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christianity culture politics

imaginary dialogue on colonisation & other related issues

Q: What the heck is going on with all the talk about colonisation and racism and white privilege and CRT, etc.?

A: Well, thankfully, people are feeling more and more impowered to speak out and call out various forms of oppression and harm. It may be unsettling, but it’s a good thing.

But wasn’t colonisation a good thing, for the most part, for the countries that were colonised?

That seems to be something someone says when they (knowingly or not) benefit from the arrangement. Consider the perspective of those who lost their ancestral lands, had their people effectively wiped out, and experienced other horrors such as rape, broken promises and more – it amounts to a soul-destroying loss of dignity that affects people for generations. Whatever ‘good’ things that happened along the way have to be understood within this larger destructive trajectory.

That’s a very negative portrayal of colonisation, isn’t it?

Not really. Even if you take one of the ‘best’ examples, the story of colonisation in Aotearoa – New Zealand, where (to summarize a great amount of detail) the missionaries established enough relationship and respect to see the creation and signing of a Treaty with the indigenous peoples, that didn’t stop economic interests (i.e. The New Zealand Company – literally a company that sold New Zealand to settlers) and governmental power from completely breaking the treaty and acquiring a huge majority of the land, and oppressing Māori in many ways.

OK, but even if colonisation was a mixed bag and lots of harm was done, that’s getting further and further in the past, right? Don’t we need to move on and work together?

No. It’s not a simple matter of ‘moving on’. The past is still hanging around and influencing the present. The loss of dignity isn’t simply repaired by the passing of time. The loss of land was followed up with the suppression of culture and language – and therefore dignity. It takes a lot of work, surrender and giving back of power to even begin to get to a place where the phrase ‘working together’ even begins to make sense.

What do you mean by giving back power?

Well, for one thing it means not holding on to power for yourself.

Give me a specific example.

Well, let’s talk about language, for starters. In New Zealand, again one of best of the bad stories, the indigenous language, Te Reo Māori, was banned. The impact of this cannot easily be overstated. Even now, when the use of the language is becoming widespread and showing up in mainstream culture, some people get annoyed when they hear it. This annoyance is about the disruption of power. The power of understanding what someone is saying, and the power of my language (English in this case) being the language everyone else needs to speak. When that power is disturbed it makes people annoyed – or even angry at times!

The great irony is that the Māori people (after many of them having responded by English by learning it rather than opposing it!) saw Te Reo suppressed and banned while English became the dominant language.

OK, OK. Look, I don’t have a problem with indigenous language or people existing and doing well. I do have a problem with people saying that I as a white person have ‘privilege’, or the indication that I am a racist.

I can understand that being uncomfortable. Who wouldn’t? But the reality is, I am privileged, and I’m quite sure I do have various kinds of racism – some I may not even be aware of. I’m privileged, because white people have not been enslaved, forced off their lands, had their language and culture suppressed, and be effectively pushed away and pushed down in all areas of life. Being privileged doesn’t mean my family and I haven’t worked hard or faced difficult times. It just means that we didn’t have all the historical oppression weighing down on us in addition to the struggles we faced.

As for racism, I’m quite sure that – even at the level of my basic brain function – I respond to people who are ‘different’ to me with some kind of automatic suspicion. Most of us have for a while learned to suppress and manage that kind of racism, but more subtle forms still rage. Even when I ‘admire’ people of another race for doing well, does that assume that there’s something unnatural about someone of that race doing well? Or when I want to ‘include’ someone of another race in a conversation – that assumes that the conversation is mine to decide who to include or not.

Look, putting it like that is one thing, but there’s a wider agenda out there taking power. Look at all this Critical Race Theory stuff. It’s really worrying, because it’s from a Marxist framework. You’re a Christian after all! They don’t mix!

Should I be worried about the framework of… say… the Internet?

What do you even mean? I use the internet in a responsible way. Sure it’s got some junk on it, but I use it for good things, finding information, connecting with people, you know…

Exactly. Marxism, like any framework, will have pros and cons. Christianity can usually find at least some aspects of any philosophy that it can bless. Who would not bless the idea that humans are equal?

