Archive for October, 2011

Dangerous Prayers Part 2

Posted: October 30, 2011 by J in Discipleship

I asked two questions about the way Bono and the Psalmists pray prayers of protest and complaint:

1. Do you get the feeling at all that there’s something going on here, that these people are having dealings with God that we are kind of shut out of? That there’s an intensity, a rawness and realness to the relationship that leaves us feeling a bit shocked? That makes our calm little prayers seem a bit – well, safe?

2. If so, why do you think that is?
Why is it so unthinkable they we would pray like this? Why are we so out of the picture?

Question 1 is quick to answer. I do definitely get that feeling. There isn’t much urgency or intensity in the prayers I hear in my church scene, whether protests or not. The emotional temperature seems to stay pretty low. The range of things we’re allowed to say to God is fairly narrow. In particular, politeness seems to be the rule.

Question 2 is more interesting. What do they get that we don’t? Or what constricts us so badly? Here are some suggestions towards an answer:

1. Our escapist eschatology means we just don’t care enough about what goes on down here. We evangelicals have bought deeply into a narrative where the goal is death and departure to ‘be with the Lord’ in heaven. This world is to be destroyed and replaced: we counsel each other not to get too attached to it. We make real efforts not to care – and it works! For most of us, the only time we feel worked up enough to complain to God is when we are touched personally by tragedy or serious disappointment: death of a loved one, job loss, or failure to find a marriage partner, for example. The rest of the time, we can look at the misery of the world without any emotion beyond sadness. There is no need to engage with it: it’s all going to burn anyway. Bono and Ethan, on the other hand, are investing their emotional energy deeply in this world. They get angry about it. They think it matters. It matters enough to risk pushing the point with God, to risk being fried for blasphemy.

2. These guys have a view of God’s gospel purposes where his promises are supposed to come down. And they’ve taken those promises seriously. When the angels announce Jesus brings peace on earth, when Jesus teaches us to pray for heaven’s order on earth: they are actually looking for the fulfilment, and dissatisfied when they don’t see any change arriving. Our evangelical account of the gospel doesn’t really include those bits of Scripture. We keep such ideas right at the periphery of our faith. We’re just not thinking about anything much getting fixed down here. It’s all just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic anyway…

3. Our view of God’s sovereignty tends to neutralise our moral sense. What feelings did you sense behind those prayers we’ve been talking about? Behind Bono’s I sense desperation, and the struggle to go on believing when Jesus seems unfaithful. Behind Ethan’s prayer I sense outrage. In Psalm 44 I hear a burning sense of injustice. Yhwh’s injustice.

These are morally charged emotions, the reactions of men who know the difference between truth and falsehood, between justice and injustice, and who can’t help but notice. And when something wounds their sense of justice, they have the moral courage to say so. Even to God.

We on the other hand generally try to suspend all moral sense when speaking of or to God. Our doctrine tells us God is good and trustworthy; moreover he is the boss, and we have no right to question him. Who are we to judge God? So any question of wrongdoing is ruled out of court in advance. There are some questions we can’t ask, feelings we mustn’t feel.

Our testimony to God’s character is not an unbiased one based on experience: it is the testimony of those who have decided what to say in spite of any experience we may have. And this includes what we say to God. We are God’s yes men.

It is only at times of severe crisis, when the conflict between our experience and our faith becomes too intense – it is only at these times that our feelings break through, or rather break out. And then I yell at God. And at that rare moment of honesty, of reality – I feel ashamed. And you all wonder (and I do too) has he lost his faith? Because yelling at God is not what yes men do.

But in general our prayers lack a strong moral sense: though we may want change for the future, we acquiesce easily with what has happened up to now, as though it must have been God’s will. No point getting angry about it!

Dangerous prayers: the Psalms and Bono

Posted: October 28, 2011 by J in Discipleship

Heaven on earth
We need it now
I’m sick of all of this
Hanging around
Sick of sorrow
Sick of pain
Sick of hearing again and again
That there’s gonna be
Peace on Earth

Jesus this song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
Peace on Earth
Hear it every Christmas time
But hope and history won’t rhyme
So what’s it worth?
This peace on Earth

Seems Bono is singing about the song the angels sang at Jesus’ birth – the song of hope for the future: ‘Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace”. The song Jesus turned into a prayer: ‘May your will be done on earth as in heaven.’

