the spiritual world – 3 options

Do a ‘google-search’ on the word ‘spiritual’ and you’ll find thousands and thousands of results. There seem to be as many views on ‘spirituality’ as there are types of music. All of the endless talking and writing about spirituality seems to stay close to a few types of questions…-What is spirituality?
-How do I practise it?
-What does it ‘look’ like?
-Whose version of it works the best?
-Is there a ‘best version’ at all?
-Am I spiritual enough?
etc.

Well. Of course, I cannot possibly address every idea about spirituality. I haven’t even heard every idea out there – and I seriously doubt anyone has. I can’t even address every idea about spirituality that supposedly comes from the Christian community! The topic is so vast and it contains so many contradictory ideas, it can be quite exhausting even thinking about it for long!

What a tough deal. Huh? I firmly believe that ALL humans are spiritual beings, and I think most people would agree (but again, it depends on your definition of ‘spiritual’). We all seem to have this deep sense of this thing we call ‘sprirituality’, but there are so many views out there (even within Christendom), that trying to find the best (true, correct, right?) one can wear us out quickly.

I want to encourage health in this area. For those seeking a better ‘spiritual health’ that are growing (or have grown) tired of the search, I want to encourage them to not give up. Our lives matter just that much.

Instead of delving into this bottom-less pit of ideas, I thought I would share a ‘set of glasses’ with you. I discovered them from reading a book by N.T. Wright called “Simply Christian”. These ‘glasses’ provide a framework with which to evaluate various ideas about spirituality and the world. My hope is that they will fuel your search with enthusiasm.

Right about now, some readers might be thinking, “But we have the Bible. No search is necessary. Just read what it says,” to which I would respond, “OK. Then how can there be so many different – even contradictory – ideas about spirituality which all claim to be ‘biblical’? While I believe that the Bible does have the answers, I’m nervous about such a simplistic pat-answer to this very important question.

The spheres of ‘spirituality’ and ‘religion’ are overlapping to say the least. Ask just about anyone what spirituality is, and they will eventually say something about tapping into a ‘greater’ reality, God, god, being, existence, mindset, Mindset or whatever. Using 3 ‘options’, these ‘glasses’ provide a way of viewing the universe we live in and how ‘god’ fits into the picture.

Option 1
The first option is to see the entire universe as being – in it’s very nature or essence – god. This is known as the pantheist view (pan = everything, theos = god). As N.T. Wright points out, the unavoidable difficulty with this view is that it is hard to account for the obvious evil that we see so clearly around us. If everything in itself is divine, and evil is so apparent, then the divine must contain evil, right? This tension is seen in such symbols as the yin-yang, used in Confucianism and Taoism. Unfortunately, we are left with a corrupt deity in this view.

Option 2
This option views god’s realm as being detached and/or dis-interested with our realm. The idea is that because the divine must be pure, and our world is so obviously corrupted, stained and flawed, the divine simply cannot have anything to do with this existence. This god may have created the world, but now must have more important things to do, because our world certainly is being ignored. Perhaps this god may come down and do something scary every once and a while, but for the most part, is distracted by ‘heavenly’ business. Many versions of this view have been articulated, but perhaps the most well known person to do so was Plato. His view has become known as dualism, in which this world is merely a flawed copy of the ideal world. (Though we may not realise it, many so-called Christian ideas and Bible verse interpretations are tainted with this understanding of the universe.) The problem with this view is that while we admit that our world is most certainly flawed, we still behold it’s beauty and majesty. We find mountains, hills, fields, flowers, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, sunsets, full-moons, and ocean waves to be deeply moving. Indeed, the Bible gives repeated testimony to the greatness of God’s good creation.

Option 3
Option 1 cannot solve the question of evil, and leaves us with a deity that is in some way – at least in part – corrupt. Option 2 cannot explain the richness and glory of the universe, and leaves us confused about how to get the attention and favour of it’s distant god. Continuing with N.T. Wrights ‘glasses’, our third option is to see two dimensions – Heaven and Earth – which ‘overlap’ and ‘interlock’ in various ways. The divine interacts with and relates to this world. This highlights the personal nature of this God. This God is somehow able to act in our very own space and time while at the same time remaining sovereign over it. This God is able to promise His people that He will ‘dwell among them’.

Perhaps this is already sparking some thinking and re-thinking about some things. Perhaps you’re wondering about some versions of spirituality. Which option do they fit most comfortably in?

Option 1 spirituality can seem to not have any real substance or meaning. If everything is god, then I don’t need to ‘tap into’ anything, but instead I must try to make the idea work in my brain that the ground, the air, the water, my computer, my car and myself are all god. How does that help me live? I have no idea.

Option 2 spirituality can leave us confused about how to relate to the god. If this god is so distant, I probably have to use the right techniques, prayers, rituals or words to get its attention. If this existence is just a flawed copy of the idea existence, then it certainly can’t matter very much, and what real difference do my actions make? If they matter at all, it must be so I can secure for myself a better after-life, right? Again, many ‘Christian’ ideas are polluted with such thinking.

Option 3 provides us with an existence that is dripping with spirituality. Not a spirituality of self-realisation that seeks to understand our god-ness (option 1), and not a confused grasp in the dark at a face-less ‘something out there’ which I can try to manipulate into working for me (option 2), but rather, an existence that: calls me into relationship with a Creator God who wants me to be His image, reveals the character of the Creator to guide me to a lifestyle of this image, and gives me a role to play in the Creator’s unfolding story of redemption.

