Remembering Jesus: Soul Survivor and Sacramental Singing

20160823_193428We’ve just been to Soul Survivor.  For the uninitiated, it’s a Christian youth festival, held as five separate weeks in various places around the UK.  We went to the last week in Shepton Mallet, Somerset together as a family with our church youth group and with 6,500 other people.

It was fantastic.  Uplifting, moving, healing, restorative, life-giving, fun, peaceful, worshipful.

But I had an initial concern that it would be all about the hype and the froth.  I had had a passing observation of Soul leader, Mike Pilavachi, and he has, shall we say, a large personality.  Would the big top and the light show make it just another spiritualised buzz for young people, to dry up like the mud in the fields as the tents are pulled down and the cars drive away?

It wasn’t like that. While rightly being the centre of attention at times, Mike, when it mattered, constantly put the attention back to Jesus.  He was not afraid to turn off the light show and simply ask people to pray in quietness.  People weren’t asked to come forward to receive ministry from the big holy guru, but to simply to pray for and care for one another.  I saw people moved with contrition, with love, with peace, with joy.

And there was music. Lots of it.  Some loud, some repetitive, some light, some profound.  It carried people away without getting carried away, if you know what I mean.  And while the lyrics were not 18th Century theological treatises, they were meaningful and biblical.

It reprised me with an ongoing thought I’ve had about charismatic worship of this kind, the sort that’s done well.  What does it do?

Firstly, it expresses an obedience to the Scriptural injunction to build one another up with “songs, hymns, and spiritual songs” and to “sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.”

Secondly, there is a sense of expectation that this form of worship is an effective means of encountering the grace of God in particular, life-giving ways.  This is the charismatic sense in which the worship incorporates prayer, healing, restoration, and a growing intimacy with the Holy Spirit.

These are two marks that characterise sacraments.  The two canonical Sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism are done in obedience and are an effective administration of God’s grace.  We encounter God in the Sacraments, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Musical worship is not a Sacrament, but in this sense it is sacramental.  In the midst of musical worship we can encounter the grace of God in a particular way as the Holy Spirit ministers to us.

What struck me at Soul Survivor however, was another aspect of this.  The two Sacraments also have the characteristic of being a memorial, in the broad sense of the word of “an aid to memory.”  Jesus commands that the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine and the sharing together should be done “in remembrance of me.”

As I watched over six thousand young people singing about Jesus it was clear, by this they were remembering him, and they were remembering who they are in him.  It was truly a memorial.  It was kerygmatic.  It was a connection with and a proclamation of the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

And my prayer is this: that as the young people dispersed into their year, that they would take the remembering of these songs, this worship experience, with them.  In whatever stresses and strains they experience, that they would be led to remember Christ there, away from the big top, in the midst of reality.  That they would do life in remembrance of him, and so bear much fruit for his glory. Amen.

Posted in 2.0, General, Music, Videos Tagged with: , , , , ,

Review: Ministry in Three Dimensions

min3dThe church often wrestles with the times in which it finds itself.  It’s a good and godly thing. Identity and purpose are reappraised as eternal foundations are sought out in the midst of shifting cultural sands.

Over the years Gill and I have been a party to this wrestle, at local congregational level and also within wider networks and systems.  Invariably, at some point that wrestle faces a particular collision: One that is between the sense of vocation and call that Christians experience individually and collectively, and the historic structures of ministry in the Anglican Church.  As we grapple with the mode and manner of ministry of the whole body (laity), questions arise about our particular threefold ordering of deacons (diaconate), priests (presbyterate), and bishops (episcopate).  What do they mean? What are they for? What do they do? And how might they help (or hinder) the mission of the whole people?

