towards better help

In this world, Jesus said, you will have trouble.

2020 has seen its’ fair share of it.

Jesus assures us that we can take heart in his act of overcoming the world, but his followers are still enlisted as kingdom-bringers, as much of heaven on earth as possible.

Trouble and problems.

We humans get stuck in the middle of them. And we take on three familiar personas at various times.

Victim.

All of us, in various ways, have been hurt by someone other than ourselves, and it wasn’t our fault at all. We’re all victims.

To complicate our situation, we can easily fall into a “poor me” victim mindset, which hinders us in all kinds of ways, one of which is that we fail to take responsibility for the things we can change.

Victimiser.

All of us, in other ways, have hurt others, and we shouldn’t have, and we must take responsibility for it, sooner or later. We’re all Victimisers.

To complicate our situation, we can easily fall into a “bad me” kind of guilt and shame, which paralyzes us in all kinds of ways, one of which is that we fail to change the things about ourselves, because we believe that part of us (or us as a whole) to be ‘bad’.

Rescuer.

All of us, at various times, have had opportunity or have tried to help when we see someone who has been hurt. We’re all rescuers.

To complicate things, we can easily fall into a “great me” mindset of heroic helpfulness, which can distort and warp the ways in which we try to help, two of which are a) to help in ‘token’ ways that don’t really help, or b) to help in ways that make those we are trying to help dependent on our help.


I’ve been thinking about this ordinary human triangle in relation to the horrible trouble that is dominating our news feeds at present with regard to race, violence, privilege, guilt, power, empathy and change.

The real, painful and horrifically persistent victimhood of African Americans by racism is justifiably and understandably our global focus right now, even if others continue to be victims of other things. It would be easy for the victim mentality to paralyze many African Americans. I admire the strength and resilience of those within African American communities who call one another to draw together their strength and be agents of change – both in relation to their own community and the external threat of racism. Simply inspiring.

Racism is a real, subtle, and powerful form of victimisation. Many people have taken the honest course of admitting their unconscious, subconscious or other layers of racism. Others point to the reality of such things as “white guilt”, as we feel various levels of responsibility for both the existence and persistence of racism. I admire the prophetic and creative ways that we are trying our best to help one another face the racism that we all are likely to have at some level. Difficult. Painstaking. Absolutely essential.

One of the ways we who feel guilt over our participation in racism can respond is by trying to help. We act as rescuers. We want to be seen as those who are on the “right side” of the issue. With the issue flaring up on social media, we share articles, change our profile pictures and express solidarity with the victims of racism. I am inspired and challenged by wise voices that challenge us to take our help far beyond the bandwagon of sudden compassion. Our ethic for protecting human dignity must be consistent and comprehensive.


When I am a victim, Lord protect me from the victim mentality that would hinder me from doing what I can to change my situation.

When I am a victimiser, Lord strengthen my repentance and guard me from the forms of shame that trap me from the transformation I need.

When I try to help, Lord, deepen and sharpen my compassion to go beyond gesture, and lead me to walk alongside people to participate together in change.


Make me strong, humble and helpful.

through locked doors

One of the most emotionally difficult parts of the life of faith is when those you love don’t seem to have faith.

For some, it could be a suspicion that the faith they claim to have isn’t authentic (Can someone who does ‘x’ really be a believer?). For others, it could be a lack of certain specifics about God that we fear may not cut the mustard (Is a vague openness to “something greater” enough?). For still others, it could be based on a clear position they have openly taken.

I don’t believe it is ever possible to know with God-like knowledge what was going on in someone’s heart of hearts.

That language of God-like knowledge was deliberate. Some things God only knows. In Roman Catholic Mass, during the Intercessions, one form of the Eucharistic liturgy includes a plea for God to “Remember also those who have died in the peace of your Christ and all the dead, whose faith you alone have known.”

There’s no convenient proof text in the Bible for this inclusive view, but there’s something very biblical about it. It recognises the need for faith – an essential ingredient in any real and effective relationship. That’s biblical. It also, however, doesn’t try to take the place of God and insist who is in and who is out. It hopes and trusts that only God sees into the hearts of all people. That’s biblical.

