Musings on Discipleship

Here are some thoughts on discipleship triggered by two things:

1. Being asked to give a ‘quick-fire trigger talk’ as part of a Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) gathering of church leaders, youth leaders and others reflecting on contemporary challenges around discipleship. It was a really good day organised by Rick Hill Discipleship Officer of the PCI (and MA grad of IBI), with lots of good input and discussion.

2. Reading Matthew Bates’ outstanding book Salvation by Allegiance Alone.

For various posts on Bates’ important book see:

Nijay Gupta has a fair and warm review here :

Michael Bird has two interviews here and here :

Scot McKnight did a series starting here:

The Gospel Coalition did an unsurprisingly critical review here

The fun part of a short talk is that you get to do what you tell students not to do: make deliberately provocative statements without following the niceties of detailed academic substantiation. The point of the talk is to raise issues and get open discussion going.

This is not to say these are random thoughts. They come from thinking about faith, gospel and works in teaching and preaching over a lot of years.

It’s also drawing on what Bates does with crystal clarity. He articulates a persuasive case for how themes of faith, gospel and works operate within the New Testament – from Jesus to Paul, John and other authors.

Here are 7 thesis statements with brief notes. Feel welcome to comment – whether agree, disagree or discuss …!

  1. THESIS 1: We have a major problem with discipleship in the West – and to be specific within the PCI.

Discipleship is patchy: in prayer, giving, service, training, Bible reading and study, evangelism, and a passion for holiness. Attendance is plummeting within denominations in the post-Christendom era, including the PCI. Membership is getting older. I can’t prove this, but formerly high levels of nominalism within Christendom are now being revealed within post-Christendom. The cultural pressure to ‘go to church’ has evaporated. Perhaps contemporary members are more committed and serious than many in the past? And there are lots of good things happening in various places, but no-one I talk to is bursting with optimism and confidence about the future of the institutional Church.

  1. Tinkering with programmes and courses isn’t going to address the problem

We can easily fall into the trap of imagining that ‘if only’ we got things right, that the Church can return to its former ‘glory’. Getting things right tends to mean things like having more attractive services, youth and children’s programmes, modern buildings etc. But reliance in externals is just rearranging the furniture. Something more fundamental is at issue. Treating symptoms is not going to address the root cause.

Neither is the solution dependence on pragmatic models of ministry. By this I mean adopting models of discipleship based on x principles of how Jesus made disciples and if we do the same mature disciples will result – as if discipleship is a nice easy recipe to follow and if we keep to the instructions – bingo! Some discipleship resources seem to owe more to management strategies for growing a business than they do to the teaching of the New Testament.

  1. That fundamental problem is theological

We need to think primarily theologically when we think about discipleship. So what’s the theological problem? Let me suggest it includes a superstructure of half-formed assumptions and misconceptions about both the content of the gospel and a proper response to the gospel (faith and works).

For various reasons there are deeply embedded and damaging popular misunderstandings of how gospel, faith and works are understood that distort both the way the gospel is talked about and how a proper response to that gospel is framed. This impacts both how discipleship is understood and how it is prioritised and practiced.

  1. The key issue revolves around the word pistis (faith)

What is faith? At what is it directed? How does it ‘work’?

These are very big questions indeed. Just have a read of Galatians for example to see how crucial a place ‘faith’ has within the argument of the letter. ‘Faith’ is clearly the key to Paul’s passionate appeal to the Galatians to come to their senses – but what does he mean by faith?

Popular understandings of the gospel and faith sound a bit like this:

“Have faith in Jesus and your sins are forgiven.”

“Forgiveness is a free gift, apart from works. Just believe in Jesus.’

“Jesus paid the price so I could be free.”

Or an ‘ABC gospel’: Accept. Believe. Confess. For an earlier post on ‘gospel lite’ versions see this.

