Identity

the next chapter of the discipleship story

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Last year I attended a seminar at the annual national conference for the Christian student movement I’m part of. It’s topic was discipleship — what it looks like to follow and imitate Jesus.

A key moment in the seminar came early on, where our speaker framed the question of discipleship like this:

“We can’t walk on water. We can’t cure lepers. So what does it mean to say we want to be like Jesus?”

When he said this, we all chortled along. I did too. (I even tweeted it.) Haw. Haw. Yes. Of course!

And he had a point. When Jesus talks about what it means to follow him, he always emphasises being conformed to him in his self-emptying for the sake of others.

Christian discipleship is about following the path he walked. Service. Self-denial. Suffering.

But I’ve realised that there’s another chapter in the story of discipleship. In many ways it’s the chapter of discipleship’s future — the glory following the suffering, the resurrection following the crucifixion.

The New Testament gives us a preview of this when one disciple does in fact walk on water.

In Matthew 14, the disciples see Jesus walking on the water. Most of them freak out — not sure what they’re seeing. But Peter has faith, and asks if he can go out to be where Jesus is. And Jesus agrees.

It’s a dramatic moment. And if it’s meant to be a picture of the Christian life, then surely it’s primarily about where that life is heading — towards the glory of sharing in Christ’s perfect rule over creation.

And yet there’s also much about Peter’s faltering combination of courage and doubt (overwhelmed and distracted by his circumstances) that speaks to us of the Christian now.

Indeed, the themes that swell in this story — trust, loyalty and the need to develop a Christ-centred gaze — simply are the main themes of the Christian life. They’re as true and urgent now in our conformity with Christ’s sufferings as they will be when we join him in his unveiled glory.

For the invitation contained in Christ’s call to follow him is the invitation to take up our fullest and truest humanity. Humanity in fellowship with God. Renewed in his image. And renovated by his Spirit.

And to do so not simply after we’ve emptied ourselves but also in emptying ourselves.

That is the next chapter of the discipleship story. The chapter in which discipleship is the glorious road to our best humanity. Trusting and looking to Jesus above all. And becoming like him — even when that means falteringly setting out across the waters…

your formative years?

I’ve been reading James K A Smith’s book, Desiring The Kingdom. And I’m absolutely loving it!

Although, I have to say that it leaves me in equal parts thrilled and freaked out.

Why?

Check out this provocative description of what makes many people’s time at university so formative (pages 115-116):

[T]he university’s formative, liturgical power extends well beyond the classroom and the lecture hall; indeed, it might be that the dorms, stadium, and frat houses are even more powerful liturgical sites within the university — shaping students into certain kinds of people, who develop certain loves, bent on certain ends.
[…]
Consider, for instance, the consummate ritual of initiation: Freshers’ Week (or “Frosh” Week, as it’s known in Canada). This is an intensive experience of initial formation that functions as a veritable boot camp — a week of immersion in the life of the university that often has quite little to do with the task of learning or research. It is intensely communal and intergenerational, where older students initiate new students into the books and crannies of the university’s life and not so subtly communicate what is valued, which often amounts to carefree social interaction lubricated by alcohol, cult-like devotion to the football team, and the solidification of social networks that will be instrumental and instrumentalized for the sake of personal benefit and gain.

(Obviously, this reflects the North American campus experience. I’d love to hear ideas about how to make the necessary mental adjustments for our Australian context!)

As an example of Smith’s larger argument, I hope this gives you a sense of what’s so thrilling and frightening here.

I’m excited by his affirmation of the importance of our bodiliness — and with it our ‘thick’ significance-laden, identity-forming habits and practices (think spending hours in front of the mirror perfecting your tousled look rather than your regular tooth-brushing).

And I’m freaked out by the picture he paints of the pervasiveness and power of the (liturgical) identity-sculpting forces coursing and heaving away beneath the surface of university life.

How can we resist — or equip university students (or potential students) to resist — something that seems as inexorable and irreversible as erosion?

This is the challenge that’s got its hooks into me at the moment. So expect to hear more about it!

restoring hope

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It’s Refugee Week in Australia. The overall aim of which, according to the Refugee Council Of Australia website, is to “raise awareness about the issues affecting refugees and celebrate the positive contributions made by refugees to Australian society”.

Timely, given recent events off the coast.

