Review: Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class

fofThe reality that there was a man of God, Jesus, who lived, died, rose again, and is spiritually at work in the world, is good news.  We can theorise about it this way and that, but the longer I live the more I realise that the prayer that Jesus taught us: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” pierces the insulation of human societal subsistence and touches the live wires of our feeblest condition together with our most optimistic hopes.  Jesus Christ, Saviour and King above all powers and winds and waves of human cunning, must be proclaimed not just for the transformation of individual lives, but of communities, societies, entire cultures.  What else might his commission to disciple and baptise nations mean, if not to seek to teach and immerse them in the ways of divine life?

For better or worse, Gill and I have found ourselves embedded near the “Middle” of Western society.  This is not to say that our immediate context is monochrome.  But it is “Middle England” and the prevalent communal mode and manner is professional and middle class.  It is not something to be disparaged, even by a farm-boy like myself from out the back of Deloraine, but it something for us to come to understand and, in the sense described above, to learn to evangelise.

How, then, could I go past a book that spruiks to speak of the Inner Life of the Middle Class?  And how could I not seize upon the title: The Fear of Falling.  Because if there was one characteristic we have observed time and time again in our Western world wanderings it is the prevalance of fear: fear of slipping down the scale, of falling off the class edge; fear of life-defining numbers, from bank balances, and returns on investment, to school results and performance indicators.  Gill and I have a comparitor: In Australia these numbers matter, but on something of a sliding scale; in the UK’s herd-management mentality, they define thresholds and binary ups and downs.  It is starker here, and more indicative of the broader western world I think.  And it’s life-sapping. Even the literature from my children’s school cautioned against student’s having an after-school job by appealing to numbers: please consider if £20 extra per week now is worth losing £200 extra per week in one’s career down the track.  It contains some wisdom I guess, but it’s such a flaccidly fearful form of assessing life’s experiences.

So would Ehrenreich’s book help me understand?  It is American. It is a bit old. It was written in the very late ’80s and basically provides sociological commentary for the baby boomers into their middle age.  But if, as they say, the currently middle-aged Generation X, is an amorphous bridging generation, here are the cracked foundations upon which one end of the bridge rests.  Our children define the other end, and will learn to speak of it, in time.

And so the book is helpful. Ehrenreich’s argument is a journey, from a post-war class that presumed ubiquity and had little self-consciousness, and then “an emerging middle-class awareness of being a class among others and, ultimately, of being an elite above others.” (p11).  She tells her story using not only categories of wealth and capital, but also of freedoms and control, and the ability to find life’s purpose.  The common denominators throughout are of a class that can never rest in itself, which requires exertion to maintain capital and prestige from generation to generation, in which life’s place, being neither secure at the top, nor can’t-fall-any-further at the bottom, are always tenuous.

If this is an elite, then, it is an insecure and deeply anxious one.  It is afraid, like any class below the most securely wealthy, of misfortunes that might lead to a downward slide.  But in the middle class there is another anxiety: a fear of inner weakness, of growing soft, of failing to strive, of losing discipline and will. Even the affluence that is so often the goal of all this striving becomes a threat, for it holds out the possibility of hedonism and self-indulgence. Whether the middle class looks down toward the realm of less, or up toward the realm of more, there is the fear, always, of falling. (p15)

There is much in this book’s journey that raises some of my hackles at the state of the western world.  Ehrenreich progresses from the 1950’s aversion to affluence, to the psychology of student uprisings in the 1960’s, and a growing self-awareness of elitism with respect to the working class of the 1970’s.  Throughout it all the well-worn paths of western endeavour: academic, professional and financial endeavour, are shown to be based on artificialiaties. Why, for instance, do we expect our children to go through the time and often unreachable expense of obtaining a degree? “So that they can have a decent career” is an insipid, and self-defined answer that speaks nothing about the value of education and free thought, let alone true merit, and fulfilling success.

As Ehrenreich’s journey continued I began to sense my resentment at the pseudo-sacred game that is foisted on us.  Anything that makes not only women’s liberation, but decent work-life balance, and the seizing of life’s deeper purposes, compete with housing (and sometimes food!) affordability is simply a mug’s game: a cacophony of stressors with diminishing returns.  My parent’s generation either dropped out of the game, or played to win and turned into yuppies.  That misses the missiological trick: to be in it, but not of it, if that is at all possible.

It is Ehrenreich’s sixth chapter, on one half of that generational response, the rise of the yuppies in the ’80s, that had the most resonance for me.  Here there is a picture that has not only refused to fade, but has become even more amplified by the tech and financial bubbles and busts that came later.  Here we read of a growing gap between rich and poor as the economics failed to trickle-down, and as the status (and remuneration) of the traditional professions waned before the rise of a corporate elite (p200).  The tension between mid-level income and mid-level lifestyle (p206) bolstered the anxiety.  And the determinators of class, just like now, came down to accidents of fortune (e.g. the timing of the purchase of one’s first home, parental wealth), or the impact of basic human realities such as having children, or investing in or forgoing a vocation (p210).

Many of the college students I talked to in the mid-eighties were suffering from what might be called “premature pragmatism.” They were putting aside, at far too early an age, their idealism and intellectual curiosity in favor of economic security, which was increasingly defined as wealth.  A young woman interviewed by Newsweek had switched from social work to sales because “I realized that I would have to make a commitment to being poor to be a social worker.” (p209-210)

The result was a deadening: a pervasive busyness (p232) and an un-intellectual pragmatism (p241).  Consumerism took its place in a vicious guilt-reward cycle (p232).  In my own words, one could summarise it, echoed in today’s world as a non-thinking generation trying to assuage its regret.

At the end, Ehrenreich longs for an expansion of the middle class, an egalatarian “welcoming of everyone” (p263) until there is no other class.  This is pure unrealistic idealism, although I am sympathetic.  Venture capitalist Nick Hanauer famously made a similar, and more applicable point in 2014 as he ably argued for middle class investment (based on high income taxes) as shrewd.

But our project is of a different kind.  Journeys like Ehrenreich’s can leave us resentful and frustrated, and stressed as the pressures of this world are distilled and unpacked.  We have touched on our fears.  Now wherein lies our hope?