In all these formulations, believing in Jesus is the key to salvation. As Bates says at one point, they frame faith in problematic ways that:

  • Confuse the content of the gospel (a narrow focus on sin and personal forgiveness)
  • Obscure the nature of true faith (emphasis on mental assent)
  • Misdirect the focus of faith (focus on my faith, my salvation, my choice)
  • Artificially separate the relationship between grace and works (former makes the latter of secondary importance and of no soteriological significance).
  • Mask what Christians are actually saved for (little or no space for the necessity of personal transformation and growth in holiness and Christlikeness).
  1. Faith tends to be set against works

Popular views of faith are imagined to work something like this:

  • Faith is opposed to works due to the ‘anxious Protestant principle’ of not importing works into saving faith.
  • Grace tends to be set against works as well. Grace invites, but does not obligate.
  • Thus works (which is essentially what we are talking about when we talk about discipleship) are artificially detached from both faith and grace
  • Works (discipleship) happen as a fruit of faith: a secondary cause.
  • But the real hard lifting has already been done (forgiveness, salvation, assurance, justification) by faith. Sanctification is secondary.
  • Some propose that ‘works are the fruit of faith’. But this itself is not how the Bible talks about faith – works are intrinsic to saving faith. We are judged ‘according to our works’.
  1. Pistis has a much broader sense of meaning than assent or trust: in both in the Bible and outside it

No-one is rejecting the central place of faith. Take Ephesians 2:8: It is by grace you have been saved through faith. But what does faith mean and how does it work?

Matthew Bates (and others) argue that pistis has a wider semantic range than in popular models outlined above. Pistis includes faithfulness; loyalty; fidelity; or as proposed by Bates as allegiance to the risen Lord. Faith here is best seen as a personal commitment for all of life.

If this is the case, Bates proposes that when it comes to discipleship we would be better off dropping faith language altogether in order to try to get back to what Scripture means by pistis.

In brief, the gospel is about the good news of Jesus the resurrected Lord and King. The gospel is therefore first and foremost Christology that calls for a response in faith to a person (not an abstract idea). Salvation is past present and future, lived out in hope of resurrection life in the new creation.

In Jesus’ teaching, discipleship is right action in light of his authority. Faith in Jesus = allegiance to Jesus the king. And this sense of allegiance fits the sense of pistis in wider Greco-Roman culture in NT times. A sense of fidelity and loyalty

Bates proposes it has three inter-related themes.

  1. Mental assent – the story of the gospel is true
  2. Confession of loyalty to the risen King
  3. Embodied fidelity – life lived as a citizen of the kingdom

John Barclay comes into the story here with his magnificent book Paul and the Gift that I posted on here and here and here.

He has shown how grace in the NT world is more subtle and complex than theological systems (both Protestant and Catholic) have often allowed. Certainly for Paul there is no problem in expecting grace involves reciprocity. Whereas ‘gracism’ that says that free grace ‘requires nothing’ is an alien concept to the NT.

This is not to say that salvation is not utterly and completely due to the grace of God. We cannot save ourselves. There is forgiveness and new life in the Spirit through confessing and repenting – turning to Jesus Christ in faith. But God’s grace is not opposed to a response of embodied obedience. Grace is not opposed to works, it leads to works shaped by loyalty and action in the world. It is opposed to merit.

  1. How faith, gospel and works are understood will impact discipleship

How we understand gospel, faith and works (and discipleship fits in the category of works) will have practical implications for how we think about evangelism and discipleship.

However you read the NT, any idea of ‘easy believism’, or ‘cheap grace’ is utterly alien. Both Calvinists and others should agree on this. Believers have assurance built on the person and work of Jesus, but since only God knows all we should be wary of offering any blanket easy reassurance.

How I read the NT is that there is a very high expectation of moral transformation. For Paul and Luke especially this is built on the empowering gift of the Holy Spirit. Maybe a basic starting point for discipleship in local churches is to aim high rather than settle for basic and often misleading indicators like church attendance …

What does ‘successful’ discipleship look like? And how can what goes on at church foster development towards that goal and vision?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Ben Witherington @ Irish Bible Institute on ‘Rethinking Romans’

Last Friday we had the great pleasure of hosting Prof Ben Witherington for IBI’s 2017 ‘Summer Institute’. The theme was ‘Rethinking Romans’.

IBI was full and it was a terrific day of teaching on Paul’s most famous epistle. It was also a pleasure and privilege to meet Ben and his wife Ann. He is remarkably prolific and has blessed the Church worldwide with a lifetime of top-class scholarship made accessible for teachers, preachers and lay believers.

He is also a top-class communicator. There are lots of video resources out there, but what doesn’t come over in those more formal recordings is Ben’s wit and humour – it was a fun day as well as an educational one. Thank you Ben.

