Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A Prayer by William Barclay

'O God, our Father, we know that by ourselves we can do nothing.

If we try to face our work by ourselves
          we collapse beneath our burdens and responsibilities. Our bodies become exhausted; our minds grow weary; our nerves are tensed beneath the strain.

If we try to face our temptations by ourselves,
          the fascination of the wrong things is too strong. Our resistance is defeated, and we do the things we know we should never do, because we cannot help it.

If we try to face our sorrows by ourselves,
          there is nothing to heal the wound upon our hearts, nothing to dry the fountain of our tears, nothing to comfort the loneliness which is more than we can bear.

If we try to face our problems by ourselves,
          we cannot see the right way; and, even when we se it, we cannot take it; and even when we take it, we cannot follow it to the end.

We know our need.  Life has taught us that we cannot walk alone.  So be with us to help, to guide, to comfort, to sustain, that in all the changes and the chances of life, whatever light may shine or shadow fall, we may meet life with steady eyes, walk in wisdom and strength, in purity and in joy everlasting.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.'

William Barclay

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Sentimentality

'Nothing pi***s me off more than the kind of sentimental s**t that currently pervades Christianity...if only we could produce interesting atheists today, but since we're not interesting believers we have a hell of a lot of trouble producing interesting people that deny God...the deepest enemy to Christianity is not atheism, it's sentimentality.'


Stanley Hauerwas




Monday, 17 June 2013

He Welcomes Us

'When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer." Luke 22:15

He welcomes us,
The broken and bereaved, the hopeless and the weak.
Young and old, tempted and tired, tested and despised,
He welcomes us all.

The rich and the beggar, the thief and the pedlar.

He gathers mums and dads, daughters and sons,
Married, divorced and single,
Eager to eat with with everyone
All are welcome, especially widow and orphan.

The table is for the stubborn and proud to be bought low at His feet
They discover a King who is humble and gives you His seat.
The burnout and weary will find rest as they eat
And discover a God whose love is complete.

Tax collector, prostitute, madman and sinner
All are welcomed to find hope at this dinner.

Worker or retired, at school or at home
Adult or child
Come eat and be known.

This meal of the King whose crown is of thorns
Whose throne is a Cross
Whose heart will be torn.

He welcomes us all to encounter anew His grace and forgiveness for his death is for you.

His death for the world and the whole cosmos is stark
Brutality and blood split
Wounds that will forever mark.

This God who has died
Is raised and now lives
Welcomes you to the table and beckons you in.

So come to the table, be transformed and be sent
And eat with this King, this God and this Friend.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Terror of Drones

'Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves. These fears have affected behavior. The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims. Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators. Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school. Waziris told our researchers that the strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals. In addition, families who lost loved ones or their homes in drone strikes now struggle to support themselves.' Taken from livingunderdrones.org


'In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling “targeted killing” of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts.
This narrative is false.
Following nine months of intensive research—including two investigations in Pakistan, more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting—this report presents evidence of the damaging and counterproductive effects of current US drone strike policies. Based on extensive interviews with Pakistanis living in the regions directly affected, as well as humanitarian and medical workers, this report provides new and firsthand testimony about the negative impacts US policies are having on the civilians living under drones.' p 9

'From June 2004 through mid-
September 2012, available data
indicate that drone strikes
killed 2,562-3,325 people in
Pakistan, of whom 474-881
were civilians, including 176
children.' p 10

'We are always thinking that it is either going to attack our homes or whatever we do. It’s going to strike us; it’s going to attack us . . . . No matter what we are doing, that fear is always inculcated in us. Because whether we are driving a car, or we are working on a farm, or we are sitting home playing . . . cards–no matter what we are doing, we are always thinking the drone will strike us. So we are scared to do anything, no matter what.' p 96


'I can’t sleep at night because when the drones are there . . . I hear them making that sound, that noise. The drones are all over my brain, I can’t sleep. When I hear the drones making that drone sound, I just turn on the light and sit there looking at the light. Whenever the drones are hovering over us, it just  makes me so scared.' p 98

Read the full report here.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Rob Bell, 'Bullshit' and what really matters


'So we have a wide ranging discussion about resurrection all the way across. We come down to one issue and it's not nuclear weapons, it's not immigration, it's not the addiction to technology and email and all the ways in which people are fed and overwhelmed with stress and worry, where Jesus did say don't worry.  You know what I mean?'

