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the eighth day

March 27, 2011

At the Ocean's Edge

The Melbourne Sunday Age has published my faith reflection today. You can read it here.

Posted by gary at 09:44 PM | Comments (0)

May 03, 2010

From the Outside In?

It strikes me that there are a number of significant hurdles to be contemplated as we reflect on the invitation to theologically reflect on what it means to be a Baptist denomination, any one of which serves as an obstacle of some size on its own, let alone where there is a range of issues in the mix. Let me articulate some of these:

Complexity - "re-imagining the BUV" assumes we can "imagine" it in the first place, and then understand the complex permutations and combinations which changes to structure might cause. Starting this process is like grabbing hold of a loose thread in a jumper - once you start pulling, you risk unravelling the whole jumper. Building aeroplanes in the sky and herding cats are two images which strike me in this process. I wonder whether it is a little too clinical an approach. Theological reflection is an ongoing process in which praxis is essential. One act of reflection (or a time) without consequent action and further reflection is insufficient, and suggests there is a "right answer" to be found.

Experience - it is fair to say that there are those of us who find ourselves at one end or other of a spectrum: there are those who do not have a positive experience of denominational life, for whatever reason. And there are those for whom participation in denominational life has been a complete blessing. We all read the denominational structures through a particular grid of experience, none of which disqualifies us from recording our observations and communicating them for the good of its future (or should I say, our future, keeping in mind Frank’s observation that the BUV is our denomination).

Understanding - from the outside in. How many of us have a real understanding of what is happening inside the denominational office? Of the considerable complexities which reflect the theological, pastoral, ethical, organisational, legal and administrative issues. The question could be asked as to how effective any reflection is from a distance...

Personal Concern. There are those who believe that speaking out about their experience and concerns will compromise them in terms of future pastoral appointments, and therefore choose to continue to suffer in silence. The only way for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing. But there is another risk in speaking out - not having one’s concerns validated by others. There are times when we haven’t been pastoral in our response to one another. The history of the VBMN list shows this. The use of the anonymous post feature of the list has demonstrated the need for a place to vent in complete confidence.

Incompleteness - sometimes we hold strong convictions about something without necessarily having the capacity to offer a potential solution. That’s OK. It is a function and a privilege of community to hear the incomplete thoughts born of pain, angst, or even joy, and to help one another work through the implications.

From the Outside In? Asking us to reflect on something most of us have only experienced at the margins is problematic. There may be longer term strategies unfolding which aren’t apparent, or to which we may not be privy. A change in organisational direction, theologically and strategically, emerges from familiarity with the systems and their impact in relation to the strategic plan, surely. BUT... let us never forget that the central figure and central story of the Christian faith is found at the margins: outside a city wall, amongst the poor and marginalised. If we are to develop healthy denominational structures, we need to hear all voices, all thoughts, because we should be listening for the voice of the Spirit, and not one of self-defense or self-justification.

My efforts in these writings are an exercise in "thinking out loud." And certainly - as one who has had little contact with the internal workings of denominational life - from the margins. Theological reflection is a conversation. It is dynamic. We all need to offer our half-formed thoughts, impressions and observations.

Posted by gary at 06:11 PM | Comments (0)

April 30, 2010

Denomination by Association

My first response to the night of theological reflection, and to Frank's paper is rightly determined to be too theoretical. In retrospect it is my effort to put some parameters around the nature of theological reflection, and to underline that our capacity to determine what God is doing in the present is enhanced by our knowledge of what God has done in the past and of the hope which calls us into God's future. The question, "What are the implications?" is an important one, but must always be answered with the realisation that all actions and structures express values and embody particular futures. In this light I turn my attention to the Baptist tradition of Association.
From the earliest days Baptists were drawn into association with one another. We need to consider what the nature and purpose of association meant at that time, and how association became denomination...

It is something of a catch cry that the reason for denomination is that there are things that we can do together that we can't do separately. While acknowledging the truth in such a statement, it does need clarification. Over time it has amounted to a deferral to the denomination rather than the cooperative spirit which undergirds the notion of association. In association, churches found support as they grappled with the implications of the theological convictions which drove them to establish Baptist churches in the first place. In the same way that Paul’s mission to the Gentile world raised questions related to practices such as circumcision, so the embrace of liberty of conscience and commitment to corporate discernment of God’s call pressed the new church to consider the implications. We have studied these movements around theological conviction: General vs Particular Baptist distinctives are but one example, but the ways in which they developed the practices at a local level are as formative as the theological statements produced. Association was about shared conviction, commitment to exploration of this call and its implications, and about supporting one another in this journey, so that individual churches did not feel isolated and alone in the struggle. I do not get the sense of an "Association office" being established to support the work. Rather the Association itself was engaged in the struggle and questions emerging at the local level. They were local church practitioners together. And one would assume, not in large churches by modern standards.
The purpose of Association was directed towards empowering and supporting the local church. This was enhanced by the development of theological frameworks for understanding their mission, although the coming together as Association was arguably founded on this.
One of the arguable outcomes of the shift towards "doing things together" is an increasing disconnect with that which is done corporately from the local experience, to the effect that it looks more like outsourcing than cooperative ministry. By way of example, our Baptist social service and missional ventures are now quite distinct from the local church and disconnected from a significant proportion of those who make up our churches. The major connection, if it exists at all, is through funding rather than an identified partnership in mission and ministry together.
The problem of distance is one which plagues all denominational offices. Ministry at the local church level engages at a different perspective than a denominational office. Not only are they shaped by different concerns, the engagement interface is different. In hindsight, this is one of the troubling thoughts which plagued me on the night and since – the theological reflection undertaken appeared to be largely from the inside-out. That is, we seemed to be reflecting on what is and how to make it better/more effective, rather than taking up the call to reflect on what God is doing in the world and asking how we might align with it. Here I would respectfully disagree with Jeff Pugh’s contention that this is limited to "in those places and with those people who are preaching his message and where the message of the Cross and resurrection is bearing fruit." Such a limited view of God’s work in the world implies that God is only at work in the church, or in terms which the church readily understands and identifies. If we are to learn anything from the history of the early church and the mission of Jesus it is that God often appears at the margins – even of religious life, inviting us to see His work in new ways and new perspectives. If we limit our theological reflection to what God is doing in the church we risk becoming increasingly insular and inward-focussed. Theological reflection has always been on what God is doing in the world, and where God is leading creation, and those who would follow the call of God.
It is beyond contention that the ministry interface at the local level has changed considerably over the last forty years, perhaps with increasing pace over the last decade. The metaphors and narratives which inform people’s lives are increasingly disconnected from the ones which have nurtured the church’s history and, until recently, Western culture. The risks of and frameworks for ministry have changed considerably. How do we negotiate these in the context of the world and not merely in terms of the risk exposure of the denomination? How do we engage with these in ways which open us up to the new possibilities which God is already creating? How do we prepare ourselves for different ways of being and doing that reflect God’s call in the present and towards the future which God has called us to?
The shift from association to denomination has created a structure where a disconnect between the view from a denominational framework and that from the local pastoral office is not only possible but extremely likely. One potential outcome is the drifting apart of the member churches as they engage more intentionally with their local settings, formulating responses which might be informed by any combination of scripture, Baptist tradition (from the local to the global), openness to God in the present, and understanding of what the future of God looks like. As each develops their own matrix of these (and other) backgrounds into their local church culture, the overarching denominational distinctive gets lost.
Some might argue that the capacity of a denominational body to engage in meaningful ways across the whole state is limited (echoing something of the argument in Federation about the redundancy of the states). As we look back to our associational heritage, we must ask ourselves whether its culture and approach is worth recovering and in what way. Let me offer some food for thought.

An Association view of our Union of Churches could see:
A move to having say 8-10 Part-time area ministers each with 20-25 churches in their locality to care for the pastors. This would enable regional pastors to engage with ministry at the local level, possibly into smaller churches, thereby putting leadership skills to work where most needed. It could also establish a sense of equality and partnership between pastors and their area minister, knowing that the interface of ministry is fresh for all, that many of the challenges being felt by the area minister are direct and not vicarious, creating a sense of mutuality of support and care in ministry. Area ministers would be based at the local level, and therefore have local understanding of issues and context.
In this scenario, the role of the Director of Ministries would have a significant responsibility for leading/mentoring/pastorally caring for the area ministers, modelling the type of care and support which is hopefully reflected in the local settings. This could enhance the environment whereby the process of theological reflection begins to inform wider aspects of denominational life, and the local level engagement with the wider denominational level is enhanced. Rethinking of denominational funding arrangements might also release funds and other resources to the different areas where decision-making around its use is also enabled. Resources shifted back from supporting denominational initiatives towards initiatives at the local level, with particular emphasis on those conducted in association.
As the listening ear to all that is happening across the various regions within the state, the potential for prophetic leadership role by the denomination, both to the churches and the wider community, speaking to missional and into cultural issues such that the church’s engagement through public theology is enabled and enhanced. Whilst recognising that there will be evident tensions as a consequence of doing so, providing a framework in which engagement with the wider culture and community can be modelled enables the public aspect of theological reflection and engagement to develop.
It might be worth reflecting on how the particular associational groupings are established at a local level, and whether a uniform size for each association is appropriate. One might also want to examine whether the area minister was employed by the denomination, or resourced by the denomination through the local church, or even the local association. In any case, such an approach may well place support into the local context where it is needed, with a degree of mutuality amongst pastoral leaders in the area.
And then there are issues around the operation and culture of the denominational office which I haven’t yet begun to articulate...
Another time, perhaps.

Posted by gary at 01:24 PM | Comments (0)

April 23, 2010

Theological Reflections on Re-imagining

The Baptist Union of Victoria is presently undertaking a phase of 're-imagining', which provided the foundation for a time of theological reflection in a session earlier this week. Principal of Whitley College, Frank Rees, was invited to present a paper, which he has published on his blog. Carolyn Francis, Jeff Pugh, and Alan Marr offered responses. I found it difficult to find the appropriate point of connection to the conversation, partly because of the "so what" question which lingered in the back of my mind, and partly because of the confusion about whether the focus is on the denominational office, or on the Union of Churches themselves. Frank identified this important distinction. Frank's starting point, however, was one which is worth underlining:

"Frankly it is deeply concerning that so little of our decision-making seems to be guided by any overt theological consideration at all."

What sort of theological reflection do we need?

Two aspects of our theological reflection are perhaps on more solid foundations than the other. We need an historical theological reflection: one which looks back to the scriptural foundations, both the text of scripture and the life and teaching of Christ. While this apparently rests on a sure foundation, there are issues to be addressed not only in relation to the way that particular texts are interpreted, but also to the particular texts we choose to interpret. Keeping the entire corpus in the conversation and reflection is more of a challenge than we like to admit. Certain texts often are chosen as interpretive grids through which all other aspects are filtered. There are uncomfortable tensions within scripture that we need to keep alive. These must also find consistency with the teaching, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, through whom our understanding of God and his work in the world is ultimately shaped.
But our historical theological reflection must also embrace our own Baptist history, looking back to its foundations and its journey through the centuries. As long as we claim to be re-imagining the future of the Baptist church in Victoria, we must be clear about what we imagined it to be in the first place. Again, this is not as simple as it sounds. Not only do we need to hear our founders' call to liberty of conscience, even to the point of protecting those who choose not to believe, we must hear also the calls of our Victorian founders, whose unusual step to seek government regulation of our constitution sits oddly with the commitment to separation of church and state. And still more recently we must grapple with the source of the unique diversity which our denominational ties represent, forged on the anvil of some difficult debates in Assemblies, but arguably given a mere nod in the present.
Historical theological reflection is important to our understanding of the present. We cannot hope to understand where we are without examining the journey to this point.

The second aspect of theological reflection which perhaps rests on more solid foundations is that of the future. The eschatological hope which calls us forward. At the core this is clear – the reign of Christ and the restoration of God's order. We believe that God's future is clearly established in the just reign of Christ. It is hope which shapes our action in the present. It gives us something to work towards, even if we do believe that the end interrupts rather than fulfils the directions of creation. Our task and call is to work consistently with God's purposes, which are spelled out for us. But again, this is more complex than initially apparent. Interpretations about the way the end will come cloud the apparent consistencies we uphold about what that future might look like – at least in terms of the internal values it represents: justice, peace, grace. Eschatology asks us to articulate what we believe God is calling us to become. This is grounded in scripture, and in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, which if it confirms anything tells us that the purposes of God are stronger and more sure than any systems which earth can array against them.

The third aspect of theological reflections is somewhat more contentions: reflection on what God is doing in the world today. It is a tenet of mission: to find where God is working and partner with it. How are we to do this? It is important that we undertake the first two aspects of theological reflection before entering this phase. We cannot know where we are without understanding where we have come from (how we got where we are), and where we are going. Any interpretation of the present must find its orientation between these two points. And it must be done in partnership with some form of sociological reflection: an understanding of what is happening in the world around us. Jesus once rebuked his hearers for not being able to read the signs of the times. The temptation is to paint this picture in two colours, rather than to engage the nuances of God's work in the world today. The world is both getting worse and getting better. This curious admixture of good and evil is ever the challenge for the church to negotiate. For the purposes of our own denominational journey, we must constrain our focus at some point to reflection within the churches which make up the BUV, and the denominational office itself. (As much as I support Frank's contention that the denomination is the churches, we must recognise and articulate the disconnect and individuality of identity. It is the only way we can work to realign them.)

I hesitate at this point to offer some pithy insights which such a reflection might bring, as the complexity of the task is one which requires more than one person. I will, however, make some observations.

First, there is no such beast as “value-free action.” We wonder whether the BUV should lead the churches. It does. The actions it has taken have always conveyed a message to its member churches. One of the best ways to identify the values of anyone or anything is to evaluate its actions. The statement about intentions should always be measured against the actions which are undertaken, and vice versa. Are we doing today that which reinforces the values we espouse? the calling we confess? On Tuesday night I found myself pondering this when the statement was made by someone that smaller churches seem to be grappling most and coming up with the most creative responses to the present missional challenges, and considered the parallel denominational discussions about the viability of small churches. The disconsonant ring between these two points echoed in my ear. Similarly we speak of the BUV as the union of churches, yet our new governance structure seems to reflect a governance model which moves away from empowering churches in this regard.

Second, I had some difficulty understanding whether the focus on re-imagining is about new ways of being church, new ways of being a denomination, or new ways of structuring the denominational office and function. The conversation on Tuesday night left me in somewhat of a quandary here. Perhaps the issue relates to articulating the primary purpose of our churches and structuring our denominational office so that churches can achieve that. Arguably the greatest challenge to be faced is how we build the bridge between our scriptural and denominational heritage and our present setting. With Frank, I believe that our Baptist heritage leaves us well-placed to engage the public realm. Many tenets of Western belief systems are found within our own: liberty of conscience, commitments to freedoms, and to just action. Losing grasp of our denominational heritage has hampered us somewhat here.

The third comment emerges from what appears to be an elephant in the room. Not one conversation picked up on Frank's observation that “churches in general, including Baptists, will continue to experience significant decline in numbers, finances and viability.” If any piece of information should cause us to pause and reflect, surely this is one. This is a challenge of imagination as much as anything else, something which perhaps requires a paradigmatic shift in our thinking about church properties and denominational assets. Currently about half of our denominational office is funded from a source whose original charter proscribed its use for such a purpose. This has the dual impact of reducing funds available to churches for the original purpose of the fund, and covers up a question related to the longer-term viability of our collective ministry through the denominational office.

This is an important conversation, and a welcome initiative from the BUV leadership. Getting one's head about its complexity perhaps requires that we be less focussed on the immediate structural responses and more about articulating the correct questions to be asking. I thank those who presented their reflections on Tuesday night, and who engaged in response. I would say, however, that the demographic in the room also gave some pause for reflection...

Posted by gary at 12:38 PM | Comments (2)

April 22, 2010

Back yard - Places Where our Stories are Formed

The back yard of a family home is a place filled with memories. When conducting a wedding recently in such a setting, I was drawn to reflect on the ways in which certain places impact our spirituality, our identity, and our journey in life. The choice of a back yard for a wedding potentially symbolises a love grounded in the realities of relationships, not only that of husband and wife, but the wider family and community, recognising that love is planted firmly among family and friends, and grows out of the reality of our daily lives. It is a place where ordinary experiences are made ever richer by shared love, and shared in subsequent years as the family gathers again. But in the back yard we are reminded that love is also open to the sky... a place where friendship can take wings in love; which opens up enormous possibilities together. But in the back yard we are also exposed to the elements, requiring us to let go of some control and enjoying the exploration and randomness which nature can often bring, and which relationships with family and friends can often bring.

Back yards are rich and creative places: Walk around most back yards and you will see very creative use of often discarded materials: they are living testaments to recycling. Back yards are also collections of family stories, each place bearing a memory on which life has been built. Most of us build our lives and values on recycling these values - in at least two ways.

The first aspect of recycling grows out of the reminder that it is out of old materials new things can come. Marriage is a setting where most recycling occurs - we sift through the gifts that our parents have given us, the values they have sown within us, the example they have set us. We have to learn from them, share them with our partner, then present them to our children, to our own friends and community, who will do the same. In fact, well before we come to marriage, we have spent our late adolescent years sifting the values which our parents have spoken to us about, and lived before us (the two not always consonant) as we begin to shape our own selves more intentionally.

When conflict arises in a relationship, we sift through it and pick out the lessons so that we understand ourselves and each other better, and learn to move forward together in love. Occasionally we have to clean up the back yard - go through and throw out that which now stands in the way, and create some new spaces. Married couples are still two very different people, and if handled well these differences can be the source of strength and creativity.

For me, the back yard was a place where I learned something about justice. Being the youngest in the family, I was often out-played or outweighed when it came to the rough-and-tumble of back yard matches. I learned to respond to apparent injustice, to rebound when I felt cheated or overwhelmed. I learned my own skills to deal with taller, faster, stronger siblings. I am sure that these skills have impacted me to this very day. I certainly knew how far to push, and when it was better to let things go. I learned to use my own assets in creative ways when a direct one-on-one contest was too daunting.

