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.

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.

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.

a theodicy of hope

Instead of attempting to use logic and reason to deduce a way to establish a valid justification for God (‘theos’) being just (‘dikaios’) in the light of suffering and evil, it may be more simple…

The following statement of Jesus in John 16:33 is key:

“In this world you will have trouble; but take heart, I have overcome the world.”

This beautiful and terrible world was always going to be both beautiful and terrible. Whatever time is, whether in terms of physics, metaphysics, science or theology, it necessarily entails process, opportunity, possibility and freedom.

On the one hand, God is not an absentee landlord, abandoning our space/time world to descend into chaos, but on the other hand, God is not a manipulative control-freak, exerting hands-on force upon the world, causing and desiring everything that happens in every and all senses of the word ’cause’. God cares. But this does not mean that God prevents every bad thing from happening.

Instead, we are given a promise that God will sort it out eventually, or indeed that in and through Jesus that sorting out has already been inaugurated. If Jesus is really risen from the dead, then God really has already begun to overcome the world with all its trouble.

This is a theodicy of hope.

on the Canon of Scripture

Is Scripture ‘finished’ being written?

Christians believe it is. How so? Catholics and Protestants don’t agree on which books are to be included, and various leaders in church history have thought it best to leave certain books out, such as Revelation or James.

One way to begin discussing the question is to think about the Jewish Scriptures, the Old Testament or the Tanakh. Broadly speaking, this grouping of Scriptures are records of, and reflections on, at least four key, formative, identity-establishing events: a) Creation, b) Election, c) Exodus and d) Exile. You cannot be Jewish and not identify with those events, and thus the Jewish Scriptures would not be complete without records and reflection on all of them.

In the same way, the Christian Scriptures incorporate all of these events into a further climactic Christ Event (which is shorthand for a series of events: Birth, Life, Death, Resurrection, Ascension). In addition, you have the launch of the Church, partnering with God’s redemptive mission in anticipation of the fulfillment or ‘consummation’ of the coming of God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.” Thus the Christian Scriptures, like Christian identity, are not complete without addressing Creation, Election, Exodus, Exile, Christ, Church and Consummation. Whereas hope of a coming Messiah is implicit in the Jewish Scriptures, the hope of a consummated Kingdom is explicit in the Christian Scriptures.

So then, just as the Jewish Scriptures are a complete and coherent witness to the identify forming events of Judaism, so also the Christian Scriptures (with or without the Apocryphal books that divide Catholics and Protestants) are a complete and coherent witness to the identity forming events of Christian faith and hope.

thy will be done

“Thy Will Be Done”

The statement “Thy will be done” is the overarching and simple representative statement of submission. With this statement, we acknowledge that God is God and we are not, and that God’s way and God’s will are better than mine.

For those who accept, submit to, worship and follow an Ultimate Being or God, it’s a simple enough statement, even if it’s not always easy. For most of us, it would be as simple as pulling out of a match with a Professional Boxer – “OK, you win – I’m out! No need to prove whose stronger here!”

But what about relationships between other humans?

“thy will be done?”

It’s easy to submit to someone you know is going to win. But with human relationships, the question of submission gets very tricky. If my will for a situation seems – to me at least! – to be better, then it’s very tempting to assume that “thy will be done” is a mistake, and instead try to find a way for “my will” to be done. This attitude, insisting on finding a way to ‘win’, is responsible for a great deal – or maybe all – of the chaos on the world.

What about situations where ‘better’ is not, or maybe can’t ever be, known? Do we just take turns getting our way? Do we always ‘meet half way’ so that nobody ever purely has “their will” done? Do I seek to let others have “their will” done more often than mine? Who wants to be a door-mat?

Some of this will inevitably be a matter of conflict resolution, patience, getting to know and trust one another, or doing your best and sorting out any arising problems as best you can. But I think that Christ gives us a compelling model to follow…

“Not my will, but Thine be done.”

In the Garden of Gethsemane, preparing himself for his sacrificial death, even though he carried the knowledge that he would rise again, Jesus asked his Father in prayer for another way. At some real level, Jesus was not looking forward to drinking the cross-shaped cup of suffering that he was destined for.

Crucially, he didn’t just push his will down into his subconscious and skip effortlessly into “Thy will be done.” He had the courage to voice it out. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), each in their own way, depict Jesus as being in an extreme emotional state: “exceedingly sorrowful unto death”, sweating blood-like drops in “agony”. Here Jesus meets humanity at our most desperate. He is with us when we are at the end of ourselves, when things are not going our way, when it is painfully and brutally clear that “our will” is not going to be done.

Jesus is neither a rebel nor a doormat. Like Mary at the annunciation, who has a few questions before she will “let it be”, Jesus adopts a posture that is both assertive and submissive. It is the posture of a Servant.

I don’t know about you, but I know my own passive-aggressive tendencies enough to see how much I need to embody the posture of Jesus.

Lord, help me be assertive and honest about what I want, but give me strength to surrender it in order to do what You want, even when I don’t want to do.

god’s theology

Theology is literally a ‘word’ (logos) about ‘God’ (Theos).

Some scattered bits of experience, mine and others, over the last few weeks have reminded me that various positions, discussions, debates and statements that would be labelled ‘theological’ can be unhelpful. Yes, truth will divide at times, and so it should, but too often theological battles can separate what God has joined together. They can wrongfully offend, make too much of small things, speak too little of grand things, and so on.

Of course the opposite is also true. Theology done well does just what it was meant to do, enable and equip the people of God to be who they were intended to be in God’s world, through acts of selfless solidarity, breathtaking generosity, persistent service, courageous prophetic witness and so on.

How do we distinguish between good and bad theologies? This is where the uniqueness of the Christian faith comes in.

What makes Christian faith Christian is the person of Christ. All of Christian theology stems directly from the person and work of Christ. Christ is the revelation of God. All ‘God-words’ meet their pass or fail by testing them against the ‘God-Word’ that is Jesus Christ. Christ, after all, is God’s Theology, the Word who was with God and who was God.

I will hold my own theologies lightly, and hold to, and be held by, God’s own Theology. It is not my knowledge of God that matters, but God’s knowledge of me.