The Sunday School answer, of course, is “Jesus is our hope.”  It’s in the application that it gets more grown-up. To move against the spirit of this age and work in the opposite direction of the abounding fear involves many things.  Against consumerism we embrace holiness.  But that means facing our fears of losing out; it means repenting of self-satisfaction.  Against dehumanising pragmatism, we embrace vocation in the priorities for how we use our wealth and time, and how we count the cost.  But that means facing the fears of invalidation and inferiority, it means repenting of our protectionism.  Against self-referential self-actualising individualism, we seek to worship, which brings us unmade before God, to hear his word, recognise our brothers and sisters, and receive forgiveness.  But that means facing the fears of what we will see in God’s light, it means confessing our sins, daring to heed divine truth, and turning from our passivity and infantilism.  In short, it means faith and repentance.

It’s this hope for which the new monasticism embraces the threefold mode and manner of life: purity, simplicity, and accountability.  I can think of few better antidotes to the middle class malaise.

In the end there is no hope in Ehrenreich’s book.  But there is hope in Jesus, because, if nothing else, for our society to face it’s fear of falling, it will take a miracle.

Posted in 2.0, Book Reviews, Society Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Mentoring, Spiritual Direction, or Discipleship

people-1149873One of the most important dynamics in living churches is that of intentional one-on-one relationships that help individuals mature in their faith.  We have our Sunday gathered worship times, and our small groups, and prayer triplets and things like that, but intentional personal investment is invaluable.  Many of us can reflect on the individuals who have invested in us over the years, be it formally or informally; they are invariably God’s gift to us.

These investing relationships, however, are not all alike.  There are a number of words and phrases that we use to describe them.  The three I want to pick up on here are “discipleship”,  “mentoring”, and “spiritual direction”.

Understanding the differences between these is important.  There is a lot of overlap, but the semantics informs the intention of the relationship.  And the intention helps guide the expectations of those who are entering into it.  It also allows each form of relationship to be valued in its own way.

Here, then, is how I would describe these three forms of investing relationships:

MENTORING: This is a broad category and the word has a high semantical overload.  It is also the word that most readily overlaps with secular domains.

Broadly speaking, the mentoring relationship is a reflecting one.  A mentor helps you to analyse and articulate what is already there.  In mentoring, goals are clarified, actions are identified, resources are suggested.  A mentor is someone to “bounce off”, to run ideas past, to seek advice from, and to approach with questions.  They willingly allow their experience to be tapped.

The process is driven and shaped by the person being mentored.  The mentor does not direct, and will not even provide accountability unless it is requested.  The scope of mentoring can be quite small, focussing on professional life, or a particular issue or obstacle.

SPIRITUAL DIRECTION:  The key to this form of relationship is in the phrase itself.  It is spiritual in that it considers life holistically and deeply, and with particular attention to our relationship with God.  It explores matters of conscience and calling, prayerfulness and petition.

It is direction in that the relationship is “directive.”  This is not in the sense of a manipulation or domination, but in the sense that a doctor can be directive in pursuit of increased health for the patient.  The direction is cooperative and always constructive.

The spiritual direction relationship is about shared discernment.  The spiritual director assists with self-reflection but also speaks truth from a shared source of inspiration such as Scripture.  The director can bring spiritual exercises, or directions to explore: forms of prayer, actions of repentance that need to be considered.

DISCIPLESHIP:  For many “discipleship” is not easily grasped.  It is sometimes an empty phrase that is used as a churchified version of “mentoring” or a hipper version of “spiritual direction.”  However, the best framework for considering discipleship is “apprenticeship”, in the older sense in which a more experienced person shares life and purpose with an apprentice, not just vocational skills.

Jesus was a discipler.  His disciples travelled with him, ate with him, argued with him, and learned from him.  Only rarely did he exclude them from his activities and his time.  Discipleship is about sharing life.

The relationship is shaped by vulnerability and openness.  A way of life, and necessary skills, are passed on through allowing the other to observe and participate in the inner life that is then expressed outwardly.  Vocation is not just about skills but about foundational motivations and values, about what moves and guides and what is done in response.  Someone who is discipling needs to be willing to open their lives and explain and demonstrate what moves and shapes them.  They will find themselves challenged by the relationship, as much as they invest in the other person.

In this way the Christian discipler is not making their own disciples, but disciples of Jesus.  They bring another into both the interior and exterior of how they follow Christ, and so bring others into that same “followship” where Jesus is the guide.  Paul’s “imitate me as I imitate Christ” expresses this dynamic.  Good discipleship therefore doesn’t create dependence, it creates community at which Christ is the centre.

Similarly, propagation is inherent to discipleship.  The sharing of life includes the sharing of the discipling dynamic itself.  Discipled people will find themselves discipling others, in their own way.  There was wisdom in Jesus’ ways, his discipling ended up founding a movement and changing culture.

I am heartened that the Church of England, and Anglicanism in general, is (re)embracing the language of discipleship.  The General Synod report, Developing Discipleship, (written by Bp. Steven Croft, soon to be the Bishop of our Diocese of Oxford), approaches it with an understanding of the depths and breadths of what it means.  Likewise, when we use the phrase we must realise that it is not about lipservice to a trend, nor even about advancing oneselves: discipleship allows us to put all things, together, at Christ’s feet.   It is therefore costly, requires courage, challenges our character, and changes church culture.  We should not use the word lightly, but we should certainly pursue it.

Posted in 2.0, General, Ministry Tagged with: , ,

Review: The Grace Outpouring

tgoThis book comes from Welsh retreat centre Ffald-y-brenin, but that place, and author, Roy Godwin, are not the point.  Here’s something from the book, in Roy’s words, that gets to the heart of the real issue for me:

A number of years ago I felt a cry rising up in my inmost being – “There has to be more than this.” As I remembered my dreams of what living as a child of God would be like, there was that cry again.  There has to be more than this.  I was stirred by memories of great days in the past when God had seemed so close, but that’s where they were – in the past. Oh God, there must be more than this.

