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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Collaboration

I was reading blogs recently by Joe - http://theojoe.blogspot.com/ - and I was struck by the potential for collaborative thinking through blogging. I am a strong believer in leveraging other people's knowledge and insights in order to develop and enhance our own thinking.

Joe has been exploring "Creature-Divine Relationality." It is a great series of blogs and highly recommended. I am returning to a paper that I began writing regarding "Christian Community" with a strong focus on John 13:35 - " This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

As I begin to work through this I intend to post sections and ideas on the blog and seek to make the most of the creative theological thinking that is out there. This medium presents a great opportunity to explore theology for the 21st century. Too often, Christian blogs appear to present as the final authoritative word whereas I would like to think that I leave room for questions and dialogue.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Hazy Shade of Grey

The last couple of days the temperatures have been in the mid-to-high 30s. There have reportedly been over 60 bushfires raging across New South Wales (NSW). The weather was in the 30s today and normally that would mean blue skies and bright sunshine but today there was a grey haze that seemed to increase as the day went on.

By 4pm today there was only a sliver of blue sky as the haze from bushfires over 100km away was taking over the landscape. My kids were playing in the pool after school but at 4.30pm we took them out because, as well as the grey haze and the increasingly strong smell of fire there was also the prospect of a storm. Then, in what is a first for me in my 8 years in Australia, the daylight outside turned to a dull yellow colour and soon it was like dusk. The storm didn't eventuate except for a few flashes of lightning and a couple of peals of thunder.

Later as I sat with my 2 oldest sons watching TV we noticed the room get brighter as the haze began to be slowly blown away. Then we saw a beautiful red sun framed brilliantly against the grey skyline. All in all it was a strange and beautiful day in many respects. When my wife went out after 6pm after the threat of a storm had passed she decided to clean the pool. In the pool she found ash. What a day. We are very fortunate to live near the lake and a long way from fire danger and I am only too aware of those people whose homes are threatened and the many, many firefighters who, even now, are fighting the fires and risking their lives in the process.

Without wanting to trivialise what is a very difficult day for many people in NSW by reducing the day to a pithy anecdote the scene this evening did cause me to ponder about the changing nature of life and how light and darkness co-exist and pass around us intermingled at times. Those who have followed my blog will be aware of my struggle to come to terms with and live with and through mental illness. This evening, when I saw the bright red sun illuminated in its stark contrast to the thick grey haze, I realised that in the midst of the "greyness" that life so often brings the sun can still stand out as a beacon of hope.

Today I became very aware of the haze. As it thickened it took my attention until I found myself surprised at driving around a bend in the road and spying a swathe of blue sky. It is easy for us to become so aware of the shades of grey that we forget that there is a blue sky of promise. The blue sky promises light and warmth. It is interesting how the sight of that blue sky lifted my spirits today. As the haze gradually cleared one could sense a palpable sense of relief as if we had been blanketed in a depressive weather trough.

Depression is a reality for many people; it is a reality for many Christians. Denying it or confessing joy does not banish the grey haze that can envelop the sky above us. In the midst of depression God remains with us. Our heavenly father does not retreat when circumstances change and often he will offer us a glimpse of blue sky as an indicator of hope to come. Christian hope is not wishing; it can be a sense of longing for an otherness that will transform our current reality but it can never be divorced from that reality.

Sometimes a red sun will appear. There is no break in the cloud and the smell of burning fire is thick in the air with its concomitant emotions of fear and uncertainty. The red sun can be a sign of victory; despite the best efforts of the fire the sun cannot be vanquished. Even more so, the sun will take the grey cloud as a backdrop with which to reflect its splendour in even brighter array than normal. Yes, there is hope, but it comes in subtle ways and often arises from out of darkness.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Still here...

It has been a while since I have posted. I am attempting to be as honest as I can in reflecting on my own life's journey. I am currently preaching a 4 week series for a local church. I have already covered Jospeh in prison and Moses as he wrestles with God's call. Over the next 2 weeks I will speak on David's adultery and subsequent repentance and then finish with Elijah's flight into the desert and his slide into depression before meeting God on the mountain.

What links all of these messages is that God meets with us in our humanity with all of its potential and all of its weakness. This past 2 days I have been off work with a virus but this has coincided with a low point in my increasingly cyclic world. I have felt very depressed for the past 3 days and yesterday was assailed by all kinds of self doubt and fears. It is very difficult to plan for the future when you don't feel that you can actually do anything.

I know that I am very intelligent and gifted because people tell me but I have to muster the strength for a fight against the depression which comes over me from time to time. I take my medication faithfully and I pray often and I know God's presence in my life. A friend of mine wants to pray for me for healing of the bipolar. On the one hand I am keen to give it a go but then again I am not sure if it is something that will be healed. Do I lack faith? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Today I am starting to feel myself emerging from my present dark place. Personally, I find that talking about my journey helps me and also encourages others who struggle with mental illness. I do get afraid sometimes for where my life is headed but I am also blessed with some incredible friends and a fantastic wife and 3 inspirational boys. I know that if it wasn't for my wife and children I would be in a far less happy place.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Reflections

Today I started a second job. I am a General Support Worker at a nursing home. In simple terms I am going to be doing laundry and cleaning duties.

I started this blog as a way to try and work my way through my thoughts on a journey with depression and bi-polar. I also wanted to try and explore a theology of hope as well as bouncing around some thoughts and reflections on theology and philosophy, two of my interests.

Lately I haven't felt like writing anything. I lost motivation. I couldn't see the point and didn't know who was reading this anyhow. Today I have had cause to reflect on where I am and how I got here and what it means for me as a man and a Christian.

The day started with orientation. There were 6 nurses, 1 new admin person and 2 support workers. The previous 2 weeks had been interesting for me because the person who has overall management oversight of this nursing home and one other had phoned me firstly to offer me the position. During the conversation that ensued he asked if I had considered chaplaincy because, in the process of speaking to my referees he had picked up my giftedness for chaplaincy work. This was a very encouraging thing to hear as I have felt a bit low at times in my new employment circumstances of gardening and cleaning. There are not currently any chaplaincy opportunties but I am hopeful that this is a positive move towards caring ministry.

Today after enduring a dry and dull orientation morning and having been made to feel "stupid" by the admin manager I was asked to work in the laundry and "learn" one aspect of my new role. I spent the time from 11am to 2pm folding the night clothes and underwear of old people and putting them into the appropriate drawers. The lady who I worked with today told me that she has been in this role for 18 years. She was a very kind and helpful person.

As I stood there folding clothes I experienced a sense of feeling demeaned and low. I may have been embarassed. I am friend's with the chaplain at the nursing home and he was surprised to see me in this role but also asked if I had considered chaplaincy as a future option. God seems to be moving me in that direction but when and how is the question?

But back to the laundry. As I stood there bored and somewhat depressed I considered my position. In 2003 I completed a degree in ministry at the Baptist Theological College of NSW. I completed it with ease and was ordained in 2004. I worked as an associate pastor from 2003-early 2005 before chronic depression forced me to move out of this role. 2005 was an awful year as I tried to work through depression, overcome sexual addictions and attempt to hold my family together as I seemed to head further into depression.

Early 2006 saw myself and my family move to Newcastle, my wife's home town, to be near her family, as much for her support and health as anything else. Then my psychiatrist diagnosed me with Bi-Polar II after much discussion. I went onto a second medication which has allowed me to rediscover myself, my potential and my hope.

I am not sure how intelligent I am and I know that it is a theme that is bugging me and for which I need some answers. I was physically and sexually abused at various times throughout my childhood as well as ongoing emotional and verbal abuse. My self-esteem has worked its way through varying depths.

But...here I am with a wonderful wife, 3 fantastic children and a positive faith and love for God. I thought I was going to be a "successful" pastor and it seems that that dream/idea may have been removed from me. I thought that a graduate degree was going to be incredibly tough and I had no self-belief but I sailed through it and am now considering my options for post-graduate study next year and dreaming of a thesis should I be given the opportunity to continue my journey into doctoral studies...so I have a lot to be thankful for.