This is often a constructive collision.  It can assist innovation and avoid disconnection.  We have, for instance, seen the creativity of “locally ordained ministry” in which long-term locals are authorised to exercise ordained ministry as part of a “local ministry support team.”  We have seen the value of ordaining not only those who will serve the church in its modal, geographical form, but also where the church is a sodality, in chaplaincy, advocacy, and education.  We have walked the “normal” paths of affirming a call to ordination: academic training then being deaconed and priested within a curacy. We have also trodden forgotten paths in which a call to the distinctive diaconate is affirmed from within the integrity of life experience.

I have been ordained as a deacon and a priest in the Anglican Church. Gill has been ordained as a deacon.  We are both members of the people of God.

In this ecclesial wrestle, this vocational collision can often be a churning confusion of language and expectation.  It is a touchstone of the malaise of the western church: we don’t know what we’re for anymore.  As well as the different emphases of each individual’s (lay or ordained) sense of ministry call, there are often wildly different expectations that attach to the ordained ministry and its offices.  Throw into the mix the usual divisors of churchmanship and talking about the three orders becomes a fraught topic.  Many avoid delving in too deeply, preferring that safe ambiguity which is the usual descriptor of default Anglicanism.

I am delighted, then, that Steven Croft, soon to be my new diocesan bishop here in the Diocese of Oxford, has dared to delve into and delight in the threefold order.  His Ministry in Three Dimensions is apparently standard fare for ministry training here in the UK. This was my first time picking it up; I read the 2008 new edition of the 1999 original.  I’m glad I did.  It’s a useful stimulant for some ecclesiastical torpor.

Bp. Steven speaks of three dimensions rather than orders and this is helpful.  It allows him to describe and demarcate diaconal, presbyteral and episcopal distinctives, without being restricted by the boundaries of the orders.  It means that throughout he can not only remind us, for instance, of the diaconal dimension of a bishop’s ministry, but also of the episcopal dimension of a deacon’s.  This is helpful.

For Bp. Steven, this “three-dimensional” ministry is for the “proper ordering and care of local congregations” that is “different and parallel” to the “‘charismatic ministries’ given to different individuals by the gift of the Holy Spirit for the building up of the whole body.” (p38).

I am not entirely convinced by the distinction this makes.  It is helpful with respect to the general list of charismata in, say, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11.  However, I would have liked to see a tighter interaction with the the five-fold gifts of Ephesians 4:11-14 where Paul is being quite particular and deliberate.  His framework places a demarcation between “proper ordering and care” (3-d) and “building up the whole body” (5-fold) that prevents some useful correlations.

Nevertheless, the focus on the three dimensions allows us to turn “not to the broken cisterns of secular management theory, but to our springs of living water; the God who speaks through Scripture and has continued to speak in new ways through Scripture throughout the history of the Church.” (p41).  As one who shares the “deep dissatisfaction” (p25) with the pop-psych pontifications of programmatic pastoring, this is encouraging.

The book is divided into three parts for each of the dimensions of ministry:

Bp. Steven’s treatment of diaconal dimension dignifies what is often overlooked.

The diaconal tradition within the New Testament can be traced very easily directly to Christ himself and to central strands of Jesus’ own self understanding; to the pattern of the incarnation; and to the Old Testament background which helped form Jesus’ own identity.  Of the three concepts which we will explore and which came to be used as titles for Christian ministers, that of deacon has the richest and the deepest theological tradition of all.” (p45)

He is convinced of the theological arguments for the restoration of a permanent diaconate (p59) and expounds something of this in the new edition’s chapter on mission-shaped church.  There he identifies a “natural connection between pioneer ministry and the tradition of ministry as diakonia” (p201).  This connection springs from the characteristics of diaconal ministry which he identifies as:

  1. Simple, hidden, practical acts of service(p68).
  2. Outward focused service to the wider community (p70) which resists the “centrifugal” self-referential tendency of church organisations (p70).
  3. Competent and careful administration (p72).
  4. Listening to others (p73), including the “story of the church… as told by a cross-section of different people… to lay a very necessary foundation for any common vision which may arise.” (p75)
  5. A servant-hearted attitude and integrity. (p76)
  6. Expressing a spirituality of trust which “waits upon God and listens to God for his priorities and his way forward for a particular local church…” (p78).
  7. Serving and being served allowing “other people to care for us”and therefore expressing mutual service (p81).

