Friday, 23 September 2011

Theological "call my bluff"

For those of you unfamiliar with the game - the idea is to sift through possible definitions to find the true one. This is what might be termed a slightly less serious take on the concept....


1. The study of French car tyres
2. Pronounced "noo-mat-ology" - the study of the development of doormats
3. Prounounced "noo-mate-ology" - the study of widening circles of friendship
4. The study of large drills used for inconveniencing car drivers by digging up as much road as possible
5. The pursuit, largely by slightly odd New Testament scholars, of desperately trying to nail jelly to a wall
6. The study of things that God used to do but couldn't possibly do any more now the apostles are dead
7. The study of how much hot air preachers expel worldwide on Sundays
8. A new investigation into the beneficial effects of clean, fresh breath
9. Something to do with God, innit?
10. The study of the person and work of the Spirit

Sorry, no special prizes for guessing the answer. But hopefully you've had a laugh, or a chuckle, or maybe a vague smile.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Ready to reach out?

I enjoyed a really great conversation the other day, talking about the Spirit, community, relationships and a missional mindset. One thing that surfaced for me at the time was the question of whether as communities of God's people we are sometimes jumping the gun in our outreach. I'll explain what mean -

Being a community of the Spirit is in large part about relationships. It would seem that relationship is about sharing ourselves with one another, bringing about a certain vulnerability, but also intimacy. This, it could be argued, reflects the Trinity - Father, Son and Spirit in mutual self-giving, sharing themselves eternally. As a loving "community", the Trinity then reaches out to incorporate others into that loving inter-relationship. A loving community of deep relationship overflows to others, bringing them into relationship too. 

Now, in some cases, it seems that churches or communities are not yet in deep relationship with one another. Yes, we have our identity together in Christ and we may meet together for worship; but, are we in relationships of self-giving? Do we really even know the people who sit next to us? Are we accountable to one another? If our community has little depth to its relationships, isn't this then a problem for outreach? If we are lacking in love for one another, then where is the overflow to go out to others, drawing them in? Surely outreach is not just about sharing the story of the gospel in words, but also demonstrating it - letting people see the loving community of God's people in relationship. So, if we neglect this then we could impoverish our outreach. This is what I mean by "jumping the gun" - trying to build relationships outwards, when the foundation of our community relationships is not yet in place.

I'm not saying that we therefore don't consciously try to spread the gospel or speak of God's kingdom until all our relationships are sorted out and functioning deeply. However, didn't Christ say that people would recognise his communities of followers by the fact that they love one another? Isn't it also true, as Lesslie Newbigin wrote ("The Gospel in a Pluralist Society"), that the best hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation that lives by it or embodies it? In other words, we reach out better when we are reflecting the God who reaches out, the God who is in loving communal relationship. If love among us is lacking, will our words be less powerful? I think quite possibly so. 

Perhaps, then, when we think about reaching out, we would do well to reach out to one another within the body of Christ as well, building a good foundation of relationships. How do we do this? There is no easy answer, of course. One possible thing to consider is how much space we allow for getting to know one another - this would also illustrate how much we value it as we prioritise what we value most! So many church programmes are full of activities and when we meet together we often think we always need songs, Bible readings, an "epilogue" at the end to remind us why we are here, lots of activities so that we don't have to feel awkward and possibly have to really chat (and not just exchange pleasantries). Maybe "fellowship" meetings (or whatever you want to call them) could be more about getting to know one another. In my experience, many people lighten up and chat over a pint in the pub or a good meal. How about next time we have a "fellowship evening" we do nothing more than eat together and let the conversation flow? Maybe then we'll get to know and love one another, pray more constructively for one another and begin to overflow outwards, showing those around us a community of love that will be attractive and an embodiment of the gospel.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Being there

What do we do when someone is going through a tough time? How about if it is a fellow Christian? Do we have the gift of "being there"?

Allowing yourself simply to be with someone in their hardship, allowing them to feel what they feel and to express it is not easy. True empathy can be costly - we can end up feeling the other person's pain. Perhaps we need to safeguard ourselves sometimes so that we are not brought low by the burden of other people's pain. But if we always do this, can we carry one another's burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ (Gal 6:2)? If we refuse to feel another's pain, are we limited in the amount of healing we can bring to them? Empathy and being there are not the same thing, but they do go well together. If we don't take the time to listen, then it is hard to empathise.

