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Musings on love, knowledge, the cross, arrogance, and the church as family

12/11/2014

What is the church? What is the essence of the Christian faith?

A couple of events this week:

In one, after a church service last Sunday, an older man enthused joyfully to me how he loved this church. After decades of mostly bad church experiences, this was a place of inclusion, welcome, respect and acceptance. A community that was like a family to him.

In the other, a group of people met at our home – agenda, decisions etc – and as they left it struck me how close we were – like a bunch of brothers (for they all happened to be men). Brothers who had different personalities and opinions and perspectives, but who ‘belonged’ to each other at a fundamental level.

This links to the place of love in Paul’s ethics. Take the problematic bunch of ex-pagans in Corinth: pride, arrogance, jealousy, division, condescension – they were leaders in the field.

site-under-constructionPaul’s response in 8-11 is to picture the church as a building under construction.

While arrogance, based on a puffed up opinion of one’s knowledge, leads to destruction of the building (arrogance wreaks relational havoc), love builds up (8:1).

The central place of love in his ethics puts Paul at odds with the rest of the ancient world. And he gives two images of the sort of love that is at the core of Christian faith.

Family:

For Paul the new community of the Spirit brings believers into a fundamentally new identity: a common Father, a common Lord, a common experience of the Spirit. They now belong together in a new ‘household’ – the household of God.

There is ‘brother’ language all over the place in 1 Cor. 8 and the issue of whether to eat food offered to idols. For example, those with ‘knowledge’ are to use it responsibly, carefully, lovingly with regard to their (weaker) brothers to that they would be built up not torn down. If they use it to serve themselves, insist on their ‘rights’, or dismiss those with whom they disagree, they may think they win the argument but will ‘destroy’ their brother (and the community) in the process.

This is why Paul peppers the letter with telling questions like ‘Do you not know?’ Their use of knowledge shows they don’t actually know much at all.

One of our students, from a different culture – naturally and joyfully calls others in IBI ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. For her they are not just words, but a deep theological orientation and praxis that the church is a community of brothers and sisters. Language matters; spoken truth makes a difference. Saying ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ is a speech-act that teaches and incarnates truth.

I don’t think it is any co-incidence that we in the West tend to shy away from such language – or use it ironically. We minimize church as family. We are individuals first who might (or might not) add ‘church’ to our busy lives. We easily divide and ‘leave’ family behind – as if we are not really related at all.

Cross:

The cross is the second image that gives form to Christian love. A fellow believer is not only a brother or sister, for one for whom Christ died (1 Cor 8:11). Christian love is self-sacrificial, a giving up of one’s own rights for the good of the other. And the whole of 1 Corinthians 9 is Paul’s extended application of this principle in his own apostolic ministry. Church and ministry is not about the self – our own agendas and ambitions and achievements.

So … while our wee church has plenty of faults and weakness I’m sure, I’m encouraged that familial love, sacrificial love, is not just an ideal, it is present and real. I’m also encouraged to see deep bonds of love being formed at IBI between students of all sorts of different ages, churches and cultures.

I hope it is in your experience as well. Feel welcome to share a story..!

In fact, as I reflect on being a Christian for over 30 years, this for me is the first and most essential ‘mark’ of authentic Christian ministry. It is why ‘moral formation’ or ‘character’ or ‘Christian maturity’ – however you describe it – is in Scripture the primary ‘qualification’ for ministry.

It’s why the relational track record of someone in ministry is of primary not secondary importance. And it’s why it sometimes astounds me that leaders who leave trail of relational destruction behind them can be massively popular.

For without love, I’d go as far as saying that God is dusting off his prophetic word to Malachi and telling us it’s better we close down our churches and theological colleges for they do more harm than good.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Questioning Theological Education India style

08/11/2014

One of the best conferences I was ever at was the International Consultation on Evangelical Theological Education (ICETE) in Hungary in 2009. It was fascinating and humbling to meet leaders from all over the world and hear their stories of what God was doing, often in and through profound suffering, in their contexts – Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, Middle East.

Theological Education (TE) is a challenging and complex task – but also a hugely rewarding one. Nothing is more exciting to see someone’s identity, thinking, and life transformed by engagement with the living Word. And then, through that life, to see other lives impacted for the gospel.

This came back to me when the latest edition of Evangelical Review of Theology (ERT) landed on my desk this week. Most of the articles are addresses given at the subsequent triennial ICETE conference, this time in Kenya 2012. Since Kenya was too distant and expensive to get to, reading these papers was the next best thing!