Oh, sure it may be find to be super nice about things and always look for the positive, but these people pushing CRT are making everything about race. It’s actually making things worse.

Look. From what I understand there’s not even one single definition of CRT. But I find it best to take a patient listening posture rather than a defensive rejection posture. It’s our ability to listen to other ideas that is really getting worse.

Yeah, yeah, I’ll admit listening is always better than shouting my own opinion. But why are these kinds of people so angry all the time? That just doesn’t help things when they are so angry. Why don’t you tell them to listen more?

I used to agree with you! But then a friend reminded me of how biblical anger can be. Sure, Scripture also has cautions to give about anger, but anger in and of itself is not the problem.

Nobody is going to talk about these issues perfectly. Passionate declarations of injustice are going to feel ‘too much’ for some people. Honest questions and clarifications are always going to look like self-protecting deflections to some. Hot anger will feel over the top. Responding to anger with ‘calm down’ will feel like tone-policing… Listening is costly. It’s easy to listen to ideas I agree with, or things said in ways that I am most comfortable with. But I’m truly listening when I can hear things that are disruptive to my own ideas, and in ways that make me a bit uncomfortable.

Would it be nice if everyone listened like this? Of course. But I have to be the change I want to see in the world, right?

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christianity ethics

12 spiritual steps – structural overview

Years ago, I was introduced to the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous by a good friend and sober Alcoholic. Having my interest piqued during our frequent conversations, I’ve continued to interact with them, and have become convinced of their value and wisdom for human flourishing in general and Christian discipleship in particular.

In this post, I want to restrain myself from rambling into detail, and focus my reflections on the wisdom of how the steps are structured. The overarching structure for the steps divides into three sections, with the middle section containing three pairings.

Steps 1-3

  • 1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
  • 2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  • 3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Recovery is hard work and results don’t always come immediately, which is why a long term approach is needed. Instead of diving straight into the hard work of a difficult exploration of your life, identifying character traits that need changing and working to repair the damage in various relationships, steps 1-3 are steps of surrender and preparation.

Steps 4-9

The middle six steps are divided into three pairs. Each pair consists of first taking stock, and secondly taking appropriate action.

  • 4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  • 5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

With steps 4 & 5, one first takes stock of their entire lives in a very thorough and humble way, and then takes action by taking the findings to a trusted person, as well as processing them with one’s self and God.

  • 6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  • 7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Steps 6 & 7 are another two-stage process, first a stage of awareness of the character problems revealed in the previous steps and readiness to have them removed, and then a stage which begins the life-long journey of partnering (avoiding overly active or overly passive extremes!) with God to become a gradually more healthy person.

  • 8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  • 9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

The final pairing takes the restoration project outward into past and present relationships. Step 8 is a preparation step, working on awareness of harm done and the proper motivation to make amends to those we have harmed; then in step 9 the process begins of discerning (with a wise experienced guide or sponsor) if, how and when to reach out to those people and make amends.

Steps 10-12

  • 10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  • 11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  • 12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

The last three steps turn the recovery process into a recovery lifestyle. They are often called ‘maintenance steps’. The lifestyle of recovery involves learning (step 10) to look quickly for your own mistakes and fess up just as quickly, (step 11) to simplify and focus your spiritual life through prayer and meditation that seeks ‘only’ to know God’s will for us and power do do that, and (step 12) to share our recovery with others who need it.

I recently discerned some echoes in the last three steps of the first three steps. Steps 1 and 10 both use the word ‘admitted’, and involve a kind of surrender – not trying to be right, not trying to cling to power. Steps 2 and 11 both have to do with a Higher Power, particularly relating to that Power, not only through basic trust but developing the relationship through prayer and meditation. Finally, steps 3 and 12 both have to do with our wider lives, which are not only placed in God’s hands, but actively infused with and awakened by the practical principles of the steps as a whole.

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bible christianity ethics theology

God in spite of Sin

“Your sins have separated you from your God, and they have hidden his face from you so that he will not listen to you.”