But back, again, to the laundry. I do not mean to be judgmental but I will speak honestly as a blog permits me. As I sat through the orientation and mentally corrected spelling and grammar in the notes and listened to run-of-the-mill talks from people who knew there self-importance I felt like standing up and shouting "Do you know who I am? Do you know my mind?"

Was this okay? Am I right to be frustated and if not right can I properly hold this frustration? As I folded and spoke to Debbie I realised that she was content and also that she had a life story and was loved by God. I realised that God has given me an opportunity to be made low; to wear the clothes of the "working class" and so to be perceived by the "management" and by "passers by" in the case of my gardening attire. I have an opportunity to love those I work with with the love of Christ. I do not know how long I will be in these roles and I am not a hero and want the time to be as short as possible but tonight I lay in the bath and sincerely thanked God for this new job.

I am tired; very tired but I know that my redeemer lives. If you read this can you email me or post a comment. I want to admit that I need to be encouraged at this time that people are reading this and any advice or thoughts will be warmly received. Bless you all.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

5 Years

On September 11th 2001 I was into my 2nd year of theological study and we had a New Testament Exegesis Class that day. The event occurred over night and I found out that day that one of my neighbours on campus had rung round as many people as he could to tell them to put their TVs on for a news flash. We had a 2 year old and a 6-month old so we were fast asleep.

My alarm went off on September 12th. It was a radio alarm and it went onto ABC News Radio. I was waking up and my mind was in a fog as I heard about planes flying into a building. I was convinced that I had misheard but as I "tuned in" it was clear that I hadn't misheard and planes had flown into the World Trade Centre in New York; and so the defining moment of my generation began to dawn upon me.

The lecturer pushed on with the New Testament class but there was a very low key response from the class and some of us were concerned that we were even studying when we felt that praying for those affected was most appropriate. I am English by origin and now living in Australia and have never had a strong affinity for the United States of America but that day I came to realise that something monumental had occurred that was heartbreaking beyond my conceptions of that term.

I have not been in full agreement with all of the 9/11 political responses and certainly have concerns about the validity of the "War on Terror" and the injustice that is Guantanamo Bay but on the morning of September 12th I became aware that the world in which I lived and in which my children would grow up would always be defined by September 11th 2001.

At this time I choose to put aside my many disagreements with the Republican government of George W. Bush and offer my sincerest sympathy and prayers to the people of America who mourn on the anniversary of 9/11. I would also suggest that we pray for those innocent people who have suffered and lost loved ones in Afghanistan and Iraq particularly.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Lord of the Rings

Today I completed "The Lord of The Rings". Reading epic novels is quite an undertaking and one that I am growing to relish. I have also found that such endeavours fall into several categories. For example, one can read a great novel and then study it deeply and join email lists and seek to become well-versed and almost elite in one's understanding. There are those who read novels, such as "The Lord of The Rings" and use it as a form of snobbery to outclass those who have only seen the movie. There are those who read novels and quote lines from those novels to amke their conversation appear more erudite. With a novel such as Tolkien's there is a Christian sub-culture that seeks to wring every bit of Christian-ese out of the book.

I hope I don't fall easily into any of those groups although I am not averse to learning more about a novel. My chief desire in reading any novel is for the sheer joy of entering another world and allowing myself to be taken to new and exciting places in my imagination. As technology advances onwards , seemingly unstoppable, I lament the death of imagination and dreaming that seems afoot in the world.

"The Lord of The Rings" has, I am unashamed to admit, been a deeply moving and challenging journey for me. I have always been a big fan of "The Hobbit" and so starting the book was easy and proved to be full of great delights. As the quest began I was easily drawn into the excitement and the trepidation and found myself consumed for pages upon pages each night before sleep. As the companions moved on I found I needed a break now and then as if my reading was a tiring as the physical journey contained within the pages of the book.

It was when Frodo got captured by the orcs that I had to take a large break from reading. I had become so engrossed in their world that it was a shock and a drain upon my emotions to see Sam lying helpless outside the closed door seemingly in defeat. Am I ashamed or embarassed for my emotions? Surely not! As I came back to the book I fought my way forward with each blow that was struck against Sauron's minions until the last 3 or 4 days as it all drew to a close.

Today the battle was over and all was well in the world but there was still one final moment to tear at my heart strings as Frodo, Bilbo and Gandalf set sail with the elves to leave Sam, Merry and Pippin to return home to a new age in the shire. I share this because I feel a need to and because I want to remind people that there is beauty with books. I might be considered a literary snob by some because I am fussy about what I read but my opportunities for reading novels are limited and I do not wish to waste the opportunity to take a journey into my deepest imaginings.

I have only seen the first film and am interested in watching all of them but am in no hurry. The memories of this book will linger long. I am not sure if I will ever use any excerpts for sermon illustrations. Somehow I want to keep my special relationship with the novel. A part of me has found a home in middle-earth and I would like to keep that treasure in my heart.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Singing Out of Tune

" What would you do if I sang out of tune,
Would you stand up and walk out on me.
Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song,
And I’ll try not to sing out of key."

Most people are familiar, whether via The Beatles or Joe Cocker, with these opening lyrics to the song "With a little help from my friends" but this week they came to my mind when I went to check up someone who I felt needed some love and support.

Living with mental illness can be very much a case of "singing out of tune" to those who try and listen in to the conversation. I am speaking particularly of schizophrenia but it also affects many other mental illnesses. I am building a good friendship with a man who has schizophrenia and feels very misunderstood and has a history of rejection. Of course, the stories behind the rejections will be complicated but the hurt is still very real for this man.

He has expressed to be me on a few occasions that he is "mad". To follow the analogy from the song he feels that he sings "out of tune" and that this is the only way that he can sing. For many people in society there is a correct way to sing and if people broadly fit into this "style" then they are "in" otherwise they are "out". Regardless of what Britain, the USA or Australia say in regards to being egalitarian there is a stigma and a fear attached to mental illness that means that many people only hear that the song is sung out of tune; they fail to hear the hurt and the need and the beauty that lies in the words.

"What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you turn around and walk out on me?" This friend has joked with me that people think that schizophrenics walk around with an axe in their back pocket ready to strike when the truth is that the vast majority of deeply troubled schizophrenics are more likely to harm themselves. This friend has been prepared for me to walk out on him when he gets upset or anxious or angry at his life. He will probably carry a fear of rejection for a long time and part of the cost of befriending him is to make a covenant with myself to be honest and supportive of him. This relationship does not cost me much in the way of time. Contrary to another "myth" this man is not dependent upon me he simply appreciates a friend.

"Lend me your ears and I'll sing you a song and I'll try not to sing out of key". Even if someone sings out of key we still need to take time to listen closely to what they are saying. Last night this friend expressed to me his hurt over a simple misunderstanding that occurred this week. He spiralled into depression and admitted that he felt that God hated him and had abandoned him. To be sure, when I first arrived he was singing somewhat "out of tune" but I took time to listen in.

After listening to his "song" as it moved around between keys I began to offer some thoughts that would bring some gentle truth to his situation. By the end of the evening as he smoked a cigarrette outside I offered to pray with him. Today I checked in again and he said that he had slept well and that he believed that that God had sent me in a time of need.

I am no hero and I certainly do not want this blog to be anymore than a signpost on the journey for other pilgrims. This man is a Christian and so I had an opening to pray but only when I had listened and loved and shared from my own heart. Sometimes the "music" that comes across from those with mental illness can be "harsh" and "crude" and "out of key" but if we are to be friends then we need to consider if we are willing to listen past the noise to the emotions that are being conveyed beneath. Jesus seemed able to listen where others only heard noise. Perhaps it is time for many of us to be adjust our tuning dials for those who need to be heard.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Challenge and Care

I am nearly finished a fascinating book "Pastoral Counseling with Adolescents and Young Adults" by Charles M. Shelton (1995, Crossroad Publishing). I picked it up in a used book sale and stored it away for future reference. Planning, as I am, to commence a Masters in Counseling in Feb 2007 I decided to pick it up and give it a read. Not expecting much I have found it to be a good read by someone who is clearly passionate about both care and Christian transformation of individuals.

