Discipleship is not an academic exercise. It is often, substantially, a journey through an emotional landscape. Sometimes those emotions are negative and dark: grief, suffering, pain.

This shouldn’t surprise us. After all, to “abide in Christ”, is to be his. To follow him is to live as Jesus did (1 John 2:6) and Jesus was, and is, and was prophesied to be a “man of suffering and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3). Discipleship is about “sharing in his sufferings” (Romans 8:17). There is a cost to discipleship, as Bonhoeffer (amongst many others) would say.

I’m not trying to be morose. There is joy, peace, fulfilment, happiness even, on the road with Jesus. Laughter abounds. But these are not grounded in some sort of avoidance or escape, but are comingled, intertwined, with all that comes. The joy breaks out from the grief. The tears are wiped away. The peace is beyond understanding. Glory sprouts from the suffering.

A part of my emotional landscape recently has been grief. I have grieved this week for some reason. I was confronting myself. I was encountering some of those pains, regrets, fears, and worries that get pushed down until they pop up like fungi in the damp of one’s hidden soul.

I was also grieving for the church. This has been a week in which the ugly side of us has been on display, for various reasons. The human sexuality “debate” has yet again be broached. I have had over twenty years of experiencing this particular no man’s land, and yet the vitriol, bile, and lip-curling condescension has shaken me. But my reflection hasn’t really been about #LLF (for those who know what I’m referring to); it’s a more general weariness.  We love the church (local and large), and that involves care and belief. Yet the church often looks more like a phlegm-hacking pale-skinned shadow than the vivified vocational verve of the gospel we follow. Amidst self-referential ear-tickling comfort-mongering machinations I have also seen my own disintegrating compromises, conflicting responsibilities, and sheer plain finitude. For better or for worse, realistically or otherwise, that has been my recent emotional landscape.

So where is Jesus on that path? I’ve been finding him in a play of two parts:

The first part is an insight from my wife, Gill. This is not a surprise; she is regularly insightful. She took me to the story of Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead, in John 11:1-44.

The story may be familiar to you. Jesus is friends with Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. While some distance away from them he learns that Lazarus is sick. He declares a hope that “this will not end in death” but it will “be for God’s glory” and his own. He delays his return. Lazarus dies. “Lazarus has fallen asleep; I am going to wake him up”, he says, “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” There is hope; but Lazarus is dead.

Martha comes out to meet him. She presents a rational, theological engagement to Jesus. When Jesus assures here that Lazarus will be raised, she pushes that hope off into an abstract future: “Yes, I believe that we will all rise again.” Lazarus is dead, Jesus, but we get the theory.

Mary has not come to greet Jesus, but he sends for her. Mary readily emotes. She collapses at his feet, and there is a tinge of bitterness to her voice: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s only half a step from “Where the hell have you been! I thought we could trust you! I thought you brought hope!” Lazarus is dead, Jesus, where have you been?

Martha grieves. Mary grieves. And, even though he knows what is going to happen, Jesus wept too.

Here’s the insight in this story for me: We are grieving for the Western Church like Mary and Martha grieved for Lazarus. Good people have been plugging away at gospel ministry for years, the church has been cared for in its fitness and its brokenness, its strength and decline. We have done our best to be faithful to our task, but in the end, we know, that none of it matters, unless Jesus shows up.

Our gospel preaching is nothing, if Jesus is not in it. Our social action. Our pursuit of what is good and holy. Our cries for justice. Our restructuring. Even our self-giving to one another in unity and peace-making. All of these virtues are not enough, except if the Spirit of Jesus be in them. There are times when we look at ourselves, locally, nationally, within our Western world and there is deathliness about us. And we feel the bitter tears. In that landscape, the blurted out “prayer” of the most visceral sort is: “Lord, when are you going to show up? Lord, why are you waiting? We can’t change hearts. We can’t overcome the power of sin. But you can! Where have you been?” We struggle to even pray “Revive us, Oh Lord” except in Martha-like abstract theory.

The church is Lazarus. And we are allowed to grieve.  Yes, there is hope in this analogy, and we don’t ignore it:  Lazarus is called back to life, away from the stench of death; a living reflection of Ezekiel 37. Jesus is glorified, and his people believe. And now, Jesus will be glorified, life will come. Yes there is hope. But let’s not rush quickly there. Right now can be a time for weeping.

The church is Lazarus. And Jesus weeps. And that’s OK.

It brings me to the second part. I have tried to imagine Jesus weeping: tears rolling down middle-eastern skin, cheeks and beard. Were they gentle tears? Or sobbing? Were they sympathetic tears for Mary, or tears of his own response, akin to the woundedness he cried over rebellious Jerusalem (Luke 19:41)?

My task as a disciple of Jesus is to follow him. How then, may I be led by his emotions? What would I learn if I could watch his passions, see his tears, and hear the prayers he whispers through salt-dripped lips? What may I glean from his demeanour when he encounters stress, grief, injustice, and utter weariness? Where can I go to learn from him, and be his disciple?

The gospels are good place to start. But the Scriptures also give us a fulsome emotional repertoire: the Book of Psalms.

Let me get there somewhat theologically:  Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed heir of the messianic king David. David points to Jesus. The psalms of David are the prayers of David. They are the prayers of a messiah. Prophetically, therefore, they are the prayers of Jesus. The New Testament often uses the psalms this way. Take a look at Hebrews 1:5, quoting Psalm 2:7 – “You are my Son, today I have become your Father.” Keep reading that Psalm and on the lips of David it is somewhat pretentious, but on the lips of Jesus it is simply, right: “I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.”

So now I can read the psalms, and hear them on the lips of Jesus in the emotional landscape. In the psalms is faith-filled joy, faith-filled peace, faith-filled anger, faith-filled weariness, faith-filled grief. In the psalms, the Spirit of Jesus is praying, and I can learn from what is prayed.

I can see Jesus expressing gentle but firm defiance against political power in Psalm 2:1-3: “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One. ‘Let us break the chains,’ they say, ‘and throw of the fetters'”

I can see Jesus putting faith against fear in Psalm 3:1-3. I wonder if these were amongst his groanings in Gethsemane?: “O Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me!… But you are a shield around me, O Lord; you bestow glory on me and life up my head.”

I can see the protective frustration of Jesus in Psalm 4:2-3: “How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame? How long will you love delusions and false gods? Know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself; the Lord will hear when I call to him.”

I can hear the weariness of Jesus and a sinking into his Father’s arms in Psalm 5:1-2: “Give ear to my words, O Lord, consider my sighing. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray.”  I wonder if these were in his laying-awake, or his mornings when he sought solitude with his Father.

In some psalms I think we see the prayers of Jesus on behalf of his people; the Spirit gives voice to the collective, broken, Body of Christ: “O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline in your wrath… My soul is in anguish. How long, O Lord, how long?” (Psalm 6:1-3). Is this a glimpse of Christ’s intercessions for us before his father (Romans 8:34)?

“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:1) and I hear my Saviour’s delight.

Right now, anyone who cares for the Lord, and for his people, is likely passing through an emotional landscape. Here, as ever, the Lord weeps too. Here, as ever, Jesus teaches us his way.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

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In the first lockdown of 2020 churches were prevented, by law, from opening. In my own denomination the restrictions went even further: private prayer was not allowed, funerals were not allowed, and I, the vicar, couldn’t even mow the lawn. There was some sense to it; we didn’t know much about the virus and we all wanted to do our bit to protect the vulnerable.

It was, at the very least, inconvenient. Then the pain of it began to emerge, especially for those for whom physical sacrament and physical fellowship is an essential part of comfort and faith. Most of us took on board that pain and sought to use the season as a time of refining and realigning. Here was an imposed fast, a slowing down, a solitude. There was blessing in it. If nothing else, it taught us how to go online!

