Monday, September 11, 2006

Fresh Bread and Other Gifts of Spiritual Nourishment

The Call to Discipleship," from "Fresh Bread and Other Gifts of Spiritual Nourishment", by Joyce Rupp.

On one of my retreat days last summer, I stooped to pick up a fallen cottonwood leaf. My heart had been deep in reflection on discipleship and the leaf suddenly symbolised all that I had been praying. Very neatly eaten out of the leaf was a hole, thumbprint size. The tiny chomp marks of a caterpillar or some avaricious insect could be easily seen. My worn spirit looked long at that leaf. I said to myself, "I feel like that: eaten up by my work; the events of my calendar have taken a large space in me."

I have since asked myself many questions about ministry and the feeling that I sometimes get of being "eaten up." I have gone to God in prayer and questioned how much of myself I can afford to give and how much I need to keep. No easy answers have come but gradually I have learned some lessons about the "holes" I sometimes feel in my spirit.

Morton Kelsey so wisely states in Reaching for the Real, "To one person hard work is only pain; to another it is the opportunity to create something of value." To this I'd add, "To some, hard work is just a chomped out hole in one's spirit; to another, it is an opportunity to create something of value for the Kingdom of God. The secret to living with those empty spaces is to have the attitude of a disciple of Jesus.

I have never gotten used to the truth of discipleship: that to belong to Jesus means more than just a good feeling of being cherished and loved. I still struggle with the fact that there are conditions for discipleship and that "following" means some hard demands and some constant conversion:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it. What, then, will a man gain if he wins the whole world and ruins his life? Or what has a man to offer in exchange for his life?" (Mt 16: 24-26)

Too often I wish for a call free from obstacles, hurt, pain, disturbance, anxiety.

To follow Jesus in discipleship means that sometimes I will be rejected and misunderstood; I may not see results in ministry and I will need to give when nothing seems to be returned. "To follow" is to live with mystery and to walk in faith, knowing we are deeply loved. Even though discipleship is not always easy and even though sometimes we feel like there's a part of us that been eaten out or chewed on, we can still live with a heart of peace and deep joy. The secret is that attitude which Kelsey spoke of: We know we are creating something of value because our hearts are set on the one who invites us to follow.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Wounded Healer

"The Wounded Healer." By Henri Nouwen: from Chapter 4 "Ministry by a lonely minister."

We live in a society in which loneliness has become one of the most painful human wounds. The growing competition and rivalry which pervade our lives from birth have created in us an acute awareness of our isolation. This awareness has in turn left man with a heightened anxiety and an intense search for the experience of unity and community. It has also led people to ask anew how love, friendship, brotherhood and sisterhood can free them from isolation and offer them a sense of intimacy and belonging. All around us we see the many ways by which people of the western world are trying to escape this loneliness. Psychotherapy, the many institutes which offer group experiences with verbal and nonverbal communication techniques, summer courses and conferences supported by scholars, trainers and "huggers" where people can share common problems, and the many experiments which seek to create intimate liturgies where peace is not only announced but also felt - these increasingly popular phenomena are all signs of a painful attempt to break through the immobilizing wall of loneliness.

But the more I think about loneliness, the more I think that the wound of loneliness is like the Grand Canyon - a deep incision in the surface of our existence which has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding.

Therefore I would like to voice loudly and clearly what might seem unpopular and maybe even disturbing: The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift. Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness, and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief. But perhaps the painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence. The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain.

When we are impatient, when we want to give up our loneliness and try to overcome the separation and incompleteness that we feel, too soon, we easily relate to our human world with devastating expectations. We ignore what we already know with a deep-seated, intuitive knowledge - that no love or friendship, no intimate embrace or tender kiss, no community, commune or collective, no man or woman, will ever be able to satisfy our desire to be released from our lonely condition. This truth is so disconcerting and so painful that we are prone to play games with our fantasies than to face the truth of our existence. Thus we keep hoping that one day we will find the man who really understands our experiences, the woman who will bring peace to our restless life, the job where we can fulfill our potentials, the book which will explain everything, and the place where we will can feel at home. Such false hope leads us to make exhausting demands and prepares us for bitterness and dangerous hostility when we start discovering that nobody, and nothing can live up to our absolutistic expectations.

Beginning Again

From Chapter 4 "Beginning again with church" in "Beginning Again" by John Pritchard

Our expectations of the church should be high but realistic. Every church is a gathering of the walking wounded, some doing better than others but all of us damaged in one way or another. This is what makes churches potentially such places of healing. The church is a laboratory of the human, the place where we find out and experiment with the glorious task of becoming fully human and alive - ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven. But there will be disappointments along the way and we must not throw out the baby of faith with the dirty bath water of the church.

It may help to think of a room where young children have been playing all day. When we go in after they have gone to their tea the room looks like a disaster area. Toys and games lie everywhere, scattered around chaotically. What we may be conscious of is simply a mess. There is no life in these discarded objects lying knee-deep across the floor. However, when the children come back after tea and begin playing again, the whole situation changes. Life returns. The chaos becomes meaningful; the mess is actually an area of purpose and pleasure for children and their parents. Similarly, the church, when viewed by an outsider, may appear a mess. This is the way it is sometimes portrayed in the media. All that appears is muddle and confusion - lifeless objects covering the floor. However, when you see in the midst of the mess the presence of Christ, it all begins to make sense. This is the area of divine play, of the rich and colourful life of God, poured out for us in reckless love. In response to that love we play the best we can, and try to keep hitting each other to a minimum! But what was formerly unintelligible, now becomes marvellously alive. Our expectations of the church therefore have to be high, but realistic enough to recognize that it often appears to be a bit of a mixed bag, both to us and to others.

Expectancy, on the other hand, can never be high enough. When we come to church to worship, we are coming to meet with God. Worship is the technicolour film of our faith. It is offering all of ourselves to all God has revealed himself to be, and the outcome should be change. The result of truly encountering the terror and beauty of God is not conformity but transformation. We are broken open to the invasion of the Spirit, to the mystery of each other, and to the wounds of the world. When we come to worship we don't come to twiddle our thumbs. Expectancy is fully justified because it is directed towards God's activity and not ours.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

How to Lead Evensong

From chapter 6 of How to Lead Evensong by Gilly Myers, published by Grove Books 2005.

If there is no one to preach, there are still things that can be done during the ‘sermon’ slot. Here are a few simple examples:

Some bible commentaries are very accessible to ordinary people and are far from the academic tomes, full of Greek words and long sentences that clergy had to read at theological college! Having a storytelling style, they would work well if they were read out loud in a reflective manner. Bishop Tom Wright’s series Paul for Everyone and William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible are examples of this.

Ask a local minister who is preaching on the same Bible readings that day if their sermon could be delivered in your church too. Then find someone who would be able and willing to read it well.

There are books of sermons and homilies available, but their quality is variable. Check well in advance that they are suitable.

There are some websites that provide ready-made sermons, but be careful – they might be dreadful!
If you, or another member of the congregation, are used to leading a Bible study group, and the congregation would cope with this approach, you could consider putting together some questions to stimulate a short discussion about one of the readings.

What can we do if we are absolutely stuck?

It may be that omitting the sermon is unavoidable. If you have been asked to lead the service, and not to preach, then it is not your responsibility to produce a sermon. If this is a long-term solution, then there needs to be some discussion in the church as to how the congregation is going to crack open the Scriptures on a regular basis.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Paradox in the Gospel?

From chapter 7 of Paradox in the Gospel? by Jim Currin, published Grove Books 2006

One survey respondent observed: ‘Paradox is sadly lacking from most evangelism which seems to be the way of simple certainty, a fill-in-the-dots type of god offered by [a] formula sales team!’ Another agreed: ‘Absolutes have little place in Anglicanism; the black and white approach leaves too many gapss in thinking and in Christian response to all sorts of issues (virgin birth, homosexuality etc)’, to which another added, ‘Paradox is like the complexity of a colour photograph as opposed to the black and white simplicity of certainty.’

This last respondent, an experienced photographer, went on: ‘The Pharisees saw things in black and white while Jesus saw things in colour…note, colour includes black and white in [the] same way Jesus came to fulfil the law.’

Richard Holloway has observed the ‘Black and white issues’ are ‘more complicated than headlines’ while Jolley from research in the journal Anvil, quotes two out of fifteen experts on ‘Faith and Work’ who felt that ‘teaching which presented a prevailing "black and white" assumption about ethical mattes was likely to divide the faith and work of people who have to live with "gray" ethical compromises at work.’

Cyprian Smith does not comment specifically about ‘black and white’ theology. He is clear though that the gospel is ‘both/and’ and not ‘either/or.’ Further is it not gray but very ‘colourful,’ as Eckhart showed before him.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Her Heart Can See

From chapter 5 of Her Heart Can See: the Life and Hymns of Fanny J Crosby, by Edith Blumhofer, published by Eerdmans 2005.