Rob Bell was interviewed on Premier Christian Radio a few weeks ago in discussion with Andrew Wilson from New Frontiers. During the interview the issue of homosexuality was discussed, and in particular Rob's stance on the issue.  Rob is pressed a lot to say what he really thinks on the whole issue.

Andrew Wilson asks a few times if Rob thinks that two men having sex is sinful or not as way of trying to make the issue black or white, yes or no, and that is not helpful theologically, and I think shows a naivety to the whole issue of monogamous committed relationships, which in part is what this issue is about.  What we do with our genitals of course matters to God, Scripture is clear on that, but the theological depth and debate on homosexuality is far more than simply what we do with our genitals.

Around 16 minutes in on the video Rob says, 'This is part of, like, the bullshit that really, really, really pushes people away...'

Rob's quote about what we're talking about hits it on the head for me.

So children and adults are being killed by US drone attacks on a regular basis.

Nuclear weapons are being developed.

We spend billions on war and violence every year, killing and being killed for the lie and myth that war brings peace.

There are refugees and immigrants scattered across our planet, forced out of their homes by war and violence.

We gorge ourselves on greed everyday.

And we come to the Scriptures, we hear what the Old Testament and Prophets, Jesus and the apostles have to say about violence, war, greed and how we treat children and each other and the thing that people like me and the evangelical church wants to talk about is...a famous Christian guy saying something about homosexuality and saying the word 'bullshit'...

More than that, we are obsessed with the issue of homosexuality - and I know that what we think about this issue matters - yet we are theologically, philosophically and ethically brain dead when it comes to these other issues above.

And God has a lot to say about these issues above which means that the Church should have a lot to say and be doing a lot about these things in response to being faithful to God and His heart over these things.

We need to sort our priorities out.




Thursday, 6 June 2013

Greed


In The City of God, Augustine believed that the Roman elites indulged in all kinds of questionable practices to blunt the fear of death that hung over them.  Augustine argued that 'the essential context for ambition is a people corrupted by greed and sensuality.'[1] The fear of death, argued Augustine, accompanied by fear of loss of status and power, caused the Roman elite to seek ways to make the memory of themselves last forever; war.  So a continued desire for power, status and wealth consumed the Roman Empire, and such desire seems to be replicated in our modern societies epitomised by our avarice. What we are left with is a society where we 'turn everything into a commodity, including the self.'[2] We then struggle to name greed now viewing it as 'being talented, smart and a careful steward.'[3] Greed however produces a desire for more and a resistance to giving. This may have had a disastrous effect upon the mission of the church in the West.

If we are possessed by our possessions then we will find it incredibly hard to give what we have away.  This holding onto what we have will be translated not simply into our material 'stuff', but also upon the 'stuff' of ourselves, namely, our knowledge of Christ and the call of discipleship he places on our lives.  Yet if we see that all that we have is but a gift from the Creator in the first place (Gen. 1:31), that nothing belongs to me, but that we belong to Christ (Phil. 4:7), then out of such a recognition should be the desire to make 'available to others what was God's before we had a use for it.'[4]

A common struggle that those within the life of the church in the West speak about is how they can share Christ in their day to day lives.  Save for church 'events' most people within our churches do not know a way forward in sharing their faith.  Yet if we are a people filled with greed then it is no wonder we struggle as we do not know how to give and share in grace and generosity the good news of Jesus to those who do not have the Gospel as their defining story; if we struggle to give away the things that we own, then we will struggle to give away our knowledge of Christ.  Not only that, but if our understanding of the Gospel is shaped through the lens of greed then the Gospel is reduced to 'a personal relationship with Jesus' because our greed tells us that we should have a personal relationship with everything that we own.[5] Jesus thus becomes another self-help commodity.  And if Jesus is just another commodity in a whole market of 'life improving' products, then we and the world can take him or leave him.  The desire to share the truth of the Gospel is lost because such a Jesus is nothing different to what the global capitalist market offers us.