Shelton is an American Jesuit and despite both cultural and theological differences I found the text very engaging. For anyone considering any type of care ministry I would thoroughly recommend it but especially so for those ministering to youth and young adults (hence the title).

Two of the key axioms that Shelton embraces in his ministry approach are "compassionate care" and "loving challenge". The compassionate care "fosters the trust and openness that allows loving challenge to be accepted and bear fruit" (p176). At a fundamental level this approach seeks to build a bridge between the liberal and conservative theological traditions. Although this is a generalisation there is a definite body of Christian teaching that emphasises care but without the courage to challenge. Likewise there is theological teaching that is prepared to challenge but not always in a loving manner and certainly not with the long-term approach that compassionate care entails.

Shelton writes for those in pastoral ministry and so he encompasses, in parts of the book, the need for the congregation to be a part of the caring ministry. I found this aspect of the book encouraging because, since working with psychiatrically ill men, I have begun to question the Church's approach to many marginalised people. It is easy to come up with a "position" on issues such as schizophrenia, homosexuality or drug addiction to name a few but it is far more difficult to formulate a response when people who are marginalised come amongst a Christian community or interact at the fringes in a manner that precludes the Church hiding its head in the sand.

The "loving challenge" of Shelton's work does not presume to completely change people. It holds open the possibility that for a number of reasons people may not completely move to a Church's position on a particular issue but the compassionate care allows for individuals to be loved as they are in line with God's grace and mercy. Loving challenge is not just an attempt to present another viewpoint though. It is an approach that over time and with patient questions at appropriate times can help someone consider there lifestyle or condition more widely and therefore develop a direction that is more oriented towards Christ than themselves.

In saying this I understand that mental illnesses can be long-term and need ongoing medication but the individual responses to these conditions can be challenged in a loving, nurturing environment. In a similar manner, there are those who would consider their gay lifestyle to be a lifelong position but a church can still show care and can engage in loving challenge to move the person into a Christ-centred focus.

I offer these points as steps in my own journey and provocations towards an integrated Christian ethic of care and responsibility.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Much Afraid

"All of these things
held up in vain
No reason or rhyme
Just the scars that remain
Of all of these things
I'm so much afraid
Scared out of my mind
By the demons I've made
Sweet Jesus, you never ever let me go
Oh, Sweet Jesus, you never ever let me go."

Jars of Clay - "Much Afraid" (1997).

Why are we afraid of being afraid? Why are we scared of fear? Why do we need fix everything, to have everything neatly ordered and resolved? Where does this thinking originate from? Not the Bible, surely?

The Bible speaks of time when all will be resolved but it is not now.

Rev 21:4-5 - "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a beautiful bride prepared for her husband.
I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, "Look, the home of God is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will remove all of their sorrows, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. For the old world and its evils are gone forever." And the one sitting on the throne said, "Look, I am making all things new!" And then he said to me, "Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true."

I must make a confession; I will get to making some more advanced comments on this passage soon but right now I am tired - very tired. I have just been wrestling with my two older boys after a day at work and then I read to them both and put them to bed (I know, pull out the violins). For now I want to leave some thoughts that life in the here and now is fragile and delicate. We live, to varying degrees, with the awareness of our finite humanity but we can also live with the possibilities that emerge from our God-given spiritual new life.

There is no doubt in my mind that there will be a time when there is no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. I believe in this, I endeavour to introduce others to the one who can lead us into this eternal future and I stand firmly upon the promise of this future contained in the word of God but...

I also want to affirm those who are confused by the sudden encroachment of death into our world; the way it can snatch away loved ones at the "wrong" time. I want to learn to stand with those who sorrow and cry and I want to sit with those who really feel pain. I can theologise but pain is real. Pain hurts. Pain confuses and numbs our thinking. The time for these things to pass is one step closer every day.

I also believe that Jesus is "making all things new" and I am not sure what this really entails except that I trust him to engage in the process of making all things new in a way that is fully in line with his Father's will.

I am not making excuses. I am not turning away from prayerful trust or from faith but I am seeking to listen more and talk less to those who hurt.



Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Coming into the Light

"Understanding is something one does best when one is on the borderline."
-Peter H√łeg (1994), Borderliners, p. 37

I came across the following quote this week and it spoke to me as I contemplated coming out of my dark period of reflection. There is something vaguely comforting in the knowledge that one has made it through a dark period and that God is still with us but in a fresh and interesting new way and also one's understanding can grow through the process of struggle.

I say that one's understanding can grow because being "on the borderline" in some manner does not guarantee understanding; it merely provides a catalyst for new insight and understanding into one's mind, will and emotions. I work with men who have reasonably serious psychiatric illnesses. Many of these men do not develop understanding. Instead they become oppressed by the weight of their struggle and become despondent and overwhelmed. A few of the men continue to amaze and inspire me as they see nuggets of gold in a river of despair.

It has been a couple of weeks since I posted. In that intervening time I have reflected upon my role future in "ministry" and have attempted to wait upon God in an attitude of thankfulness and listening. God is the most loving person that I know. I do not offer this as an exegetical analysis but from the depths of the heart of one who has been, and is being, held fast by that love.

I received 3 comments to my previous post all of which I want to acknowledge because they inspired, encouraged and lifted me. One of my foundational tenets is that the Bible is clear that ""By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."(John 13:35). These expressions of love as well as those of my close friends in Australia shows me the importance of this verse. We are not measured by the words that we speak but by the love that we demonstrate.

Patrik referred me to a blog on his site that I thoroughly recommend. I particularly appreciated the following comment

"...God has created us free, and this means that it essentially up to us to decide what we fill our “I” with. This is the great paradox: We are created by God as we are, and we decide ourselves what this is. In a way we create ourselves, but God is present in that creation."

What challenges and what responsibilities lie within this concept. Rather than being paralysing I found that quote to be energising in the sense that it opened up possibilities inherent in a vital partnership with God. I would like to expand on the fact that God needs to be not just present with us but needs to be involved in a relationship with us.

Later in the same blog Patrik writes "
a person who is secure in his or her own identity cannot be manipulated easily." Once again this was an encouragement to me to continue my journey towards greater inner integrity and security.

Renee responded and everything that she wrote touched me deeply but I want to draw attention to her closing words "
Keep searching the possibilities, and don't be afraid to post about this again." In line with my comments re Patrik's blog I would like to help others to "keep searching the possibilities". Surely this is what the church as a network of loving outreach should be encouraging for those who have not felt the embrace of God's love. God makes the impossible possible and it is a part of our missionary calling to point people towards those possibilities.

Chris responded via a comment to the blog as well as a beautiful email that I have kept for the purpose of re-reading when I need a signpost for the journey. Chris made use of Pannenburg's idea that "the infinite Triune God enters into our finitude and transforms us." Wow! That phrase in itself is worth a post or three but it is staggering that God is his majesty and power enters into, and engages with us in, our struggles and leads us into transformation.

Thankyou to all of you for sharing your thoughts and concern for me. Thankyou for those silent voices who have been, and are, praying for me. Thankyou to my friends here in Australia. Am I "better"? Well, I am not sure what "better" is these days but I do not that my load has been shared and that I have been opened up to even more of God's love and grace so in that sense, yes, I am much better.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Will of God

I haven't posted in a while. This is partly due to a virus which laid me off work for a week and has laid low my wife the past weekend but it is also because I have perceived, felt, sensed, imagined (?) quietness from God in terms of the direction of my life. I was going to try and write something erudite and considered as a post in reaction to this time but I am really not in a place to do so. This post is mostly for me to get my thoughts onto a firmer medium than my mind.

I was ordained as a Baptist Pastor. I am still not sure why this is such a big deal for me but, as much as I don't want it to, I believe that it still defines my identity. I'm not even sure what I'm writing but I need to start somewhere with some honesty and why not make my thoughts available to whomsoever?

A key part of my journey was a descent into chronic depression whilst working for a church post-college. I eventually left the church feeling that I was unable to continue in paid ministry. Since then I have struggled to come to terms with my mental illness and also to figure out where I am supposed to be going in my life. Earlier this year I was diagnosed with mild bi-polar disorder. I feel detached from my colleagues in ministry and I feel unemployable right now.

