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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.