And they are good stuff – rigorous and creative reflections on the task of TE globally. This is no congratulatory back-patting, but searching self-questioning on how to see men and women transformed and equipped through the experience of doing theology in their own (very different) contexts.

The theme of the conference was “Rooted in the Word: Engaged in the World”. Contributors include Chris Wright and others from different parts of the world.

I hope to come back to a couple, but a wonderfully imaginative and searching piece is written by an Indian woman, Havilah Dharamraj, who is Dean and head of OT in the South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies in Bangalore:  ‘We reap what we sow: engaging curriculum and context in theological education’. You can read it and other articles here

She uses this picture, drawn by two Catholic women artists from a village in South India. Indian JesusIn the village, a certain species of tree is worshipped within animistic religion. The artists also make the tree central to worship, but it is Christ on the tree who is the object of worship.

As she notes

“His arms align the branches into symmetry. His feet are embedded in the trunk, with his heart in a straight line with the heart of the tree. Working under the tree is depicted the community of faith that harvests this Tree of Life, making its seed available to the world”

Her overall argument is the need creatively to ‘curry up’ how we read the Bible in engagement with our local context by greater awareness of what we do NOT teach (the null curriculum) and what we don’t realise we are teaching (the hidden curriculum).

She tells a powerful story of reading the book of Ruth in dialogue with the appalling treatment of Hindu widows abandoned into prostitution and poverty by their families in the sacred city of Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges.

By teaching the book of Ruth with little or no contextual engagement in India, its message is not really heard or applied. But reading Ruth in dialogue with a documentary on Hindu widows, helped students to read Ruth in powerful new ways that are also fully consistent with the original radical message of that most wonderful of OT books.

Without such contextual ‘sowing’ we will reap little. She returns to the image of the tree at the end of her article.

All TE should be strongly rooted in the Word. [And Chris Wright's article is a long and passionate exhortation for a deeply biblical form of TE].

But if TE stays there, it will be like a winter deciduous tree: still alive, growing, sap still being pumped, but withdrawn into itself. Bare and leaf-less. Not really engaged with the world outside.

And what she says here can apply to any church just as much as TE. When a church becomes withdrawn, self-focused, serving only the needs and hopes and fears of its own members, it also is like a winter tree.

“But how much more attractive a tree which brings forth life its fruit in its season, whose leaves also do not wither! How much more attractive, how much more complete, how much more alive, how much more engaged in service. What are seminaries going to be, deciduous or evergreen? We harvest what we sow.”

Protesting about water

31/10/2014

Tomorrow in Maynooth and in towns all across Ireland there will be public protests organised by Right2Water saying NO TO WATER CHARGES.

The leaflet dropped in the door says to bring whistles, bodhrans and placards. On Oct 11, about 100,000 people marched in Dublin and this is the next phase or widening protest nationally.

Lough Neagh

Lough Neagh

The leaflet is also right to say that the introduction of water charges in Ireland is, in effect, a new tax in order to pay the national bailout of Irish banks, especially Anglo-Irish Bank which cost the taxpayer (a private bank remember) about €80 BILLION if I remember right.

That remains a pretty impressive statistic for a population of 4.5 million people.

I’m also sympathetic to the protest at how the new company Irish Water has been set up: overstaffed, a private monoply, a whiff of jobs for the boys, bonuses already built in just for doing your job … etc Not that much seems to have changed in Ireland despite talk of root and branch reform to the way we do politics.

[As an aside - it also seems that the promised radical shake up of the Irish Civil Service is going to be a pretty toothless affair. My prediction for the next general election? The established parties are going to get hammered and Sinn Fein and the more radical left are going to advance in a way never seen before in Irish politics. And the Govt and Fianna Fail and the Irish "estabishment" will only have themselves to blame for being unable to imagine and actually implement change.]

So, a lot of people are very worked up about their ‘right 2 water’ being threatened.

But this week I also came across statistics from Tearfund like these

Currently, 2.5 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation and 900 million people lack safe water. As a result, 2.2 million children under five die from diarrhoeal diseases each year. Women and children in poorer countries spend hours each day collecting and carrying water. The weight of water carried can be more than 25 kilograms.

I don’t see and hear outrage and protests nationally about this sort of life and death injustice.

I do hear people getting very angry and upset at a first world problem of paying a tax. And I include myself in that category.