But now we have the second lockdown. It’s different from the first. The approach is now more targetted, firstly by region, and now by activity. Schools are not closed. Some businesses are not closed. But church buildings, once again, are closed for public worship, even the facemasked, distanced, non-singing, non-hugging, non-chatting sort of public worship that we’ve been exercising and enforcing over the last few months. Private prayer is allowed. Broadcast of worship is allowed. Foodbanks and other ill-defined services of help are allowed.

The mood in the wider community is different this time. The main difference is the inconsistency of the response. We were all in it together in March and April. But now we know that the rules don’t apply if you’re powerful and have family in Durham. The rules don’t apply in the North until the South gets impacted. You’re allowed to have a working lunch with a colleague, but you can’t share a pint a few hours later. You can pay a housecleaner to come in to your home for hours at a time, but if you meet your grandkids in the park for a few minutes you’re breaking the law. There is anger now. Some of it is unhelpfully absolute (“The pandemic is a lie!”) but most of it is about weariness, confusion, and injustice.

So what is the church to do? In comparison, for my own church context, this second lockdown isn’t terribly inconvenient. It does affect some more than others, of course, and we’re doing what we can. Once again, if we have a mind to it, we can roll with the pain and the frustration and let it refine us. Who are we? What are we missing in this moment? How does this reveal what we are longing and yearning for in the Kingdom of God? We can share in the pain of the wider community and get clarity about our sense of hope. That sounds like the stuff of advent to me!

It’s not our place simply to reflect the popular mood. If there is anger in the community, might it be that our task is to seek peace? I certainly don’t think that the American-style bandwagon of #letusworship protests are in any way helpful to the gospel. Neither, in this moment, are acts of eucharistic civil-disobedience. Special pleading for churches to open is rightly met with incredulity; why should we get to operate our religious business when the gym owner can’t, why should we get to meet with our friends on a Sunday morning when the local football team can’t?

At this point we reach the crux of the issue. Who are we, that we should be allowed to meet? That’s a non-rhetorical question, it needs to be answered: Who do we think we are?

In one of my former churches a local public relations company generously offered the church some pro-bono work. The analysis they did was helpful and insightful. But what struck me was this: They approached it in terms of “marketplace.” In their framework church is a leisure activity. We are competitors seeking a share in the market of people’s free-time and discretionary-spend. For a theologically pretentious person such as myself, this is a confronting thought, because there is some truth to it. For the vast majority of people there is work time, family time, and leisure time. Church fits into the last category, with some overlap into the second. There is some good to that; we are a place where people can be and receive and be fed and not have to perform. If we do it well, we have a positive effect on wellbeing; we strengthen families and can provide relational, emotional, and practical first-aid when times of stress come along. But, of course, a football club, or a hiking group, or a bunch-of-old-schoolmates-who-catch-up-on-a-Tuesday-afternoon can do that as well, maybe even better. Church is not just a leisure activity. If we were, then we should, rightly, and consistently, be closed up with the rest of those groups right now.

Are we anything else? To some extent, we’re also a business activity. We employ people. Much of what we do is charitable works (more on that in a minute), but we’re also content producers, pastoral carers, cleaners, support staff, and so on. We’ve already had to work this one through when there were restrictions on “socialising”: Is the vicar having a cup of tea with Mrs. Jones socialising or working?  It is work, the exercise of a profession. (It’s also socialising, but let’s not complicate things for Mrs. Jones.) Moreover, there is a religious industry, and, if I were to be cynical, there may be some churches who are only pushing to open because the plate hasn’t been passed and the bottom line is hurting. But, of course, church is not just a business activityIf we were, then we should, rightly, and consistently, be closed up with the other businesses right now, and be hurting right alongside them.

Of course, churches also do good works. We are charitable enterprises that perform a utilitarian service. Who was it that recently tweeted that we have become the “church of good” more than the “church of God”? We run foodbanks, and support groups, and mental health services, and so on. We can argue, therefore, that the church provides essential services. Indeed, this is recognised; these clearly definable essential services have been allowed to continue. But is that really who we are? Such services often run out of churches because we have a philanthropic volunteer base, perhaps a higher degree of altruism. But a foodbank could be run by any group of well meaning group of civic-minded folk. The church is not just a provider of essential utility. Where we are seen to be such, we are rightly, and consistently, allowed to keep operating.

What we are running into is a different sense of what is essential. And that raises the question of: Who are we? What is our essence? There can be no escaping it; we are a worshipping community. We are theologically defined in our very soul. We are students of Jesus. We believe he died, rose, and is with us by his Spirit. We devote ourselves to him through private and corporate rhythm and ritual. We seek his Kingdom Come, which is more than just the doing of good, but the pursuit of a fulsome transformation of community, society, and individual lives… for his glory.

We don’t bother with church just because we’re fond of the people there and because we get a sense of being fed and fulfilled; we are not just a leisure activity.

We don’t bother with church just because we’ve got a job to do, or a duty to perform; we are not just a business activity.

We don’t bother with church just because it can do some good in the world, and fill a gap in the social fabric; we are not just an essential utility.

No, we bother with church because God is bothered with us. And he calls us to devote our whole lives, our careers, our families, our passions, our dreams, our finances, and our time, to the pursuit of his kingdom…. together. We are the body of Christ. And it is Christ who is our core, our essence, our reason to exist.

So the restrictions on public worship are not just an inconvenience for us. They brush up against the existential depths of our very selves.

The lockdown is easier for some traditions than others. For some it is impossible to detach the physicality of this essence, e.g. the eucharistic presence for our Anglo-Catholic brothers and sisters, the raising of voices together in praise and worship for our Charismatic friends. For others, worship and fellowship is more cerebral and oral and aural; we can express it with some adequacy in an online setting. For myself, I think we can weather the lockdown in this current moment, at least for a short time. But, in essence, I agree with those who are starting to push back at the government: To be who we are we need to worship. We don’t need the building, but we do need to meet. It is not some “essential service”, it is simply essential to what it means to be who we are. We don’t want to lose ourselves. If this season goes on too long I will add my voice to those who are saying “We can do this safely, let us worship together.”

But in the meantime there is a provocation for us. We are being made to confront ourselves. I wonder how many Christians are actually agreeing with the government. I don’t mean about the policy decision, but about the miscomprehension of what it means to be a Christian community. Is church, to us, just a leisure activity, a practical pursuit, an altruistic provision? Is that what gets us out of bed on a Sunday morning when covid isn’t around? If so, then we really really need the lesson of this moment. If so, then we have just become a hollow shell, confused about whose we are and what we actually care about.

The Archbishops’ are right, let’s make this lockdown a time of prayer. Let’s make it a time of re-devotion to the Lord. Perhaps we’ll find ourselves.

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I woke up this morning, the day after the 2020 US election. I’m slightly despondent because it’s close to being the worst possible result. I can say that without showing political bias because there’s no winner yet! It looks set to be a close, contestable outcome, and I can only see further division emerging.

I’ve been thinking about it: America, and the Western World, has the speed wobbles. Do you know what I mean by that? Speed wobbles happen when you’re on a bike, or perhaps a scooter, or some other form of vehicle. At a certain critical moment there can be resonance with the bike’s built-in instabilities; the bike lurches from left to right and left to right, again and again. It falls afoul of it’s own feedback loop of movement until it crashes and causes injury. It doesn’t crash into anything. Nothing happens to it. It crashes into itself.

The physics is graspable. A system is in some sort of equilibrium, running along smoothly until something shifts; the bike-rider adjusts for a change in the road. At this point there is always a form of over-correction. We start heading too much in one direction, we pull back to the other, go too far, and return back towards the centre. In a stable system these over-corrections slowly diminish until the equilibrium returns. In an unstable system each over-correction amplifies the next and it goes back and forth with increasing crescendo until it all falls apart.