I became good friends with an inspiring musician who is known and loved by many. He was humorously open about their atheism, yet they loved to sing old gospel folk songs. We shared a room on a tour, and one night as we drifted off to sleep he asked a question about God… My answer was either very boring or very comforting (possibly both!) because his reply was the deep breathing of a now-sleeping roommate. Days after our trip he tragically and unexpectedly took his life. Processing the grief via Facebook messenger, a mutual friend described him as “a believer who couldn’t believe”. I don’t know if there was faith in there or not. But if there was, God knows.

Faith, and the fruits of it, are often visible. But God sees what we cannot. God is always ahead of our efforts. Creating before we get creative. Forming our tongues before we speak. Working where we cannot see. Going where we cannot go.

Toward the end of John’s gospel, there’s a scene with the disciples of Jesus. Their hearts had been broken and confused by the loss of their leader. Their bruised hope had been tormented by a report from a woman that he was alive. They were “together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders”. In the following chapter John will portray Jesus at a breakfast Eucharist of sorts – both visible and touchable; but here he shows us that Jesus is not limited by visible and touchable barriers like those locked doors. He “came and stood among them” giving them Peace.

Just as Jesus can pass through those locked doors and speak peace to the fearful hearts and fragile faith of those early believers, Jesus can see into a heart with doors as locked as those doors and see a faith as fragile as theirs.

holistic christianity

From my understanding of Scripture, I can discern at least the following seven levels of Christian life. They signal – and invite us into – a rich, holistic way of life. A way of life that seems to apply at all times and in all places. After seven short statements sketching these seven levels, I offer some brief reflections on why an appreciation of this holistic mix is crucial as we negotiate our current covid-19 crisis.


Private Devotion. Individual. The focus is on the relationship between me as an individual and God. Simultaneously, I practice relating to myself and to God. The more healthy, honest and helpful this relationship is, the more I am prepared to relate to others. Jesus’ prayerful relationship with his Father is a model.

Vulnerable Companionship. Two or Three Persons. This level is about journeying with those you are closest to and vulnerable with in a special way. It is incredibly difficult. It is less threatening to function as an isolated individual, or to operate in large groups while keeping everyone at arms length. Our discipleship and growth happens at this level like no other, provided we are willing to open ourselves to being the process of being sharpened by others “as iron sharpens iron”. One core practice here is the terrifying and transforming discipline of Confession.

Collaborative Community. Households, Gatherings or Entire Cities. This widens the focus to others not like us. Here we can practice the excruciatingly challenging task of loving, welcoming, sharing and serving with people who are not in our close group of favourites. We learn to partner with others: giving and receiving, influencing and being influenced by one another. This is dangerous and risk of pain, church splits (Paul and Barnabas style) and more along the way, but there is no other path forward. This is the level where the practice of Communion (or the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist) gathers up as much local diversity as possible into one local Body.

Global Movement. All Believers Everywhere. This extends our horizon past those we have met to include other believers who we are separated from either by distance or time. The differences in culture and expression of faith get more interesting and more challenging. the same opportunities to grow in partnership extend here as well. Again this is dangerous business – and far less challenging to stick to your house, your church, your neighbourhood. But God wants us to link up. Think of the way Paul advocated for churches to support, encourage, greet and pray for one another.

Human Solidarity. Every Human Life. This is a consistent trajectory in Scripture, where God’s people are called, as much as we are able, and in whatever ways that will be helpful, to channel God’s transforming love to the nations, the poor, the stranger, the orphan and the widow, the elderly, the unborn, the eunuch, the queer, the heretic, the unbeliever, the terrorist, and the enemy. Think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus not only makes a Samaritan the hero instead of a Jew, but also does not name the ethnic or religious identity of the victim. He was simply a human worthy of urgent and thorough care.

Global Stewardship. Our Environment. The care and concern doesn’t stop at humans. We tend and keep the garden of the Earth. We look after the “rocks and trees and skies and seas” of our Father’s World, as the grand hymn reminds us. We study and serve clouds and climates, tides and tectonics, flora and fauna, birds and beasts, sky and soil, oil and organisms, migration and minerals.

