Christian formation

don’t know much about the Middle Ages

Photo: Devan Foster, 'pieds' 4 of 20

Photo: Devan Foster, ‘pieds’ 4 of 20

I definitely don’t know much about the Middle Ages. But I’ve spent the past couple of weeks reading up about monasticism—especially because the contemporary discipleship conversation often harks back (implicitly or explicitly) to monastic spirituality.

I’m acutely aware that a few weeks of reading far from qualifies me as a world expert or anything remotely like an ‘insider’ — notwithstanding the near-monastic rigour of waking at 4.30am all week with my congested three year-old son.

But I’ve found some interesting tensions in the way Ernst Troeltsch handles the phenomenon of monasticism in his landmark study, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches.

If you don’t know anything about Troeltsch, fear not — neither did I. Until I Googled him.

Apparently, he was a very influential late nineteenth century/early twentieth century philosopher, historian and theologian. Barth regarded Troeltsch as the ultimate nineteenth-century liberal theologian, possibly a little like Jesus regarded John the Baptist as the ultimate Old Testament prophet — for each brought their respective tradition to its (dead) end.

But some of his ideas exercise ongoing influence. Like the important distinction he makes between church and sect — which is the assumed framework for Miroslav Volf’s famous article, ‘Soft Difference’.

And monasticism plays a particularly fascinating role here.

On the one hand, Troeltsch sees monasticism as incorporated — if not fully integrated — within the richer whole of the medieval Corpus Christianum. Indeed, he discerns what Michael Banner calls an ‘otherworldly worldliness’ in its ascetic withdrawal from the world that enables monastic spirituality to contribute positively to the unity and stability of the medieval synthesis (pages 243-5).

According to Troeltsch, monasticism founds a home on the church side of the church/sect divide during the Middle Ages.

On the other hand, when he comes to systematise his distinction between church and sect, monasticism appears on the other side of the divide — as an agent of disruption and radicalisation rather than of social cohesion.

Although Troeltsch’s description of sectarian radicalism reads like a blow by blow account of sixteenth century Anabaptism, he admits that in the Early Church it was embodied “above all in monasticism” (page 329).

But he quickly moves to contain this admission.

He labours to maintain that (as he had previously argued) the sectarian energies of monasticism had been pressed into service of the church by the Middle Ages. Except that now, far from a mutualism benefiting both church and monastery, Troeltsch says monasticism was merely “tolerated” (page 330).

All of which yields a much more negative assessment of monasticism, which overturns his best insights into the ‘worldliness’ characteristic of monastic spirituality (pages 332-3):

“The ascetic ideal of the sects is fundamentally different from that of monasticism, in so far as the latter implies emphasis on the mortification of the senses, and upon works of supererogation in poverty and obedience for their own sake. In all things the ideal of the sect is essentially not one which aims at the destruction of the sense life and of natural self-feeling, but a union in love which is not affected by the social inequalities and struggles of the world.”

The ambivalent and liminal status of monasticism as Troeltsch handles it here, crops up repeatedly whenever the contemporary discipleship conversation looks back to or attempts to retrieve the ‘otherworldly worldiness’ of monastic spirituality.

Advertisements

the contemporary discipleship conversation

Photo: Devan Foster, 'pieds' 3 of 20

Photo: Devan Foster, ‘pieds’ 3 of 20

I find it hard to avoid the contemporary discipleship conversion.

And I don’t think it’s just because I’m doing a PhD on discipleship. As soon as I edge towards any discussion on Christian living, mission or evangelism, I’m either taking part in it or eavesdropping on it.

It’s certainly bubbling away in the missional church movement.

Take Mike Breen’s famous article, ‘Why the missional movement will fail’, for example. (At the time I wrote this, the article had been shared 9500 times on Facebook. So it’s pretty influential.)

Breen begins by contending that discipleship is the engine of the church — and mission: “If you make disciples you will always get the church. But if you try to build the church, you will rarely get disciples.”


As a sidebar: I am 100% on board with the sentiment here. But I’m more hesitant about the precise formulation.

I totally get that ‘building the church’ particularly through pragmatic church growth techniques doesn’t always/often yield mature, proactive Christians. But I wonder if it would be different if we followed the biblical game plan for building the church — speaking the truth in love, using our gifts in love to serve and build each other up, stoking the fires of faith in Christ and joy in him, etc.

