Category Archives: christianity

getting, giving and church

A Christian (individual, family, couple, etc.) immigrates to a new country for work.  They find a place to live.

  • Trajectory One: They then begin to seek out a church that is right for them.  Using search engines and map apps, they plan out which churches in their new city they will try out.  They enjoy the preaching at some churches and the music at others, they are impressed at the apparent organisation and websites of a few others, and visit several churches that are obviously not what they are looking for.  After a few months of visiting different churches, they visit a large church near the city centre, so the larger size meant that during the sermon as they looked down from the second-story seating area, they could spot plenty of people their own age.  They felt pretty comfortable in the smoothly run service – no awkward pauses – and the church looked to be clearly successful and growing, so after a few weeks they decide to join.  They then begin looking for a life group that is right for them, they find out what the church provides, what their options are, etc…
  • Trajectory Two: They then begin to seek out a church to serve within.  Within the first few days of settling into their house, getting groceries and suchlike, they notice that a church is just a few blocks away, so they go on Sunday morning and introduce themselves.  Being a residentially-based church, it’s not too large, and naturally there aren’t too many people their own age, but they could see no reason why this church would hinder them in their desire to serve the community around where they lived, and after a few weeks, a kind older couple has them around for lunch.  Meanwhile, they already have begun to learn about the surrounding community, not only discovering where the best restaurants and other ‘hot spots’ are, but also its needs and ministry opportunities.  They discover that while the local church has a few ministries that bless the community, there are some needs currently unaddressed.  So, they begin to think, pray and discuss with others what could be done…

If it’s not blatantly obvious, the two trajectories above couldn’t be more different.  One reflects a ‘getting’ consumer-driven approach that seeks to find a church for me, and enjoyable sermons, music, attractive marketing that you can be proud of, a home group with people like me, etc.  The other reflects a ‘giving’ kingdom-driven approach that seeks to find a church for ministry and mission to others.

hegemony, homosexuality & homophobia

(Leftovers from a great and long chat with a good man today.)

Almost 100 years ago, Antonio Gramsci proposed the idea of “cultural hegemony” where a powerful idea or culture carries immense and controlling force.  One key indicator that a hegemony is at work is when dissenting voices are kept silent out of fear.

A conservative ethic regarding homosexuality – and the homophobia (any level of social discomfort relating to homosexual people) that too often rides on its coattails – has been and can be often so strong in church (sub)cultures, that gay people feel suppressed and silenced out of fear of judgment.  A homophobic hegemony pushing gays into closets.

The irony is this: a liberal/accepting ethic regarding homosexuality – and the angry angst that too often rides on its coattails – has been and can be often so strong in many post-Christian ‘developed’ contexts and culture, that conservatives also feel suppressed and silenced out of fear of judgment.  A liberal hegemony pushing conservatives into cloisters.

Or in other words, for every action there is (often?) an equal-opposite reaction.

  • Action – some conservative Christians heaped shame on people attracted to the same sex.
  • Reaction – some liberal Westerners heaped shame on people who heaped shame on people attracted to the same sex.

As a Christian with a conservative ethic on homosexuality, rather than defensively fight for my ‘right to be conservative’, I’d rather go to the source, and oppose the homophobia which feeds the shaming and intimidation of people attracted to the same sex.

corporate worship for the catholic corpus

Another way of talking about corporate worship is to say that it is worship that is enacted by the whole body – the catholic (universal) corpus (body).

In an ultimate, truly catholic corporate worship is not possible until the Age to Come, when every tongue, tribe and nation expresses it.  But Jesus’ prayer in John 17 expresses a desire for a kind of catholicity that we should continually strive for.

I’m interested (and just might explore in my Masters Thesis?) in ways that we can express worship that re-unites the Corpus Christi.  I guess that makes me an Ecumenical Baptist.  But isn’t that what Jesus prays for in John 17?  How can the Church worship across all the divides we have?  Across Liturgical and ‘Free’ Church worship frameworks; Across ‘Catholic’, Orthodox and Protestant traditions; Across Episcopal and Congregational (and other) leadership approaches; Across the nasty, embittered Liberal and Conservative ditch; Across painful Charismatic/Pentecostal and Cessationist arguments; Across the separations that split ‘Dying Old Folks Churches’, ‘Family Churches’, ‘Arty-Farty Churches’ and ‘Young Hip Cool Churches'; Across the divisions within a single church that has separate services for Elderly, Families, Singles/Young-Adults, Youth, and Children; and more.

on corporate worship

Two words: corporate and worship.  A few thoughts on each of those words that have been rattling around in my head.

