Sunday, April 13, 2014

Prisoners of Hope

Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.

This little section from the Palm Sunday prophecy is really striking to me.  What does it mean to be a prisoner of hope?  At one level, I suppose just that being a prisoner does not necessarily deprive one of hope.  In this instance, the prophet encourages God's people to expect a great reversal in their fortunes.  When their King comes, righteous and having salvation, they will no longer be prisoners.

At another level, I think the prophecy denotes that God's people under the Old Testament are actually kept imprisoned by hope itself.  Why don't they just disappear, assimilate, recognise that they can do very well for themselves as individuals in the new empires?  All it would take is the dropping of a few quaint stories and odd habits.  It would be undeniably easier, the best way to your best life now.  But for whatever reason, Israel cannot avoid the burden of the hope which God has given them.  Israel cannot accomodate themselves to the way the world is; they are constrained (imprisoned!) by a picture of how life and the world and humanity ought to be.  Therefore they suffer.  They do not merely hope in spite of suffering; they suffer because of hope.

Isn't this also true of Jesus, who for the joy set before him endured the cross?

Is this where our daily wrestling comes from still?  We are imprisoned by hope, Easter people living in the world that is not yet raised, Jesus people living in the world that does not yet know him.  Stuff doesn't work.  We don't work.  Life isn't as it should be.  Disappointment, and striving, ultimately springs from hope, which still imprisons us here between the ages.

One little irony: many of those imprisoned by hope finally came to prefer the jail to the reality of freedom.  Their hope had been twisted, or perhaps deferred too long, and they could not bear the gap between their imaginations and the reality.  The gap is still there for most of us, I guess.  The lesson to learn from Palm Sunday is perhaps that we should be prepared to let our hopes - the little daily hopes and the great big kingdom hopes - be revised and refreshed again and again by the King who comes in humility.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Totally everyday church

I recently got around to reading Everyday Church by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis.  It is very much the sequel to their earlier Total Church, and so I'm bracketing them both together as 'Totally Everyday Church', or TEC.  They're both great books, and my reaction to both has been pretty much the same.  So this is not a summary or a review - if you  want to know what the books say, read them; Everyday Church in particular is very readable, and would give you a good feel for TEC.  This is my reaction to this particular attempt to rebuild the church from the gospel up.

Initially, TEC is enormously attractive to me.  It is without a doubt a radical proposal: essentially, what if we went back to basics, stripped the church back to just a community believing the gospel and living in response.  What if we cut out some of the programmes, the big ideas, the meetings - and just loved one another and the world instead?  (Again, this is not what Chester and Timmis have written, it's my response to what they've written).  How exciting would that be?  I love the idea of really sharing life with one another, really being available to one another, really reaching out and having an impact on people around us by showing and sharing Christ-like relationships.  Yes please.  Let's do it.  Let's tear the thing down and re-build.

Interestingly, not much of the enthusiasm extends to the particular way that Timmis and Chester suggest we should do and be church.  I'm not a fan of the Crowded House model, in so far as I understand it.  I've never been clear where the local church actually is in this structure - is it the small group, or the Sunday gathering?  And I worry about the lack of emphasis on church officers, which seems unBiblical to me.  And I am not sur preaching is getting the central role it deserves.  And a hundred and one other things.  But it doesn't matter, because the authors are clear that they are not really selling the model.  Totally Everyday Church doesn't need to look just like this, it just needs to look like radical living oriented around gospel, community, and mission - and in principle, I'm up for it.

Then I remember a few things.  Firstly, I remember that I'm a dyed-in-the-wool conservative.  Could I really stand to lose so much of the church tradition I love?  Then secondly, and much more importantly, I start to think about what it would really be like to have an open home in the way that is being talked about.  Now, I'm very definitely an introvert.  I love people, but I need alone time. If I don't get any over a prolonged period, I stop being able to engage with others and to give of myself in lots of ways.  How am I going to carve out that time from the totalising reality that is Total Everyday Church?  And then, I often only get ten minutes a day to really talk to my wife.  What if we're just settling down to our one dinner without children in the week when the doorbell rings?  And then thirdly, I remember that sometimes I just don't have it in me to be a Christian.  Sometimes I'm hanging on by fingernails, and it's all I can do to drag myself into the back of church and leave again as soon as it's over.  I suspect on any given Sunday that there are plenty of us in that situation.  At this stage, I can feel the burden, the huge unbearable burden, of TEC descending on me - it really is TOTAL, and I can't take it.

So I start to think, maybe Totally Everyday Church is not for me.  TEC sounds like it would work for activists, extroverts, and people who have it together.  But I can't see how I would fit in.  I think I'd ruin it.

