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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?