We don’t have to live in a mediocre, bland fake-ness that suggests everything is fine and divine (option 1). We don’t have to ‘hold our breath’ between ‘spiritual moments’ as if they only come every once in a while – perhaps miraculously (option 2). We instead are given the task of passing on the gift of Grace which we have received freely from the Creator, using not just the right collection of ‘spiritual experiences’ to do this, but rather, we realise that our whole life is a spiritual experience and journey in which we grow in relationship to the Spirit of the Creator, who ‘dwells with us’ and orients us to new life. A life rich with meaning, direction and purpose. A life that is part of the Creator’s story. A life of strength in weakness. A life of weeping with those who weep. A life modeled after the life of Jesus.

missing church

What does the phrase ‘missing church’ mean to you?

Poor attendance? Vacation? Sickness? Sleeping in?

Perhaps we’re all aware of the pressure to ‘make it on Sunday.’ Various methods are employed to encourage people to show up. In some situations, if you don’t show up for a few weeks, you’ll get a phone call from someone who – usually after a bit of small talk – will mention that they ‘haven’t seen you’ for a while.

Before I say any more, let me be very clear about how I feel about Sunday morning. I believe that the followers of Jesus after Pentecost gradually adopted Sunday as a time to meet together. It seems that they called Sunday ‘the Lord’s day.’ I agree with the writer of Hebrews that we shouldn’t forsake the’ assembling of ourselves together.’ (Heb. 10:25) I am enthusiastically in support of Sunday meetings so that we can – as the writer of Hebrews instructs precisely before the above passage – ‘stir up love and good works’ and also remember and celebrate our Lord’s resurrection. I aim to always meet on this day and in this way.

While I don’t mind people being encouraged to make meeting on Sunday a priority, I am nervous about the way this is often done. I fear that in our genuine (but possibly unhelpful?) attempts at ‘getting people along,’ we may be in danger of missing the point. For example, I wonder if we can mistakenly assume that a person’s regularity of attendance is an indicator of their walk with God. If they show up regularly, then things must be fine, and if they’ve missed a few weeks, they might be struggling with their faith. I’ve heard such comments many times. All the time, I’m wondering, “Yeah, but what about the people that are regular attendees that might be struggling?”

Sunday Best?
For many, Sunday morning is a great time of catching up with friends, celebrating God in song and receiving useful Bible teaching. But let’s not forget how others can see it. A routine trip to a building, making their way to their seat (if they are greeted, it is impersonal and brief), singing songs that make them feel guilty for not being ‘happy all the day’, sitting through a monologue that doesn’t relate to where they are at but still manages to leave them feeling discouraged about their relationship with God, briefly hanging around afterward in case someone may talk to them or invite them to lunch or something else, and heading to their car wondering how they will motivate themselves to go through the same routine next week. And that is an example of how a Christian may feel. What about someone who doesn’t have a relationship with God?

I’m not suggesting we do away with Sunday mornings. I am suggesting that we work hard to make them as relevant to reality as possible, and that we realise that what we ‘do’ on Sunday morning will never be able to meet all of our needs as the ‘church.’

It seems to me that failing to understand why we meet, combined with a misunderstanding of what ‘church’ is, creates a dangerous situation. Not a small, harmless one, but one that can either contribute to someone being hurt, or someones hurts not being known or cared for. Let me offer some thoughts about these two ingredients.

‘What’ Is The Church?
This is the wrong question to start with. It’s not a question of ‘what’ the church is, but ‘who’ the church is! ‘Church’ is not the building you go to to meet with other Christians, a street address, or a block of time on Sunday. The Church consists of people who recognise Jesus as Lord. This understanding is not new, but we still ask each other the same confused types of questions that reflect the mistaken view of Church, such as “how was ‘church’ this morning” or “where do you go to ‘church’ at?” or “what is your ‘church’ like?” Instead, we should ask, “Who do you church with?” I think it would be a great excercise for us to not call Sunday ‘church.’ I’m not saying make Sunday less important! I’m just suggesting that it might be helpful in reminding us that ‘church’ is not some ‘thing’ that we do on Sunday mornings, but rather it is people who follow Jesus every day of their lives – and people who happen to meet together on Sunday.

Why Do We Meet?
This is a great question, and deserves a great answer. More and more I’m seeing that there is not really any biblical doctrine or instructions for what we are supposed to ‘do’ when we meet. The commands that are given in the New Testament are the kind that we can follow any time, any where. So what do we ‘do’ when we meet? Well, I think Hebrews 10:24-25 provide a nice summary statement.

“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.”

This, of course, is just one passage in the New Testament. As you can see, the time, place and style of the meeting is not the point here. It is exhorting each other to love and good works that is called for. We need each other. We really do. If we are to live lives that are counter-cultural, we are going to need help. We’re going to need more than a few songs, a sermon and a cup of coffee.

That is why we must never stop meeting together! That is why our songs must be real, and reflect that life (yes, even the Christian version) is not a smiles-only club. That is why teaching must be more than a Sunday sermon, and must be interpersonal, challenging and sharpening. That is why our relationships must go beyond ‘catching up at church’ and develop to the point where we not only allow others to sharpen us, but we actually look for it. That is why ‘church’ is not a place or a time, but a people. That is why so many Christians are ‘missing church’, but still attend a building and service each week.

May we truly be committed to Christ and to each other.

May we stop expecting all our needs to be met on Sunday.

May we see the difference between the Sunday meeting and church.

May we exhort one another to love and good works.

May we develop our relationships to where we can give and recieve such instruction from each other.

May we stop ‘doing’ and ‘going to’ church, and start ‘being’ the Church.

biblical patience – quickly!

I want to get the most out of the Scriptures, don’t you?The obvious, glaring question is HOW do we do this? How might we read, understand, meditate on, grasp, learn and grow in the right way?