Worship.  Worship is a thoroughly metaphysical and thus qualitative activity – and it is in between the lines of all that we choose to do.  What’s more, what is sometimes called the ‘rule’ of worship, is that “you become like what you worship”.  Keep on worshipping (or ‘giving ultimate worth to’) money (or any idol) and you will become the sort of person who looks at life through the lens of money.  Replace money with ‘x’ – you get the idea.  Worship is formative.  And the more a worship practice ‘seeps into our bones’, the more ‘a part of us’ it becomes, the more formative it is.  Like driving a car or riding a bicycle, you know a practice is ‘a part of you’ when you no longer have to give it much (if any) conscious thought.  The practice becomes automatic.

When it comes to riding bicycles, driving, making coffee or what have you, we appreciate ‘automatic’ practice as a good thing, that shows we have attained a level of maturity, competency or expertise.  You would want at least a few of the operative actions of a doctor to be a least a bit automatic!  (‘Let’s see, do I use the scissors or scalpel here..?’)  For some reason, however, when it comes to ‘worship’, some of us have been conditioned to see  an ‘automatic’ act of worship as being insincere, heartless, ‘dry’, or not genuine.  We call it ‘just going through the motions’ with no emotion.  I certainly do believe that an otherwise good action can be done poorly, and this includes doing it without sincerity.  But I am wondering if we throw out the baby (i.e. a specific type of practice) with the dirty bathwater (i.e. because it can be or has been done with little or no sincerity).

An example may help here.  Just last Sunday, the sermon was on Psalm 116, and after communion we sang a re-metered version of the Psalm to the tune of Amazing Grace.  The tune is so much ‘a part of us’ that we were able to sing the lyrics – which we had never even seen or read! – with a great deal of both heart and mind.  Because the tune (part of the form of the worship in this case) was ‘automatic’, our hearts and minds were more free to engage with the sentiments being felt and thought as we sung.  This is why when we are learning a new song, a new prayer, or any new form of worship, it is more ‘work’.  Naturally, we cannot join in immediately in a new form of worship that we do not (yet) know.  The more practiced we are, the more automatic the participation becomes, the more free we are to participate in the song, prayer, responsive reading, litany or what have you.

Corporate.  Corporate worship has similarities and differences with private worship.  It is the same God worshipped, and the same Gospel and same Faith that both are an expression of.  However, whilst private worship is primarily a personal, ‘you’-and-God expression of faith, corporate worship is about not just ‘you’ or ‘me’, but first God and second ‘us’.  Individual private worshippers will be able to use whatever words and forms (silence, free prayer, free song, etc.) that are helpful and relevant to them. Corporate worship, however, needs forms (songs, prayers, readings, gestures – even sights and smells!?) that everyone can participate in.  Corporate worship celebrates God, the Gospel, concern for the World, and the identity and mission of the Church in ways that are diverse and creative, but always in a form that the whole gathered congregation can share in.

I wonder if there is a tendency for the same forms that are perhaps most appropriate for all to join in, end up being the forms that are suspected to be the most heartless, insincere and dry?  After all, are we really to believe that every single one of these people singing this song all equally and fully ‘mean it’!!??  It is this concern which sometimes leads song leaders to discourage people from singing ‘if you don’t mean it’.  I’m not wanting to encourage hollow or false worship, but there is a rather obvious question lurking just beneath the surface here.  Do we ever ‘mean it’?  How can we tell, and who gets to say who can participate?  (Some churches have ‘closed’ communion for the exact reason – we must be in a ‘right’ standing.  Who, then, can ever take communion?)

In Christian theology, there is a distinction made between ‘over-realised’ and ‘under-realised’ eschatology.  Eschatology is the study of the ‘last things’ or ‘end’, and it is concerned with Heaven, or the “New Heavens and the New Earth”, and the final “Age to Come”.  Those with an ‘over-realised’ eschatological outlook will tend to be ‘idealistic’ and expect heaven to be ‘realised’ and experienced to a large degree now.  Those with an ‘under-realised’ view will tend to be ‘realistic’ and as a result not expect to see much at all of heaven to be seen in this dark world.  Theologians speak of a healthy ‘now-but-not-yet’ tension between the need to anticipate here and now the love and freedom and life of heaven, even though it will not come until it comes.  This distinction is seen in the topic of physical healing, but also in the question of do we ‘mean it’ when we sing or pray.  We will never ‘mean it’ perfectly, but we should anticipate what it would feel like to ‘mean it’.  We don’t have to ‘mean it’ perfectly to sing it – for who could?  But we also don’t want to slide into a lazy ‘it doesn’t matter if I mean it’ attitude.  Like riding a bike, ‘meaning it’ is a matter of practice.  There will be times where ‘meaning it’ might feel natural and effortless; other times it might feel false and laborious.  This too, is why corporate worship is so important.  Some days, ‘I’ may not ‘mean it’ very well.  At no time will ‘I’ ‘mean it’ perfectly.  Which is why ‘I’ need ‘we’ – ‘us’ – to be a community that seeks to ‘mean it’ together.

a more free will

Physics, chemistry and biology (and culture) seem to set up a kind of bell curve of freedom over the course of any individual human life.  The capacity for self-determination seems to emerge from invisibility, develop, climax, decline and disappear as we journey from zygote, foetus, infant, toddler, adult, mature adult, and finally at death.