Looking at church initiated the same cry. There is so much good, so many signs of blessing in many local churches and fellowships, but looking more broadly at the national scene raised the question “Is this really all that the Father has in mind for the bride of his Son?” (pp180-181, emphasis mine)

This book taps into a divine sense of dissatisfaction.  I don’t think it’s unique to our time and place; I see it echoed in the lives of many Christian saints, both historical and contemporary.  It’s a dissatisfaction that is eschatological in nature (Romans 8:22-23) and speaks to the sense that until our Lord returns there is still more gospel work to be done.  The Great Commission to go and make disciples remains in place.

In our experience, Gill and I have encountered people and places that are entirely satisfied with the status quo.  Any dissatisfaction is a commiseration about the good old days rather than a cry for more.  This is a dry place to be.

But for those who are dissatisfied the next question, of course is “What do we do with it?”  How do we act on it?  We have seen a variety of responses.  All are well-intentioned, but some are problematic.  The essence of the problem is this tension: in order to get good things done we take control, but nothing will satisfy if we do it in with and for ourselves.

We’ve seen it in mission agencies where the dissatisfaction leads to impatience, lack of care, vision without process, and ineffectiveness.  We’ve seen it in congregations where that dissatisfaction turns into yet another program which is an attempt to scratch the itch so as to return to comfort, or prove worth, or not seem lazy, or simply “do what good churches should do.”  We’ve both been driven in these sort of ways.  It’s a frustrating place to be.

There’s a difficult tension at the heart of an effective ecclesial spirituality – to be dissatisfied, stirred, motivated, urgent, expectant; and let God be God and build through us, not in spite of us.  It isn’t quietist or passive – things get still get done.  But it is built upon a foundation of prayer, and being attentive to God’s Word and the providential promptings of His Spirit.

The Grace Outpouring hits us at the sweet spot of that tension.  It promotes the dissatisfaction, it stirs us to action, and so it pivots us to turn to prayer, expectant prayer.

Roy, and co-writer Dave Roberts, do this simply by sharing the story of Ffald-y-brenin.  Yes there’s some explanation and some reasonable theologising and all the other things that get a point across, but in the end they just want to share what God has been doing.  Dave writes in his foreword:

…as people who model our lives on a storyteller, we’re best advised to do as he did and tell the stories of what God has done. So we invite you to join us as this story unfolds. We’ll draw out principles and go to the root sources in Scripture, but we hope that what you read will help paint pictures on the canvas of your imagination that will allow you to be provoked by the Holy Spirit to prayer, compassion, and a mind-set that desires to bless others. (p14)

I can’t do justice to the story here, but it truly does creatively provoke.

Along the way we do encounter some of the definitive Ffald-y-brenin experiences.  To consider two of them:

Blessing: In the story Roy shares how his was initially an “accidental” tradition – to speak a blessing over all those who come to Ffald-y-brenin.  To be a recipient of it is profound.  Gill and I experienced this first-hand when we travelled to the centre a few weeks ago; tired and exhausted from a long day of travel and some of the complexities and perplexities of life we were shown to our room, and then to the chapel, where life-giving utterly-relevant personal words were spoken over us in Christ’s name.  I hadn’t read the book before we went; I wasn’t expecting it!  It set us on course for a deep and meaningful time with God.

We don’t always know what to do with “blessing.”  In some popular thinking blessings are almost like magic, talismanic words; this is usually unhelpful, and inhibits access to the gospel.  For others, “blessing” is simply an indistinct form of prayer.  Roy is right when he distinguishes blessing from intercession; as he points out to offer a blessing in Christ’s name is a bold, daring, and necessarily humble action of someone who takes seriously the priesthood of believers and the ambassadorial nature of the Christian vocation, and seeks to exercise it with generous care.  It may not be a rigorous theological treatise, but I admire the thoughtfulness:

We’re invoking the very character of God himself into the lives of those we pray for.  They’re getting a foretaste of being adopted into God’s family.  We’re opening a door for them to glimpse something of the kingdom of God. God is saying, “I’m going to bless you with everything I’ve blessed my children with.” (p36)

There is something right and properly kerygmatic in turning our holy dissatisfaction into words of blessing, to articulate, to proclaim the creative life-giving heart of our Lord and Saviour specifically, personally, and locally.

House of Prayer / New Monasticism: In the story a Welsh Christian retreat centre becomes a “House of Prayer” and Roy expands and expounds this by referring not only to the daily rhythm of prayer that is exercised at the centre, but also to the outward-looking movements that are as near as hospitality and acts of service, as far as intercessions for nations and global movements, and as deep as the revivals of the Celtic and modern Welsh church.  I reflected earlier about how this compares to our English context.

Gill and I have brought the daily rhythm of prayer into our home and are seeking to share it in some form with our church.  The daily reminder, using words of Scripture to cause us to bring to mind the characteristics and promises of a faithful God, has blessed us.  We have somewhere to give that holy dissatisfaction a proper beginning, a turning to God, a daily repentance, a discipline of intercession and expectation.

Towards the end of the book Roy connects the dots with the amorphous movement that is becoming known as the “New Monasticism.”  It has deep and ancient roots of course.  In current manifestations it invokes simplicity, purity and accountability in ways that express the holy dissatisfaction in profoundly counter-cultural ways.  They are ways that tear down middle class idols.

…Local House of Prayer involves sacrifice, just as it did in the Old Testament times. Among our offerings we will bring our worship (not necessarily singing) and the spirit of the community around us.  We will need to set aside our rights, judgmental attitudes, pride, and self-righteousness.  We will lay down our bodies and our patterns of thinking as living sacrifices for God’s glory and his purposes. (pp167-168)

IMG_0843After returning from our recent visit to Ffald-y-brenin, Gill and I have been pondering these things.  What I have read of here, and what we have encountered has informed our dissatisfaction.  It has renewed our passion for God’s Word and Spirit, and a determination to rely on him, rather than to burn-out in our own strength.

These things have been stimulated by our visit, and we will return.  But it’s not about the place, or the person.  It’s about doing the hard yards of following God.  Of seeking him in the dissatisfaction, not collapsing it, not running away from it, but facing the pain and patience of it, and actively pursuing his way; so that at the end of it all he is glorified as God’s people are blessed to be a blessing.