[1] Augustine, City of God, 42, 1.31
[2] Dumm, Loneliness as a Way of Life, p 52-53
[3] Hauerwas, 'More, or, A Taxonomy of Greed' in Learning to Speak Christian, p 135
[4] Hauerwas, 'More, or, A Taxonomy of Greed' in Learning to Speak Christian, p 137
[5] Notice that advertising companies always direct their product at the individual and that their product will make you into the kind of person you have always desired to be.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Meditations on the Psalms


The life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer continues to have a deep significance upon the life and theology of many within the Church of Christ.  For Bonhoeffer, like Luther before him[1], the psalms are the great prayer book of the Church, 'From ancient times in the church a special significance has been placed on the praying of the psalms together...we now must recover the meaning of praying the psalms.'[2] It was the praying of the psalms that sustained him throughout his time in prison at the hands of the Nazi regime. In a letter to his parents he writes, 'I read the Psalms every day, as I have done for years; I know them and love them more than any other book.'[3]

This short book takes us through some of Bonhoeffer's favourite Psalms whereby he shares his theological understanding, insight, poetry and lament.  As with the honesty of the Psalms, Bonhoeffer shares the reality of his own struggles both before his capture and then leading up to his execution by the Nazi's in 1945. 

Bonhoeffer reflects on, to name a few, themes of rest and Sabbath drawing from Psalm 62, God's righteous anger from Psalm 58, the joy of the Lord in the midst of suffering from Psalm 100 and the God who helps and sustains us from Psalm 54. 

For Bonhoeffer the Psalms were not only something to be prayed individually as a means through which we were drawn closer to God, but they were also the prayer book of the Church that the church were called to pray together.  This book of meditations highlights Bonhoeffer's desire that the church needs the Psalms to understand its life and worship together, 'The only way to understand the Psalms is on your knees, the whole congregation praying the words of the Psalms with all it's strength.'[4]

Without doubt the Psalms have been of enormous benefit to me over the last three years of ministry.  Church planting from scratch is a lonely and tiring calling.  Added to that is the lack of a church community surrounding you in prayer and support.  Such a time as this calls you to a deeper life with God, yet such a life can be difficult if you do not have the disciplines in place that will sustain you.  The calling to ministry requires first that you are a person of prayer, sustained by your life with and love of God (Deut. 6:4-6).  Throughout my time church planting I have seen that my primary calling is to be a person of prayer.  When this area of my life is threatened or eroded into then I stop being faithful to the call that God has given me. The Psalms are those prayers that will sustain the minister to be faithful.

Bonhoeffer understood well the significance and need of the Psalms to the life and health of those called to ministry having experienced first hand the desert of trial and temptation.  Some people earn the right to demand greater holiness, more faithful discipleship and passion for prayer from those called into ministry, and Bonhoeffer is one such person.  Reading Bonhoeffer's meditations challenge me as a minister to do this helping me recognise who I am called to be.  The honesty and challenge of the Psalms enable the minister and consequently the church to resist notions of sentimentality and go deeper into truthful worship of the living God.  André Chouraqui declares that when we read the Psalms we become

'identified with the one...who groans and who suffers, who undergoes the assault of iniquity, and who bleeds and who is put to death, and yet never stops singing the utterly fantastic certitude which inundates him.  The soul is carried away by the incantations of the Hebraic rhythms; and slowly, very slowly, the soul of the psalmist becomes our soul; his combat becomes our combat; his pain our pain; his agony our agony-the agony of all who, throughout age after age, have committed their life to this living flame.  Slowly, very slowly, the soul becomes penetrated by, and nourished by the eternal soul of the sweet singer of Israel.  The burst of light which overwhelms him transpierces us; the light he seeks dazzles us, and transforms our darkness into ineffable joy.'[5]


[1] 'The Christian can learn to pray in the psalter, for here he can hear how the saints talk with God. The number of moods which are expressed here, joy and suffering, hope and care, make it possible for every Christian to find himself in it, and to pray with the psalms.' Luther's Works, ed. Pelikan, vol. 35, Word and Sacrament, 'Preface to the Psalter', p 254
[2] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p 53
[3] Bonhoeffer, Meditations on the Psalms pp 113-114
[4] Bonhoeffer, Meditations on the Psalms p 11
[5] André Choraqui, 'The Psalms' in Cistercians of Strict Observance, pp 30-31

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Confessions - A Reflection


Augustine's Confessions is perhaps one of the most widely read works of medieval theology and philosophy that continues to be read and endure today among theologians, philosophers, those within and without the Church.  Noted for its uniqueness at the time for its autobiographical style, Confessions is a remarkable work that has both challenged and inspired its readers for over 1600 years.

