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 na├»ve 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.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

To Own a Dragon


From chapter 5 of To Own a Dragon – reflections on growing up without a father, by Donald Miller, published by Navpress 2006

When I was younger, I didn’t trust older men. And it’s only in the last few years I’ve understood why. I know I was more or less an awkward kid growing up, a few years behind in maturity, always having some kind of show-off show going on, and I don’t think a lot of the men I knew back then had a great deal of tolerance for me. My grandfather died when I was a kid, and my dad, of course, had taken off before I was old enough to walk. Then one of my uncles left my aunt, and my other uncle had kids of his own to raise on the other side of the country, so the immediate family had no men at all. No men and no boys, just me and a lot of women.

Being a guy, of course, I felt out of place, but I didn’t feel any more comfortable standing around with a group of men, either. When hanging out with my friends and their dads, I knew I didn’t belong. There is something about having your own father standing there talking to your friends’ fathers that validates you: you’re his kid, not just some stray that wandered in off the street. So, although I never knew it at the time, I grew up with a constant feeling of insecurity, even a fear there was a consequence for being who I was, a kind of
subconscious knowing that I wasn’t okay, and someday I was going to pay for it. This feeling I didn’t fit in gave me a noticeable distrust of authority, especially of older men.

Because I didn’t have a father, I felt there was a club of men I didn’t belong to. I would have never admitted it at the time, but I wanted to belong. I desperately wanted to belong. At the father-and-son campout, I knew Matt [a family friend] wasn’t my dad, and I knew he probably didn’t want to be there. I knew he was slightly embarrassed that in a group of men who were bonding with their sons, he was walking around with a charity case. I couldn’t have put words to it back then, but I felt it. Every time I met an older man, I assumed he would not like me, and he would not want me around.

I felt as though all the men in the world secretly met in some warehouse late at night to talk about man things, to have secret handshakes, to discuss how great it was to have a penis and what an easy thing it was to operate, how to throw a football or a baseball, how to catch a fish and know what kind it was and be able to grab it and stop its flapping around, doing this without jolting their heads back or squinting their eyes.

They talked about how to look a woman in the eye and tell her she was your woman and that she looks good in that dress and make it so your eyes say you love her but you could survive without her, and how to drive a stick-shift truck without grinding the gears. And then I secretly believed at the end of the meeting they gathered around and reminded each other that under no circumstances was anybody to tell me about these things.

Absurd, I know. I say this because when you grow up believing an entire community of men have a fraternity you are not allowed into, you don’t like them, or their club, and you tend to defend your manhood by awkwardly trying to knock up cheerleaders. Or you try to become a man by getting into fights in bars. Or you just give up completely, and you silently harbour bitterness toward the idea of manhood all together. And you hate men who look anything like authority. You hate them because they first hated you.

Monday, June 12, 2006

A Church at War

From chapter 8 of A Church at War – Anglicans and homosexuality, by Stephen Bates, published by Hodder & Stoughton 2005 [updated edition]

The liberals did not respond well to these increasingly belligerent assertions [from the English Evangelicals]. The most outspoken among them was Jack Spong, the Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, a man out on a limb theologically even among his colleagues and one who was seemingly as little able as David Jenkins to know when or how to keep quiet. He produced ‘Twelve Theses’ of sufficient radicalism to cause the English Evangelicals of Reform to demand the cancellation of his invitation to Lambeth as well as that of other bishops of whom they disapproved. Spong’s document claimed, among other things, that Christ’s death to atone for the sins of the world was a barbarian idea, that the bodily resurrection never happened and that the concept of Original Sin was nonsense. It was a deliberate provocation. In the Church Times, Rowan Williams, still Bishop of Monmouth, described the document as empty and sterile: ‘I cannot in any way see [this] as representing a defensible or even an interesting Christian future.’

Spong followed up this triumph by sending a paper on homosexuality to all the African bishops, accusing Archbishop Carey of showing no moral credibility and being ill-informed on the subject, and the Southern Cone Archbishop, Sinclair, of using the Bible as a weapon of oppression. He demanded that the issue be ‘openly and authentically’ discussed at the Lambeth Conference.

As a method of persuasion, Spong’s approach had its shortcomings. Carey accused him of a hectoring and intemperate tone and, in a letter to the world’s bishops, warned of a ‘very negative and destructive conflict’ at Lambeth if the issue was pressed in such terms: ‘Do come in peace, do come to learn, do come to share – and leave behind the campaigning tactics which are inappropriate and unproductive, whoever employs them.’ Not one to quit while he was behind, Spong responded by accusing his opponents of ecclesiastical blackmail, adding to Carey: ‘By your silence in the face of these affronts’ – he meant he Kuala Lumpur and Dallas statements – ‘you reveal quite clearly where your own convictions lie. That makes it quite difficult to have confidence in your willingness to handle this debate in an even-handed way.’

