active faith

Trust and obey, says the grand old hymn.  A lovely pairing, and a very biblical one.  This pair captures the nice middle ground between two extreme ways of understanding Christian life and discipleship.

At one extreme (hint: extremes are bad… almost always), we have faith that is ‘aggressive’ in the sense that it is all about doing and obeying.  Trusting hardly gets any air time, if it features at all.  People who advocate this kind of faith usually are pushing back against believers who do nothing…

At the other extreme, we have faith that is ‘passive’ in the sense that it is all about knowing and trusting.  Obedience, if the topic comes up at all, is usually something that you are not to ‘do’ but happens automatically.  People who advocate this kind of faith are often pushing back against a ‘religious’ or ‘strict’ approach to faith, full of ‘dos’ and ‘donts’…

In the middle, we have a faith that is active or assertive.  Faith and belief are married to deeds and actions.  The two mutually reinforce one another.

Jesus loves to describe the kingdom life with vivid metaphors.  Sometimes we get too used to them, and other times we just read them wrong, in the light of our pre-existing frameworks.

One of these metaphors is the image of the fruit tree.  Good trees bear good fruit.  One extreme (‘aggressive’ faith) sees the fruit as being all our work, which legitimates our faith.  The other extreme (‘passive’ faith) sees the fruit as all God’s work, and not ours.  We don’t ‘produce’ the fruit, we just ‘bear’ it…

The ‘aggressive faith’ folk have to remember that Jesus’ metaphor assumes sunlight and water and that ‘God gives the increase’ wherever there is growth.  The ‘passive faith’ folk have to face the reality that the word behind ‘bear’ is the same word used throughout the New Testament for a lot of doing, working, etc.

The strange mystery is that as we trust and obey God, we are enabled to be and to do.  We hoist the sail, God’s spirit blows, the boat moves.



This Christmas I sit in our living room before heading to bed, typing out a festive blog post.  The room feels and looks very ordinary: couches, pillows, television, computer, DVD’s, books and more.  Life, most of the time, is ordinary.

Life is exciting and varied enough as it is.  We don’t need too many sensational experiences.  Highs come.  We are property owners for the first time, and are excitedly settling into our new home.  Lows follow.  My beloved Grandpa passed away the day after my son’s 9th birthday.  Even those highs and lows have an ordinary feel to them.  The joy of a new dwelling to own, enjoy and remake is tempered by frustrations of having too many things, facing the financial and time cost of renovations, and more.  The grief of losing a loved one didn’t fully negate the happiness of waking up Christmas morning to presents and pancakes.

The nativity narratives are laced with the spectacular, and awe-inspiring and the miraculous.  Angelic epiphany.  Prophetic insight.  Virginal conception.  It could be just me and my phase of life, but I’m drawn to imagine the lingering ordinary feel that life would have had for Elizabeth, the shepherds, Anna, the wise men, Mary and the others.  Elizabeth’s formerly-barren womb would still be subject to the pain of giving birth.  The shepherds, hurrying to Bethlehem after the angelic revelation, would have faced all of the familiar and mundane issues of getting themselves there.  Mary, despite her exemplary encounter with the angelic messenger, would have three full trimesters of watching her body and womb swell and transform.

And all of this has a beautifully Jesus-shaped dynamic to it.  For it is in Him that the spectacular resides within the everyday.  Eternity meets time.  God joins with humanity.  Creator with creation.  Word becomes flesh.

Nowadays I am more aware than ever of my simple need for God’s extraordinary strength in every ordinary moment.  Highs and lows; strengths and weaknesses; progress and stumbles, what I need is always to open myself to the ordinary process of participating with the Power who makes me just a little bit better, moment by moment.

dual tension

Christian discipleship in the kingdom of God, is well known to be characterised by what they call ‘eschatological tension’ between the ‘now’ and ‘not yet’.  The balanced tension helps us remember that, on the one hand, the kingdom is ‘now’, and we can and should expect to see evidence of it.  On the other hand, the kingdom is ‘not yet’, and we can and should expect to see the opposite of the kingdom.

I’ve often thought about all the ways in which both personal and public ethics can go toward either extreme, either expecting too much or too little evidence of the kingdom ‘now’.  But just now I had a thought: perhaps it is helpful to view this tension through the lens of another tension: namely the human and divine tension.

The balanced middle of this tension is called ‘partnership’, and it is expressed in many places in Scripture, one of my favourites being the end of Colossians 1, where Paul uses 2 terms to refer to his ‘labour’ and ‘toil’, and 3 terms to refer to God’s ‘energy’, ‘work’, and/or ‘power’.  Personal and public spiritual work is the result of partnership.  There are obvious extremes here too.  At one extreme, we passively wait for God to act and do nothing ourselves.  At the other, we aggressively work as though God’s action was not needed.  Partnership, between these extremes, is assertive.

If we view these tensions together, what do we get?

Perhaps there are two extreme ways to have an under-realised eschatology.  Both of them fail to expect or strive for a realisation of the kingdom.  One fails to expect this from God, and the other fails to expect it from self.

And perhaps there are two extreme ways to have an over-realised eschatology.  Both of them have unrealistic expectations.  One of God, the other of self.

In the middle, we keep coming back to contributing as much as we can to the kingdom, bringing as much of it ‘now’ as we can reasonably hope for, and trusting God to take care of the rest.

giving birth to life

In the most mysterious of all paradoxes, God seems to be the sort of God who – almost always – waits for our permission and cooperation to act in our lives.  The One who said ‘Let there be’ and gave birth to the life-cycle of all creation, will not force the divine life into ours without us agreeing to it with our ‘let it be’.  The One whose ‘Yes’ created all things, bends down to listen and wait for our own ‘yes’.