Isaiah 59:2

There are at least two ways to view this verse.

  1. One would be to view God as too pure to be around anyone or anything that is sinful, so when we sin God reacts to the presence of sin by distancing himself and plugging his ears. It almost seems like God would be or could be somehow damaged or corrupted by sin if God doesn’t keep a safe distance from it.
  2. The other is that when we sin, the barrier or separation is caused not by an automatic Divine defense mechanism, but by us, in which we understand God as always facing us, always wanting to listen to and engage in relationship with us, but us choosing to distance ourselves.

I think the latter best expresses the truth of the God who we see fully revealed in Jesus. And here are a few lines of thought as to why.

In the earliest depictions of sin in the Bible, it is not God that hides from Adam and Eve, but the other way around. Instead of hiding from the sinful humans, God goes looking for them and calling to them. This is a theme that is quickly repeated with Cain (see Genesis 4:8-16) and sets the tone for the rest of Scripture.

God is like a doctor, and it would be a pretty poor doctor who hid from the sight of blood. God is like a light, and it is the very nature of light to illumine and overcome darkness. John’s gospel says that light (see John’s intro for who the Light is!), rather than cowering away from the world, “has come into the world”. Humans, John continues, “loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.” It seems that if ever there is a problem in the communication with or distance from God, it’s not God that built the wall – it’s humans.

There is a verse in Habakkuk which says “your eyes are too pure to look upon evil”. This is a complaint from Habakkuk. He’s protesting God’s apparent patience with evil people. In the very next line he questions why God continues to “look on those who deal treacherously”. Why does God do what Habakkuk thinks he shouldn’t do? Because God is not only more holy than we can imagine but more loving than we can believe.

So it really is important and life changing that God’s basic and consistent orientation towards his children is that of loving desire for relationship. God is not vulnerable to being corrupted or thrown off balance by sin. His nature is to encounter it, to forgive it, to bear it, to heal it and to enact a victory over it.

I think there is more to be said about this however…

God’s faithful determined presence with us in spite of sin does not mean God’s indifferent posture or benign acquiescence to the tragedy of sin. That’s not the case in Genesis, John, Isaiah, Habakkuk or anywhere. God stays for a reason. God pursues us for a purpose. To transform us.

When we sin, it doesn’t send God running for safety but it does something. It doesn’t change God, but it does affect us.

So having established that God is not the kind of God who hides from sin, we can ask, how does God relate to sin? How does God seek us out to deal with our sin?

Starting with the Garden and going forward, the God who is present with us in spite of our sin, still warns us, often through other people or other means, of the ways in which sin will harm and beat us up if we don’t take it seriously. Warning someone doesn’t mean shaming them or blaming them. It can indeed mean loving them. If you do that, it will hurt! Keep away from that! Those are words of love.

A second way that the ‘God who is present in spite of our sin’ responds to our sin is to discipline us. If words of loving warning don’t work, then loving discipline may. I think often times this discipline comes in the form of allowing us to encounter sin’s consequences. Whether it be the Babylonians, losing a job, a friend or your freedom, painful consequences can drive us to the point of being willing to do what I need to do to change.

Another passage in Romans 1 reveals that God at times will eventually “give us over” to our sin if we persist in it. This too, doesn’t suggest for a moment that God’s basic nature and inclination towards relationship and love has changed one bit. It’s not that God hides from us when we persist with sin to the point where it is engrained in our lives. No. The point here is not that God ‘gives us over’ to sin in order to keep a safe distance from us, but rather that God ‘gives us over’ to it because that may be the only way we will come to our senses. There is a distinction here between God ‘leaving us’ and God ‘leaving us to it’. If we consistently fail to listen to God’s warnings, we may need to be left to our own devices to encounter the consequences of our sin. I think of the Prodigal Son story here. The Father’s love for both his sons is consistent. He waits for the younger brother to return, and he goes out and pleads with the older brother to join in the welcome home party. But he does not follow the younger son. Instead he seems to ‘give him over’ to his plans, all the while looking, watching and waiting patiently for him to come to his senses and come back. This is not a picture of a God who is indifferent or angry, turning away in disgust. This is a vision of a Father who consistently longs for reconciliation. This may be a helpful way to understand the words from Isaiah 59:2 about God not listening to us. It’s not that God doesn’t desire to listen. It’s just that the distance created by us means that God can’t listen.