Comments, as ever, welcome

 

The Bible in Irish memory (2) and contemporary mission

27/10/2014

Miriam Moffitt has written two major books on 19th Century Protestant missions – mainly those in Connemara done by The Society for Irish Church Missions to the Roman Catholics (ICM).

soupers and jumpersThe first is Soupers and Jumpers: The Protestant Missions in Connemara 1848-1937 (2008)

ICMThe second is The Society for Irish Church Missions to the Roman Catholics 1849-1950 (2010)

They tell the remarkable, contentious, important and sometimes wild story of the what Desmond Bowen called the ‘Protestant Crusade’: full of larger than life characters like Alexander Dallas, riots, violence; public debates; incredible mobilisation of resources and people; the desperate tragedy of the Famine; courageous and passionate conviction; outrageous rhetoric and the increasing politicisation of religious identity throughout the century.

What follows are some observations and questions not a summary of her arguments and conclusions.

When we look back into the past, we often tend to assume that ‘today’ is normal and those guys back then sure did believe some strange stuff. This is what C S Lewis delightfully called Chronological Snobbery.

Of course in a few decades some folks yet to be born may well be thinking the same about us. I wonder what they will point out? Any suggestions?

In other words, it’s tempting to look at the work of ICM and other evangelical Protestant missionaries of those days wonder how could they have been so wildly over-confident and naive to think something like the following (and this is a very broad sketch full of generalisations – remember blog posts are discussion starters not carefully worded essays! I know these events are still contentious.)

- Being taught to read the Bible alone will lead to the Catholic poor being set free from their ignorance and the control of their clergy in order to convert to true vital religion [conversion is generally a lot more complex than this]

- The desperate tragedy of the Famine was an opportunity to give alleviate starvation and at the same time encourage the missionary development of Bible education and schooling among the Irish peasantry [such actions then, and even more in subsequent folk memory, opened up their missionary activity to the charge of Souperism - conversion through a combination of bribery and desperation. Moffitt wonders if social action had been less obviously and aggressively linked to missionary agendas would results have been much more positive in the long term?]

- With enough missionary effort the vast majority of the Irish Catholic population will see the error of their ways and turn to biblical Christianity [this led to exaggerated claims of success that failed to stand up to scrutiny. Evangelism was done by negatively pointing to the errors of Rome]

- These new converts will become loyal citizens of the British Empire whose greatness and moral strength is derived from its Christian foundation. Thus the fate of Ireland will be secured and solidified within the Empire in the face of the threat of Catholic Emancipation [a false hope - Emancipation led to disestablishment and ultimately to Irish independence]

- If all of Ireland were Protestant, most of society’s ills would be healed. A quote from a Presbyterian Church in Ireland mission report from the late 19th Century said if “Ireland were Presbyterian, instead of Romanist, oh what an Ireland that would be!” [I wonder who would say this with such confidence today with our awareness of the brokenness and fallibility of religious institutions]

- The imminent return of Christ and the conflict with the Antichrist (papal power) is unfolding now in the crisis facing Ireland and compels true Christians to urgent missionary zeal to save lost Roman Catholics, even in remote places like Achill Island (Edward Nangle). [Is it just my perception or is very little said about eschatology and the return of Christ these days? Maybe in response to such confident schemes such as Nangle's that don't seem to have panned out? Apparently he said that Christ would return by 2016 at the latest!!]

- Social, political and cultural factors in mission are virtually irrelevant: once Catholics understand the truth of the gospel as revealed in the Bible they will willingly and automatically leave their culture, community, and identity behind to become Anglican Protestants. [Moffitt makes a couple of points here: The ICM seemed to have given little thought on how an Established Church with many landed gentry could assimilate and embrace thousands of new poor Catholic converts. The missionaries also seem to have largely discounted the impact of Protestant missions being funded from British sources. This was naive at best, arrogant at worst].

And here’s a final point which Moffitt makes that, if true, is the most telling one:

- The ICM missionary campaign of the 19th century was more answering the religious, social, cultural and political needs of Protestants than the needs of Catholics. [In other words, while done out of a sincere religious desire to see Catholics saved from apostasy, the wider context of increasing threat to Protestant hegemony posed by a revitalised Catholic church and the rise of organised Catholic political consciousness meant that a subtext of Protestant mission was self-preservation.]