We’ve got the speed wobbles in the West. There are two over-amplified directions. We have Trumpism on the “right”, pulling back from government over-reach but also towards the gutter of blatant mercantilism and nationalist oligarchy; and the Wokeism of the “left” pulling us away from deep-seated social injustice but also towards the gutter of blatant progressive moralism and enforced globalist conformity. In the end, both extremes are terrible options; all gutters connect to the same sewer. So we lurch back and forth trying to avoid both.

The Western church is another example. We’ve come to look like the world, and so we reflect these two extremes. The gutter at one end is caricature of “evangelicalism” and “traditionalism”. The former looks like a consumer-class hypocritical industry; by way of example, take a look at the portrayal of Christian marketing in Amazon’s The Boys and you’ll wince at how it hits close to home. The latter can look like a non-benign fanaticism, complete with the funny clothes. The gutter at the other opposite end is a similar Christian veneer over the worldly spirit. It is a caricature of social activism that becomes a militant more-equal-than-others paganism, preaching a message of autolatry (“You do you, you’re perfect as you are”) and burning nonconformists at a de-platformed stake. Again, both extremes are unpleasant reflections of each other.

We’re not fully in those extremes of course. But we are wary of them, and usually seek to avoid them. The world is full of good people trying to put a tick in the box next to the candidate who is the least bad. The church is also full of faithful people seeking to avoid the divisive extremes, looking for a common ground somewhere amidst the encroaching shibboleths. As we search we move from left to right, and right to left. At a certain point of instability, the speed wobbles appear.

There are many factors to this instability. Social media is certainly one of them. It forces nuanced adjustments to pick a side:  “Are you for us or against us? What’s it going to be? If you’re not us then you must be them. All lives matter. Silence is violence. Wear a mask. Don’t be a sheep!” etc. etc.

So here’s the thing. What stops it? Once the speed wobbles start, how do you stop them? Doing nothing is not an option. The instability of the system itself  drives the over-reaction. Without intervention a rending apart is inevitable. So what to do?

Many of us have become adept at hauling back in the opposite direction to the currently favoured force. It doesn’t work in the end. Usually it just adds to the instability. Many of us have tried the art of the compromise, to do our best to speak of the common centre ground which will “dampen down” the volatility and bring stability. But that won’t work if that shock absorption is no longer part of the system. No bike rider can maintain a constant series of equal-but-opposite reactions when it all goes wobbly.

What is needed is a force, a movement, a direction that cuts across the oscillation. On a bike you get rid of the speed wobbles sometimes by slowing down, but also by speeding up, in the forward direction.

This is how it used to be in the political sphere. I heard a commentator the other day who had studied political manifestos from the 1950’s. Political rivalries were just as empassioned then, but this was the observation: It used to be that the political differences were about different ways of applying the same idea but now they are about two competing ideas that are different altogether. That common idea was the stabilising forward force.

Finding that common idea is hard. It’s not enough to long for it in the abstract, to speak of wanting unity, or peace for instance. Unity around what? Peace in what sense? These things only really exist as an appeal to something deeper, a sense of identity. In the UK, for instance, there was once a sense of what it meant to be “British.” For better or for worse, the notion of “For King and Country” was a unifying stabilising common ground. The Americans have had the “Free World” as their identity marker. They may not be great identities, but they are stabilising ones.

In the church we have a similar difficulty. Our common ground has become abstract. We reaffirm that we are the “body of Christ” and that we “see Jesus in each other, no matter our differences.” Such articulations have an admirable intent, but they only work when there’s substance underneath the form. Who actually is this Jesus that we can conceive of and see in each other? If we can’t agree on that big idea the instability only increases.

It’s not enough, you see, to maintain the status quo. You can’t re-centre an unstable system simply by reflecting the lowest common denominator in the middle. Look at what the church does talk about, either collectively or through its public persons, and you’ll see what our lowest common denominator is: climate change, feeding the poor, and generally being good citizens. We agree on such things. But what aren’t we saying? That’s what is missing in the middle.

A broad church, well centred, is a thing of beauty, but that’s not the same as a church with two centres and an overlap in the middle. We can do our best to maintain that overlap, but it is in an inherently unstable system. The speed wobbles will start, and appeals to unity in the abstract are not enough to provide the centring, stabilising force.

I’m not sure what a positively centrist message looks like in the political world. I’m actually entirely open to the possibility that we’ve gone past our Commodus moment. It may be that the demise, decline, and fall of the Western world is as inevitable for us as it was for Rome, once it lost its way and didn’t know who it was anymore. When I pray for our leaders in the political sphere, and other places of influence, this is the heart of my prayer: Oh Lord, give us the grace of a leader with a positive vision of how we can come to a substantial centre.

I pray something similar for the church world. But, of course, here there is a clearer kerygma. The centre has always been about Jesus. It’s always been about worshipping him, learning from him, following him, as we gaze upon him through the revelation of God’s word. There is no other Christian identity other than Jesus. When we are defined by him, in the ancient posture of sanctification rather than the presumption of our self-made existence, we are more and more his.

It is therefore, of course, why as Christians we are now looking to Jesus who is King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, able to still the nations (Psalm 46:10). As the political world around us wobbles into a collision with itself, we, once again, entrust ourselves to one who is a rock on which to stand.

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God is leading us and calling us in this strange season. It’s an opportunity to invest in a mode of being his people that draws us closer to him, stimulates our call, and increases our delight in the leadership of Jesus. This immediate time will shape us and serve us as we go into what is ahead.

Gill and I and others in our household have been putting together some thoughts and talks about how we might respond. In particular, how we might grow in the reality that we are currently expressing as “church in our homes” and while our homes are the location of God’s church. In our homes, households, and “telehouseholds” we minister to one another, and draw closer to God.

Two videos have been uploaded, we’ll be releasing more over the next little while from time to time.

Video 1: Introduction

Video 2: Lectio Divina: Being immersed in God’s word 

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Anonymous asks (in response to a teaching time from one of our recent livestreams):

How would you distinguish between the words in your head and what God is saying?

I’m sure the Bible says not to act in feelings but if it’s a feeling God is giving you how can you know it’s from him?

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog or asked of me elsewhere and posted with permission. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]

I really appreciate this question. It’s an honest question. I think many of us ask (and answer it) without noticing, particularly when we are uncomfortable. It’s when we find ourselves confronted by or disagreeing with something we read in the Bible, for instance, that these questions arise: What is wrong here? What doesn’t sit right with me? Why doesn’t it sit right? How do I wrestle with it?

Too often, rather than wrestle with it, we put the niggly thing aside so that we can simply feel comfortable again. It is rarely the best way forward.

So how might we explore your question?

Firstly, let’s look at things in general: 

Your question is what we call an epistemological question. Epistemology is how we think about knowing stuff, particularly how we know what is right and what is wrong.

It the words in my head say something is true, is that enough or do I need something else? If it feels right, does that make it right? That’s the sort of thing we’re talking about here.

