cunning engagement

On the issues where Christians agree with society, engagement is easy. But when there is a difference of opinion, Christians can, it seems, go to two extremes in their engagement.

At one extreme, they can stomp, scream and shout about how bad and wrong the world is, telling non-Christians just how un-Christian they are. The other extreme, perhaps, is to retreat into Christian huddles that have no involvement with – and thus no effect on – the outside world.

Jesus seemed to point the way to a middle path. He taught us to be ‘cunning as serpents and innocent as doves’. Wisdom and restraint, free of complicity or compromise. Jesus didn’t march to Rome and attempt a take-over, but he was uncompromising in his Abrahamic monotheism. He believed in holiness, but taught that this was not to be given unwisely to ‘dogs’ who would only be incited to ‘turn and tear you to pieces’. He valued the pearl of faith, but taught that we should not cast pearls to ‘swine’ who would only trample them. How much of our engagement on issue of sexuality, politics and the like amounts to giving what is holy to dogs?

Two scenes from Acts, both involving Paul, show us this middle way in action. One has been long recognised: Paul at Athens in Acts 17. He is incredibly charitable in his engagement with the pagan thinkers and worshippers, although within himself he was ‘greatly distressed’. Here we see Paul having a public opportunity to speak. He begins with common ground and complimenting the principles he had in common with them, even quoting a pagan Hymn to Zeus.

But he went on to offer a critique of gods that live in man-made buildings and needing humans to serve them. It seems like he was reading the crowd and going as far as he thought wise. The result was mixed and he left it there. He didn’t clamour for more microphone time. He was as kind (cunning as serpents) and as honest (innocent as doves) as possible and trusted God with the result.

The next scene is Paul in Acts 24 before the Roman governor Felix. It’s less well known. One observation is that Jews knew how to talk respectfully to Romans. Observe the comments of Tertullus (serving as a kind of prosecuting attorney):

We have enjoyed a long period of peace under you, and your foresight has brought about reforms in this nation. Everywhere and in every way, most excellent Felix, we acknowledge this with profound gratitude. But in order not to weary you further, I would request that you be kind enough to hear us briefly.

Acts 24:2-4

Paul echoes this tactful speech in his defense:

“I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defense.

Acts 24:10

Paul goes on to defend himself against the accusation of stirring up riots, and manages along the way to share some details of his faith:

However, I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.

Acts 24:14-16

Paul was again saying as much as he thought would be helpful. And no more. Note that he is not criticizing the beliefs of Romans in general or Felix in particular, but sharing his own allegiance, belief, hope and lifestyle. Felix, who had a Jewish wife (Drusilla), knew enough about the Christians to be intrigued, and to meet privately with him. We are told that Paul, in this more intimate setting seems to go further than he did in public. He talked “about faith in Christ Jesus”, even going so far as to discuss “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come.

Felix’s immediate response may make us think that Paul pushed it too far. Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” However, he continued to regularly talk with him.

I want to imitate this way of engaging with those who have a different faith from me. I want to be as non-confrontational and generous as I can be, even celebrating their beliefs when that is authentic to do so. And I want to be able to be as honest as I can without doing harm to them or the relationship.

the danger of “I am not like ___” thinking

Mirroring the growing divide in political discourse around the world is a growing divide within the church between ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ believers.

Both would claim to be trying to correctly express and live Christian faith, but it seems to me that ‘progressive’ believers see ‘correctly’ in terms of appropriate correction, adaptation and renovation, whilst ‘conservative’ believers see ‘correctly’ in terms of conservation, perseverance and restoration.

Politically, this (perhaps not always consistently?) tends to make ‘progressive’ believers have a more left-leaning approach, and ‘conservative’ believers have a more right-leaning approach.

If you can anticipate me saying that a ‘both/and’ approach is needed, that would be because that is precisely what I think is needed.

Just as the Gospel cannot ‘fit’ within the political ‘left’ or ‘right’, but instead affirms and challenges both, our understanding of the Gospel always needs both correction and conservation; adaptation and perseverance; renovation and restoration. Continuity and Discontinuity. New and Old. Faithfulness and Innovation. Word and Spirit.

The opposite of this ‘both/and’ approach is the posture that says “I am not like _____”. Two quick examples are a) the Pharisee (Luke 18:11) who was grateful to not be like the sinner, and b) the elite and presentable parts of the body who do not want to associate with the lowly and unpresentable parts.

In other words, we need one another more than we realise, and more than we are comfortable with.

creation obeys the Creator

Hillsong United’s recent song “So Will I” features the word “evolving” within a verse exploring themes of Creation.

Not surprisingly, critique has come from Christian opponents of evolution. David Mathis is concerned that people will be confused by the word, unsure whether it refers to limited change within species or some naturalistic anti-creational form of Darwinism (add scary music for effect).

I don’t personally think the song is ideal for congregational worship, but only because of the varied melody and syncopated rhythm. The lyrics, in my view, are clearly pro-creation. Let’s have a look…

First, we have a wider statement about “all nature and science” which “follow the sound of your voice”. I love this. It’s a big-picture conviction that all Christians share about the world. Whatever cosmic, ecological, biological, or other processes there are, they are only able to do what they do because of the power and permission of God. However much ‘evolution’ has happened and is happening, it only occurs within the sovereign will of the Creator.