Measured in sales, [Lowell] Mason’s 1841 Carmina Sacra (which the New York Times reported had enjoyed ‘a larger sale than any other music book ever published’) was his most successful single endeavour, but he kept producing new collections. ‘Every well organised choir, if kept up with interest, must have a constant succession of new music. Without this there will be no advancement….the progress of things is ever onward,’ Mason drilled into his following. Mason both stimulated and responded to the incessant clamour for something new: it nicely blended conviction and financial gain. Before he left for Europe in 1851, Mason was listed among Boston’s 2,000 wealthiest men, with a net worth in 2003 dollars of more than $2.45 million.

Mason’s affluence came at the price of incessant work. Admirers marvelled at the self-discipline that made his output possible. A newspaper reported that during his Boston years, Mason edited music and text during every meal and devoted mornings and afternoons to teaching, lecturing, and other business. After his evening meal he gave lessons or worked with his choir. His days seldom ended before midnight, and work often occupied him until 2 am. ‘It is said,’ one observer quipped when Mason was at the height of his fame, ‘that for twenty years he was never known to spend even half a day in mere amusement…his work was his recreation.’

In the heady days of the early republic, Northeasterners of Mason’s stamp dared to believe they could mold an American culture. Noah Webster urged an American language, benevolent societies envisioned a moral social order, Mason’s Boston cohorts supplied an American literature, Horace Mann imagined an educated public, and Mason himself made the case for the ennobling national benefits of music. While later critics sometimes grumbled about the ‘simplistic ditties’ and ‘easily digestible arrangements of themes from the classics’ that Mason permitted to ‘vitiate the tastes of generations,’ his contemporaries hailed him widely as one who offered both the plan and the tools to give the enjoyment and practice of music to ordinary Americans.

Mason acted on his convictions about the importance and promise of music in congregations and schools in many ways, none more important than the training he provided a privileged coterie that might be described as his proteges and partners-in-music. Two of these had prominent roles in Fanny Crosby’s life. One, George Frederick Root, found in Mason’s Boston circle the building blocks for a distinguished career. In time he brought vocal music education to the New York Institution for the Blind. The other, William Bradbury – composer, publisher, teacher, editor – became Crosby’s publisher, booster and friend. Mason molded Root and Bradbury. They, in turn, made Crosby a marketable commodity and so shaped the second half of her life.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Little Book of Biblical Justice

From chapter 3 of The Little Book of Biblical Justice – a fresh approach to the Bible’s teaching on justice, by Chris Marshall. Published by Good Books 2005

God’s partiality for the poor, we have suggested, is because of their greater vulnerability to unjust victimization. But the poor are not automatically virtuous. They are not always innocent of wrongdoing themselves. Where accusations are brought against them in court, biblical law requires the judicial system to treat all parties impartially.

"You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great; with justice you shall judge your neighbour." [Leviticus 19:15]

"You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing; when you bear witness in a lawsuit, you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to the poor in a lawsuit." [Exodus 23:2-3]

But impartiality is essential only for establishing guilt or culpability. Once that has been decided, the fundamental goal of the biblical justice is to restore what has been damaged by the offending. Restoration is required at several levels – restoration of the victim to wholeness, restoration of the offender to a right standing in the community, and restoration of the wider society to peace and freedom from fear, sin and pollution.

Punishments are often prescribed for particular offenses in biblical legislation. But punishment is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Contrary to what many people think today, punishment as such is not what satisfies the demands of justice. Justice is satisfied by repentance, restoration and renewal. Punishment serves as a mechanism for helping to promote such restoration.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A Time to Gather

The Trinity Sunday Meditation, from A Time to Gather – Christian meditations for the year, by Andrew Butcher. Self-published 2005.

‘Some of the worst people I know are Christians,’ my friend said to me. And I agreed: some of the worst people I know are Christians as well. Certainly some of the most invective correspondence I’ve ever received has come from Christians, and anyone who has been involved in churches for long enough knows that church politics beats even university politics, which is saying something.

But I added something to my response to my friend: some of the best people I know are Christians as well. Some of the kindest, most humble people I’ve met are Christians. I’ve gone away from conversations with these people and felt ‘edified,’ to use the biblical term.
It’s a fact of human nature that we like people like us. We like people who think the same way as us, talk the same way as us, and believe the same things as us. But the church – or, more broadly, the community of faith in which we confess – should be made up of those that are different from as well.

Psychology has shown that we tend to believe that the majority of people think the same way as we do, when actually that may not be the case. The thing is our faith – our Christianity – is most comfortable when it’s among like-minded people who agree with everything we say and don’t rock the boat too much. But that’s not what it’s about. Our faith connects with our life when the rubber hits the road: in times of conflict, in times of questions, in times of difference.

I’m reminded of John Hawkesby’s phrase that we’ve taken the cross and exchanged it with a butter-knife. The Cross is an offense to our sensibilities and should shake us from our complacency, much like the vents of the Gospel of Acs shook the disciples from their familiar territory. As they discovered, there are no persona non grata where God is concerned. God calls us to live our faith with, and amongst, everyone – whether we’d like to or not.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Great Jesus Debates

From chapter 6 of The Great Jesus Debates – 4 Early Church battles about the Person and work of Jesus, by Douglas Johnson. Published by Concordia 2005

Probably the most common and ‘popular’ accusation against the Early Church fathers is that they obscure the Gospel of Jesus by subjecting it to needless and even distorting intellectual formulas and complex creedal decrees. Those who make this accusation are typically, but not necessarily, individuals who are adverse to any and all theological statements of belief. They probably align themselves with a congregation, denomination, or even a non-Christian religion because they feel welcome, the music is good, the morality seems right, there are good programs, or the sermons are uplifting. Perhaps these individuals are even attracted to a group because its people rang their doorbell and invited them to church. For them, belief in some higher power and the dedication to living a good life are enough. Theological niceties are resented and should be avoided. Other, more existentially important matters, are at hand. In fact, much of the contemporary appeal of some forms of Judaism and Islam arises because they have a simple belief in one God, accompanied by an appropriately simple moral code. Thus some churches are tempted to believe that the less theology in which we indulge, the better we can get along with our neighbours in this multicultural world.

Rest assured, however, that the response of the Church fathers to this attitude would be fairly unanimous. On one hand, they would agree that idle speculation into the nature of God and his interaction with the human family can and does lead to disaster. In fact, much of the work of the early Christian thinkers and the decrees of the Early Church councils was accomplished precisely to limit such speculation. On the other hand, the early Church fathers would just as strongly insist that beliefs do matter, that our mind is an important, perhaps central, part of our being and what we believe has a profound influence on our relationships with God and our fellow human beings. Christianity is more than feelings and good works. What we think is important too.

Further, the people who decry theological statements really do have a theology in their minds, no matter how unreflective it may be. Therefore, we should think through our doctrines and straighten them out from the outset or they can lead us to precisely those entangling speculations we mean to avoid. A refusal to consider a clear statement of one’s own beliefs can leave a person open to all kinds of strange and harmful ideas and practices in the future.

For the Early Church fathers, ‘getting it right’ involved the grace of God in Jesus Christ. This was their touchstone. Whatever threatened to deny grace was rejected. This was the major source of those theological formulations that to some seem so burdensome today.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Shrewd Sanctity

From chapter 10 of Shrewd Sanctity – the story of Kathleen Hall 1896-1970, missionary nurse in China, by Rae McGregor, published by Polygraphia 2006

After giving instructions to her [Chinese] nurses about what should be done at the clinic while she was away she began the long walk to the railway line where she could catch a train to Beijing. It was a relief that there were no obstructions [from the Japanese] and she arrived in Beijing full of enthusiasm for the future of the mission at Songjiazhuang.

She was in for a shock.

The Japanese had made a formal complaint about her to the British Embassy and were demanding that she be sent out of China. After all her efforts to keep her work quiet a well-meaning Chinese journalist had heard about her activities and written a glowing article about her in a Chinese newspaper. Of course the Japanese intelligence read all the newspapers and immediately became suspicious of her. She was ordered out.
There was a message for her from Mr Britland saying she was to go immediately to Hong Kong and get in touch with Bishop Hall. Her life was in danger and on hearing of her arrival in Beijing the mission had made out a travel pass so she could leave immediately.

She didn’t want to go and, during the night, she considered over and over again ways in which she could slip out into the Western Hills and return to the JinChaJi area. She knew the terrain, all the paths that others didn’t know. It would be easy for her to make her way out of Beijing and get back into the village in the hills. But as the night wore on she realised that now she was a big danger to others. The Japanese would be watching her. Anyone she contacted would immediately be suspect and in mortal danger. Even if she did get through safely, she wouldn’t be able to take any supplies with her and it would only be a matter of time before she was hunted down.

