Month: April 2013

Lord – teach us to pray … again!

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Picture this:

You’re walking along — in transit between Point A and Point B (your home and your tram stop, your office and wherever you parked your car).

You’ve set aside the time to pray. Perhaps to start your morning with something important. Or review your day.

So you begin: “Loving God…”

You pray briefly for a couple of big picture things. This morning’s headlines. Uncle Ernest’s big operation. Stuff like that.

Then you turn your attention to the day, intending to offer up whatever crosses your mind.

There’s that looming deadline.

And some simmering conflict with a work colleague.

Yep — definitely pray about that.

And you need to call your parents. Better pray for that conversation! Oh yeah — and for them too…

And there’s the dry cleaning to pick up…

Whoa. Back on track.

“Maybe I should pull out my phone and check my appointments. Then I can commit my day to God — hour by hour.”

And before you know it prayer gets buried under the jumble of day planning — adding items to your To Do list, checking email, and scanning your Facebook news feed…

Sound familiar?

It happens to me all the time. All. The. Time.

Mind you, it’s not a new problem. Theologian John Calvin wrote about it back in the Seventeenth Century (minus the email and Facebook bit).

Here’s what Calvin says about the tendency of undisciplined prayer to collapse under the weight of random thoughts and recollections in his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion (III.xx.5):

No one is so intent on praying that he does not feel many irrelevant thought stealing upon him, which either break the course of prayer or delay it by some winding bypath.

What can be done about this?

This is where the Lord’s Prayer comes in.

Explicitly so in Luke’s Gospel. When Jesus’ disciples approach him and ask, “Lord, teach us to pray”, Jesus responds by outlining the What, How, and Why of prayer. And it all starts with the Lord’s Prayer.

For Jesus in Luke, this prayer is a solid and spacious trellis upon which his disciples can grow a healthy and fruitful prayer life.

Which certainly sounds to me like a pretty good place to start — or start again!

the weirdness of Christian experience

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I was smacked between the eyeballs by the weirdness of Christian experience the other day. It happened while reading these verses from 1 Peter with some students:

“You love [Jesus], though you have not seen Him. And though not seeing Him now, you believe in Him and rejoice with inexpressible and glorious joy, because you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1.8-9)

It’s easy to become immunised against the sheer oddness of claiming to love and centre your life upon a person you’ve never seen or met in the flesh.

Or to catch yourself trying to suppress this troubling intrusive mid-prayer thought: “OK. So I’m praying — which I believe is communicating with the personal Creator and Ruler of the universe… But it feels like I’m talking to the wall. In my head.”

But Peter won’t suppress it. He won’t let us develop an immunity to the weirdness of Christian experience.

Instead, he wants to make sure we’re scratching the rash rather than ignoring it. Because the rash reminds us that something isn’t right.

And what isn’t right, Peter tells his readers, is that Christians are displaced people.

We’re spiritual refugees. Doing our best to live in a foreign land. To adapt to a new context without losing touch with our real home.

We’re pilgrims. Like the people of Israel on their long desert journey towards the land God promised they would inherit. Trudging onward. Shielded by God’s presence with us — not as a pillar of smoke by day and fire by night, but more directly (if less tangibly) by his Spirit.

Ultimately, Peter tells us, Christians aren’t weird because we’ve chosen to be out of step with our culture and its values. As though our morality was like an outfit we might pick to express ourselves — or to fit in (or stand out).

And we’re not weird because our culture has chosen to reject or oppose us. (Rejection and opposition is a symptom of our weirdness not its cause — let the culture warriors understand!)

No. We’re burdened with weirdness because God has chosen us. He’s caught us up in the eternal dance of his triune life as Father, Son, and Spirit. As Peter puts it, “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” we’ve been “set apart by the Spirit for obedience and sprinkling with the blood of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1.2).

And that’s pretty darn weird…

don’t be a stranger

Last week, Natalie brought home a book of academic geography (her background discipline) — Land of Strangers by Ash Amin.

I’ve only had the chance to glance at it so far. But it looks absolutely fascinating!

As far as I can work out, Amin’s case is that modern Western societies are deeply divided over the stranger.

On the one hand, we feel threatened by strangers.