Our answer is affected by historical and cultural differences:

  • Some cultures emphasise tradition as more important than individual feelings or realisations. If you feel something is wrong, but the cultural tradition says it’s right, then the individual gives way to the collective wisdom. The internal process is like this: “I recognise that my experience is limited. Our tradition reflects the shared experience of generations of people, and is therefore less limited. Besides, I want to continue to fit in, so it is therefore more likely that I am wrong and the tradition is right.”
  • Some times in history have emphasised reason as more important than feelings or individual intuitions. The so-called “Age of Enlightenment” from the 1600’s through to the 20th Century picked up on this. “Truth” is determined by logic, and science, and cold hard calculations. This is an aspect of what we call modernism.
  • In the “post-modern” era (20th Century into the present day) we have elevated the value of individual feelings and thoughts. “Truth is experience” is our catch-cry; if we can’t feel it, it is not true. There’s value in this. Cold, hard, abstract theory, is not enough to guide and shape our lives. Our lives are also full of creativity, mystery, and the delights of the senses. We are also aware that beneath traditions and logical frameworks there are often hidden emotions and prejudices and unspoken power dynamics; we deconstruct these so-called truths as the self-serving assertions they actually are. “Going with your gut” rather than arguing yourself into subservience is a virtue in this worldview.

What does this tell us? That the “words in your head” and your “feelings” are not without value, but neither do they solely determine what is true and what is right. I know from my own experience, that my emotions are often broken. For instance, I have had a break down and depression; during that time my feelings about myself did not match the reality about myself and I had to learn to realise that. There have also been plenty of times when I held a view fervently that I subsequently came to realise was wrong. It is impossible to learn or grow without agreeing with the possibility that I’ve got something to learn.

Secondly, how do we approach this from a Christian perspective?

Our faith in God introduces something else into our epistemology.  We belive in a God who is not distant and aloof, but is involved, not only in the history of the world, but in our lives. We therefore belive in a God who speaks, through word and action. What he says is a revelation; it reveals truth about who he is, about who we are, and about what this world is like.

So how do we know what that truth is? How do we know what is being revealed? What is God’s revelation to us?

The beauty of it is that God’s revelation is objective and external to us. God’s truth doesn’t depend on us. This is a good thing! If it did, our sense of truth and of right and wrong would be self-defined. The truth is that God loves the world, and loves me, whether or not I feel it or “know” it. The truth is that there is right and wrong in God’s perfect justice, even if my heart has been hardened and my mind has been dulled, and I am either justifying myself or falsely tearing myself down.

This sense of God’s revelation is found in two forms:

It is found in what we call “general revelation”; there is truth to be found within creation and from looking at what is in front of us. “The heavens declare the glory of God”, the psalmist says.  “Since the creation of the world”, Paul says, “God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” This is how Christian belief embraces and recognises the value of the scineces; it is a study of creation and of humanity that reveals much truth.

It is also found in what we call “special revelation.” That is, if God is close, and interacts with his creation, then God reveals himself in history. The written accounts of that history will then also reveal him.  From looking at that written history we also see how God speaks through inspiration. He speaks to his people. Sometimes (but not often, it usually freaks people out), this is a direct “voice from heaven” (Exodus 20:18-19, Matthew 17:5). Often it is through the inspiration of a prophet who is set apart by God to speak to the people on God’s behalf. It is also through the giving of the Law, and in the inspiration of songs and poetry. The Bible is full of these things: history, law, prophetic writings, wisdom and creative writings, the accounts of Jesus’ life, and letters from his followers.

When we say “The Bible says” what we mean is that “God has revealed himself, in history, saying.” God has even spoken about how he speaks. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:216). The Bible is therefore an authoritative objective revelation for us.

The beauty of it is also that God’s revelation is subjective and personal to us. God isn’t relegated to speak to us in dry and dusty texts with dogmatic formulae; he whispers deeply and personally into the deepest parts of our heart. He calls us by name. He knows us. Jesus revealed himself to others in this way. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit who is our Advocate and Counsellor.  Sometimes the whispers in my head are prompts by the Spirit of Jesus. Sometimes my feelings are the way in which God is waking me up to his truth, a light in the darkness around me.

So how , then, do we know?

We can be certain of something when it all lines up and there is agreement in our epistemology. When our own feelings and logical thoughts agree with the traditions around us… when those things line up with what we read in the Bible and how we feel the Spirit is speaking deeply into our souls… then all is well and good. We have a sense of being sure.

When there is disagreement between these epistemological sources, however, we have some wrestling to do.

In particular, when I find myself wrestling with a part of the Bible that doesn’t “sit well” with me, I churn it over.

  1. I look to myself. What I’m trying to do is to work out what is happening within me. I name up the feeling: Am I feeling angry, guilty, annoyed, fired up and frustrated? What’s going on in me? Are those feelings associated with experiences in my life that I haven’t resolved yet; is there some pain and trauma that is getting poked? How is this Scripture offending me or moving me? I don’t pass judgement and soothe the feeling, I consider myself and work out what the problem is. I recognise that my heart is often fickle, I don’t quickly agree with it, but I acknowledge the reality of my feelings.
  2. I apply some reason and look to logic and tradition. Am I reading this part of Scripture correctly? Do I actually understand what is being said? Have I properly got into the world of those who first read it, and understood what they were hearing? Have I shoved my situation into the text and reacted to something that was never intended in the first place? How have other people understood it over the years? How have they applied it? What can I learn from them?
  3. In all this, I pray for the Holy Spirit to help me. I ask for the Spirit to illuminate my wrestle – to give me insight into the Scripture, or an insight into myself. I trust that the Lord has something for me in the revelation of himself. Sometimes I’ve had a sense of words “jumping out at me” from the page, or stuck in my mind while I dwell on them. Sometimes the Spirit of God works through these things. But! Just because I feel it, doesn’t mean that it’s the Spirit at work. In particular, the personal revelation of God to my spirit will never be at odds with his objective truth in Scripture.
  4. I do it in community. I share all this wrestling with others, even it’s just one person like my wife or a friend. I explain to them what I’m feeling, and how that’s colliding with the words in the Bible. We pray together. We reflect on it together. We wrestle together. And sometimes there’s a prophetic word within that community that sheds light and makes things clear.
  5. I allow God to be God. In the end, I entrust myself to God. It’s nice to have our feelings resolved, and to be comfortable with the Bible and God’s word, but it’s not always the way that leads to growth. Sometimes God is drawing us deeper, and we need to give it time. I can avoid the pain of that growth by setting God’s word aside by either judging it to be wrong, or subjectifying it as irrelevant to me. But, if I want to grow, I need to allow the wrestle to remain. I fall back in confidence on the things that are sure – e.g. God’s love and truth and the beaty of Jesus – and trust God with the rest. Even, and especially, when we cannot see, we acknowledge our blindness, and reach out for God even more.

I hope that answers the question. How we wrestle with our feelings and our own understandings is key to our discipleship and our caring for one another. Thanks for asking. Hope these thoughts help.

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If you’re anywhere within 200ft of a Christian’s social media you will have encountered this youtube video. Musicians and worship leaders from a number of churches across the UK, singing “The Blessing” over the nation.

The video is here in case you’ve missed it: The UK Blessing on youtube.

Let me be clear from the outset here: I delight in this song and how it’s being used. This post isn’t a substantial critique. It’s a bit of wondering, a bit of defence, a bit of leaning off from it to think about the times we’re in and the church of which we are a part.  The song itself (attributed in the main to Kari Jobe and Cody Carnes) came into the limelight coincidentally with the Covid-19 pandemic. We’ve sung it ourselves as a household in this strange season.

So here goes: I delight in this song.

I delight in the content of the song. Its main motif draws upon the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6:22-27:

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell Aaron and his sons, “This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:
‘“‘The Lord bless you
and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face towards you
and give you peace.’”

These are deep and rich words that Scripture leans on from time to time to give assurance of God’s love and favour. It’s there again in Psalm 67, for instance. It’s not about individualistic blessing: the focus is on nation and generations.  This also has rich grounding (Exodus 20:6, Deuteronomy 7:9) as does the invocation of God’s presence (e.g. Joshua 1:9) and God being for his people. These deep waters well up in the New Testament (e.g. Romans 8:31) as declarations of how fundamentally, totally, existentially, substantially, utterly, profoundly is the blessing of God to be found in Jesus of Nazareth, died and risen again as Lord and Saviour!