After her sleepless night she dressed early, aware that there was nothing she could do but go. Through her secret contacts in Beijing she sent messages back to her nurses at Songjiazhuang. It was a miserable thought that she wouldn’t be able to continue her work, but worse that she couldn’t say goodbye.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Prayer – does it make any difference?

From chapter 12 of Prayer – does it make any difference? by Philip Yancey, published by Hodder & Stoughton 2006.

Daniel Yankelovich, an astute observer of social trends, points to a cultural shift that occurred in the West in the 1970s. Before then, society valued self-denial or ‘deferred gratification.’ Spouses sacrificed, even if it meant holding two jobs and accepting transfers to other cities, in pursuit of long-term goals. Parents trapped in an unsatisfying marriage stayed together for the sake of the children. In the 1970s the rules changed: the self-denial ethic morphed into the self-fulfilment ethic. We listen to our emotional needs and want them fulfilled now, without sacrifice, without waiting. We buy whatever we want on credit and jettison anything that proves complicated or irksome (like a troublesome marriage, for instance).

Under the new rules prayer loses out. It requires discipline, involves persevering through periods of darkness and dryness, and its results are difficult to measure. Rarely does it satisfy emotional cravings right away.

Indeed, the New Testament presents prayer as a weapon in a prolonged struggle. Jesus’ parable on prayer show a widow pestering a judge and a man pounding on his neighbour’s door. After painting a picture of the Christian as a soldier fitted out with the ‘full armour of God,’ Paul gives four direct commands to pray. Elsewhere, Paul urges his protégé Timothy to endure hardship like a soldier, to toil like a farmer, to compete like an athlete.

I have neither farmed nor served in the military but for thirty years I have been a runner, often entering charity races. I remember well how it all started. I met a young man named Peter Jenkins at a writers’ conference as he was working on the book A Walk Across America, which later became a national bestseller. As he recounted some of his adventures on a long walk across the country, he said, ‘I get tired of these reporters flying down from New York, renting a car, then driving out to meet me. They hit the electric window button of their air-conditioned car, lean out, and ask, ‘So, Peter, what’s it like to walk across America?’ I’d like a reporter to walk with me for a while!’ Without thinking, I volunteered. [Now,] my body has become so accustomed to [exercise] that, if I have to skip a few days because of injury or illness, I feel edgy and restless.

As with physical exercise, much of the benefit of prayer comes as a result of consistency, the simple act of showing up. The writer Nancy Mairs says she attends church in the same spirit in which a writer goes to her desk every morning, so that if an idea comes along she’ll be there to receive it. I approach prayer the same way. Many days I would be hard-pressed to describe a direct benefit. I keep on, though whether it feels as if I am profiting or not. I show up in the hope of getting to know God better, and perhaps hearing from God in ways accessible only through quiet and solitude.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Growing Great Boys

From chapter 4 of Growing Great Boys –100s of practical strategies for bringing out the best in your son, by Ian Grant. Published by Random House 2006

I suggest to mothers that your boys receive the clear message that you are a leader who is not easily threatened. So if your son calls you a silly old bag (or something worse), instead of trying to get back at him through guilt by telling him about all the things you’ve ever done for him, just walk away. Don’t try to engage or yell back; just withdraw your availability. Several hours later, when he comes to you asking, ‘Hey Mum will you take me down to the shops, I need to get some stuff for school,’ respond by saying something like this, ‘I’m sorry….mothers do things like that – but ‘old bags’ don’t.’ Don’t, under any circumstances, take him. Always require some level of restitution and restoration for what he has done or said. Otherwise he will learn to use ‘phoney’ sorrys, which carry no level of regret or responsibility for the action.

A single mother told me that her eleven-year-old boy had called her a ‘b…b…’. She had attended a seminar and remembered the above illustration. So she responded with, ‘You will not use those words to me,’ and walked away. She thought about how she could withdraw her services from her son.

The next morning she didn’t provide his usual wake-up call, leaving him to take responsibility for his own morning routine. He got up in a panic, after sleeping in, as he had the responsibility of working the overhead projector at his school assembly that morning. He begged his mother to drive him to school, at which point she said, ‘Mothers do things like that, but I’m sorry b….b…s’ don’t.’

He begged, pleaded…and even promised to do the dishes for a year! It was such a good offer, she said that she nearly took it up – but instead she remained firm. He had to walk to school. However, being a smart woman, she rang the deputy principal and told him what had happened. The deputy principal followed up by calling the boy into his office and asking why he had failed to be there in time to operate the overhead projector.

The boy fabricated a terrific story: a car had taken out a power pole at the top of the street. Everyone was without electricity, and he had assisted the little old lady next door in her crisis…that had been why he was late. The deputy principal patiently listened, and then asked, ‘Your reason for being late wasn’t because you called your mother a disrespectful name, was it?’ The blood drained from the boy’s face!

The mother is now the proud possessor of a note on school letterhead congratulating her on using tough love and a useful parenting skill – that of withdrawing resources.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Growing Hope daily readings

From the entry for the 22nd April, in Growing Hope daily readings, compiled by Neil Paynter, published by Wild Goose 2006.

To be a creature, one among many, is to come face to face with our limitations. We are not God, and God is not just an idealized version of us. God is other, and speaks to us in other voices. Our judgement of the world, sometimes expressed as if we had a monopoly on divine truth, is, in truth, that which holds us most to account. In Micah 6, the prophet calls the people as if to a court of law to listen to what God is saying, and this is what God the plaintiff says: ‘Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear you voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and He will contend with Israel."

There can be no clearer indication anywhere in scripture that to be a creature in covenant is to be required to be in right relationship not only with our own human kind, but with the whole creation. Justice is also eco-justice. And how, then, will the mountains judge us? Will the enduring foundations of the earth find in our favour?

And we are discovering the earth is making its own judgements…it may be no exaggeration to say that we are at a kairos, a defining moment in human history. In the midst of a hugely accelerated pace of change, we are confronting in equal measure unparalleled opportunities and unparalleled threats. Significant parts of the human population, particularly in the West, are healthier, wealthier and enjoy greater opportunities for self-realization than ever before. At the same time, the gap between rich and poor is growing, huge parts of humanity live on the margins of destitution, uprooted peoples number tens of millions and wars and pandemics devastate dozens of countries. Social and political institutions everywhere are changing and once powerful ideologies have lost their hold. The fabric and future of life itself is facing commodification and, on one hand, the wealth of consumer nations and, on the other, the poverty of energy and resource-poor countries, have caused an ecological holocaust which threatens the continuation of the planet.

In the last 25 years alone, the human species has destroyed one third of its non-renewable resources. Our actions have consequences: the destruction of rainforests leads to global warming, the pollution of lakes destroys localised eco-systems;….floods drown and bring diseases in their wake. How will the mountains judge us? I think we are beginning to hear the answer.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Church of the Isles - part 2

From chapter 5 of Church of the Isles – a prophetic strategy for renewal, by Ray Simpson. Published by Kevin Mayhew 2003.

‘See how these Christians love one another’ was a common saying in the first few centuries of the church. Since those times, those who wish to become members of the church have been required to accept a creed which states what they are to believe, but they have not been required to accept the Beatitudes (the beautiful attitudes commended by Jesus, Matthew 5: 1-12), which state how they are to relate. The emerging church puts the Beatitudes on a level with the creeds.

If the loving church is to replace the judgmental church, cells within the Body of Christ will have to learn new conditioned reflexes. Members of churches who visit Lindisfarne often ask, ‘How do we bring this about?’

They want to serve Jesus, but do not want to do this in churches that are dominated by committees, clerics and conventions. I advise them to exercise faith. That is, to act as if relationship is primary in every conversation, committee and circumstance.

One church encourages any member who had upset another to take them a love gift the following day.

Equality of regard has become an accept principle in our society. It was, for example, a building block of the 1998 Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement. The emerging church has to be a community where this principle is practised.

At the heart of the doctrine of God is a communion of loving selves. In a book entitled ‘Trinity for Atheists’ Italian theologian Bruno Forte describes the Trinity as ‘a communion of flowing relationships.’ We can only find our true identity as persons by reflecting this communion. As Charles Williams observed: it is as important to learn how we live from each other as how we are to live for each other.

In St Aidan’s ancient kingdom of Northumbria there are still people, like him, who model church as friendship. When Rev Catherine Hooper, who had parishes in the Gateshead area, was killed in a car crash in 1999 a neighbour told the Daily Telegraph: ‘It took her [Hooper] ages to walk to church because she was stopped by so many people along the way who wanted to talk to her. Before she came here very few people came to church, but afterwards it was always packed, especially with young people.’