Cosmic Wonder. All Creation. Through the surface scratching, curious and scientific exploration of this mysterious universe, we function as God intended. With the author of Genesis (and the best of the skepticism of atheists), we dethrone the sun, moon and stars from the idol thrones. With King David (and contra those same atheists), we declare them as “the work of Your hands”. Here the line between science and worship blurs.


Brief Reflection on our Current Covid-19 Situation

We are in a season of change, no doubt. When change comes, there can be a tendency to do a few things, such as a) turn inward to the things you can control, b) turn to the past and resist change, or c) turn to the new new and innovative assuming them to be improvements.

The holistic framework of living outlined above helps us to navigate various aspects of our way forward. Any one (or more) of the levels can be easily forgotten at any time, but certainly amidst change like that we are navigating at present. For example, we can be so excited about online creativity, intimate bubble fellowship, or connecting in new ways globally that we forget the simple and historic value of gathering as local communities for hugs, handshakes, confession, teaching, blending our voices, taking communion, confessing the faith and being sent.

Whatever creative and innovative places God may well be taking us forward into, they need to involve structures and relationships that see individuals relating to God, confessing their sins to one another, sharing the Bread and the Cup in body gatherings that are as diverse as possible, reaching out to and uniting sacrificially across denominational and geographical lines, serving all kinds of human needs and injustices in Jesus’ name regardless of demographic difference, caring for and preserving creation, and daring to explore the heavens with reverent curiosity.

May God give us creativity, wisdom and patience to grow into the diverse kind of life invites us into.

varieties of slavery

It is known that slavery has taken various forms at different times and places in human history. Some person-to-person relationships bearing the name ‘slavery’ is more akin to employment, whilst other forms of relating (not always called ‘slavery’) are more comparable with torture.

Given the limited helpfulness of using a single word to gather up so many kinds of behaviour, what might be a more helpful approach? Perhaps we could speak of a variety of ways in which humans come to be in a state where they are not free. We might list a multitude of forces that restrict and restrain the human body, mind, spirit and life.

I suggest the two largest categories for these forces might be:

  • forces outside the self (e.g. dictators, traffickers, poverty, etc.)
  • forces inside the self (e.g. anger, pride, lust, etc.).

A couple of observations may be interesting.

  1. Victim-hood v. Responsibility. We can be accustomed to pointing the finger of blame at forces outside ourselves that we accuse of enslaving us, which is far more dignified than taking responsibility for the character defects we have helped create within ourselves which we admit continue to enslave us. If a person, community or culture grows psychologically or collectively unable to identify their own participation in their un-freedom, and instead is obsessively bent on constant criticism of the enslaving ‘others out there’, are they truly free? Have they not become enslaved to their pursuit of their concept of freedom? Their maintenance of their safe victim-hood?
  2. One v. Many. We western culture conceives of freedom in highly individualistic terms. Our preoccupation with our own freedom forgets the impact of my actions upon others. We can become so focused protecting our freedom to do as we wish, that we unwittingly participate in activities others find enslaving, and can become enslaved to a narrow focus on our own lives.

lonely but not alone

Singing of Christ’s burial between death and resurrection, the worship song sings:

The entrance sealed by heavy stone; Messiah still and all alone.

O Praise the Name (Anastasis)” by Hillsong Worship

The theologian protests, “No! Even as the incarnate Son unfathomably embraced fully and completely the reality of human death, the Father and the Spirit never abandoned him. He was never alone!”

I get the protest. But like a lot of things to do with the Christian faith we are grasping at things beyond words to describe, and what we may emphasize in one song or verse or sermon, gets balanced out by others. From one point of view, of course the thoroughly executed and dutifully buried Son of God was not ‘alone’. But the lyric captures the feeling and experience of those companions of Christ who were nearest to the holy entombment. For them, the stillness and isolation were cold dead realities confronting them.

One question that arises in my mind – and mercifully a far more practical one – is that of what it may have meant at any time in his life for Christ to have been ‘lonely’. Why is it a practical question? Because we all encounter loneliness at times. How might we find strength and assistance in our loneliness?

The answer, to my mind, like all Christian understandings, involves a tension: whilst Christ, fully human, experiencing the range of human emotion and tempted at all points like us, must have truly known the experience of loneliness, he nonetheless avoided letting himself be overcome by it, through his awareness of being The Beloved Son. Simply: though lonely, never alone.