I know that this all sounds morbid but I am in a "down" cycle and struggling to face the immediate future. Money is tight as I am working 3 days a week in a low paid job and I am investigating post-graduate study options. I was seriously looking into a Masters of Theology until my wife asked me where it would lead and I couldn't say so I am looking into the original option of a Masters in Counseling. Then I ask if this is where I am meant to be or is it a "second best" option?

You see, I left Bible College believing that pastoral ministry was where I was headed. I had no idea that mental illness was going to blindside me derail my plans. Despite the circular, garbled nature of this blog perhaps this is my point, namely, were they only my plans and what are God's plans and where is God in the middle of my medicated, confused life and what of my "call" to ministry?

To be sure, I know that I am gifted at counseling and I certainly have insight into abuse, trauma and emotional struggle. For now, I will try and seek God. He seems to be awfully quiet but perhaps I don't want to hear what He is saying? I will go to work, look after my fantastic family and see what tomorrow brings. Don't let anyone tell you that there's a formula for knowing the will of God.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Preaching as power

I am reading "Reframing Paul", an excellent book by Mark Strom which explores the philosophical and theological foundation of Paul's worldview and unpacks it with a view to helping build a model for grace and community today that attempts to stay faithful to the position from which Paul wrote his letters.

On page 113 Strom discusses the arrogance of the Corinthians to presume that they could adopt "a common therapeutic model of reason to improve the weak by correcting each faulty belief." This is what I have termed "teaching people into the kingdom". It is a ideology that says reason is supreme and it is the only way to convey truth. We forget that we have the word of God in Scripture but this is inspired by the Spirit of God who is still active in people's lives today.

At seminaries across the world people are trained for ministry by demonstrating how intellectually capable they are. Those that are the most intelligent receive awards and honor while those who struggle are left to struggle or simply fall off the radar. This is because our standards of what constitutes a "pastor", for want of a better word, are based upon this "mind is king" idea.

Strom goes on to say "Paul had no such agenda. He promoted love rather than precision and conformity." Am I dismissing intellectual rigour? Most surely not but I am seeking to undermine a system that leaves people stranded on the doorsteps of our churches if they are not at least educated to a decent high-school and often degree standard. This is wrong. The gospel is life and power to those who believe.

In the book Strom seeks to draw out modern evangelical comparisons and he speaks of "an obsession among some clergy and congregations with driving out every vestige of thought deemed less than evangelical." Often, a good deal of what goes under the name of exegesis and teaching are evangelical witch hunts. We have no need to look for an enemy when "the devil prowls like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour". The Church is called to be a beacon of hope to all people. The result of those who seek to live on the theological high ground is that "they preach to cast out error, while never facing the pain of those who hear." Isn't this somewhat reminiscent of the pharisees?

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Nature of Christian Hope

Whilst reading an article from Orion Magazine I began to consider the extent of the Christian hope. The article is written by an ardent enviromentalist who laments the fact that hope has been hijacked and has come to mean, in some instances, that it becomes a deferred ideal that will never happen but has the effect of ending affirmative action; in this case towards the preservation of the environment.

Jensen suggests that "hope is really nothing more than a secular way of keeping us in line" and "hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless." As I read through this I began to wonder what such a person makes of the Christian hope as it is communicated through the Church. Does Christian hope keep people "in line"? Does it take away the passionate affirmative action that characterised Jesus? As I see it in many evangelical churches the hope is mostly focussed on a future in heaven and Christians simply get on with there lives the best they can.

Is the Christian hope a "longing for a future condition over which (we) have no agency"? Perhaps the Church needs to redefine or re-explain the concept of the "Kingdom of God" and the meaning of discipleship. The article doesn't interact with Christianity except in a couple of passing references to a "God" figure but perhaps that is because the Church, generally, has nothing to communicate to someone who cares passionately about this planet; about this planet which Christians believed that God created!

Jensen moves on to suggest that the antidote to false hopes and hope that results in practical inertia is to "give up on hope". He goes on to say that when hope dies "the you who died with the hope was not you" but the you who depended upon the exploitation inherent in the false conception of hope. "When you give up on hope you turn away from fear".

I was extremely challenged by this article. I was challenged to consider how much I care about the systematic destruction of this planet. I was challenged to consider how much the Church of God cares for this planet. I was challenged to consider the hope that I have. 1 Peter 3:15b says "And if you are asked about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it" (NLT). What is it? Do I simply respond that Jesus lived a sinless life, died for me and rose again from the dead? Is this it? Is this life merely the waiting room for entrance to heaven for those who hold an invitation? Or is the Christian hope also contained in the words that Jesus taught his disciples to pray should they ever need a template?

Matt 6:10
"May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done here on earth"

What is God's will? Perhaps if the Church came out of its hallowed doorways for a while and observed the world outside it would see that Jesus is in fact at work in many places. Some of those places don't look like traditional churches, house churches or e-churches. They just look like people who are trying to figure out their lives and they need some realistic hope. This planet also could do with some help from those who claim to honour the creator.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Tragedies

A few weeks ago I attended the funeral of a good friend who died in her early 30s and have since had chance to spent some time with the husband and young son who were left behind to restructure their lives. Today I received a phone call from a close friend to tell me that the baby his wife is carrying is thought to be dead. We talked briefly and (he is studying at Bible College) he bought up the issue of God's place and purposes in this matter. I had no answers.

I found this quote by Alfred North Whitehead:
"The deepest definition of youth is life as yet untouched by tragedy"

As we watch our youth vanish in the distance I want to know how to walk with others through the barren places of life with no words and no answers simply a sharing of pain.


Friday, July 14, 2006

Hope in practice

A man that I know reasonably well is having some problems getting custody of his 11 year old son. The situation is very sad and the authorities are seeking to intervene for the boy's safety albeit slowly. As I was talking to this man recently he commented that some people are concerned that he might commit suicide and he went on to say "there are some things worse than dying".

As a Christian who is trying to articulate a theology that "works" in practice this comment struck me forcibly. If there are some things "worse than dying" and people are being driven to contemplate suicide as a "solution" to despair then where and how does the gospel of Jesus Christ intervene into this situation?

I am certainly not claiming to have the answers but the thoughts led me to consider if there were any pointers on the journey from the experience of Liberation Theology. I was led to the following quote by Christopher Rowland from Radical Christianity: A Reading of Recovery:

"
...theology emerges from experience, the reflection on and action to change that reality of oppression and injustice which is the daily lot of millions. Thus it is not content to accept certain 'truths' from those 'experts' at the top of the pyramid of church and state..."

"the struggle of the disciples of Jesus Christ is to be centered on a goal which is not beyond this world, however difficult and far-removed from present realities that goal may appear. Boff clearly regards the utopian horizon as a constant source for a critique of the present order and a hand beckoning forward to transformation."

I firmly believe that one of the reasons that this type of theological response has not been taken up more readily in the West is that it is costly. What else are we called to as disciples of Jesus if not lives of sacrifice for our neighbour?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Hope

In article discussing Karl Barth's "Theology of Hope" there is a reference to George Steiner who argued that 'when there is no hope all that one is left with is the desire for non-existence or early extinction'.

Hope provides a goal or orientation which can make existence worthwhile and fulfilling. A crucial element in constructing a valid Christian theology of hope is to explore the potential and implications of the Kingdom of God.

Much contemporary pessimism results from previous unfulfilled promises from politics, literature, the media and even the Church. How does the Church communicate a message that provides realistic hope. Barth emphasised that "Jesus Christ is hope". This suggests that eschatology cannot simply be the study and proclamation of the end times but must be the message of the eschatos, he who is the end, Jesus Christ.

I would suggest that a static historical proclamation of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, as true as it is, does not tell the whole story if we cannot begin to comprehend the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit because all those who choose to give their lives to Jesus become a part of the Kingdom of God here and now. Eternal life is not a future goal to tide people through rainy days. We enter into eternal life once we join ourselves to Jesus.