Friday, August 04, 2006

Joy Lasts

From pp 19-23 of Joy Lasts –on the spiritual in art, by Sister Wendy Beckett. Published by Getty Publications 2006

Two splendid paintings depict precisely this deeply spiritual theme of visions. A vision or ecstasy dares to reveal a soul in most intimate union with God: there could hardly be a more serious, more affecting image for anyone who also yearns to live in that sacred union. In ‘The Vision of Saint Bruno’ Mola depicted the founder of the Carthusians, an order of men who essentially live in solitude, meeting only in church. The saint’s habit – white, ample – extends over the ground, as if to symbolize for us the surrender of his heart. He glimmers in the dusk, an aging hermit lost in prayer. His face is half averted, but that tremendous lifted arm tells us that he sees. What he sees Mola does not venture to depict.

The one element I find off-putting is the cherubs’ heads bobbing like balloons above him, but they are perhaps more apt for their very ineptitude: it is impossible to depict in physical terms what has overthrown Bruno and irradiated his prone body. The very trees seem to bow to an unseen presence. And yet, while I see all the ingredients of ecstasy here, I miss the thing itself. What excites me most is that expanse of gleaming cloth, with its secrets and spaces. It speaks to me more profoundly than Bruno does.

Murillo’s ‘Vision of Saint Francis of Paola’ is a very different – and, for me, more successful – presentation of religious ecstasy. Murillo, of course, is a hit-and-miss artist. His misses, when he lapses into sentimentality – all those adorable little Baby Jesus and little Saint John pictures – are never more than charming. They are always this, at least, because Murillo is such a great technician: no artist has excelled him in the tactility of his textures. But when he succeeds, he strikes straight to the heart, and this work seems to me one of his great hits. He has almost wantonly foregone his chief strength, his ability to make us feel substances: in the supernal glow seeming to emanate from the word ‘Charitas,’ it is not easy to respond to the great swathes of coarse brown in which the saint is clad, and we can barely make out, in the distance, an enactment of one of the saint’s miracles.

All our attention is drawn with inescapable power to that pleading face, the profundity of the offering that Francis makes of himself to God. The five small angels (dear little creatures, like Murillo’s children) are insignificant. Francis does not see them; he is looking in adoration at his Lord. I find that I cannot regard this picture without tears. I do not actually cry, but my eyes sting. And this brings me a great step nearer to what I want to say about El Greco’s ‘Christ on the Cross.’

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Church of the Isles

From chapter 6 of Church of the Isles – a prophetic strategy for renewal, by Ray Simpson, published by Kevin Mayhew, 2003.

The Orthodox throughout the world venerate the saints of the first millenium in every land and regard the church in Celtic lands in that period as the Orthodox Church. The glory of the Orthodox Church is its continuity, which its liturgies enshrine. It claims to be the only true church. However, it has little chance of becoming the ‘People’s Church’ in Western lands unless it faces up to at least two challenges.

The first challenge is that many Eastern Orthodox Churches have become so culture-friendly that they are little more than the religious arm of nationalism, failing to combat dreadful atrocities in some lands and deep animosities towards fellow Orthodox and non-Orthodox in other lands. On the day in 1917 that ushered in 70 years of Communist tyranny in Russia, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church was in conclave. Its agenda? The colour of vestments. It missed the revolution.

The second challenge is to Orthodox Churches in the West: by placing themselves under the jurisdiction of a patriarch from the Eastern Church, how can they claim to be the indigenous Church in the West?

The Celtic Orthodox Church has tried to address this. It sees itself as the Orthodox Church in Celtic lands (mainly Britain and France) and believes that its style and liturgy should therefore be indigenous. For this reason, although its bishop is in the apostolic succession and has been consecrated by a Syrian Orthodox patriarch, it will not place itself under the jurisdiction of a patriarch from the East. In their liturgy, unlike Eastern Orthodoxy, they allow people to see through the screen to the inner sanctuary in order to emphasise that the church is open to all and is not just for a select few priests.

The heartbeat of the Celtic Orthodox Church is the monastery at St Dol, Brittany. Here six monks have lived holy lives for 20 years. In that time they have never purchased food; they rely for their food on what the people place in large baskets at each Sunday liturgy. These monks seek to build loving relationships with Catholics and others; and they reach out to young people, teaching them and accompanying their convoys of aid to stricken areas of Europe. Other aspects of this church, however, breathe the atmosphere of political machination.

A third challenge is that the Orthodox liturgy and church culture, which adherents claim to be original and essentially unalterable, does not, in fact, derive from the New Testament so much as from the time when the Roman Emperor Constantine made the Church the official religion of the Empire. God and the saints are cast in the imperial image. So when Orthodox Churches are founded in countries far removed form that empire in time and mentality, they are in fact alienating rather than saving institutions.

Did Orthodoxy stop doing theology creatively after the first seven Councils of the Church? Can it extricate itself from the imperial stream in which it was then swimming?

Monday, July 31, 2006


From chapter 5 of Paradoxy – coming to grips with the contradictions of Jesus, by Tom Taylor. Published by Baker Books 2006

Haiti has been identified as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. When parents died, their children were sent or sometimes voluntarily went to a relative or neighbour who agreed to take them in. However, most adults could not afford to take on more mouths to feed, minds to educate, or bodies to clothe. The result was that these children entered homes where they received only the bare essentials to survive. They were expected to work for the family, who kept them at emotional and physical arm’s length.

The Haitian Creole term for such children was ‘house children.’ Their status was little more than indentured household slaves. Haitian adults housing such children explained to me the unwritten rule that these children were not to be touched or spoken to affectionately. They typically lived behind the house, either in a shed or sometimes under a simple lean-to. They took their meals by themselves and otherwise lived a life of doing chores on demand. I had heard about many instances of abuse of these house children.

As I sat at a table talking to the father of the family where the little girl with the blank eyes lived, I said ‘hi’ to her and asked in Creole what her name was. She stared at the floor, a wary expression of fearfulness on her face. To my distress, the father sternly demanded that she respond. She shuffled over to me and extended a limp hand for me to shake, never looking up from the floor.

When I questioned the family about it later, they argued the rationale for such treatment of house children. Families with such kids cannot afford to raise them as their own and certainly cannot afford to send them to elementary school, which at that time would have cost about twelve dollars per month and would have provided them with a new, clean school uniform and a daily meal. The parents of house children cannot promise them much of a future, so why get their hopes up? They should be grateful, so the argument went, to have a place to stay and meals to sustain them.

I countered their arguments, decrying as persuasively as I could their innocent and young status, as well as the lack of compassion in the house child practice. But it was an uphill battle, always met with the same rejoinder: as a wealthy American, I could not possibly understand.

As I flew back to the United States after living in Haiti for several months, I stared out the window. Seven hundred miles. Just seven hundred miles off the coast of one of the world’s wealthiest countries. That’s how far Haiti is from Miami. If the Haitians living in their poverty only knew. Yet after living and working among Haitian people, watching their hardships, rubbing shoulders with them in their burdensome poverty, and seeing their desperation now juxtaposed to the lavish wealth of even the average American on the plane, I was threatened by fatalistic hopelessness for the Haitians’ circumstances. I could do little more than weep for them. And that I did.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Complete Worship Service

From chapter 5 of The Complete Worship Service - creating a taste of heaven on earth, by Kevin J Navarro, published by Baker Books 2005.

[In preaching] I do not think we have to choose between being culturally relevant or textually accurate. Why do we need to be binary when it comes to this issue? Why can’t we be faithful to the text and relevant to the issues our people are struggling with? This is the issue John R W Stott addressed when he spoke about living between two worlds. We must exegete the text, but we must also exegete our culture. As we strive to preach a message series, I believe we are forced to think about this issue. And I believe that as we do this with excellence, people will talk and say, ‘You’ve gotta be there.’ They will say, ‘The music is great, the people are friendly, and the teaching is really a blessing.’ God will begin to use us to reach out to our communities that so desperately need to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God.

I encourage you to have a solid theological orientation when it comes to worship service planning, but I also encourage you to have an entrepreneurial spirit. Try new and innovative initiatives that will give your people incentive to invite their friends to your church. Certainly focus on the quality, but also ponder the human needs you are addressing and then begin to tell your community about your church. We need to aggressively think of ways to connect without community. We need to pray that our church would be like a magnet, drawing all who are looking for life in Christ. And then we need to pray that when they actually arrive, this is in fact what they will find.