Especially for those who feel that God is not listening or communicating with them in their trials, being there can be a valuable gift to give. We all need to feel listened to and valued. If nobody seems to want to spend time with us and listen to us, we can feel alone and undervalued or misunderstood. Sadly, we can all get into the habit of only partial listening. We are so used to reading snippets of websites, clicking on to a new link before we finish reading an article to the end that we perhaps also fail to listen to people as long as we should. There is a "move on" culture that is so common these days. If there is nothing in it for me or I am getting bored or I've spotted something potentially more interesting over there then I move on. Our consumerist and internet-based culture encourages this. So, is the gift of being there at risk of dying out?

Being there is not the same as solving things either. In an attempt to remedy the situation, Christians can be too keen to slap a Bible verse on someone's circumstances to tell them how they "should" be thinking or to "remind them of the truth". Yes, at times this can be helpful. But, how carefully do we think this through? Do we know much about the person and their troubles? Have we prayed that this is actually a verse that God wishes us to share with them right now? There are risks in the "quoting biblical truth" method. Firstly, it can be patronising - do people really not know these truths at all? Secondly, it can be a smokescreen for us to hide behind so that we don't have to get too involved. It can be a low-cost way of attempting to show we care; it can also be a way of keeping a distance, not wishing to allow ourselves to feel their pain or hear their story or enter into it. Thirdly, do we risk sometimes making out that people's emotions are not valid? Perhaps telling a depressed person that they should "rejoice in the Lord always" could be the last thing that they can cope with emotionally at that time. So, careful discernment is needed if we are to go the Bible-text route. We might even say that we need to "be there" with the person, listen and feel before we dare to quote Scripture at them. Perhaps only then can we begin to appreciate how they might receive it and whether it is truth in season or us inadvertently fobbing them off. This doesn't stop us quoting texts - it may in fact make it more powerful if done with a renewed awareness.

"Being there" is not just for emergencies, it is part of fostering relationships. Relationship involves knowing someone. Knowing someone means being with that person and listening to them. All of this takes time. In a rapidly moving society with a culture that just won't sit still for 5 minutes, can we learn how to be there for one another in good times and bad? If we don't then we might just be kidding ourselves about the quality of our relationships. We would then be missing out on receiving great things in return. By being there with people we are privileged to share in their lives. We get to share the excitement of their good times - something only really possible if we can enter in to their circumstances and see how much it matters. Similarly, there are strange treasures to be had through being with people in their tough times. Our own suffering can perhaps take on new meaning, enabling us to be close to someone when they need it most. We can draw on our experiences to help others.

So, do you have the gift of "being there"? Is it time to pray for a renewal of this "gift"? God is great at being there and as we grow in likeness to Him, we can be there for others too.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Learning by spending time together

Assuming that at least some characters in the Bible are presented to us as role models; how might we discern what we should copy and what we shouldn't?

Perhaps we could see how well they are keeping the Law? If their behaviour is obviously contrary to the covenant they were supposed to be living under then that probably isn't supposed to be emulated. How about the way the authors portray them? Again, this might refer us back to the Law, but it might also come across in little comments of evaluation or the "feel" that they author creates around the character. This perhaps starts to move us more towards intuitive methods of learning. It might not be spelled out which laws they are keeping or breaking (maybe in part because they expect people to know or find out?) but their character is shown to us and we are expected somehow to be able to judge that character.

Following on from my previous post ("Copycat discipleship?"), I'm wondering what role simply "spending time" with people has in moral, spiritual and ethical (are those really all separate?!) formation. People's behaviour is at least in part conditioned by the community they find themselves in. The example and lifestyle of those around us affects us subconsciously as well as consciously. If we grow up in one sort of community we will take on habits that might differ from those of a different community. One obvious example at the most fundamental level is language, but eating habits, what is considered morally acceptable, etc. can also be influenced by our community.

If this is the case, maybe there is something important to be said for learning to spend time with God's people in order to learn "by osmosis". If we keep reading and hearing the stories of the Scripture, immersing ourself in the community of God's people in that way then maybe we will be picking up subconsciously on habits that are worth cultivating. Reading the Bible somehow enables us to spend time with the characters depicted there and learn from them as an influencing community. Similarly, spending time with Christians around us is likely to be a good idea. That is not to say that we only socialise with Christians or spend our lives sitting in churches. Rather, it perhaps suggests that worshipping together is not really enough. It might be that it would be useful to us to be with Christians in everyday situations. Seeing how other Christians conduct themselves in our workplaces, schools, etc could be a useful addition to our own moral formation. Yes, we should meet and pray together, but perhaps limiting ourselves to merely worship/prayer and nattering over coffee is missing out on something that could really help us.