Ever since the Bible was completed (roughly speaking) in the turn of the 2nd century, people have employed many, many techniques and methods for engaging the text. Much of this is wonderful, I think. Unfortunately, we we humans seem to be quite prone to misusing, distorting and destroying anything good (sex, food/drink, authority, relationships, money, etc.). I wish this didn’t apply to Bible study as well, but I’m afraid that it can happen and does. Whether it’s chanting or reading portions of Scripture while ‘listening’ for special messages from God, breathing slowly, finding the right posture, or whatever, these concerns don’t have much (or anything at all) to do with rightly engaging the Scripture.

Now, I don’t have time – nor would I think it my responsibility or within my ability – to systematically identify and de-bunk every technique that you or I might think needs identifying and de-bunking. I will, however, pass on a few helpful (and I believe essential) principles I’ve picked up from others that we must keep in mind if we wish to read our Scriptures for all they’re worth – which I believe to be infinitely more than we may realise.

First Things First?
The first thing is of first importance. More and more, I hear the same question being asked over and over again. The problem isn’t this questions itself, but the importance and immediate priority it is given. It is the question of ‘what does it mean to ME?’ Given our increasingly individualised culture in western nations, I’m not surprised by this. Now, let me be clear. I believe that ‘it’ has quite a lot to say to ‘me’ and you. The problem comes when this is our first and primary question we ask of the text.

Our initial task in reading the Scriptures is to attempt to perceive what the author is saying to the audience, and how they might have received it. By this, I mean (taking the New Testament epistle of Paul to Philemon as an example) what is the Apostle Paul saying to Philemon. Sure, ‘I’ can learn a great deal from what Paul is saying to Philemon, but Paul is not writing to Dale in New Zealand in the 21st century. Our question is what did (in this case) Paul mean? Tom Wright has called this seeking to ‘think Paul’s thoughts after him.’ Paul was not thinking about me.

Our Place in The Story
With this in mind, we dig deeper. But not too deep too quickly. The Bible is full of potentially confusing commands, exhortations and instructions. This is why, secondly, we need to familiarise – and re-familiarise – ourselves with the entire unfolding narrative of Scripture. Tom Wright again has been very helpful for me in this regard. He has popularised a 5-act analogy regarding the story of God’s interaction with the world. Within this analogy, we live between the Apostles and chapters 21 & 22 of Revelation, and find ourselves with roles to play in God’s fourth act. Our task is not to repeat the first three acts, but to discover how are roles are to be ‘acted out’ so as to ‘fit’ with what has come before and to point toward what is coming – namely God’s ultimate renewal of Heaven and Earth.

If we don’t know how the story begins, develops, expands and ultimately ends, we are all the more likely to ‘act’ in a way that is inconsistent with it. Mark Strom has described this as the need to be ‘patient’ with the Scriptures, lest we distort them in our application (i.e. by taking something in the Scriptures and doing it when we ought not to, not doing it when we ought to or doing it in the wrong way than was intended). The old-new covenant distinction is perhaps one of the most common points of confusion that I know of regarding application for us today – again, another topic altogether.

Mark has articulated his ‘big-small-big’ method for reading which I find very helpful. First, we read the passage with the ‘big story’ in mind. Second, we observe details in the passage, looking for the flow and looking outward to the expanded context. Finally, we summarise the small picture and locate it’s place in the big picture, clarifying the impact of the gospel and living what we find. I think the key difference is that in this model, the personal application for ‘me’ is found only in the ‘big story’ and only after we consider the implications of the Gospel.

…’For We Know In Part’…
This ‘patience’ means that we may have to go through periods of time where we don’t have every text nailed down – as if any of us do anyway! We shouldn’t be surprised when we read a passage looking for answers and instead get more questions! This happens to me all the time. I find myself flicking all over the Scriptures and looking up various things that pertain (at least that I think pertain!) to where I’ve begun. Naturally, I’ve both learned and un-learned a few things this way!

However, if this is the only way we learn or un-learn from the Scriptures, then we are in great danger. Thirdly, and lastly, I want to share the principle of community. The Bible is a community book. Originally written in community. Originally read in community. Originally worked out in community. Studying the Bible privately is a privilege that we enjoy like few other of the many generations that have come before us (hand copies only until the printing press!). We should enjoy this privilege, but not gorge ourselves on it. We need others around us (and around the world, both living and deceased) to sharpen whatever clever ideas we think we might get from our private study. Of course, with the internet, you can always find someone to agree with you (on that note, you can also quite easily find someone who disagrees, but it’s much more comforting to only read people who agree with us!) but don’t let that stop you from benefiting from the study of others.

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Original writer, original audience – knowing the Story and our place in it – and engaging the Scriptures while being guided by communitiy. I think these principles will serve us well as we attempt to read Scripture for all it’s worth – at its worth is great! It will take patience, but like a slow-cooked meal is much more satisfying than fast food – in more ways than one – so is reading the Scriptures as they were intended.

the bible, the whole bible and nothing but the bible

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There’s absolutely no book in the world like the Bible.The Bible reveals the great story of God’s creation and how He interacts with it. The Bible showcases an incredibly diverse number or groups and individuals, and shows how they responded to the interaction of God. Most importantly, however, the Bible tells us about the Word – that is, the Word made flesh – Jesus. We get to see Him in full flavour, in surround sound, in real history and in unmatched splendor.

Unfortunately, the Bible is also incredibly misunderstood. All one has to do is briefly explore the massive number of Bible-related internet websites (which all claim to be ‘biblical’ in their own unique, special ways) to see just how radically different people take various passages and themes from the same book. They can’t all be right can they? I mean, at least not when they say contradicting things about the exact same topic, right?