And I’d also question whether making disciples does in fact always yield the church. I’ve seen too many ‘sold out disciples’ who struggle with and ultimately give up on belonging to an actual flesh-and-blood church because it’s not radical/missional/whatever enough…


But according to Breen, the priority of discipleship is both true and pragmatic.

On the one hand, it’s true as a matter of simple, biblical definition. In the New Testament, disciples do mission. But mission is only “one of many things Jesus taught his disciples to do well”.

(Of course, we will need to contend at some point with whether ‘disciple’ should be our go to way of characterising those who belong to Jesus. And even if it is, we’ll need to be aware of where it has limits and needs supplementing with the other possible contenders for this crown: ‘Christian’, ‘child of God’, ‘believer’, etc)

On the other hand, as Breen shares from his own experience of the messy, challenging, protracted, spiritual war zone of mission and missional community, it doesn’t work without discipleship: “Without a plan for making disciples (and a plan that works), any missional thing you launch will be completely unsustainable”.

So when he concludes with this stirring cry, I can’t help but nod in agreement:

The missional movement will fail because, by-and-large, we are having a discussion about mission devoid of discipleship. Unless we start having more discussion about discipleship and how we make missionaries out of disciples, this movement will stall and fade. Any discussion about mission must begin with discipleship.

Maybe the discipleship conversation I can’t avoid is something I shouldn’t try to!

does Christianity = discipleship?

Photo: 'pieds' 1 of 20, Devan Foster

Photo: ‘pieds’ 1 of 20, Devan Foster

My research on the theological significance of discipleship in the Reformed tradition has begun!

One of the big questions I’m faced with right off the bat is how to understand ‘discipleship’.

Is it coextensive with being Christian? Is it real Christianity — the genuine article (as opposed to, say, nominalism or ‘carnal’ Christianity)? Or something else?

Some are outspoken about this. Famously, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said (The Cost of Discipleship):

Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living Son. And a Christianity of that kind is nothing more nor less than the end of discipleship. In such a religion there is trust in God, but no following of Christ. Because the Son of God became Man, because he is the Mediator, for that reason alone the only true relation we can have with him is to follow him.

In saying this, Bonhoeffer is making common cause with what has been described as the ‘Anabaptist vision’. That is, the vision of faith and life expressed by the equation: Christianity = discipleship.

And there is something clearly right about this. Again and again, Jesus summoned people to discipleship — to follow him rather than merely associating themselves with him from a distance, to embrace him on his terms rather than their own (after burying their dead or saying good-bye to their families, for example), to publicly ‘own’ him rather than secretly nursing some private conviction or experience.

More, there is something deeply appealing. I love Bonhoeffer’s Christocentrism. For him (as for Barth), Jesus has to define and shape our allegiance to him — not some system, principle or idea … even an idea about Jesus.

But things are just a little more complicated… (Obviously, right? Or I’d hardly think I could get a PhD out of it!)

For one thing, Jesus seems to not just call people to follow him — as many had done before and many would do after him — but also to rework, expand and give new content to what such following means.

I’m also not 100% sure that the simple equation of Christianity with discipleship can be made without some important remainder.

In the end, what I’m seeking is a more thoroughly Jesus-shaped vision of the Christian life.

And I’m happy to look almost anywhere for it. Whether to the Anabaptists and their heirs or the Magisterial Reformers (like Calvin) and their heirs — even if it means displacing discipleship as the central organising image for being Christian.

how to give grace to whoever you’re talking with

AFES Chappo Interview

How do you give grace to whoever you’re talking with?

This is the question that’s been circling inside since I preached on Ephesians 4.17-5.2 a couple of weeks back.

It’s a challenging passage. It draws a sharp line between our old identity — our old humanity, mangled as it is by our futile and corrupting desires — and the new identity we’re given in Christ — a humanity made new in the image of our Creator.

But one thing that really leapt out at me as I sat with this passage is the sheer emphasis on how we speak.

It’s there at every turn.

But it’s verse 29 that’s really got a grip on me:

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.

So that your words may give grace to those who hear.

Wow!

That is an amazing possibility. Isn’t it?

That the things that come out of our mouths could not only enrich, build up, comfort, encourage, advise — and all those other good human things.

But that we could somehow give grace to whoever you’re talking with.

Astonishing, right? It’s almost hard to picture how that could be.

Except that I’ve seen it.

At the 1 hour and 13 minute mark in this video, Australian evangelist John Chapman was asked if there was a period of his life he looked back on as the happiest.

I was in the room when this question was asked. And I remember the tremendous sense of gratitude that flooded me as it was asked: ‘That was such a kind thing to ask…’

I doubt there was a dry eye in the room by the time Chappo had finished answering.