Here we find a truth that we can not only relate to, but be held by when we need it most.

together

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

Colossians 1:15-20

The timing of Christ’s birth – in the middle of history – is symbolic. As the Carol proclaims, “Late in time, behold Him come; offspring of a Virgin’s womb.” God steps into creation, in person, the person of his Son, in the middle of time, to keep creation from being split in two.

The agent and vessel for “all creation” stepped into the middle of creation to save it. In the squirming, soft-skinned son of Mary, the whole of existence is held together.

He started holding things together before his birth. The peaceful union of Mary and Joseph was threatening to never occur – yet they were held together. His birth, life, death and his ‘first-birth’ from the grave, together make possible all levels of togetherness reverberating through the cosmos. Jew and Gentile were hostile to one another – yet they came together in Christ the head of the Church. Slave and free, male and female, rich and poor, conservative and liberal, victim and victimiser, the addicted and those addicted to things they don’t realise, left-wing and right-wing, offended and offender, the broken and those who don’t realise yet their brokenness, the technologically advanced and the spiritually contented, the past and the future, the invisible and the visible, heaven and earth… yes, even Creator and creation; are all able to be held together in the bond of reconciliation – all because of the perfect, precious person of Christ.

May it be a togetherness we open ourselves to and participate in with the richest gratitude.

cunning engagement

On the issues where Christians agree with society, engagement is easy. But when there is a difference of opinion, Christians can, it seems, go to two extremes in their engagement.

At one extreme, they can stomp, scream and shout about how bad and wrong the world is, telling non-Christians just how un-Christian they are. The other extreme, perhaps, is to retreat into Christian huddles that have no involvement with – and thus no effect on – the outside world.

Jesus seemed to point the way to a middle path. He taught us to be ‘cunning as serpents and innocent as doves’. Wisdom and restraint, free of complicity or compromise. Jesus didn’t march to Rome and attempt a take-over, but he was uncompromising in his Abrahamic monotheism. He believed in holiness, but taught that this was not to be given unwisely to ‘dogs’ who would only be incited to ‘turn and tear you to pieces’. He valued the pearl of faith, but taught that we should not cast pearls to ‘swine’ who would only trample them. How much of our engagement on issue of sexuality, politics and the like amounts to giving what is holy to dogs?

Two scenes from Acts, both involving Paul, show us this middle way in action. One has been long recognised: Paul at Athens in Acts 17. He is incredibly charitable in his engagement with the pagan thinkers and worshippers, although within himself he was ‘greatly distressed’. Here we see Paul having a public opportunity to speak. He begins with common ground and complimenting the principles he had in common with them, even quoting a pagan Hymn to Zeus.

But he went on to offer a critique of gods that live in man-made buildings and needing humans to serve them. It seems like he was reading the crowd and going as far as he thought wise. The result was mixed and he left it there. He didn’t clamour for more microphone time. He was as kind (cunning as serpents) and as honest (innocent as doves) as possible and trusted God with the result.

The next scene is Paul in Acts 24 before the Roman governor Felix. It’s less well known. One observation is that Jews knew how to talk respectfully to Romans. Observe the comments of Tertullus (serving as a kind of prosecuting attorney):

We have enjoyed a long period of peace under you, and your foresight has brought about reforms in this nation. Everywhere and in every way, most excellent Felix, we acknowledge this with profound gratitude. But in order not to weary you further, I would request that you be kind enough to hear us briefly.

Acts 24:2-4

Paul echoes this tactful speech in his defense:

“I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defense.

Acts 24:10

Paul goes on to defend himself against the accusation of stirring up riots, and manages along the way to share some details of his faith:

However, I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.

Acts 24:14-16

Paul was again saying as much as he thought would be helpful. And no more. Note that he is not criticizing the beliefs of Romans in general or Felix in particular, but sharing his own allegiance, belief, hope and lifestyle. Felix, who had a Jewish wife (Drusilla), knew enough about the Christians to be intrigued, and to meet privately with him. We are told that Paul, in this more intimate setting seems to go further than he did in public. He talked “about faith in Christ Jesus”, even going so far as to discuss “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come.