Gill and I always welcome any attempt to deepen understanding of diaconal ministry.  We have come across so many situations where it is reduced to a liturgical function, or considered to be merely menial with tasks pertaining to a first-year curate only!  Rather, there is a form of diaconal leadership that when embraced and released is a phenomenal resource, as it connects to and extends the operation of the other dimensions.

“Leadership alongside” is a key aspect of the distinctive diaconate.  Perhaps it’s best instantiated when archdeacons lead alongside their bishops.  A deacon not only supports episcopal leadership practically, but by drawing that leadership forwards into and with the awareness of listening and discernment, and the spirituality of trust and waiting.  This can look like encouragement, sometimes like challenge and godly provocation.  But diakonia and episcope need each other.  Disconnected from diakonia, episcope strives, often with hollow diminishing returns.  Disconnected from episcope, diakonia shrivels and dies, or simply bursts with uncontainable awareness.

There’s a line from a song, about a husband and wife remembering and celebrating their pioneering life.  One of the lines describes the mutual service of husband and wife and says: “If I forget my name… remind me.”  Applied more generally, that is what diaconal ministry brings.  It reminds all dimensions of ministry of who we are, even (and especially) if we don’t want to hear it.

Bp. Steven’s consideration of the presbyterial dimension draws on pastoral/shepherding aspects of Christ’s ministry and, unsurprisingly, emphasises the ministry of word and sacrament.  What he is able to avoid is a reductionism:

The ministry of the priest does not consist of only that which a priest and no-one else can do. To argue this is to shrink priestly ministry only to presiding at the eucharist and pronouncing absolution. Rather, priestly ministry is better seen as a particular combination of ministries, clustered around the ministry of the Word and of the sacrament. (p106)

His consideration of Word ministry moved me as I am only sometimes moved.  Here is a consideration of preaching and exposition that is antidote to the prevailing “nice sermon, vicar” dilution in common church life.  Not only does he emphasise the depths (and privilege) of bringing “a congregation into contact with that living word of God; and the word of God into contact with the congregation through regular biblically-centred preaching” (p114) but he also recognises the importance of proper apologetics and teaching on “the great issues of life”, applying the Word not just “in-house” but to the “whole of creation” (p115).

His consideration of sacramental ministry not only picks up on Baptism and Holy Communion but on reconciliation and leadership in prayer and blessing.  He draws out the presidential aspects of this dimension (although he rarely uses that language) by which a congregation is lead into an engagement with God’s grace through imitation and participation.

Of greatest importance, however, is the section which emphasises “hidden intercession” (p133).  It is here that the very real burden of pastoral ministry is acknowledged.  I have often associated this with an apostolic burden as it is a hallmark of the apostles’ ministry in the New Testament.  But the attachment to eldership is sensible.  Certainly, when I look for those who will join a true leadership team, i.e. one that is concerned with purpose and direction more than management and maintenance, I look for those who are finding themselves strangely moved with a spiritual burden for God’s people.  Such as these will step off the vocational cliff, so to speak, and find God lifting them up.

Bp. Steven does well to refer to the New Testament language of a presbyter “agonising” and “wrestling” (p134) for individuals and for the church as a whole.  Such things are integral to this dimension of ministry.  It is in the gift of tears, that we encounter the sufferings of Christ for his people, and can place the church (and therefore our hopes and dreams, our reputation, and energy) in his hands and not cling.  It is a parental burden, in the best sense of it, which leads to that “particular quality of holiness which we find in Christ: joyful yet long-suffering and compassionate; righteous yet not judgemental; free yet disciplined; accessible yet profound.” (p137)