The Lord is ready to bring the city to our doorstep, but are we ready? As we would clean up our house before inviting someone over for dinner, we need to clean up the mediocrity we have settled for in the local church. Garden-variety worship is unacceptable. It is not what God wants from us. And it certainly is not what spiritually desperate people are longing for. People are longing for a taste of heaven. Go out of the way to have a hospitable spirit toward people looking for Jesus. When they encounter this kind of hospitable community, they will in turn say, "You’ve gotta be at this church.’ This is my prayer for your church and for mine. May God grant us life-giving churches!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The New Puritans

From chapter 2 of The New Puritans – the rise of fundamentalism in the Anglican Church, by Muriel Porter, published by Melbourne University Press 2006

In hindsight, the compromises of the 1950s have been debilitating for the national Church. Would it have been wiser to create a national Church that did not include Sydney, if it was not prepared to accept the will of the majority? I suspect it would have had little effect on Sydney’s ongoing life and its relationship with the rest of the Church if it had remained separate. Certainly in recent years it has substantially gone its own way regardless of the rest of the Church, and been quick to threaten schism will result if national decisions are taken that it does not like. The threats are never specific, and do not necessarily imply that Sydney would formally leave the national Church. Rather, they are suggestions that a different style of federation would be required if women became bishops, for instance.

An Australian Church without Sydney would, however have released enormous energy for growth and renewal in the other dioceses, freed from Sydney’s relentless negative influence. I acknowledge that this is a minority view. Most Anglicans still fondly hope that one day, real national unity of purpose will be achieved with Sydney coming onboard without its current agenda. But as a member of General Synod since 1987 and of its Standing Committee since 1989, I know this is highly unlikely. I also know only too well the huge burden the Church carries in trying to cope with the continual, determined and well-resourced opposition that emanates from Sydney. Sometimes families reluctantly have to agree to take separate paths for the good of everyone concerned. Perhaps this is what should have happened in 1955, although possibly the ‘fathers of the constitution’ believed that if Sydney were adequately protected from any unwelcome intrusions into its territory, it would become more relaxed and co-operative in its relationships with the other dioceses. Sadly, this had not happened.

Alternatively, the constitution should not have two avenues of protection for minorities: either the high bar of a two-thirds vote on key decisions or the discretion for dioceses not to adopt specific canons, but not both. It is manifestly unfair that a minority can frustrate the will of the majority on an issue such as women priests for bishops, preventing other dioceses from introducing the measure, even though there is no way it can be adopted in their own dioceses without their approval in any case. These protections mean that diocesanism works in one direction only: Sydney Diocese controls what it will allow within its jurisdiction, but effectively also controls what other dioceses can and cannot do. Some kind of separation might yet need to happen. Given Sydney’s much greater comparative strength now, any such division at this point would be far more damaging for everyone than it would have been in 1955.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Five Years On

From chapter 14 of Five Years On – continuing faith journeys of those who left the church, by Alan Jamieson, Jenny McIntosh, and Adrienne Thompson. Published by Portland Research Trust 2006.

In the research we have been looking for common threads in order to generalise about what we presumed to describe as ‘typical’ of the categories we discerned among church leavers. At the same time we are extremely aware that each person is unique, that each journey is different, and that no one fits neatly into a box. We have talked of ‘stages’ of church leavers but it might be truer to talk of ‘zones.’ A zone is a space not defined by closed borders. For example, in the terms of this study, a person may be moving toward becoming an Explorer but still exhibit many of the traits of an Exile. Thankfully, there’s no quick quiz to help you neatly classify another person – or yourself.

These categories can’t be forced onto people, but we have become very certain of their usefulness. This was demonstrated at the first training weekend held for people interested in facilitating groups like Spirited Exchanges. Many of those who came had left church, others struggled at the fringe. They were introduced to the categories of the Displaced, the Exiles, the Explorers and the Wayfinders not as a grid on which they might exactly plot their position but more as a pictorial map by which they might identify the zones through which they travelled.

Nearly all of the participants could track the pattern of their own journey on the ‘map;’ or could see how it would help them to understand another’s story. As the group discussed what it might feel like to be in each zone and what images might symbolise that particular space there was clear agreement. People were not so much learning something new as recognising what they intuitively knew already.

So people nodded when they heard others describing how it feels to be Displaced: isolated, powerless, angry, betrayed and misunderstood were the adjectives used. In the discussion about the Exile space the group- came up with some powerful images: ‘like being at a major intersection…like having a suitcase burst and scatter its contents all over the place….like looking at your own grave.’ Many of the group had experienced this state and could identify with the feelings evoked by these pictures. By contrast, the sense of new life burgeoning, the beginnings of hopefulness and a restored energy to do not merely to talk: these were the elements that characterised the experience of those who described the Explorer zone. Once again, the majority of the group could recognise common ground.

Generalisations about a group can thus become a gift to the individual. Instead of locking a person into a stereotype, they can become a way of validating a person’s story, and furthering self understanding.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Finding God in the Fast Lane

From chapter 3 of Finding God in the Fast Lane – how to live in God’s presence in the midst of the maelstrom, by Joyce Huggett. Originally published 1993; this edition by Kevin Mayhew 2004.

[The Jesus Prayer] is particularly powerful because it can be prayed at any time, no matter what we are doing. A friend of mine, a widower, taught me this when I visited him on one occasion. When I asked him how he was, a cloud passed over his face as he admitted that he was in turmoil because he had an important choice to make by the next morning. But then his eyes twinkled as he showed me a bowl of gooseberries and a panful of peas: I’ve had a wonderful afternoon,’ he went on. ‘First I topped and tailed the gooseberries and then I shelled the peas and all the while I was praying the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me and guide me.’

Kallistos Ware, in The Power of the Name, points out that the joy of the Jesus Prayer is that it may be said, once or many times, in the scattered moments that otherwise would be wasted – for example, when we are engaged in a semi-automatic task such as dressing, washing up, mending, gardening, walking, waiting in a queue or sitting in a traffic jam. We can pray this prayer, too, in a moment of quiet before a potentially painful or difficult meeting or interview, or when we find ourselves unable to sleep, or while we are waiting for full consciousness to dawn when we wake up. The prayer’s radical simplicity is especially meaningful and helpful when we are tense or anxious.

The Jesus Prayer also makes a marvellous springboard for the prayer of gratitude. I discovered this one day as I was preparing vegetables for supper. For two days life had left me tempest-tossed and battered, but as I lifted the situation to God, a shaft of light seemed to pierce the darkness. Suddenly I saw both the reason for the turmoil and a way out of it. Quite spontaneously, I found myself cutting courgettes and repeating: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, thank you for having mercy.’

Monday, July 17, 2006

God’s Life in Trinity

From Trinity and Gender Reconsidered, by Sarah Coakley – chapter 11 of God’s Life in Trinity, [a ‘conversation’ with the work of Jurgen Moltmann] edited by Miroslav Volf and Michael Welker, published by Fortress 2006.
[Other contributors include: Harvey Cox, Jr, Douglas Meeks, Daniel Migliore, Gerald O’Collins, John Polkinghorne, Nicholas Wolterstorff.]

[Moltmann] never explicitly raises this question: What ‘difference’ does it make to the issue of gender that God is ‘three’? Also, what difference does it make to gender that in the Incarnation the Son crosses (and we might say transgresses) the ultimate ontological binary ‘difference’ – that between God and humanity, Creator and created?

Although I admittedly bring these current ‘interests’ [secular gender theory] to the theological discussion, I also wish to appeal to Christian spiritual practices that can claim to aid a radical dispossession to the Spirit’s power to reformulate and redirect our worldly thinking about gender. Precisely by the regular discipline of silently listening to the Spirit in prayer and of meditating on the Bible , precisely by the invocation of the Spirit’s epicleptic power over bread and wine, precisely by the handing over – in these pneumatological interactions – of my human desire to control, order and categorize my world, I am already inviting what is ‘third’ in God to break the hold of my binary thinking.

The Spirit, then, is from this perspective no longer seen – as in so much Western medieval iconography of the Trinity – as the waiting ‘feminine’ adjunct to an all-male negotiation of salvation; but the Spirit becomes the very source and power of a transformed understanding of gender, one rendered labile to the workings of divine desire in us. No longer do I start with the binary building blocks of ‘male’ and ‘female,’ but instead with a primary submission in prayer to a form of love that necessarily transcends, and even ruptures, my normal forms of gender understanding. To speak thus, and admittedly boldly, is no mere subjective appeal to ‘experience’ (for if such a repeated activity of prayer can be called an ‘experience,’ it is a highly paradoxical one, a sort of blanking of noetic certainties.)