That question gave grace to John Chapman — and to all of us who listened. Tangibly so.

It did this through it’s beautiful combination of specificity and other-centredness.

Specificity because it forced us to pay attention to particulars rather than just skate across the surface of generality.

Other-centredness because it wasn’t chiefly designed to wrest some wisdom for us from Chappo’s memories — although it did that in spades.

(In fact, this combination seems to be the key to all good questions.)

So it’s with that memory burning in my heart that I’m committing myself to learning to ask the kind of questions that give grace to those who hear.

pray your way to the good life

Where then does wisdom come from,
and where is understanding located?
It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing
and concealed from the birds of the sky.
Abaddon and Death say,
“We have heard news of it with our ears.”
But God understands the way to wisdom,
and He knows its location.
For He looks to the ends of the earth
and sees everything under the heavens.
— Job 28.20-24 (HCSB)

I find limestone caves absolutely captivating.

I love the way they display the power of gradual and cumulative forces to carve out something beautiful. Dissolving and depositing. Accidentally extruding baroque cathedrals. And secreting them away in the dark. For millennia.

What’s more, they stand as eloquent testimony to the formative power of the slow drip.

For their subterranean minarets and elaborate hanging monuments to erosion didn’t just appear overnight.

Mostly, they’re the product of thousands of years of constant repetition. Slowly eating away at and reconfiguring the rock. Day after day.

Occasionally staining it with a shock of ocre from some rich metallic seam above. Sometimes bleaching away the colours locked within by even older processes.

And the picture the Bible paints of human beings is no different.

I’ve come to be persuaded that the slow drip of habit and repetition is at least as significant for us as is the explosive power of a ‘decisive moment’.

This is one of the reasons why I so much appreciate my friend Andrew’s take on the Lord’s Prayer.

One of the best lessons (and gifts) of the Lord’s prayer is that prayer is not learnt by grasping abstract principles that you take away and apply.

Rather, it’s learnt by practice. By being tried on and ‘worn in’ like a pair of shoes you hope to walk in for years.

Yes — in one sense, it is a template for prayer. But the careful preservation of almost identical wording in both Matthew and Luke suggests that Jesus’ disciples saw it as a prayer to be learnt (not just learnt from).

And Matthew’s careful placement of this prayer to be learnt at the apex of the Sermon on the Mount — Jesus’ most famous announcement of his radical vision of the good life — hints at the fact that you pray your way to the good life.

You pray your way to the good life because we’re so much like limestone caves. We’re profoundly formed and shaped by the almost imperceptible forces of habit.

As our settled inclination to prioritise our reputation, kingdom and glory is dissolved and gradually realigned with God’s priorities.

Or as our seemingly rock-solid devotion to our own independence, superiority and invulnerability is worn away and slowly (painfully slowly!) replaced by an instinctual desire to walk God’s way.

By our looking to him to meet our material and spiritual needs.

By our extending the same forgiveness we enjoy.

And by our seeking his deliverance and protection from the evil within and without…

theological instincts

weights

I’ve been thinking a bit about our instincts — and what place (if any) they have in Christian living and thinking.

How are our theological instincts formed (and re-formed)?

I guess that almost by definition instincts are hard to bring into the cold, rational light of conscious thought.

This isn’t necessarily a drawback. I’m post-modern enough to be suspicious of pretty much every aspect of cold, rational conscious thought.

But it is something to factor in when it comes to trying to get a grip on our theological instincts — and potentially work at developing and honing them.

Something I find helpful is picturing instincts as more like muscle groups that you isolate, exercise and work on than like ideas you research (read: ‘Google’), weigh up the arguments for and against, then assimilate more or less directly.

That said, I think I have begun to become aware of some of my own theological instincts.

To begin with, I have long noticed how I start to squirm internally when some other Christian I’m listening to starts talking about how they’d answer a question about their faith — perhaps cataloging the evidence for Intelligent Design but not once mentioning or even getting close to talking about Jesus.

In contrast, I instinctively find myself wanting to start with and talk a lot about Jesus.

It just feels more ‘natural’ for me to adopt an approach that says, ‘Hey – I know this whole Christianity thing seems foreign and strange. But most worthwhile things take time understanding and becoming familiar with. Why not come in, take a look around, try out the furniture in here? You know, give Jesus a chance…’

Likewise, I’ve recently been struck by the way my theological instincts were on display in this article I wrote about guidance for the Bible Society.