The story Moffitt tells, whether you agree with all the details or not, raises searching questions for anyone involved in contemporary mission [and I believe in the continuing legitimacy of Christian mission!]:

- what are our motives in mission? What domestic agendas might lie behind engagement in mission? Can these honestly be identified and acknowledged? 

- how can the temptation to exaggerate missionary success and significance to funders be restrained? What does integrity in mission look like?

- how can mission be done with ‘no strings attached’ for the blessing and benefit of the ‘recipient’ (both physical and spiritual)?

- has some hard thinking been done about the cultural context of mission and significant potential barriers to mission identified and action taken?

- do we think ‘we’ have all the truth and all the answers as we engage in mission? Is our vision of mission a one-way street? What is our ‘posture’ in mission? 

- has thought and prayer gone into how to ‘embrace’ and welcome and disciple potential new believers within a community of faith?

- How can mission be ‘led’ by the good news of the gospel rather than attacking the beliefs of others? Where and when is there a need for confrontation in mission?

What do you think? Are these useful questions for a church or organisation to be thinking about in light of Irish history? What might you add or change?

The Bible in Irish memory

20/10/2014
IMG_3557

One of the (many) peculiarities of Irish history, is the uneasy and ambiguous place of the Bible within Irish culture and memory.

I’m trying to do a bit of reading and writing around this theme at the moment.

A rough sketch of some ideas on Irish ambivalence towards the Bible goes something like this:

1.The strong historical association of the Bible with Protestant proselytism.

One example is the Pre-Famine ‘Bible War’ of the 1820s between the revitalised missionary zeal of the Established Anglican Church and a newly resurgent and defensive emerging Catholic Church. In this struggle of faith, politics and identity, the Scriptures were perceived as a tool in a religious zero-sum competition for converts. Few places were more contentious than schooling.

Donnelly writes that Protestant missionaries became more active after 1815

in circulating the Scriptures, in distributing anti-Catholic literature, and in establishing schools aimed at the children of the Catholic poor. The Religious Book and Tract Society for Ireland claimed in 1823 to have issued over 1,160,000 tracts and 86,000 books since 1819 alone.

Formal schooling, however, was a far more serious and contentious affair. The controversies that raged after 1819 at the national level about schools under Protestant auspices, their management and funding, and the use of the Scriptures within them were in part a reflection and in part a cause of strife at the local level. [1]

In Munster and Connacht there was particular Catholic clerical opposition to the Baptist Society schools and the London Hibernian Society “whose inspectors required that children in its schools recite the Scriptures from memory.”

And such polarisation around the Bible and social action reached a climax with charges of ‘Souperism’ (converting in order to survive via the Protestant soup kitchen) during the Famine itself – with the legitimacy of that charge continuing to be debated to this day.

And Catholic resistance to the Bible as a dangerous tool of Protestant evangelism can be traced right up to the middle of the 20th Century – with documented occasions of evangelical missionaries distributing Bibles and Bible literature being run out of towns.

2. The sacramental structure of Catholicism itself

Whereby the Bible, while revered and affirmed as the Word of God, is sidelined in the actual daily practice of living the Christian life. The altar at the heart of a Catholic Church as opposed to the pulpit in a Protestant one speaks of what is central to spirituality. The Bible has not had a central role in Catholic spirituality – for many ordinary Catholics it has been a closed book.  I think this is a fair observation that increasingly many Catholics also affirm – and want to change.

[And such has been the decline of the place of the Bible in Protestant spirituality (including evangelicals) that I wonder what % of 'Protestants' actually ever regularly open a Bible - but that is a topic for another post!]

3. A post-Christendom scepticism towards the Bible

Where, in a culture rapidly divesting itself of the vestiges of a claustrophobic Catholic Christendom, the Bible is seen in postmodern terms as a tool of control, power and injustice; a weapon, for example, of inequality against those of LGBT orientation. The Scriptures, rather than being seen as radically liberating for all, are viewed with a hermeneutic of suspicion as a source of institutional legitimation and self-preservation of a fading era of Church domination. The church and its Scriptures are seen as marginal and irrelevant to the pressing questions of modern life.

Now that may all sound rather negative. But if even partially right, this gives a flavour of the missional challenges in contemporary Ireland.

Some words come to mind:

Unconditional Love. Earning Trust. Transparency. Honesty. No strings evangelism. God’s grace. Integrity. Gospel centered. Jesus focused. Embrace of Irish culture and identity. Selfless service of others. Care for the poor. Listening. Humble confidence in God’s Spirit to speak through God’s Word.