Posted in 2.0, Book Reviews Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Review: The Pastor as Public Theologian

9780801097713Like churches themselves, there’s a tendency for those of us in pastoral ministry (ordained and lay) to become self-referential; the aim of a “good” pastor is just to be good at it, for some insipid definition of “good” and indistinct definition of “it.”  As an older priest once told me when I was young and green when I asked about his aims in ministry, it was simply “to survive, Will, to survive.”

I know what he means now.  Sometimes the vocation becomes merely a lurch of survival from Sunday to Sunday on a merry-go-round of meetings and rotas.  It can look like duty and diligence and all manner of virtuous things, but it’s hardly the stuff of a world-changing gospel.

All of us in ministry need an occasional reordering, a return to a sense of vocation that cuts across the self-referential malaise and gets us looking Jesus-ward again.

Vanhoozer’s and Strachan’s The Pastor as Public Theologian is a book for such a reordering.  It aims to “reclaim a lost vision” and does so in a way that is not just timely but also (as Eugene Peterson claims on the cover) urgent.  Personally speaking, it has been a long time since I have read a book throughout which I have exclaimed “Yes!” and “That’s right!” and “This! Absolutely this!”

The authors begin by decrying the tendency to dislocate theology from the work of on-the-ground ministry by relegating it to the academy.  The separation of “practical” and “theological” is truly a false dichotomy.  With my background in both Pentecostal and Reformed streams it’s one that I have flailed against.  It is why I have sometimes described my framework for ministry as that of an “applied theologian.”  Application and theology go together.

We are reminded that the straitjackets of this dichotomy are still prevalent.  Expectations on the pastor take the shape of counsellor, business analyst, sociologist, manager, entertainer, or educator.  It’s these expectations that creep into board meetings, “action planning,” and even (if they happen at all) times of prayer.

The book has been edited to include a number of short “pastoral perspective” chapters from other contributors.  One of them, Gerhald Hiestand, wonderfully describes this malaise by recognising that pastors are often “swimming against the current of the atheological swamp that is contemporary evangelicalism.” (p29).

In this way, Vanhoozer and Strachan are not just writing to pastors, they are also writing to churches.  The reordering they stimulate is not just about church leaders, but about the nature and shape of the church itself.

Theology is in exile and, as a result, the knowledge of God is in ecclesial eclipse.  The promised land, the gathered people of God, has consequently come to resemble a parched land: a land of wasted opportunities that no longer cultivates disciples as it did in the past. (pp1-2)

We are writing to you, churches, because you need to be encouraged to rethink the nature, function, and qualifications of the pastors whom you appoint to serve you… We also think you need to reclaim your heritage as a theological community created by God’s Word, and sustained by God’s Spirit, and to remember that you are part of God’s story, not that God is part of your story (pastor-theologians ought to be able to help you with this!). (p2)

The key phrase used throughout is the double-barrelled “pastor-theologian.”  It usefully interacts with their fundamental concerns about the false dichotomy.  But it is an awkward phrase with no clear scriptural anchor point.  There are some other words which might better serve the purpose.

For instance, the work of the “pastor-theologian” is the work of a missionary.

The word “missionary” has its own baggage, of course, but it makes clear that whenever Vanhoozer and Strachan describe a pastor-theologian in action, they actually end up dealing with missiological issues.  They end up discussing the demonstration and application of the gospel in the shifting culture of the real world.  This is necessarily theological work; how else do you apply the gospel but by first understanding it?  And it is also countercultural work; how else do you apply the gospel but by finding the touchstone points where it pushes back and has something different to say?

Missionary language would have helped the authors as they show us the challenges of this work. Missionaries understand the difficulty of articulating and demonstrating the application of the gospel in the real world.  They know that the countercultural gospel, when filled with the theological richness of Christ’s death and resurrection, will always be resisted, passively or otherwise.

Make no mistake: it is not easy to go against the cultural grain, and in a real sense, the faithful pastor will always be a countercultural figure: what else can pastors be when they proclaim Christ crucified and then ask disciples to imitate their Lord by dying to self? (p3)

The flock of Jesus Christ is threatened not by lions, bears, or wolves (1 Sam 17:34-35) but by false religion, incorrect doctrine, and ungodly practices – not to mention “principalities and powers” (Eph. 6:12 KJV). Consequently, pastors who want to be out ahead of the congregations must be grounded in the gospel and culturally competent.  Public theologians help people understand the world in which they live and, what is more important, how to follow Christ in everyday as well as extraordinary situations. (p23)

In this aspect of pastor-theologian as missionary I particularly valued Melvin Tinker’s short contribution which is a missiological reflection with respect to the UK.  Reflecting on a “Babylonian captivity” in English culture, he describes symptoms that I am coming across in my current context:

The nature of the “captivity” shows itself… by relativism in public and private ethics, valuing people by their looks and work, secularization with the marginalization of religion in public life (“privatization”).  Taken together, the Christian certainly feels like an alien and is alienated.  The gap between what is believed and how it can be practiced (without guidance) can reach cavernous proportions in people’s minds, and so the temptation to capitulate to the world by privatizing religion is strong. (p62)

Secondly, it would have been more helpful for “pastor-theologian” to be understood in terms of the five-fold ministry, and particularly with regard to the apostolic.

The five-fold ministry of Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor and Teacher is unpacked by Paul in Ephesians 4.  These are gifted roles which have the purpose of “building up the body” to maturity in Christ.  Vanhoozer and Strachan explicitly apply the same function to the pastor-theologian who has the work of “growing persons, cultivating a people” (p125).

I would have thought it would have therefore been more helpful to interact closely with these five offices.  Rather, although the teaching, pastoral, prophetic, and evangelistic work of the pastor-theologian are all teased out at one point or other, it is an implicit correlation.

Instead, they fill the phrase “pastor-theologian” theologically by exploring its ambassadorial nature which “participates” (p48) in the “prophet, priest and king” (p39) offices of Christ’s new covenant ministry.  This is helpful, but in sum it most readily describes an apostolic form of ministry; the apostolic ministry is inherently representational of Christ (“as the Father sent me, so I send you”, John 20:21) and, in practice, informs, guides and demonstrates the missiological exercise of the other four.