The article began life as a pretty raw blog post, where I tried to put something I’d noticed about my own prayer life into words.

But when I was invited to expand it, I realised I needed to say more about the vision of Christian ‘adulthood’ I was fumbling towards — inexpertly in my original post, and (hopefully) slightly less inexpertly in my article.

And this is where my theological instincts kicked in. Because almost before I knew it, I’d reached for Galatians 5 and Ephesians 4.

The first is a passage about the work of the Spirit in creating Christian character. And the second is a passage about the work of the risen Christ (by his Spirit) in creating Christian community.

Pneumatology and ecclesiology. The Spirit and the Church. These weren’t so much carefully considered topics — calculated for maximum punch and polemical usefulness — as they were just the things I instinctively reached for when asked to flesh out my vision of Christian growth and maturity.

So I’ve isolated Jesus (and the Trinity and union with Christ), the Spirit and the Church as a few of things I instinctively turn to when I’m asked to approach something as a Christian.

The challenge is now to figure out how to exercise and work on them. (Or maybe to compensate for any lop-sidedness by working on some other theological ‘muscle groups’.)

why I’m giving up on meeting one to one

Your standard one to one meeting

Meeting with people one to one — to chat about life, pray and read the Bible with the aim of growing as disciples of Jesus — is one of the more stable features the kind of university (aka ‘college’) student ministry I serve in.

But it’s become increasingly clear to me that I need to give it up.

Huh? Give up meeting one to one? What am I smoking?

Let me explain how I reached this conclusion.

To start with, there have been some pragmatic factors pushing me in this direction.

In particular, I’ve only been on campus two days/week for the second half of this year. But I’d already begun meeting with a bunch of students — some currently in leadership, some potential leaders, and some in particular need of pastoral care.

I didn’t want to stop meeting with any more of these people than I had to. But my time and resources were limited.

So I decided to try combining my one to ones into triplets.

After only one semester of trying it, the results are far from conclusive. But tentatively I can report that…

  1. I was able to keep regularly meeting up with almost all of the students I had been meeting with in first semester.
  2. I was forced to act on my conviction that ministry is as much caught as taught (instead of simply telling the student leaders to disciple someone else, I was able to work with them to do it).
  3. I am starting to re-examine the rationale for my pre-existing preference to do discipleship one to one.

I’ve barely even begun thinking through the third point. But I’ve been stimulated by a chapter from Transforming Discipleship by Greg Ogden, which someone recently pushed my way.

Ogden argues very strongly against our tendency to model discipling on the Paul-Timothy relationship. To his mind, this brings with it an unhelpfully asymmetrical expert-learner dynamic — something like which is perhaps encoded in the language of ‘investing in someone’ that I typically reach for to describe these meetings.

I’m not sure I’m entirely with him.

Theologically, I am drawn to the idea that we serve one another out of our shared weakness and interdependence (rather than me serving you out of my strength and independence).

The most deeply Christian way to serve is to help each other love and trust Jesus more. And anything that helps us actually live this has got to be a good thing.

But the New Testament does seem to grant the possibility that individuals will make an asymmetrical contribution to others — even if it also always recognises a degree of reciprocity. (I’m thinking here of passages like Romans 1.8-15.)

Equally, I don’t buy that switching to triplets will automatically address the more toxic aspects of this dynamic. A tendency to see yourself as God’s gift to another person (in a bad way) won’t necessarily be mitigated by adding an in extra person.

I am, however, inclined to agree that our theological rationale for privileging one to one as the context for discipleship is inadequate.

Or maybe I’ve just inadequately understood and digested it?

instruments in the Redeemer’s hands

A friend recently handed me a copy of Paul Tripp’s book, Instruments In The Redeemer’s Hands. And it’s got me really excited.

I know it’s not exactly a new book. So it’s a good thing this isn’t exactly a book review!

I simply want to share what’s got me excited about it so far. And that is that it’s a practical theology of every-member ministry that’s word-focused and body-contextualised — a la Ephesians 4.

I’m going to try to break this down for you. But before I do, let me give you a little taste of it’s awesomeness:

We are too easily captivated by our self-centred little worlds. But Ephesians 4 propels us beyond a life consumed by personal happiness and achievement. Your life is much bigger than a good job, an understanding spouse, and non-delinquent kids. It is bigger than beautiful gardens, nice vacations, and fashionable clothes. In reality, you are part of something immense, something that began before you were born and will continue after you die. God is rescuing fallen humanity, transporting them into his kingdom, and progressively shaping them into his likeness — and he wants you to be part of it.