In the end, I'm left feeling sad - thinking that there is better, more radical, more gospel-shaped church life out there which I will never be part of.  And I wonder how much of that is my temperament and character, and how much of it is my sin, and I can't unpick it.

But that's just my reaction.  Anyone out there doing it, following this sort of model, and finding that it works?  Anyone not following it got any pointers for how we take on board some of the passion and gospel priority without having to be people we're not?  Anyone just think I'm being daft and melodramatic?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Times and Seasons

As I sort of semi-observe Lent, I've been holding in my mind two themes from the Apostle Paul.  On the one hand, in Galatians, Paul frets over his converts observing "days and months and seasons and years"; he sees it as evidence that they are turning back from their profession of faith in Christ and returning to old pagan ways.  I don't imagine that the Galatians are actually being tempted back into paganism.  Common consensus is that they were just being encouraged to add some Jewish distinctives to their Christian faith.  But for Paul it is all the same.  They are turning back to slavery under the weak and beggarly elements of the world.

On the other hand, in Romans, Paul sees the observance of particular days as a non-issue.  It is indifferent, in so far as it does not become a badge of some superior spirituality.  If seasons are observed in honour of the Lord, fine.  If they are not observed, because of the Lord, great.

Of course, in neither of these cases is Paul thinking of the seasons of the Christian year, which were centuries away from being thought of.  His target is primarily Jewish observance, and some of his anti-observance rhetoric comes from his clear desire to maintain the truth that there is no need for Gentile Christians to become Jews.  But the flexibility in his approach does, I think, point to something deeper.

For Paul, the important change in time and season is not in any annual round of fasts and feasts.  For him there are only two times: this age, and the age to come.  In Christ, the age to come has already invaded this age, and by the Spirit more and more people (even as they live out their lives in this age) are participating in the age to come.  The decisive change in time has already occurred, and is now being applied through Spirit-empowered gospel proclamation.

So long as that central truth about time is not obscured, Paul does not care whether his converts observe yearly festivals.  Perhaps that is a helpful way for us to think.  As human beings, we naturally mark the passage of time.  In some way, we are always going to structure the day, the week, the year.  This is a natural phenomenon.  But it can be pressed into gospel use, in so far as we relate our time - the thoroughly relative and relatively unimportant changes in the passage of time which we are compelled to mark - to the real time, the fulfilled time, the arrival of the age to come in Christ.

If I observe Lent to the Lord, as a way of remembering him, then I am blessed.  If I turn it into a way of acting as if the new day had not dawned, then I am heading back into slavery.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Kant, Christ, and Page 3

Immanuel Kant famously declared that persons are end in themselves, and ought always to be treated as such.  They are never means to an end, and as such can never be fully absorbed into 'my universe', which revolves around me.  Other people are like the solid and immovable rocks in the midst of the sea of existence.  They are like myself, and I ought to recognise them as such.  They are not there to forward any of my schemes or goals for myself; they exist for themselves.

Whether Kant ever placed any of this on a sound footing is another matter.  The general consensus, with which I would broadly agree, is that he did not.

The Christian view of persons is similar, yet different.  The Christian cannot quite agree that persons are ends in themselves.  Perhaps from the human point of view this is a true enough rule of thumb, since certainly persons are not to be treated by me as means to my own ends.  But this is not because of some sort of moral autonomy or inherent value that persons have.  Rather, it is based on the fact that each person is a means to an end, but the end is not mine to decide or shape.  People exist, not for themselves, but for God.  Each person belongs to him by right of creation.  Each person ought to live for him in the here and now by right of redemption.  Each person will acknowledge him in the end, to his glory.  On a day to day basis, the impact of these mighty truths might look like Kantianism, but if you get under the bonnet everything is arranged differently, and runs on different fuel.

Which brings me to Page 3.  It is presumably a well known fact that The Sun, a British 'newspaper', carries on its third page a titillating photograph of a topless young lady.  This is regarded in many quarters as a piece of harmless fun.  For Kantians, and even more for Christians, it can hardly be called that.  Without a doubt, page 3 takes a person and offers them up as a means to an end - or several ends, including the gratification of middle-aged men and the sale of newspapers.  It is hard to see how this can be ethical.  Therefore, I support the campaign to end page 3, and would encourage you to do the same.

Let me just explain why I think the Christian position makes this opposition even more necessary than the Kantian one.  Firstly, it provides a basis which is otherwise lacking.  This person is God's property; they are not mine to enjoy.  And in answer to the objection that 'nobody makes them do it', we say that they are not themselves to give away any more than they are mine to take.  Second, it explains why the body matters.  There may be such a thing as a disembodied person, but there is no such thing as a (living) de-personed body.  The body, created by God and redeemed by Christ at the cost of his own body, is entrusted to a person and bound up so closely with their own personal identity that the final hope of Christians is precisely to have those bodies back, so that we can be whole persons.  Thirdly, the Christian doctrine of sin helps me to understand what that bit of 'innocent fun' might really be hiding, and helps me to see through the pretence that 'nobody is hurt' by this.  To dehumanise ourselves and others is to hurt ourselves and others.