With respect to the episcopal dimension Bp. Steven identifies aspects of ministry that are increasingly be expected of “ordinary” ministers (lay and ordained) and not simply those who hold the office of Bishop.  He sums it up:

“…the mission context in which the Church now finds itself is calling for a shift in the balance between the different dimensions of ministry.  Gifts which have not been traditionally part of the diaconal or priestly calling are increasingly demanded of the clergy: the gifts of intentionally enabling and building community; the gifts of discernment in identifying the charisms of others and enabling them in ministry; gifts of collaboration, of vision; and of guiding a Christian Church through a period of change.” (p141)

Drawing on the famous Acts 20:28 in which Paul exhorts elders to “keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” he does very well, in the new edition’s chapter, to locate “watching over yourself” at the forefront of the episcopal dimension (p205).  This self-watching is not only essential for self-care and avoiding burn out, but for the maintenance of the essential spirituality of episcope.  Bp. Steven notes the spirituality of diakonia as “learning to listen to God” characterised by integrity, of presbyteral ministry as intercession characterised by holiness, of episcope as discernment characterised as responsible initiative.  Watching over oneself gives attention to these crucial aspects of spirituality.  In the end the overseer must know to trust God that responsible initiative will be vindicated, and so resist the tainted and dangerous waters of disillusion.

The other foci of the episcopal dimension are profound in that they highlight a paucity in many contemporary churches.  Many churches these days resist a “vicar does everything” only to “take on a concept of ministry in which the ordained decide everything” (p170).  Against this, the episcopal dimension works towards a dynamic unity through the enabling, developing, and sustaining of the ministry of others (p143).

There, is therefore, an interaction with that fundamental wrestle of the church to be who it is called to be… without being lost in itself.  Bp. Steven helpfully identifies a paradox in which the focus on mission can end up, ironically, as a cause of self-focus! (p169).

A local church is never a static community but, ideally, on which is moving forward together towards common goals. Catching, developing, articulating and sharing common vision for that process is a vital part of the exercise of this kind of leadership. (p155)

There is a tendency for growing churches to become centrifugal in respect of the energy of their lay members as well as of their clergy, and for the horizons of effort and of personal development to shrink to that which benefits the life of a single church.  Part of the task of episcope is to ensure that a congregation’s horizon in respect of their vision is clearly set upon the building of the kingdom of God throughout the world, not simply the development of a single congregation in a single place. (p167)

The image of “rhythm and road” (p158) is a brilliant framework for avoiding this paradox.  Here, the rhythm of the church is its worship in word and sacrament especially.  The road is that of “discipleship and of learning the Way” (p158).  It is the episcopal dimension to help the church meet the challenge to “weave and shape its life around both rhythm and road.” (p159).

In the area of discipleship Bp. Steven is a respected voice.  His insights into the need for structures to service discipleship and not vice versa (p175) are welcome.  Similarly, he embraces discipleship principles such as having “low initial training, high ongoing support” (p178).  It will be interesting to see how and where he applies these sorts of things in his Episcopal (with a big E) ministry in Oxford.

If there is one area he could have emphasised more, particularly with regard to the area of maintaining unity in mission, is that of spiritual warfare and the related area of conflict.  In our experience, it is in these bitter times that we have come to rely more closely on the Spirit and trust the witness of Scripture.  It is helpful, in our view, then to connect the episcopal dimension with the apostolic witness more than Bp. Steven chooses to, even though he refers to “those who are called and sent by God are themselves to be senders and enablers as that mission is extended in each generation” (p165), which is the very essence of an “apostle”, i.e. a “sent-one.”  There is a sense in which episcope travails beyond concern for the church but in itself encapsulates an apostolic kenosis, a weakness through which God is glorified. That willingness to be made “fools for Christ” (and worse) that we see in 1 Cor 4:1-13 and the like is the ground of episcopal authority, that would both answer the enemy, and lead the church, with the way of the cross.  In short, in the episcopal dimension the cost of mission is counted in a unique way, where moving forward is to die a death and receive life as a gift.