Back yards are also closed spaces. There are times when you can just chill out the back - away from the phone, from the front door, from neighbours. Here in the back yard it is your space. I remember times sitting in the back yard pondering the skies and my place in the universe, or the wonder of the myriad stars so far from the earth, illuminating the skies. Looking into history - for the light I could see twinkling left its source many years before - I pondered perspective and the bigger questions of life. And in more mature years I would sit in the back yard with my beloved, and share dreams and hopes together, pondering imponderables, and simply enjoying each other's presence. These dreams could be something apparently mundane: we can plant this, we can build that... but the intimacy to be built finds its roots in common dreams, shared values, a mutual spirituality - the essence of all that we consider life to be about, and what we yearn to build for yourselves and for those we love. In our marriage relationship, it is this intimacy which moves into the kitchen, the family room, and the bedroom - where a real one-ness is shared - body, soul and spirit. Such places of intimacy need to be nurtured in our spirituality, in our marriages, and in other relationships.

There are many other ways in which we find our shape in the back yard. They are social spaces - places where you share with others, and they with you - around the barbecue, talking about the garden, and just getting outside to think in a quiet space; they are places where we experiment (I well remember almost burning down the family garage), and where we begin to build bridges with strangers (kicking or hitting a ball over the fence meant an introduction was necessary to retrieve it); they are places where our horizons are broadened with family, friends and acquaintances.

Many memories - stories - which shape who we are, how we perceive the world, and our capacities to create within it. Here is a place where the ultimate breaks into the penultimate; where our perceptions of life, love and God find their roots. It is arguably one of the most important places where our lives are shaped.

Posted by gary at 10:27 PM | Comments (0)

October 24, 2008

Religion is Ridiculous?

Ridiculous, and worse. So say the new atheist books: In *God is Not Great*, Christopher Hitchens does not mince words, calling religion "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children." Now Bill Maher's movie *Religulous* lampoons the plausibility and social effects of all religion, ominously concluding that the world will end if religion does not end. But I suggest that social science data point to a different conclusion than do the new atheist anecdotes of hypocritical and vile believers.

Many in the community of faith gladly grant the irrationality of many religious fundamentalists - people who bring to mind Madeline L'Engle's comment that "Christians have given Christianity a bad name." But mocking religious "nut cases" is cheap and easy. By heaping scorn on the worst examples of anything, including medicine, law, politics, or even atheism, one can make it look evil. But the culture war of competing anecdotes becomes a standoff. One person counters religion-inspired 9/11 leader Mohammed Atta with religion-inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. Another counters the genocidal crusades with the genocidal atheists, Stalin and Mao. But as we social scientists like to say, the plural of anecdote is not data.

Maher and the new atheist authors present anecdote upon anecdote about dangerous and apparently irrational religious behavior, while ignoring massive data on religion's associations with human happiness, health, and altruism. The Gallup Organization, for example, has just released worldwide data culled from surveys of more than a quarter-million people in 140 countries. Across regions and religions, highly religious people are most helpful. In Europe, in the Americas, in Africa, and in Asia they are about fifty percent more likely than the less religious to report having donated money to charity in the last month, volunteered time to an organization, and helped a stranger.

This finding 'that the religious tend to be more human than heartless' expresses the help-giving mandates found in all major religions, from Islamic alms-giving to Judeo-Christian tithing. And it replicates many earlier findings. In a Gallup survey, forty-six percent of "highly spiritually committed" Americans volunteered with the infirm, poor or elderly, as did twenty-two percent of those "highly uncommitted." Ditto charitable giving, for which surveys have revealed a strong faith-philanthropy correlation. In one, the one in four Americans who attended weekly worship services gave nearly half of all charitable contributions.

Is religion nevertheless, as Freud supposed, and Maher's film seems to assert, an "obsessional neurosis" that breeds sexually repressed, guilt-laden misery? Anecdotes aside, the evidence is much kinder to C. S. Lewis's presumption that "joy is the serious business of heaven." For example, National Opinion Research Center surveys of 43,000 Americans since 1972 reveal that actively religious people report high levels of happiness, with forty-three percent of those attending religious services weekly or more saying they are "very happy" (as do twenty-six percent of those seldom or never attending religious services). Faith (and its associated social support) also correlates with effective coping with the loss of a spouse, marriage, or job.

Maher would surely call such religiously-inspired happiness delusional. But what would he say to the* *surprising though oft-reported correlations between religiosity and health? In several large epidemiological studies (which, as in one U.S. National Health Interview Survey, follow lives through time to see what predicts ill health and premature death) religiously active people were less likely to die in any given year and they enjoyed longer life expectancy. This faith-health correlation, which remains even after controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, and education, is partly attributable to the healthier lifestyles (including the lower smoking rate) of religious people. It also appears partly attributable to the communal support of faith communities and to the health benefits of positive emotions.

These indications of the personal and social benefits of faith don't speak to its truth claims. And truth ultimately is what matters. (If religious claims were shown to be untrue, though comforting and adaptive, what honest person would choose to believe? And if religious claims were shown to be true, though discomfiting, what honest person would choose to disbelieve?) But
they do challenge the anecdote-based new atheist argument that religion is generally a force for evil. Moreover, they help point us toward a humble spirituality that worships God with open minds as well as open hearts, toward an alternative to purposeless scientism and dogmatic fundamentalism, toward a faith that helps make sense of the universe, gives meaning to life, opens us to the transcendent, connects us in supportive communities, provides a mandate for morality and selflessness, and offers hope in the face of adversity and death.

article written by David Myers, who is a professor of psychology at Hope College and author of *A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists: Musings on Why God is Good and Faith Isn't Evil* (Jossey-Bass, 2008).

*Sightings* comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Posted by gary at 11:25 AM | Comments (0)

February 19, 2008

Response to Change

I haven't offered sermon thoughts on this blog before, but do so here, given the varied response to the apology delivered by the Australian Parliament to the Stolen Generations - Indigenous families subject to forced removal and relocation as a result of government policy over a period of many decades. I seek to address the fear of change which often threatens all of us, and to challenge some of the romanticised notions of the ways in which transformation has often taken place.

This is not a verbatim or complete transcript, but supplemented notes from which I preach...

What a significant week it has been in the life of Australia. Significant because we have collectively agonised for over 10 years about the appropriate response to the Bringing Them Home report which detailed the stories of Indigenous Australians who had been removed from family. Significant because we had to wrestle with the notion of responsibility for decisions taken in very different circumstances. Significant because there were those who felt that an apology overlooked the important and positive things which had been done. Significant because of the move to bipartisanship at least in some small part of Indigenous Affairs. Significant because for the first time the Parliament had been opened with a Welcome to Country by Indigenous leaders. Significant because it was the first week of the new government leadership in parliament.

Sometimes significant moments creep up on us unexpected. Others emerge after a long and intentional search. Still others in the agony of discovery. It might bring us some comfort that the decision to abolish slavery in the British Commonwealth was one born of similar angst. The birth of the Australian nation came amidst great debate and uncertainty. The dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki continue to bedevil modern thinking. Significant and historic moments are rarely clear-cut in their unfolding or in their acceptance.

As we reflect on the significance of this week, I would like to draw our focus back into two texts of scripture in order to highlight on of the great human realities: we all fear change.

There are times when our discoveries open up possibilities which frighten us. There are reports of scientists in Nazi Germany who made breakthrough discoveries but hid them for fear they would be used in ways which the scientists found abhorrent. There is the same concern in other areas of development today, where scientists seek knowledge, yet are concerned by the way in which the military and industrial might of politicians might see it put to other uses.

The story of Jesus' transfiguration on the mountain comes in the midst of a series of events in the life of Jesus which begin to turn the disciples' perceptions upside down. First the declaration of faith by Peter, then the revelation of Jesus' impending death, and now the revelation on the Mount of Transfiguration. Each of them met with some resistance.

When we come face-to-face with life-transforming information, we realise that it asks something of us. When I came face-to-face with Jesus Christ, I realised there was a call upon my life that I could not escape.

The disciples here face the same reality. And they hide in trivialities. Shall we build three booths?

We have similar mechanisms today. Let's put it to a committee. Let's pray about it. Let's... you know them as well as I do.

Human beings are very creative at resisting change. I know - I'm one of those. We ask questions. We ignore certain realities. We conceal our real agendas. When Nicodemus comes to Jesus, he comes as a man seeking to resist. How do we know? He comes at night... He asks vague questions... then responds to the answers with some skill to avoid the real issue. Nicodemus senses a new wind but wonders whether he can follow it.

Someone once said that if you weren't a communist in your 20s you didn't have a heart, and if you weren't a capitalist by the time you were in your 40s you had no brains. A young William Carey was put back in his place after sharing his dream of taking the gospel to the heathens by a leader's remarks "If God wants to convert the heathen, he'll do it without you or I."

Where do the dreams and yearnings of our youth go?

During the first year of our time at West Melbourne, I could often be heard stating, "We don't have to worry about failure. We stare it in the face each week!" The only failure was not to try. Not to risk. We knew that unless something different took place we were destined to die. It wasn't easy.

Why do we resist change?

Overcome by Fear. What if we can't handle it? What if we don't have the skills? What if it doesn't deliver what we hope? Good questions to ask, but ones which point us back to the source of life and hope.

Fear of change. The seven last words of the church? We have always done it this way. There is comfort in familiarity. It helps us feel secure. Safe. But how much gospel is that?

We are often tempted to stay the same because we know it. It stands in stark contrast to Jesus' call to be born again. To live by the fluky winds of the Spirit. To leave behind families and mothers and brothers and sisters for the sake of the gospel.

Transformation is often harder. But which way leads to life?

A pastoral colleague reflected in the wake of the apology and in the light of John 3: "the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. And in that encounter, in which Jesus so profoundly speaks about 'new birth', I realized afresh what the core of the gospel is: that our past no longer needs condemn us to a particular future; that my tomorrows are not imprisoned by my yesterdays; that in Christ, there is a new and more hopeful reality that is brought into vision.

Today's apology was, for me at least, truly a Lenten miracle, and one that served to highlight powerfully the world-shaking wonder of the gospel of which John 3 speaks."

This past week has raised many other questions: compensation. Future Indigenous policy. Can we meet the expectations raised? The government was not limited by the problem of raised expectations because it heard the call of justice and compassion and truth.

The image of the Exodus is strong in our faith tradition: the call to leave the known and secure, if difficult, to strike out in search of the land of promise. The journey from Egypt to Promised Land was messy, fraught, filled with dissent, grumbling. You'd think there would have been better planning! When we become comfortable with the ways that we know we inevitably and inexorably abandon the call to the future which God has prepared for us.

Note Paul's response:
Philippians 3:10-14 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Posted by gary at 09:22 AM | Comments (0)

January 07, 2008

Walter Brueggemann's 19 Theses

1. Everybody lives by a script. The script may be implicit or explicit. It may be recognized or unrecognised, but everybody has a script.

2. We get scripted. All of us get scripted through the process of nurture and formation and socialization, and it happens to us without our knowing it.

3. The dominant scripting in our society is a script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism that socializes us all, liberal and conservative.

4. That script (technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism) enacted through advertising and propaganda and ideology, especially on the liturgies of television, promises to make us safe and to make us happy.

5. That script has failed. That script of military consumerism cannot make us safe and it cannot make us happy. We may be the unhappiest society in the world.

6. Health for our society depends upon disengagement from and relinquishment of that script of military consumerism. This is a disengagement and relinquishment that we mostly resist and about which we are profoundly ambiguous.

7. It is the task of ministry to de-script that script among us. That is, too enable persons to relinquish a world that no longer exists and indeed never did exist.

8. The task of descripting, relinquishment and disengagement is accomplished by a steady, patient, intentional articulation of an alternative script that we say can make us happy and make us safe.

9. The alternative script is rooted in the Bible and is enacted through the tradition of the Church. It is an offer of a counter-narrative, counter to the script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism.

10. That alternative script has as its most distinctive feature, its key character - the God of the Bible whom we name as Father, Son, and Spirit.

11. That script is not monolithic, one dimensional or seamless. It is ragged and disjunctive and incoherent. Partly it is ragged and disjunctive and incoherent because it has been crafted over time by many committees. But it is also ragged and disjunctive and incoherent because the key character is elusive and irascible in freedom and in sovereignty and in hiddenness, and, I'm embarrassed to say, in violence - [a] huge problem for us.

12. The ragged, disjunctive, and incoherent quality of the counter-script to which we testify cannot be smoothed or made seamless. [I think the writer of Psalm 119 would probably like too try, to make it seamless]. Because when we do that the script gets flattened and domesticated. [This is my polemic against systematic theology]. The script gets flattened and domesticated and it becomes a weak echo of the dominant script of technological, consumer militarism. Whereas the dominant script of technological, consumer militarism is all about certitude, privilege, and entitlement this counter-script is not about certitude, privilege, and entitlement. Thus care must betaken to let this script be what it is, which entails letting God be God's irascible self.

13. The ragged, disjunctive character of the counter-script to which we testify invites its adherents to quarrel among themselves - liberals and conservatives - in ways that detract from the main claims of the script and so too debilitate the focus of the script.

14. The entry point into the counter-script is baptism. Whereby we say in the old liturgies, "do you renounce the dominant script?"

15. The nurture, formation, and socialization into the counter-script with this elusive, irascible character is the work of ministry. We do that work of nurture, formation, and socialization by the practices of preaching, liturgy, education, social action, spirituality, and neighbouring of all kinds.

16. Most of us are ambiguous about the script; those with whom we minister and I dare say, those of us who minister. Most of us are not at the deepest places wanting to choose between the dominant script and the counter-script. Most of us in the deep places are vacillating and mumbling in ambivalence.

17. This ambivalence between scripts is precisely the primary venue for the Spirit. So that ministry is to name and enhance the ambivalence that liberals and conservatives have in common that puts people in crisis and consequently that invokes resistance and hostility.

18. Ministry is to manage that ambivalence that is crucially present among liberals and conservatives in generative faithful ways in order to permit relinquishment of [the] old script and embrace of the new script.

19. The work of ministry is crucial and pivotal and indispensable in our society precisely because there is no one [see if that's an overstatement]; there is no one except the church and the synagogue to name and evoke the ambivalence and too manage a way through it. I think often; I see the mundane day-to-day stuff ministers have to do and I think, my God, what would happen if you talk all the ministers out. The role of ministry then is as urgent as it is wondrous and difficult.

The accompanying audio from which this was transcribed can be found here.

Posted by gary at 03:23 PM | Comments (0)

October 19, 2007

Virtual Virtue and Real Presence

When a "virtual presence" replaces an incarnated presence, it may be that our virtue is virtual as well, says by Brian McLaren. I am particularly challenged b McLuhan's observation that "every technological innovation is an amputation" - we lose something even while we gain. The question to be pondered is whether the loss is greater than the gain. McLaren seems to suggest that we might be crossing the point of return in different ways:

I've had a couple of semi-sleepless nights lately because some members of my congregation got into trouble and needed my pastoral help. Their situation seems so messy, so ugly, so intractable, and I feel the weight of trying to help them get through it with their faith intact. I confess, though, that I've wished at times I could be one of those pastors who never actually has to deal with people, who simply "shows up" (interesting term) on screen, not in person.

I am certainly not against "video venues." Nor am I against Christian websites. Nor (obviously) am I against the use of books and journals (like the one that connects us here). I am for the thoughtful and careful use of technology in ministry, whether we're talking about the printing press, the telephone, radio, the internet, or satellites.

But we would be foolish to rush into new technologies unaware of their unintended consequences, the side effects that Marshall McLuhan began warning about back in the 1960s and 1970s (see Shane Hipps's The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church, Zondervan, 2006).

Every technological innovation, McLuhan would say, is an amputation. For example, with the invention of the wheel or lever or chain saw, we use our muscles less. With the invention of the calculator, our mental computational skills grow rusty. While microphones help us whisper to thousands, they also make it less necessary for us to learn enunciation and vocal projection. And spell-checkers … make it EZ for us never to lern the lie of the grammaratical land.

What of technologies that in a sense amputate presence? The television and the DVD, the videoconference and perhaps increasingly, the hologram, project our presence, but do they in some way amputate presence as well?

I recently heard someone say that preaching is going the way of the Eucharist: we're moving from "real presence" to "virtual presence." The preacher seen via projection or download is "with us," but only in an abstract sense.

Projection is a fascinating word, especially when contrasted with incarnation. I imagine the first chapter of the fourth gospel reading, "the Word was projected into our world to be observed among us," and I wonder what difference it would have made.

One difference: you can't crucify a digital image. And that, to me, is one of the great amputations that comes from "virtual presence" or "projected presence" replacing incarnational presence. Looking back on my years as a pastor, I have to say that preaching was relatively easy and fun. But being close to people, being present in a community, often was downright agonizing.

Many of us have thought to ourselves, Ministry would be great if it weren't for the people, and increasingly it has become possible to "have a ministry" without ever having to actually live, in your flesh, with people in their flesh. In fact, vicarious ministries (via books, radio, TV, or whatever) have a higher status in the minds of many than the work of actually being with people who argue, fail, disagree, react, sin, attack, have emotional breakdowns, get sick, call you at 2 a.m., betray you, try your patience, and eventually die and leave you in grief.

That loss of "real presence" is bad for the church, no doubt. But I can't help but think it's also bad for us as pastors and leaders too. Because if our ministry is only virtual, it may be that our virtue is virtual as well.

When we can't get hurt, when we can't sacrifice, when we can't share the pain of people in their actual presence and in "real time," something in us may be getting amputated. Paul spoke of "glorying" in his afflictions for the sake of those he served.