Romans is perhaps the most influential letter ever written in human history. Every chapter resonates down the centuries of Christian theology. Themes like Christian anthropology, sin, justification, ethics, pneumatology, eschatology, predestination, Israel and the church, and Christian morality all emerge in the course of Paul’s persuasive argument for Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome to be united.

For example, take justification. From Luther, Calvin & co onwards – right on through to the New Perspective on Paul from the late 1970s to the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) between the Roman Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Lutheran World Federation – justification has been a continuously ‘live’ theological issue for centuries and Romans is at the heart of it all.

I’m not going to recount all that was covered in a packed day, but here are 8 snapshots. For more you can always go to a copy of this book sitting on my desk!

Snapshot 1: A female Apostle

Romans 16:7: ‘Greet Andronicus and Junia’ – a husband and wife team, both apostles, who are noteworthy in that group.’Deal with it’ said Ben in regard to Junia being a female apostle.

They have been jailed with Paul. Women did not tend to go to jail in antiquity. This is an indication of a remarkably courageous and counter-cultural witness which is also a deconstruction of patriarchal paradigms.

Following the work of Richard Bauckham, Ben suggested that Junia – which is the Latin name of Joanna – is the SAME person who is a patron of Jesus in Luke 8:3. Andronicus and Joanna were ‘in Christ before me’. Was this Joanna, wife of Chuza, of the gospels who was a patron of Jesus who then later became a co-worker of Paul? She went to Jerusalem with Jesus. Chuza could have had the Latin name Andronicus, or she may have been widowed and remarried.

If so, Ben suggests that we should think of TWO prominent names among the Jerusalem believers – that of the apostle Peter AND the Apostle Joanna (Junia).

Now that’s a head-wrecker for all sorts of theologies build on male apostleship AND those that elevate the primacy of Peter. All sorts of implications follow …

Snapshot 2: What is Romans all about?

Ben argued at length that Romans is best understood through the lens of ancient rhetoric – hence his series of NT ‘socio-rhetorical’ commentaries on the New Testament. The key ‘thesis statement’ of Romans is, he argued, Romans 1:16-17.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

The whole thrust of the letter is aimed at Gentile believers in Rome to understand their place in God’s story of redemption, and the place of Jews, and Jewish believers in Jesus, in that story.

Paul’s big concern is to ‘level the playing field’ between Jewish and Gentile Christians and to appeal for real embodied unity, love, and common worship among the Christian communities in Rome.

The gospel is first to the Jew. Gentiles are not to think more highly of themselves than they should. It is God’s power and God’s gospel that graciously includes both Jews and Gentiles.

The gospel is shocking and surprising – a crucified Messiah. But rather than be ashamed of the cross (as everyone in antiquity would have been), Paul is determinedly not ashamed. The only explanation for embracing the cross in this way is if the cross has been shown to be a place of God’s victory over death – in the resurrection of the Son.

Along with Richard Hays and N T Wright, BWIII goes for pistis Christou meaning ‘the faithfulness of Christ’. But his faithfulness is always accompanied by others placing their faith in Christ. The faithfulness of Christ is the basis of faith in Christ. Jesus’ faithfulness in mission means that anyone (you or I) may believe (response of faith)

When if comes to righteousness, Ben contends that it would be better if the dikaio word group was not translated as ‘justification’ at all. It is too redolent of legal / impersonal language to capture the way righteousness is all about God setting relationships right. It is all about moral transformation – that is the heart of Paul’s concern for the believers he writes to in the New Testament.

Snapshot 3. No imputed righteousness but moral transformation of the believer

Ben is a Wesleyan. His commentary on Romans is one of the few written from an Arminian perspective. While he said he has much to thank the Reformers for, not surprisingly he interprets Romans in a very different way to traditional Calvinist readings.

For example, take Romans 4, Abraham and righteousness. The righteousness in question is that of Abraham. It is NOT Christ’s righteousness somehow imputed to believers. God sees us as we are. Ben sees imputed righteousness as a ‘legal fiction’. Imputed righteousness is not there in Romans 4 – it is reading back into the text by the Reformers who were overly shaped by Latin translations of the text.

What is being talked about is an imparting of righteousness to believers, in the Spirit which leads to holiness and moral transformation.

Luther’s presuppositions led him to read Romans 7 as typical of the Christian life. But it is a total misreading of the text to see it as a description of the normal struggles of the believer (an internal conflict of flesh versus spirit). What Paul is doing is talking about the pre-Christian condition through the lens of Adam.