Christian witness that cannot encompass a hope that is inbreaking here and now and which provides an ultimate hope that is real is unacceptable for many people today and rightly so. The days when people would blindly accept their lot in life whilst hoping for a better chance in heaven are largely gone. Christians need to explain clearly and articulately the hope that we have. If we do not live with a clear sense of hope grounded in Jesus Christ then no wonder that many Christians have little to say to their neighbour in terms of being a credible witness to the faith.

Church meetings, home groups, worship, personal study needs to become a "significant practice of hope". For all of the faults of the Israelites they nonetheless struggled to maintain a focus of hope through the prophetic voice. Lord, raise up prophets today who will reignite the message of hope that is transformative and empowering for all people.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

What's the point of Sundays?

I am in the midst of reflecting and writing on a few issues when I got to thinking further on an issue that has been bugging me for a while. What is the purpose of church especially as it is demonstrated at the Sunday "service".

Firstly, without getting bogged down in textual arguments the word translated "church" in the New Testament can more correctly be translated as "gathering" or "assembly". The word, as it is actually constituted in Greek, refers to being "called out" so it's secular usage referred to the governmental assembly of Athens who were "called out" from the people in order to organise governmental responsibilities.

The word came to be used of the early Christians who felt "called out" from amongst other people due to their commitment to the message and cause of Jesus Christ. The Encyclopedia Britanica refers to ecclesia as the “gathering of those summoned”. This has fascinating insights for the development of the early Christian gatherings. They were gatherings of those summoned by Jesus to meet in His name and be a part of inaugurating the Kingdom of God.

What has happened? How much can we say, with all honesty and integrity, that the "church" is anywhere close to this? Perhaps Christians in isolation can say that they live with this sense of being called out and serving God but the churches I see around me seem far from this ideal.

In fact, what I see the church being is a place where individuals can, hopefully, receive a positive, affirming, uplifting experience. Many people will have heard comments such as " liked the worship this morning", "it touched me today" or "the message really spoke to me". These are the positive comments! Things get ugly for the pastor if these experiential needs are not sufficiently met at that one, particular meeting.

There are many concerns arising from these brief statements but a couple will suffice at this time. The first is that an enormous amount of pressure is put upon all involved in the Sunday service to "perform". If people are coming for what they can get then the pastor and others are reduced to performers who will be judged for their brief appearance that morning or evening.

Do we go to church as those "called out" from the world to meet with other believers and to be equipped, in part, for the week ahead and to offer praise and glory to the God whom we serve or do we come for an experiential "top-up". If the latter is the case then church must surely be reduced to competing with the media and leisure options for our attention. More often that not, the church is a heavy casualty in such a tussle.

This is by no means to promote the Sunday gathering as a staid affair with no passion or life but it is to speak out against the consumer, entertainment mentality that seeks to judge a performance. I guess the basic question to finish up with at this junction is whether we experiences or whether we experience God. Is God "out-there" waiting to bestow "blessings" and positive experiences upon His people or is God far, far greater and we can but enter into His experience which encompasses the whole of creation.


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Experience and Faith

I have been engaged in further reading with regard to the question of the role of experience in connection with Christian faith. My preliminary research bought me to my first "speed hump" in that I realised that I needed to understand what is meant by experience and also to unpack and be aware of the experiences that I was bringing into these reflections.

I have already compiled a reasonable list of web pages and articles but before moving on I will take time to gather some thoughts on the basic concept of experience. In an article from "Word and World" (1/3, 1981) titled "Faith is a Matter of Experience" E. Bettenhausen says "the word 'experience' is slippery...a group of Christians cannot agree on how to talk about God because of their differing experiences of God."

In this essay Bettenhausen discusses how much the circumstances and events of an individual's life shape their "experience" and also their understanding of what constitutes a valid understanding of experience. For example, a white educated male may conceive of their as being a universally valid frame of reference for Christian experience but he is quite likely not to have considered life from the point of view of a poor African woman or an oppressed South American farmer. Each of the other two people will also have their own conception of Jesus and God and theology and worship and other pertinent matters for the thinking, responsive Christian.

One point that does need to be emphasised is one that was raised in the previous blog about the fact that experience is often considered as being a purely rational response. Bettenhausen quotes Levy-Bruhl who suggests "the general notion experience that has...developed is above all 'cognitive'." Bettenhausen then expands this to consider the idea that if experience is "primarily a function of intelligence" then those people who oppose the status quo on the basis of "experience are considered irrational (or un-rational).

This theme developed as I considered aspects of pentecostal theology and worship. An interesting thread emerges which begs the question can a theological discussion be engaged in on the level of intellect alone and is a recourse to "experience" irrational or is it a valid basis on which to base some of the foundation for a theological/biblical discussion?

Since leaving Bible College (Seminary) I have stopped to consider the environment, overwhelmingly male, reformed faculty and the value placed on the intellect above all else. I appreciate much of what I learnt but I sense within me a need to pursue a rebellion that was bubbling under the surface in response to the "reduction of God".

What I mean by the "reduction of God" is that a strong emphasis on the intellect and reason ends in the situation that God becomes only as big as we can "think" Him and thus is the size of our head. I want to hold on to the notion that God is far, far above and beyond my conceptions of Him. I want to engage in His mission and immerse myself into a life journey with God but never think that I have God boxed and labelled and ready for cold storage until I need to refer to Him as backup for some clever, theological chess move. This is certainly to be continued...

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Experiences

Wow! Almost a week without posting to the blog. Is this what a new addition to the family is like? It's not quite as hectic as it sounds. I have been planning to write something but haven't quite been able to gather my thoughts together sufficiently for my liking. I am planning to write some pieces about "Experiences of Faith". I gathered some preliminary articles but haven't had chance to read them and I am using some of Moltmann's reflections on the nature of experience as a springboard for my own thoughts.

I got thinking about experience as an outworking of my considerations of Christianity as a rationally "experienced" phenomena. So much of Christian faith seems to be discussed and appreciated at a rational level. Moltmann raises the point that "(the) identification of the true centre of human beings with consciousness and reason is Western, modern and, not least, typically male.

I have also been considering this issue with regard to what I may call the pentecostal/evangelical dichotomy whereas (in a general sense in order to make the preparatory point) a pentecostal service of worship with have a focus upon the emotions and a "heart" response whereas the evangelical service may be said to be focussed upon the consciousness and appealing to reason.

My contention is that such a divide is not healthy for the future of Christianity as an attractive option for the "unchurched" person or for those for a struggling with the difficult balance of life and faith. To be very simplistic an entirely "emotion centric" approach provides little or no intellectual content and so Christians are left without the ability to think through faith/life choices in a cohesive manner but, on the other hand, a completely "reason centred" approach leaves little scope for spontaneity and the interaction with, and appreciation of, one's emotions as God-given and valid for contemplating and working through faith/life issues.

There is much more to be written about this topic. These introductory thoughts simply lay down markers for the journey ahead.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Reframing

Life is pretty hectic right now. It's never too busy to think but it is difficult to find time to sit down and write material for the blog. In the midst of this process of adjusting to a 5th member of our family I am reading a book by Donald Capps called "Reframing". It utilises material derived from the work of the Brief Therapy Center of the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California.

"Reframing" in the context of the book is offered as a pastoral counseling technique. It is not suggested as an alternative to the exclusion of all others but, rather, as another tool in the pastoral counselor's collection.

The basic idea can be summarised with such phrases as "think about things differently" or "consider a different point of view". Most people, at some point or other, have used reframing to resolve a difficult situation but the difference with this approach is that it is a deliberate method as part of the healing process used in counseling.

The book is very thorough and clearly considers those situations where reframing may be more detrimental than useful. It also articulates techniques so that the process is methodical and not ad hoc. Reframing can be a useful tool in parenting. It can certainly help relieve the stress faced by parents.

The reason it came to my mind today was in regard to an incident that occurred yesterday. Due to the ongoing depression at the beginning of this year I was placed on extended sick benefits by my GP. This situation resulted in my obtaining government benefits. In order for me to receive those benefits I had to "prove" my situation. When I came to return to the workforce I needed to continue producing fortnightly forms to Centrelink, the Australian government welfare body.