I am not a feminist of any sort - but I am a 'personist'.  I don't think anyone should be treated as a means to an end.  Because in the end, at the end, we are all for God's glory.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Not strategic

I wonder whether we should just ban the word 'strategic' in church.  It pops up all over the place.  We have strategic ministries, there are strategic people groups, there is a strategic decision waiting for us.  For me, this is all a massive turn off.  I like my business speak to be confined to business, which church isn't.

But more than that, I think it is anti-gospel.

Strategic thinking works in actions and consequences.  It follows logical connections.  If we do this, we will be able to reach many more people.  This group is well connected, so if we make some gospel inroads here we will see the gospel spread more broadly.  This guy is gifted, so investment in him is likely to have a knock-on effect on society more broadly.

Is this not viewing people and situations according to the flesh?

When you consider that the sequel to the cross was the resurrection - and that the necessary precursor to the resurrection was the cross - what room is left for this sort of thinking?  The cross does not lead logically to the resurrection; the resurrection does not flow naturally from the cross.  God is in the business of turning dead ends into glorious triumphs, and plucking victories out of apparent blind alleys.

In a world where the gospel is true, and in a sphere in which the gospel is our model for thinking and action, we have to admit that we don't know what the connections are.  God doesn't move in straight lines, and so neither can we.  We don't know what he will do.  The only thing we can say for sure is that his modus operandi seems to involve, as an integral part, throwing things away, spending effort on apparently worthless things, sacrifices which don't seem to have pay-offs.

No more strategy, please.  Just preaching, loving, living.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Not alone

Frasier is probably my favourite sitcom of all time, and Niles is probably the character who most entertains me. One of my favourite bits of dialogue comes from Niles shortly after his separation from the always-absent-yet-hilariously-present Marks. Daphne asks if he gets lonely. "Oh", he replies with an air of nonchalance, "only sometimes when I'm by myself." And then he adds, with something a bit more like despair, "And other times when I'm with other people". Deep loneliness seems to me to be an inherent part of the human condition, here to the east of Eden. To be lonely by oneself, to be unhappy with one's own company; to be lonely with others, to wonder privately whether any of them really 'get' you.

If God had not come to us, as one of us (really one of us!) and yet not one of us, how lonely we would be! None of us is able, really and truly, to affirm the existence of another. Without the Good God drawing alongside, what would we be, ultimately, but little monads, trying to act as if the other were enough for me, as if my reflection in that person were sufficient.

Emmanuel. With us, really with us.

Not alone, never alone again.

Friday, December 13, 2013

What, then, shall we do?

Yesterday I was pondering the miserable state of the church in the west, and concluding that we are also at a low point in western culture generally, and I was thinking: what would our ecclesiastical forebears have done in this situation?  How would our forefathers have responded to the lack of evangelistic fruit which we have become used to?  What would they have done about the prevalence of sin in our lives and churches?  How would they have coped with the rapid move of general culture away from Christianity?

The lectionary directed me to Psalm 60, which is one of those Psalms we do nothing with.  If the heading is to be believed, it is a Psalm of David, written at a time of relative national faithfulness in Israel. Nevertheless, the theme is abandonment by God.  Verse 10 particularly struck me:

Have you not rejected us, O God?
You do not go forth, O God, with our armies.

Faced with national defeat, the people of God do not look to new strategies.  Neither do they settle down and accept the calamity as inevitable.  They look to God.  Specifically, the Psalm addresses the problem of his absence.

The logic of the Psalm works like this:
Major premise: we are losing this war.
(Assumed) minor premise: God does not lose.
Conclusion: God is not with us.

This logic leads to renewed prayer to God for his help and salvation.  This would only make sense as an 'application' if the Psalmist knew full well that God's abandonment of his people was not total, and the rest of the Psalm shows that clearly.  God has set up a banner and a refuge for those who fear him, even in the midst of apparent abandonment of his people.  Because of this, the response to God's rejection is not despair, but a renewed seeking of his face.  Only he can save.

Might we not conclude from our own situation that God is not going forth, as it were, with our armies?  I think our forebears would have concluded that God is not with us.  They would have held solemn days of humiliation and fasting.  They would have examined themselves to see what sin was holding back God's blessing (NB. examined themselves, not the surrounding culture).  They would have earnestly prayed for God's return to them in power.

What about us?

With God we shall do valiantly.  But do we even want to?