The theme of Refugee Week for 2012-14 is ‘restoring hope’. And I’ve been wondering whether there’s any distinctively Christian contribution to be made along any of the three axes specified by the Refugee Council:

  1. A recognition that refugees’ journeys begin not simply with danger, fear and trauma but also with hope.
  2. An invitation to communities offering hospitality to refugees to view their work in a positive sense — they’re restoring hope to people.
  3. And a challenge to face up to the hope-threatening ‘permanently temporary’ situation many refugees are forced to inhabit.

My mind’s been travelling more and more along the third axis — particularly as I’ve mulled over 1 Peter in the lead up to preaching on it.

I’m totally convinced that 1 Peter is the most important New Testament letter for Western Christians to come to grips with — especially as the tide of Christendom continues to retreat.

What I especially appreciate about 1 Peter is its refusal to allow Christians to lose sight of the theological (as opposed to sociological) reality of our status as ‘displaced persons’ — profoundly out of joint with our context, no matter what society we find ourselves in.

So if we take 1 Peter seriously then Christians should have some intrinsic sympathy for the vulnerability, marginalisation, insecurity and embattled experience of actual refugees.

We should expect to be familiar with not belonging. And we should know what it’s like to be looked at askance or subjected to hostile questioning — even legal sanctions.

More than this, 1 Peter teaches Christians that we should have something to share and contribute on the basis of the ‘living hope’ the resurrection of Jesus ushers us into.

The gift of lasting stability — not only a secure inheritance beyond the reach of rust and corrosion, but also a rock-solid confidence that God himself travels with and protects us on the journey.

The ultimate belonging — to an eternal family bound to one another in genuine from-the-heart love.

The astonish privilege and purpose — graciously qualified to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through the Messiah, Jesus, as we declare the glories of our Rescuer.

All of these 1 Peter holds before us — a dazzling kaleidoscope of hope. With massive restorative potential!

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…

rethinking idolatry

I feel like I’m only just catching on, but idolatry’s kind of a big deal right now. It’s the new black when it comes to thinking about evangelism and Christian cultural engagement.

Everyone wants to identify and expose the idols of our hearts and culture.

And there’s a lot going for this approach. Not only is idolatry a major theme in the Bible but as Tim Keller points out, it can have real traction in raising the topic of sin with postmodern people:

Instead of telling [people] they are sinning because they are sleeping with their girlfriends or boyfriends, I tell them that they are sinning because they are looking to their careers and romances to save them, to give them everything that they should be looking for in God. This idolatry leads to drivenness, addictions, severe anxiety, obsessiveness, envy of others, and resentment.

That’ll certainly preach!

But I’m starting to wonder about what it means to identify contemporary Western idols. And what our method is for doing that. (I’d like to claim this as why I never finished my series of reflections on consumerism — but the real reason is that I got caught in the holiday whirlpool of consuming!)

What’s prompted my rethink is the repeated pairing of ‘eating meat sacrificed to idols’ and ‘sexual immorality’ in Revelation 2-3.

We were chewing over this in my church Bible study group last week. And I think we came to the conclusion that applying this to us might be a little more straightforward than Keller (and the Biblical Counselling Movement among others) may have us believe.

We began by questioning the typical method of ‘translation’ from one culture to another.

I’m sure you know how it goes. First we identify the deep spiritual/emotional needs first century pagans were (supposedly) looking to meet through their idol worship — e.g., a sense of security, acceptance, control, or power.

Such idol worship is idolatrous, we suggest, in so far as it involves treating good things as ‘God things’ — relying on them for the satisfaction or salvation that God alone is meant to provide.

Then we pick out our own culture’s array of illegitimate means of meeting these same deep needs. And voila — our contemporary idols!

The problem is that when it comes to something like consumerism or materialism in our own culture, it’s not immediately clear that these things really are ‘idolatrous’ in the sense described above (although the biblical equation of greed with idolatry may indicate that they’re idolatrous in some other sense).

As one member of our Bible study group pointed out, I could find myself at a shopping mall not because I’m deeply involved in some religious devotion to finding satisfaction and ‘life’ in the stuff I buy, but simply because I need some new work clothes.

Does this mean I’m swept up in idolatry by default? I’m not so sure.

It hardly parallels the situation in most ancient idol temples — where it seems fairly unlikely that you’d find yourself accidentally swept up in worshipping another god when you’d actually just turned up for some other more mundane reason (making due allowance for the dark objectivity of idolatrous practice — where ‘mental reservations’ don’t get you off the hook).