His point couldn’t be plainer: he is asking Jesus, where is it, this promised peace? What good is a promise if it’s never kept? If Jesus’ hasn’t brought peace on earth in 2000 years, if the misery just goes on and on, then ‘what’s it worth, this peace on earth?’

Is this a statement of unbelief – a sort of anti-prayer? Many of us would never pray in this way. Or if we did in a moment of crisis, we wouldn’t be proud of it – wouldn’t put it in the sleeve notes of our life. For us there is something quiet about faith, something trusting that is not compatible with this sort of angry, disillusioned complaint. We think of the scoffers in 2 Peter who say, where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Or the Israelites, grumbling in the wilderness, ‘Where is the food? We’re hungry now.’ Isn’t Bono supposed to be some sort of Christian?

Before we write him off completely, it’s worth noticing that the Psalms contain prayers of this ‘protest’ sort. They’re called laments. Psalm 89 is a classic example:

3 You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, 
I have sworn to my servant David: 
4 ‘I will establish your descendants forever, 
and build your throne for all generations.’” 
21 …my hand shall always remain with him;
my arm also shall strengthen him. 
22 The enemy shall not outwit him,
the wicked shall not humble him. 
I will not remove from him my steadfast love,
or be false to my faithfulness. 
34 …I will not violate my covenant,
or alter the word that went forth from my lips. 
35 Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness;
I will not lie to David. 
38    …But now you have spurned and rejected him;
you are full of wrath against your anointed. 
39 You have renounced the covenant with your servant;
you have defiled his crown in the dust. 

Ouch! Yhwh comes out of that one looking pretty bad. How can he allow his own faithfulness to be endangered in that way, in the Scriptures!? What does Ethan the Ezrahite hope to achieve by this sort of razor-edged confrontation with God? Can this really be a prayer of faith, suitable for the worship of Israel at the temple?

And there are others like it. Psalm 44 is possibly worse:

9    Yet you have rejected us and abased us…
12 …You have sold your people for a trifle,
demanding no high price for them.
13    You have made us the taunt of our neighbors,
the derision and scorn of those around us. 
14 You have made us a byword among the nations,
a laughingstock among the peoples. 
17    …All this has come upon us,
yet we have not forgotten you,
or been false to your covenant. 
18 Our heart has not turned back,
nor have our steps departed from your way, 
19 yet you have broken us in the haunt of jackals…
23 …Wake up, LORD! Why are You sleeping?
Get up! Don’t reject us forever! 
24 Why do You hide Yourself
and forget our affliction and oppression? 

Israel has trusted Yhwh, and he? Has he been trustworthy? Seems like he’s been asleep while his people were getting smashed. The intensity of the accusation is breathtaking.

It may not be clear to us how this can be a good thing. But it is clear that there is this strong tradition of complaint and protest in the liturgy of Israel (the psalter). And much of it is directed pointedly at Yhwh himself.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

– words Jesus thought suitable to take up on his own lips as he died.

So perhaps Bono is in good company as he cries out his bitter, disillusioned complaints at Jesus.

Jesus this song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat

Perhaps the worst we could say is Bono lacks patience, with his

Heaven on Earth
We need it now
I’m sick of all of this
Hanging around

A touch of Veruca Salt? Well, maybe. But then again, perhaps it’s a touch of the exasperation of Psalm 13:

1 How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me? 
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
3 …answer, LORD!
I’m starting to wonder if Bono and Ethan and co. understand a thing or two that we evangelicals don’t about engaging with God. Two questions for you.

1. Do you get the feeling at all that there’s something going on here, that these people are having dealings with God that we are kind of shut out of? That there’s an intensity, a rawness and realness to the relationship that leaves us feeling a bit shocked? That makes our calm little prayers seem a bit – well, safe?

2. If so, why do you think that is? Why is it so unthinkable they we would pray like this? Why are we so out of the picture?

