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.

 

ordinary

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.

quarks, plants, and universes

A local apologist blog recently discussed Antony Flew, famously an atheist turned deist.  The good and accurate point discussed in the post is summarized as follows:

…the question [of God’s existence] should be placed under the jurisdiction of philosophers; for to study the interaction of subatomic particles, he notes, is to engage in physics; but to ask why those particles exist or behave in certain ways is to engage in philosophy.

I agree.  And it struck me that such a distinction goes all the way up from the micro (e.g. quarks), to the observable (e.g. plants), to the macro (e.g. the cosmos).

A slightly more  negative way to say that is: you don’t need modern scientific microscopic or telescopic insight to go beyond the mechanics of how something (e.g. grass) functions, to pondering ultimate questions of existence, purpose and meaning.

single word prayers

I love categories, frameworks and layouts.  Wonderful freedom in wise frameworks.  Here’s my latest musings on categories for various types of prayers.  It expands on the very simple (perhaps overly simple, but still useful) acronym, A.C.T.S. (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication).

Wow!
Adoration.  The most basic and fitting response to the majesty, power, incomprehensibility of the Creator and Sustainer of all things.  Psalm 8 is a great example.

Sorry.
Confession.  The most basic and fitting response to our selfishness, weakness and indifference which all keep us from doing the good we are able to do in the world.  Psalm 51 is a great example.

Thanks.  
Thanksgiving.  The most basic and fitting response to God’s undeserved gifts to us.  It is the posture of gratitude, and the opposite of entitlement.  Psalm 118 is a great example.

Why?
Lament.  The most basic and fitting response to events and circumstances which seem totally opposite of what we’d expect or hope for.  Psalm 22 is a great example.

Help!
Supplication.  This most basic and fitting response to our awareness of need concerning ourselves, other people, and other situations in the world.  Psalm 86 is a great example.

Now then.  Why is it that Wow, Thanks and Help are common in gathered worship, and Sorry and Why are so rare?

 

conversing with God

A friend of mine recently was talking about his struggle to ‘hear’ from God.  In the past, he had felt strongly that he had heard from God, but later events suggested that it wasn’t the voice of God.

It made me think about my own experience of communication with God.  It’s pretty mysterious when you think about it, even for those of us who have grown up with families and communities around us where it is an assumed thing.  It just seems impossible that an ultimate being such as God could be accessed with our ‘not-ultimate’ capacities.  In addition to the many things we might say in response to this, such as the idea that God speaks through Christ, Scripture, Reason, Tradition, etc., there is another perspective on this dilemma, and it seems to my mind to cohere with both our experience and the Judeo-Christian scriptures.  It’s the idea that God ‘meets’ us at our level of ability to communicate.

If this is true, then God may well be communicating to animals, plants, rocks, stars and the rest of created reality in a way that is appropriate to them.  Scripture seems to speak of these kinds of creaturely responses to the Creator.  With us, though, God seems to limit himself to the level of sounding like another human.

If we put aside, for the moment, the question of conversing with, speaking to and hearing from, God, we might observe the imprecise and imperfect, yet still wonderful and functional way that we communicate with one another as humans.  More often than we probably do it, we need to clarify or make sure we’ve been listening correctly.  We sometimes are mistaken about what people have said, sometimes we miss a tree from the forest, other times we miss the whole forest.  Shannon and Weaver’s theory of communication suggests that various kinds of ‘noise’ can distort the encoding, transmission, and decoding of our messages.

Wouldn’t human-divine communication be naturally subject to the same beautiful realities that make communication relational?  In the same way that God has not made us as robotic computers, executing every command with perfect precision, God, it seems, has chosen not to relate to us as a computer, but in a wonderfully down-to-earth, personal and even human way.

Now that this little piece of thinking is done, I think I shall get back to the lovely simplicity of approaching God as a child would their parent.  “I love you God, help me do good today.”

don’t hold on

In Genesis 2, the Lord gives instruction that the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ is not to be eaten from.  There is deep mystery and meaning in this command.  There seems to be some kind of boundary being established, and it seems to be a kind of protective boundary.  The serpent, in chapter 3, appears to distort and exaggerate this command, saying that it must not even be touched.  Perhaps it is some kind of common sense to put an additional layer of safety in place… but ultimately this approach backfires, temptation is yielded to, and this leads to a third development.  The Lord then specifies for the ‘tree of Life’ to not be eaten from.  This feels, to us, a strange command, as we assume that ‘to live forever’ is part of God’s plan and desire for humans.  But, again, there is deep mystery here, and whatever we make of these early chapters of Genesis, we can rightly take this boundary to be protective, at least for that season in human development.