Strangers evoke emotions from low-level anxiety all the way through to outright terror. In the globalised West, every stranger could be a serial killer or an identity thief — even a terrorist.

On the other hand, we desperately long to stay strangers.

We relish our anonymity. And are fiercely protective of our privacy. Note the public outcry every time Facebook changes its privacy settings — or is rumoured to be changing its settings.

(I still remember how offended I was when I went into the bank to perform some routine transaction only to have the teller wish me Happy Birthday. That is not the kind of relationship I want to have with my bank!)

And when we take steps to reclaim that sense of community we’re so nostalgic for (even if we’ve never actually experienced it), we simultaneously insulate ourselves from it.

So we leave the anonymity of the inner city for the imagined intimacy of a suburban neighbourhood. But then we ‘cocoon’ ourselves — gliding from our air-conditioned houses to our air-conditioned cars to our air- conditioned offices and back again without pausing to be neighbours to anyone.

But I’m not excited to read Land of Strangers primarily because of the light it promises to shed on many aspects of our society.

I’m excited to read it because I’m keen to know why I find it so hard to embrace what the Bible says about strangers.

Whether it’s the biblical insistence that God’s people are to welcome and care for the strangers in their midst — because we too have been/are strangers in a foreign land.

Or if it’s the summons to be true neighbours — not walking past someone in need as the priest and Levite did on the Jericho road but crossing boundaries of social acceptability at great personal cost (just as our Lord graciously did)…

sex and secularity

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I’ve been thinking about sex a lot lately.

Not in that way. More in the way Alain De Botton argues we should in his recent book, How To Think More About Sex.

In particular, I’ve been dwelling on sex (as well as love, desire, and gender) because I’m giving a series of talks at La Trobe aimed at sparking conversation and thinking about this crucial topic.

And sex really is a crucial topic. As the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre suggests, it’s an “extra-social social act” — a kind of thumbnail sketch reflecting the issues and tensions bubbling away in society more generally.

From my perspective, this is certainly true of the whole ‘marriage equality’ thing going on in Australia right now.

While songs like Macklemore’s ‘Same Love’ pack an undeniable emotional punch, questions can be raised about the equation of the push for the recognition of same-sex marriage and the American civil rights movement.

More deeply, I’ve begun to detect some tensions between the call to legally recognise same-sex marriage as a basic civil — or even human — right and at least some versions of secularism.

Take the account Rowan Williams gives of what he calls ‘programmatic secularism’ in Faith In The Public Square (page 26):

This assumes … that any religious or ideological system demanding a hearing in the public sphere is aiming to seize control of the political realm and to override and nullify opposing convictions. It finds specific views of the human good outside a minimal account of material security and relative social stability unsettling, and concludes that they need to be relegated to the purely private sphere. It assumes that the public expression of specific conviction is automatically offensive to people of other (or no) conviction. Thus public support or subsidy directed towards any particular group is a collusion with elements that subvert the harmony of society overall.

If this is a fair reading of at least one strand within contemporary secularist discourse, then surely the push for marriage equality cuts across it — especially when couched in terms of a ‘right’ to access the institution of marriage.

For surely such a ‘right’ runs deeper than the “minimal account of material security and relative social stability” proper to such secularism.

Or have I misheard the case for marriage equality?

#projectsbrewing

A friend of mine recently retweeted this (yes – I’ve joined Twitter!):

“There’s a life outside the internet. Hang on, I’ll send you the link.”

This life outside the internet has pretty much totally derailed any attempt to post here lately.

But there’s plenty of stuff brewing. Here are just a few of my current projects:

  1. Trying to figure out some spiritual translations of the best ‘hacks’ from the world of time management, productivity, and getting things done.
  2. Working out how the gospel should shape evangelism — not only in terms of what we say but how we say it (drawing on Bonhoeffer and Family Systems Theory).
  3. Preparing to venture some risky thoughts about biblical ethics, marriage, and sexuality.
  4. And attempting to put into words some misgivings I’ve begun to develop about the traditional evangelical emphasis on ‘conversion’.

Hopefully some of these will make it out of draft in the not-too-distant future. I’m looking forward to resuming the conversation!