That's good for us to remember if we start envying the "virtual pastors."
source: Christianity Today

Posted by gary at 10:15 AM | Comments (0)

August 17, 2007

The Name of God

A Dutch Bishop has stirred some interest with his call for people of all faiths to refer to God as Allah, as reported on the ABC website. Bishop Muskens suggests that God doesn't mind what name he is called, and during an eight year stint in Indonesia celebrated the Mass by referring to God as Allah. It's an interesting and fraught notion.
First, to suggest that it makes no difference to God what we call Him might be stretching matters a bit too far. It is one thing to find a culturally-relevant way to express faith, yet another to suggest that all such expressions are universally relevant and transferable. In some senses, to name God is to reduce Him, to give power over God by the one who names. The great Hebrew name for God can be loosely translated as to avoid that type of limitation: "I am who I am" or "I will be who I will be". God defined by Godself.
The response of Gerrit de Fijter, chairman of the Protestant church in the Netherlands, is enlightening and revealing in many ways, "Calling God 'Allah' does no justice to Western identity. I see no benefit in it."
...the fact that Allah doesn't do justice to Western identity is both a strength and a weakness: in one way countering the blind spots of our own understandings of God, and at the same time potentially denying aspects we would wish to affirm.

An underlying concern is the embracing of a view that we must all see God alike. I'm not sure that is true of any two people. Words have the power to create meanings as well as reflect them. If we are to affirm that the God we worship is greater than us all, we have to affirm the limitations of a particular and therefore culturally endowed understanding. But we must also, as Christians, affirm the notion of incarnation - that God is revealed in particular contexts. Determining the relationship of the universal to the particular and vice versa is an ongoing challenge for us all. But I do believe we are impoverished if we reduce God (or life for that matter) to a one-size-fits-all view.

A possibly complicating issue in this matter is that Islam as a faith does not generally accept the notion of cultural and contextual knowledge, at least in relation to revelation. It is founded on the belief of the timeless and eternal truth of the Koran and the prophet Mohammed. To adopt the term 'Allah' for God in the christian church may be seen either to embrace or to insult Islam, depending on whether we are seen to be seeking to turn the notion of Allah towards Western frameworks.

It was C S Lewis who once said that anything we say about God is a lie, inasmuch as it is not the full truth. A Western view of God, as much as an Islamic view, is both enlightening and limiting, opening up to new vistas, and closing of others. While the Bishop's suggestion is worthy of discussion, it is no panacea.

Posted by gary at 12:55 PM | Comments (0)

July 10, 2007

Suffering which perfects?

The passage in Hebrews which speaks of Jesus "having been perfected by suffering" (Heb 2:10) has always been somewhat problematic... "Why is it that Jesus needed to be made perfect in the first place?" was one question it brought to mind. Yet I wonder whether that is the question the author seeks to address in this passage.

In popular thought suffering is rarely regarded as something worth embracing, or of intrinsic value. Popular Western thought regards suffering as something to be avoided at all costs, viewing it as of little innate value. We justify therapeutic cloning, stem cell research, and many other technological advances on the basis that they reduce suffering. What then of the One of whom it is said that the author of salvation as perfected through suffering?

Clearly suffering is not something which is alien to the character of God. Hebrews indicates that Jesus suffered as we do, yet was in no way diminished by that suffering. On the contrary, it indicates that his suffering was an essential aspect of his work of salvation. Through his suffering came salvation for us all. By his suffering we are redeemed, opened to the life of God through His Spirit. This is not to suggest that all suffering is redemptive, nor that all suffering should be embraced. Neither is it to indicate that we ignore the possibility of reducing suffering. Rather, here we are invited to embrace the possibility of redemptive suffering... the knowledge that some of life's hardest lessons - emerging from our deepest suffering - bring us something of great value.

I have read numerous autobiographies in which the writer has outlined a moment of deep grief in their life which has helped them to refocus and appreciate important aspects of life that were lost. Setting aside the penchant towards hagiography, there is truth in the fact that suffering sometimes brings us to face the deeper questions of life and discover something of the eternal once again.

Posted by gary at 05:58 PM | Comments (0)

May 07, 2007

God is Imaginary

Discovered a series of web sites designed to debunk the christian faith. The doorway I found was the video below entitled "God is imaginary".

The author follows a series of convoluted and contrived arguments to reach the conclusion "God is imaginary". Having followed his discussions (I say 'his' because it is a male voice in the video), I can only say that I agree. If we talk of a God whose only response to prayer is "Yes", "No" or "wait", we are not talking about the God of the Bible, who is far more than a repository for wishes and who exhibits a strong history of independence. Granted, the author is relying on quotes from Christianity.com, and a number of scientific studies about prayer to back up his arguments. Yet the author fails to address the greater complexities of God's action throughout scriptures: calling people from one place to another, giving guidance, direction, even commands which come completely 'out of the frame' of a simple Yes/No/Wait paradigm. A conception of God so limited is not the god of the bible, nor the God of the Christian (or Jewish, or Islamic) faith, and I am happy to agree that such a god is imaginary. I am also happy to admit that there are christians who hold to such a notion of God... but since when has an idea been responsible for those who believe in it? In fact, I would be happy for the author to continue to debunk such absolute notions of God (which is not to say that there are no times when the simple answer to a prayer is either yes, no, or wait.)

Of course, the problem with scientific studies on prayer is that there is no way to guarantee that the control group is completely without prayer. And often assessments of the relative merit of outcomes implies that to be healthy is better than to be ill, to be perfect physically is to be better regarded than a person with some physical limitations (which of course diminishes some of the greats of history), and that suffering is always completely without merit or value.

And that's not to mention the response of a colleague who indicated that his wife could well respond yes/no/wait but cannot be equated with a jug of milk.

In the end, the pejorative claims "you are a smart person" allows me to see through the smokescreen which purports to be conclusive argument.

Posted by gary at 10:23 PM | Comments (0)

April 18, 2007

Shaped by Images

In the movie Dead Poet's Society, Robin Williams' character is a teacher, John Keating, who inspires his students to reflect on the opportunity which stands before them. He takes his students down to the hallowed entrance halls of Welton Academy where pictures of past students adorn the walls. He asks them to look into the faces, look into the eyes, see their dreams, their hopes, and identify with their idealism. And know that they are all dead. He encourages them to "Seize the Day", knowing that opportunity slips by quickly.
This is but one of many movie scenes which captures my imagination. I am a lover of movies for two reasons: the images they present which implant enduring ideas in our minds, and because movies tell stories. One rabbi once said that God made people because he loves stories.
In an episode of the Simpsons entitled Colonel Homer, Bart takes Lisa into see a horror movie. As one particularly horrific scene is about to be played out, Lisa covers her eyes and tells Bart to let her know when it has passed. Bart tricks her into looking earlier, meeting loud complaints. Bart's response: "How are you going to be desensitised to this unless you watch it?"
Jerry Mander once argued, quite powerfully, I would suggest, that "we evolve into the images we carry in our minds. We become what we see." Mander was concerned about the impact of television, but he strikes upon a broader truth we do well to contemplate.
Stories are told of Vietnam Veterans who were surprised during their first real battle that those who were killed did not stand up and walk away, just as they did in every war movie they had seen.
Vincent Van Gogh saw the real world as an imitation of the paintings he saw in the museum.
we evolve into the images we carry in our minds. We become what we see.
When Paul encountered the Christians in Corinth, he drew three very different images of glory: "Jews ask for signs, Greeks search for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified." (1 Cor 1:22-23)

I love this story about a young boy's struggle with maths:
A ten year old boy was finding fifth grade maths to be the challenge of his life. Science? A piece of cake. Geography? No big deal. Spelling? Ha! Give me a break... but MATHS? It was devastating! To not only him, but his mom and dad, too! And not that they weren't doing everything and anything to help their son...Private tutors, peer assistance, CD-Roms, Textbooks, even HYPNOSIS! Nothing worked.
Finally, at the insistence of a family friend, they decided to enrol their son in a private school. Not just ANY private school, but a Catholic school. Nuns. Weekly mass. The whole shootin' match.
Well, the first day of school finally arrived, and dressed in his salt-and-pepper cords and white wool dress shirt and blue cardigan sweater, the youngster ventured out into the great unknown. His mother and father were convinced they were doing the right thing.
They were both there waiting for their son when he returned home. And when he walked in with a stern, focused and very determined expression on his face, they hoped they had made the right choice. He walked right past them and went straight to his room - and quietly closed the door.
For nearly two hours he toiled away in his room - with maths books strewn about his desk and the surrounding floor. He only emerged long enough to eat, and after quickly cleaning his plate, he went straight back to his room, closed the door, and worked feverishly at his studies until bedtime. This pattern continued ceaselessly until it was time for the first quarter report card.
After school, the boy walked into the home with his report card, unopened, in his hand. Without a word, he dropped the envelope on the family dinner table and went straight to his room. His parents were petrified. What lay inside the envelope? Success? Failure? DOOM?!?
Patiently, cautiously the mother opened the letter, and to her amazement, she saw a bright red "A" under the subject, MATHS. Overjoyed, she and her husband rushed into their son's room, thrilled at the remarkable progress of their young son!
"Was it the nuns that did it?", the father asked. The boy only shook his head and said, "No."
"Was it the one-on-one tutoring? The peer-mentoring?", asked the mother.
Again, the boy shrugged, "No."
"The textbooks? The teacher? The curriculum?" asked the father.
"Nope," said the son. "It was all very clear to me from the very first day of Catholic school."
"How so?" asked his mom.
"When I walked into the lobby, and I saw that guy they'd nailed to the plus sign, I knew they meant business!"

Sometimes we have questioned our Catholic brothers and sisters who cherish crucifixes, largely because we want to remind everyone that Christ is risen. But this did not seem to be a problem to Paul: "we want to preach Christ crucified," he said. There was something about this image which Paul wanted to be implanted firmly upon the brains of the Corinthians. It would be a recurring theme throughout the epistle. It's not that Paul didn't believe in the resurrection - there is a powerful argument for it in chapter 15. It is just that Paul wanted to counter a misconception in the Corinthian church about what it meant to follow Jesus. And the powerful corrective was the crucified Jesus. The enduring image for the Christian was Christ crucified. We evolve into the images we carry in our minds. We become what we see.

We might ask ourselves where in history is the most powerful moment of the revelation of God? Perhaps the Exodus? The Ten Commandments? Elijah on Mount Carmel? David and Goliath? Paul would answer unequivocally: the cross of Jesus Christ: the place where the centurion declared, "Truly this man was the Son of God"; the time when the temple curtain was torn in two. It was for this reason that Paul wants the cross of Christ to be an enduring image in our minds. It reveals something central to the character of God, and to our own formation.

The cross of Jesus stands in the way of triumphalism - which was certainly a problem in the Corinthian church, where it was the powerful and influential who were most admired, and for this reason Paul, with his infirmities struggled to gain acceptance as an apostle. It stands behind arguments about who was baptised by whom (which appear earlier in the chapter).

Paul did not regard the cross as an aberration on the way to the resurrection, nor that the resurrection denied the validity of the cross - the place where the cry of abandonment ("My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?") becomes the most poignant moment of revelation in human history. The resurrection of Jesus is an affirmation of the cross: the heavenly hand affirming that Jesus by his death was revealing something about God.

This is an important image to hold on to. If the death of Christ becomes a focus of God's revelation, what does it say about our own struggles and suffering? We discover God not by denying these realities, but by facing them. God's power is at work in the cross of Christ, and is equally at work in the frustrations and deaths of our own circumstances. We do not need to look out of these to find God, but to look into them, and walk through them. So that even when we encounter the risen Jesus, he bears the marks of crucifixion. He is the crucified one who has been raised. In resurrection he remains who he always was.

Rabbi Zusya tells a story to his followers as the one which has most moved him to tears. He pictures himself in a dream coming to the gates of heaven, and finds that God does not ask him, "Why have you not been more like Abraham?" or "Why have you not been more like Moses?" Instead God asks him, "Why weren't you Zusya?"

Paul asks us to carry at the forefront of our minds an image of Jesus crucified: a reminder that the Lord of the church is true to his character as the one who walked the streets of Galilee and became the crucified one. Foolishness, yes, but an image which reminds us that - as ones who follow in the footsteps of Jesus - our call is to be ourselves, walking in the purposes of God. Walking in all our brokenness, in the depths of our questions and struggles, in moments of abandonment as well as triumph.

We evolve into the images we carry in our minds. We become what we see.

What is the image of yourself you see most? What is the image of Jesus?

Posted by gary at 07:03 PM | Comments (0)

March 15, 2007

Nonviolence

I was privileged to hear Father John Dear speak at a Whitley College seminar yesterday. John is a peace activist in the non-violent tradition of Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, whose message is grounded in the gospel narrative, and flows from and into the life that he leads. He has given me much food for thought, but one stands out above all others at this time. I have been reading a series of reflections on the last words of Jesus from the cross by Stanley Hauerwas, fitting as we move through Lent. John Dear made an observation which gave me pause for thought... what were the last words of Jesus to the gathered church of the time? They were spoken in the Garden of Gethsemane... "put down your swords".
From this time forward, the disciples dispersed; the last words from the cross heard by only a few.
What is the import of these words?
It struck me as John spoke that we regularly disconnect the individual events of Holy Week in particular and the life of Jesus in general from the overall picture. We cannot separate Jesus' injunction to put down the sword from his crucifixion, or response under pressure at trial - Jesus eschewed violence as a response. Neither can we ignore Jesus' overturning of the tables in the temple, or the prayer for his disciples, "Love one another as I have loved you".
The Christian faith has been tacked onto, and at times given fuel to trains heading for war. How are we to embrace this last command of Jesus in the garden?
The way of nonviolence has demonstrated powerful and transformative effects, far greater than military might (consider Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, The Falklands, the list could go on...), yet we have barely learnt the ways.
It is something which will remain at the forefront of my journey through Lent.

Posted by gary at 11:28 AM | Comments (1)

March 07, 2007

Mis en Place

Since reading Fernando's reflection on the concept of Mis en Place, itself inspired by The Happiness Project, I have been contemplating its implications. For the uninitiated, mis en place is a cooking concept which refers to the process of careful preparation which allows a chef to give full attention to the process of mixing ingredients and cooking. Every ingredient, every tool and bowl, every machine is prepared before starting… in this way the task can move smoothly to its completion (which explains why those cooking shows make everything look so easy - the work of preparation is completed in advance). As Fernando indicates, professional chefs are pedantic about this, providing as it does a way through the anarchic chaos which professional kitchens often appear.
By taking this concept and reflecting on it in relation to our own creativity and spirituality, Fernando triggered some deep thoughts within, particularly as I have often pondered the place of discipline in a vital Christian spirituality. People of my generation tend to regard discipline with suspicion, regarding it as a recipe for stifling individuality and limiting both creativity and realisation of potential. Yet as I have considered the sporting field, the lie of these assumptions is exposed. Most of us are in thrall at the creative capabilities of elite sports personnel. They can push boundaries, create opportunities and respond with flair only because they have applied the concept of mis en place to their lives: they have put all the work to ensure that the skills, capabilities and fitness is there to draw on at the critical moment. Discipline releases creativity. It enables endurance. It reassures one that, in the critical moments, there are resources to draw upon, well-rehearsed skills and patterns, and a repertoire of options available.
In the spiritual journey the items of mis en place may well be prayer, study, reflection, journaling, meditation, fasting, stillness, service... among the many classic spiritual disciplines available to us from history. Such time of preparation is not wasted, even when the ingredients are not employed in the immediate situation. Such practices serve to deepen our humanity and expand our being, sending deep roots which can nurture and nourish us at the most surprising times.

Posted by gary at 07:38 PM | Comments (0)

February 08, 2007

Revisiting Numbers

I have been fond of saying that the three measures by which we traditionally determine success in ministry is based around "the three Bs: Bums (on seats), Budgets, and Buildings". If any of these is on the increase, we assume that the ministry is a good (successful) one. But I wonder whether that is true.

Ryan Bolger takes another look at numbers:

We needed to take another look. Are numbers always evil?
He suggests that "what is counted is always imbued with theology." And suggests that perhaps numbers still have a place - suggesting different things to count.

Posted by gary at 05:21 PM | Comments (0)

February 07, 2007

Memorable and Transforming Speeches

Our community reflections this year have focussed on the Sermon on the Mount. We began by reflecting on the speeches and/or sermons which have made an indelible print upon us. Of more recent times, there is one which stood out above all, and for the vast majority of our community: Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. If you have never heard the speech, or seen footage, let me urge you... it is worth the few minutes of your time.

MLK's dream still stands largely unfulfilled some 44 years later, but it has not lost its power or its pertinence. Significant gains have been made in some quarters, smaller ones elsewhere, and a large reservoir remains unmoved. His passion is grounded in reality, grounded in scripture, and grounded in hope. Though society has changed significantly, it resonates at many levels.

MLK's speech is an interesting frame through which to view the Sermon on the Mount. It is tempting to view the SM through a rigid theological frame, as a simple critique of society, or as a (quasi-academic) treatise rather than hear its passion, be moved by its vision, and embraced in hope. Yet rather seeing the SM as offering an unrealistic burden, we need to encounter it as a paeon of hope, a harbinger of a new way of being, a manifesto of radical living. Its groundedness is evident, its challenges very pointed. As one observer noted: the SM has more often than not left untried because it is too hard. Such sentiments did not deter MLK, Gandhi, Wilberforce, and a litany of others who have been driven by a higher ideal.

Take careful note of the movement in MLK's speech as you watch: when he moves from the text to the heart (not that the two are mutually exclusive). Know that the dream is not pie in the sky. Then when it is finished, turn to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). It will take you less time to read than to listen to MLK. Be inspired and challenged. Dare to live the dream!

Posted by gary at 04:10 PM | Comments (0)

February 02, 2007

Is the emerging church new?

Maggie Dawn has made some insightful comments about the status of the emerging church movement, questioning whether it is even important that it is new, and at the same time drawing on the biblical notion that "there is nothing new under the sun" (Eccl 1:9 - my words, not hers).

Perhaps one of the real tragedies of considering the emerging church as something of a novelty (in the deepest sense of the word) is that it isolates the deep questions which undergird the movement from churches who do not consider themselves in any sense emergent. Yet for the most part the questions which drive the varied manifestations of the emerging church are fundamental to the future of the church as a whole, even if they exist in the context of broader questions. But the 'isolation' of the emerging church from the mainstream conversation has created a sense for many that it is an irrelevant phenomenon, and that the questions it is asking (and forming responses to) are uniquely theirs.