Many American bishops themselves were furious with Spong, not just because many of them were hostile to his views and knew their congregations were too, but because they felt he was undermining anything that they themselves might want to say at the conference. He was successfully stirring up anti-americanism and arousing old anti-colonial resentments.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

From Nomads to Pilgrims - part two

From chapter 8 of From Nomads to Pilgrims – stories from practicing congregations, edited by Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking. This chapter by Lillian Daniel. Published by Alban Institute 2006

People are hungering for wisdom on the subject of time. Sabbath is not the only unwrapped gift we have waiting for us in the Christian tradition. The liturgical seasons are also there to remind us that God’s calendar is more nuanced and graceful than we imagine as we rush from one appointment to the next. Just the fact that the church introduces a different calendar raises the provocative question of who invents time.

During Advent I spent three weeks preaching on the subject of valuing time as an unearned gift from God. At the beginning of the season, we handed out small purple ribbons and asked people to tie them to their watches or their date books. The ribbons were to remind us that in Advent, time is revealed as an illusion so much smaller than God. In Advent, Old Testament prophets predict a future birth that we in the present know has already happened. Advent is all about unravelling time and reminding us that in its mystery, time belongs not to us but to God.

I had wondered if people would wear the ribbons. As a minister I had thought that the ribbons would be a less severe conversation starter than ashes on one’s forehead at the beginning of Lent, but I wanted conversations to start nonetheless. Looking back, I was trying for testimony again and at the same time wondering if the possibility of being asked to testify would turn people away from the practice.

What happened surprised me. Not only did people wear the ribbons, but after Advent ended, they refused to take them off. By the time John delivered the Lenten reflection, his ribbon on his watch was ragged. The prayer journal that he had started at a retreat over a year ago was a tool I had forgotten about but one that he had held on to. In Lent when I asked people to pray twice daily, I also sent them home with a bookmark that laid out morning and evening prayers. Some people needed no such guidelines, but I knew that others might need something to hold in their hands.

Through John’s testimony I was reminded that for some people concrete objects play an important role in Christian practice. John, a math teacher and an athlete, cares about the physical world so passionately that he spends his free time recycling paper, cardboard, cans, and bottles in all the communities he is part of. Things matter. As ministers we may forget about people like John. We may forget to link ideas to things that people can touch and hold and see.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

From Nomads to Pilgrims

From chapter 6 of From Nomads to Pilgrims – stories from practicing congregations, edited by Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking. This chapter by Eric Elnes. Published by Alban Institute 2006

One day I was driving home from church listening to music on my car’s CD player. As I continued to puzzle over our lack of youth involvement, a ‘plum fell from heaven,’ as the Buddhists say. The ‘plum’ took the form of an inner observation: ‘Eric, this happens every week. You pull into church, turning off the rock or jazz on your CD player, then go inside and offer what you have to offer. Afterward, you pull away from church, turning back on your rock or jazz, and that’s where it stays all week long.’

‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘that’s pretty accurate.’

Another ‘plum’ fell, taking the form of a question: ‘Does the music you listen to all week long move you spiritually?’

‘Yes, definitely,’ I responded. ‘If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be listening to it all week.’

A final ‘plum’ fell, which I experienced more like a hand grenade: ‘If you’re listening to this music all week long, and if it’s moving you spiritually like you say, then why is there a firewall around worship? Why aren’t you bringing it into the sanctuary, especially when your congregation isn’t listening to ‘church music’ during the week either?’

I had no idea why music or, for that matter, any number of other elements from everyday life were held at bay at the doors of the sanctuary. Frankly, I never seriously considered it a problem before. I am a child of traditional, mainline Protestantism. So-called traditional worship makes sense to me. I relate to the hymns, the liturgy, the sermon. Yet as much as I love these things, I must admit that neither I nor the majority of my congregation listens to ‘traditional’ worship music during the rest of the week, nor do we have much interest in reciting responsive readings or listening to more sermons outside Sunday mornings.

I thought about all the complaining we ministers and academics do about how good church folks in the mainline church don’t seem to bring Sunday morning into the rest of the week. Could it be that the problem is not the failure of our laity to bring Sunday morning forward to Monday afternoon, but the failure of church leaders to bring Monday into Sunday?