The bodily equipment we possess does not provide us with complete and total freedom.  We will never be free to do anything.  Being fully human doesn’t need that anyway, it only needs freedom to do things that embody full humanness.  But at any rate, human nature and human culture have not combined to get us to perfect freedom.  The top of the bell curve may be a bit higher in some lives than others, but it never gets to perfection.

In this context, the question ‘do we have free will’ is easily answered: of course not.  We are slaves – at least to some degree – to all manner of things, both in our nature and in culture.  Processes, limitations, desires, needs, others, etc.

In Christianity, there is the tension between slavery to ‘sin’ and slavery to ‘righteousness’ (or Christ).  The great irony is that the more ‘enslaved’ we are to the latter, the more free and truly human we are.  The more you ‘chain’ yourself (through practicing and creating habits of mind and heart) to, for example, loving others as yourself, the more free you are to be human.  Like all kinds of growth, growing in slavery to Christ is a process.  Freedom, like all other aspects of salvation, is not experienced fully in the here and now.  Every habit created, every neural pathway nudged – and re-nudged, is one more step toward the hope and goal of full freedom in a freed and recreated cosmos.

…because the creation itself also will be delivered from the slavery of corruption into the glorious freedom of the children of God. (Romans 8:21)

malleable will

Study, work and life have been keeping me from blogging much, but I had a ‘free will’ thought to scribble down, so here goes.

I just moved my finger back & forth from pointing straight up and straight ahead.  This was caused at one level by the muscles in my fingers.  Why did my muscles do what they did?  Well, at one level, because of another muscle, my brain and the tasks it was performing – namely, thinking about free will and bodily function.  What made me think about this?  Well, lots of things, including things I’ve heard, read, or thought about previously.  Does any of this mean I did not, in a very real sense, freely choose to move my finger?  Of course not.

I’m something of a ‘both/and’ thinker.  This makes me, perhaps predisposed to think of free will as involving a tension between dual realities.  On the one hand, restrictions on our abilities and ‘freedom’ to act result in behaviour that is quite predictable.  I don’t have the freedom (naturally!) to make my finger change length or composition.  On the other hand, I deny that we are slavishly bound to genetic or neurological factors, such that we remain free acting agents, meaningfully responsible for our actions.  No judge worth her salt would be too persuaded to find someone innocent if they explained shooting someone in terms of the neuro-chemical causality behind the movement of their trigger finger.

Yes, it is a bit more complicated than this simple outline.  But to be honest, all of this debate I find rather silly.  (And in my research this year on human nature and sin, I interviewed two non-religious university level neurologists who agreed!)  I’m becoming less interested in exacting philosophical speculation about how to describe (or defend) human ‘free will’.  I’m more and more interested in the transformation of our will.

Whatever state human ‘will’ naturally comes to us, however much our wills are shaped by nurture/culture, it remains simply true that to greater or lesser degrees, we can grow, train and retrain, exercise, shape and reshape, guide, bend, manipulate, coerce, force, coax, form, reform and otherwise transform our wills.  Just as steel can be formed for various purposes, so also our wills are malleable and can be shaped to help us achieve a goal.

Some goals will be unrealistic for human nature – such as to fly, spin webs like spiders or what have you.  But others are not only realistic, but also freeing.  For example, we have all kinds of genetic and cultural pressures constantly and quite ‘naturally’ pushing us toward certain kinds and amounts of uses of substances (food, sex, drink, language, etc.).  But rather than be a slave to these natural inclinations, we can train and retrain our wills and plan in advance how and how much we will use them.

To change the metaphor away from the metallurgical one of hammering steel to the athletic one of swimming in a stream, take a young adult who ‘going with the flow’ of his or her peers who are also ‘going with the flow’ of cultural trends reflected in music videos and a thousand other expressions of the abuse of alcohol.  Hook them up to whatever kind of device it is that measures their choices.  Send them to a party with their mates.  Have someone offer them their favourite beer.  Hooray! You were able to predict their choice by observing this or that neurological activity.  Yay for technology!  Humans are so predictable! But you didn’t need that device to predict their choice at all, did you?   Now take someone who is deliberately and intentionally oriented to stand apart from a culture of binge-drinking.  They will exist in that same situation in a very different way – or indeed, they may likely freely choose to not go.  Indeed, they may not find that particular kind of space as fun.  And you know what?  If we hook them up to the machine, we could just as equally (if not more easily!) predict their choice as well.  The point is not whether or not we can predict their choice, but what choice they will make.  One that takes them toward slavery to alcohol (under the cultural disguise of being ‘free’ from any rules on how much they can drink!); or one that is a participation in a personal trajectory that is being built toward a different kind of freedom (and yes, one which may indeed involve a very different kind of ‘slavery’!).