But these questions (should) trouble us all. Some which are presently being grappled with in the context of the emerging church include:
How much is the gospel become captive to the modern world-view?
How can we form community in ways which reflect present concerns and dynamics?
What is the ultimate purpose of the church, and how does it sustain its life and witness where the structure of everyday life has been radically changed?
What is truth? Can we ever know "pure" truth, or is our view always coloured by where we sit?
In what sense do we serve the structures of the church, and is this necessary for the mission of the church?
What does it mean to be authentically christian in this global village with all of its attendant challenges?
Is society something more than an economy?

I would suggest that, while these (and other) questions are at the forefront of thinking in much of the emerging church, they are important for all christians to grapple with, no matter their church estting. In this sense, the emerging/traditional church dichotomy breaks down.

Posted by gary at 05:39 PM | Comments (0)

January 27, 2007

Culture Creators?

It was assumed for many years that christians were somehow removed from culture, and that the message of the gospel was a-cultural - timeless, if you will, without influence in the places where it was anchored. In more recent years we have come to recognise, and own, the impact of culture on the way in which we have proclaimed the gospel, often in ways which did significant damage to indigenous peoples. At the same time, we learned to critique our own cultural contexts in order to more effectively minister. Some have done this exceptionally well, at least as far as measurement based on numbers of people in churches is concerned. In many ways we have waded unwittingly into the territory of merely imitating culture, and rendered ourselves compromised, if not powerless, when it comes to the task of transforming it.
What is the way forward?
We can satisfy ourselves that we are merely being faithful by not engaging with the surrounding culture - the way of the Amish (at one extreme) whereby we are regarded as a curio... exhibting some merit, but not necessarily offering a replicable pattern for the broader community.
Culture is almost always global AND local. We find ourselves intimidated when faced with the global media-inspired and -driven culture which has broad impact. We could set ourselves up as a christian media conglomerate and manufacture our own TV programs and movies, and even produce some interesting product lines to get out the message. We could... but we don't necessarily have the resources to do so. And even if we did, are we transforming it by merely reproducing it?

Better start local.
Having spent our married life in Melbourne, my wife and I have made our way anti-clockwise around the suburbs. While this is unusual (there is an "eastern drift" evident among the Melbourne population over that time - most people move further out along the axes from the city in which they grew up), it has exposed the variety of local cultures which are evident in Melbourne. The south-east is very different from the east (bible belt), which is again different from the northern suburbs. When our church rebuilt its manse, we found temporary accommodation across the Yarra, not 10 kilometres from where the manse was located, yet we found ourselves in a significantly different cultural, as well as socio-economic set. The inner city has also revealed these very strong local tendencies - West and North Melbourne a different culture from Footscray, not 5 kilometres west of here, and different again from Docklands, and the city.
Which offers some insight into the challenges of culture facing the church. There is significant scope to impact one's local culture. Building strong links with one's neighbourhood, and seeking to strengthen community spirit, and create new community links can have a significant local impact.
I know that there are some who might suggest that it is not much of an impact - but if we do not impact where we live, what hope do we have in transforming a community where we do not live?
Through street parties, local functions, seasonal celebrations, community festivals, and community-based fund-raising efforts, it is possible to impact the way local communities respond to one another, and meet challenges which each inevitably faces.
Through building of relationships, the possibility of dialoguing with and about global culture and its impact is enhanced, offering opportunity not only for critique, but for creating new ways of being. Oddly enough, you will more often than not find similar concerns about the impact of broader culture held by many who have never stepped near a church.
We can, however, retreat behind oaken doors and live restricted lives in which we are cut off from wider cultural pressures. It might help us, but isn't that a bit like hiding a light under a bucket? Ought we not welcome the opportunity to engage with others who recognise this same pressure, and yearn for new ways of being? You'll be surprised how receptive and creative people can be - if we don't simply offer pat answers without opportunity for joint struggle.

Posted by gary at 05:03 PM | Comments (0)

November 07, 2006

Cotton Patch Gospel

I remember being impressed by "The Cotton Patch Parables of Liberation" many years ago - it brought the gospels to life in a new and fresh way. I had no idea that its author, Clarence Jordan, had translated much more of the New Testament, or its context, until alerted by Geoff Leslie, who has just completed an essay for a post-graduate course. Geoff and his wife Debbie have lead a significant ministry in a rural setting for many years, and writes a regular column for the local paper. By permission, I include it here.

I have a new hero. I just wrote an essay about a man who lived in Georgia USA, who died in 1969 named Clarence Jordan. He had many enemies and very little recognition in his time, but many today recognise he was a wonderful example for life and should get more recognition.

His essential focus was that he didn't see any difference between Negroes (as he called them - 'African Americans' is more PC today) and the whites (er, 'Anglo Americans') and he started a communal farm where black and white families worked together. That generated visits from the Klu Klux Klan and incredible hostility. But let me outline the story from the beginning.

Jordan always felt that he wanted to do something like the communal farm idea but knew that he needed some training, so he studied agriculture and got a degree in that. Then he anticipated there might be some arguments with church folks so he thought he would study theology as well. He found a natural ability in New Testament Greek and ended up getting a doctorate - a PhD in Greek.

Then, in 1942, he and his wife Florence walked across a thousand-acre farm that was for sale. It was red soil degraded by too much cotton-growing, and to Clarence it cried out, 'Heal me! Heal me!'.

With another couple, they bought it and began to implement good agricultural method while inviting other families, black and white to join them on Koinonia Farm – 'koinonia' being Greek for fellowship or togetherness.

One day he took a dark-skinned friend to his local church. They got thrown out and the church banned anyone from Koinonia farm from ever being a member there. Soon there was an economic boycott - all local merchants were warned not to trade with 'those nigger-lovers'. The persecution grew through all the 1950's and 1960's; it was pretty rough.

Clarence was bewildered by the churches and Christians who lived with such hate and prejudice. Didn't they read the same Bible and follow the same Jesus as he did? He decided the problem was that the Bible was not translated properly. It hid its message behind old fashioned words and its radical message was having no impact.

So he began to tell the story of Jesus as if it were happening in Georgia. 'Jesus was born in Gainesville, Georgia when Herod was governor in Atlanta...' He put the story into the contemporary landscape and it became much easier to see how radical Jesus was and why he was killed. Eventually he produced most of the New Testament in this translation and he called it the Cotton Patch Version. It's most radical feature was that instead of the ancient terms 'Jew' and 'Gentile', he used 'white' and 'Negro', so that, for instance, when Paul's letter to the Ephesians talks about Christ coming to reconcile Jews and Gentiles, the Cotton Patch Version reads:

"So then, always remember that previously you Negroes, who sometimes are even called "niggers" by thoughtless white church members, were at one time outside the Christian fellowship, denied your rights as fellow believers, and treated as though the gospel didn't apply to you, hopeless and God-forsaken in the eyes of the world. Now, however, because of Christ's supreme sacrifice, you who once were so segregated are warmly welcomed into the Christian fellowship."

As you can imagine, in the racially segregated South, this was inflammatory material. The whole translation is now on the Internet at http://rockhay.tripod.com/cottonpatch/index.htm

The Cotton Patch version however remains a wonderful piece of work. Someone even made a musical about it called "Cotton Patch Gospel" with music by Harry Chapin. This musical is being screened free at the Baptist Church this Sunday night, at 6pm - but I digress.

I wish readers could encounter the vitality and power of Clarence’s own words. Here's how he explains why he doesn’t use the word 'cross' or 'crucifixion' – preferring to speak of Jesus being 'lynched'.
"There just isn't any word in our vocabulary which adequately translates the Greek word for "crucifixion." Our crosses are so shined, so polished, so respectable that to be impaled on one of them would seem to be a blessed experience. We have thus emptied the term "crucifixion" of its original content of terrific emotion, of violence, of indignity and stigma, of defeat. I have translated it as "lynching," well aware that this is not technically correct. Jesus was officially tried and legally condemned, elements generally lacking in a lynching. But having observed the operation of Southern "justice," and at times having been its victim, I can testify that more people have been lynched "by judicial action" than by unofficial ropes. Pilate at least had the courage and the honesty to publicly wash his hands and disavow all legal responsibility. "See to it yourselves," he told the mob. And they did. They crucified him in Judea and they strung him up in Georgia, with a noose tied to a pine tree."

Clarence Jordan died at the age of 58 in his study. The coroner wouldn't come to that hated farm to check him out. A co-worker drove his body propped up in a car through the town to the coroner's office. Next day, after an autopsy (it was a heart attack), they sent his body back nude in the back of a station wagon with his clothes in a bag. He was buried in a cardboard box on a hillside on the farm surrounded by the poor folks he spent his life amongst. The farm lives on and so does a wonderful international humanitarian organisation called Habitat for Humanity that he helped start. But in life and death, he was an unrecognised hero. We need more of them.

Although this article is yet to be archived on his web site, more articles by Geoff Leslie can be found on his web site.

Posted by gary at 03:35 PM | Comments (0)

April 03, 2006

The Secular Church

The following article, written by Rick Dugan offers an interesting perspective on the present challenges facing the church. Rick has been leading an international church in the Middle East for many years...

The Secular Church

We are a part of the Church at a pivotal time in history. For the last 1600 years western nations could proudly claim to be the home of `Christendom' – lands and cultures where Christian values reigned and where the church wielded significant influence. But no longer. Christendom is dying. Rather than occupying a central place in society as it has since the fourth century, the Christian church is now finding itself on the margins – a situation similar to what the early church faced.

Many attribute this loss of influence to the rapid secularization of western culture. Yet statistics indicate that contemporary America is not less but more spiritual than it was in previous decades. The secular society has failed to satisfy spiritual thirst, solve the world's problems, or provide meaningful answers to life. Now many are willing to acknowledge a divine dimension to reality. Though more open to the influence of the supernatural in their lives, Americans are increasingly less likely to look to the institutional church for spiritual guidance. The success of books and films such as The Da Vinci Code reveal how deep is the distrust of institutional religion while highlighting people's desire for a spiritual connection through non-traditional means.

Why has this happened? Let me suggest that one cause may be the secularization of the church rather than the secularization of society. At first the idea of a secular church may appear to be a contradiction in terms. After all, the Church is a religious institution, and "secular" refers to something that is not influenced by religion. A secular worldview assumes that faith is a personal rather than public matter and that the problems of life can be addressed by science and reason. In subtle ways this worldview has permeated the church of North America.

During the era of the megachurches a strong emphasis was placed on personal application and meeting felt needs. The autonomous individualism that characterizes a secular society was encouraged as churches turned the gospel into a means of personal fulfillment. A subtle shift occurred in the interest of "relevancy" as the outward proclamation of the story of Jesus and its claims upon us was replaced with the inward application of principles to enhance our lives.

A second way that the secular worldview has influenced the body of Christ is in our approach to church growth. Many churches engaged in marketing rather than mission to help their congregations grow. As George Barna writes, "For several decades, the Church has relied upon greater sums of money, better techniques, bigger numbers and facilities, and more impressive credentials as the means to influence society at large. These elements have failed us; in our efforts to serve God, we have crowded out God Himself."

Where do we go from here? We could spend our time mourning the death of Christendom and fighting to regain our position of power, but is that what the Church is called to do? We must resist looking to our culture to provide us with the tools to minister. Instead, we need to look to Jesus. It is the incarnation that provides our model for ministry rather than Wall Street or Hollywood. In John 20:21 he said, "As the Father has sent me, I also send you." The leaders who guide the church into the future will not be CEOs. They will be prophets and poets who look to God and point their congregations to Him.

In Mark 2:15 we see Jesus exemplifying mission and leadership in a world similar to our own. It says, `Now it happened, as He was dining in Levi's house, that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him.' For Jesus, mission often took place in the context of a community. Rather than a multiple staff, He had friends. Rather than marketing, we see hospitality. Rather than a program, He shared a meal. He brought the kingdom of God into the homes and workplaces where life happened.

Second, Jesus demonstrated that leaders themselves must be involved in mission. As a leader, He entered the home of someone that the religious professionals would have avoided. But not only did he visit tax collectors and sinners, he led his disciples there as well. No doubt the disciples felt uncomfortable as they sat with people that the religious establishment rejected, but they trusted the leadership of their rabbi. They were willing to follow him into dangerous territory. Today we need leaders who think like missionaries and lead their congregations in mission.

Third, Jesus invested His time in people who were followers and not just customers. His concern was never to draw a crowd, but to make disciples. We need churches willing to abandon the world's standards for success – standards of size and budgets – by becoming intentional about ministering to those on the margins and helping them become followers of Jesus.

More important than engaging our culture, we must reengage with the mission of God. Darrel Guder rightly says, "The answer to the crisis of the North American church will not be found at the level of method and problem solving. The real issues in the current crisis of the Christian church are spiritual and theological." To overcome the effects of secularization and to minister once again from the margins of society, we must become worshiping communities participating in God's mission.

The world doesn't need – or want – a secular church. As secular rock group Green Day sing, "The Jesus of suburbia is a lie." They speak for a world in crisis – a world that no longer believes that science, politics, or organized religion can provide a life of hope and meaning. In this context, Christians live as an alternative community defined by our trust in Christ and participation in His work.

Overcoming our compromise with secular culture begins with repentance. We must confess we have relied on man's wisdom to fulfill God's purposes rather than looking to the Author and Finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). Once again we must listen to the voice of the Spirit and follow the example of Jesus to become the people of God. As we live out the message of reconciliation and invite others to trust in God, our churches become the arena where He lives and where others can witness what life is like under His rule. This is our greatest witness.

Posted by gary at 09:38 AM | Comments (0)

March 25, 2006

Critical Thinking

At the risk of gutting the full intent of Frank's thoughtful post on rational faith, this particular comment jumped out at me:

The willingness to think is one of the most scarce capacities in our current situation. There is a great scarcity of critical thinking. We value the kind of thinking that 'produces results'—that is, which helps us to know how to do things, and to do them better. We value the kind of thinking that will give us more things, more money, more 'outcomes'. But we find it uncomfortable, or downright annoying, when someone asks questions about the values in these activities. We need the rational inquiry which involves self-criticism and moral challenge. In other posts I have written about the quest for truth. Most important for me is the quest for truthfulness.

It appears that one of the significant cultural shifts post-September 11 has been the reluctance to allow open publicly debate about the bigger questions of value and culture. Those who do so usually find themselves stereotyped - images such as "unAustralian" or "unpatriotic" are freely used - and suspicions about motives are raised. In times of crisis, this level of debate becomes more important, rather than less. In an era of redefinition, it remains equally so.

Posted by gary at 12:37 PM | Comments (1)

March 24, 2006

Lent and the Desert

Very helpful thoughts on the desert here.

Posted by gary at 10:30 AM | Comments (0)

March 19, 2006

Spirituality of Place

I have greatly appreciated the musings of Frank Rees on the spirituality of place, with his reflections on the beach and on contrasts. His reflections set me thinking, as I journeyed to some places in the past week which have been significant in my own journey, which I have reflected upon here.

Posted by gary at 08:52 PM | Comments (0)

March 18, 2006

Thoughts from Tomorrow's Message

Imagine the headline “God wants to destroy the church!” Most of us would be up in arms. If I preached that in some churches, I would doubt whether they would let me finish. Yet this is the message which Jeremiah is asked to preach. He stands before the people of Israel and tells them that if they want to be a part of God’s future, if they want to be in the place of God’s blessing, they have to leave the Promised Land behind (Jer 24). In other words, to know the blessing of God, they would have to let go of a blessing they had already been given. They would have to leave behind the Promised Land, leave behind the temple, leave behind the palace where memories of David and Solomon crossed their minds every time they saw the palace. They would not only leave behind the place where the stories of the heroes of faith were lived, they would need to embrace something which would generally be regarded as the antithesis of everything that they stood for as the people of God - submission to the rulers of Babylon, where they would be taken in exile. Jeremiah was not a popular man for preaching this message. They wanted to kill him. But… Jeremiah was convinced that the people had held so tightly to the blessing which God had given them in the past, they had crushed its meaning. It was like the manna served in the desert – if it was held on to for too long, it would turn rancid. The only way to experience the fresh manna was to let go of the one already held.

Posted by gary at 10:06 PM | Comments (0)

March 09, 2006

Red Letter Christians

Here's a new term doing the rounds. Don't know if it will catch on, but it's one worth thinking about...

Because being evangelical is usually synonymous with being Republican in the popular mind, and calling ourselves “progressive” might be taken as a value judgment by those who do share our views, we decided not to call ourselves “progressive evangelicals.” We came up with a new name: Red-Letter Christians.

Who first suggested the label? A secular Jewish Country-and-Western disc jockey in Nashville, Tennessee. During a radio interview he was conducting with Jim Wallis, he happened to say, “So, you’re one of those Red-Letter Christians - you know - who’s really into those verses in the New Testament that are in red letters!”

Jim answered, “That’s right!” And with that answer, he spoke for all of us. By calling ourselves Red-Letter Christians, we are alluding to the fact that in several versions of the New Testament, the words of Jesus are printed in red. In adopting this name, we are saying that we are committed to living out the things that He said. Of course, the message in those red-lettered verses is radical, to say the least. If you don’t believe me, read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

In those red letters, He calls us away from the consumerist values that dominate contemporary American consciousness. He calls us to be merciful, which has strong implications for how we think about capital punishment. When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he probably means we shouldn’t kill them. Most important, if we take Jesus seriously, we will realize that meeting the needs of the poor is a primary responsibility for His followers.

Figuring out just how to relate those radical red letters in the Bible to the complex issues in the modern world will be difficult, but that’s what we’ll try to do.

Gandhi once said that everybody in the world knows what Jesus was teaching in those verses - except Christians! We will try to prove him wrong.

Read the full story here.