Next we have the e-word. “A hundred billion creatures catch your breath – evolving in pursuit of what you said.” I also love this because it’s so darn celebratory of God! The word ‘breath’ signals the hovering spirit who moves upon creation. The line about ‘what you said’ refers to the command of God: “Let there be”. This is not some purposeless biological process being referred to here. This is God summoning the existence of various forms of life, and nature responding in glad patient unfolding obedience.

Fear not, Christians. If evolution is an accurate way to describe creation, God is bigger than it all.

a theodicy of hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a theodicy of hope.

on the Canon of Scripture

Is Scripture ‘finished’ being written?

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

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

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

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

thy will be done

“Thy Will Be Done”

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

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

But what about relationships between other humans?

“thy will be done?”

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

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

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

“Not my will, but Thine be done.”

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

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

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

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

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

i need resurrection

Easter brings the usual flood of social media posts where people publicly express their celebrations, beliefs or doubts regarding God in general and the resurrection. Some of my Facebook friends shared an article seeking to cite historical reasons why Jesus lived and died, and another shared an article attempting to show why this historical evidence is thin.

That’s all to be expected, in my view. A season like Easter will raise all those questions to be explored and re-explored each year.

I’ll not pretend to be objective. I come down on the side of those who believe Jesus lived, died and rose again. I believe that this belief cannot be proven by historical inquiry, but that it doesn’t go against anything we know about history. The one exception, of course, is that the Resurrection of Jesus, for obvious reasons, is supposed to go against our thoroughly historically-supported knowledge that dead people stay dead.

Today, I want to express another perspective. I don’t want to believe in the resurrection simply because I don’t feel like an idiot if I do.

I want to say today that I’m aware of my need for the Resurrection.

I want to express my need in the most basic and stark language. The language of ‘crutch’ is not enough. I need resurrection far more than I might need a crutch. I need resurrection like plants need water, like electronic devices need power, like lungs need oxygen, like humans need love.

The meaning behind these metaphors is that whatever amount or kind of goodness I have, that goodness is fragile, vulnerable to decay and deterioration, incomplete and ultimately dependent on an outside source. I’m not good on my own, and I cannot increase or maintain my goodness on my own.

I need others, and ultimately an Other. I need a Life beyond my life to enliven mine.

I need resurrection.

god’s theology

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

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

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

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

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

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

narcissism and image

All Humans Are Narcissists

I want to suggest that all humans, like Narcissus, look at their reflection and make too much of it. This is obvious in some behaviour and more discreet in others.

In my own experience, my narcissism is easily spotted when I think, feel, talk and act as though my own thoughts, feelings, words, opinions (blog posts!?), needs and achievements are – even a little bit – more important than others. In a less obvious way, my narcissism can hide behind all the ways in which I down-play myself. Narcissism is being increasingly recognized as lying behind many – of course not all, or even most – forms of depression.

In sum, I’m suggesting here that when humans play themselves up or push themselves down, some form or degree of narcissism – passive or active – is probably at work.

The Middle Way of the Imago Dei

Narcissism constitutes a form of idolatry. The self is made into an idol in an obvious way when we put ourselves on a pedestal. However, arguably, the self is just as much an idol when the self is abased. When we tell ourselves grand stories of how ‘low’ we are, we can still be making a big deal out of ourselves; we can see ourselves as being just as great as our suffering.

Charting the “Middle Way” between the narcissistic extremes of idolatrous self-aggrandising and idolatrous self-abasing, the Judeo-Christian tradition has the provocative notion of the Imago Dei. As scholars of the book of Genesis have contended, the opening chapter of Scripture depicts the Creator God building a temple, three days of forming the tohu (formless) and three days of filling the vohu (empty/void); and rather than finishing it off with a idol, the Creator God made humans (male and female) in God’s image.

The up-shot of this is that when we look at another human being, or more to the point, when we look, like Narcissus did, at our reflection, we should not merely see and fall in love with ourselves as he did, but rather should also see – and also love – the Creator God.

grace at christmas

Christianity is about Grace, and the language of Grace is the language of gifting; giving and receiving. God comes to Mary with a gift – the honoured role of being the Mother of Christ – and she received it. Her reception of this gift was not naive, not unconsidered or free of queries, but in the end her reception of this role was joyful and humble.

The giving and receiving are both necessary for God’s unforceful grace to operate as intended. All sorts of gift giving can be distorted by various forms of forcefulness or rejection: Christmas presents, sex, money, power, etc. Whenever they are not freely given and freely received, the process of Grace is hindered. Gifts are not forced, or they cease to be gifts. A gift must be given freely, without promise of repayment. Likewise, if a gift is not received, the action of giving is hindered. A gift must be received freely, without a sense of needing to balance the score of giving or earn the gift.

May we, may I, like Mary, say “Let it be”, say “yes”, in glad reception of God’s gifts to us. And, as Jesus taught us, may the freedom of our giving to others reflect how freely we have received those gifts.