Before I say any more, let me say that I am becoming increasingly more aware of the fact that I’m on a journey in my understanding of the Bible. Realise it or not, we all are. This makes some people uncomfortable. Some grow nervous with such talk, because they feel it is leaning towards uncertainty and instability concerning the the Bible. I understand why they might feel this way, but it seems to me that while the Bible will no doubt remain intact itself, our understanding of it’s content and message is quite another thing and will always (I might even say must always) be flexible. Do we really believe that the message is living? I do, and while I don’t think for a minute that God changes, I still insist that the idea that we simply don’t understand Him or His ways is a thoroughly ‘biblical’ one (1 Corinthians 1 & 13 and Isaiah 40 & 64 are good chapters to read if you ever think you’ve got God cornered.)

Now that I’ve said that, I want to pass along some advice that I’ve taken on board regarding reading the Bible.

First, let me introduce you to a term. It’s a term called pre-texting (of course, some of you will be quite familiar with both the term and examples of it’s use). In a basic sense, pre-texting happens when someone quotes a verse (or part of a verse) to support a point or belief they are trying to explain. The problem isn’t quoting the verses themselves, it’s when the verses are used in a way other than they were intended to be. Here’s a common example of a mis-use of a verse (text). I once talked to a street ‘preacher’ who was telling anyone who would listen that true Christians don’t sin. He was quoting from 1 John 3:6, which says, “Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.” Seems pretty open and shut, doesn’t it? Well, a verse that comes before that one (1 John 1:8) seems to cloud the issue – “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So if I admit that I sin, I don’t know Him, and if I say I have no sin, then I’m a liar? Well, it’s a good thing there are more verses in 1 John than these two.

1 John is widely believed to be written in response to an early (late 1st or early 2nd century) group of false teachers (in this case, Gnostics) that believed that Jesus didn’t have a real flesh and blood body, and that He wasn’t eternal or ‘from the beginning.’ They basically ignored physical sin, because to them all that really ‘mattered’ was not the realm of matter, but the realm of ideas, or the spiritual realm (look up ‘dualism‘ and then thank Plato for many such misunderstandings of our universe – many of which still cloud our thinking, and yes can distort our interpretations of Scripture). It seems that 1 John seems to be strongly warning against taking seriously the idea that sin wasn’t serious. See how the text comes alive when you read chapter 1 (especially the first 3 verses) with this understanding!

As you can see, the problem is not quoting the Bible, but quoting it out of it’s proper context. First, we must know the immediate context (surrounding verses), then the context of the section of the book (If you didn’t notice, I intentionally referred to entire chapters above – not just to verses. In a sense, that is still pre-texting, but in a safer way.), then the book itself, etc. Even this is not enough. We need to be mindful of both the textual context and the historical context. That means sometimes we have to study history to better understand the Bible. That also means that we don’t always have the right interpretation of the Bible even when it may feel like we do. This is not bad news, or an attempt to scare or discourage you from studying the Bible, but rather quite the opposite. Join with us on the journey! It’s exciting! Grow! Think! Learn! Ask questions! Dig for the answers! Own your beliefs! Don’t just recite what you learn from others!

At last, here’s the simple advice I’ll pass on. Read the Bible in large chunks. As respected biblical scholar and Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright has said, “Get a sense of the sweep of the narrative. God gave us this book not as bite-sized little chunks, but as a large thing to open and broaden and develop our minds.” I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps embracing this ethic of reading larger portions can help us to quote the Bible more faithfully, and not with cheap pre-texting games, where ‘my verse is better than your verse’. I also think we possibly underestimate the value of reading the Bible in community, where our interpretations don’t go recklessly unchecked, but are able to be sharpened and strengthened by those around us. This, in essence, was what happened (and still happens) when Jews gathered in Synogogues to study. May we in the Church develop and embrace a similar ethic?

We have the opportunity of a lifetime, and it will take a lifetime. We have the thrilling task and calling to join God in His story. We need to know our place in it. As we familiarise ourselves with history and His-story within it, we link arms with each other as we grow in understanding and we also link arms with the long line of Saints before us who thought, prayed, studied, served, taught, sacrificed and struggled to live their part in the Story. It’s our turn.

trust God – trust me…

“Hither Thee unto my hearkening toward Thee, Oh Heavenly Blessed One of Old. Thou hads’t bountifully lavished Thy unmerited favour upon me!” “Yo God! What’s up mate? You are so cool! You totally rule, Dude, and that is just sweet like candy Bro!”
I used to think of these examples as the extremes of how a person might approach God in prayer. Sure, they are perhaps extremes with regard to word choice and levels of formality, but more and more, I’m seeing that these two styles of prayer have more in common than I thought.Before I go there, let me just affirm where both of these types of prayer come from. The formal type often comes from individuals with a strong (and quite proper) conviction to address God with reverence. They may perhaps (again – rightly and biblically) have images of God as King on His throne, and therefore take on the posture of ‘kneeling’ not only in physical posture, but in their word choice as well. Rather than making the mistake (sin?) of praying something that is ‘un’-humble or ‘un’-biblical, they aim for ultra-humility and ultra-biblical-ness.

The casual type perhaps comes from individuals who desire to break free from what they feel to be impersonal and overly eloquent methods of prayer. Their convictions take different form in that they, perhaps, feel quite strongly (and not without biblical support) that we are invited to a personal, fatherly way. (the word ‘Abba’ in Scripture would quite literally mean something like ‘Daddy’) Rather than make the mistake of not meaning what they say, they opt for a more personal expression of their heart to God.

I think both types have strengths and potential dangers. While I think reverence for God in prayer is deeply important and more and more overlooked, I find it hard to imagine how some of the lofty sermon-esque prayers can be totally free of at least a hint of spiritual pride – having prayed all too often this way myself. There seems to be a subtle arrogance in the ‘Amen’ to these prayers, as though we might feel quite pleased with ourselves with the eloquent prayer we have just offered. Conversely, while I appreciate the personal and relational informality some bring to their prayers, I am deeply concerned that we may risk losing the vital essence of God’s majesty and sheer holiness.