Posted by gary at 04:12 PM | Comments (6)

February 27, 2006

Of wine and wineskins

Our Sacred Space on Sunday night focussed its reflection on the issue of wine and wineskins. It was difficult to articulate the nature of wine when it came to our faith journey. Is it because its nature is something so profound as to be difficult to frame into words? Or because we have become so focussed on the wineskins (frameworks) of our faith that have forgotten that which we long to drink? It was much easier to speak of the metaphor in historical terms, much more difficult to reinterpret for our day.

Posted by gary at 06:43 AM | Comments (0)

February 25, 2006

Fighting the enemy...

A Favourite Tony Campolo Story...

When Bill Clinton met Nelson Mandela for the first time, there was an incredible conversation. Bill Clinton asked Nelson Mandela, "When they released you from prison, I got Chelsea up at three in the morning because I wanted have her see this. I knew it was a historic moment and I got her out of bed to see you released from prison.

"As you walked across the courtyard, from the cellblock to the gate of the prison, the television cameras focused in on your face. I have never seen such anger, such animosity, and such hatred. I mean, you usually can't see that so clearly revealed. It was all over you. It was intense hatred, intense resentment. President Mandela, that is not the Nelson Mandela that I know today. Could you explain what was going on?"

Nelson Mandela says, "You're the first one that brought that to my attention. I didn't know that anybody noticed that. But as they released me from the prison block and as I walked across the courtyard to the gate, I thought to myself, 'They've taken everything away from me, my family is destroyed, my cause has been crushed, my friends are dead, anything, anybody, that meant anything to me, they've destroyed it all,' and I hated them with a fiery hatred. And then God spoke to me, and said, 'Nelson, for 27 years, you were their prisoner, but you were always a free man. Don't let them make you into a free man, only to turn you into their prisoner.'"

We have to be careful when we fight the dragon, lest we become the dragon.

Posted by gary at 09:28 PM | Comments (1)

February 23, 2006

Mega Churches and the depth of faith

Conversations at the current World Council of Churches gatherings seems to be hitting some important marks, although I'm not sure that today's report will make fans of mega church all that happy.

WCC general secretary Samuel Kobia has been reported to have expressed concern that the spread of megachurches around the world "could lead to a Christianity that is two miles long and one inch deep". He is reported to have said that "It has no depth, in most cases, theologically speaking, and has no appeal for any commitment.

"It's a church being organised on corporate logic. That can be quite dangerous if we are not very careful, because this may become a Christianity which I describe as two miles long and one inch deep."

Apparently the number of megachurches has doubled since 2000, with the following characteristics: based in the suburbs, mostly run on a business model, low on call to commitment, and - the major concern it seems - disconnected from the historical christian message, but more turned towards populism.

Arguably the danger is not so much that such churches exist, but that they are self-sufficient, breaking their nexus with the global church. One strength (which it seems is cited by the WCC as a weakness) is that it breaks through denominational barriers.

My own reflections on megachurch leave me with the impression that they are the pinnacle of modernity, but also at the hub of a transition which we are numbly sensing in the winds of change: which God's Spirit is stirring. It might be easier to point out the weaknesses in "megachurch" and miss the ones in the settings from which we view. A third way????

Posted by gary at 07:52 PM | Comments (0)

February 21, 2006

On Being a Christian

Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams addressed the World Council of Churches on February 17, choosing as his topic the notion of Christian identity... it is worthy of a complete read, but here are some thoughts that jumped out at me:

The claim of Christian belief is not first and foremost that it offers the only accurate system of thought, as against all other competitors; it is that, by standing in the place of Christ, it is possible to live in such intimacy with God that no fear or failure can ever break God’s commitment to us, and to live in such a degree of mutual gift and understanding that no human conflict or division need bring us to uncontrollable violence and mutual damage. From here, you can see what you need to see to be at peace with God and with God’s creation; and also what you need to be at peace with yourself, acknowledging your need of mercy and re-creation.

...To be a Christian is not to lay claim to absolute knowledge, but to lay claim to the perspective that will transform our most deeply rooted hurts and fears and so change the world at the most important level. It is a perspective that depends on being where Jesus is, under his authority, sharing the ‘breath’ of his life, seeing what he sees – God as Abba, Father, a God completely committed to the people in whose life he seeks to reproduce his own life.

...And when we face radically different notions, strange and complex accounts of a perspective not our own, our questions must be not ‘How do we convict them of error? How do we win the competition of ideas?’ but, ‘What do they actually see? and can what they see be a part of the world that I see?’ These are questions that can be answered only by faithfulness – that is, by staying with the other. Our calling to faithfulness, remember, is an aspect of our own identity and integrity. To work patiently alongside people of other faiths is not an option invented by modern liberals who seek to relativise the radical singleness of Jesus Christ and what was made possible through him. It is a necessary part of being where he is; it is a dimension of ‘liturgy’, staying before the presence of God and the presence of God’s creation (human and non-human) in prayer and love. If we are truly learning how to be in that relation with God and the world in which Jesus of Nazareth stood, we shall not turn away from those who see from another place. And any claim or belief that we see more or more deeply is always rightly going to be tested in those encounters where we find ourselves working for a vision of human flourishing and justice in the company of those who do not start where we have started.

...The question of Christian identity in a world of plural perspectives and convictions cannot be answered in clichés about the tolerant co-existence of different opinions. It is rather that the nature of our conviction as Christians puts us irrevocably in a certain place, which is both promising and deeply risky, the place where we are called to show utter commitment to the God who is revealed in Jesus and to all those to whom his invitation is addressed...

Thoughts?

The full text of the speech is available here.

Posted by gary at 11:24 PM | Comments (0)

February 20, 2006

The Rules for Being Human

I return to this little thought from time to time. Kirrily prompted it with her recent comment.

1. You will receive a body. You may like it or hate it, but it will be yours for the entire period this time around.
2. You will learn lessons. You are enrolled in a full time informal school called life. Each day in this school you will have the opportunity to learn lessons. You may like the lessons or think them irrelevant and stupid.
3. There are no mistakes, only lessons. Growth is a process of trial and error, experimentation. The "failed" experiments are as much a part of the process as the experiment that ultimately "works."
4. A lesson is repeated until learned. A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it. When you have learned it, you can go on to the next lesson.
5. Learning lessons does not end. There is no part of life that does not contain its lessons. If you are alive there are lessons to be learned.
6. "There" is no better than "here." When your "there" has become a "here" you will simply obtain another "there" that will again look better than "here."
7. Others are merely mirrors of you. You cannot love or hate something about another person unless it reflects to you something you love or hate about yourself.
8. What you make of your life is up to you. You have all the tools and resources you need. What you do with them is up to you. The choice is yours.
9. Your answers lie inside you. The answer to life's questions lie inside you. All you need to do is look, listen, and trust.
10. This will often be forgotten, only to be remembered again.

(author unknown)

Posted by gary at 10:34 PM | Comments (1)

February 19, 2006

The Nature of the Bible

Interesting piece of lgic. Reminds me a lot of C.S. Lewis's threefold critique of Jesus (Liar, Lunatic, or Lord) from Mere Christianity and... interestingly, appearing in the Narnia Book, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe when the two older children initially engage the old professor about Lucy's first story about visiting Narnia. Anyhow, this is taken from a book called 'A Ready Defense' by Josh McDowell, and he's quoting Charles Wesley (thanks to dboy for this)

The Bible must be either the invention of good men or angels, bad men or demons, or of God. Therefore:

1. It could not be the invention of good men or angels, for they neither could nor would make a book, and tell lies all the time they were writing it, saying, "Thus saith the Lord" when it was their own invention.

2. It could not be an invention of bad men or devils, for they would not make a book that commands all duty, forbids all sin, and condemns their souls to hell to all eternity.

3. Therefore, I draw this conclusion, that the Bible must be given by divine inspiration.

Thoughts?

Posted by gary at 10:24 AM | Comments (2)

February 01, 2006

Brian McLaren wanders into hot territory

Brian McLaren has touched on perhaps the hottest topic in church life in the West in a recent leadership blog... I reporoduce it here - well worth reading. It has created quite a strong response on both sides. Marc Driscoll of Mars Hill makes a strong argument in the opposite direction, and another from Blog and Mablog.

I wonder whether there are two conversations crossing each other here: a pastoral and a theological one... It's a conversation that won't go away.

The couple approached me immediately after the service. This was their first time visiting, and they really enjoyed the service, they said, but they had one question. You can guess what the question was about: not transubstantiation, not speaking in tongues, not inerrancy or eschatology, but where our church stood on homosexuality.

That "still, small voice" told me not to answer. Instead I asked, "Can you tell me why that question is important to you?" "It's a long story," he said with a laugh.


Usually when I'm asked about this subject, it's by conservative Christians wanting to be sure that we conform to what I call "radio-orthodoxy," i.e. the religio-political priorities mandated by many big-name religious broadcasters. Sometimes it's asked by ex-gays who want to be sure they'll be supported in their ongoing re-orientation process, or parents whose children have recently "come out."

But the young woman explained, "This is the first time my fiancée and I have ever actually attended a Christian service, since we were both raised agnostic." So I supposed they were like most unchurched young adults I meet, who wouldn't want to be part of an anti-homosexual organization any more than they'd want to be part of a racist or terrorist organization.

I hesitate in answering "the homosexual question" not because I'm a cowardly flip-flopper who wants to tickle ears, but because I am a pastor, and pastors have learned from Jesus that there is more to answering a question than being right or even honest: we must also be . . . pastoral. That means understanding the question beneath the question, the need or fear or hope or assumption that motivates the question.

We pastors want to frame our answer around that need; we want to fit in with the Holy Spirit's work in that person's life at that particular moment. To put it biblically, we want to be sure our answers are "seasoned with salt" and appropriate to "the need of the moment" (Col. 4; Eph. 4).

Most of the emerging leaders I know share my agony over this question. We fear that the whole issue has been manipulated far more than we realize by political parties seeking to shave percentage points off their opponent's constituency. We see whatever we say get sucked into a vortex of politicized culture-wars rhetoric--and we're pastors, evangelists, church-planters, and disciple-makers, not political culture warriors. Those who bring us honest questions are people we are trying to care for in Christ's name, not cultural enemies we're trying to vanquish.

Frankly, many of us don't know what we should think about homosexuality. We've heard all sides but no position has yet won our confidence so that we can say "it seems good to the Holy Spirit and us." That alienates us from both the liberals and conservatives who seem to know exactly what we should think. Even if we are convinced that all homosexual behavior is always sinful, we still want to treat gay and lesbian people with more dignity, gentleness, and respect than our colleagues do. If we think that there may actually be a legitimate context for some homosexual relationships, we know that the biblical arguments are nuanced and multilayered, and the pastoral ramifications are staggeringly complex. We aren't sure if or where lines are to be drawn, nor do we know how to enforce with fairness whatever lines are drawn.

Perhaps we need a five-year moratorium on making pronouncements. In the meantime, we'll practice prayerful Christian dialogue, listening respectfully, disagreeing agreeably. When decisions need to be made, they'll be admittedly provisional. We'll keep our ears attuned to scholars in biblical studies, theology, ethics, psychology, genetics, sociology, and related fields. Then in five years, if we have clarity, we'll speak; if not, we'll set another five years for ongoing reflection. After all, many important issues in church history took centuries to figure out. Maybe this moratorium would help us resist the "winds of doctrine" blowing furiously from the left and right, so we can patiently wait for the wind of the Spirit to set our course.

Later that week I got together with the new couple to hear their story. "It's kind of weird how we met," they explained. "You see, we met last year through our fathers who became . . . partners. When we get married, we want to be sure they will be welcome at our wedding. That's why we asked you that question on Sunday."

Welcome to our world. Being "right" isn't enough. We also need to be wise. And loving. And patient. Perhaps nothing short of that should "seem good to the Holy Spirit and us."

Posted by gary at 05:13 PM | Comments (0)

January 29, 2006

Desert

This is Henri Nouwen’s phrase: “waiting is an awful desert between where they are and where they want to go.” How does the idea of a journey into the desert appeal to you? If I were to suggest that there is a spiritual desert ahead of you, what would be your response? Deserts aren’t places that people think of productively. There may be the Aussie desire for the outback, but that too is within reason. We aren’t welcoming of the desert.
AND YET… the desert is a pivotal place in the work of God through history.

Mark’s gospel begins Jesus’ ministry with his baptism. Immediately following baptism, Jesus journeyed into the desert. It’s not the first time. The Christmas story ends with Jesus being taken into the desert – following the arrival of the Magi, the story has Jesus heading into exile into Egypt. It is interesting that the story which follows Christmas is that of Jesus entering the wilderness. It is similar to this part his adult life, when immediately following baptism he went into the desert for 40 days.

It is a journey in spirituality which is lost today.

There is a wonderful Christian tradition in the fourth century of the desert fathers, some of whom might be regarded with some suspicion today… these people chose the desert as a place for reflection – not on mere theology, but as a way of understanding life against the trend of society. They were looking for personal transformation, not mere information. And they realised that they were being transformed in society.

(We might also remember that the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years before entering the Promised Land. Some preachers have suggested that it took months to get the Israelites out of Egypt, and much longer to get Egypt out of the Israelites.)

That Jesus finds his way into the desert is no accident, and its reporting to us no mere matter of fact. The gospel writers are seeking to point something out to us which is essential for all those who would follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

I’d like to offer three simple thoughts, illustrated with insights from the desert fathers.

1. The desert is a place of new beginnings – Jesus started here. We are invited to start over again.

"Abba Poeman said regarding Abba Prin that every day he made a new beginning." "My God, do not abandon me. I have done nothing good before Thee, but grant me, in Thy compassion, the power to make a start" (Arsenios, 5th century).
In the desert, God shaped his people in new ways: Moses was called in the desert. God encountered Elijah in the “still small voice” in the desert. The prophet Hosea’s life becomes a living message of God’s grace, and in chapter 2 there is that wonderful passage where God declares of Israel, “therefore I will allure her… I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her… I will make the valley of Achor (struggle) a doorway of hope.
In the desert, God brings new things to be.

2. The desert is a place where all decisions must be carefully taken. Everything must be done with intention. With temperatures pushing well into the 40s on a number of occasions this summer, we have been reminded of the cost of working in the – if you were going to do something, you made sure it was essential.

In the desert we must wrestle with our desires – which often do not give much consideration to the resources available. Impulses in the desert can be lethal – where mirage can feign reality with much power.

“Think nothing and do nothing without a purpose directed to God. For to journey without direction is wasted effort" (St. Mark the Ascetic, 5th century). Let us not live aimlessly, but with intention.


3. The desert was a place of prayer, particularly for Jesus in his time of temptation. There were few distractions, few things to devote energy towards. Moses encountered God in the desert. So did Elijah… So let us make the year one grounded in prayer… "Often when I have prayed I have asked for what I thought was good, and persisted in my petition, stupidly importuning the will of God, and not leaving it to Him to arrange things as He knows is best for me. But when I have obtained what I asked for, I have been very sorry that I did not ask for the will of God to be done; because the thing turned out not to be as I had thought" (Evagrios the Solitary, 4th century). Abba Macarius said, "It is enough to say, 'Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.' And if the conflict grows fiercer, say: 'Lord, help!'"

Mark’s gospel is succinct in expressing what happened in this desert time for Jesus. But he was waited upon by angels.

The desert places can be important for us in our spiritual journey. Dare we pray that God might lead us into the desert?

Posted by gary at 09:55 PM | Comments (1)

January 22, 2006

Lessons from subtitles

Watching movies with subtitles has become much more common with the advent of DVD. In bygone eras, movies were either dubbed, or one had to know the original language. Then with the appearance of SBS, we were given access to foreign movies with subtitles so that one could still enjoy the story, or practice the language.

My earliest memory of foreign movies was the television show “Samurai” in the 1960s. It was a source of some mirth when the mouth of the actor would move for some time for only a few English words to appear or, more often the case, a few words from the actor and something approaching a political speech in English coming through the speakers. It was not until I studied another language at some depth that I began to understand and appreciate what was happening.

Some words and phrases in foreign language convey some detail with succinctness. To translate with a few words is not possible because of the richness of the language. So a much longer translation and interpretation is used. We know this sometimes through the use of idiom. “Das is für de katz” in German literally means ‘that is for the cats’ but figuratively means ‘that is all for nothing.’ Anyone who has read assembly instructions which have been directly translated from one language into another has encountered this absurdity.

When we encounter some of the great words of faith, we realise that the single word is not capable of easy translation. The word “love” has four different Greek words. And who can adequately explain ‘agape’ love without something more lengthy than a word? We might add the words ‘faith’ and ‘grace’ to this complexity. Simple words with quite meaty definitions and complex meaning.

The challenge facing the creator of subtitles is that facing the preacher, and also the person of faith each day: to make comprehensible the meaning of a life of faith.

Posted by gary at 11:41 PM | Comments (0)

January 21, 2006

The Lesson

I don't know the origins of this little piece...

Then Jesus took his disciples up the mountain and gathering them around him, he taught them saying,

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
Blessed are the meek...
Blessed are they who mourn...
Blessed are the merciful...
Blessed are they who thirst for justice...
Blessed are you when persecuted...
Blessed are you when you suffer...
Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in heaven...

Then Simon Peter said, 'Do we have to write this down?'
And Andrew said, 'Are we supposed to know this?'
And James said, 'Will we have a test on it?'
And Philip said, 'What if we don't know it?'
And Bartholomew said, 'Do we have to turn this in?'
And John said, 'The other disciples didn't have to learn this.'
And Matthew said, 'When do we get out of here?'
And Judas said, 'What does this have to do with real life?'
Then one of the Pharisees present asked to see Jesus' lesson plans and inquired of Jesus his terminal objectives in the cognitive domain.
And Jesus wept...