Notice how a lot of this biblical grounding is from the formative days of God’s people, Israel, in the time of their rescue from slavery in Egypt, their wandering in the wilderness, and the entering into the promised land. These were not easy roads. There were afflictions from around them, and the afflictions of sin and wayward hearts within them. Sometimes it may seem like the loving heart of God looks like discipline (some of us are feeling that at the moment) and feels like his absence (ditto): but the deeper truth remains and calls the heart to trust him. He is for you. He is with you, to the thousandth generation. May his face look upon you and give you peace. At this time of affliction, however we might feel it and experience it, these are life-giving words to sing.

Of course, some may (and have) suggested that the blessing that the Scriptures reserves to God’s people shouldn’t be invoked over the world at large. The critique is not invalid: the blessing of God is not merely a universally and thinly applied sense of warmth, it is deep and located and especially attached to God’s determined work, his promises to his people, and his presence in the person and work of Jesus. But it’s not wrong to pray for the blessing of many. I’ve addressed this question before. I long for all people to know the loving presence and saving grace of God, who knows us and made us and has given us his Son to save us and lead us into an eternal life that begins now. Especially now.

I delight in the recording and release of this song.  Having had to come to grips with sermon recording and livestreaming, I can very much delight in the video and audio editing skills!

It’s not perfect, of course. I’ve already seen some comments from those who haven’t seen someone who looks like this that or the other; not all the intersectional categories have been covered. I feel it a bit myself; there’s a lot of big evangelical charismatic mega-churches in that mix:  Where are the “ordinary worshippers” who look more like me and mine? I’ve got a well-honed cynicism after years in this church game. The “what about me?” response is an understandable human reaction, but in this case I/we should get over it.

This song hasn’t come from some tightly planned bureaucratic focus-group vetted process of fine-tuned diversity management. If there is anyone who has “made it happen” it’s Tim Hughes (formerly of Soul Survivor, and now of Gas Street Church Birmingham) and his espoused attitude towards the song is commendable. It has come about from a loose arrangement of friends and networks and invited and offered contributions. It’s organic and messy, and therefore not perfect. And that’s good.

It also hits a pretty good balance regarding the spotlight and avoiding the sort of brand-driven recognition we often slip into. One of the points of this song is to show that the churches are alive and working together. So it needs some sense of being able to recognise people and places and names of congregations. It does a good job of avoiding the celebrity factor. People are not named, churches are. It’s been released under a neutral brand. The naming of churches serves the purpose of showing a community of communities without overdriving the brands.  And I love knowing that there are Eastern Orthodox and Catholics and !Pentecostals and St. Someone’s of Somewhere all in the mix.

For me, unlike other attempts at this sort of thing, this feels like my brothers and sisters, and I can sing with them. I know these faces. I have seen quite a few of them in real life. I’ve had conversations with a number of them. There’s at least one face in that mix that I’ve served coffee to across my dining room table. The family of God is both bigger and smaller than we think.

Again, I’m good at cynicism. I’ve seen ego-driven light-show presentations done with not much more than a Christian aesthetic. This is not that. It’s not absolutely pure and precise, but so what? It’s a cracked-jar crumpled-paper offering of people who want to declare the love of God over a hurting nation. It is something to delight in.

The only thing that wears my heart, just a little, is this. There’s not enough of Jesus. One of the cracks in our jar (that I think this current season is rubbing at, one of the loving disciplines of God for us right now) is that we have been in a rut of church being about church rather than church being about Jesus. The church is a blessing – but that’s a truth of vocation (what we are called to and enabled to be) rather than identity (what we are by our own right in and of ourselves). The declaration at the end: “Our buildings may be closed… but the church is alive” is great, but it’s unfortunate in that it’s simply about us.  It’s the same with the blurb in the video description which is about our unity and our good works. It’s almost there, but not quite. We are only a blessing because Jesus is. We are only alive, because Jesus is. Let’s say that. We embody the blessing, but Jesus is the substance of it.

We’re not singing ourselves over the nation, we are singing the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Keep doing it.

Amen. Amen. Amen.

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Like many of us, I’ve been pondering things in this current pandemic season. I’m finding it helpful to see some parallels between these times and the effect of Jesus’ teaching, especially his parables.

Allow me to explain myself:  Jesus, famously, made use of parables. Rather than “answering plainly” he would tell a short story.  We know many of them by name: The Parable of The Prodigal Son, The Lost Sheep, The Good Samaritan, etc. They have become well-known to us. So well-known, in fact, that we have become immune to their force.

Parables are meant to impact.

Here’s an example from someone other than Jesus: In 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan confronts King David about his corruption. He could have spoken plainly, but I doubt he would have been heard. Instead, he tells a parable, the story of a rich man who oppresses his poor neighbour. David is drawn into the story until he is confronted: “You are the man!”

Nathan’s parable brings David to a crisis. He cannot stay where he is. The status quo is not possible anymore. He must respond, one way or another. He can either respond with hardened heart, or he can fall into faith. In this case David softens his heart and responds with contrition and repentance. The parable has its impact.

When Jesus speaks in parables he brings his hearers to a similar crisis. They cannot remain unmoved. They will either harden themselves against his word, or they will fall into faith.

In Matthew 13:1-9, Jesus shares the famous Parable of the Sower. It’s a beautiful metaphor involving a farmer sowing seed indiscriminately; it lands on shallow soil, weedy soil, hardened soil, and good soil. He later explains the metaphor; the seed is the word of God which can come to nothing in the poor soil of the pleasures and pressures of life, or bear much fruit in the good soil of those who “hear and retain it.”

This story prompts his disciples to ask, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”.  Jesus responds by quoting the prophet Isaiah:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

He said, “Go and tell this people:
“‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”

Isaiah 6:9-10

Isaiah spoke to God’s people at a point when they were wallowing in complacency after a period of prosperity, even as their world was threatened by a looming invader. They had lost their way. They had forgotten who they were. They were God’s people but they had become self-assured, oppressive, and unrighteous, just like the other nations.  They didn’t just need teaching, they needed impacting. Like Nathan with David, they needed a real crisisSo Isaiah was to speak to them in a way that only faith would grasp. Without that soft heart, they would be “hearing but never understanding”, confirmed in their hardness.

Jesus speaks in parables to do the same for his generation.

Consider the Parable of the Sower. For those with “ears to hear” with a heart of faith, it is wonderful truth. God’s life-giving word is scattered indiscriminately; it’s not just for the strong or wise or holy. God has spoken to everyone, in all places and all circumstances. Heard with a heart of faith, this story generates a yearning to be good soil. It impacts faith and leads to more faith.

But for those who can’t hear it that way, it will have the opposite effect. For those who hold the word of God as something reserved for the upright and pure, a tool for those who have been schooled in the right Pharisaical school, this parable is a confrontation, even an offense. The reponse of the Pharisees to Jesus was often condescension, derision, or anger. They heard but didn’t understand. The parable reveals their lack of faith.

When it comes to faith (or the lack of it) within God’s people, parables have a prophetic amplifying effect. “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (Matthew 13:12)

This then, is my reflection: This coronavirus season is working like a parable to us, the church.  It is having a similar prophetic amplifying effect.  It is bringing us to a crisis. It’s not just a crisis of medical and economic management (although that is real). It’s not just a crisis of bereavement and trauma (although that is very very real). It is bringing us to a crisis of faith.

In the westernised world we have chuffed along in our churches in a context of comfort and prosperity. It’s a bit like Isaiah’s day. We have built a religious industry. We have made our appeals to the masses. We have gotten good at offering something decent on a Sunday, and mechanisms attuned to felt needs throughout the week. But that edifice has been shaken; we cannot even meet together at the moment.