The holy and mild infant Jesus grew up and shaped his own moral life under the watchful and loving instruction of Mary, who, with her assertive and affirmative response to God, “Let it be unto me according to your will”, stands as the figurehead of human openness to the divine will.  The example of his human mother, mingling with the Spirit of his divine father, enabled him to finally in that fatal garden, utter these eternal words of assertive submission, giving life – in the shadow of the reality of death! – to his and our world: “Not my will, but yours be done.”

the truth about us

I know what self-justification and self-protection looks like, because like all of us, I do it far too often.  Into a world of self-justifiers (like me) where we defend ourselves from any responsibility for any specific wrongdoing, the words of Jesus by the hand of John’s gospel cut through to the basic motivations behind such self-protection:

19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:19-21)

My simple observation here (which I don’t want to clutter up the sermon for this Sunday night) is that Jesus is not contrasting ‘evil’ people with ‘good’ people, as if life were so simple.  Instead, the one who “knew what was in humans” (John 2:25) contrasts those who do “evil” and those who live “by the truth”.  The words used to describe their actions are also contrasted.  Those who do evil stay in the darkness not wanting their “deeds” to be exposed, while those who life by the truth can cope with “what they have done” being in the light of day, as well as the sight of God.

So the point of difference Jesus is making between these two kinds of people seems not to be that some have been naughty and others have been nice.  Some seem to see God as a God who is out to condemn the world, while others seem to trust that God, as Jesus says a few verses earlier (3:17), did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  Fear drives some to hide their sin, while faith/trust (Greek: pistis) enables others to confess it. Johannine material elsewhere in the New Testament agrees.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9)

the church caught conducting a SSM

(a ‘targum’ of John 8:3-11)

3 The representatives of a group of churches brought in one of their churches which was caught in the act of blessing a same sex marriage. They made it stand before Jesus 4 and said to him, “Teacher, this church was caught in the act of blessing a same sex marriage. 5 In our understanding of our denominational processes, we have authority to discipline this church. We have spent two years drafting propositions to this effect, and some dare to want to edit our propositions.  What then, do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to ensure that the gathered assembly kept their original wording exactly intact, not a jot and tittle amended or softened, lest anyone suspect them of being soft on sin.

But Jesus walked past the microphone and sat down next to the pastor and gay delegate from the accused church. 7 When they kept on asking him to speak, he walked to the microphone and said to them, “Let any church which has never blessed any other kinds of sin be the first to kick this church out of your union.” 8 Then again he sat down next to the pastor and gay delegate from the accused church.

9 At this, those who heard began to lay down their voting papers one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the pastor and gay delegate from the accused church sitting next to him. 10 Jesus motioned to the empty room and asked them, “Church, where are they? Has no one kicked you out of their group of churches?”

11 “No one, sir,” they said.

“Then neither do I shame you, condemn you, or kick you out of my family,” Jesus declared. “But now, go and no longer bless what is sinful.”

uncomfortable majority

Democracy’s main weakness is that it makes it possible for popular error to hold sway.  Conservative Christians, like me, would say that about this or that popular cultural value that doesn’t align with theirs, and a minority voice within a Christian denomination often says that about the majority denominational view which which they disagree.

There is a conversation happening in my denomination in which I am part of the majority, and it makes me uncomfortable.  I am uncomfortable primarily because I want the minority voice, the very voice I disagree with, to be heard, and heard in its best form.  And too often it is not heard.  And far too often it is not heard in its best form.  Along with all the multitude of biblical passages that I base my majority view upon, there are other passages that make me uncomfortable in the majority camp.

The Gospels (Matthew 18 and Luke 15) have Jesus giving us a principle of leaving the majority of the sheep (99) to seek out the minority (1).  In context this is a picture of God’s reach to those who are socially and spiritually ‘outside’, ‘lost’ and marginalised; but I can’t help but feel the principle also applies to interpretive disputes as well.

Acts 15 recounts the church dealing with a very difficult issue, and they neither appealed to the anointed authoritative leader (my Catholic brothers and sisters may disagree), nor did they ‘vote’ on it as my Baptist tradition would.  Instead they had ‘no small amount of discussion’ before some leaders drew things together into a consensus.  And what is beautiful is that the view that ended up being wrong (the view that Christians must be circumcised) was included in Luke’s account (though it was arguably not kindly represented in the council’s letter!).

Then there’s Philippians 2:3, within a letter which later instructs Euodia and Syntyche to ‘agree with one another’.  This verse is within a context about imitating the humility of Christ, who was divine but became not just a human, but a slave.  The instruction is to not be conceited, but to humbly ‘consider others better than yourself’.  I know this verse is not about aiming for heresy rather than orthodoxy in the name of humility, but could it maybe help the majority hold their majority with a bit less arrogance, over-certainty and impatience (which admittedly can be needed for the minority at times!)?

And 1 Corinthians 13:9 strikes a death blow to any perfected, complete, omniscient majority view.  In the same letter that uses language about having ‘the mind of Christ’ (in a context still about humility! chapter 2), we have Paul saying that ‘we know in part’.  This epistemological qualifier should give us plenty of hermeneutical humility.

And that is why I’m comfortable with being uncomfortable in the majority.

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.

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.

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.