Why I am not Reformed

Posted: October 21, 2011 by J in Theology

Back in the 90s, before it was cool and trendy for young men, I was Reformed. That’s right, big R. I kept the Westminster Confession by my bedside, read Jonathan Edwards with my breakfast, and listened to Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones whenever possible. Seriously! My steady diet was Packer, Owen, Spurgeon, Sproul, Piper, etc. I sold Banner of Truth books. I was Mr Reformed.

Nowadays I avoid the word altogether, I don’t find it helpful as a tag, it is so loaded. But since the term has received such an injection of macho and testosterone recently, since so many young guys are so proudly wearing ‘Reformed’ as a badge, it’s become a suitable topic for the Grit to tackle.

I’m a part of a church denomination in the reformed tradition. I’m deeply grateful for the inheritance of faith and doctrine I’ve received there. My own faith has been so deeply influenced and shaped by the traditions of the Reformation, I can’t imagine what Christian faith would be like without it.

So why don’t I identify as Reformed any more? Why not even as reformed?

First, because of the Reformed movement’s semi-Roman stance on doctrine. The RC church as we know claims that its teaching is true and immutable, like God himself. Since the Spirit inhabits the Church permanently, its teachings have the authority of God himself. The Pope can speak infallibly. This of course way overstates the immanence of the Spirit at the expense of his transcendence, as though the Church had the Spirit corked in a bottle, to be dispensed at will.

But the Reformed movement tends strongly towards the same view.  The ‘faith once delivered to all the saints’ is equated with the theology propounded at the Reformation. Reformed doctrines are given such authority that in practice they become ‘gospel’. Orthodoxy is defined by adherence to them. To question the historic teachings is to prove oneself unfaithful to the cause, and generally ‘unsound’. The faithful Christian’s calling is to defend and promote ‘the faith’, not to question it.

What has happened is that once again the Spirit has been chained. The events of the Reformation have been so thoroughly identified as works of God that the resulting credal formulae tend to be afforded divine authority. In practice, that is, if not in theory. Any later statements of faith will only carry weight in so far as they agree with the Reformation ones. Later teachings that conflict with Reformed doctrine at any point are by definition not of God. Implicit in this stance is the assumption that the Spirit is uniquely connected to the Reformed tradition. This chaining can be seen when people use the term ‘Reformed’ to mean not just  ‘faithful to my tradition’, but  ‘faithful to God’.

The reason I call this stance only semi-Roman is because not everyone in the movement holds to it equally. Some people in reformed churches are much more conscious of the distinction in status between Gospel truth and Reformed theology. Also, few would admit to this stance in theory – Reformed rhetoric is often more cautious in its claims. However, this Roman-style approach to doctrine is a strong and prevailing tendency in the whole movement.

And the second reason I don’t indentify as Reformed is because of the tradition’s resulting unwillingness to do theology. This unwillingness is deeply ingrained. Since Reformation theology is equated with the gospel faith once delivered, it becomes the holy deposit to be cherished and guarded: NOT questioned or added to. In fact questioning the tradition is the very opposite of faithfulness: it smacks of unbelief. Since the doctrine is from God, our task is to maintain it, and make sure we don’t turn away from the truth.

Theology, then, poses a threat. Orthodoxy has been established: any further theologising simply risks distorting and debasing it. The only theology tolerated is what we might call micro-theology: theology in the gaps where the movement has not yet turned its attention, further clarification of doctrines long-accepted, work on small details. And this sort of micro-theology has long been a specialty of the Reformed movement: arguments over small matters. Rival theories about the precise relationship between law and gospel, for example. But for the major issues of the Gospel, the Church’s theology has been well-established for centuries, those discussions are closed and no further work is wanted. Any new suggestions or divergent formulations are a priori heterodox.

This fossilisation is of course the antithesis of living theological inquiry. The theological discipline having been castrated in this way, Reformed theologians have become largely historians, curators of the teachings of antiquity. Where those ancient writers boldly reformulated their theology to respond to the Gospel as it impacted their culture and society, Reformed writers meekly preserve those reformulations. The form of the Reformers is preserved, but their spirit and project is long lost. The striking thing about so many modern works of Reformed theology is how little they contribute that is new, how lacking they are in ideas, how mind-numbingly similar they all are. They tend to be compendiums of the work of others (whether acknowledged or not!). Genuine theological work is often lacking, and not even expected. The intellectual atrophy of the tradition is by now surely in its final stages. A friend who studied at a Reformed college tells of how the doctrine classes would canvas a few positions on an issue, before triumphantly declaring the Reformed view the superior one! This was the regular routine. No theological work was really done in those classes, my friend felt that the students were left bored and uninspired by them.