Even as we do our best (and there is much good) in the netflix world of livestreams and zoom, we recognise that the former status quo is gone.  If we can put 90% of our “product” online, just what were we doing anyway? The question is raised. The moment is impacting us.

The impact is also similar to Isaiah’s day; it is raising the question of identity. Whose are we? The difference is literally a matter of faith: We are either God’s people, and confirmed in that, or we are self-made with a borrowed Christian aesthetic, and that is what will emerge. It’s a parabolic moment.

We can imagine the two different responses:

We could do it without God. We can rebuild the edifice. We can market the spiritual experience. We can even do a decent job of being a neighbourly community on a par with any decent Mutual Aid Group. We can find our activism of choice that wants to put the world back together again a certain way, and get on board. We may even take some of our current moment with us: the comfort of doing church in our pyjamas is not nothing!

It’s not necessarily malicious or morally bad, but in this direction it can all be done in our own strength. Like Isaiah’s people seeking help from Egypt… like religious leaders dismissing the up-start from Nazareth and turning back to their traditions… we will not hear the call to faith in the current moment. Just put it back the way it was, or the way we now want it to be.

In this direction, the trust is not in God, it’s all about us. Extend it out and we imagine not just church, but divinity itself in the form that we want it, purged of all that we find disagreeable.  This can manifest at any point on the church spectrum: From woke do-goodery, to blinkered protestations, to marketing tactics, to immovable emptied traditions, it can be sweet, or acidic, stimulating, or soporific. But it has this in common: My world, My terms. A Christian aesthetic, but God not needed, not really.

I can see our current parabolic moment amplifying this faith-less response. Yes, I see it around me, but mostly I mean this with respect to myself. I want to do. I want to seize the moment. I want to plan the future. This is my time! Let us choose the future that most aligns with our sense of self-security and call that “faithful”!

The real difference isn’t about choosing one self-made future as more virtuous than another self-made future. If we look at it like that, we are hearing but not understanding.

Rather, the other effect of this moment is to undo us, and bring us to God. That is the heart of faith.

We are also seeing this in this moment. People are being  undone. They are wondering, seeking, yearning, thirsting for something beyond themselves. Perhaps its because we’re facing mortality honestly again. Perhaps our pretenses of safety have gone and our simple smallness has re-emerged as real. Perhaps life once looked like a rut and rail in a predetermined direction, but now there are possibliities. Whatever it is, this moment is undoing us. It is at this moment in the parable that we look up to see the face of Jesus speaking.

Look at the response to Jesus’ teaching. Faith often looks like bewilderment. It’s the Pharisees that go off with self-assured certaintity of how they want things to be, but the path of faith looks more like confusion. Eyes have been opened, now blinking in the sun, exclaiming both  “Lord, at last!” and “Lord, I don’t know what to do!”  The Bible describes this moment in many ways – from amazement to being “cut to the heart” to declarations of bewailing truth “I am ruined.” “Go away from me Lord, I am a sinful man.”, and “My Lord, and my God.”

The faith-filled response is not so much as a position or determined direction, as a posture.

It is a posture of surrender. It is cross-shaped, a laying down of everything. It can feel like a refining death. Let it be that it is no longer we that live, but Christ that lives within us! We repent. We believe.

It is a posture of response. Jesus says, “Come, follow me!”, and we leave our nets and follow him. We are stripped of our security, and led into the unknown. But it’s OK, we are led by Jesus. He is of greatest value.

It’s a posture that bows to grace in the suffering. Of weeping when needed, and laughing at other times. Of praying “Lord, your will be done!”

It’s a posture that waits for him, as the edifices crumble, and the collapse of more substantial things is more than possible. And it ponders firstly, not “What can we make of this?” but “What will our Lord now do?” It is aware of needs, and fears, and griefs, and opportunities, and possibilities; but it doesn’t just up and thrust forward. We only do what we see the Father doing. We wait.

Above all, it is a posture of worship. We remember who we are, and we are His. Our distinctive is our worship: before anything (even before we all manner of good things, like a loving community), we are Jesus’ people. Everything else comes from that, or we lose it all, even our love in the end. So we sit at his feet. We stare at his face. We rest our head against his breast. Our love is in him, bearing his name.

Across the spectrum, it has this in common:  Lord, your world. Lord, your terms. Lead us, in this moment, lead us. It’s all about you, Jesus.

This season is like a parable, it is impacting us with a crisis of faith.  The status quo is not possible. And there are two responses for the churches: to harden ourselves in self-assurance and build our future, or be softened in faith and be his right now.

Photo credit: https://www.pxfuel.com/en/free-photo-ooqmj marked as royalty-free and available for re-use.

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The heart of the gospel includes a mode as well as a message. Jesus is the substance of both of them.

The mode of the gospel is one of humility. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” Paul exhorts us in Philippians 2:3-11.  “Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves… have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:… he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.”

Here is what theologians call kenosis, the self-emptying character of the gospel. Jesus, who had the power to command twelve legions of angels, doesn’t use the sword (Matthew 5:52-53) but lays down his life. This is the Teacher who sets the example of washing feet (John 13:1-17). “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,” he says to his disciples when they jostle for position, “whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26-27).

We, who follow Jesus, are meant to reflect this mode. It’s why we wince when there is hypocrisy in our midst, when we see the drippingly wealthy lifestyle of teleevangelists, or the coercive and oppressive legacy of Western colonialism. We align more clearly with the likes of Mother Teresa or William & Catherine Booth, and above all recognise that the greatest gospel heroes are usually unknown and unsung.

It isn’t always simple. Jesus’ humility, particularly during his passion and crucifixion, was one of complete surrender to the will of God; he was acquiescent, and was “led to the slaughter… like a sheep silent before her shearers” (Isaiah 53:7). At other times, he is forceful in his actions and language, particularly towards those who exercise and abuse their power. He turns over the tables of the exploitative money changers (Matthew 21:12-13). The pharisees and teachers of the law are “snakes”, a “brood of vipers” and worthy of judgement (Matthew 23:33-36).

When we consider these oppressive people, we agree with Jesus’ actions. Whatever humility means, it doesn’t mean being a doormat, or agreeing with oppression. In fact, our postmodern world might give us an insight that Jesus appears to be addressing: truth claims are power plays. By asserting what they declare to be true (in how the temple operates, or in the application of God’s law), Jesus’ opponents are constructing a social framework in which they get to have power and influence. Jesus is right to undermine it!

But here, if we are not careful, we run into an incoherence. Because the gospel is not just the mode of humility, it is a message of truth. Its shortest declaration is three words long: Jesus is Lord. We are making a truth claim.

We don’t want to lose humility. Should we therefore refrain from laying out this truth? Let us not fall into the trap of the Pharisees and assert our truth, especially when we inhabit a dominant or privileged Christian position in the Western World. Would it not be more Christ-like to withhold our voice, and be silent like lambs?

Perhaps we should not only lay aside our voice, but be aware of our own heart and attitude. Jesus was humble, so why should we be so arrogant as to hold that we have any particularly correct insight into the ways of the world, the way of God, and the wisdom of what is and what might be? Jesus was self-effacing, so if we speak his name, we must be doing it for our sake, not his. Evangelism itself, therefore, is a form of oppression. We should lay down our power-claiming truths even within the confines of our heart; we should let go of our beliefs.

Thus, we arrive at our incoherence: For the sake of the gospel, we should stop sharing the gospel. Indeed, for the sake of the gospel, we should stop holding to the truth of the gospel. 

If there is a defining dynamic of Western church life, this is it. We want Jesus, but we’re embarrassed to believe much about him, let alone speak of him. What if we’re wrong? We could so much damage!