Posted by gary at 10:11 PM | Comments (0)

January 14, 2006

Church: Big and Small

Conversations in which the topic of mega church is raised usually polarise discussion. Whenever the impact of organisations such as Hillsong, Willow Creek and Saddleback is considered they are either regarded as a real blessing to the church or as distorting the gospel. It would be fair to say that there are few places which are not aware of the contribution and ministry of the above three, perhaps better known in the terms 'seeker-sensitive' and 'purpose-driven'. But are the only options available to leave them beyond criticism because of the nature of their success, or discard them as a distortion?

megachurch.jpgEssential to any ecclesiology is the notion of diversity. When Paul reflects on the nature of the church as the body of Christ, he articulates the varied aspects of its giftedness, its leadership, and/or its challenges. The New Testament as a whole reflects a diverse range of faith communities, each with its own challenges. If there is one church which is held out as the ideal its characteristics would be described for us in Acts 2, but that still leaves plenty of scope for the way in which a faith community unfolds its worship and ministry. Which leaves us to ponder the nature of diversity in the church today: is it mere diversity within the church community, or as communities of communities, or something more?

small church.jpg
At the very least we need to recognise that there will always be different expressions of church that reflect the different theologies expressed within the New Testament, as well as reflecting the different environments in which they emerge. We could no more expect that a church in a remote community would be an exact replica of one in a suburban area than we would expect a school or sporting club to be. They would exhibit similarities, but exact replication? Even based on the same presuppositions and principles of operation?

But that is not to say that one is right and the other wrong. Each aims to meet its community in a particular way, and unfold a certain practice. There is potential to learn from one another, but not all that is done is readily transferable.

When it comes to church, the same is true. There are many diverse and creative expressions of God's people at work. Not all receive or seek the same publicity, but that is not to deny the authenticity of their witness and ministry. It is not the strength of their publicity machine which measures their worth in God's kingdom (either way!)

In this age of communication we have ready access and opportunity to witness the work of many churches. And all of them bear the grace of God in their context. And all of them face challenges in regard to the extent to which we are all being moulded in the shape of Jesus and his mission.

We need to be careful of maligning churches of any size: mega, mini or anywhere in between: we may find ourselves opposing the work of God. BUT at the same time we need to be careful of promoting any one as THE way... lest we forget to listen to what God might be saying to us in our own locality. But that is not to say that we ought not critique what we see of the ministry of others - not in a public "we're better" forum, but in an effort to get inside the thinking and attitudes which generate and energise communities so that we might all be enriched - for me this is a key aspect of learning.

There are "easy targets" in the church today as far as public discussion often goes. However, the proper evaluation of ministry is never a popularity question... there weren't too many votes in favour of Jesus at the end, or of the prophets...

We ought to be thankful for the full expression of God's church, regardless of size and shape of mission. It reminds us that God is beyond our plans and paradigms, and that God will do all that is necessary to woo people into His kingdom. It is this diversity that we need to cherish.

Posted by gary at 04:08 PM | Comments (0)

January 13, 2006

The Quest for Peace and Justice

Martin Luther King's address in receiving the Nobel Peace Prize on 11 December 1964 has an enduring quality about it. His insights into the future, some 40+ years ago are prescient. I reproduce the whole speech here. You can also listen to a 2-minute audio clip... (requires Real Player). For a primer, read the third paragraph below.

The Quest for Peace and Justice

It is impossible to begin this lecture without again expressing my deep appreciation to the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament for bestowing upon me and the civil rights movement in the United States such a great honor. Occasionally in life there are those moments of unutterable fulfillment which cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words. Their meaning can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart. Such is the moment I am presently experiencing. I experience this high and joyous moment not for myself alone but for those devotees of nonviolence who have moved so courageously against the ramparts of racial injustice and who in the process have acquired a new estimate of their own human worth. Many of them are young and cultured. Others are middle aged and middle class. The majority are poor and untutored. But they are all united in the quiet conviction that it is better to suffer in dignity than to accept segregation in humiliation. These are the real heroes of the freedom struggle: they are the noble people for whom I accept the Nobel Peace Prize.

This evening I would like to use this lofty and historic platform to discuss what appears to me to be the most pressing problem confronting mankind today. Modern man has brought this whole world to an awe-inspiring threshold of the future. He has reached new and astonishing peaks of scientific success. He has produced machines that think and instruments that peer into the unfathomable ranges of interstellar space. He has built gigantic bridges to span the seas and gargantuan buildings to kiss the skies. His airplanes and spaceships have dwarfed distance, placed time in chains, and carved highways through the stratosphere. This is a dazzling picture of modern man's scientific and technological progress.

Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.

Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live. So much of modern life can be summarized in that arresting dictum of the poet Thoreau1: "Improved means to an unimproved end". This is the serious predicament, the deep and haunting problem confronting modern man. If we are to survive today, our moral and spiritual "lag" must be eliminated. Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul. When the "without" of man's nature subjugates the "within", dark storm clouds begin to form in the world.

This problem of spiritual and moral lag, which constitutes modern man's chief dilemma, expresses itself in three larger problems which grow out of man's ethical infantilism. Each of these problems, while appearing to be separate and isolated, is inextricably bound to the other. I refer to racial injustice, poverty, and war.

The first problem that I would like to mention is racial injustice. The struggle to eliminate the evil of racial injustice constitutes one of the major struggles of our time. The present upsurge of the Negro people of the United States grows out of a deep and passionate determination to make freedom and equality a reality "here" and "now". In one sense the civil rights movement in the United States is a special American phenomenon which must be understood in the light of American history and dealt with in terms of the American situation. But on another and more important level, what is happening in the United States today is a relatively small part of a world development.

We live in a day, says the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead2,"when civilization is shifting its basic outlook: a major turning point in history where the presuppositions on which society is structured are being analyzed, sharply challenged, and profoundly changed." What we are seeing now is a freedom explosion, the realization of "an idea whose time has come", to use Victor Hugo's phrase3. The deep rumbling of discontent that we hear today is the thunder of disinherited masses, rising from dungeons of oppression to the bright hills of freedom, in one majestic chorus the rising masses singing, in the words of our freedom song, "Ain't gonna let nobody turn us around."4 All over the world, like a fever, the freedom movement is spreading in the widest liberation in history. The great masses of people are determined to end the exploitation of their races and land. They are awake and moving toward their goal like a tidal wave. You can hear them rumbling in every village street, on the docks, in the houses, among the students, in the churches, and at political meetings. Historic movement was for several centuries that of the nations and societies of Western Europe out into the rest of the world in "conquest" of various sorts. That period, the era of colonialism, is at an end. East is meeting West. The earth is being redistributed. Yes, we are "shifting our basic outlooks".

These developments should not surprise any student of history. Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh's court centuries ago and cried, "Let my people go."5 This is a kind of opening chapter in a continuing story. The present struggle in the United States is a later chapter in the same unfolding story. Something within has reminded the Negro of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers in Asia, South America, and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.

Fortunately, some significant strides have been made in the struggle to end the long night of racial injustice. We have seen the magnificent drama of independence unfold in Asia and Africa. Just thirty years ago there were only three independent nations in the whole of Africa. But today thirty-five African nations have risen from colonial bondage. In the United States we have witnessed the gradual demise of the system of racial segregation. The Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools gave a legal and constitutional deathblow to the whole doctrine of separate but equal6. The Court decreed that separate facilities are inherently unequal and that to segregate a child on the basis of race is to deny that child equal protection of the law. This decision came as a beacon light of hope to millions of disinherited people. Then came that glowing day a few months ago when a strong Civil Rights Bill became the law of our land7. This bill, which was first recommended and promoted by President Kennedy, was passed because of the overwhelming support and perseverance of millions of Americans, Negro and white. It came as a bright interlude in the long and sometimes turbulent struggle for civil rights: the beginning of a second emancipation proclamation providing a comprehensive legal basis for equality of opportunity. Since the passage of this bill we have seen some encouraging and surprising signs of compliance. I am happy to report that, by and large, communities all over the southern part of the United States are obeying the Civil Rights Law and showing remarkable good sense in the process.

Another indication that progress is being made was found in the recent presidential election in the United States. The American people revealed great maturity by overwhelmingly rejecting a presidential candidate who had become identified with extremism, racism, and retrogression8. The voters of our nation rendered a telling blow to the radical right9. They defeated those elements in our society which seek to pit white against Negro and lead the nation down a dangerous Fascist path.

Let me not leave you with a false impression. The problem is far from solved. We still have a long, long way to go before the dream of freedom is a reality for the Negro in the United States. To put it figuratively in biblical language, we have left the dusty soils of Egypt and crossed a Red Sea whose waters had for years been hardened by a long and piercing winter of massive resistance. But before we reach the majestic shores of the Promised Land, there is a frustrating and bewildering wilderness ahead. We must still face prodigious hilltops of opposition and gigantic mountains of resistance. But with patient and firm determination we will press on until every valley of despair is exalted to new peaks of hope, until every mountain of pride and irrationality is made low by the leveling process of humility and compassion; until the rough places of injustice are transformed into a smooth plane of equality of opportunity; and until the crooked places of prejudice are transformed by the straightening process of bright-eyed wisdom.

What the main sections of the civil rights movement in the United States are saying is that the demand for dignity, equality, jobs, and citizenship will not be abandoned or diluted or postponed. If that means resistance and conflict we shall not flinch. We shall not be cowed. We are no longer afraid.

The word that symbolizes the spirit and the outward form of our encounter is nonviolence, and it is doubtless that factor which made it seem appropriate to award a peace prize to one identified with struggle. Broadly speaking, nonviolence in the civil rights struggle has meant not relying on arms and weapons of struggle. It has meant noncooperation with customs and laws which are institutional aspects of a regime of discrimination and enslavement. It has meant direct participation of masses in protest, rather than reliance on indirect methods which frequently do not involve masses in action at all.

Nonviolence has also meant that my people in the agonizing struggles of recent years have taken suffering upon themselves instead of inflicting it on others. It has meant, as I said, that we are no longer afraid and cowed. But in some substantial degree it has meant that we do not want to instill fear in others or into the society of which we are a part. The movement does not seek to liberate Negroes at the expense of the humiliation and enslavement of whites. It seeks no victory over anyone. It seeks to liberate American society and to share in the self-liberation of all the people.

Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.

In a real sense nonviolence seeks to redeem the spiritual and moral lag that I spoke of earlier as the chief dilemma of modern man. It seeks to secure moral ends through moral means. Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.

I believe in this method because I think it is the only way to reestablish a broken community. It is the method which seeks to implement the just law by appealing to the conscience of the great decent majority who through blindness, fear, pride, and irrationality have allowed their consciences to sleep.

The nonviolent resisters can summarize their message in the following simple terms: we will take direct action against injustice despite the failure of governmental and other official agencies to act first. We will not obey unjust laws or submit to unjust practices. We will do this peacefully, openly, cheerfully because our aim is to persuade. We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself. We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts. We will always be willing to talk and seek fair compromise, but we are ready to suffer when necessary and even risk our lives to become witnesses to truth as we see it.

This approach to the problem of racial injustice is not at all without successful precedent. It was used in a magnificent way by Mohandas K. Gandhi to challenge the might of the British Empire and free his people from the political domination and economic exploitation inflicted upon them for centuries. He struggled only with the weapons of truth, soul force, non-injury, and courage10.

In the past ten years unarmed gallant men and women of the United States have given living testimony to the moral power and efficacy of nonviolence. By the thousands, faceless, anonymous, relentless young people, black and white, have temporarily left the ivory towers of learning for the barricades of bias. Their courageous and disciplined activities have come as a refreshing oasis in a desert sweltering with the heat of injustice. They have taken our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. One day all of America will be proud of their achievements11.

I am only too well aware of the human weaknesses and failures which exist, the doubts about the efficacy of nonviolence, and the open advocacy of violence by some. But I am still convinced that nonviolence is both the most practically sound and morally excellent way to grapple with the age-old problem of racial injustice.

A second evil which plagues the modern world is that of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, it projects its nagging, prehensile tentacles in lands and villages all over the world. Almost two-thirds of the peoples of the world go to bed hungry at night. They are undernourished, ill-housed, and shabbily clad. Many of them have no houses or beds to sleep in. Their only beds are the sidewalks of the cities and the dusty roads of the villages. Most of these poverty-stricken children of God have never seen a physician or a dentist. This problem of poverty is not only seen in the class division between the highly developed industrial nations and the so-called underdeveloped nations; it is seen in the great economic gaps within the rich nations themselves. Take my own country for example. We have developed the greatest system of production that history has ever known. We have become the richest nation in the world. Our national gross product this year will reach the astounding figure of almost 650 billion dollars. Yet, at least one-fifth of our fellow citizens - some ten million families, comprising about forty million individuals - are bound to a miserable culture of poverty. In a sense the poverty of the poor in America is more frustrating than the poverty of Africa and Asia. The misery of the poor in Africa and Asia is shared misery, a fact of life for the vast majority; they are all poor together as a result of years of exploitation and underdevelopment. In sad contrast, the poor in America know that they live in the richest nation in the world, and that even though they are perishing on a lonely island of poverty they are surrounded by a vast ocean of material prosperity. Glistening towers of glass and steel easily seen from their slum dwellings spring up almost overnight. Jet liners speed over their ghettoes at 600 miles an hour; satellites streak through outer space and reveal details of the moon. President Johnson, in his State of the Union Message12, emphasized this contradiction when he heralded the United States' "highest standard of living in the world", and deplored that it was accompanied by "dislocation; loss of jobs, and the specter of poverty in the midst of plenty".

So it is obvious that if man is to redeem his spiritual and moral "lag", he must go all out to bridge the social and economic gulf between the "haves" and the "have nots" of the world. Poverty is one of the most urgent items on the agenda of modern life.

There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it. More than a century and a half ago people began to be disturbed about the twin problems of population and production. A thoughtful Englishman named Malthus wrote a book13 that set forth some rather frightening conclusions. He predicted that the human family was gradually moving toward global starvation because the world was producing people faster than it was producing food and material to support them. Later scientists, however, disproved the conclusion of Malthus, and revealed that he had vastly underestimated the resources of the world and the resourcefulness of man.

Not too many years ago, Dr. Kirtley Mather, a Harvard geologist, wrote a book entitled Enough and to Spare14. He set forth the basic theme that famine is wholly unnecessary in the modern world. Today, therefore, the question on the agenda must read: Why should there be hunger and privation in any land, in any city, at any table when man has the resources and the scientific know-how to provide all mankind with the basic necessities of life? Even deserts can be irrigated and top soil can be replaced. We cannot complain of a lack of land, for there are twenty-five million square miles of tillable land, of which we are using less than seven million. We have amazing knowledge of vitamins, nutrition, the chemistry of food, and the versatility of atoms. There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will. The well-off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst. The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible. Just as nonviolence exposed the ugliness of racial injustice, so must the infection and sickness of poverty be exposed and healed - not only its symptoms but its basic causes. This, too, will be a fierce struggle, but we must not be afraid to pursue the remedy no matter how formidable the task.

The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty. The rich nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled, and feed the unfed. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for "the least of these". Deeply etched in the fiber of our religious tradition is the conviction that men are made in the image of God and that they are souls of infinite metaphysical value, the heirs of a legacy of dignity and worth. If we feel this as a profound moral fact, we cannot be content to see men hungry, to see men victimized with starvation and ill health when we have the means to help them. The wealthy nations must go all out to bridge the gulf between the rich minority and the poor majority.

In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich. We are inevitably our brothers' keeper because of the interrelated structure of reality. John Donne interpreted this truth in graphic terms when he affirmed15:

No man is an Iland, intire of its selfe: every
man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the
maine: if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea,
Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie
were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends
or of thine owne were: any mans death
diminishes me, because I am involved in
Mankinde: and therefore never send to know
for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.

A third great evil confronting our world is that of war. Recent events have vividly reminded us that nations are not reducing but rather increasing their arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. The best brains in the highly developed nations of the world are devoted to military technology. The proliferation of nuclear weapons has not been halted, in spite of the Limited Test Ban Treaty16. On the contrary, the detonation of an atomic device by the first nonwhite, non- Western, and so-called underdeveloped power, namely the Chinese People's Republic17, opens new vistas of exposure of vast multitudes, the whole of humanity, to insidious terrorization by the ever-present threat of annihilation. The fact that most of the time human beings put the truth about the nature and risks of the nuclear war out of their minds because it is too painful and therefore not "acceptable", does not alter the nature and risks of such war. The device of "rejection" may temporarily cover up anxiety, but it does not bestow peace of mind and emotional security.

So man's proneness to engage in war is still a fact. But wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete. There may have been a time when war served as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force, but the destructive power of modern weapons eliminated even the possibility that war may serve as a negative good. If we assume that life is worth living and that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war. In a day when vehicles hurtle through outer space and guided ballistic missiles carve highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can claim victory in war. A so-called limited war will leave little more than a calamitous legacy of human suffering, political turmoil, and spiritual disillusionment. A world war - God forbid! - will leave only smoldering ashes as a mute testimony of a human race whose folly led inexorably to ultimate death. So if modern man continues to flirt unhesitatingly with war, he will transform his earthly habitat into an inferno such as even the mind of Dante could not imagine.

Therefore, I venture to suggest to all of you and all who hear and may eventually read these words, that the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence become immediately a subject for study and for serious experimentation in every field of human conflict, by no means excluding the relations between nations. It is, after all, nation-states which make war, which have produced the weapons which threaten the survival of mankind, and which are both genocidal and suicidal in character.

Here also we have ancient habits to deal with, vast structures of power, indescribably complicated problems to solve. But unless we abdicate our humanity altogether and succumb to fear and impotence in the presence of the weapons we have ourselves created, it is as imperative and urgent to put an end to war and violence between nations as it is to put an end to racial injustice. Equality with whites will hardly solve the problems of either whites or Negroes if it means equality in a society under the spell of terror and a world doomed to extinction.

I do not wish to minimize the complexity of the problems that need to be faced in achieving disarmament and peace. But I think it is a fact that we shall not have the will, the courage, and the insight to deal with such matters unless in this field we are prepared to undergo a mental and spiritual reevaluation - a change of focus which will enable us to see that the things which seem most real and powerful are indeed now unreal and have come under the sentence of death. We need to make a supreme effort to generate the readiness, indeed the eagerness, to enter into the new world which is now possible, "the city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God"18.