As the church wrestles with the reality of itself, there is a need for the deep thoughts presented in this book.  Too quickly we run to titles and labels and structures as self-evident, when it is the substance not the form that counts.  This book is useful for those training or exploring their own vocation (in whatever dimension).  But it has best benefit for those who are participating in that fundamental wrestle with reality – who are we? And how do we be the people of God?

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

Home, the Long Way ‘Round

clockworkI’ve recently had cause to reflect on my mortality.  I can now count myself amongst that (rather large, as I am finding) cohort of people who have had the doctor gaze and use the “c-word.”  In my case, it’s bladder cancer.

In my situation, while there are some unknowns remaining, there is not cause for great concern.  From the moment I saw blood in my urine (if you see it, get it checked!), the time to having a wonderfully acronymised TURBT operation was less than a month. It was a large tumour but caught quite early.  All signs are good for a full recovery with minimal subsequent treatment, and we’ll know for sure after an appointment next week. God bless the NHS!

But it’s made me think, of course.  Despite the fact that my particular cancer journey is merely a tiptoe to the front gate compared to the epic expeditions of some… I’m 41 years old, and mortal, and now very aware of that fact.

There are three components to my musing:

Firstly, I’m not afraid of dying. I’m really not.  1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 is a comfort, and I can echo that wonderfully defiant hope-filled proclamation from 1 Corinthians 15: “Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?”  I will be raised on that last day, if our Lord does not return first.

Secondly, I do have some worries, and they are about those who depend on me, most fundamentally my family.  I manage this anxiety by returning to a truth that I have had to fall back on a number of times as a husband and father: God is trustworthy.  Sometimes I feel the answer to my anxious prayer is a divine “Do you trust me with them, or not?”  And that pokes until there is life-giving movement.

Thirdly,  within myself, my response is this: I’m not done with my life yet.  Yes, I know my life is not my own, and there are always acts of fate and providence that I cannot control.  But it’s my reaction to a real and present sense of mortality: I don’t want to shortcut, I want to get to the goal the long way ’round.

You’ll have to forgive my nerdiness, because I’m referencing Doctor Who here.  In the episode The Girl in the Fireplace the Doctor jumps from point to point in a woman’s timestream.   She realises what’s going on: that he goes the “short way”, moving from decade to decade in a blink of an eye.  But she “takes the long way ’round”; she lives her life to the end.  It all happens because of clockwork robots, of course, because, well… Doctor Who.

But my point is this.  I want to live life, the long way ’round.  I want the good times and the storms, because blessed is his name.  The fading like autumn grass is a felt reality, so I don’t want to waste the summer sun, but get on with obeying the truth and sincerely loving according to the enduring word of God.  The thought of missing out on all that, whether life be a fight or a cruise, produces a regret in me and makes my mortality more foe than friend.

There are times where, like Paul, we long for heaven, and groan even more for the resolution of all things at the end.  I think there are some who might feel rightly cheated if I were to enter into my rest before the work was done and the trials were ended!  But nevertheless, this transitory life has the very depths of value, even and especially in the work and the trials it brings.  And so my aspiration, resolve, my longing, becomes this: Bring it on. Let’s get there the long way ’round.

[UPDATE, 3/8/16]  We have now had the follow up appointment and the news is good.  The CT scan was clear and the tumour has not spread.  The histology shows that it is a slow-growing form of cancer, and therefore not highly aggressive.  I will not need any further treatment except for regular checks for the next five years and intervention if required.  Apparently (according to the doctor’s bladder cancer app!) there is a 24% chance of the tumour recurring in the next year, and a 40% chance of it recurring in the next five years (which is a little concerning, but not a problem with regular checks).  There is a smaller chance (less than 1%) of it developing into a more aggressive form. [/UPDATE]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
Amen

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

Cobblestones,_Père-Lachaise,_November_2012

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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