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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…

Christ-centred apologetics

Last weekend I had the privilege of taking part in the launch of the Reason For Faith Festival.

I stepped in at the last minute to run a workshop on ‘conversational apologetics’, exploring what we can do with the big questions people have about Christian faith and how to respond without necessarily knowing all the answers. More on this after I fill you in on some of the context of the Reason For Faith Festival.

The Festival launch was all about the up-coming opportunity to open up some intelligent and generous conversations about life’s big questions in our city. This opportunity comes in the shape of the Global Atheist Convention’s return to Melbourne just after Easter.

Formally, there are some brilliant events planned. The Festival website has all the details. And if you want to get more of a feel for the Festival, check out the short promotional clip:

Informally, it’s all about the conversations the Global Atheist Convention and Reason For Faith Festival are likely to spark.

And that’s where my seminar and the other seminars ran on the weekend come in. You see, too often conversations about life’s big questions degenerate into Christians wheeling out ready-made, cookie-cutter answers that we download onto people (as though we’ve memorised a couple of pages of an apologetics textbook). Or they get lost and tangled in the thick scrub of some argument about what the fine-tuning of the universe say about the existence of God or whatever.

I’m coming to believe that what we need is something much more Christ-centred.

One of the seminars (not mine) did an excellent job at connecting the big Bible themes and plot-movements to Jesus and then exploring how they connect with people’s questions. We need heaps more of this!

But, more than a Christ-centred matter and method, I’m convinced we also need a Christ-centred manner.

That is, we need to hear what Peter says about letting Christ live and reign in our hearts and lives in such a way that we’ll neither be afraid and get defensive nor will we be afraid and go on the attack. Rather, we’ll be genuinely responsive — giving reasons for the hope that we have with gentleness, respect, and a clear conscience.

In short, we’ve got to believe the gospel to make the most of this opportunity and approach these conversations productively and well.

the cross-shadowed kingdom

One of the things Christians sometimes argue about is whether the gospel is more about the kingdom or more about the cross.

Kingdom-emphasising folk perhaps want to focus more on the joy and power that flow from God having broken in to human history in Christ. Whereas, cross-emphasising people want to talk about being counter-cultural and other-regarding and stuff like that.

But I’ve been gripped by the way the cross casts its shadow over Jesus’ kingdom-preaching and kingdom-demonstration in the early chapters of Mark as I’ve prepared Bible study material on it over the last few weeks.

In Mark 1.40-45, for instance, Jesus demonstrates the power of the kingdom in reaching out and healing a leper, wiping away the leper’s uncleanness and his status as a social outcast with a single gesture. And yet in doing so Jesus swaps places with the leper — he’s no longer able to come openly into towns and populated places. The cross casts its shadow here.

Something similar happens if you put together the next two incidents that Mark relates: Mark 2.1-12 — the famous story of the paralysed man who is lowered through he roof by his friends only to have Jesus (almost) overlook his obvious physical need in order to declare his sins forgiven — and Mark 2.13-17 — where we first see Jesus beginning to associate himself with sinners, risking his good reputation in order to fulfil his mission.

Since God is the only one qualified to forgive sins, Jesus’ friendship with sinners takes us into he very heart of God. And, on the flip-side, in order to offer forgiveness God himself pay the price of being numbered with the transgressors. Again the cross casts its shadow over the kingdom.

What this means for whether we consider ourselves kingdom-people or cross-people is hard to calculate.

At the very least, it should mean those who want to emphasise the kingdom have to reckon with the same sort of shame and humiliation that Jesus faced as his launched the kingdom. Likewise, it presumably also means that those who want to emphasise the path of the cross need to acknowledge the glory of this path in God’s apparently strange and foolish economy…

maybe we’re not meant to adopt Jesus’ priorities

One of the ‘thematic goals’ I’ve set for myself this year is to talk about the Incarnation of Jesus more than I talk about being incarnational (in imitation of him, etc).

Helpfully, this is what the New Testament seems to do — especially in the Gospels.