We will not build a peaceful world by following a negative path. It is not enough to say "We must not wage war." It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but on the positive affirmation of peace. There is a fascinating little story that is preserved for us in Greek literature about Ulysses and the Sirens. The Sirens had the ability to sing so sweetly that sailors could not resist steering toward their island. Many ships were lured upon the rocks, and men forgot home, duty, and honor as they flung themselves into the sea to be embraced by arms that drew them down to death. Ulysses, determined not to be lured by the Sirens, first decided to tie himself tightly to the mast of his boat, and his crew stuffed their ears with wax. But finally he and his crew learned a better way to save themselves: they took on board the beautiful singer Orpheus whose melodies were sweeter than the music of the Sirens. When Orpheus sang, who bothered to listen to the Sirens?

So we must fix our vision not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but upon the positive affirmation of peace. We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war. Somehow we must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle from the negative nuclear arms race which no one can win to a positive contest to harness man's creative genius for the purpose of making peace and prosperity a reality for all of the nations of the world. In short, we must shift the arms race into a "peace race". If we have the will and determination to mount such a peace offensive, we will unlock hitherto tightly sealed doors of hope and transform our imminent cosmic elegy into a psalm of creative fulfillment.

All that I have said boils down to the point of affirming that mankind's survival is dependent upon man's ability to solve the problems of racial injustice, poverty, and war; the solution of these problems is in turn dependent upon man squaring his moral progress with his scientific progress, and learning the practical art of living in harmony. Some years ago a famous novelist died. Among his papers was found a list of suggested story plots for future stories, the most prominently underscored being this one: "A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together." This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a big house, a great "world house" in which we have to live together - black and white, Easterners and Westerners, Gentiles and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Moslem and Hindu, a family unduly separated in ideas, culture, and interests who, because we can never again live without each other, must learn, somehow, in this one big world, to live with each other.

This means that more and more our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. We must now give an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in our individual societies.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response which is little more than emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the First Epistle of Saint John19:

Let us love one another: for love is of God; and everyone
that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.
He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.
If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and His
love is perfected in us.

Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. As Arnold Toynbee20 says: "Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word." We can no longer afford to worship the God of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. Love is the key to the solution of the problems of the world.

Let me close by saying that I have the personal faith that mankind will somehow rise up to the occasion and give new directions to an age drifting rapidly to its doom. In spite of the tensions and uncertainties of this period something profoundly meaningful is taking place. Old systems of exploitation and oppression are passing away, and out of the womb of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. Doors of opportunity are gradually being opened to those at the bottom of society. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are developing a new sense of "some-bodiness" and carving a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of despair. "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light."21 Here and there an individual or group dares to love, and rises to the majestic heights of moral maturity. So in a real sense this is a great time to be alive. Therefore, I am not yet discouraged about the future. Granted that the easygoing optimism of yesterday is impossible. Granted that those who pioneer in the struggle for peace and freedom will still face uncomfortable jail terms, painful threats of death; they will still be battered by the storms of persecution, leading them to the nagging feeling that they can no longer bear such a heavy burden, and the temptation of wanting to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. Granted that we face a world crisis which leaves us standing so often amid the surging murmur of life's restless sea. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. It can spell either salvation or doom. In a dark confused world the kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men.

* Dr. King delivered this lecture in the Auditorium of the University of Oslo. This text is taken from Les Prix Nobel en 1964. The text in the New York Times is excerpted. His speech of acceptance delivered the day before in the same place is reported fully both in Les Prix Nobel en 1964 and the New York Times.

1. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), American poet and essayist.

2. Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947). British philosopher and mathematician, professor at the University of London and Harvard University.

3. "There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world and that is an idea whose time has come." Translations differ; probable origin is Victor Hugo, Histoire d'un crime, "Conclusion-La Chute", chap. 10.

4. "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around" is the title of an old Baptist spiritual.

5. Exodus 5:1; 8:1; 9:1; 10:3.

6. "Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka", 347 U.S. 483, contains the decision of May 17, 1954, requiring desegregation of the public schools by the states. "Bolling vs. Sharpe", 347 U.S. 497, contains the decision of same date requiring desegregation of public schools by the federal government; i.e. in Washington, D.C. "Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka", Nos. 1-5. 349 U.S. 249, contains the opinion of May 31, 1955, on appeals from the decisions in the two cases cited above, ordering admission to "public schools on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed".

7. Public Law 88-352, signed by President Johnson on July 2, 1964.

8. Both Les Prix Nobel and the New York Times read "retrogress".

9. Lyndon B. Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater by a popular vote of 43, 128, 956 to 27,177,873.

10. For a note on Gandhi, seep. 329, fn. 1.

11. For accounts of the civil rights activities by both whites and blacks in the decade from 1954 to 1964, see Alan F. Westin, Freedom Now: The Civil Rights Struggle in America (New York: Basic Books, 1964), especially Part IV, "The Techniques of the Civil Rights Struggle"; Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964); Eugene V. Rostow, "The Freedom Riders and the Future", The Reporter (June 22, 1961); James Peck, Cracking the Color Line: Nonviolent Direct Action Methods of Eliminating Racial Discrimination (New York: CORE, 1960).

12. January 8, 1964.

13. Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798).

14. Kirtley F. Mather, Enough and to Spare: Mother Earth Can Nourish Every Man in Freedom (New York: Harper, 1944).

15. John Donne (1572?-1631), English poet, in the final lines of "Devotions" (1624).

16. Officially called "Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons Tests in Atmosphere, in Outer Space, and Underwater", and signed by Russia, England, and United States on July 25, 1963.

17. On October 16, 1964.

18. Hebrews II: 10.

19. I John 4:7-8, 12.

20. Arnold Joseph Toynbee (1889- ), British historian whose monumental work is the 10-volume A Study of Story (1934-1954).

21. This quotation may be based on a phrase from Luke 1:79, "To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death"; or one from Psalms 107:10, "Such as sit in darkness and in the shadow of death"; or one from Mark Twain's To the Person Sitting in Darkness (1901), "The people who sit in darkness have noticed it...".

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1951-1970, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972

original link

Posted by gary at 02:02 PM | Comments (0)

September 09, 2005

September 11.... Four Years On

As we approach the fourth anniversary of the events popularly known by the date: 9-11, we do well to reflect on where the world has travelled since then. It is not a pretty picture, these early years of the twenty-first century. I have written the following prayer for use in our worship on this coming Sunday. I hope you find it helpful.

Creator and Redeemer God,
This new millennium is already flooded with visions of a broken world,
Torn apart by winds and rain,
By war and famine,
By towers brought down with technology of global freedom,
By greed and our disregard for creation.

We feel as secure as a caravan in the path of a hurricane,
Unable to hold on, caught up in its power, dragged along in its currents, our strength ebbing away.
The path of salvation and hope seems beyond our grasp and strength.

Who can stand against such forces?
Whose wisdom is sufficient for such crises?

We have seen the Twin Towers fall, witnessed the ravaging of Afghanistan and Iraq, wept with families tortured with grief in the wake of bombings in Indonesia, Iraq, London and Spain. We have barely noticed the devastation in Darfur. We wonder what hope means in a world where violence escalates and the word and work of peace is shouted down.

And we witness the power of nature’s might turned against its inhabitants. Tsunami and hurricane, drought and famine all wreak devastating power.

We cry, we weep, we despair.
O Lord hear us.

We move from one tragedy to the next, unable to sustain our grief, or cope with the longer-term implications of such anguish.

O Lord who wept over Jerusalem, we gain insight into your pain, and we cannot bear it.
What sustains your love and grace in the midst of such agony?

Pour out your Spirit upon us in this moment, not to assuage our guilt, or numb our pain, but to stir us to acts of justice and mercy, to renew our fading strength and commitment to long-term care.

Through this pain, birth in your people a sustainable future, an everlasting image of justice, mercy and peace.

Revitalise our efforts at partnership with your creation. May our recycling and reduced demand for fossil fuels be seeds of hope and renewal. Give us strength to stand the tide which threatens to overwhelm us.
And deliver us from greed and selfishness which both stifles our generosity and fuels this crisis.

Let not the symbols of our freedom continue to be the force turned against us for destruction. Let these planes fly to new ground: a ground of hope and of a new beginning for all peoples.

Catalyse our pain and anguish into a new movement of your spirit for a new hope, that we might live and believe the words which Jesus taught us to pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

By the miracle of grace, let this prayer be incarnate in us today.

Through the One whose incarnation brings life and hope through cross and resurrection we pray.

Amen.

Posted by gary at 04:24 PM | Comments (0)

August 28, 2005

How do you see?

It was a tense moment as the crowd gathered. The smell of anticipation filled the air, which reverberated with accusation and defence. The atmosphere was at tinder point, ready to explode when Jesus walked into the midst. Instead of reducing the tension, his appearance took it to a new level. Ever suspicious of his commitment to the ways of God, the baying mass found opportunity to test him. While a timid woman lay on the ground cowering, the baying masses began to articulate her plight: ‘Homewrecker!’ ‘Adultress!’ ‘Filthy whore!’ In the chaos the accusation was focussed towards Jesus: ‘This woman was caught in adultery. The law demands she be stoned. What do you say?’ The line was drawn in the sand for Jesus: ‘do you uphold the standards of God?’

It is a fair assessment to state that none of the accusers felt any sense of empathy with this woman: she was in no way seen to be like them, or they like her. That her name is lost to history leaves her faceless and nameless to future generations. How easy to demonise those who are different to us. By drawing a line and putting people on the other side we are released from seeing them as human with us, sharing a common struggle. It is a tactic used through all generations. Our lack of understanding destroys compassion.

Jesus stooped to draw in the sand, then stood to indicate a different line to the one they had drawn for him: ‘OK, if it’s true, let the one who is without sin throw the first stone,’ he said before stooping again to draw in the sand. Where the religious ones had drawn a line to emphasise their difference, Jesus drew one to invite them to see their similarity. Not one could bring them to kill something or someone who was like them.

We are continually being invited to see the difference in others, whether it be in the colour of their skin, the religious or political preferences people express, or in the country of birth or manner of arrival in this country. In our quest to be unique, we are effectively asked to deny significant parts of our humanity. It was a mark of Jesus that he saw good in people traditionally regarded as evil: tax collectors, gentiles, prostitutes… the list could go on. We do well to ask us what conditioned the attitude of Jesus towards those considered outcast.

Two different sets of people looking at the same situation, each inviting a different outcome: Jesus invited the accusers to see aspects of their own lives in the woman they were seeking to condemn, while they challenged Jesus to see her as something ‘other’.

How do you see?

Posted by gary at 04:00 PM | Comments (0)

August 02, 2005

Why do I do these?

Which Theologian Are You?

You scored as J�rgen Moltmann. The problem of evil is central to your thought, and only a crucified God can show that God is not indifferent to human suffering. Christian discipleship means identifying with suffering but also anticipating the new creation of all things that God will bring about.

J�rgen Moltmann

80%

Anselm

73%

Martin Luther

67%

Friedrich Schleiermacher

60%

John Calvin

60%

Augustine

53%

Paul Tillich

47%

Karl Barth

47%

Charles Finney

40%

Jonathan Edwards

27%

Which theologian are you?
created with QuizFarm.com

I thought I was myself... maybe this indicates how I might connect in with a wider story. I'd have to say I found some of the 'opposites' in the quiz to be rather strange.

Thanks Jason!

Posted by gary at 06:46 PM | Comments (0)

June 22, 2005

Verdi's Messa de Requiem

I was privileged to enjoy a performance of Verdi's Messa de Requiem at the Melbourne Town Hall last night, performed by the Stanford Symphony Orchestra in conjunction with the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir. Not being a regular afficionado of opera or orchestra, I drunk in the occasion. The Requiem is performed entirely in Latin, which was only one language unfamiliar to me throughout the evening.

I spent a deal of the night seeking to interpret the machinations of the conductor. Some of his movements made sense to me, but the vast majority meant no more than an indication of rhythm. Yet orchestra and choir were attuned to this language. It intrigued me how often the first movements of the conductor brought no sounds, the musicians chiming in on the second or third beat of the baton. Clearly indications of preparation were evident.

The conductor remained the only participant active throughout the whole performance, with each member of choir and orchestra having lengthy rests, allowing them to leave the stage, take a drink, or even change the reed on their instrument. They followed still another language: the score before them, its notes and rests indicating their part, a language insufficient to the performance inasmuch as the conductor imprinted his own interpretations.

I was struck by the "god" image this conveyed: God as the master conductor, eliciting the best from each participant in the performance, not for their own sake, but for the sake of all, whose movements did not apply to all at all times, but which were nuanced to different members of the performing cast, and different aspects of the performance. By inviting individuals and groups into the performance and steering them through it, he created a melodious and harmonious expression of beauty.

It might have been in Latin, I may not have been able to interpret the beats of the conductor's arms, nor understand the role of every individual member in the overall expression, nor determine at what place in the musical score we had reached, yet I was able to be part of its beauty, savour its delight. Just as the drummer would enter the rhythm with three or four beats of the air before striking the instrument, so would I beat in tune to the rhythm, moving in and out as I was engaged. Is this like a relationship with God?

But there was a language I discerned by its absence: the language of the heart, of passion. I'm not sure whether it was due to my disengagement with the Latin wording. The vocalists were technically superb. But I missed the engagement at an emotional level with the text of the requiem.

I also missed the story. When it was ended, I turned to my wife and asked "Who died?" Why did Verdi write this requiem? Did it lose power (for me) by its disconnection from its intended purpose? I was to later learn that its genesis was in response to the death of Rossini, and a long story in its formation. This language of story is important for us all in our journey.

I recognise that I am a strange and demanding being in this regard. Some can enjoy the music for its own sake and beauty. My enjoyment of the performance stretched into other aspects.

Posted by gary at 12:47 PM | Comments (0)

June 12, 2005

A Churchless Faith

Alan Jamieson has written a PhD thesis based on the stories of people who have left the church, but not the faith. An interesting aspect of this research is that pastors and church leaders are typically ignorant of why people leave the church. Jamieson has interviewed over 100 people for this thesis, all who made a conscious decision to leave the church, and the vast majority indicating growth in faith since making the decision. The project raises interesting questions of ecclesiology as it relates to expression of the christian faith.

Check out some of the stories and a summary of his thesis here. Jamieson has also published insights in a book entitled "A Churchless Faith".

Posted by gary at 06:28 PM | Comments (0)

June 06, 2005

Images of Jesus

Interesting gallery of images of Jesus over at ReJesus, which raise some interesting and challenging questions about the ways in which we tend to portray Jesus in our own image. In one sense this is quite appropriate, as we talk of Christ incarnate. In another it is not unknown for people to rail against particular images of Jesus because they depict something alien or foreign to them.

b_bbc.jpg

Incoporating both these aspects into our christian journey is necessary for balance: the Christ incarnate, and the Christ who is beyond our frameworks. But this challenges our preconceptions, our understandings of both Christ and the ways in which theology is expressed. What does it mean to see a black Jesus when we often speak of sin as being black? What does this mean, then, for people whose skin is black when we make such statements? The image of Jesus as a Hindu Guru is both confronting and yet appropriate. God is not a westerner, yet it is amazing how often we assume that he is.

A friend notes how he was confronted by honour boards in German Churches, erected to those who served "to the glory of God" in WW1 and WW2. I imagine German folk being equally disturbed at similar boards in many Western churches.

God is both known and unknown, familiar and strange.

Posted by gary at 12:14 PM | Comments (0)

June 01, 2005

Church Growth

Way back in the 1960s the School of World Mission began to explore churches that were growing, looking for reasons to explain the growth that was taking place. Their intentions were good: if we could explain why churches are growing, we might be able to apply these principles to other church communities and so fulfill the gospel commission. The birth of the Homogeneous Unit Principle caused somewhat of a stir, but also stirred the imaginations of pastoral leaders to think again about ways of reaching our communities with the message and love of Jesus. It seemed to be a new wonder drug. A quantum shift in thinking about church was born, and it did not take too long for the megachurch to appear. But has the wonder drug "Church Growth" been ultimately revealed as thalidomide for the church?

Thalidomide was a drug administered to mothers in the 1950s to overcome symptoms of morning sickness. It was considered a miracle drug, safely dealing with morning sickness. It was some time before the medical community identified its insidious side-effect: children were born without limbs, or with severely stunted limbs as a direct result. Thalidomide was consequently withdrawn from circulation.

The Church Growth movement's aim to assist churches in their ministry provided a catalyst for new thinking about mission: many churches changed their focus with renewed energy to reach the lost. The gospel commission came into renewed focus. A renewal within church mission was set in train. Pastors and church leaders across the Western World turned their focus either directly or incidentally to the challenges of the Church Growth movement.

And now we face a crisis of significant proportions in the Western church, where the emphasis is almost entirely on numerical growth as the measure of success for the church and its mission.

The pressure is on to generate growth in every church community, and the pastor's sense of success - along with the church - is wrapped up in numbers of baptisms, conversions and new members. The no longer subtle implication is that churches which are not growing numerically are somehow failing in their mission. At times this is directly spoken by leaders of larger churches.

As with thalidomide, we find that there is a greater emphasis on the larger body and less of an emphasis on its limbs at work in the world. The public image of these larger churches at least is tarnished and distorted, as the missions of evangelism and justice in and to other communities is only faintly mentioned in dispatches over against its internal growth. It eerily echoes the philosophy of the cancer cell: growth for its own sake, ultimately destroying the body and itself.

The pressure has contributed to the increasing turnover of pastoral leaders and, dare I suggest it, to the rapid churn rate of members in larger churches also. As with the whole, so with the parts - many members unable to find a wholistic and balanced growth within such a distorted larger body. All the while pastors and leaders of smaller churches in less fashionable areas, and culturally more disparate communities toil away faithfully without the same numeric results being possible.

The ultimate problem with it all is the implication that the method is much more important than God Himself. "If only we apply these strategies, the church will grow". Does God only work in one way? Where the ministry of Isaiah, who would proclaim the word of God until only a stump remained?