Apostolic ministry is also marked by a kenotic (self-emptying) character that carries the church, in her suffering and adversity.  This is a characteristic that Vanhoozer and Strachan pick up and apply to the “pastor-theologian”:

Here is the central paradox: the pastor is a public figure who must make himself nothing, who must speak not to attract attention to himself but rather to point away from himself – unlike most contemporary celebrities.  The pastor must make truth claims to win people not to his own way of thinking but to God’s way.  The pastor must succeed, not by increasing his own social status but, if need be, by decreasing it. (pp13-14)

The prophet did not generally minister from a position of earthly power but rather by entering into the people’s suffering. (p46)

The pastor images the old-covenant priest by modeling for the church a set-apart life.  This righteous model is designed to inspire, edify, and if necessary critique the people – all for the sake of encouraging them to pursue the Lord with zeal so that they too may be transformed.  The pastor is no more (or less) righteous than the people.  Ministry does not scrub away personal imperfections and weaknesses, but rather magnifies them, drawing pastors to first lay claim to divine grace before ministering it to their people. (p51)

Pastoral leadership ought to march to the beat of a different world-defying drummer, participating in Christ’s kingship by personifying the cruciform wisdom of God. (p54)

In the end the authors rest the theological task (and hence its doxological, liturgical, didactic, and pastoral expressions) of the pastor-theologian on something fundamentally epistemological and Christ-centred.  It is a “ministry of reality” (p108), a communication “in word and deed, in person and work, [of] the reality of the new resurrection order: the renewal of human being” (p107) and of culture.  Whatever really is, is in Christ, and is therefore known in him.

There is a touching point for this in my own Anglican context.  Vanhoozer and Strachan’s reordering of vocation brings us continually back to consider time again that which is in Christ.  Our ministry is formed and shaped by what is in Christ because what is in Christ is fundamental reality, an epistemological fixed-point in space-time.  Moreover, “Scripture alone provides an authoritative account of what is in Christ (p114).”  A shared scriptural epistemology is therefore essential not only to the building up of the church (because what is in Christ is the rich common ground of true koinonia) but consequentially essential to the unity and collegiality of pastors themselves.  As I have reflected on in other places, this is at the heart of current Anglican disagreements.

It is clear that I resonate with the vision that Vanhoozer and Strachan attempt to reclaim.  After all, this blog is called “Journeyman,” which also alludes to a “jack-of-all-existential-trades” (p104) vocation!  I’d be happy for that to mean for myself, to be “in some sense a public theologian, a peculiar sort of intellectual, a particular type of generalist.” (p15)  I am with Kynes (another minor contributor to the book) who recognises that theology is not dead, but living.  Its appeal is both affective and cognitive.  It is “truth, goodness, and beauty” (p134).

This beauty excites me, it drives me to prayer.  It lingers when I think of the society and community in which I am now placed.  It is the beauty of our Saviour who gave himself for this world.  It is the beauty of God’s rag-tag people.  It is the beauty of the new life to which this world is called.  It is worth a lifetime of effort.

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Can England be Loved?

EnglandI have learned that the Scottish love Scotland. And the Welsh love Wales.  But do the English love England?

As I’ve shared this observation with my English friends, and as it becomes clear what the final question is going to be, before I even ask it they are shaking their heads with a wry expression,  “No, no we don’t.”

Love? It’s as if it’s a category mistake.  I’m not sure what the prevailing sentiment actually is:  Respect? Concern? Admiration? Affection? Options that have been volunteered to me range from the negative (“We resent our society.”) to the self-deprecating (“We’re a little bit embarassed about England.”) to the faux-humble (“We know we’re good we don’t need to flaunt it.”) to the perplexed (“Well, we don’t know who we are anymore.”)  Of course, support for cricket and rugby teams cannot be questioned, and is a common expression of loyalty. But love? What does that even mean?

As an “outsider” observer I can offer some musings about why this is the case:  Perhaps England as a concept isn’t “local” enough; we can speak of love much more readily for Yorkshire, or Cornwall, or Norfolk!  Perhaps England doesn’t have the experience of shared and common adversity that is present in the history of the other UK countries; there has been very little to knit the country together in it’s own identity. If you’re English, or you know England, I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions!

The motivation for my thinking about this is missiological and prayerful.  It was sparked by the opportunity Gill and I had recently of spending time in retreat at Ffald-y-brenin in Wales.  As part of the rhythm of prayer there they include a “Caleb prayer for Wales.”  It’s a prayer for mercy and revival:

O High King of Heaven,
Have mercy on our Land.
Revive your Church.
Send the Holy Spirit for the sake of the lost, the least, and the broken.
May your Kingdom come to our nation.
in Jesus’ mighty name.

Prayed by the Welsh, this prayer is gentle but fervent, and with deep deep roots.  It recalls revivals of the past and yearns and longs for new things in the present.  It imagines life-giving restorative reconnection with God intermingling with the valleys and the hills, the families and the industrial cities.  It looks to “Jesus’ mighty name” as a hope for the lost, the least, and the broken.  It is prayed confidently in acknowledgement of God’s will, because they love their land, and they want God’s best for it.  The prayer reveals a missiological heart.

But if “love for England” is an ungraspable concept, what do we have that can stir us for God’s mission?  What is it that wells up (or could well up) within the English to pray this prayer for their land?  What is the missiological heart for England?

My conclusion is this:  England is and can be loved.  It can be loved with a missiological heart – even those big detached chunks of Southern England that are geographically defined more by their train line to London than their sense of “nationhood,” community, or place.

My prayer for myself, and for the church, is that we would grow in this love.  That we would be more and more moved with the heart of God.  This means to be prayerfully weeping because of the sin we see, and the destructive things we know are hidden away to fester, and the roots of idolatry now writ large in the whole Western world.  It means travailing for lives and communities to be convicted, awakened, and turned towards life-pertaining things.   And above all it means hope – to be trusting in God’s mercy as we dare to believe that the villages and market-towns, the estates and seething throngs of commuters, can somehow encounter and embrace, together, a living experience with a risen Saviour.

Can England be loved? Yes.  But it will take, as they say with a phrase now full of meaning, the “love of the Lord.”