Richard Gaffin is a glowing exception to this rule, a truly Reformed teacher who was committed to doing theology. But even he knew he had to watch his back, he was often in trouble for his work, and he had to be careful where he trod.  Time and again in his writings Gaffin holds back from stating the implications of his discoveries: he knew what the penalty would be for questioning any of the sacred theological cows. People close to him were guillotined by the Reformed authorities. Roman Catholic theologians tend to face the same troubles in their Church, often being pushed to the fringes of the establishment.

But Gaffin is the exception that proves the rule. There is no future for the discipline of theology wherever Reformed attitudes hold sway.

The Reformed stance absolves the church of its responsibility to test everything by the Word of God, to understand the Gospel afresh in each new generation, to take the risk of speaking new words in response to God’s great Word. Where the God’s Kingdom challenges us with its living dynamism and transforming power, this generation of hip young men are buying into something that is essentially conservative, risk-averse and fossilising in its tendencies.

If the butterfly is alive, it might fly anywhere. That’s the danger of doing theology. The only way to be sure about it is to pin it to a board.

“Under no circumstances may theology set out to appropriate credal propositions merely because they are old and widespread and famous. If it is seriously committed to the quest for truth, it will forego seeking the name and fame of an ‘orthodoxy’ faithful to tradition. There is no heterodoxy worse than such orthodoxy!”

Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology, an introduction.

Pastoral Damage

Posted: October 17, 2011 by J in Church

One thing I’ve realised more clearly than before, since leaving college, is the extraordinary power of pastors to hurt people.

While I’ve heard some beautiful stories of gracious pastors from people I’ve met this year, many people, and most who’ve joined our church, have stories of how they’ve been hurt by church leaders at some time. They’ve felt judged, misjudged, bullied, ignored, rejected or betrayed. Or they’ve been close to someone who has.

It’s not that pastors are more cruel or evil than other people. It’s the power they have that is the distinctive factor. How it works is: people trust us. They entrust themselves to us. They put themselves in our power.

People come to us with all sorts of problems and issues. Their worst tragedies which they can’t bear to tell anyone else – they tell us. Their deepest fears and insecurities, they want us to know about them. Their most painful experiences, their loves and losses. Their darkest, most shameful sins. They need someone to know, the burden is too heavy to bear on their own. They entrust the weight to us. The confessional is alive and well in the Protestant church!

All this puts people deeply, deeply under our power. It’s not just that we have the dirt on them. It’s that we are allowed further in to the exposed, unguarded parts of the soul than is usual. We deal with people at their most vulnerable. And we deal with them as representatives of Christ himself. What we do at those times has a massive impact, for good or evil. We can heal, and we can wound. We are in a unique position to strengthen faith or to destroy it. My interest here is in the destruction.

I think when I do people harm, it’s usually from ignorance. I just don’t understand them and their needs well enough to know how to help at that point, how to speak words of healing, how to minister the grace of God to them in the way they need right now. Insensitivity is a big part of it.

And most pastors are men.

Aussie men are not world-famous for their relational sensitivity. And yet we pastors find ourselves in this demanding relational role. We are required to operate in an area where we have little natural competence.

And where the stakes are high. One wrong move at that place of vulnerability can do lifelong damage. The consequences of stuffing up can be catastrophic for the people who trust us, and for their families. Scary stuff. And years of experience, rather than teaching us, can simply entrench incompetent patterns of relating and pastoring.

Of all the courses I did at Moore College, the one that has helped me most, that I’ve drawn on most often in ministry this year, is certainly the fourth year Pastoral Ministry course. The teaching is outsourced to pastoral care professionals who are fairly high powered in what they do, and have massive experience and wide recognition. Those guys taught us how to listen to people and how to understand their needs. At least, they tried to. There’s a limit to what you can do with blockheads in 40 hours!