I agree wholeheartedly with this view of flesh and Spirit. For more on flesh / Spirit see this post. My chapter ‘Solus Spiritus’ in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life argues, as the title suggests, for the Spirit being at the core of Paul’s understanding of new creation life that leads to a transformed moral and ethical life in the world.

Snapshot 4: a transformed life of holiness

Ben’s reading of Romans 8 can be summarised like this:

This is not to say Christians cannot sin, it is to say that Christians are without excuse. Whatever your struggles are, greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world. Call on the Spirit of God. We are in the process of being sanctified by Jesus Christ. I am saying that we sin against the grace of God. God’s grace and Spirit is sufficient to help us avoid intentional sin. Christians are MORE responsible for their sin than non Christians.

This reflects the high expectations of holiness in the Wesleyan tradition – and of course Ben would add – Paul and ultimately God himself.

So Christians should be eagerly pressing on to the goal of the new creation and resurrection life to come. If we are not, we are failing to fulfil our calling.

Snapshot 5: God is good – not all that happens in this world is of God

Romans 8:28 famously says

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him

Ben argues that this is a long way from God fore-ordaining all things such that cancer, violence, injustice and evil are all somehow part of his good plan.  God is not the one who blights us, sends us disease, and afflicts us. Not everything in this world is of God – there are powers of darkness and evil at work.

The ones for whom all works together for good are not some abstract humanity – they are the ones who love God. Paul’s concern is the destiny of those who love God. This is a word of encouragement. Today we can know that if you are in Christ you have a great destiny.

Snapshot 6: Can  you lose your salvation?

Basically the answer is ‘Yes’.

Ben argued that ‘lose salvation’ is the wrong way to look at it. Paul’s warnings are not about misplacing your faith – they are about intentional apostasy. Calvinism does not take Paul’s warnings at face value – or the warnings of Hebrews 6.

It is clear, he contends, that apostasy is possible. This is ‘throwing away your salvation’ rather than losing it.

Snapshot 7: N T Wright can be wrong

As is well known and I have posted about here, BWIII is not a fan of NTW’s equating Israel with the Church. The former argues that Romans 9-11 is about how the Jews are TEMPORARILY broken off from the people of God, but God is not finished with them yet. When the full number of the Gentiles is gathered in, there will be a divine overcoming of what Paul calls the ‘impiety of Jacob’ – which is non-Christian Israel. The church is not Israel. Israel will be saved when Christ returns – by faith in Jesus, by grace.

I’m still figuring out this one. Reading my old post and listening to Ben, the differences are not that great. There is one story, the only way in is by faith in Jesus, the Mosaic law has come to an end. The Abrahamic covenant has been fulfilled.

The difference is BWIII’s insistence that ‘Israel’ does not mean church and Israel has a distinct future which involves many Jews being brought into the story of Jesus.

Snapshot 8: If you are a Christian, you are not your own

Quite simply the framework for Romans 12-15 is this

You do not belong to you. You belong to the Lord.

Live accordingly through faith in Jesus and by obedience to the Spirit.

You can’t get much more counter-cultural to Western individualism than that.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Paul and Gender (1) : a call for a serious discussion within Irish evangelicalism

Here’s notice of an important, carefully researched and very well written book.

It is by Cynthia Long Westfall, entitled Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ.

Professor Craig Blomberg, who teaches with us in IBI on our MA Programme on a regular basis and is not a card-carrying egalitarian, says this about it,

“After the deluge of literature on gender roles in 9780801097942the Bible, can anyone add anything distinctive and persuasive to the discussion? Cynthia Long Westfall has demonstrated that the answer is a resounding yes. This is one of the most important books on the topic to appear in quite some time, and all Westfall’s proposals merit serious consideration. The approach does not replicate standard contemporary complementarian or egalitarian perspectives but charts a fresh course in light of first-century cultural history and informed linguistic and discourse analysis. A must-read for anyone serious about understanding Paul on this crucial topic.”

Craig L. Blomberg, distinguished professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary

Westfall explores Paul and Gender through multiple angles:

1. Culture
2. Stereotypes
3. Creation
4. The Fall
5. Eschatology
6. The Body
7. Calling
8. Authority
9. 1 Timothy 2:11-15
Conclusion

I’ve written a lot on ‘Women in Leadership’ on this blog over the years – this link takes you to many of those posts. This is probably the best book I’ve read.