Much of this process is an inconvenience that allows one access to much needed financial resources. I am only working 3 days a week and I was requested to attend an interview with an employment agency who were accredited by the government. My appointment was yesterday. I must confess that, little by little, I am becoming accustomed to living with bi-polar disorder but I am also becoming comfortable with my intelligence and so it was a surprise, to say the least, to be told by my "advisor" that I needed to undertake a 4 week Job Search Training course. This course involved such weighty matters as: filling out an application form, writing a letter and making a phone call. I explained my qualifications and experience and they were prepared to put me on a 30 hour fast-track course. Eventually, after more discussion, the "advisor" told me that if I returned with my resume and an application form that I had completed myself then she would consider waiving the "training" course.

Now, I am in no way dismissing those people who have a need of such training and facilitation. I also understand the need for standard procedures but my issue is that the primary reason for this situation arising was because I raised the issue of my diagnosis with mild bi-polar and suddenly my intellectual ability was gone and my potential was severely diminished.

I am fortunate in that I have a fantastic wife, supportive in-laws and excellent friends and so I returned home dejected and depressed and my wife was able to help me "see things differently". Where I saw a hopeless situation my wife "reframed" the incident and helped me to see it as an unfortunate situation that could encourage me to demonstrate my potential. I have also had some encouraging feedback from this blog which has spurred me on to further reflection and writing.

Today I arranged a couseling supervisor so that I can start to look for counseling clients. I could sit and wallow in my predicament or I could "reframe" and decide to use my experiences to aid others in their journey through life.

Reframing is not simply considering another perspective because the reframe, if successful, should lead to a positive change in circumstances. I want to encourage each of us to consider the benefits of reframing, of looking at things from another perspective, when we encounter someone with a mental illness, if we see someone drunk and unkempt or if we pass a prostitute in the street, for example. Life is not black and white.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Theological Struggle

I have been trying to get to grips with theology. I have always been an avid reader and have had a special interest in theology since encountering it during my Bachelor of Ministry degree. At that time we only scratched the surface but it was sufficient for me to realise that it was an area that held wide possibilities to engage my mind. I finished my degree at the end of 2003 and since then have explored, in a general way, a number of theologians including Moltmann, Bultmann, Kierkegaard and Barth.

Recently I have decided to get to grips with theology at a deeper level. Someone on the Moltmann email list suggested that I choose one theologian and study them thoroughly and then branch out from that point. With this advice in mind I have returned to "The Spirit of Life" by Juergen Moltmann and I am wading through it with a view to tackling three other of his books that I have sat on my bookcase.

The reason that I mention all of this is that I do not want to come across as anything that I am not. My chief desire as a Christian is to engage my faith with my life. I desire to study theology because I find it challenging and fulfilling but there must always be points of engagement with my life. I enjoy being with non-Christian people because they challenge my assumptions and they have a habit of turning around my faith statements and help me to explore further possibilities for God's engagement with His world.

One of the difficulties that I have with the Church generally is a preoccupation with easy answers. I have met too many non-Christians who have confirmed this theory to deny its validity. Of course, easy answers allow us to ignore the deeper needs of people and allow us to adopt an "I told you so" approach to counseling, care and friendships.

The other end of the spectrum, viewed in a simple manner, is the preoccupation with difficult questions and verbose answers; namely, the world of academia. As a part of this journey I am reaching out to academics for inspiration and advice and I seeking to stretch my thinking through reading at a higher level but I am continually brought back to the question of relevance.

Jesus taught his disciples (and I include modern-day Christians in this group) to do such things as ; love their neighbour, make disciples of all people, teach and basically demonstrate the kingdom of God upon the earth. The point I wish to make, without avoiding anything, is that we can debate the finer points of Jesus' commands to His disciples at the end of Matthew and Mark. We can discuss what Jesus meant when He commanded them to teach and whether He meant just the disciples and whether it now means simply ordained clergy.

At some point each Christian person has to decide whether we are prepared to get off our backsides and make a difference in this world. If we answer positively we then need to consider how we will best serve God. We need to develop such a love for God that we are compelled to live this out in some way.

I have not stopped talking about my new son. How much more should I be sharing about the one who is my saviour and redeemer. There are no easy answers and there seem to be far too many convoluted answers. Thelogical reflection that does not interact with the world where each Christian finds themselves may not be truly Godly reflection because God is love.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

More Reflections...

As I considered the issues from the previous post I realised that one of the difficulties in trying to capture one's thoughts in a Christian blog of this nature is the fact that Christianity is not a simple matter of rules and regulations. In fact, it is a journey where the spiritual world overlaps with the material world. It is a journey where the Kingdom of God is here and yet is to come. It is a journey where our flesh and spirit compete for prime time in our lives.

A friend of mine described this situation as speaking out against "blueprint Christianity". This is a great metaphor but it begs the question if we don't possess a blueprint what do we have in its place? I suggest that one thing that we have is "Life in the Spirit" to use Juergen Moltmann's term. This suggests a life grounded in biblical principles, a life committed to seeking out and living God's will but it also a life characterised by the metaphors of the Spirit including wind and fire which are both fluid concepts that aren't easily explained or captured.

I re-read Psalm 130 and was struck by verse 5

I am counting on the Lord; yes, I am counting on him. I have put my hope in his word.

The Word of God is the Bible and it is Jesus, the logos, the word become flesh.

The Psalmist is counting on the LORD, who is Jehovah, God. He puts his hope in God's word which we can conceive as the Bible, as Jesus, the logos and in a sense it is also the Holy Spirit because Jesus said that when He went he would leave an advocate and a comfort who would guide His people into all truth. Yes, I am taking a Psalm from a post-Pentecost perspective but I think it opens up both the richness and complexity of living for God. One thing I do know is that I can count on the Lord and I can put my hope, confidently, in His word.

Reflections on Daniel

At 2.34am Saturday morning (AEST) my wife gave birth to Daniel Jack Chatwin. He weighed 8lbs, 11oz (the lightest of our 3 boys!). He is fantastic and a wonderful gift from God. His arrival is the reason for a slight delay in getting my blog online.

His arrival has prompted a few reflections. I am not going down the line of fatherhood and the beauty of life etc. I think that this has all been done to death and becomes quite sickly sweet eventually. The reality is that a new born is a great event and we love him dearly but it is also darned hard work and tiring. The WHOLE package of raising children is a privilege, an adventure and a chance to grow in many ways.

What I have reflected on are my own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. For two years or so I have struggled with chronic depression and recently after trying medications I was diagnosed with mild bipolar disorder. This diagnosis helped answer quite a few questions for my wife and I and helped to put some aspects of my life into a more helpful context. Into this situation I have a wife and 3 beautiful boys.

Issues that arise for me concern my ability to be a good father. Now, I believe that I am a good father but it is because I put a lot of time, thought and effort into my fatherhood because I know that the medication that I am on and my innate mental vulnerabilities predispose me towards a struggle in terms of parenting. In this sense I feel fortunate because I have been forced into thinking out how I will parent and how I will best relate to my boys in a way that is enriching, loving and supportive for them.

Interestingly, this past few days a friend of mine raised the vexed issue of blessings and curses. It is something that I have given much thought to coming from a more charismatic inclination. I have certainly pondered the blessings of my family and the "curse" of my mental illness. I have also worried that one or more of my boys may be somehow predisposed to this sickness. I have wondered if I shouldn't be expecting healing. Do I need deliverance? Is there a curse on my family line of males. Is this Old Testament thinking? Is there such a thing as Old Testament thinking? What is the connection between mental health and faith?

I happen to have moved away from the direct line between events in our lives and the resultants "blessings" and "curses". I like to think of our relationship with God to much more nurturing and dialogical. I want to take some time to develop these reflections so I can help my boys to grow up with a healthy attitude towards, and understanding of, God and so I that I can help those who are trapped in fear and guilt because of the unhealthy theology that has been taught to them.

One thing I want to finish with is the fact that this type of theology emerges out of a need for leaders to control people. Linked in with this theological outlook is the issue of finding, and living in, God's "perfect will". The basic premise is that there is a perfect will of God and it is possible to discover it for our lives. If we live in that place then all will be well and we can experience blessings such as healing, wealth, general answered prayer etc. The other side of this thinking is that if we are not living in God's perfect will then we will see sickness, financial struggles and an inability to connect with God in prayer.