It is not just people that we need to spend time with, of course. If the Spirit is to be (as Paul asserts) the guiding influence in our lives then we need to find ways of "spending time with" God. This might, for example, mean attempting to be more aware of His presence in our lives and in the lives of those around us and the world at large. It might mean various forms of prayer or Bible reading. If we were to consciously think of God as present with us at all times would we still act the way we sometimes do? Perhaps a sensitivity to and cultivating habits of being in God's presence are also important to our ongoing discipleship.

All this is not to say that morals/ethics are purely learnt passively and that we have no need whatsoever of principles or conscious learning. However, perhaps we might usefully become more aware of the influence that relationships and community have on us and harness them for good.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Copycat discipleship?

Some sectors of Christian spirituality have held to the idea of imitation as being key to Christian ethics. For example, in recent times think of the WWJD movement (in case you've been living in a cupboard, that is "What Would Jesus Do?"). For some reason, though, scholars seem to have been rather wary of the idea of imitation. Instead, books of Christian ethics have tended to pinch secular ideas of ethics and "Christianize" them (ok, broad brush, but many seem to). But, are we missing something?

So, some thoughts on "imitation".

Consider the Spirit-empowerment of Jesus at the Jordan in Luke and the disciples at Pentecost in Acts. Now, this connection has long been argued by Pentecostals as an important one regarding the empowering of the Spirit and expectations for our own experiences. Max Turner, amongst others, has to my mind shown that for Luke the Spirit also was responsible for ethical empowering (e.g. note Jesus is subsequently led (as in helped)  in the desert by the Spirit during his temptation, including in his use and interpretation of Scripture to bolster his ethical stance). In that case, there is some kind of "imitation" of the pattern of Jesus in terms of how his disciples are empowered by the Spirit for ethics (and, e.g., Acts 2:38-39 suggests Luke thought this is true for us too).

Perhaps, though, we should take a step further back to the fundamental aspects of the idea of discipleship. As Burridge notes in "Imitating Jesus", imitating one's master was deemed a way of knowing Torah and was indirectly an imitation of God. Wisdom of Sirach 30:4 says of a rabbi and his disciples "When his father [teacher] dies, it is as though he is not dead. For he leaves behind him one like himself." It is quite possible (especially if Burridge's thesis regarding the gospels as bioi ("biographies" with some intention of the life depicted being copied to some extent) is correct) that the gospels show us patterns of behaviour for Jesus' followers to emulate.

Paul also openly calls for people to imitate him - 1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1; Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 1:6. He modelled himself on Christ and to the extent that he did so he thought that he could then act as a model for others (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:1). In imitating Paul, believers could imitate Jesus and ultimately God himself (Ephesians 5:1-2 perhaps evidences part of this thought). 1 Thessalonians 1:7 points to others beyond the apostles in turn becoming models for yet further followers of Christ.

Now, by "imitation" or "copying" or "emulating" we are clearly not talking about having the same hairdo or eating in the same restaurants or even saying the same things. Such a narrow understanding of imitation would result in it rightly being rejected as unhelpful. However, a more nuanced understanding of patterning one's behaviour after role models is surely something that we all can relate to. In fact, it is something that it is hard to avoid doing. Children learn patterns of behaviour from observing those around them. So do adults, although perhaps to a lesser degree. Relationships are places where learning happens, where our behaviour is shaped and our ethical choices influenced. If this is the case, then is it not true that Christian ethics is in fact something passed on (in part at least) through our relationships with one another? Do we not learn how to be God's people by being with God's people?

I would also suggest that our behaviour is often influenced by those we admire. Would it not be a productive thing to present Jesus as our role model, someone to admire so much that we want to be like him? Can we in turn be people that others admire and want to be like? Can we pass on the values of the kingdom through what we do and say, without even having to name the ethical principle behind it?

I don't think imitation is the one magic key to Christian discipleship. Yet, in an age when we are rediscovering the relational and non-rational modes of our lives as well as the rational, propositional sides, surely such an approach to ethics would be useful? The concept of mentoring would fit right in here too, of course.

So, maybe as "churches" and as Christians wherever we find ourselves, perhaps we should be more concerned about what examples we are setting to others and which examples we are following than trying to make people aware of and then memorise the 10 commandments or the like.