But it really helped. In particular they drummed into our heads that when needy people speak to us, the cognitive content of the words people speak is not the main part of what they are communicating. The discourse of emotions that is going on ‘between the lines’ or under the surface, gives the real clues as to what is happening for them. And that message may be quite different from the words they speak. In other words, we need to stop relating to people as minds only, and learn the language of hearts. If you can hear a person’s heart, you know them.

As the truth of what they were saying gradually dawned on me, I came to the awful realisation that I was incompetent in this basic pastoral skill. I didn’t speak the right language. As a white anglo protestant male, I naturally prefer to operate from the head and deal with the intellectual content, the ideas, in people’s speech, not with the people themselves.

If I’ve had any success in not hurting people this year, it’s been because I’ve been trying to learn and practise the skills those guys introduced to us in 4th year. It was as I say the most helpful thing I did at college to prepare for my everyday work.

But here’s the thing that bothers me: most guys at Moore don’t do that course. A lot finish at the end of third year, and it’s a 4th year course. Even then, it’s an elective: you have to choose it, and many 4th years don’t.

I know some guys are naturally good at this stuff, and are gifted at pastoral work. But for any who are like me, I worry a bit. If I’d come out of college without being challenged about this stuff, I hate to think of the harm I would have done by now in peoples’ lives. It’s scary to think of so much power in the hands of the clueless. Like a guy driving a massive rig with no driver’s licence.

Not that I think I’ve got the licence now. I’m just learning. I hope one day to be a skilful shepherd who knows how to listen and speak and act to bring hope and grace and healing into the lives of troubled people. But for now, at least what I’ve learnt is helping limit the damage I do. Minimising, to borrow a phrase, the ‘roadkill on the evangelical highway.’ That’s the point of this reflection: it’s about damage.

So here’s my bottom line: I think it’s incumbent on all pastors to gain enough relational competence to, at the very least, be able to receive people’s sacred trusts without harming them in return. I know it’s not aiming very high, but it’s worth saying: surely we are responsible to gain the skills needed to stop the litter of casualties that fall by the wayside of our ministries.

And where are we going to gain those?

James the straw apostle

Posted: October 13, 2011 by J in General

We evangelicals don’t seem to know what to do with the NT letter of James. Luther famously called it ‘the epistle of straw’. He actually questioned its place in the canon, because he didn’t find any gospel in it.

Some evangelicals get keen on James, but they tend to be the active, ministry minded types who frown on the slackness of the rest of us and like the way James gives us a lashing. The not-very-gracious types, in other words. Other evangelicals just try to avoid the letter.

What is lacking is Christians who are able to integrate James into their gospel faith, rather than doing a Jeckyl and Hyde, grace and law kind of split personality Christian act.

This stalemate situation has persisted for a long time. Here at The Grit we’re suspicious of this sort of thing. (We’re suspicious of many things).

Today I’m ready to question our problem with James. I’m just not convinced about it. The early church clearly felt ok about him – he’s in the canon. So what’s the problem these days?

Here’s what I’ve noticed: when I read James, I keep getting reminded of Luke’s Gospel. It seems to share many of the same preoccupations. After spending the last two years with my head in Luke-Acts, I am finding Luke-style gospel material all through James.

For example:

– the letter is written to the poor, the weak and the oppressed, facing painful trials: exactly the people Jesus includes in his new covenant when he comes down from the mountain (Luke 6). “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom …? ”

– these ones are to rejoice in being raised up by God (like in Luke 6:23), and set their hope on the crown of life that follows the painful trial. I.e. In James’s view discipleship takes part in Jesus’ story of death then resurrection. It is gospel shaped.

– James accordingly warns the rich and powerful and those who side with them that they are on the wrong side of the kingdom: the very people warned by Jesus (see Luke’s sermon on the mount, Luke 6).

– participating in Jesus’ kingdom is about siding instead with the poor and despised. This is of the essence of Christian faith: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress, keeping oneself from being polluted by the (power-loving) world. ” Jesus’ habit of caring for these ones is emphasised throughout Luke-Acts: he saw this as the heart of his calling, for his gospel was ‘for the poor’ (Luke 4: 18f).