It is, however, tied to a very close rendition of the textual authority of Paul in Romans 8 , where he speaks simultaneously of prayer as divinely done in us by the spirit ‘with sighs too deep for words,’ and yet as also forging us – through this painful process of nescience and loss of control - into the very likeness of Christ, into ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God.’ Such too, as I read Paul (rather differently on this point from Moltmann), is the significance of the celebrated saying ‘neither male and female’ in Gal. 3:28; it is not, as I see it, that maleness and femaleness are necessarily obliterated by what Paul envisages, either now or eschatologically, but rather that they are rendered spiritually insignificant, or (as we might now put it) nonbinary in their possibilities, in the face of the Spirit’s work and our transformations into Christ’s body.

Epicleptic: Epicletic prayer acknowledges that God is the primary agent that makes worship effective and nourishing. Preaching is ultimately effective because the Holy Spirit uses it to comfort, challenge, or convict us. The Lord’s Supper is not made powerful by how hard we think about Jesus, but by the how the Spirit works through it to nourish our faith. Epicletic prayer places us in a posture of humility, longing, and expectation, and frees us from the burden of thinking that the power of worship is all up to us. From the Reformed Worship site.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Intimate Merton

From Part IV (The Pivotal Years) of The Intimate Merton – Merton’s life from his journals, by Thomas Merton. Published by Lion Publishing 2006.

March 10, 1963.
I thought today, at adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, what a blessing it was I did not go in 1956 to be analysed by Gregory Zilboorg! What a tragedy and mess that would have been - and I must give Z. the credit for having sense it himself in his own way. It would have been utterly impossible and absurd. I think in great measure his judgment was that I could not be fitted into his kind of theatre. There was no conceivable part for me to play in his life; on the contrary! And certainly it is true that the whole thing would have been unimaginably absurd. He had quite enough intelligence (more than enough, he was no fool at all!) to see that it would be a very poor production for him, for the Abbot (who was most willing), and for me. I am afraid that I was willing at the time, to go, which shows what a fool I was.

In any case, all manner of better things were reserved for me. But I have not understood them.


In a Zen koan someone said that an enlightened man is not one who seeks Buddha or finds Buddha, but just an ordinary man who has nothing left to do. Yet mere stopping is not to arrive. To stop is to stay a million miles from it, to do nothing is to miss it by the whole width of the universe. Yet how close it is, how simple it would be to have nothing more to do – if I had only done it. Meanwhile, I am more content than I have ever been here with this unripeness. I know that one day it will ripen, and one will see there had been nothing there at all except an ordinary person with nothing to do in the first place.


The evening light. Purple coves and holes of shadow in the breasts of hills and the white gable of Newton’s house smiling so peacefully amid the trees in the middle of the valley. This is the peace and luminosity William Blake loved. Today after dinner, a hawk, circling the novitiate and the church steeple, designed a free flight unutterably more pure than skating or music. How he flung himself down from on high and swooped up to touch lightly on the pinnacle of the steeple and sit there, then fell off to cut lovely curves all around the cedars, then off like an arrow into the south.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Church of the Isles

From chapter 5 of Church of the Isles – a prophetic strategy for renewal, by Ray Simpson, published by Kevin Mayhew 2003

Tragically, the worship of most churches consists of packaged words that do not so much as say hello to the sun’s dawning, the rain’s falling, or the day’s dying. Or else the worship spills out of the psyches of dominant members who are too surfeited to notice the rhythms of their own bodies, let alone of the days or the years. Yet it is possible to create a sense of daily rhythm which touches and inspires a wider number, even among the most mobile populations, and which connects them with the ebb and flow of deeper realties.
In emerging churches the corporate worship follows the rhythm of the natural seasons and of the church year, and observes seasons of fasting or spiritual warfare, of lamentation for the sins and hurts of society, and of joy and celebration of creation.

The word rhythm comes from a Greek word (rhuthmos), whose root meaning is flow. Physicists are discovering that our universe has an underlying pattern; nature is full of symmetry. Rhythm is indivisible. There is a rhythm of the seasons of the year, and a rhythm of the seasons of life. There is a rhythm between masculine and feminine. The emerging churches seek to flow in these rhythms.

Mike Bream, of St Thomas Church, Crookes, Sheffield, calls his church to a holiday period in July and August because that is the natural thing to do. Then it has more energy to develop programmes in the new autumn season.

In the first millennium the daily prayer together in the larger, hub churches was normal, and these were called ‘People’s Services.’ However, they degenerated. Monastic churches developed long, wordy services that suited celibate monks, but which put off the general population. Daily worship in central churches became clericalised, form became more important than fellowship, ritual more important than relationship. A counter-church culture developed which encouraged prayers from pulpits or in groups, but not corporate daily prayer.

In the third millennium, we have to make good the gaps, integrating the creativity and spontaneity of occasional prayer gatherings, with the first millennium’s rhythm of corporate daily prayer. This is beginning to happen, in churches of all shapes and sizes. Some use Anglican or Roman Catholic liturgies . Others use simpler, more flexible patterns. Daily prayer patterns from contemporary communities such as Aidan and Hilda, Iona, Northumbria and Taize are increasingly being adopted.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Bonhoeffer as Martyr

From chapter 5 of Bonhoeffer as Martyr – social responsibility and modern Christian commitment, by Craig Slane, published by Brazos 2004

It was Reformation Sunday 1934 when Bonhoeffer, preaching to this London congregation, distinguished two kinds of churches: the church that aims for success becomes ‘a slave to the powers of this world,’ while the church of faith lives solely by the past deed that God has done in the world, ‘the cross of Golgotha.’ By this particular November Sunday, Bonhoeffer’s mind was already leaping toward the future. Exactly five months earlier he had been approached with the possibility of taking on one of the newly forming seminaries of the Confessing Church, an option he had been weighing together with another: a trip to India where he might actively experiment with Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance based upon Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. For a time he was, as he put it, ‘hopelessly torn’ between these alternatives. Yet, as different as these two paths may have seemed, either of them might have sufficed to answer what became a burning question for him. Was it possible for a community gathered on the basis of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to establish a base of resistance against tyranny?

To put it bluntly, Bonhoeffer was searching for a politically viable form of Christian community. Three years prior he had encountered Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in a highly personal way. He would testify in 1936 that since that fresh reading of it, ‘everything has changed.’ In his judgement he had ‘become a Christian.’ Shortly before leaving London, he hinted to his brother Karl-Friedrich that communities of this kind could be just the kind of power ‘capable of exploding the whole enchantment and spectre [Hitler and his rule].’ Whether in India or Germany, it would be Bonhoeffer’s growing fascination with this way of Christian life that was searching for concrete expression. When finally he decided to oversee one of the newly forming preachers’ seminaries, he had at his disposal a means by which to negotiate ‘the powers of this world’ and simultaneously to experiment with ‘a community of the cross.’

After its first summer at Zingst, the seminary was moved to Finkenwalde, where, among other scholarly pursuits, Bonhoeffer undertook an intense examination of Matthew 5-7 with his students. Eventually his work culminated in the 1937 publication of Discipleship, at the heart of which stands his exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount. The German title, Nachfolge, contains more than a hint of imitation, of imago Dei and the imitatio Christi. Because of the personal circumstances and sociopolitical pressures out of which the work is written, it is a grave mistake to read it as a timeless, abstract treatment of Christian spirituality. Rather, the existential question exerts pressure from all sides: how must the follower of Jesus live in the Germany of the 1930s, where racism, nationalism, and a growing appetite for war have made themselves friends of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Finding Faith

From chapter 7 of Finding Faith – a self-discovery guide for your spiritual quest, by Brian McLaren, published by Zondervan 1999

The question [What is God?] has a certain charming naivete when you think about it. Who do we think we are – we small creatures with three-pound brains, a few limited senses, and life spans barely long enough to get to know our neighbourhood, much less the planet, and much less the galaxy, and much less the universe, and much less still its creator! Who do we think we are to be able to define or even describe the creator of DNA, galaxies, dust mites, blue whales, the carbon cycle, light, and a billion other realities we have no notion about whatsoever, no awareness of at all?

Yet even given our limitations, perhaps some real degree of knowledge is possible. Consider this analogy to my children. Imagine them when they were younger, say under eight. If you had asked them, ‘Who is your dad?" how would they have answered? They couldn’t have told you about my height, weight, temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, or any other vital statistics. They were incapable of saying anything intelligent about my genetic makeup. They didn’t know much about my philosophy of life, what books I had read, what places I had visited, which degrees I had earned, what music I liked, how many languages I spoke. They certainly didn’t comprehend my sexuality or my financial position, nor could they identify with many of my adult emotions – including the depth of my love for them. My doctors, teachers and colleagues knew more about me, in these senses, than they did.