These are some attitudes and actions that need to characterise mission in contemporary Ireland.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

[1] James S. Donnelly Jr, ‘Pastorini and Captain Rock: Millenarianism and Sectarianism in the Rockite Movement of 1821-4’ in Samuel Clark and James S. Donnelly Jr, eds., Irish Peasants: Violence and Political Unrest, 1780-1914 (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003) 102-142.

Flesh versus Spirit 2

06/10/2014

Returning to the ‘two natures’ discussion a couple of posts back and zoning in on Galatians:

A problem here has been the translation of sarx (flesh) as ‘sinful nature’ (e.g., in the NIV, although more nuanced in more recent editions). This is a loaded translation which distorts the text.

Flesh versus Spirit needs to be understood eschatologically rather than individually as some sort of internal war between two natures.

Paul has some very negative things to say about the ‘world’. Take Galatians 1:4 and his description of how Jesus’ death for our sins rescues us from ‘this present evil age’.

Things associated with pre-Christian identity are being a slave under the ‘basic principles of the world’. The whole world is a prisoner of sin (3:22). The Law (Torah) cannot release people from this slavery. The theme of curse in Galatians is significant: those who rely on the law are under a curse for the law could never justify (3:10-11).

George Grey Barnard, ”The struggle of two natures in man” (1892)

Those in Christ, who have been justified by faith, belong to a new age; they are ‘new creations’ who belong to God’s redemptive purposes for this fallen world. They are set free (5:1) in Christ.

This new creation has invaded the present evil age (Gal 6:14-16). Since the coming of Christ and the Spirit, believers are living in the overlap of the ages. The world in its present form is ‘passing away’ (1 Cor 7:31)

Those in Christ are dead to the old age (flesh); it is crucified. The Christian life is therefore all about a community of faith who are drawn by God’s grace, into his redemptive purposes for the world.

The problem in Galatians was their utter foolishness to go back to something that enslaves and cannot give life. The flesh equals the old age that has decisively been defeated at the cross and resurrection. Its days are numbered. To go there is to go back under the curse.

Paul, their concerned father, has strong words for those who would lead the Galatians astray (1:8-9 – under God’s curse and wishes for a bit of painful self-mutilation with a knife in 5:12).

In contrast, Christians now belong to the new age of the Spirit. The Spirit brings life, grace, justification, freedom, transformation and hope. This is part of the promised blessing to Abraham (Gal 3:14) – for both Jew and for Gentile.

Those who walk by the Spirit will demonstrate practically and ethically what God’s good purposes for humanity looks like. They will live lives that are attractive and loving – full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control.

Individual Christian lives and communities are to be visible, beautiful and joyful witnesses to the new age of the Spirit; a foretaste in the present age of the ultimate age to come. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6)

It is only the power of the Spirit who can change lives; who can bring someone new life; who can overcome the powerful ‘passions’ or ‘desires’ of the (age of) the flesh.

So, rather than end up with a sort of schizophrenic Christian identity of two internal warring ‘natures’ in each individual Christian, the flesh versus Spirit conflict is much bigger than the sphere of the individual.

The real challenge of Galatians is a calling to live by the grace and new identity that has already been given to believers through faith in Christ and the vivifying gift of the Spirit.

For Paul’s warning to the Galatians is not just theoretical – they were in danger of going back under the flesh and turning their back on the gospel. And, at the same time, were denying the radical boundary-breaking implications of justification by faith alone for anyone – Jew or Gentile / male or female / slave or free (3:28).

Do you think that many Christians see themselves as living their lives within a larger cosmic conflict of flesh versus Spirit? If not, why not? Has the church lost touch with Paul’s thoroughly eschatological perspective on the Christian life?

If the Christian life is all about life in the Spirit from beginning to end: walking by the Spirit; sowing to the Spirit; keeping in step with the Spirit; what does this actually look like in practice? In your experience and understanding, how does it work? How do you sow to the Spirit and not to the flesh? Where does the community of the Spirit (the church) come in?

Luke 7:18-35 John’s question to Jesus

03/10/2014

A couple of weeks ago I was kindly invited to preach at Dunlaoghaire Evangelical Church within a series on Luke’s Gospel.

Jonny Somerville videoed the scene of the crime. That’s one ‘L’ in ‘Mitchel’ Jonny ;)

Comments welcome I guess.

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