Take Mark’s account of the commencement of Jesus’ public ministry in Chapter 1.14-45, for example. There, we see that because everyone wants a piece of Jesus he must strive to maintain the following priorities arising from his sense of prophetic vocation:

  1. Focusing on people as he looks not simply to gather a crowd but to make disciples (verses 16-20)
  2. Carving out time to get away by himself to pray (verse 35)
  3. Taking steps to ensure that he isn’t so swamped by people’s felt needs that he can no longer fulfil his raison d’etre — namely, proclaiming the kingdom (verse 38)

It would be all too easy to pick up these priorities and say, “This is what we should be doing too”. (I heard two different sermons along these just this week — on the same day!) And, no doubt, prioritising people, prayer, and proclamation would be a good thing.

But there are a few irksome little details in the text that I feel should make us pause before going here. Details that suggest Jesus is on about something much bigger than simply modeling kingdom priorities.

For one thing, Jesus seems to want to maintain these priorities because he sees himself as something of a prophet. A herald. Announcing the kingdom and its ‘at hand’-ness.

But circumstances conspire to demand more of him. This happens in verses 40-45, for instance, where Jesus displays the power of the kingdom by healing a leper and ends up swapping places with him in the process — as he’s forced out into more remote places.

And for another thing, Jesus keeps telling people (and unclean spirits) not to talk about him, advertising who he is and what he’s doing.

My hunch is that this is bound up with the fact that Jesus’ contemporaries were bound to misunderstand it if he went around announcing that he was he Messiah. He needed to keep his Messianic identity secret so he could carry out his mission as the Suffering Servant.

But as far as I can tell this Messianic secrecy is unique to that moment of salvation history, not something we’re called to copy. Rather, we’re to take the news to the ends of the earth.

So maybe we’re not meant to adopt Jesus’ priorities…

ethics vs morality

I keep hearing people making a distinction between ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it too?

Andrew has recently observed how much edgier ‘ethics’ seems relative to ‘morality’:

It’s not very cool these days to say you’re interested in “morality”. You can say you’re interested in “ethics”, yes. That’s because “ethics” has a kind of cutting-edge, out-there-in-the-complex-modern-world feel to it, as if you’re engaging in highly specialised and hair-splitting decisions that the advance of technology has thrown up at us, like “if some rogue scientist has cloned a goat crossed with a seagull, is it ok to harvest its bone-marrow to use in weapons technology?” That kind of thing.

The relative sexiness of ethics was on display on Triple J towards the end of their recent ‘Sex Week’.

A group of guests were chatting about why people seem to find it so hard to talk about sex — especially with their partners. One suggested that the problem was that our thinking and talking about sex was too bound up with morality, which he said meant “questions about right and wrong” (questions he hinted were not only guilt-producing but also impossible to arbitrate or settle)

He went on to suggest that we need to disentangle ourselves from this and start operating out of an ‘ethics’ framework instead, which he said had more to do with “respecting each other and reducing harm”.

Now, this says more about the sexiness of ethics than the ethics of sex. Scratch the surface of both ‘respect’ and ‘harm’ and you’re suddenly back in the much-maligned realm of morality — and its irreconcilable absolutes. For once you start fleshing out what it looks like to respect someone, you’re drawing upon your moral vision. And once you start talking about how to calculate (and mitigate) harm, you’re doing moral calculus.

But we’ve got to get past scoring cheap debating points — one way or the other (e.g., “Morality’s dated and repressive, get with the times and do ethics instead” or “Your ethics is shot through with morality – ner, ner!”). Because what’s going on even further below the surface is where things could get really interesting.

I’m wondering if the flight from potentially intractable moral debate towards an ethics that is at once thinner (more minimal and readily accessible) and deeper (because it supposedly transcends the awkward particulars of morality) testifies to our longing for a universally valid and ready-to-hand perspective on how to live. Our longing, in other words, for God to speak an authoritative word of judgement and grace.