So again, I’m becoming less and less interested in philosophical noodle-wrestling over what ‘free will’ means.  Rather, I think we all should be interested in what kinds of goals are good for us and others, and what kind of practices and networks help shape us (and our wills) to make progress toward those goals.  It all reminds me of some dusty old quote: “…do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”  A verse that is followed by a breathtaking consideration of just that kind of transformed living: humility, community, service, teaching, leading, care-giving, un-hypocritical love, wise judgment, affectionate love, walking a mile in one another’s shoes, etc.

Evolution? Chaplain?

The two word response of my gym trainer at the university gym at which I am a chaplain, in response to an evolution-friendly comment by me. :)

dust in the wind?

“All we are is dust in the wind”, said Socrates.

In reading about sin and human nature for my mini-thesis, I’ve dipped into the nature/nurture and determinism/free-will discussions.  I tend to think that the biblical view of humans takes both sides of these conversations quite seriously.  We are limited by our nature/genetics in what we are capable of, and yet we are capable somehow of transcending our current neuro/bio/physio-logical states.

In other words, the biblical view of humans is that we are continually taken from pretty raw material (the dust of the ground) and formed and freed to be human by the Spirit (the breath of life).  Perhaps Socrates would agree.

religion-free ethics?

A quick reflection and question as I dig into my Master’s mini-thesis which will use sociological methodology to discover how non-religious people think about ‘wrongdoing’ or ‘sin’, both in terms of what they believe about wrongdoing, and what they ‘hear’ when Christians talk about it.

At any rate, one secular book I’m flipping through is Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion by Phil Zuckerman.  He repeats the familiar line about non-religious people being as-good-as (or better than! p. 122) religious people.  This is supported (over and against the detached-from-reality musings of C.S. Lewis “between his sips of tea”) by the empirical testimony of a series of post-religious-now-secular people.

All talk of “how unhelpful the word ‘religion’ is in conversations like this” aside, I want to reflect on the socially-constructed aspects to ethics.  Yes I just said that.  Whatever anyone thinks, positively or negatively about God’s ability to break into the human discourse and direct, dictate, shepherd, shove, manipulate, move, coax or command it this way or that way, we all acknowledge that ethics is at least a human conversation.  There is a moral Zeitgeist.

In light of this obvious reality, it would seem methodologically problematic to be comparing the ethics of a) Christians, who are deeply immersed in the moral Zeitgeist of western – or in this case American – culture, with b) post-Christians, who remain influenced by the previous immersion in the ‘religious’ moral conversation which, at least in principle, has Christ and Scripture as it’s locus and telos.  In short, because (in this case) American Christians are more influenced by American culture than many realise, and American post-Christians are more influenced by Christian teaching (of a very particular kind of authoritarian, moralistic flavour, I suspect) than some may realise, the comparison seems problematic.

To really prove the thesis that non-religion maketh man more moral than religion (granting this problematic usage of the term ‘religion’), wouldn’t you have to find a specimen that was living in a religion-free context, so that the specimen was fully free of religious motivations, assumptions,  habits and practices and that the pure, untainted non-religious ethic could shine in all it’s unadulterated glory?  Rather than compare Christian to post-Christian, I think the thesis would find better data if it compared Christian to pre-Christian.

Thus concludes my rambling on this thought.  Back to reading!

jesus within the good samaritan parable?

I’m currently doing a research essay on how the parable of the Good Samaritan has been preached in different times and contexts.  Interpretation and preaching have traditionally centred on how the story presents three characters, one of who is the exemplary Samaritan.

But in the research, I’ve found that some rightly point out that the Innkeeper is a fourth.  Apparently innkeepers were known to at times over-charge, and so the greed of the innkeeper provides another contrast to the generosity of the Samaritan who offers to repay any expense the innkeeper incurs in caring for the man (whose nationality or race are – deliberately? – never revealed).

Now, I’m probably not the first to see yet another person in the story, and I’ll have to check the commentaries, but the following lines suggest it to me:

On the next day [most MSS include ‘when he departed’], he took out two denarii, and gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.”

It is the phrase “when I come again” that tipped me off.  Was that a glimpse of the parousia just there tucked away?  I wonder it we glimpse Jesus himself in the person of the Samaritan; and by implication the church in the Innkeeper.  The ministry of the church is indeed (among other things) to welcome the lonely, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, to visit the imprisoned.  Do we glimpse Jesus here, equipping the Church (giving of the Spirit?) to do their work, and promise a ‘repayment’ (reward according to deeds?) for how much extra they do?