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Sustenance for the Plodding Pedestrian


When You don’t move the mountains I’m needing You to move
When You don’t part the waters I wish I could walk through
When You don’t give the answers as I cry out to You
I will trust, I will trust, I will trust in You!

Truth is, You know what tomorrow brings
There’s not a day ahead You have not seen
So, in all things be my life and breath
I want what You want Lord and nothing less

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Review: The Jewish Gospels

jewishgospelsI have an ongoing interest in the interaction between first-century rabbinical Judaism and Christianity.  On each exploration I find increased depth and colour to my reading of the New Testament.  I picked up Boyarin’s book The Jewish Gospels on something of a whim and for the title alone.

Boyarin’s project is to reduce the divide between what are classically considered as the distinctives of Christianity over against Judaism: the divinity of Christ, and the necessity of suffering in the messianic expectation.  He seeks to demonstrate that these distinctives are present (although not always widely accepted) within pre-Christian Jewish thought and expectation; they are not novelties invented in the light of Christ, but pre-existing understandings that are re-appraised in the light of a kosher, crucified and risen Messiah.

In this he is aiding the increasing mutual affirmation that is currently apparent in Judaeo-Christian relations.  I follow Romans 11 enough to see this as a good thing: Gentile humility and Jewish messianic faith leaves my heart strangely warmed.  Boyarin’s location of classic Christian theology in Jewish messianic expectation serves both.

Of particular interest, however, is Boyarin’s hermeneutic.  This informs exegesis more broadly and I have added it to my toolchest:

Firstly, the title “Son of Man” was not code, or a dimunition of “Son of God” (a clearly messianic term, drawing on the image of the human Davidic kings); it is a deliberate connection with the one with the Ancient of Days in Daniel, and has always connoted divinity.

The occupant of one throne was an ancient, the occupant of the other a young figure in human form.  The older one invests the younger one with His own authority on earth forever and ever, passing the scepter to him.  What could be more natural, then, than to adopt the older usage “Son of God,” already ascribed to the Messiah in his role as the Davidic king of Israel, and understanding it more literally as the sign of the equal divinity of the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man?  Thus the Son of Man became the Son of God, and “Son of God” became the name of Jesus’ divine nature – and all without any break with ancient of Jewish tradition.
(pp 46-47)

Secondly, much of the controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees relates to the Pharisee’s novel approach to the manifestation of their Jewish identity.  Jesus represents a conservative and traditional view, resisting the legalistic and narrow innovations of the Pharisees.

Jesus’ Judaism was a conservative reaction against some radical innovations in the Law stemming from the Pharisees and Scribes of Jerusalem. (p104)

Jesus… was fighting not against Judaism but within it – an entirely different matter.  Far from being a marginal Jew, Jesus was a leader of one type of Judaism that was being marginalized by another group, the Pharisees, and he was fighting against them as dangerous innovators. (p105)

Thirdly, the messianic expectation of the Jews was not triumphalism, (vicarious) suffering was expected.

The notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent, and it remained current among Jews well into the future following that – indeed, well into the early modern period.  The fascinating (and to some, no doubt, uncomfortable) fact is that this tradition was well documented by modern Messianic Jews, who are concerned to demonstrate that their belief in Jesus does not make them un-Jewish. (pp132-133)

I do not have the wherewithal to properly and academically test this framework.  I can only consider the internal logic, and the sense in which they help me to tell the gospel story faithfully to Scripture.  To that extent it is helpful.

I have a few concerned questions about his analytical framework.  His redactional analysis of Daniel presupposes an “intra-Jewish controversy” in which “the author of the Book of Daniel, who had Daniel’s vision itself before him, wanted to suppress the ancient testimony of a more-than-singular God, using allegory to do so” (p43).  He therefore doesn’t present to us an Old Testament witness to Triune thought as a clear proclamation of Scripture, but as a tension within Scripture, a rejection of one part in order to express the emphasis of another part.

This willingness to divide Scripture does not strengthen his argument.  I don’t want him to stand outside and objectify Scripture, I want him to tell the covenant, gospel story.  He gives the material for it, but doesn’t narrate it.  This is a book of intriguing insights but it us readers who have the the task of assessing, applying and proclaiming them.  

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Review: Diamond Geezers

41WVRwkQ6RLIf you want a decent overview of contemporary men’s ministry, this will give it to you.

I was lent a copy of Anthoney Delaney‘s Diamond Geezers as I’ve been focussing (somewhat) on “men’s ministry” recently.  There’s no doubt about it, this is a book for men.  It’s style, content, manner and demeanour shouts “men’s shed” and “man cave” with a barbaric yawp, using blokey vernacular and a mate-in-the-pub mode throughout.

The substance of the book is in the title.  For those who can’t speak vernacular English, geezer is short for “a gentleman of the common type, esp. pertaining to integrity and worthy of respect.”  Diamond is a superlative positive qualitative adjective.  If you were to re-title this in Australian it would (with a bit of a wince at the overly-ockerness) “bonza blokes.”

DGBut the word diamond is quite deliberate.  Delaney takes a six-faceted look at being a diamond geezer.  He deals with six “f-words” which are basically an exhaustive list of the things that are found when working with men: fitness, finances, failures, family, friends and father.  That is, blokes need to deal with their health issues, their wealth issues, their daddy issues, their loneliness, their relational brokenness, and their insecurities.  Tying it all up is the call to live life for Jesus.

By taking this approach, Delaney has produced a robust and reasonably complete exhortation. For myself, I was prodded, provoked and prompted in the chapter on “friends.”  It wasn’t just a sob story (“We’re alone too much, even when we’re with people” p99) but also had a number of challenges, including risking vulnerability, being willing to share life.  Delaney avoids making it all about mush (crf. Paul who had close friends but also “knocked over fences people wanted to sit on.” p108).

Diamond Geezers aren’t afraid to get a bit closer, a bit more real. p101

In other sections Delaney does well to not just deal with the presenting issue (say on financial or physical disciplines) but to prod so that the readers realise that the issue isn’t really the issue, and that burrowing down to the root cause of pain is necessary.  But it’s not always like that.  Occasionally I felt that he was buying into the “be a successful man” game rather than cutting across it to encourage masculine growth in Jesus terms alone.  Occasionally it’s a guilt trip, and a little bit Nike (“just do it”), which can hurt rather than help.