Felix’s immediate response may make us think that Paul pushed it too far. Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” However, he continued to regularly talk with him.

I want to imitate this way of engaging with those who have a different faith from me. I want to be as non-confrontational and generous as I can be, even celebrating their beliefs when that is authentic to do so. And I want to be able to be as honest as I can without doing harm to them or the relationship.

better or worse

As experience and age increases, you can look back on your life and see change. Sometimes, there can be significant difference between the kind of person we are now and the person we used to be.

On the one hand, it may be that we are better, that we have learned from mistakes, that we have made progress. On the other hand, of course, it may be that we are worse, that we have forgotten important principles, that we have regressed.

What we think about our progress or regress may be different from the reality. For example, it is far more comfortable to think of ourselves as having made progress; to look back in triumphal dis-association, saying, “I am glad I’m not that person anymore.” By contrast, it is deeply disturbing to say to oneself, “What kind of person have I become? How did I get here?”

It seems to me that in order for myself to make a more accurate assessment of my progress or regress, I need the input of others. Indeed, if I have other people whom I can increasingly ask for and accept their perception of my well-being, it is a sign of progress. If, however, I increasingly fear or despise the views of more and more people, assuming my own perception to be more true than theirs, I would take that to be a sign of regress.

The following questions emerge from this reflection:

Am I growing closer or further away from people who can help me become a better person?

Am I sensing an increase or decrease in partnership, community and relationship with others in general?

Am I growing in my ability to accept people I disagree with, or is my frustration with them burning hotter and hotter?

What habits can I build into my life to help me grow towards others, rather than away from them?

the danger of “I am not like ___” thinking

Mirroring the growing divide in political discourse around the world is a growing divide within the church between ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ believers.

Both would claim to be trying to correctly express and live Christian faith, but it seems to me that ‘progressive’ believers see ‘correctly’ in terms of appropriate correction, adaptation and renovation, whilst ‘conservative’ believers see ‘correctly’ in terms of conservation, perseverance and restoration.

Politically, this (perhaps not always consistently?) tends to make ‘progressive’ believers have a more left-leaning approach, and ‘conservative’ believers have a more right-leaning approach.

If you can anticipate me saying that a ‘both/and’ approach is needed, that would be because that is precisely what I think is needed.

Just as the Gospel cannot ‘fit’ within the political ‘left’ or ‘right’, but instead affirms and challenges both, our understanding of the Gospel always needs both correction and conservation; adaptation and perseverance; renovation and restoration. Continuity and Discontinuity. New and Old. Faithfulness and Innovation. Word and Spirit.

The opposite of this ‘both/and’ approach is the posture that says “I am not like _____”. Two quick examples are a) the Pharisee (Luke 18:11) who was grateful to not be like the sinner, and b) the elite and presentable parts of the body who do not want to associate with the lowly and unpresentable parts.

In other words, we need one another more than we realise, and more than we are comfortable with.

creation obeys the Creator

Hillsong United’s recent song “So Will I” features the word “evolving” within a verse exploring themes of Creation.

Not surprisingly, critique has come from Christian opponents of evolution. David Mathis is concerned that people will be confused by the word, unsure whether it refers to limited change within species or some naturalistic anti-creational form of Darwinism (add scary music for effect).

I don’t personally think the song is ideal for congregational worship, but only because of the varied melody and syncopated rhythm. The lyrics, in my view, are clearly pro-creation. Let’s have a look…

First, we have a wider statement about “all nature and science” which “follow the sound of your voice”. I love this. It’s a big-picture conviction that all Christians share about the world. Whatever cosmic, ecological, biological, or other processes there are, they are only able to do what they do because of the power and permission of God. However much ‘evolution’ has happened and is happening, it only occurs within the sovereign will of the Creator.

Next we have the e-word. “A hundred billion creatures catch your breath – evolving in pursuit of what you said.” I also love this because it’s so darn celebratory of God! The word ‘breath’ signals the hovering spirit who moves upon creation. The line about ‘what you said’ refers to the command of God: “Let there be”. This is not some purposeless biological process being referred to here. This is God summoning the existence of various forms of life, and nature responding in glad patient unfolding obedience.

Fear not, Christians. If evolution is an accurate way to describe creation, God is bigger than it all.