Today is Resurrection Sunday, and in John’s narration of the post-resurrection events, there is one curious event that seems to echo, even if faintly, these mysterious boundaries in Genesis.  It is likely that John is deliberately echoing Genesis at points, for he opens with ‘In the beginning’.  Also, the language and imagery of fruit is very Johannine, famously with Jesus’ depiction of himself as the vine in chapter 15.  In chapter 20, Mary Magdalene finally recognizes Jesus as her beloved ‘Rabboni’, and is said to turn toward him.  She is met with the curious command not to ‘hold onto’ Jesus.  Many of us will be similarly puzzled by this, as we were with the banning from the tree of Life.  What could be more a beautiful, natural and fitting way for Mary to ‘abide’ in Jesus, than to embrace him in affectionate reverence in the bright light of resurrection morning?  No, says Jesus, or at least ‘not yet’.  Whether we understand it or not, and whether it makes sense to us or not, there is another boundary here, which must be taken to be protective.  Not that Jesus needs any protection from Mary, or even necessarily Mary from Jesus (!!!), but perhaps Mary from Mary.

Could it be that, even in the glorious glow of Easter morning, we still need boundaries to protect us from ourselves?  Perhaps we need to patiently progress toward the day, also in Johannine description (Revelation 22), where we will freely and fruitfully serve “God and the Lamb”, and respond freely and fully to the invitation to take of the “water of Life”.

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.”

even greater

Yesterday morning, our sermon was on Hebrews 7:1-7, about Jesus being like, and even greater than, the strange biblical figure Melchizedek.  Among the more striking contrasts is that this ‘priest of the Most High God’, who was the agent rather than the recipient of blessing, was not Jewish, but was a pagan ‘king of Salem’.

I’ve often reflected on how this lovely figure does glorious and needed damage to overly-certain schemes of salvation and overly-narrow frameworks of divine activity.  God speaks, works and saves in ways that are outside our human understanding.  But my reflection yesterday was musing about how there may be a parallel with the bread and wine and the mysterious presence of Christ at the Eucharist.

Both of the human figures, Abraham the ‘great’ Patriarch and the ‘greater’ Priest Melchizedek, are transcended by the divine-and-human person, Christ, who is ‘even greater’.  There may be a similar progression with the elements of Eucharist.  Bread and wine (interestingly brought to Abram by Melchizedek!) had deep significance in Jewish history and liturgy, particularly in celebration of Passover, remembering the Exodus from Egypt.  These ‘great’ elements are taken up and given a ‘greater’ meaning by serving our remembrance of a second greater Exodus, achieved by a second greater Adam.  But both these are transcended by the ‘even greater’ presence of Christ himself who has instituted the meal as a place and event where he will be ‘known’ through, ever since the breaking of bread on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24).  Although the elements always retain the ‘mere presence’ of bread and wine even with their ‘great’ significance, through the divinely instituted celebration of the Supper, they are also ‘blessed’ with an ‘even greater’ additional Presence (both through the elements and flowing out into and among the people gathered); that of the One who is not mere bread and wine, but True Food and True Drink (John 6).

So in diagrammatic form:

Abraham < Melchizedek < Christ himself
and
Passover < Eucharist < Christ himself

rain and bows

When it rains… look for rainbows.

Our son Tom quoted this message from a T-shirt today, as we finished off our lunch and looked out the window at the rain.

The imagery of the rainbow is used by peace activists, the queer community, sunday school teachers, and more.  It draws its formative significance, of course, from the story of the flood in Genesis.  I found myself thinking of how that story is framed, both as a complete story, and within the book of Genesis as a whole.

The whole Bible is framed by what we call progressive revelation, where truth is gradually (or progressively) revealed as the story or narrative goes forward.  In the same way, individual stories (or sets of stories) within the Bible follow the same principle.

Sometimes, a story or stories progress and combine to strengthen a belief about God.  The ‘lost’ stories of Jesus (lost sheep, lost coin and lost son) in Luke, for example, go together as a set of stories revealing the nature of God as a Shepherd/Woman/Father who seeks out what is lost.  A point any reader of the Old Testament would have known, but that Jesus intensifies.

Other times, stories progress and combine to re-shape or develop a belief about God.  The story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, among its other purposes, is revealing that God is not the sort of God that demands a child sacrifice.  Yahweh is not like the other ‘normal’ gods of that time and place, for whom it was ‘normal’ to appease by offering your child.  People who imagine God to be a child-sacrifice-demanding God find this not to be the case.  This story carries through into the New Testament beautifully, with God providing not only a ‘ram’ instead of Abraham’s son, but providing himself through his only Son, who was the ‘Lamb’ of God.  Likewise, in Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28, we have a story which challenges the existing Jewish expectations of what the Messiah would be like.  Jews of the day (including Jesus himself it appears!) would have imagined the Messiah to be coming ‘for’ or ‘to’ the Jews, to save them from the Gentiles.  But this beautiful, wise and persistent Gentile (Syro-Phonecian) woman shows them (and Jesus!?) that the community of faith was not limited to Jews only.

It seems the flood story both strengthens and develops existing beliefs about God.  Like the previous stories in Genesis 1-5, the flood story pictures God as not merely a God who is grieved and angry over human failure and sin (as seen in the expulsion from the garden, the curse, and the judgment of the flood), but a God who seeks out his children to restore and bless them (as seen in the provision of clothes, the provision of children to Adam and Eve, and the promise of mercy seen in the rainbow).

This pattern permeates the whole of Scripture.  God is not like we imagined – or feared.  God is holier and stronger than we dared believe, and more merciful and gentle than we dared hope.

And that is why they call it Good News.