So hopefully this reflection is helpful, not only to have a bedrock conviction about the steadfast love of God who seeks out and saves sinners, but also to take sin seriously enough to avoid it and run away from it, into the arms of the Father who is present and waiting for you in spite of it.

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bible christianity culture ethics politics

political participation

In the first century, around the time of Jesus and the early Christian moment, there were at least ‘parties’ representing four types of Jewish response to the occupying presence and rule of the Roman empire. Zealots, Essenes, Sadducees and Pharisees.

Zealots and Violent Resistance

The Zealots were an expression of angry resistance to Roman rule. They were the guys with the daggers. This kind of posture gave rise to revolts like the Maccabean revolt and that of Simeon bar Kochba.

Essenes and Pure Isolation

The Essene solution was to distance and isolate. Remain pure and Messiah would come. The community of the Dead Sea Scrolls may well have been Essene.

Sadducees and Compromised Collusion

Sadducees were focused on Temple worship and were involved with political affairs, collecting taxes and seen to be compromised.

Pharisees and Strict Religiosity

Pharisees saw Law observance as everything, so they made sure they didn’t miss a single thing to do with kosher, sabbath or purity. Messiah will come

The Alternative Path of Jesus

The way and teaching of Jesus seems to avoid these violent, isolated, compromised or religious ways. Like the Pharisees, Essenes and Zealots the way of Jesus is opposed to the Roman way of life at many points. But unlike them it does not find the answer in religiosity, separation or violence. Like the Sadducees, Jesus seems to approve of participation in world affairs, but unlike them this is to be done in the context of faithfulness to God’s kingdom.

The Relevance for Contemporary Politics

As Christians who live and vote in countries where Christian influence is not as strong as we would like, and not as accepted as it has been. Elections seem to be a time where this is felt acutely in the Christian community. I reckon there are some interesting parallels with the first century situation.

Our anger may not get as violent as the Zealots, but it’s really evident in the way we attack politicians in media and social media.

Our isolation may not be as physical as the Essenes, but we often disengage – often choosing not to vote or critiquing from a distance.

Our compromise may be different from the Sadducees, but some are far too comfortable supporting certain parties and candidates.

Our religiosity may not be as exacting as the Pharisees, but we do not hesitate to point out how immoral and sinful the culture is.

What would the way of Jesus look like?

Jesus knew it was going to be difficult. So difficult he prayed for us to know his life and sustenance as we strive to be in the world, not out of it, and not of it. Isolation may be the answer in a crisis but not the default posture of the Church. He also gave some really relevant teachings. He said we’d be like sheep among wolves, and told us to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. He also knew that if we ‘give’ or ‘cast’ our holy pearls to pigs and dogs, they will not treat us or our pearls with respect. Perhaps we should be cautious in trying to get the nations laws to reflect our values.

We get some glimpses of this balance in Acts and the Epistles. Paul’s posture and language at Athens and before Felix, Festus and Agrippa is markedly different from what he includes in his letters to fellow believers who share his values. We are told to fear God and honour the Emperor. Nowhere do we see the Church clamouring to change Roman law. Rather, in season and out of season, with great political influence or with little or none, the way of Christ seems to be more about word and action than position or status. The Early Church was profoundly affecting society with its care of orphans and widows long before Emperor Constantine converted (and later Christianized the Empire). In fact, you can argue that Constantine’s gift of power actually weakened the Church’s witness. Love and Political power are a tough mix.

So Christians should vote, should discuss issues and should seek to influence the world. But we have to be so careful about political power plays. It is so easy to do more harm than good.

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bible christianity theology

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.

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bible christianity culture ethics theology

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.

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christianity culture ethics philosophy theology

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.
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bible christianity theology

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.

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bible christianity philosophy theology

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.

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bible christianity culture ethics theology

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.