Yet in another sense, they knew me intimately, in a way beyond anyone else. They knew the smell of my skin, the feel of my hair (which I had more of back then) , the strength of my hands, the fine nuances of my smile. And more- was I faithful or inconstant, generous or stingy, forgiving or hard, playful or grim, kind or cruel? And even more - who was I to them? Who could know these things better than they? True, their limitations as children gave them certain disadvantages in understanding their father, but their relationship as my children gave them other incomparable advantages.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Common Prayer on Common Ground

From Part II of Common Prayer on Common Ground – a vision of Anglican orthodoxy, by Alan Jones, published by Morehouse Publishing 2006

As we have seen, Anglican orthodoxy begins and ends with mystery. Walker Percy, in his novel The Second Coming, has his protagonist ask, ‘Do you realise what it’s like to live in the middle of twelve million fundamentalists? The nice thing about Episcopalians is that you’d never mistake them for Christians!’ A compliment and an insult at the same time. But the criticism that we are so open-minded that we are empty-headed is unfair. We have our doubts but we don’t wallow in them. We appreciate ambiguity but don’t make it into a virtue.

Other caricatures are more probing. Theatre director Peter Brook wrote this nearly forty years ago about the then-new cathedral in Coventry, England. It was built:

‘according to the best recipe for achieving a noble result. Honest, sincere artists, the ‘best’ have been grouped together to make a civilised stab at celebrating God and Man and Culture and Life through a collective act. So there is a new building, fine ideas, beautiful glass work – only the ritual is threadbare. Those Ancient and Modern hymns, charming perhaps in a little country church, those numbers on the wall, those dog-collars and lessons – they are sadly inadequate here. The new place cries out for a new ceremony, but of course it is the new ceremony that should have come first – it is the ceremony in all its meanings that should have dictated the shape of the place, as it did when all the great mosques and cathedrals and temples were built. Goodwill, sincerity, reverence, belief in culture are not quite enough: the outer form can only take on real authority if the ceremony has equal authority – and who today can possibly call the tune? We have lost all sense of ritual and ceremony…but the words remain with us and old impulses stir in the marrow…it is not the fault of the holy that it has become a middle-class weapon to keep children good.’
There’s some truth in this – and even some prophecy. Where many of the liberals got it wrong has been precisely in the area of ritual. The Latin Mass is on the way back. There are signs that the young, while still wanting to think for themselves, long for mystery and the transcendent in liturgy and find the offerings thin and threadbare. Rationalism is never enough.

The old Anglicanism of my parents and grandparents has been described unfairly as ‘a kind of domesticated pantheism: a communion with shrubberies and rockeries, the song thrush at the bird bath, with the look in the eye of a reliably well-behaved dog.’ [Kennedy Fraser in The New Yorker] Now England is seen as post-Christian and postimperial, where a religion shaped for a very English God is showing signs of strain now that England has nothing outside itself to rule and conquer. And the cheapest caricature of our agnosticism is this: ‘What friends call honest doubt, or seeking, enemies call hypocrisy. Many Anglicans, content to rub shoulders with God will say and sing words they are light-years from believing.’ [Ibid]

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Joy in our Weakness

From chapter 10 of Joy in our Weakness – a gift of Hope from the book of Revelation, by Marva Dawn, published by Eerdmans 2002 [revised edition].

One misunderstanding in faith these days, highlighted by the novels of Frank Peretti, is an overly simplistic notion that evil is caused by some sort of little demons (even if we don’t picture them with red suits and horns and flying around with pitchforks and spitting sulphur). On the other hand, we must not over-intellectualise the whole matter of evil and define Satan merely as the evil deeds of human beings.

The biblical picture takes a position between these two extremes and recognizes that there are myriads of forms and causes of evil and that there is a significant supernatural element. There are definitely powers of evil external to ourselves, but usually they make use of our own humanly sinful inclinations. No once can rightly say,’ the devil made me do it.’ The powers of evil certainly are constantly tempting us, but we ourselves and our failures of will are to blame if we give in to their temptations.

However, in distinct situations demonic influences more easily take control, and we must walk very carefully
if we are called to go into them. I highly respect former Senator Mark Hatfield, whose book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, very openly described the easy temptations of power in high governmental positions.
Certainly our nation immensely needs Christians in politics, but anyone who chooses to enter the higher echelons of power will probably discover there Satan’s throne.

And what about you? Perhaps you work in an office situation where everybody curses or cheats or is involved in sexual immorality. Or maybe the demonic influence is much more subtle – perhaps in the power plays office colleagues use constantly to manipulate each other. It is difficult to maintain one’s Christian integrity and witness in such an atmosphere.

Similarly, those challenged physically or mentally often encounter difficulty as they try to keep clinging to Christ in the constant discouragement of worsening handicaps. Illness and disability are certainly not God’s intention for human life, so we might also say that in our afflictions we can also recognize Satan’s dominion.

Yet the people of Pergamum [in Revelation] are praised. They have remained true in their circumstances. They have clung to the name of Christ, by whose power Satan’s thrones have already been cast down and exposed. Their faithfulness provides a model of the ability to continue in contexts largely overwhelmed by evil powers. The name of Christ enables His people to be true.

Monday, July 03, 2006

When Bad Christians Happen to Good People

From chapter 8 of When Bad Christians Happen to Good People – where we have failed each other and how to reverse the damage, by Dave Burchett, published by Waterbrook Press 2002.

I was okay with the WWJD bracelets. I liked the idea of the subtle yet visible reminder of the reality of a daily relationship with Christ. My wedding band is a similar reality check. My ring has intertwined gold bands to symbolise our marriage and four small diamonds to remind me of my children. Three healthy sons are a daily part of my life. The fourth diamond represents the short but meaningful life of our daughter, Katie. When things go south, I have trained myself to look at that band and get things in perspective. Rarely is something more important than what that wedding band represents. And that refocusing helps bring me back to my spiritual foundation in Christ.

Given the value of reality reminders in my own life, the WWJD craze seems harmless enough. However, by the time we got to WWJD boxer shorts complete with false fly, I had reached the saturation point. Somehow the idea of dropping trou to be reminded of what Jesus would do seemed to have veered slightly away from the original concept.

Speaking of a fly (he transitioned smoothly), how about the Gospel Fly for bringing your unchurched, unsaved friends to the faith? The Gospel Fly is a fishing fly to be worn on your lapel that will make you a fisher of men. When your friend asks you what kind of fly that is on your lapel (which would happen to me constantly), you are instructed to reply, ‘This isn’t a fly for fish. It’s a fly for making me a fisher of men.’ Or an optional gender modification for women is to call it a ‘people fly.’ Oh, by the way, in the suggested script your nosy friend is referred to as a fish. Follow the script, hook your perspective fish, and add him to your eternal stringer. Remember to put on your WWJD waders – and good fishing!

You no doubt thought I was kidding with the ‘Jesus Saves’ air freshener. It actually did exist in a convenient three-pack, and the back packaging encouraged you to spread the word: ‘Express your feelings with this beautiful, meaningful air freshener. Use it anywhere…wherever a pleasant aroma is desired or an odour problem exists.’ I must ask: Can air freshener really be meaningful?

At a recent Christian trade show I encountered a mind-boggling array of ‘Christian’ stuff. Want the scent of salvation? We now have Christian cologne. Thought about wearing a fish cross Christian toe ring for witnessing during pedicure? You got it.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Suicidal Church

From chapter 9 of The Suicidal Church – can the Anglican church be saved? by Caroline Miley, published Pluto Press 2002. 380 pp.

When the Diocese of Melbourne launched a campaign of posters and bumper stickers with a tasteful design and low-key message to celebrate the millennium as a Christian event, most Anglicans refused to put the stickers on their cars. Reasons offered for not doing so included ‘I wouldn’t want people to throw rocks through the window’ and ’I wouldn’t be able to make rude gestures at people in the traffic.’ These are truly bizarre excuses – and excuses is what they are. In what sense can the people who gave them be regarded as Christians? Why are they at church?

There are many of these ‘crypto-Christians.’ Why they feel the necessity to keep their faith a secret is as puzzling as it is depressing. Christians are no longer persecuted, in this country at least. When they were persecuted, and where they are still, many refuse to deny their faith, even though it brought and still brings severe punishments. In Australia today, to admit to being a Christian may bring some slight disapprobation, some tasteless jokes, but that is all. It may conceivably bring some respect. Anglicans, however, are very prone to denying their faith.

It is not a question of advertising one’s holiness, like the Pharisees with their ‘broad phylacteries.’ It is merely not concealing the fact that you are a Christian and that you attend church. These things should be and can be spoken of normally in the course of conversation. Ongoing and widespread failure to do so is the reason the church and the faith seem invisible in a country where some 70% of the population of 20 million describe themselves as Christians. A great many of them are in hiding.