The value of this book is for use as a grace-aware method of communicating “let me tell you some home truths, fella.”  For those blokes (and there are many of us) who simply need some sense knocked into us and to wake up to some realities, this does that with the right trajectory.  For those who are wrestling more deeply, there is a chance that the gem of grace that breaks through could be encountered here, but that would be providence more than planning.

For that deeper work this book isn’t the answer, and may even frustrate.  Such deeper work requires wise counsel, practical courage, and perhaps some real diamond geezers around you to help push you along.  Which means, in the end, the answer isn’t this book, but Jesus working through his people.  But then, that’s always the case, right?  And I’m pretty sure Delaney, clearly a diamond geezer himself, would agree with that.

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Canterbury Tales

12543394_1737078839860119_797688980_nGill and I had a wonderful opportunity to be in Canterbury last week.  Canterbury Cathedral had made a “Canterbury Cross” for our former church, St. David’s Cathedral in Hobart, and it was being handed across to friends of ours, one of whom is a QANTAS pilot, for transport back to Tasmania.  We were warmly welcomed by Dean Robert and Receiver-General and introduced to the stonemasons who had carved the cross from stone taken from the South Transept during the current restoration works of the South Window.

I was unexpectedly moved by the Cathedral itself.  We have visited a number of ancient buildings now, and I was expecting to be impressed.  But, more than that, I was moved.  The atmosphere was warm and friendly and the history was palpable.  Some churches are mausoleums, or grand statements of power.  This was a place to pray and worship.

The Anglican Church is a very old tree.  When you explore it you encounter living branches and dead wood, new buds and once majestic boughs now riddled with dry rot.  At Canterbury I found some deep and living roots.  It moved me.

And all the more as our visit coincided with the now-much-talked-about meeting of the Anglican Primates.  I had found myself praying for these leaders as their meeting started.  I am an international Anglican and the Communion is precious to me.  It is, of course, much damaged and stained at the moment, but my heart for it remains: Oh Lord, let not this entity, this thing, this confused mass of institution and history and culture and politics, dishonour you; but fill it with life, and renew and restore it; let it truly reflect your one holy catholic and apostolic church.

There was every chance that my visit to Canterbury would coincide with a full and final expression of its demise.  I’ve been watching the growing fractures for over a decade now.  I know the issues at hand.  I know something of the personalities involved.  As I walked past the place where the Primates were meeting, I prayed for them, and not least for Justin Welby.  Because, after all, and particularly in the light of the tone and demeanour of an unfortunate many who have responded to the meeting, he needs it:

1 Corinthians 4:9 For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals. 10 We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. 11 To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, 12 and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; 13 when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day. (NRSV)

As far as the outcome of the meeting goes, I am, myself, cautiously encouraged. In my mind the outcome is more in-line with the sense of communion than anything we’ve had from the Instruments in a long long time.  What dismays me is the deliberate lack of grace and understanding with which the outcome has been articulated and communicated by many.

Autonomy does not mean independence and there are, therefore, some things that we hold in common.  What those things are can only be determined collectively and collegially.  It is now clear that the Anglican understanding of marriage is of that order.  Whether or not the Americans have done the right thing in changing their doctrine of marriage, what is clear is that they deliberately did it alone, without adequately attending to their brothers and sisters either within or outside of their immediate jurisdiction.   Irrespective of the rightness or wrongness of their position (for that is a totally different debate) it was certainly not right for them to bring their innovation to the Communion as fait accomplis.  To this was added derogation of those who then sought to grapple with the now wounded relationship, accusing them of separatism and embarking on a path of litigiousness and deposition and therefore excluding them.  It was not just appropriate, but necessary, for Abp. Foley Beach to be at this meeting.

If we are to be emotionally and ecclesiastically honest, this uncollegiality couldn’t simply be ignored.  Justin Welby is right in his language about “sanctions” and “consequences.”  The Primates cannot impose sanctions and tell a province what to do; but they can determine the nature of the collective, communal path, and express the consequences of TEC’s behaviour in the communal life of the Communion.  This is what we have now.  And it is a measured, mature response.

Very few reactions to the decision have been similarly marked.

As an evangelical committed to talking at the centre, I am a saddened by much of the rhetoric.  I find myself thinking what I would say in various hypotheticals:

To my more conservative brothers and sisters: Trust God the Holy Spirit. Allow God to work. Don’t try and play this out and get ahead of what God is doing.

Don’t work on the next bunch of ultimatums.  Don’t slip into the belligerence of “The Primates didn’t do enough” or into the triumphalism of “See, they’re never going to change.”  Don’t just be correct in your analysis or your theology, be right in spirit, and generous in relationship.  And be very careful, because sometimes you don’t speak the truth in love, and rather than sharing the gospel, you end up convincing others of the lie that the grace of God is peculiarly inaccessible to them.  I’m preaching to myself here.

To my more progressive brother and sisters: Trust God the Holy Spirit.  Allow God to work. Don’t try and play this out and get ahead of what God is doing.

Please pause and take stock.  The way forward is not to belittle or tear down with accusations of cowardice or bigotry.  Certainly avoid the aspersions towards African culture that have now been prevalent, some of which have been uninformed and bigoted.  Be your best, with that sweetness of spirituality that can truly teach and lead the rest of us.  On the issue at hand: if changing our doctrine of marriage is truly what is needed to pursue the will of God for human flourishing, then your task isn’t to defeat the other side, but to convince us and bring us with you; isn’t that the essence of Communion, trusting in God?  Personally speaking, you haven’t convinced me, and I do not believe I am hardened of heart.

As Gill and I exited Canterbury Cathedral last week, a cold wind whipped up from what was a gentle breeze.  It seems to have become a storm, and that’s a shame.  Because the Primates took us to an honest but painful place, a step towards, not away from, good disagreement.  We don’t know what happens next.  But God is good.

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Review: You Can Change

tcyccGill and I have read many books during our life in ministry.  Many are helpful, a few are frustrating, and quite a lot are downright disappointing.  But some are set apart by being theologically robust and wonderfully relevant and accessible.  These are the books that we end up buying multiple copies of and giving away.