Augustine was born in 354 A.D at Thasgate to Patricius, an official of the local government, and Monica his devout Christian mother.  Initially schooled at Madura, Augustine moves to Carthage to continue his studies and it's here that he finds himself 'in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust.'[1]  The starkness and truthfulness of Confessions enables the reader to understand Augustine's theology in an incarnational way; to commit our lives to God is to love him with all that we are and to find all that we do done for the praise and glory of his name.[2] Confessions forms a narrative of his life that take us on a story through his own perceived transformation that is ushered in through his conversion to Christianity.  Writing in such a way challenges the reader to see that transformation is required for all people and that the narrative of Augustine's own story actually causes the reader to reflect on their own story.  Augustine is a skilled rhetorician and so this autobiographical account, fused with philosophy and theology, written as a extended prayer to God, is masterful and captivating to read.  From Carthage we are taken on a journey through his teaching of rhetoric at Thasgate, his disillusionment with the Manichees, his move to Rome and then Milan, his final conversion to Christianity and baptism and then the death of his mother Monica. Although autobiographical Confessions ultimately is not about Augustine but about the God who makes his life and this life and love possible.

Augustine had devoted nine years of his life to the Manichees believing they had the key to understanding the way of the cosmos and had the answers to 'the problems which perplexed me.'[3] However it became clear to Augustine that this was simply not the case.  His attraction to Christianity was in part that he could not exhaust the theological and intellectual depth of Christian doctrine and the Bible as he had done with the Manichean books.  This continued amazement and theological questioning is a key theme throughout Confessions and has attributed to serious reflection on my part in regard to our theological discipline within the life of the Western church. 

Augustine writes about his meeting with Faustus, a bishop of the Manichees,and his disappointment with how uninformed Faustus was 'about the subjects in which I expected him to be an expert'.[4] However, Augustine respected him for his honesty in admitting that 'he did not know the answers to my questions and was not ashamed to admit it, for unlike many other talkative people whom I have had to endure, he would not try to teach me a lesson when he had nothing to say.'[5] This, however, I have begun to see as a problem within the Western evangelical tradition in that we have plenty to say even though the reality is that what we are saying may not have much to say into our communities that we are seeking to minister into.  This having plenty to say but actually having nothing to say, added to the lack of mystery, lack of theological questioning, lack of lament and a intellectual shallowness has led me to increasingly become concerned that much of what we are saying is 'tedious fictions'[6] that are less to do with the Gospel and Kingdom of God and more to do with sentimentality and self-help idolatry.[7] Too often the Church can fall into the trap of appealing to some universal or general notion of 'love' as a way of engaging more broadly and widely with the communities that we are a part of and ministering in.  So we use the language of 'cross', 'forgiveness' and 'God' but make an appeal out a sentimental abstraction and notion of 'love' rather than love so defined by the Trinitarian life. An example of this is the appeal to 'invite Jesus into your heart/life' as the most common way of understanding conversion.  A natural outworking of this is that, for many, the feelings and understanding of our hearts is how we define our relationship with God and our understanding of God.  Furthermore, discipleship then becomes a series of thoughts and habits that are designed to make me feel a little bit better about my life.  All of this stands in stark contrast to discipleship so defined by the Gospel whereby we are baptised into the death of Christ in order that we might be raised with him (Romans 6:3-4).  This baptism calls us to share in the sufferings of Christ, deny ourselves and be ready to die.[8]  Again and again in Confessions Augustine challenges the reader, through his own prayers to God, to surrender all to God and be faithful to the discipleship he demands.

The defection in our theology and discipleship and the cause of it is, as Augustine says, 'like trying to see darkness or hear silence.  Yet we are familiar with darkness and silence, and we can only be aware of them by means of ears and eyes, but this is not by perception but by absence of perception.'[9] 

This absence of proper discipleship sharpens the focus as to a Gospel orientated life and the call of God upon the Church to such a life. Confessions serves as a reminder that the call of the minister is to see and understand the world according to the Light of Christ rather than through the self-deceptive lens of a culture of people who believe they are independent, self-made and self-confident.


[1] Augustine, Confessions, 55, 3.1
[2] See Deuteronomy 6:1-19, Matthew 22:34-40, John 17
[3] Augustine, Confessions, 98, 5.7
[4] Augustine, Confessions, 98, 5.7
[5] Augustine, Confessions, 98, 5.7
[6] Augustine, Confessions, 98, 5.7
[7] 'The principle crime of the human race, the highest guilt charged upon the world, the whole procuring cause of judgement, is idolatry.' Tertullian, On Idolatry, 2.1
[8] See Mark 10:35-40, Romans 6, 1 Peter 4:12-17
[9] Augustine, City of God, p 480