with a bunch of other things. And, well … once again I’m contending with charred wreckage.

Let me give you an example of this from the campus ministry I’m part of.

Last year we made a pretty major structural change in our campus ministry — we moved from an ‘in house’ training meeting (with dinner) + ‘front door’ lunchtime public meeting + decentralised small group structure to a single public meeting with dinner and small groups + an ‘in house’ lunchtime training meeting.

There were some good reasons to make this move. We’d hoped to capitalise on the way the evening training meeting with dinner included had begun to function as our main community hub — and even the ‘front door’ for many people getting connected to our group and exploring Christianity. It was also supposed to help us address some pathologies that had developed in the way we were doing things.

But it didn’t go as well as we’d hoped. As well as requiring us to get the hang of a new way of doing things, there were some unanticipated drawbacks to the way we structured the ministry (alongside some pretty major gains, it must be said!).

So, with a slight twist of the dial here and a more major correction there (we’re bringing back mid-week, decentralised small groups — rebaptised as missional disciple-making teams), we’re ready to pop it down for a second cycle.

The only problem is, we risk inattentiveness at this point. And we really can’t afford to fall victim to the burnt toast syndrome!

is prayer more than just asking God for stuff?

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Towards the end of Stanley Hauerwas’s fascinating and deeply moving memoir, Hannah’s Child, he recounts how the Lord has been teaching him to pray. As he tells it, part of this process has been learning how not to pray — and here he singles out the verbal tic, endemic to the circles I move in, of ‘just asking’ God: “Lord, we just ask you to do X or Y”.

Hauerwas once provocatively suggested that bad prayer habits de-form us in serious ways: “You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend” (The Truth About God).

But his objection to the ‘just asking’ phenomenon zooms in on the hypocritical pride he sees lurking in the pat phrase. According to Hauerwas, it’s the prayer equivalent of a humble brag.

The fig leaf of (apparent) humility goes something like this: “When I pray ‘Lord, I just ask you…’, I’m not asking much, am I? Just this one little thing. That’s all.” But concealed beneath it is an arrogant assertion of entitlement: “Lord, I’m just asking you for this! And surely you won’t be miserly enough to withhold such a small thing. In fact, you probably kind of owe it to me…”

Ouch. I think that’s a fair few of my prayers right there.

And yet… isn’t ‘just asking’ the very thing Paul encourages his Christian readers to do in Philippians 4.6 (quoted above)? To let their requests be made known to God?

In fact, I’ve read some fairly compelling arguments for saying that ‘just asking’ God is close to the essence of Christian prayer. Not ‘listening to God’. Or silently communing in some inarticulate ecstasy. Or wrestling with myself as much as — if not more than — with God.

Sure, God might speak to me as I’m praying. Audibly or inaudibly.

However, I remain more or less committed to the idea that God does in fact speak to us chiefly in the way he’s promised to: through his Spirit-inspired word in the Bible, where our risen Lord Jesus meets us “clothed in his promises” (as Calvin puts it). And expecting him to relate to us in ways that he hasn’t told us to expect — well … that’s kind of arrogant, isn’t it?

Equally, I may be transported in the midst of prayer to a state of ecstatic and awestruck joy. This happened to me earlier this year in response to a sermon I heard that powerfully brought home the goodness and reality of God’s loving fatherhood for his adopted children.

But it would be unrealistic — and I think unbiblical — to expect this to characterise our every experience of prayer. I would even say it’s proud to think we’re entitled to this!

And I may have to wrestle with myself in prayer to bring my will into line with God’s. Or to embed my prayer and supplication in thanksgiving (as Paul teaches) so I don’t turn inward in my anxiety but outward to my. Or even just to stop my attention wandering.

If Jesus’ example in the Garden of Gethsemane is anything to go by, we can probably expect this sort of struggle to colour our prayer lives fairly consistently.

But I’m not sure if that makes it essential to prayer. Certainly, if all we manage to do in a time of prayer is wrestle with our own will, out inclinations to thanklessness and self-involved worry, or our straying attention, then the job is less than half done!

We’re ready to pray maybe. But we haven’t yet prayed. Have we?

And in fact we may now be tempted to proudly brandish our hard won posture of readiness as some sort of talisman that secures God’s favour towards us. Rather than actually asking him to show us favour. In full knowledge of our rebellious, doubting, straying unworthiness. Resting nonetheless in the father-child relationship Jesus has wrestled decisively to secure for us.

What if the just asking prayer is the best we have?

Not as an arrogantly brief shopping list. But as our participation in the prayer of God the Son to his Father and ours. As his Spirit testifies with our spirits that we belong to him. And as we join our voices to Christ’s Gethsemane prayer — that cry of unprecedented access, “Abba, Father”…