It’s been a long time since I came across a book that fits into this category.  I have found one with Tim Chester’s You Can Change: God’s Transforming Power for Our Sinful Behavior and Negative Emotions.  Chester himself describes it as an “anti-self-help book written in the style of a self-help book” which is probably why I like it so much; it subverts all that pop-psych spiritualised self-discovery claptrap that’s out there.

The book was referred to me after I spoke at a Men’s Weekend Away held by our church. By God’s grace among the fruit of that weekend, a number of men are self-motivated to meet together regularly for peer-led discipleship, nurture and accountability.  It was they that discovered this book.  It is a fantastic resource.

The felt-need addressed by You Can Change is, in the broadest view, the perceived irrelevance of typical church life.  In that stereotype the things of church – spirituality, theology, community – are valued and appreciated, but with a frustration that they don’t seem to do anything.  The gospel of Jesus can, in some sense, be understood, expressed, and even promoted; and yet at the same time it can feel like nothing ever changes.  The struggles, temptations, failings and flaws of our very person remain unaddressed and sometimes unabashed.  The gospel moves around us at arms length and our maturation stalls in an eddy of “sinful behaviour and negative emotions.”

The beauty of Chester’s book is that he doesn’t attempt to meet this felt-need by filling the gap between gospel and personal experience with his own ten-step branded model of success-for-the-motivated-Jesus-man; he simply reflects on how to close the gap by applying the gospel as directly as he can to the areas of personal life where change is wanted.

From the “personal experience” side of the gap he encourages his readers to be considering a “change project” as they read; a type of negative behaviour or emotion, or “it might be a Christian virtue, a fruit of the Spirit that you feel is particularly lacking in your life” (p21).  Each chapter ends with questions for reflection that allow the specific area of change to be engaged.  It’s the sort of thing that is perfect to stimulate discussion in a small accountability group.  The structure of the book makes this clear; the chapter titles are:

What would you like to change?
Why would you like to change?
How are you going to change?
When do you struggle?
What truths do you need to turn to?
What desires do you need to turn from?
What stops you from changing?
What strategies will reinforce your faith and repentance?
How can we support one another in changing?
Are you ready for a lifetime of daily change?

These questions are answered from the gospel side of Chester’s approach.  Throughout Chester is Christocentric, cruciform, and fully appreciative of the providential sovereignty of God.  Consider:

So whom do you want to be like? What would you like to change? Please don’t settle for anything less than being like Jesus and reflecting the glory of God. (p20)

Of significant value is the way in which Chester constantly takes the focus of ourselves and turns us towards God again and again.  This is both in what we might call the light sense of re-apprehending the love of God, and it is also in the heavy sense of realising that our sin is also God-centred – a rejection of him, a rebellion, a hardening.

Wrestling with sinful behaviours is something we all share, myself included, and this is a useful corrective.  It is so easy to almost romanticise destructive habits as a wrestle, a battle, or a proving ground.  In this way we reinforce our attachment to those destructive ways as the self-affirming thing that I must overcome, thus eliminating any reliance on God’s grace, and so once again pushing the gospel away to arms length.

We want to put things right.  We want to think of ourselves as a “former user of porn” rather than a “porn addict.”…  For us, sin has become first and foremost sin against ourselves.  If I sin, then I’ve let myself down.  What I feel when I sin is the offense against me and my self-esteem, not the offense against God. (p25)

In this way Chester has one of the best grasps on a biblical harmatology that I have encountered.  As we duck and weave, it simply pokes and prods and reminds us that its not about us.  We are not the solution, we must turn to Christ because “external activities can’t change us… because sin comes from within, from our hearts” (p42).  We need our hearts to be changed, and that has ever been God’s work.  Indeed, “we become Christians by faith… we stay Christians by faith… we grow as Christians by faith,” (p43) “God wants us to walk in obedience, not [our own] victory” (p118).

We’re changed when we look at Jesus, delight in Jesus, commune with Jesus.  But no one can embrace Jesus if still guilty of sin.  And no one will embrace Jesus if still feeling the guilt of sin.  So change begins only when we come under grace with its message of divine pardon and welcome. (p50)

We are changed by God’s grace, we are saved and sanctified by God’s grace.  By God’s sovereign grace the Holy Spirit simply is at work in us, to change us.  Our sin as Christians is not therefore a failure to turn to Christ, its a choice to pull away from him.  This is Chester’s central comfort and his main provocation:

I used to think sanctification was a bit like pushing a boulder up a hill.  It was hard, slow work, and if you lost concentration you might find yourself back at the bottom.  But it’s more like a boulder rolling down a hill.  There’s something inevitable about it, because it’s God’s work, and God always succeeds.  The sad thing is that often I try to push the boulder back up the hill.  I say in effect, “Don’t change me yet, I like doing that sin.” (p55)

If we truly want the grace of holiness, we must get lower, humbling ourselves and leaving the lifting up to God. (p118)

Around this central focus Chester addresses the felt-need questions.  There is very little that is novel in his approach.  Occasionally he seems to be close to some of the twelve steps.  At other times what he proposes is basically a form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.  But it is all useful, and, above all, applicable.

There are two dangers that Chester avoids really well.  The first is the risk of wrong passivity – ‘if God has done it and is doing it then I don’t have to do anything at all.’  The second is the risk of wrong activity – ‘if I can only fulfil this or achieve that then I will be OK.’  He doesn’t avoid this by silence.  There are practical suggestions, and proposed exercises, elements of choice that engage with the nominated change project.  In summary they are:

1. Keep returning to the cross to see your sin canceled and to draw near to God in full assurance of welcome.
2. Keep looking to God instead of to sin for satisfaction, focusing on the four liberating truths of God’s greatness, glory, goodness and grace.
3. Cut off, throw off, put off, kill off everything that might strengthen or provoke sinful desires.
4. Bring sin into the light through regular accountability to another Christian

It’s the fourth point that has been the context in which I have read this book: the community of a men’s weekend and the groups that are subsequently developing.  My hope and prayer is that for the men who read this book, myself included, that grace-filled community, which is so utterly absent in our pious illiberal secularist world, will be the place where Christ is met anew, and reflected in our individual and communal life.

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