In recent years Thalidomide has re-entered circulation and is currently being assessed for its potential benefits for sufferers of leprosy, AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis and some cancers. In the same way that thalidomide has found a new place, less acclaimed, so I am suggesting that the church growth movement still offers useful insights into the mission of the church. But maybe in a different focus than seems to predominate today.

Posted by gary at 12:35 PM | Comments (0)

May 13, 2005

McLaren's Questions

In case you didn't get over to Tall Skinny Kiwi on Monday, Brian McLaren posed two questions:

“For you personally, is the gospel primarily information on how to avoid hell, largely but not exclusively for hell avoidance, partially but not mostly for it, peripherally for it, or not at all for it?”

“And if the primary purpose for the good news of Jesus is not to get individual souls out of hell after this life, what is its primary purpose?”

Those, I think, are two of the more important questions the book tries to raise - and I'd love to hear what your friends in the blogosphere are thinking about them.

I'd be interested in your responses. There are quite a lot over at Tall Skinny Kiwi, which you can read here.

Posted by gary at 05:25 PM | Comments (0)

May 09, 2005

Trinity and Community

We have been reflecting on the nature and context of community in our 'Sacred Space' this month, asking what it means to be a faith community in our present context. Last night's conversation steered towards reflections on our understandings of the Trinity and its implications for community. Rublev's icon of the Trinity was an item of focus and food for thought. Rublev clearly places Father Son and Spirit in equal position in the icon, in contradistinction to our often unstated assumptions of hierarchy in the godhead.

When it comes to viewing community in the light of this, we are invited to see community as a relationship of equals. The Russian icon also suggests that there is room for a fourth: the community of faith, as completion of the picture, which prompted us to reflect on Jesus' affirmation of us as 'brothers' - more than friends.

It seems that our capacity to regard and welcome others as equals is fundamental to our sense of community, and a challenge to us in practice, much more so than in theory.

Posted by gary at 10:35 AM | Comments (0)

April 07, 2005

The Emmaus Road

The story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus presents a strange state of affairs indeed. Jesus was more with them on their journey, even in their doubt and unbelief, than when they actually saw and recognized him and finally believed. And it was only in retrospect that they could see that their hearts were enkindled as they were walking and talking on the road—even though they did not know that it was he who was explaining the scriptures to them.
- John Kavanaugh, The Word Embodied

The eyes of Mary in the Garden, Thomas with his doubts, the disciples in a dark room, the disciples on the road to Emmaus - were all opened in different ways and by different events to the resurrected Jesus. Sometimes a word, a remembrance, a familiar act, a symbol of his life. And the recognition of Jesus invariably brings about an end to the story, and the beginning of a new quest. The resurrected Jesus resists our capture, and in the wake of our discovery invites us into a new journey for other things. We are never allowed to rest on our laurels. Our journey of knowing and serving is always before us.

See The story of Emmaus in Art and Text by Ruben Duran

Posted by gary at 09:36 PM | Comments (0)

March 17, 2005

Being Human... being Spiritual

The suggestion in the movie "Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring" that being truly spiritual is to cast off all human passions is a commonly held belief in many religious traditions. The ascetic experience of withdrawal is to separate ourselves from the world in order to discover spirituality. It is the basis for the monastery and the convent, alongside our prevailing notion of church: which takes place inside a somewhat strange and alien building. It is built in some sense on the otherness of God, and the need to recognise that there are aspects to the character of God which are apart from who we are.

The problem is that there are not many of us who can afford that lifestyle: either economically or personally. We are built for community and for relationship with other humans. The implication that to be spiritual is to deny our humanity is a strange yet not unfamiliar call.

In reflecting on the story of Jesus and the raising of Lazarus last Sunday night (see Image of the Week), we truncated the story so that we did not hear the part about Lazarus being raised. In the absence of that stands an interesting dialogue between Jesus and Martha, and the obvious unwillingness of Mary to come and meet Jesus. They are both clearly in grief at Lazarus' death - one which Jesus could have (in their minds) clearly have prevented. Why did Jesus wait until Lazarus had died before coming to them? Why does he talk to Martha about resurrection in the street at their first meeting? And what does this have to do with my opening remarks?

Plenty. Jesus spoke to Martha and then Mary in the context of their emotional pain. When he spoke of Lazarus being raised, Martha's response was of the classic theological persuasion: "I know that in the last day..." Nice, dispassionate, distant theology. Implication: this distant hope must have something to do with what I am feeling right now, but it isn't helping. When Jesus follows up by questioning Martha as to whether she believed that Lazarus would live again, Martha's response is classical evangelical-ese: "I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God". There is no expectation - from Martha or Mary - that Jesus would do anything. In an other-world spirituality, why would we?

Yet Jesus' response challenges this: he expresses his emotions, then responds with the raising of Lazarus. There is a passion in this story which is quintessentially human and equally divine.

This story is but one of many which build a bridge between human experience and divine. To be christian is to be engaged with the world, to be immersed in human passion, human emotion, human desire, not to be immune to it. God in Christ entered our world and suffered with it as well as under it. The call to 'love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength' is all-embracing, not sub-human. Sure, we need to recognise the 'otherness' of God, but at the same time affirming the incarnation of God into human experience.

Isn't that partly the story of Easter also?

Posted by gary at 05:01 PM | Comments (0)

March 03, 2005

Theological terminology

One of the great challenges facing the church is the recovery of theological terms from political interest groups. Terms like evangelical, fundamental, charismatic, liberal, salvation, and many others carry a lot of baggage which speakers might not intend. The temptation is to leave the terms behind and make new ones. While sympathetic, I believe that we have both the responsibility and the challenge of redeeming the language so that the full meaning in all its breadth and depth might be able to stand.

Not an easy task, and the risk of being misunderstood and misinterpreted is great, but an important one.

Posted by gary at 10:32 PM | Comments (0)

March 01, 2005

Heaven again...

Attended a funeral today - a two-hour drive each way, but this was for a gentleman from our previous church who we had great respect for, and had grown close to. It was a wonderful celebration of his life of faith. Aside from rekindling a scad of memories, the service hit on the topic of a recent post, and another article.

The term "life after death" frequently recurred through the service, a phrase evangelical christianity has used extensively, particularly in relation to evangelism. But the implication today, clearly not intended, was that only now -in death - would this man reap the benefits of a life of faith, in spite of the eloquent testimony of the way in which it had shaped his life on earth.

Now, maybe I am a little over-sensitive, but does this convey that the only benefit of christian faith is "pie-in-the-sky, by-and-by when I die?" Ought we not be speaking of life through death? The christian faith talks of transformation in the here and now, which continues on beyond the grave.

While the focus of gathering is on a life now ended, with all its questions for each of us about death, ought we not also place the call back into life? The reason the christian ought not fear death is because he knows who meets him on the other side, and has already lived in ways which foreshadow the kingdom, and which reflect kingdom experience...

This same discussion was started by our children the other day, as the image of heaven they had received was boring, one they weren't keen on: angels on clouds playing harps and singing boring church songs... When we began to share images of heaven which better reflect the priorities of Jesus and God's kingdom, they were much more animated and excited - because they knew they could live and know them (at least in part) now.

Posted by gary at 09:33 PM | Comments (0)

February 24, 2005

The Shaping of Things to Come

Our continued explorations about the shape of church in the present and into the future must lead us to ask fresh questions about theological themes: ecclesiology and christology are but two key challenges. Frost and Hirsch's book bearing this name raises questions we dare not ignore, but fails to address key questions of ecclesiology. Dare I suggest that it echoes a new form of christendom - rather than the demise of christendom - inasmuch as it suggests that there is one future shape, rather than many?

It may well be that trying to reshape the church by imposing different structures is akin to grabbing a dog by its tail. The shape of community flows out of the people gathered in community, and the purpose they share in common. We build structures around these things to keep the important aspects strong.

It really doesn't matter if you have a powerpoint, meet in a cafe, light candles, or sing hymns. There are other things more important, more fundamental about the cultures we create in our faith communities. Let me suggest a few discussion-starters...

The future shape of the church needs take into account (amongst other things):

People's increased levels of education and insight: Whereas historically the minister was the most educated (both theologically and otherwise) member of the church, it may not be true now.

People's desire to have greater input into the shaping of their futures: Empowerment in the context of community is important - not by force, but through giving people freedom and opportunity to contribute.

Time pressures: To expect people to 'be there' every Sunday at a certain time is unrealistic in this time-fluid culture.

The church's traditional focus on Sunday: Christianity in particular and spirituality in general has never been about what people do in a building for an hour or so on a Sunday. Jesus' focus was on the whole of life.

We continue to wrestle with this, both in the reality of what we do as a community, and in the ways we evaluate what we do. It is still tempting to run the ruler over Sunday as the only measure...

Posted by gary at 01:26 PM | Comments (0)

February 18, 2005

Heaven and Hell

You don't often hear reflection on these two ancient theological concepts in contemporary Australian church life - at least within the mainstream. One might pontificate on all the reasons why this might be so, but I would like to focus in on the futuristic notion often attached to thinking and proclamation through recent decades. When the church spoke of heaven and hell, it was usually framed within the question "What would happen to you when you die?"

Perhaps in bygone eras it could ignore the living hell which was many people's reality, but with the advent of news technology which spans the globe, we become acutely aware of the straitened circumstances many face, whether it be at a personal level, a communal level, even a national or continental level. In this context the idea of heaven as a future reward didn't seem to mitigate the living hell which many endure, nor did a future hell - with pitchforks and barbecues abounding - seem to be too high a price to pay for the pleasures of this life, particularly if it seemed that all one's mates were going to be there.

Jesus didn't seem to postpone either heaven or hell.

The Lord's prayer asks us to pray "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven..." In other words, part of the church's mission was to see heaven incarnated on earth (an eerie echo of Jesus' own life and mission).

There are still (too) many christians who believe that the only thing that matters is what happens after we're dead, and therefore pay no mind to the damage we do to other communities (we do tend to get up in arms when our own community is implicated), or to the creation as a whole. Why bother with Kyoto when we'll be in heaven? That sort of callous disregard for our fellow human beings seems to echo the religious attitudes which made Jesus angry.

Of course we are not God and cannot impose or enforce heaven. But then, neither did Jesus. The challenge is to bring heaven on earth without force, so that we might see more of earth in heaven. Jesus' attitude of service, of sacrifice and of surrender (sorry for the alliteration - still a preacher at heart!) doesn't hold much popularity in the messages of of the gospel, but are the example we need to try to depict - not just to show others, but first and foremost to incarnate the kingdom on earth.

Heaven can wait? No it can't! We have to begin incarnating it today.

Posted by gary at 03:21 PM | Comments (0)

February 11, 2005

Public Theology?

The emergence of "public theology" is a consequential development of the marginalisation of the church from culture, such that the church now has to argue a place for theological reflection within both professional and public deliberations on social and ethical issues. It is born of the notion that the technical language of theology is not relevant, or too nuanced, to be of any general benefit. Theology, by definition, is the viewpoint of a marginalised and narrow viewpoint which no longer holds place in the mainstream marketplace of the West.

If we view theology as a technical language to be spoken, such a perspective has particular validity. I would argue, on the other hand, that theology's roots is not so much in a language as related to a way of seeing. In that sense, theology has as much relevance in the broader market of ideas as any other technical field.

The challenge for public theologians is two-fold:
1. To justify a place in the public dialogue
2. To find language which connects with that dialogue, yet still articulates the values and ideas which are apprehended from theological reflection.

It is not good enough to simply demand that others adopt the language and perspective which the church holds. We are a particular subculture with our own symbolism, imagery and technical language. It is incumbent upon the church to examine the symbolism, imagery and technical language of the broader community and its subcultures in order to find points of connection and points of entry.

Why is it the church's responsibility?
a. We are largely marginalised and treated with suspicion for having a narrow agenda. We need to demonstrate our willingness to dialogue.
b. It is part of our mission: to share the gospel with the world, we need to do the work which makes it accessible.
c. It is our heritage: evidenced in the ministry of Jesus and Paul, who borrowed, reshaped and redefined many images of their time.

But there is an underlying premise in the term "Public Theology" which disturbs me. It implies a private theology, and suggests a dualism which is not present in the gospel. The kingdom of God has a place in every sphere of life: from the bedroom to the boardroom, from the private garden to the public park, from the family to the stranger. Theology must have relevance and relativity to every aspect of life. Theology in the public space must grow out of and feed back into theology in other places.

We need to learn a new language so that we might express some old realities in means which all can access.

Posted by gary at 04:39 PM | Comments (0)

February 09, 2005

To think theologically

What does it mean to think theologically? What does it mean to have a christian perspective? For some the answer is intrinsically linked to the language and symbolism employed. Unless key words and phrases (or biblical references) are littered through an articulation of the perspective, it lacks any theological or christian insight.

I would argue that, rather than words, phrases and images, it is more akin to a lens through which one looks. When I think theologically, I ask a question such as "Where is God in this?", or "How does this reveal something of the eternal?". A christian perspective might be viewed through the life, teaching, death and/or resurrection of Jesus.

In some senses, every expression of perspective implies a theological grid through which the situation is read, just as - for me - my view of life and the world is shaped by being a Westerner. Although I seek to understand the life of an African or Asian, or even for that matter a European or American, I do so through the eyes of a Westerner, and an Australian one at that.

Part of the spiritual journey then seems to be related to understanding what shapes our perspectives on what we see: to know where we sit and how it shapes the view that we get. Such a description underlines the need for the perspectives of others, and indeed the "Other".

What do you think?

Posted by gary at 04:50 PM | Comments (0)

January 24, 2005

Still fighting past wars...

It was on this day in 1972 that a Japanese soldier was discovered on Guam, still upholding his WW2 oath. No-one had communicated to him that the war was ended, so he faithfully continued his duties.

While our first instinct might be to laugh at such a person, Shoichi Yokoi reminds me of much activity of the church today – fighting wars which have long since ended while another – much more important challenge – takes place on the doorstep. The attitude of the Catholic church to funerals is one example of many. How many fights continue over doctrinal matters while the need on our doorstep continues to grow? We spend a lot of time filling committee and roster positions in churches while the work of ministry to the community remains neglected. Many still argue over styles of worship and versions of scripture while those outside the church continue to pass by without even a second look.

We can remain faithful, and yet be totally misguided.

Posted by gary at 03:10 PM | Comments (0)

January 22, 2005

Power Battles over the Funeral Service

Powers in the Catholic Church in Australia are making a bid to reclaim the traditional Catholic funeral service at the expense of a personalised one. They are concerned that the telling of a person’s life story and displaying memorabilia somehow distracts from the message the church exists to proclaim. These things, it is argued, are better suited to a wake or other gathering, but not the funeral service itself. I think the Catholic church is badly mistaken.

God has revealed himself through human stories: the Bible is replete with them, each serving as a doorway for us to experience and know God. It is the task of the church at the time of a funeral to allow each person’s story to be told, and to let it serve as a doorway into human understanding of God. To set the church’s needs and the needs of the family and friends in conflict is to marginalise each other, and have a detrimental impact on the mission of the church.

That people who do not otherwise attend church ask for a church funeral service is an indication of a desire to find a connection with matters of faith at a critical time. By offering a pre-packaged service disconnected from the particular circumstances of the people, the church is showing no compassion. Isn’t it our desire to be remembered, and part of the gospel story that we are remembered by God? Shouldn’t the funeral service reflect this memory: that this person and his/her deeds are remembered by God and us?

This artificial distinction between rites of the church and human experience undermines the power of the gospel message, and of the human story to reflect and encapsulate it.

Posted by gary at 11:11 AM | Comments (0)

January 11, 2005

That distinction again...

Amazing how often it happens: you get an idea and the thought seems to chase you around.

After writing yesterday's post, with its allusion to the artificial distinctions often made in relation to faith and spirituality, I picked up John Piper's book "Desiring God". In the introduction, Piper speaks of the distinction we make between worshipping God and enjoying him forever, as if somehow the two were incompatible.

I hear the same sentiments in relation to different areas of life: affirming that God invented joy and pleasure for us, yet we act as though the spiritual life is dull and self-denying? the implied belief that sex is not something beautiful to be enjoyed (when was the last time you heard a preacher talk of the joy of sex?); that eating a beautiful meal is to share the taste of God's kingdom; that the refreshment of a glass of cool water on a hot day is partaking of God's gift?

Sure, we can go too far and create a "spiritual life" which is entirely self-indulgent, but is that a reason for denying the good things which God gives us to enjoy?

For example, we endeavour to build joy into our acts of service. Our sausage sizzle for Southern Asia was a great time of meeting people, and sharing together. We really enjoyed the time of ministry together, as is the case with our monthly church meetings (which enjoy a 100% attendance), and all other church activities. When Jesus said "I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly" he did mean that there would be joy in it.

And when it comes to the darker moments of life, we find that there is a deeper bond which enables us to walk through them together.

Posted by gary at 01:40 PM | Comments (0)

January 10, 2005

Ideas and actions

The church has - it seems - made an artificial distinction between the holy and the everyday, which has become increasingly reflected in the dichotomy between church and community. What happens in most churches bears little resemblance with what happens in the lives of its people between Sundays. We have created religious enclaves, not just in buildings and times, but in every part of our lives.

It has always fascinated me that Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God by utilising images from the ordinary, every-day life of a first century Palestinian Jew. He impregnated the ordinary - a sower going out to sow, a woman looking for a lost coin, a shepherd guarding sheep - with kingdom meaning. From that time forward, the person doing their ordinary tasks was also engaged in reflection upon God's kingdom, and their part in it.

Of course, we don't have the same access to camels, ploughs and the like in inner-city Melbourne. But I wonder how often we have taken time to think about the way things about us reflect God's kingdom? How would Jesus' parable be written: "The kingdom of God is like a worker at a desk... a driver in a taxi... a shopper in the city..."??

While we persist with foreign images of God at work, we are doomed to separating true spirituality and true faith from the ordinary moments of our day.

Posted by gary at 03:09 PM | Comments (0)

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