–  James refers to something Christians look at, which he calls ‘the royal law, the law of freedom’. Whose law do you think that might be? The king’s? Freedom is what Jesus announces when he comes as King of Israel, in Luke (Luke 4:18ff). Luke presents Jesus’ kingdom as  kind of new torah or law, a new mode of living (Luke 6). James describes the gospel in these same terms. The royal law of freedom is a brilliant way to describe the gospel of Jesus to a Jewish audience.

-here is James’s take on Christian life, in his opening paragraphs: “By his will he gave us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” In other words, God is restoring and renewing the whole creation by the gospel of Christ, and the church is the beginning of that future, now. Just like in Peter’s sermon, Acts 3:19-21.  NT eschatology is very strong in James.

– the gospel then is seen as God’s powerful word of salvation, unless it is resisted. Resisting it is, of course, what Israel did, rejecting King Jesus when he arrived at his city. In its nationalistic fervour and aggression Israel refused to receive his vision for a kingdom of peace (Luke 19:42). It preferred the path of strife and war, which it took soon afterwards. So James says “Therefore, get rid of all the impurity and abundance of strife by gentleness. Receive the word planted in you, which can save you…do not merely listen to the word…”

– so James’s gospel is a call to Jewish Christians to embrace the peace that Jesus preached. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,  20 because our anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”

– for James the gospel word is deeply transformative. It brings change to all who receive it: “he gave us birth through the word of truth”. It effects new creation.

That’s chapter 1. The rest of the letter is pretty much the outworking of those themes.

– You can’t profess faith in Jesus and favour the rich, and neglect the poor. Faith that does that is dead. (ch.2)

– The peacemaking of the kingdom of God involves transforming the tongue, so that it no longer creates strife but friendship. (ch.3-4)

– The poor, oppressed, sick and troubled need perseverance to inherit the kingdom when the Lord returns. The rich will then be overthrown. (ch.5)

I’m not suggesting Lukan authorship of James! I’m suggesting that they are singing from the same song-sheet. Like Luke, James is totally on about understanding what God is doing bringing his kingdom through Jesus. He calls people to participate in that by truly embracing the gospel of Jesus. He’s on about letting that gospel do its transforming work so that we take part in the renewal of the creation. He especially challenges Jews about the ways they tend to resist this gospel. Just like Luke.

So anyone who doesn’t like James had better be prepared to deal with Luke also. And he wrote one quarter of the NT!


Why do we stumble at James? Why can’t we find the gospel there? Seems to me we’ve got a straw man, rather than a straw epistle. Anyone who can’t hear the gospel in this epistle, has a problem.

Martin Luther’s disappointment with James casts some serious doubt over the great reformer’s understanding of the gospel. And how about the church movement he sparked off (ours)?

Good news for the Sydney Diocese

Posted: October 11, 2011 by J in Church

I’ve just been reading Luke’s stunning account of the ‘sermon on the mount’. Man that guy knows how to energise his story. Jesus comes down from the mountain, Moses-like, radiating power. He calls twelve men to be to beginning of his movement. He’s reconstituting Israel around himself. Awesome. He pronounces blessing and curses like Moses – he’s announcing a new covenant for the new Israel. The moment could hardly be of greater importance, salvation-historically speaking.

It’s what’s in that covenant that’s especially caught my attention. The blessings are for the poor, the disappointed and the outcast. The curses for the rich, the satisfied and the ‘in-crowd’. That’s the basis for approval in this covenant.

Of course it’s a covenant tailor-made to appeal to Israel, poor, oppressed, down-and-out, disappointed about what has become of their nation. But I also see in it good news for our Diocese. We have lost much of our wealth. After years of mission efforts, we are disappointed at a more or less zero net growth (in terms of % of population). We haven’t really made much progress towards that 10% goal, and that’s a real disappointment. And we’re feeling more and more that secularism has pushed us to the fringes of the public arena, we just don’t have much of a voice or a wider audience any more. Our society no longer reveres or respects the church. May don’t care whether we exist or not. We have become a marginalised sub-culture.

But perhaps here is our great hope. Maybe our Lord is finally bringing us to a place where we can hear his Word and make sense of it. Maybe it’s only now we are starting to be in a position to receive the blessings of the new covenant Jesus announced. Because he has good news for the poor, the disappointed and the outcast. Maybe now is the Diocese’s best hour.