This theology has seriously been suggested to me especially as my mental illness emerged. Apart from anything else it inflicts serious damage on our conception of the nature and character of God. It presents God as a very black and white personality who is locked into a legalistic mindset whereby once someone strays out of His will they are attacked by a malicious response of sickness, poverty and alienation from God but if they step back into God's will all is well once again.

This tramples upon our understanding of the Father heart of God and His incredible grace, mercy and love as it was supremely demonstrated through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It also begs the question regarding when we are in or out of the will of God and how we know. This situation opens the door for those who "hear" God's voice who can tell us how we ought to live so as not to incur curses. I believe in prophecy in a charismatic sense as the ability to hear God's voice and to speak into people's lives but the Apostle Paul is clear. in 1 Cor 14:3 that "one who prophesies is helping others grow in the Lord, encouraging and comforting them" (NLT).

The theology of God's perfect will, although perhaps presented as coming from loving motives, is not, ultimately, given to help someone grow in their relationship with God or for encouragement and comfort. I have walked through some very dark times and what I do know is that God was always there with me. My responses to God have varied as I journeyed the spectrum between despair and joy but God's unconditional love for me and His desire for my best has never dminished.

Every shade of denominational life and each aspect of the theological spectrum utilises different parts of the Bible, different versions and different presuppotional mindsets to make its point. Some pentecostal theology emerges from the Old Testament as does some Reformed Theology. I, along with most Christian thinkers, desire to discover a truly all-encompassing Biblical perspective but I realise that this is a difficult road to walk.

Having said this in humility I end with Psalm 130 as best capturing my heart at this time. I have used the New Living Translation simply because I like the way it reads.

Psalm 130

From the depths of despair, O Lord,
I call for your help.
2
Hear my cry, O Lord.
Pay attention to my prayer.

3
Lord, if you kept a record of our sins,
who, O Lord, could ever survive?
4
But you offer forgiveness,
that we might learn to fear you.

5
I am counting on the Lord;
yes, I am counting on him.
I have put my hope in his word.

6
I long for the Lord
more than sentries long for the dawn,
yes, more than sentries long for the dawn.

7
O Israel, hope in the Lord;
for with the Lord there is unfailing love
and an overflowing supply of salvation.

8
He himself will free Israel
from every kind of sin.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Experiences of the Spirit

On page 17 of "The Spirit of Life" Juergen Moltmann explained that by experience(s) of the Spirit he means "an awareness of God in, with and beneath the experience of life, which gives us an assurance of God's fellowship, friendship and love."

Moltmann goes on to develop this concept of "experience of the Spirit" but I want to draw out from this quote some thoughts that touch upon my own day-to-day life experiences.

As a man I have many roles and aspects and one of them is that I supervise teams of gardeners. I work 3 days a week and I take a team of 4 men out on gardening jobs across Newcastle, NSW. The men who work on the program are all diagnosed with a psychiatric illness.

You will notice that I refer to them, in the first instance, as men. The second aspect of their situation relates to the reason why they work under my supervision. These men are varied, interesting and special men each in their own unique way. I am not sure of all that I am contributing to their lives but they are teaching me a great deal as well as presenting me with many questions.

One common theme arises out of one of my other "roles"; that of an ordained Baptist Minister. This aspect of my personhood opens up discussion, critique, complaints, fears and hopes but I find, consistently, that the Church is not held in high regard and is, in many instances, seen to be irrelevant to the lives and situations of these men.

When I encounter these discussions I realise that there are no easy answers, I agree with some of the critiques of the Christian Church and I hold out, and search for, hope in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Moltmann quote begins by saying that an experience of God can be characterised by "an awareness of God in, with and beneath the experience of life". That is such a beautiful concept. The men that I have the privilege to work with do not need dogmatism and religion. What they need is to know this awareness of God in, with and beneath their experience of life.

This, I believe, means that an awareness of God needs to touch directly upon and be comprehensible for each and every circumstance of life. For all of us life is a fluctuating journey but for people with psychiatric illnesses, to take this current example, life can be very bleak, it can be exhilerating and it can be confusing and overwhelming. I suggest that the experience of God that I seek to share and explain with these men needs to move in, with and beneath their experience of life.

This fact, in turn, leads on to a situation "which gives (people) an assurance of God's fellowship, friendship and love." Surely this should be the motivation for any witness to God; that it leads people to an assurance of God's fellowship, friendship and love.

Out of these three facets of God's character can flow a transformative effect upon broken people in terms of leading them into an understanding of fellowship. To know God's friendship is a deep journey into mutual trust and acceptance. Then there is the assurance of God's love. All of us need to have a deep assurance of unconditional love. What if the witness of Christians led people, of all manner and situations, into an assurance of God's love. What a goal.

I am only walking on the beginning of this journey and am take stumbling steps towards communicating God's love with those who come into the orbit of my life. I pray to God that I may be bolder, more courageous and wiser in my witness.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Good News

Yesterday I ended the blog with these words:

"God's people have had the gift of the Spirit and we need to see the potential and the power of the Spirit for each person inside and outside of the Church. We need to reconsider the scope of God's plans for humanity and to gain a fresh understanding of God's grace and love as it was demonstrated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ."

I would like to add to this grace-centred approach the thoughts of Moltmann (Spirit of Life, p.10) where he says "to experience the fellowship of the Spirit inevitably carries Christianity beyond itself into the greater fellowship of all God's creatures.

We find the discussion poised at two points of consideration; people outside of the church and the natural world that we live in. Christendom has moved, somewhat, into a ghetto-isation of faith where Christians socialise with Christians, listen to Christian music, buy Christian books and attend Church events.

This is a very comfortable and a very safe place to be. Once a person has assented to the Christian proposition and have "crossed the line" they can be safely gathered into the fold and protected from the cruel world outside the church's doors. This also leads to the position where evangelism is akin to forays out into the world before running back to the fellowship of the saints.

The corollary of this defensive stance is that the Church becomes detached from, and irrelavent to, the outside world so that the gospel message, when it arrives, falls on deaf ears. The movement of God is towards people. It is a movement propelled by grace and love towards those who find themselves on the outside of conventional standards. It is an active movement towards and with a purpose to embrace those who need to be truly loved. This is also a costly movement.

This is where I think the crux of the matter arrives. Love is expensive. It costs time and effort and can often be rebuffed. The clearest model of this is the life and death of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

The second point which flowed out of the Moltmann quote and from the general tenor of these disussions is that God's love moves towards His creation. Evangelical theology can arrive at a position whereby God sits enthroned in heaven aloof from the created world. Moltmann's theology of the "fellowship of the Spirit" becomes an ecological theology. I am exploring this and will seek to elucidate it more clearly over time but the point at which I want to begin is that the Christian Church needs to seriously consider its responsibility towards the created world which God deemed to be "good" and towards people, whoever they may be and whatever their journey, who God deems to be "very good".

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Evangelical Spirituality

Yesterday I raised the issue of how the "gospel" is shared in, largely, evangelical circles. As I have been considering this matter and attempting to elucidate my thinking more clearly I came across a very interesting article which compares how the pneumatological perspective of Moltmann can help bring greater shape and clarity to the thinking of John Wesley (see link).

Wesley link

I'd like to work with that particular paper whilst considering Moltmann's own thoughts in order to try and shape an understanding of evangel-ism that affords greater compassion and a more holistic approach towards those who we are seeking to influence with the good news of Jesus Christ and the complete Christian "package".

There are some points within the linked paper that I find to be rather harsh but I cannot help but feel sympathy with the general early emphasis that Reformation Theology begins from a focus upon sin; it begins from a negative presupposition.

To quote Dabney "This sort of theology, therefore, finds its point of departure not in creaturely good, but in creaturely sin, and takes the form not of creation's ascent to God, but of God's descent to creation in Jesus Christ."

I believe that the fact that this theology finds its "point of departure...in sin" has a tendency to promote an overly pessimistic image of humanity. Rather than operating from the position that we are all sinful beings and in need of God's grace there is an unspoken philosophy within sections of evangelicalism that speaks and acts as if salvation through Jesus Christ gets one "over the line" and on the guest list for eternal life and so, therefore, Christians are so much better than the hoi polloi who haven't yet given affirmation to the gospel message.