Some seriouslys coming up: it takes the biblical text seriously, it takes Paul’s context and culture seriously, and it takes the factors that shape biblical interpretation seriously.  Note Craig’s two seriouslys:

all Westfall’s proposals merit serious consideration

it is a must read for anyone serious about understanding Paul on this crucial topic.

My context is Ireland:  I would love to see Irish evangelicals take Craig’s two points seriously. I’m sketching why below.

  1. Evangelicals, if they are to live up to their name, need to be engaging with Westfall’s arguments

John Stott called evangelicals ‘Bible people and gospel people’. To live up to that description is to always be open to reformation and hearing the Bible speak afresh.

Please note what I am not saying. I’m not saying she must be agreed with. Nor am I saying that anyone who holds to male only leadership / preaching obviously lacks a sincere desire to be faithful to Scripture or is obviously wrong. I am not saying that those who are not persuaded by Westfall are ‘un-evangelical’, lack a sincere desire to be faithful to Scripture, or are mistaken.

I am simply appealing for a serious discussion and review of established interpretations and practice. For any pastor / church leader / denomination / network of churches to ignore the increasingly powerful and compelling challenges to old paradigms and to keep doing things this way because that’s ‘obviously the biblical way’ – is to fail to be evangelical enough.

To be consistently evangelical is to engage fairly and constructively with Westfall’s arguments and to face searching criticisms of traditional interpretations of Paul as being inadequate and inconsistent. Such has been the weight of significant evangelical scholarship on this issue over the last few decades, that those who hold to tradition and custom without rigorous self-critical engagement on how Paul is being interpreted are failing to be open to semper reformanda.

Evangelicals should, in theory, be the last people who resort to custom and tradition before considering serious biblical exegesis that challenges accepted paradigms. Isn’t that exactly what the Reformation was about?

I have no problem with churches and networks who have seriously thought about and had open transparent debates about this issue.

Networks like New Frontiers in the UK for example. While I don’t agree with people like Andrew Wilson’s innovative and (to me) unconvincing and arbitrary defence of teaching with a ‘big T’ (‘doctrinally definitive’ teaching, open to appropriately gifted male elders) and teaching with a ‘small t’ (‘quoting. explaining, applying Scripture’, open to invited people), you can’t say there hasn’t been a thorough and informed examination of questions of exegesis, hermeneutics, culture and gender. You also can’t say that there isn’t a real desire to explore every way possible to encourage and release women in ministry within parameters of how Scripture is understood. As Wilson says

I believe in women in leadership. Not many people don’t, to be honest: I don’t recall ever coming across a church where women don’t preach the gospel, or lead worship, or speak on Sundays, or disciple people, or run events, or train children, or lead areas of ministry, or serve as deacons, or form part of a leadership team, or prophesy (and they do all of those things at the church I’m part of). I believe in women in ministry, the equality of men and women, and the importance of releasing women to be modern-day Phoebes, Priscillas, Junias, Marys, Lydias, Euodias, Syntyches, and so on.

This from what is otherwise a very traditional approach to a male only elder / Teacher interpretation.

In contrast, in Ireland, apart from some isolated examples, I’m not hearing much vigorous informed debate. I’m not hearing of reassessment of established patterns of ministry, many of which appear purely cultural and have little thought-out rationale. I’m not hearing a passion and desire to explore every way possible to release women into ministry and use God-given gifts.

In fact more the opposite.

In much of the church it feels more like a culturally conservative holding on to the status quo as somehow clearly biblical against a perceived advance of ‘liberalism’ or ‘feminism’ rather than a serious open-minded discussion of the issues.

What I continue to hear from many women in different churches in Ireland is light years away from even what a  male-elder-only traditionalist like Wilson describes. Many women continue to have no opportunity to preach the gospel, speak on Sundays, serve as deacons, or form part of a leadership team. Some are not even allowed to lead a Bible study in a mixed-gender setting.

I’d love to hear if I am wrong – but are there serious discussions happening reflecting a desire to release women into ministry as far as possible? Is this happening in Baptist circles, in many independent evangelical churches and networks, in Pentecostal networks, in many ethnic church networks etc?