But none of this is my point, really…

There is another dimension that I wonder if we often forget altogether…

“Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
– Abraham in Genesis 18:25 (check out the whole story)


“O God, why have You cast us off forever? Why does Your anger smoke against the sheep of Your pasture? …O God, how long will the adversary reproach? Will the enemy blaspheme Your name forever? …Do not forget the life of Your poor forever. Have respect to the covenant;”
– Psalm 74:1,2,10,19,20


“Do not keep silent, O God! Do not hold Your peace, and do not be still, O God!”
– Psalm 83:1
Are we afraid to question God? Do we (for some reason) think that God doesn’t want to be questioned? Make no mistake; we are not to ever take God’s place, but does this mean that doubts and questions are unhealthy?Perhaps our desire to maintain a healthy respect and reverence for God may be part of the reason we are slow to embrace our doubts and/or questions, but I wonder if there is another underlying reason. Though it may sound weird to say it, might it be that we don’t trust God enough? When was the last time you ‘respectfully vented’ to God like the Psalmists did? If you can’t remember, then I recommend reconsidering your understanding of God. Is your God unable to handle your ‘big’ problems, doubts or concerns?

I don’t think God is in the slightest way afraid of these. Why should we hide them from Him? (as if we really can anyway!) In the same way that God knows our needs before we ask for them in prayer, He also knows how we feel – whether we tell Him or not. But He still wants us to ask for things and to be real with Him about how we feel! We don’t need to ‘protect’ God from who we are. He wants you. He doesn’t want ‘not’ you. We must be honest with Him. Don’t trust me, trust Him – He can handle it.

To take things a little further, I wonder if this shows up in our relationships with those around us? If we can’t be honest to God, then might we also struggle to be completely honest and real with others? Maybe the reasons we struggle to be honest with each other are the same reasons we avoid honesty with God. We may be trying so hard to respect each other, we may forget to trust each other.

My best friends in life have been the ones who have trusted me enough to do at least these two things: 1.) admit who they really are (how they’re really doing, etc.) to me; and 2.) challenge me when they think I need it. To me, it shows that our relationship is not so fragile that they feel the need to walk on egg-shells around me. If someone has a problem with me, I’d rather know it than wonder if they do or what it is, etc. I think that God feels the same way with us – except He doesn’t have to wonder – he already knows!

I’ve heard someone say that by not telling someone when you have a problem with them, you are actually disrespecting them. If effect, you are saying that they can’t handle it. True, some people deal with conflict better than others, but dishonesty is not an option if we are to develop better relationships with each other. I’m convinced that the same goes for our relationship with God.

Perhaps no verse summarizes this better than Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in our time of need.” (I think the idea of the words ‘boldly’ and ‘throne’ being in the same sentence should be more striking than we often appreciate.)

I believe I can approach God with such ‘boldness’ and honesty precisely because I believe He is who He says He is! Let us be people characterised by trust. So much that our trust is evidenced in our honesty toward God and each other.

buying identity

New Zealand is becoming more like America every minute.

And it’s not a good thing.

Yet another Temple for Capitalism (a.k.a. shopping mall) has just recently had it’s grand opening not far from my flat. So many people were flocking to this Marketing Mecca that traffic was jammed all opening-day long.

Lately I’ve been thinking more and more about how my standard of living (and all of the decisions I make to keep it in place) affects the world around me. It’s not been a pleasant exercise for me. I’ve had to realise that many of the choices I make (most are daily) have very negative consequences. This has caused me to think more and more about many things. Take-away beverage (coffee, coke, etc.) cups, plastic shopping bags, plastic water bottles, ridiculously in-efficient and wasteful product packaging, disposable goods and other such things don’t just disappear when we throw them away.

Allow me to share with you some of the terminology that pushes this type of consumerism along. An article (advertisement?) in the Tamaki and Districts Times, celebrated (venerated?) stage one of the opening of the new Consumerist Worship Centre in Mt. Wellington known as Sylvia Park Shopping Centre. Here is an excerpt.

‘Ultimately, Sylvia Park Shopping Centre will feature over 180 specialty stores, indoor/outdoor foodcourt, The Warehouse Extra, Foodtown and Pak n’ Save, a top-line specialty fashion precinct that is set to offer consumers an unprecedented range of fashion labels from a single location, cafes, restaurants and a state of the art theatre and entertainment complex… …Angus McNaughton says that the retail offering at Sylvia Park is the strongest and most diverse of any centre in New Zealand… …there will be brands and stores making their debut appearance on the New Zealand market to provide shoppers at Sylvia Park with the most comprehensive fashion choices available.’

Another article features the ‘new specialised retail store’ Howard’s Storage World with this opening:

‘…families strive to cope with increasing collections of electronic gadgets, toys for weekend warriors and wardrobes overflowing with clothing, shoes and accessories.’

Hmmm… Anyone see a pattern here?

The connection between our ‘comprehensive fashion choices’ and our ‘wardrobes overflowing with clothing’ is both humorous and deeply unsettling. Also unsettling are the use of the words ‘strongest’ and ‘diverse’ in a sentence about a retail centre that promotes anything but strength or diversity. True strength might help us to realise that we don’t actually need any more clothes. It might begin to reveal just how obediently we are dancing to the beat of the fashion drum (which waits till sales have peaked and then changes pace to generate another peak). True diversity has nothing to do with people letting clothing manufacturers tell them what looks good and why they should dress just like everyone else.

I know we may think ‘it’s just business’ and that it’s harmless, but I think we really need to be aware of the impact that this has on our identities.