Or do we need to go lower yet?

Alcoholism and Jesus

Posted: October 8, 2011 by J in Mission

We’ve had a young man (lets call him Vijay) get involved with us this year, who when we first met him was a hopeless drunk. He was usually tanked up at any time of the day, and found it very difficult to conduct his life as a result (as you can imagine). He comes from a family with a history of alcoholism.

Vijay took to hanging with my co-leader Christian, and their first meal together they went to the local RSL. They had a couple of drinks, and to Vijay’s surprise, he found himself able to stop at a couple of drinks. Normally, after two he would go on irresistibly to get smashed.

This meal made a deep impression on him. Here was someone (Christian) who drank but didn’t get drunk, and in his company Vijay found he could do the same. That was the start of many transformations we’ve seen in his life this year, as he’s become a part of our Christian community. Vijay now finds that he can drink without losing it. He prefers not to drink usually, but he hasn’t taken a vow of abstinance or anything. He’s just not addicted any more.

We’ve always been aware of his problem with drink, and wondered how to treat him re alcohol. In practice we’ve continued Christian’s approach of having a drink sometimes when he’s around. Some people in our church said, shouldn’t we just avoid drinking around him, but we haven’t automatically done that. We’ve asked him, does he mind, does it make things difficult for him? But he says, no, go ahead. It’s no problem. We have a common cup of port for the lord’s supper, and he drinks.

It’s clear that alcohol has lost the power it once had over Vijay. We’re not assuming that’s complete and permanent. But we haven’t seen him drunk in ages now. There is no doubt in my mind that coming into our community has been the turning point for him. We’ve loved him and spoken to him of Jesus, we’ve prayed with and for him. He tells us that he feels he’s getting control over his life now. It’s pretty exciting to see.

Now Vijay is concerned for his alcoholic friend. He’s persuaded that if he can bring him into our community, the same thing will happen for him. The news he’s excited to tell this friend is ‘With these guys you can stop at two.’

So all this makes me want to rethink what I’ve always been taught about alcoholism. I.e. that the only cure was complete abstinence. That’s the prevailing wisdom. But it isn”t how things have gone for Vijay.

What made me reluctant to hide the drink was that we keep claiming Jesus has defeated all the powers, that his lordship rescues us from their enslaving grip. It didn’t seem like necessarily the right thing to treat alcohol as something to go on being afraid of. If he just learnt to avoid it, wouldn’t it maybe always exercise a certain power, cast its shadow over his life? The fear of it, wouldn’t that itself be a kind of power?

We like to think of the Christian community as a place of redemption, of healing. It’s here that Jesus’ reign is most clearly expressed on earth, this is the place where his power is known. When a person in the grip of another hostile power comes into the Christian community, what do we expect to happen? Aren’t we expecting something new? That they will find those destructive powers are losing their hold? Don’t we believe Jesus is lord of all, that his power can extend even to the ‘demon’ of alcoholism?

To push this a bit, could we say to an alcoholic, ‘In our community alcohol has no power’.? Could we make that claim for Jesus? And let them find out whether it’s true or not. Is it true? Is it perhaps partly true, or even mainly true? Could we claim ‘In our community many people find that alcohol loses its power. You might find that too.’?

We didn’t actually make any of those claims specifically with Vijay. We just talked about Jesus more generally, and left it to him to sort out his drink problem.

I hope you’ll understand I’m in questioning mode. I’m not making any definite claims, I want to try to rethink this issue. I’m not saying it’ll work the same way for everyone that it did for Vijay.  I love the idea of someone getting away from their dependence on alcohol by getting ‘on the wagon’. Running away from the danger is far better than falling into it. But I like even more the idea of an alcoholic gaining control back through Jesus Christ, so that the drink has no power any more, no fear. That seems to me a more complete rescue, a truer freedom.