Even within a denomination like the Presbyterian Church in Ireland of which I am a part, which decided to ordain women elders back in the 1926 and women ministers back in 1973, there has been a conservative retrenchment. In 1990, in response to a move by a minority resistant to the official position of the denomination, the Church’s Judicial Commission issued guidelines that allowed “Those with personal conscientious objections” not to participate in services of ordination of a woman. In effect the 1990 Guidelines have fatally undermined the Church’s own democratically endorsed official policy. They have given the green light for many churches to refuse to call a women minister and many male ministers to fail to support women candidates for ministry from within their churches. In that sort of climate, it is remarkable that there are any women ministers emerging at all – and there are only a very few. It does certainly not feel like a culture which wishes to explore every possible means to encourage and release women into ministry. This all in the absence of open transparent theological discussion of work like Westfall’s at formal church level (again glad to be corrected on this one if there has been).

Westfall argues that no interpretation of Paul and gender should be automatically privileged. At the end of the book she proposes this – and it is worth reading carefully for traditional assumptions and practices ARE guarded as a sacred citadel to be defended.

I exhort the evangelical community to make a crucial distinction between what a text is and what has been assumed about the text in the process of interpretation. I encourage evangelicals to then “trust the text.” Place the actual biblical text above the interpretations of the text and the theological constructions that have gained a dogmatic foothold among so many.

The traditional interpretations and understandings of the Pauline theology of gender should not be guarded as a citadel and treated as a privileged reading of the texts that must be incontrovertibly proved wrong with hard evidence before considering other options. Rather, they should be placed on equal ground with other viable interpretative options and treated with comparable suspicion because of the history of interpretation, not in spite of it. I invite serious scholars and students of the text to go through the discipline of carefully identifying the information, assumptions, and inferences that have been imported into the texts, extract them from the reading, and then read the texts again with hermeneutics that are consistent with the best practices for interpreting biblical texts and language in general. Seek to weigh the contexts in which the text is placed and consider how they affect interpretation. Utilize sophisticated tools to determine the meaning of words in a linguistically informed way, because that is a major arena in the argument. (314)

  1. This is a crucial topic

The second reason is related to the first. It is not only a question of taking the Bible seriously, it is also an issue with significant pastoral, theological and missional implications.

Too often I have heard from (male) leaders – whom I have great respect for – that women in leadership is simply not a priority issue. It is a ‘secondary matter’, historically and theologically a peripheral issue, far less important than evangelism, mission, preaching, discipleship etc.

I have also heard pragmatic responses. It is just too difficult and potentially divisive to risk rocking the boat by opening up this particular can of worms. It is an issue better left alone.

While these responses are understandable to a degree, they are inadequate. Blomberg is right – it is a crucial issue. It impacts half the body of Christ. Those unwilling to engage seriously with the weight of scholarship like Westfall’s need to consider the implications of being mistaken: to consider the impact on women in their church network; to consider implications for faithful obedience to God and his Word; to consider the unnecessary limits on the gifting and work of the Spirit within the body of Christ.

[Yes, I know such questions cut both ways – again my point is not to assume Westfall is obviously right, but to say that her arguments need serious engagement].

Men in positions of power need to consider seriously Jesus’ command to ‘do to others as you would have others do to you’. They need to try seriously to put themselves in a gifted woman’s position who feels a sincere call to leadership.

For example, at one point Westfall refers to John Piper talking about his ‘call’ to ministry.

A man’s personal call to the pastorate and other ministry is treated with due respect and seriousness in the seminaries. There is a reluctance to question or contradict a man’s sense of his own call …. John Piper serves as a an excellent paradigm for a call to the pastorate: He sensed a call to ministry … which he describes as “my heart almost bursting with longing.” Then, in 1980, he felt an irresistible call to preach. When a man negotiates his call to ministry, he utilizes emotions and experience in accordance with his faith and the grace that he is given.

However, the role of variety and experience in the realization of calling is either explicitly or effectively discounted for women. When a woman determines her call by the same model, using the same criteria, if she comes to the same conclusions as Piper, she is told that her navigational system is broken. (213-14)

Men need to try to imagine having your desire to pursue that call NOT being automatically welcomed, celebrated, affirmed and encouraged. They need to try seriously to imagine it automatically being treated as a problem, a form of mistaken ambition, an embarrassing awkward situation that hopefully will go away – all quite apart from your Christian maturity, gifting and desire to serve Jesus. I suspect all men just can’t really imagine what that feels like – however hard they may try.