Our identities?

Yes. Our identities.

You see, if they can get us to agree with them that we are simply ‘shoppers’ or ‘consumers’ then they have succeeded in altering how we view ourselves – and our identity consists of how we view ourselves. We are not concerned with staying ‘in fashion’ until we are told that we need to ‘make room in your wardrobe for the new season.’ We are quite content with what we have until we are reminded by countless billboards, store-fronts and countless other forms of advertising that we are about to be left in the dust if we don’t keep up with the times. The more I begin to see advertising and marketing for what it really is, the less I’m buying it (literally). We pray ‘lead us not into temptation’ but happily gaze at magazines that tell us how we ought to dress (and also ‘educate’ us as to how we might have ‘healthier’ sex lives) and walk around malls ready to give money to companies who remind us that we can’t do without what they have to offer.

I’m no longer seeing these issues as spiritually neutral. I want to live my life thinking about serving others, not myself. I want my imagination to be captured by the call of the Gospel on my life, not held captive by the call of Globalist agendas. I want my identity to be informed and solidified by the Gospel of Christ, not by anything else.

May we support and encourage one another in our true identity which we could never buy, but that was bought for us with Blood so priceless it could never be sold.

love to wrestle – wrestle to love

People love to wrestle.

They just do. Sure, it doesn’t always involve mud, sumos or fake punches (W.W.F.), but people like to engage one another. Games like arm-wrestling, mercy and tug-of-war show that we like to test our strength against that of an opponent.

Things like talk-shows (with their intentionally explosive topics), newspaper opinion columns, web-site battles, negative book reviews and many more examples show that such wrestling often takes place on the battlefield of ideas. Some, when they hear or read an idea that they disagree with, they are compelled to corrective action, as if driven by an unseen force that motivates them to set the wrong to the right. Even people who don’t like to argue will engage in some passionate sharing from time to time. This testing, trading and exchanging of ideas seems to be ingrained into our very humanity.

I think this ‘wrestling’ is a healthy, beneficial and necessary practice for Christians to embrace. But in our 21st century, western, comfortable church communities, there’s a problem…

We’re horrible at it.

We avoid conflict. We avoid uncomfortable subjects. We avoid wrestling. We let things grow and fester until an issue that would have been merely uncomfortable becomes one that is seen as hopelessly unbearable. Often, issues that need resolving are never dealt with, and if/when we finally do deal with it, our relationships are often never the same or so severed that they seem beyond repair.

I’m convinced that communities that wrestle are much more likely to be communities that can foster lasting unity. Somehow, we seem to all expect unity to happen though avoidance, sugar-coating and/or positivism. I don’t see how it can happen that way.

Unity must be grown, maintained and fought for. Certainly this is evident in the Scriptures. Whether it was Moses disciplining the Israelites, one of the many Hebrew prophets calling the people of God back to true worship, Jesus rebuking the disciples and Pharisees, or Paul exhorting the new covenant communities back to their identity in Christ, the struggle for unity is evident.

I find the Apostle Paul to be a shining example in how he protects the unity of the various communities he addresses. First, we can recognise that Paul was probably not writing to these churches because he had nothing better to do, but because there were existing issues that compelled him to write. Second, we can observe how he responded to the various issues that he was confronted with. In Romans 14, he doesn’t take sides, but points both the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ back to an ethic of sacrifice on the behalf of the other (v.14-21 in particular). Consistently, however, Paul becomes incensed any and every time an additional burden is placed on the churches – particularly the Gentile converts (Gal. 5:1-12 and Phil. 3:1-3). Paul didn’t even hesitate to name names and even challenges his co-Apostles (Gal. 2:11, 13; 2 Tim. 4:14)!

Whether we like it or not, it seems we – all of us, not just pastors, elders or other church leaders – have a responsibility to know our faith and protect the unity of it. To submit to this calling is to be willing to both give and receive correction – to sharpen and be sharpened – to bounce ideas off each other – to allow others to think differently – to challenge and be challenged – indeed, to wrestle.

This powerful, unique, simple and foundational unity is worth the effort it takes to protect it. How we go about this is paramount. Our protection of unity must not be characterised by control. Unity is not unity if it is forced. This means we must allow people to discuss, question and explore ideas other than our own (which are often actually the ideas of others that we’ve embraced or been taught).

One misconception I perceive is that we confuse unity with uniformity. Neither Jesus, nor Paul seem interested in everyone being the same in every way (Mark 9:40; Romans 14:5; 1 Cor. 6:12, 7:6-9), however, both are uncompromisingly steadfast concerning the truth of the Gospel (Matt. 10:32-39; 1 Cor. 15:16-17; Eph. 4:4-6).

For the Church, there are many hard and difficult conversations to be had. Many long-standing and long-questioned doctrines and/or traditions are being reviewed (although some of these doctrines and/or traditions may not be as long-standing as we think). Voices that have been silenced and controlled by church leaders throughout the centuries are finding ways of being heard. The Internet alone has provided instant messaging, chat-rooms, web-logs and post-threads where people can find long-desired wrestling partners, and ask the questions they were either never allowed to ask, or were given short, insufficient, simplistic, careless answers to. This is both liberating and scary.

As we head deeper into the 21st century, many challenges await us. With these challenges comes the need for discernment. A balance between the evil of forcing or assimilating people to accept our ideas (are we not falliable?) and the greater evil of teaching that all ideas are equal. It is my suspicion that the more we force ideas on people, the more they will wriggle out from under our the control we think we have of them. However, the more we let them test and embrace ideas on their own, the more they will commit to (and share) those ideas.