You might not think it’s a good analogy, but when a sexually promiscuous man comes to Christ, things have to change. He has an addiction to be broken. Augustine’s approach was to become celibate. But fear of sex and the path of celibacy has not been helpful in the long run for the church or for western civilisation. Luther’s approach I think was more redemptive: to uphold and encourage marriage. Turn the corrupted ‘good’ into a redeemed and true ‘good’. Sex then ceases to be a thing of fear, a threat. It loses its power, becoming a ‘normal’ created thing, something in which the believer can rejoice as he/she takes control of it and uses it in the way God intended. Surely nothing redeems sexuality as thoroughly as Christian marriage.

Could alcohol be treated in the same way?

What I have in mind is that instead of assuming an alcoholic will need to abstain completely, we ask them. We give them a chance to experience alcohol under the rule of Christ. Then it would  be up to them which way they went, but they would have a choice, not a blanket prohibition.

Jesus Christ: lord over alcohol‘. Hmm, what do you think?

Who am I? continued

Posted: October 5, 2011 by J in Church

Congrats to Steve G and Dez S for identifying Karl Barth. Here’s the quote again.

The community is confronted and created by the Word of God. It is the communion of the saints because it is the gathering of the faithful [believing]. As such it is the confederation of witnesses, who may and must speak because they believe.

The community does not speak with words alone. It speaks by the very fact of its existence in the world; by its characteristic attitude to world problems; and moreover and especially, by its silent service to all the handicapped, weak and needy in the world. It speaks, finally, by the simple fact that it prays for the world.

The community does all this because this is the purpose of its summons [into existence] by the Word of God. It cannot avoid doing these things, since it believes.

In the spirit of The Grit, where we question everything, I want to ask, ‘Can this possibly be right?’ Can it be true that the Word of God, the gospel, is spoken in many different ways by the church? – that our very existence, and the nature of our community, proclaims Christ’s glory? – that our compassionate hearts toward the troubled world communicate Christ to outsiders? – that the church’s indiscriminate service of the weak and poor in the world speaks loudly of the grace of God? – that our ongoing prayers for the world are an essential aspect of our gospel witness?

I mean, I know these are beautiful sentiments from Barth. But can we really believe this stuff?

If we do, then what does it mean that I was always taught you proclaim the word of God simply by teaching the Bible? Why is it we’re always trying to get people to listen to a talk, when they haven’t even met the community, or felt the beat of our hearts, or been served by us?

What does it mean that I was taught to see church as secondary, something that’s not really needed until after the gospel has been preached and believed?

What sort of gospel does the church declare if we don’t show signs of a compassionate heart towards our troubled world?

What word do we communicate if we don’t pour ourselves out in service to the needy and the neglected?

What is our witness if we don’t devote ourselves to pray for our neighbours and our nation?

I find all this deeply disturbing.


On not posting

Posted: October 5, 2011 by deadfliesmike in General

I’m working up a post on Abraham, God’s repeated giving, James, Derrida and Trinity. I’ll get there soon, but I tore a ligament in my ankle on Monday and the drugs are making me a bit lethargic.
I’m going to try and do a bit more ‘in depth’ posts for the grit. I’m starting to be convicted about not ‘doing’ theology, not redreaming the world enough, not being swamped by God’s goodness and so not appraising and rejoicing in him in the right here and now. That is, I’m not writing enough poetry, not allowing my world to be enchanted by the story, not taking advantage of the delightful discipline of doxology, of naming things as they really are in their shiny shallowness, their sheer glorious exalted unnecessary smallness. As the world opens to me and changes, can I rejoice in surprised shock that God’s mercy is for this world, rather than the one I keep constructing in my head?
Or it could just be the opiates speaking.

Who am I?

Posted: October 3, 2011 by J in Church

Here is a passage of beauty for you about the Christian community. This stirs my heart. Special honours for whoever can tell us – who wrote this?

The community is confronted and created by the Word of God. It is the communion of the saints because it is the gathering of the faithful [believing]. As such it is the confederation of witnesses, who may and must speak because they believe.

The community does not speak with words alone. It speaks by the very fact of its existence in the world; by its characteristic attitude to world problems; and moreover and especially, by its silent service to all the handicapped, weak and needy in the world. It speaks, finally, by the simple fact that it prays for the world.

The community does all this because this is the purpose of its summons [into existence] by the Word of God. It cannot avoid doing these things, since it believes.