The question comes back ultimately to how seriously people take their religion. At baptism, and when baptismal vows are renewed, Christians promise to ‘not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified.’ It is nowhere specified exactly what this consists of, but admitting freely that you are a Christian would seem to be the bottom line. Too many Anglicans, it seems, are ashamed of Christ.

Friday, June 23, 2006

This Sunrise of Wonder

From chapter 7 of This Sunrise of Wonder – letters for the journey, by Michael Mayne, published by Fount 1995.

Of course I cannot force myself into some permanent state of wonder. How I see the world depends on a hundred different things: on the sort of person I am, my upbringing, my environment, my relationships, the mood I am in, whether the sun is shining or the rain pouring down, whether I have had a good night or a sleepless one, and how life is treating me. What I can do, though it may take a lifetime, is to train myself to see, to notice, to give due attention to what is before my eyes. I can come to understand that there is no object (and certainly no person) not worthy of wonder, and that what makes them so is that each in its or his or her essence is (a) unique; (b) unlikely (are giraffes and flamingoes likely? Is a humming bird? Or Mozart?; (c) ‘other’; and (d ) not mastered, that is to say, not capable of being fully understood, docketed and explained. Again, it is the child’s approach to the world that we lose, not because we have resolved its mystery but because we have grown accustomed to its face.

What are the kind of triggers that can open our ‘doors or perception,’ as Blake calls our eyes? Auden had no doubt that the one who best goes on to flesh out our ‘Primary’ awareness is the artist, for it is by the framing of a moment in a painting or a poem, by intensifying our awareness of he shape of things or their colour, or the effect of light on them, or their particularity, that an artist may arouse our wonder.

Just as the native religions have guarded truths about our relationship with the creation that our more cerebral faiths have neglected or forgotten, so the experience of living in a new culture can cause a shift of understanding of the nature both of what is real and what is of value. Barry Lopez tells in his book Arctic Dreams of the four years he spent travelling in the Arctic Circle. He sets on the title page words of N Scott Momaday:
‘Once in his life a person ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered
earth. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape…to look at it from
as many angles as he can, to wonder upon it…to imagine he touches it with his
hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it.’
Lopez became obsessed, haunted with the beauty of the Arctic landscape. ‘I had the same quickness of heart and very intense feelings that human beings have when they fall in love.’ The book is a kind of poetic reflection on how we see our planet and the mystery of natural world. He writes of the loss of the ‘native eye’, of the polar bears and the great whales and their ‘power to elevate human life;’ of the mystery of the migration of the snow-geese and their ability to detect electromagnetic fields or to use sound echoes or differences of air pressure as guides; of the awesome nature of the great pale blue and mint-green icebergs,’ so beautiful they made you afraid.’

He comes one evening upon a horned lark sitting on a nest. ‘She stared back at me resolute as iron.’ Beside her, golden plovers abandoned their nests, revealing eggs that glowed with a soft, pure light…
‘like the window light of a Vermeer painting. I marvelled at this intense
and concentrated beauty…I took to bowing on these evening walks, bowing slightly
towards the birds…What, I wondered, had compelled me to do so? ….I bowed before
the simple evidence of this moment in my life in a tangible place on the earth
that was beautiful.’

Monday, June 19, 2006

Renewal on the Run

From chapter 6 of Renewal on the Run – embracing the privileges and expectations of a ministry wife, by Jill Briscoe, published by New Hope 2005.

Then came the time when Stuart and I were invited for a meal with the elders and their wives. I was naïve and thought, ‘Oh how fun! An evening of food and fellowship with the elders and their wives.’ And the meal was very nice. Only at the end of it the chairman of the board said to my husband, ‘We really brought you here tonight to talk about what Jill is doing.’

In a nutshell, they wanted me to stop my women’s meetings [which had grown to several hundred strong but included women not from their church]. There were a number of other things they thought I should be doing.

My husband listened quietly through all this. As for me, I shrank smaller and smaller in my chair, wanting to die so that Stuart could have an American wife who could do all the right things.

But Stuart suddenly said, ‘You know, if you insist in telling my wife what to do, then I will insist in telling your wives what to do. Is that understood?’ Then I really wanted to die. I thought that with this remark I had probably lost all the friends I might have around the table.

Then Stuart continued, ‘Look, you hired me, not my wife. She started this in all innocence. She responded to a lady coming to the door, and we had no idea what it was going to lead to. Isn’t it incredible what’s happening? Couldn’t you women get behind her and help her? If you let her be who she is and use the gifts God gave her, she will be a huge blessing to the fellowship.’
That was a small turning point. The pressure was off me, and I was free to do what it seemed God had called me to. And some of those women became my co-workers. But, you see, my husband insisted that I exercise my gift for the good of the body, even though it didn’t fit the expected role. Some people never did understand, and I did lose some friends. You have to accept such losses; they happen in ministry. Some people will never understand the role that God has gifted you to fill in a particular situation because they don’t want to understand. In a way, your gift should determine your role. You simply have to do your best and leave the rest to him. Your best won’t always please some people, but you have to be what you were meant to be.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Prophetic Untimeliness

From chapter 5 of Prophetic Untimeliness – a challenge to the idol of relevance, by Os Guinness, published by Baker Books 2003

In our own generation the figure of the unheeded messenger was well represented by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1978 with his warning to the West in his Harvard commencement speech, ‘A World Split Apart.’ The years since he spoke have amply justified his highlighting of such problems as ‘the tilt of freedom toward evil’ but the man who was lionized for his stand against communism was not appreciated for his stand against liberalism.

But unquestionably, the twentieth century’s greatest example was Winston Churchill during his ‘wilderness years’ in the 1930s, when his insistent warnings about the mounting menace of Hitler left him out of the government and out of favour with much of public opinion. Far-sighted, alone, sombre, and indefatigable, he was appalled by what he called the ‘mush, slush and gush’ of a pacifist-dreaming Britain, a corrupt and divided France, and a remote and indifferent America. All of them were being led or lulled into oblivion before the menace of the rapidly rearming Nazis.

In 1936, when the Stanley Baldwin government called for a review of the situation, Churchill commented acidly,

‘Anyone can see what the situation is: the Government simply cannot make up
their mind, or they cannot get the Prime Minister to make up his mind. So they
go on in a strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be
irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent.’
The sleepwalking democracies with ‘leaderless confusion’ were unwittingly preparing more years ‘for the locust to eat.’ Or as Churchill muttered at London’s Savoy Hotel as he heard the sounds of merriment from those celebrating the Munich agreement, ‘These poor people! They little know what they will have to face.’
History’s unheeded messengers have varied widely in both outcome and temperament. Some lived to see their vindication; some did not. Winston Churchill – aristocratic, cigar-chomping, and ebullient – is a far cry from John the Baptist, who is traditionally seen as wild-eyed and dining on locusts and wild honey. But despite such differences, common virtues emerge: discernment of the times; courage to repudiate powerful interests and fashion; perseverance in the face of daunting odds; seasoned wisdom born of a sense of history and their nation’s place in it’ and – supremely with the Hebrew prophets – a note of authority in their message born of its transcended source.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Prayer – the cry for the kingdom

From chapter 2 of Prayer – the cry for the kingdom, by Stanley Grenz [revised edition], published by Eerdmans 2005

The central question that a helpful theological account of prayer must address [is] How do our petitions elicit God’s response? How does the cry for the kingdom occasion the in-breaking of the kingdom?
Our starting point in responding to this question must lie in a particular understanding of petition. Let me state it in this manner: petition is the laying hold of and the releasing of God’s willingness and ability to act in accordance with God’s will and purpose on behalf of creation, which God loves. This means that petition is not ‘the attempt of human importunity to overcome divine reluctance,’ to cite the words of E G Knapp-Fisher. Rather, as John Bunyan said, petition is ‘a sincere, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God has promised, or according to his word, for the good of the church, with submission in faith to the will of God.’

Several phrases in the description that I offered in the previous paragraph require further elaboration. To say that ‘petition is laying hold of’ is to declare that by means of prayer the pray-er taps into the power and willingness of God. Prayer occasions something being released from God. This ‘something’ is twofold – ‘God’s willingness’ and ‘God’s ability’. In making this claim, I am presupposing a specific understanding of God’s nature. I am assuming that God is both willing and able to act on behalf of creation. I am declaring that God is loving in disposition and sovereign or omnipotent in power. God is both predisposed toward wanting what is good for us and able to meet any situation that we might face.

Many Christians would acknowledge that in the crucible of life it is not always easy to believe that God is both loving and all-powerful. Life situations tempt us to doubt either God’s willingness (love) or God’s ability (omnipotence). Prayer then becomes the struggle to accept these two aspects of what we confess to be true about God. The goal of prayer becomes that of bringing the pray-er to the point of genuine faith. When prayer has done its work, we come to trust anew this loving, powerful God.