At the very least, therefore, ‘to do to others’ means to sincerely, seriously, open-mindedly and compassionately engage with arguments like Westfall’s.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Dylan in Dublin 2017

Walked down after work on Thursday evening to the large arena that used to be called the Point. It was a short pilgrim walk to see and hear a sort of sacred relic. That’s meant in the kindest and most admiring way possible.

Saint Bob was in town.

In theological education we are always encouraging students to combine faith and worship with critical thinking. This post is going to err, unapologetically, on the side of uncritical adulation.

I’m not right over there with the Dylan fanatics to whom the great man never can put a foot wrong. But I do love the man and his music.

The arena was sold out. The show was 1 hr 50 and the set list was:

Dublin 11 May 2017

Setlist:

  • (intro) the foggy dew
  • Things Have Changed
  • Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
  • Highway 61 Revisited
  • Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
  • Why Try to Change Me Now (Cy Coleman cover)
  • Pay in Blood
  • Melancholy Mood (Frank Sinatracover)
  • Duquesne Whistle
  • Stormy Weather (Harold Arlen cover)
  • Tangled Up in Blue
  • Early Roman Kings
  • Spirit on the Water
  • Love Sick
  • All or Nothing at All (Frank Sinatra cover)
  • Desolation Row
  • Soon After Midnight
  • That Old Black Magic (Johnny Mercer cover)
  • Long and Wasted Years
  • Autumn Leaves (Yves Montand cover)

Encore:

  • Blowin’ in the Wind
  • Ballad of a Thin Man

Dylan seems at peace. He’s having fun at 75. It was a deep pleasure to be in his company for a couple of hours and to hear those songs.

Roll on Bob.

On Joy

What image comes to mind when you think of joy?

I can’t think about joy without picturing a couple sitting around a kitchen table in an anonymous Communist-style tower block apartment back in Ceaucescu’s Romania. They had lost jobs, been in prison, were regularly hounded by the Securitate, had poor health and little or no access to decent medical care.

They were (and are) two of the most joyful people I have ever met.

Joy is a hard thing to define. You know it when you see it – and know when it is missing. As I suggested in the last post, I’m suspicious of the idea that joy can be so deep down that it never surfaces in visible, tangible ways. Joy, I think, can’t really exist without a delight in life and in other people. It’s a sense of happiness and gladness that can’t be contained. It is not superficial cheeriness, but neither is it possible without smiles, humour and laughter.

There is a lot of joy in the New Testament – in Jesus, John, Paul and others. I did a little study of joy (chara) and grouped some examples into different categories (this is not exhaustive and not researched – just a quick sketch).

  1. Joy at the promise of the Messiah

Luke 1:14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth

Luke 2:10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.

  1. Joy at the word / gospel / kingdom of God

Mat 13:20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy

Mat 13:44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Luke 8:13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy.

1Pe 1:8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory

  1. Experiencing the joy of God

Mat 25:23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’

  1. (Mega) Joy at the resurrection

Mat 28:8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Luke 24:41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marvelling he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

Luke 24:52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy

  1. Joy in Mission

Luke 10:17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord even the demons are subject to us in your name!”

Luke 15:7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Acts 8:8 So there was much joy in that city.

Acts 15:3 So being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers.

  1. Joy in and through Jesus

John 15:11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

John 16:20 Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.

John 16:22 So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

John 16:24 Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive that your joy may be full.

John 17:13 But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.

  1. Joy in the actions and goodness of God

Acts 12:14 Recognizing Peter’s voice in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate.

  1. Joy in the Spirit

Acts 13:52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

Rom 14:17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Rom 15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

Gal 5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience kindness, goodness, faithfulness,

1Th 1:6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction with the joy of the Holy Spirit,

  1. Joy in Relationships within the family of God

Rom 15:32 so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.

2Cor 7:13 Therefore we are comforted. And besides our own comfort, we rejoiced still more at the joy of Titus, because his spirit has been refreshed by you all.

2Cor 8:2 for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.

Philippians 1:3-4 I thank God in my remembrance of you always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy

Philippians 2:29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honour such men

2Ti 1:4 As I remember your tears I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy.

Heb 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

2Jo 12 Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face so that our joy may be complete.

  1. Joy in Spiritual Maturity and Progress of others

2Cor 1:24 Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.

2Cor 7:4 I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy.