Why am I so excited by this?

1. It’s practical theology.

As you can hopefully see even from this brief excerpt, it’s neither a dense theological textbook nor a lightweight toolbox of pastoral counselling resources with the thinnest of theological groundings.

2. It’s all about every-member ministry.

Picking up on the clear emphasis of Ephesians 4 (not to mention the repeated refrain of the various church and ‘one another’ passages in the New Testament), each one of us is addressed by the ‘demanding comfort’ of this announcement that we’re part of something bigger — and called to live out this larger vision of being human.

3. It’s unashamedly word-focused.

Lots of every-member ministry stuff moves very quickly to the diversity of gifts. But that’s not what Ephesians does. And neither does Tripp. Instead, he majors on speaking the truth in love to one another as every-member ministry. Which is awesome.

4. It’s body-contextualised.

Balancing the previous point, it refused to rip its focus on word-ministry out of the context of necessary interdependence, mutual responsibility, and diversity that the body metaphor provides. This is how Tripp resists the tendency to slide towards a ‘one size fits all’ approach to bringing the word to bear on one another’s lives.

So stay tuned…

There’s much more to come!

information vs inclination

20130910-153227.jpg
I’ve been chewing on Luke 16.19-31 — you know, the passage where Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus. And it’s really stimulating me as I think about the dynamics of spiritual growth.

I’m particularly stirred up by the response Jesus tells us Abraham makes to the rich man when asked if he can dispatch Lazarus to warn his family:

‘Father,’ he said, ‘then I beg you to send him to my father’s house — because I have five brothers — to warn them, so they won’t also come to this place of torment.’

But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’

‘No, father Abraham,’ he said. ‘But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

But he told him, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’ (Luke 16:27-31 HCSB)

Talk about a shut down!

It’s possible to understand Abraham’s dramatic final shut down in terms of information.

Understood this way, Abraham’s response would travel along the lines of: “Unless they understand the Old Testament background and promise that would give significance to a person rising from death, they won’t be convinced to repent”.

However, I’m thinking that what Abraham’s saying is not so much about information as inclination.

That is to say, understanding ‘Moses and the prophets’ — ie. the Old Testament context — is barely even half the job. Far more important is believing what they say.

For the rich man, it’s not so much an issue of ignorance or misunderstanding as of hardness of heart. (Of course, ignorance and misunderstanding may be wrapped up with this hard-heartedness. But it’s ultimately a matter of trust.)

This lines up with the verdict the writer of Hebrew’s passes on the generation of Israelites who were rescued from Egypt but never entered the promised land — “they were unable to enter because of unbelief” (Hebrews 3.19).

And this is so often still the case when we sin or fail to grow and mature.

It’s our unbelief that lurks behind it — even our unwillingness to believe.

It’s rooted in the fact that we don’t trust Jesus to provide those things we’re accustomed to getting some other way: our sense of completeness, worth, security, or acceptance.

We’re afraid that he won’t deliver. Or that he can’t. At least, not on schedule.

Because, ultimately, we’re not inclined to trust him. Which is why even a spectacular demonstration of his reliability — or his provision and attention to our needs — can fail to win our allegiance.

If we don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, we will not be persuaded — even if someone rises from the dead!

they always told me that practice makes perfect

I’m continuing to wrestle with the dynamics of spiritual growth. Namely, how do we get on board with the Spirit’s work in ‘perfecting’ (or maturing) God’s people in Christ?

So I really enjoyed this article by Michael R. Emlet
from the Journal Of Biblical Counseling that Matt flicked me.

Emlet is a Christian counsellor who has been stimulated by engaging with James K. A. Smith’s book Desiring The Kingdom.

I love where he lands in this article. I think it’s roughly where I’m up to with Smith’s stuff (just substitute ‘preachers’ or ‘ministers’ for ‘counselors’ in the following paragraph):

So, how do we grow in Christ? How does change happen? Do our desires shape our practices or do our practices shape our desires? Does what we love drive our actions or do our actions drive what we love? Do we grow by examining the direction of our desires and why they lead to certain practices, or by engaging in certain practices that aim the direction of our desires toward God? The answer is, yes and yes! We biblical counselors are more accustomed to travel in one direction on these questions -— i.e., certain thoughts and desires drive certain actions—but James Smith reminds us that spiritual transformation is a two-way street.

They always told me that practice makes perfect. And maybe they were right!