Of course, my capitulation in the dynamics of consumerism at the shopping mall may still compromise my confession of faith. After all, Jesus did talk about the impossibility of serving both God and Mammon.

The energy and concern I invest in clothing myself may well put the lie to one key way I’m meant to be different from people who don’t trust Jesus — just as taking part in eating idol meat and sexual immorality would have put the lie to one key way the recipients of Revelation 2-3 were supposed to be marked off from their non-Christian contemporaries.

These things do run against the grain of our identity in Christ. But I’m no longer convinced it’s true or helpful to characterise them as idolatry.

What do you reckon? Has this got legs?

interlude: the biblical case for liturgical formation

Yesterday I preached on James 4.13-5.20. As far as I’m concerned, the crowing jewel and tip off about what lies at the hidden centre of this passage (and holds together all it’s different elements) is this:

13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.

James K. A. Smith – eat your heart out!

Here’s James’ word for those who know that Jesus is Lord. Here’s the nuts and bolts of how to put away self-concern and train your hearts to long for the Lord’s appearing as the farmer longs for the rains — banking on it 100%.

What’s his word?

Turn outwards.

In trouble. In success. In sickness. In the desperate struggle to stay afloat when life threatens to swamp your faith.

Take daily, disciplined, habitual action — like repeated liturgical action — to form and shape your desires in response to the gospel.

This is the only way to break free of the massive gravitational pull of self-concern so you can begin to orbit around the true centre of gravity of the moral universe — the Lord Jesus who is coming to judge…

a word of grace for the same-sex marriage debate

We all feel the problem, don’t we?

However you ended up here, you’re talking about same-sex marriage. And you’re feeling pinned.

You really want to say something about God’s grace in Jesus. But you’re struggling to be heard as anything but a moralistic, judgemental bigot.

Maybe — keeping Romans 1.18ff in mind — you’re trying to explain that not just homosexual sin but all sin can be traced back to idolatry.

Perhaps you’ve mentioned something about not expecting people who don’t trust Jesus to buy into Christian morality (a little uncomfortably given your convictions about Jesus being Lord of all and hence of his vision for life applying to all).

But nothing seems to be getting through.

So how can we speak a word of grace into the same-sex marriage debate?

In his brilliant little paper on ‘Preaching In A Secular Culture’ (available at Redeemer City to City), Tim Keller isolates four keys for speaking the good news of Jesus in a secular culture — and having it actually heard as good news:

  1. <strongSpeak to Christians and non-Christians at the same time. This isn’t as impossible as it sounds — the good news about Jesus is the key not only to becoming a Christian but also to growing as one.
  2. Proclaim grace not moralism. Sounds obvious, right? But incredibly hard to do in practice.
  3. Show that it’s always about Christ. Again – Duh. And, again, very difficult to do without forcing the connection (e.g., by allegory).
  4. Aim for the heart (or the imagination) not simply the emotions or the mind.

I’d love to unpack this in detail. But I’ll limit myself to picking out one point of particular relevance for Christian interventions the same-sex marriage debate. Namely, how do we pull off Point 2 — speaking a word of grace rather than moralistic condemnation?

The key, Keller suggests, is to work hard to “show how the person and work of Jesus Christ bears on the subject” so people can hear us proclaiming good news not simply (what we consider to be) good advice.

Surely, Christian talk about sin — all sin not just homosexual sin — must take its cue from the way Jesus extended unconditional acceptance to sinners (“Neither do I condemn you” was his word to the woman caught in adultery in John 8) before making demands or calling for transformation (“Go and leave your life of sin”).

It’s worth asking ourselves the question: Do our interventions in the same-sex marriage debate have the savour of Jesus to them?

I suspect we won’t get very far until we start owning up to our sin and failures in this regard. Showing how the way Christ deals with sinners is good news — which, nevertheless, demands change and transformation — for all of us.

catching up with reality

You’ve no doubt noticed that the pace of posting has slowed down here lately. Long gone are the days of one (and sometimes two) posts a day. Now one or two a week feels like a stretch!

What’s changed?

Well, I guess you could say I’m finally catching up with reality.

You see, about seven and a half months ago my life was invaded by the most charming, beautiful, absorbing, and fascinating little person — my son, Benjamin. And my reality changed. Forever. (For the better.)

Since then, I’ve been playing catch-up. My schedule, plans, and expectations — about how much energy I have, how productive I can be, etc — keep needing to be adjusted. Downwards.