While the future may look bleak, perhaps we should remember that we are not the first generation that has faced such challenges. False teachers, ‘super-apostles’ and ‘other gospels’ were no stranger to Paul and the Apostles, and they seem to have not gone away since.

Jacob (Israel), wrestled with God (Genesis 35:10), and the people that took his name (Israel) also took on his example. In my Judaism class, the rabbi shared how Jewish communities were and still are marked by their culture of ‘wrestling’ with God and each other over their Scriptures, yeilding a beautiful culture of learning and growth.

Finally, I suggest that a culture of wrestling will help us to keep small problems small, help us to maintain a sharpening, strengthening and growing ethic in our communities and help us deal with the challenges that the future has for the Church.

So wrestle well, and wrestle with love.

give suffering a hug

Check out this selection of verses from the Bible…

“Though He (God) slay me, yet will I trust Him.” (Job 13:15a)
“I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth; I suffer Your terrors; I am distraught.” (Psalm 88:15)
“My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tonfue clings to my jaws; You have brought me to the dust of death.” (Psalm 22:15)

(that all of these verses happened to be the 15th in their chapter was not planned!)

God ‘slaying’ Job? Suffering God’s terrors? God bringing David to the ‘dust of death?’ Why the selection of such negative verses?

OK, I admit it. I’ve got an agenda. I’m trying to feature these kinds of passages in the Bible to make a point. What point is that?

I’ve been observing more and more a theme that seems to run right through the entire biblical narrative. I’ve observed that the people of God are marked by the way they embrace and/or accept suffering. Yep. Suffering.

The people of God before Christ suffered under Egyptian control, in the wilderness for 40 years, on the battlefield, during the ongoing and up-and-down cycle of replacement of Judges, as their kingdom was divided, under the oppression of the Babylonians and in the shadow of the Roman Empire (even though they were ‘home’ in Jerusalem). The church also suffered. The apostles and many others suffered beatings, oppression, imprisonment and eventually death for the cause of the advancement of the Gospel. I agree with many others who are convinced that the best thing for both the health and growth of the church is persecution. Indeed, one of the worst things to happen to the church might have been when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire in the 4th century.

I am convinced that the suffering of the people of God is an important characteristic for us to understand and consider in light of our surroundings. Do we embrace suffering like those that have gone before us? Do we (in our comfortable, western, affluent environment) really have the slightest idea what real suffering is?

Guess where the church is growing? Where it is suffering. Guess where the church is arguing about how to do church services, which are the best programmes and what are the right leadership structures? Where it is comfortable. I don’t think that is a coincidence.

In the midst of battle, you don’t need to know the rank, status and position of the person who is watching your back, you just want to know that someone – anyone – is watching your back! As a critically ill patient in a hospital, you don’t care about the color of the wallpaper or the style of the physicians garments, you just want to know that someone will give you the medical attention you desperately need! Tough times certainly have a way of helping us (maybe forcing us?) to have better priorities!

It’s interesting how we pick and choose our favourite Bible verses, and how those verses differ from the verses of those in ‘developing’ countries. As Rich Mullins said, “They underline different parts of their Bibles. We’re all excited about being born again, and they are excited about selling their possessions and giving to the poor.” Maybe instead of assuming we have all the right church-ways, we should ask them about church?

Here’s a startling statistic from Don Fleming’s booklet Catching The Fire, “By 1960 the number of Christians in the non-Western world had reached 32% and by 1970 was about 36%. But throught the seventies and since, the growth has been extraordinary. By 1980 the figure had grown to 50%, by 1990 it was 66% and by 2000 it had reached 75%… Today, possibly 80% of all evangelical believers are in the non-Western world. The sad reality is that most Christians in the West are either unaware of it or have difficulty accepting it.”

Later on, he goes on to discuss how instead of us sending our books, programmes and church-ideas over to them, we should take out our pen and paper and take note of why it’s working over there! “Christians in the West are still buying books, but many of these books have only a tenuous connection with the Bible… What’s more, this dubious material from the West is being pumped into some of the poorer countries, because the Western producers can afford to send it free, knowing that poor people tend to take anything they can get for nothing. The Western church should be learning from the church in the developing world, but instead, it is spreading the West’s disease.”

Coming back to the topic of suffering, Don writes about what he calls our Western exectation of a pain-free life. “We do not know how to deal with suffering – not just illness, but death, war, persecution and poverty – much less how to embrace it in the name of Christ. We know what the Bible teaches about accepting hardship and sharing Christ’s suffering, but in reality most of us secretly feel we have a right to a pain-free life… After the devastating floods of Mozambique in 1999, the response of one local Christian was, ‘We don’t blame God; we trust Him.’ “

I can’t agree more. Our faith seems to only affect what CD’s we buy and which church services we go to. Our comfort and laziness have, as Don suggests, made us “the world’s greatest complainers.”

Where is the Job-like attitude that is reflected in the opening verse, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust Him.”? Why do we read the Bible looking for verses about ME? History is His story, and it’s primarily not about us! We are not commanded to be successful, efficient or organised. We are commanded to be obedient. Certainly we will grow (and be successful as a by-product) as we reach people – and certainly we don’t need to waste resources (time, money and people) – and certainly dis-order and/or chaos is warned against (1 Cor. 14). But it’s easy to see these things outside the proper perspective, and let them become our goals rather than by-products of our goal.

At any rate, my growing conviction is that it is not the growing, obedient and flourishing church in the developing world that needs our critique or advice, but actually it is the assumptions and traditions of our own comfortable, convenience-infused and selfish churches that need to be fiercely challenged. May we have the integrity to take an honest and humble look at ourselves and even more so may we have the courage to make changes where needed. Corporately and Individually.

creating an honest-ward ethos

‘Dougherty’ was a nice guy.