Humanity, across the board, has a need of ascension to God as well as receiving and embracing the fulness of God's descent in and through Jesus Christ. Humanity has tried, in many ways, to ascend to God without success and it took God in the form of Jesus Christ to achieve this. The good news of this event is not limited to the cross and resurrection. In the whole of Jesus' message and ministry there was a wealth of teaching and action that demonstrated that for Christ he was truly inauguating a kingdom that had at its heart "life in all its fulness".

So there is the action from humanity Godwards as people "ascend to God" in terms of relationship and growth in holiness. This leads on to the next point which I hope to develop over the next while namely that the static Reformation theological approach centres Christianity upon the events of the cross and resurrection. As vital as these events are if they are over represented in theology there can come a point where the Holy Spirit is simply the one who follows on from Jesus; the one who fills in the space until Jesus' return but, as Moltmann works out in "The Spirit of Life", the Spirit's work has always been vital and many faceted throughout Scripture and one key area is in the context of hope.

Moltmann (p9) says "In both the Old and the New Testaments, the words used for the divine act of creating are also used for God's liberating and redeeming acts." The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all intricately involved in each of these processes.

We do not have a situation where God creates, Jesus liberates and the Spirit redeems. Each one is moving like threads in a tapestry making something beautiful of each life. My belief is that all branches of the Christian Church would do well to step back from their own particular favourite perspective and see the whole of what God would achieve with His Kingdom plans not just eschatologically but here and now in this world in which we live.

God's people have had the gift of the Spirit and we need to see the potential and the power of the Spirit for each person inside and outside of the Church. We need to reconsider the scope of God's plans for humanity and to gain a fresh understanding of God's grace and love as it was demonstrated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Spirit of Life

I am beginning to re-read "The Spirit of Life" by Juergen Moltmann. I want to reflect upon Moltmann's work and seek to integrate it with my own spiritual journey so I thought that revisiting an already read book in more detail would be advantageous.

Moltmann is keen to see the Holy Spirit as the spirit of life. In the preface Moltmann talks about bringing out "the unity between the experience of God and the experience of life." This concept of unity and integration between faith and life is vital. Far too often I witness Christians (and I am guilty too) for whom God and faith exist in neat compartments.

What Moltmann invites us into is a journey whereby the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Life, energises our own life day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment. A Vineyard song speaks of a relationship with God where he is "the air I breathe". This picture of the Spirit as being so intimately involved in our lives that we struggle for the appropriate metaphor must be evidenced, somehow, in our lives otherwise the songs are simply pious reflections that take place within our "God times".

Moltmann (p.3) speaks of the Word and Spirit "as existing in a mutual relationship". He goes on to say that the "Spirit is the subject determining the Word, not just the operation of that Word."

Coming from a Baptist theological education but leaning more towards, what may be termed, a pentecostal/charismatic approach I find myself reflecting a great deal upon this question of the "mutual relationship" between the Word and the Spirit. It may seem to be a rather simplistic starting point but I find, time and again, that the struggle of the Church to comprehend and live out a spirituality that truly engages the Word of God and the Spirit of God comes to its most clearest point in the Sunday time of communal gathering.

The language of the Sunday gathering can tend to focus on the "Word" or the "Spirit". Please bear in mind that I am thinking out loud to some degree and beginning to get my thoughts together to begin to work through some of these matters. For Moltmann the Spirit is not simply the final manifestation of the Trinity as some afterthought prior to Jesus' ascension. The Spirit is a vital part of the Trinity. The Spirit gives life. The Spirit energises, empowers, equips and is a key part of the outworking of the Kingdom of God which Jesus heralded at the outset of his ministry.

Moltmann (p.8) also raises an issue that seems to predominate across the Church. He suggests that "there is a tendency to view the Holy Spirit solely as the Spirit of Redemption...it gives men and women the assurance of the eternal blessedness of their souls." Evangelism and "sharing the gospel", amongst some parts of the Church, seems to consist in presenting a propostion to someone who needs to be persuaded of the truth of the proposition. Techniques can be taught by which one can hone one's skills in presentation of the proposition so as to gain maximum impact. Once a person has moved from unbelief or skepticism to belief (or acceptance of the proposition) then that person can be introduced into a church where they are either left to their own devices or, in the best case scenario, they are presented with further teaching in order to be equipped for this change in life direction.

Taking into account a measure of sarchasm I believe that the fact stands that Christianity has, in some cases, been distilled into propositonal arguments and pithy soundbites. Working, as I do, with non-Christian men who are not slow to give their opinion of my faith and hearing their own stories I am coming to the realisation that the "gospel" message in its simple evangelical format is not enough. People are looking for hope and they are looking for something to bring some new quality to their life.

People outside of the world of Christendom are becoming disinterested and bored with the message and mindset of the Church. I believe that this is, in part, due to the limitations which we have put on the Holy Spirit. A person may be crying out for hope and meaning rather than redemption. I am not saying that we abandon the message of salvation but I am saying that we need to revisit the entire salvation package and see if God does not desire more for people than that they agree to a proposition and boost the numbers in local church gatherings.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

God is a DJ?

I am going to begin an in-depth exploration of the theology of Juergen Moltmann in order to get a grasp of his thinking and to integrate it into my own theological framework. Moltmann poses many questions, some answers and he presents a schema through which to begin to view our own unique part of the world.

I am sat at my Mac writing this with house music playing in the background on ITunes. It caused me to reflect on the Faithless song, "God is a DJ". I have added the question mark in the blog title because I wanted to leave it open for discussion and thought. The name Faithless belies the search for faith and ultimate meaning contained within the song and other works by the group.

Contained in the lyrics are the lines:

This is my church
This is where I heal my hurts

It's a natural grace
Of watching young life shape.
It's in minor keys
Solutions and remedies.
Enemies becoming friends
When bitterness ends.

The song is somewhat idealistic in the sense that hurts can be healed at a nightclub, young life can be shaped (positively?) and the bitterness ends but it also holds the seeds of insight and hope into the longings of youund people (and all people?). Moltmann, if he does anything, presents a theology that is intrinsically relational as this theology emerges from a trinitarian perspective of Christian faith.

Relationships derive, ultimately, from the trinitarian perichoresis which is grounded in faith, hope and love. I want to work through Moltmann, slowly but surely, being careful to hold in tension the real longings and real quest of "non-Christian" people as I encounter them day by day.

I want to use this song and other contemporary music as a vein running through the blog in an attempt to engage with Moltmann, develop my own theology and find a point of engagement with the contemporary mindset.

If God is a DJ then I think that the true shape of ecstacy is to be lost in wonder, love and praise. What does this mean? How does it work out day by day? This is the journey of faith but faith without hope is surely empty?

Sunday, April 23, 2006

A Theology of Hope

I have recently subscribed to the Juergen Moltmann discussion group - http://groups.yahoo.com/group/jurgen_moltmann/

This has refreshed my already strong interest in the work of Moltmann but especially his focus on a theology of hope.

I am in the process of writing about the nature of Christian community and its limitations and possibilities. I want to explore the exclusiveness that arises from Christian community and how local expressions of Christian community can move towards a more truly in-clusive position.

If God is a God of hope and promise then surely there is room to welcome in a diversity of people into the Christian community? Is God's hope narrow or embracing? Both conservatives and liberals need to be sure that there boundaries of community are not governed by their prevailing secular worldview but also there is a need for churches to open their arms as wide as the love, justice and mercy of God allows.

As I read and reflect further on Moltmann and other "radical" theologians I hope to develop some thinking on the nature of Church especially as it relates at a very local level. I would like to see a move away from Church buildings with the "smaller" expression as a home group towards individual Christians seeing their local streets or workplace as their "mission field" and, therefore, as their opportunity to "do" church and seek to bring a wider expression of hope.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Depression

Does depression get depressed?
Do the ups get down?
Does paranioa look around furtively before going to work?

If depression is in remission
Is it suppressed or repressed?
If it comes back is it impressed?
Because I'm not!