I understand the dilemma. After all, other ways of resolving the incoherence may not be particularly attractive to us:

We could modify our sense of Jesus’ example of humility and so be less humble ourselves: If he was humble at all, it was an acquiescence tightly attached to his self-sacrificial death on the cross – something he chose to do, and therefore a demonstration of his power and strength. The kingdom of Jesus is muscular and assertive: it lays a claim on truth, and on our lives, and dictates some specific ways of living. This world is caught up in a war between good and evil, and we must fight for righteousness in every area of influence: politically, financially, sociologically. This isn’t dominance for its own sake, it’s justice. We must protect the innocent, particularly the unborn, and hold back the warped worldviews that will pollute the world of our children.

I’m sure you’ve heard this rhetoric.

We could modify our sense of Jesus’ claim to truth and so have less to believe and say: If he made any truth claims about himself at all, they were probably misinterpreted by his biographers, and later given the authority of holy writings by power-hungry men. Jesus is not the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), and if he said it, it only applies within the Jewish world that he inhabited, and he never meant it absolutely. Jesus may have claimed authority in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 28:18) but he meant it subversively, that we might further his Kingdom the way he intended: through dialogue with the oppressed, and inclusion of those discarded by society. The Kingdom of God is made present wherever the compassion that Jesus exemplifies is exercised by any of God’s creatures.

I’m sure you’ve heard this rhetoric also.

Both extremes in this dialectic have a degree of appeal. But it’s not a coherent resolution. Within the church, we find ourselves lurching between nihilism (“We can’t really know or be anything, let us just be, resting in the empty and meaningless”) and more explicit forms of control (“This is how it is, now get on and make the church bigger, don’t fail or we will lose influence”). In over-simplification, it’s so-called liberalism on one end, and traditionalism (even modern market-driven traditions) on the other.

The synthesis is where we need to be. Neither Jesus’ humility, or his claim to truth, can be modified without losing the essence of who he is, and the gospel we believe.

This comes when mode and message combine. As we saw above, Jesus operates in humility. At the same time, Jesus surely does make truth claims about himself. His declaration to the Jews in John 8:58 – “Before Abraham was, I am” – is undoubtedly a claim to divinity. John 14:6 is unequivocal, “No one comes to the Father, except by me.” Even the example of humility in Philippians 2 is not a denial that Jesus is “in very nature God”, but an exposition of how Jesus didn’t cling to it for self-grandeur. We are not nihilistic. Jesus is Lord.

Jesus is the only one who can lay claim to holding “all authority in heaven and earth” (Matthew 28:18) and do so with humility. Why? Because he is the only person for whom that is true, and who holds it rightly and justly and appropriately, and not by some pretense.

To hold that Jesus is Lord, therefore, not only speaks truth, it also embraces humility. If Jesus is Lord, then I am not. If Jesus mediates the way, the truth, and the life, then I can not. It sets the mode of the gospel: I can not speak the truth in and of myself, I can only seek to echo his words. I can not heal and transform, I can only seek to reflect his heart, and point others towards his safe life-giving arms. I can not untangle the warp and wefts of injustice and human brokenness, I can only, daily, seek to follow the lead of the Spirit of Jesus. We are not authoritarian. Jesus is Lord.

If we really hold to the truth of Jesus, we will be committed to humility. We will entrust others to his care, not try to control them. We will speak truth to power, without fear or favour. “We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly” (1 Corinthians 4:12-13). How? Because it’s not about us, it’s about Jesus. We live for Him.

The mode of humility involves a self-surrender. The message is that Jesus is the Lord. The two together is the heart of the gospel.

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Christmas can be the time substance gets lost beneath frantic frivolities. Pastors, vicars, and ordinary church folk enter into the annual tradition of trying to talk about deep things (incarnation, salvation, Jesus!) without sounding twee or spoiling the mince pies and mulled wine.

It’s not just a Christmas predicament, though. The same thing is there, more subtly, throughout the rest of the year. Church life is always full of frantic frivolities. There may be less tinsel, but the dynamic remains. We can lurch from Sunday to Sunday. The buzz of activities can be a pervasive background. Our Christmas “church gigs” have an intensity about them; we invest in them, advertise them, and are glad when we are rewarded with the right sort of numbers. But that only amplifies what is already present: our drive to perform and get growing results. Throughout the year, in the midst of the mist of religious supply and demand, we try to talk about deep things, without sounding twee or spoiling things.

I’m not sure it’s working that well.

I know I have become wary of activity and busyness.

It’s not that I’m into passivity or quietism. I rejoice in the sense of flow when a community acts, seeks, worships together. When brothers and sisters are in unity and purpose… well, the presence of Christ is almost tangible. Even as I write this, I can hear the sounds and smell the smells wafting up the stairs from the meal that is being prepared in our downstairs church hall. It’s an excellent activity with a sense of flow, a weekly expression of hospitality and care, and one of the highlights of my week.

But I also know what it’s like when church activities are not like that: when doing is about duty and not much more, and movement is a going around in circles, a spinning of our wheels. This is when we do things only because we did them last year. This is when new opportunities are met with a pang of cynicism: “We’ve done that, we tried that, that just feels like yet more work.” When we take things deep and try to reconnect with the point of it all, suddenly the words sound hollow, disconnected, echo-like. We drown in the shallows.

When it’s like that, it’s worth listening to Jesus.

Lately I’ve been moved to lay aside all my carefully curated church growth strategies and reflect on the words of Jesus in Matthew 16.

Famously, he has his own church growth church strategy. It is founded on Peter’s confession of Jesus as Lord: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

More infamously, Peter tries to take control of this building project. He refuses to countenance the thought of the Messiah laying down his life, and counsels the King of Kings to choose a different path. As Jesus points out, he is moved by “human concerns.”  Jesus rebukes him and includes this injunction: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.

In Luke 17, the same words are echoed. This time, it is not about the foundations of the church, but the finishing touches at the point of our Lord’s return: “It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.”

How’s that for a church growth strategy? Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it!

This has led me to two conclusions:

Firstly, this is a key to our frantic activism, at Christmas time or any time else. So often, we are scrambling to not “lose our life;” we do things to keep from demise. Take any church activity as an example: a Sunday gathering, a carol service, a bible study, an advertising campaign, a diocesan restructure. If it exists as an attempt to justify our existence, prove our relevance, deflect our decline… then we are full of “human concerns” and we are in the way. Often the best thing to do is to cease that activity, or shut something down.

But if those same church activities exist to give ourselves away, for the sake of Jesus… they flow and bring forth life. They become deep, acts of sacrificial worship, reflections of God’s grace, of love to the local community, of sharing our very selves one with another. They encapsulate something precious, the essence of the Kingdom of God.

The same activities can either be a clinging to life (and losing it), or a giving of life for the sake of Christ (and finding it). This is the paradox of Christian leadership towards true church growth: How do you build yourself up by giving yourself away? How do you generate something without slipping into empty activism?  My thoughts have taken me here:

Secondly, it lifts our eyes towards the ends, not the means. The big word to describe this is “teleological” – from the Greek word telos meaning “end” or “point” or “goal.” We need to be teleological and look to our end, to the point of it all.

The writer to the Hebrews has the sense of it when he exhorts us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1-12).  Paul has a similar motivation when he “sets his eyes upon the prize” (Philippians 3:14). Both speak of activity and perseverance, but the vision is towards the goal. The goal is Jesus.

We need a teleological approach to mission. When we think about mission, we quickly go to the activities (evangelistic activities, community engagement etc.) or desired outcomes (increased attendance, more activity). This is a focus on the means. The Scriptures look first to Jesus.