Aside from chatting about sponsoring a particular charity, our conversation turned to many random things. Campbell clans of Scotland, Life in New Zealand (he was from Ireland), and… human sexuality. He told me about a friend of his that had a pastor who gave him some opinions about sex that were so devoid of coherence that I won’t bother repeating them here. Though I perceived we didn’t see eye-to-eye on human sexuality, I was pleased that our conversation remained peaceful. Talking about human sexuality is controversial enough, but my, how the sparks can fly when you discuss this topic from a faith perspective!

Unfortunately, meaningful dialogue about this issue is nearly impossible. I say it is unfortunate, because I think our understanding, respect, appreciation, and use of sexuality is one of the most important things for us to be talking about. I see a few things that make these needed conversations more difficult:

-Sexuality is often one of the most emotionally charged topics, and therefore one of the most avoided.
-The chasm between opposing viewpoints is not getting any smaller.
-Little or no desire to see the other individuals’ or groups’ perspective is apparent.

Christians are much to blame for this lack of dialogue. Even when motivated by genuine concern, our message can often be received as one of hatred, indifference, self-righteousness, exclusion and arrogance. Indeed, as someone has well said, ‘We are all too often known for what we’re against, than what we’re for.’ We appear to be quite concerned with pointing out flaws in others and not as concerned with being open to such correction from those around us (take a moment to look up the very familiar Matthew 7:1-5 and compare with the less familiar Isaiah 65:5).

If I am to be truly loving, I cannot approve of all behaviour. I do, however, have a growing conviction that so often the way we deal with ‘mis-behaviour’ can actually create a culture which causes people to hide from each other, rather than a culture of honesty, transparency and healing. Another way to say it is to assert that whilst our wounds can’t be dealt with if we ignore them or pretend that we are ‘wound-less’, we also must remember that a ‘wound-hunting’ ethic fosters a ‘wound-hiding’ ethos. In my friendships with others, I am committed to building an ethos of transparency and honesty. If I truly care about my friends, I must not sugar-coat their problems (or put band-aids on their gushing wounds). They must be discussed openly and frankly. This will never happen if my relationships are characterised by formality, pretense and positivism.

I will probably never see Dougherty again, but I hope our conversation can be one step among many in the direction of creating a more honest dialogue between the Church and the world. With God’s help, we can – one person at a time – change the world’s perception of the Church. We can repair the broken and shattered image of grace that is meant to accompany the term ‘Christian.’ We can restore the withered message of love that is meant to be embodied in our lives. We can mend the torn fabric of truth that puts on flesh and loves, heals, comforts, cares-for, mends and restores people. We can be the hands and feet of Jesus – again.

wanted: ‘messy’ relationships

I have a friend who has all but left the church…

The agenda of the churches has has been associated with has left him wanting…

Please read his cry for help written months ago…

life never stops…even if you do. People change, I change….the cycle of death and life doesn’t just pertain to the physical….but also to relationships and friendship and even your own personal being…It’s just strange I guess……I feel as though I’m outside of it all…..I just watch it all go by like telephone poles outside a car window…… gone as quickly as they come…. I’ve met some amazing people lately…. real genuine people that I’d love to get to know…. but somehow I am unable to cross the barrrier that seperates my life from theirs…..to break into their circles, their worlds….I live in a glass box…..people come and watch for a moment, for I am a novelty a new thing to enjoy, but the excitement soon fades and they walk away with those they love and I, I am unable to follow, bound by invisible contrainsts…. I’m sure all of you who are reading this think I’m crazy or could use some help, and perhaps I do….I admit that my life is a mess, and I know that I have made that mess myself…. I admit that I am not living up to my potential, that i could be so much more than I let myself be… But there is something invisible that holds me, something I cannot see…… I need help, perhaps that is the whole reason i write this… I need to know what true Christian love is again…. to know that there are people who won’t just leave a comment that says “I know how you feel, I’m praying for you” which is a well and good….but the help I need is messy help, the kind of help that frodo gave to sam, and sam gave to frodo…. a single person or a group of people who realize the broken state that they are in….that do not sugar coat life and pretend to be better than they are…. I need real people…. I need to look behind the mask and not be repulsed by the ugliness within because I know that they see the ugliness in me since my mask lies shattered on the ground. I need to hold someone as they cry, and be held as my world collapses around me…. Please don’t tell me, “well that’s what Jesus is for…” Because all of you have the potential to be His arms….to be His voice….to be His eyes that weep along with me as we all walk through this thing called life. The answer does not lay within myself….trust me I’ve looked…. the answer lies in people…. all giving, all taking… all needing eachother… all knowing that we are all the same…. This is a bearing of my heart to all of you…. It is not me asking for answers…. It is just me wanting to see the real you…. and knowing that we’ll all make it….broken, weary, worn down, crying and laughing at the same time at the sheer ridiculousness of the pain that we all have felt, but always knowing that there is someone there to pick us up when we fall, or to lay down in the mud right next to us willingly and just crying with us……. I suppose there is more….but this is enough for now….

from a naked heart,
(name removed to protect identity)

Before you try to prescribe the magic cure for my friend, please hear the honesty in his plea.

We certainly do need each other.

Do you know that? Let it sink in. Let it go deeper than just intellectually agreeing with the statement. Dare to think of things you participate in that actually hurt the nature of your relationships. Be honest with yourself. Take some time to do that now…

(really… stop what you’re doing… think about it…)

Loving each other is not systematic. It is not regular, controllable or convenient (or as Derek Webb says, it is not efficient.) It is hopelessly random, uncomfortably personal, terribly schedule-wrecking and more importantly, it must be REAL. There are people in your life that need you. The opposite is also true. There are people in your life that don’t need ‘not‘ you.

Be real for someone.