I’ve resisted it, of course. Kicking and screaming at every turn. Swinging erratically between denying I need to adjust at all and feeling crushed by my sense of inadequacy.

But the new reality keeps pressing it’s claim. And, while I don’t want to speak too soon, I think I’m finally responding.

This dynamic isn’t unique to new parents, mind you. I experienced a version of it when I first got married — my experience and expectations took a while to catch up with that new reality too.

And every Christian experiences it throughout our days as we wait for Christ’s return.

We’re swept up in the new creation, the new humanity God’s launched in Jesus. In him there’s a new reality.

Like Ephesians 2 reminds us, we were dead in sin, subject to the evil one, objects of wrath, strangers to God, at war with him and his purposes. But now things have changed. Because of what God’s done through Jesus everything is different.

But we’re all still catching up with the reality. Fighting it. Denying it. Falteringly recognising and embracing it. Regretting how far short of it we keep falling. And occasionally, by the mercy of God, reveling in it.

Thank God he’s so patient with us!

saying No for people who can’t

Yesterday someone asked me how I work out what to say No to and what my limits are when it comes to Christian ministry.

I’d like to spend the next few posts trying to untangle the matted ball of issues this throws up.

But to begin with, it’s worth saying that I’m no expert. In fact, I’m really not sure why I seemed like I might have any wisdom to share on this question (just ask my wife).

Whether it’s because I crave acceptance and fear saying No will mean people reject me, or just because I’m chronically allergic to an anxious boundary-policing approach to time- and self-management, I just can’t seem to say No.

I’ve been down the path of keeping strict track of my hours on a timesheet. Although I still do it for tasks when I’m juggling competing deadlines, I haven’t found it that helpful for ministry work with people.

For me it not only tends to promote a toxic boundary-policing mentality (which I find saps at least as much emotional energy as overcommitting and over-stretching myself in investing time in people). It also tends to leave me comparing myself with others — either proudly puffing myself up (“Look how many people I’m catching up with”) or, more frequently, crushing me with guilt and shame (“Why can’t I be as fruitful and productive as that ministry colleague?”).

My hunch at the moment is that I need to start not with working out my limits but with focusing on the centre. That is, I need to figure out what things I need to do to make it possible for me to do the work of ministry with people — preparation, admin, prayer, and things that will feed and sustain me emotionally and spiritually — and lock those in. Then I can freely take on whatever else fits in.

That’s the theory at least.

Of course, this approach is likely to be complicated by the fact that ministry is always open-ended and never finished. Because, as people often say, good ministry will generate more ministry. But that’s the topic of my next post…

how to renarrate your humanity in the light of the gospel

I’ve had the privilege of spending the past few days wrestling with what it means to be ‘in Christ’ at the annual National Training Event for the university student movement I’m part of.

One of the highlights has been working with a small group of students to unravel 1 Peter 2.18-25 — reflecting on how to read and make sense of any part of the Bible as we went.

Peter is addressing the question of how Christian slaves should to respond to conflict and especially to harm done to them, e.g., by abusive masters. His answer is to point to:

  1. The pattern Jesus himself left — particularly in his betrayal, rejection and humiliating death (verses 21-23).
  2. Christ’s achievement in dying for us, freeing us from sin’s dominion so that it’s now possible to follow in his steps (verse 24).
  3. And the promise that God has graciously returned us to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls.

Perhaps we could say that Peter is inviting any slaves among his readers — and by extension all of us — to renarrate our humanity in the light of the gospel.

Not that we’re to stoically pretend we don’t experience conflict or get hurt. But that we’re to retell our story so it doesn’t end with us trapped in a seemingly inevitable cycle of tit-for-tat.

Instead, our story should end with us entrusting ourselves to the the one who can be trusted to do what’s right. And so to open out onto the broad horizon of forgiveness and reconciliation. Not primarily for our own emotional health (as important as that may be). But, in the wider context of 1 Peter, for the sake of mission.

I can’t think of a richer way to express this insight than John Howard Yoder does in Body Politic (quoted recently by Joel Willits):

To be human is to be in conflict, to offend and to be offended. To be human in the light of the gospel is to face conflict in redemptive dialogue. When we do that, it is God who does it. When we do that, we demonstrate that to process conflict is not merely a palliative strategy for tolerable survival or psychic hygiene, but a mode of truth-finding and community-building. That is true in the gospel; it is also true, mutatis mutandis, in the world.