In Hebrews 2 or 1 Corinthians 15, for instance, we see the goal, the telos, of mission. It is not, firstly, about church numbers, or even social justice, it is about the glorification of Jesus. Everything flows from that. “He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet,” Paul says. Psalm 8 is used in Hebrews 2 to say much the same thing about a “Son of Man” who is “made a little a lower than the angels” only to be “crowned with glory and honour” with “everything under his feet.” We find justice, we find salvation, we find grace in that truth, and nowhere else.

This gives the focus of mission. The point of mission is the rule of Christ, the honour of Christ, the glorification of Jesus. True worship is mission. True mission is worship. This is the point. This is the goal. This is our telos. If we don’t do it in the name of Jesus, we will end up doing it in the name of ourselves; we will end up clinging to our life, and so losing it.

For sure, those mission activities are not a waste. Delve into Hebrews 2 and you will see them find their place in the light of Christ’s supremacy: Jesus is glorified when his people glorify him. This happens when his people are sanctified and set free from the power of sin and death. Therefore, evangelism and outreach are a means of our mission. Pastoral care and discipleship activities are a means of our mission. Confession and repentance and contrition are a means of our mission. But they are, by definition, not an end in and of themselves. But be aware, we can do all these things in a self-facing frantic way, and so lose ourselves.

Our diocese happens to face an uncertain 2020. It’s not alone; the pressure to perform, and survive, and to save ourselves is mounting on the declining Western church. We can cling to ourselves, or we can “lose ourselves” in the truth of Jesus, reigning over all things. We give ourselves to him. We trust him. We repent. We worship. We adore. We devote. We give ourselves to that end. We give ourselves to that goal. We give ourselves and so find ourselves… in Jesus, our Lord.

Merry Christmas.

 

 

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Reading this in my current quest to explore the connection between trauma and church culture, I have found a book that is well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed.

Dave Burchett’s Bring ‘Em Back Alive gets a lot right. He is honest about how church can and has been a painful experience for many. He has a pastoral heart that yearns for the church to reach out to those so wounded. There is some helpful advice for those who care and some useful insights for those who have been hurt. But this book is far from the “healing plan” it is touted to be.

A defining image (page 13) in the book is of the “lost sheep”, the one who has wandered, as opposed to the 99 who remain in the fold. He exhorts us to have the heart of the Good Shepherd who seeks out that one lost sheep. The image draws on Jesus’ words in Matthew 18, of course, but it’s a somewhat tortured connection with the parable. Not only does Burchett avoid a nuanced exposition, he misses the plain correlation between the lost sheep and the “little child” of Matthew 18:5 who “enters the kingdom of heaven.” His use of The Message as his biblical text throughout severely restricts the depths from which he can draw.

It’s a shame, because Matthew 18 can really help us in this area. The wandering sheep is a “little” one, who exhibits a childlike faith. Jesus has just talked about the consequences for those who would cause such a “little one” to stumble, or sin, or wander. The dramatic image of a “millstone hung around the neck” and being drowned in the sea should give us pause for thought! It is a prophetic parable against those “who look down on one of these little ones” and has more implications for the character of the flock, than that of the little lamb.

And here lies Burchett’s problem. As he rightly appeals to church leaders to value those who have wandered away, he misses this prophetic trajectory against the existing flock, and therefore embraces some worrisome assumptions. I’ve tried to bluntly distill them here:

  1. The point of reaching out to the wounded is to bolster the strength of the church. “How much depth have we, the collective church, lost by not aggressively seeking to find and heal our wounded lambs?” he asks on page 2, in the introduction. Somehow the utilitarian power of the wounding community has become the point.
  2. The problem lies with those who have left. “So many people out there have been given up for lost,” he writes. “They could be found, healed, and returned. If we could only begin to communicate that we are willing to accompany them on the road back, forgive them, love them, and celebrate their return” (page 18). Frankly, this sentence made me angry. The subtitle of the book aims it at “those wounded by the church”, yet here it is the wounded ones that need to be “found”, “returned”, and “forgiven.” This is close to the language of an abusive husband, offering “reconciliation” because he is gracious enough to forgive his wounded wife.
  3. People leave because of their immaturity. “Like a thirsty sheep, a bored and unfulfilled Christian who is without spiritual shepherding may wander onto paths that lead away from God.” (Page 36). Which is fine to say, perhaps, if this is a book about being better shepherds. But it’s not, and it infantilises those who have left and diminishes the principles (some of them dearly held) that shape that departure.
  4. Unity trumps holiness and justice. “The Good Shepherd has a cure for us, and it starts with His prescription for unity.” (Page 48). “Division within the body of Christ is sin. Jesus’s teaching about unity is indissoluble.” (Page 56). His words, in themselves, are not wrong. They are simply not careful enough. Again, he inadvertently echoes the words of an abusive husband insisting that marital unity is more important than any particular transgression on his part. Sometimes separation is necessary for unity. Even Paul (quoted by Burchett on page 53) exhorts Titus to have “nothing to do with” the (truly) divisive person. I know too many people who have appropriately departed their church community, and have then be shamed as divisive or schismatic, when the real wound to the body of Christ was done to them, not by them.

I’ve deliberately painted a stark image here, to make my point.  Despite the flaws, Burchett does get to some helpful places.

The chapter entitled The Heart of a Shepherd is generally good. Occasionally he has the same sentiments as people like Mike Pilavachi who reimagines church as family. “Peter did not advise the shepherd to show difficult rams and ewes the sheep gate”, Burchett writes (page 76), and I hear Pilavachi echoing “We don’t have employees to hire and fire, but sons and daughters to raise.” Burchett’s one clear point is well made: We have a responsibility to the wounded(page 78), and we should take it seriously.

The second part of the book is also useful. It is actually aimed at those who have been hurt, rather than those who might seek them out. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it is good, solid, stuff. He would turn our wounded eyes towards Jesus who “understands the pain, betrayal, and anguish that… selfish and sinful behavior causes” (page 117). He exhorts us towards forgiveness (page 180). He gives guidance about living in the present (page 153).

Occasionally, the era of the book shows. Published in 2004, it is just before the heyday of the emerging and emergent church movements. As he scratches on the disaffection of those in church who are “tired of pretending their lives are better than they actually are” (page 90), he has not yet seen the growth of movements that did arise from those who left that plastic world.  Perhaps there is a glimpse of some generational wistfulness: “…they need to hear from their former flock that we care, we miss them, we need them, and we want them to come back” (Page 91). Having lived and led in that era, what we actually needed to hear was “that we care, we miss you, and we long for you to fly, and do, and build what that the Lord is leading you to do, we’ve got your back.”

I shook my head a little, when he talks about churches setting up classes and seminars for those wounded (by the same churches running the classes, presumably!), so that the “injured lambs” might not “feel alone… having a forum where they can express their hurt, and share their concerns.” I don’t think he realises how patronising that idea sounds.

You see, in the end, the lost wounded sheep don’t want to be found by a hurtful church, even a regretful hurting church. I know this from my own experience. I know those because many of those I’ve met are wary of being found by me; I wear a clerical collar, I embody that which has been the source of their trauma.  They don’t want to be found by us, they want to be found by Jesus. Yes, they also want community, but they want it real, spiritually authentic. Which means, Jesus first.

Helping the wounded isn’t about classes or offers of therapy. It’s not about technical change in tired institutions. It’s not even about “revivals” of a surge of life into ordinary auditoriums. It’s not our task to “bring ’em back alive.”  Yes, we follow Jesus as we search for them, care for them, breathe life into them, back them, cover them, and cheer them on. But it’s not about slotting them back in to where they were first injured. It’s about the Lord doing something new. When I meet the “little ones” who find no place at the institutional table, laden with looming millstones, I am increasingly realising that the kingdom of God belongs to those such as these.

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