Philippians 1:25 Convinced of this I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith,

Philippians 2:2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

Philippians 4:1 Therefore, my brothers whom I love and long for my joy and crown stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.

Col 1:11 May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy,

1Th 2:19-20 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.

Heb 12:11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant [joyful], but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

1John 1:4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

3John 4 I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

  1. Joy in the midst of suffering and persecution

Heb 10:34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.

Jam 1:2 Count it all joy, my brothers when you meet trials of various kinds

  1. The Joy of Jesus

Heb 12:2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Perhaps there are things that strike you afresh as you read that list. Here are some that occurred to me in no particular order:

i. Christian joy is, well .. Christian. It is centered on the good news of Jesus – as promised Messiah, the faithful saviour, the risen Lord who ‘for the joy set before him endured the cross.’

ii. Joy has to come from somewhere. It is a virtue that needs sustaining, And in a Christian framework it is tied to the Spirit who gives new life. Joy is a sign of the Spirit at work. Joylessness is a sign that the Spirit has vacated the building. This is why it is almost impossible to separate joy from other fruit of the Spirit.

iii. Christian joy flows from rejoicing in the spiritual progress of others and seeing fruit in mission. It is other focused. Many instances of joy are relational, radiating from deep friendships and a common identity as followers of Jesus.

A personal aside here. This week at IBI we have been celebrating with students the end of the academic year. Many have shared stories of what they have learnt and experienced at College – and it has been humbling and deeply encouraging to hear again and again students say that they have been transformed, challenged, envisaged, and impassioned. And the other consistent theme is joy in deep friendships made – along with a lot of affectionate mockery, craic, fun and lack of proper respect for their teachers may I say …

iv. Ultimately Christian joy depends on the good news of the resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Christians can be and should be joyful in the world of tears because this world does not and will not have the last word.

The unsmiling dour Lurgan Spade Christian who has a deep deep joy is I’m afraid ultimately life-denying and gospel denying. Unattractive gloom does not speak of hope, love, joy and transformation. It speaks more of a fatalism and hope-lessness, a gospel of bad news rather than good.

There is not one instance I could see where joy resulted from a material thing or experience.  This is not to go down a grim ascetic route, God created the world and it was very good. It is just to note that the focus in the NT is joy revolving around the serious things we discussed in the last post. The material (fallen) world as a source of joy is relatively unimportant.

I wonder here how much my life – and the church in the West – finds sources of joy largely within the world on its own terms. Things like good food, friends, holidays, creation, slick technology, a home etc. And so, bit by bit, we find it harder and harder to imagine joy that does not depend on these things?

v. Christians are to be joyful because they belong to that new world, right in the midst of this old one. Not in an escapist sense – exactly the opposite. They are to be serious people of hope, and justice, and mission and courage because God is and will redeem this gloomy serious world into a new world of joy.

Joy, theologically framed, is therefore a foretaste of the world to come. We love and laugh and rejoice now because of the joy set before us.

9780567669964Back to the conversations between Brian Brock and Stanley Hauerwas one last time. The book finishes on an entirely appropriate note – that of joy. I love what SH says here (not sure how he knows he has only 5 or so years to live)..

Joy isn’t something you try to have. It’s an overwhelming that you suddenly find yourself taken up in an activity that just offers satisfaction that you could not have imagined as possible. Yesterday when I came in and you and I looked at each other it was joy, wasn’t it? I find it when I’m at worship, over and over, the joy of having been made part of this wonderful world that otherwise could not be imagined. I find it in the joy of the work we have been given as theologians. Funny as it is! How silly to think you could know how to talk about God? But that’s what we’ve been given to do. I just find it a constant surprise. To speak in another key, I wonder what it means that I’ll be 76 in July. I don’t have more than five— or a little more— years to live. I thought I would be afraid of death, and I may be, but I haven’t experienced it that way yet. Probably because I still don’t know I’m going to die. I think, one, I have had such a wonderful life and, two, whatever Heaven may be, it will be joy. I don’t know what it means to be part of that, but I am sure it is there, because I think that all that is is surrounded by joy. [286]

Brock later quotes from Hauerwas’ commentary on Matthew,

The world is not what it appears to be, because sin has scarred the world’s appearance. The world has been redeemed— but to see the world’s redemption, to see Jesus, requires that we be caught up in the joy that comes from serving him.

And Hauerwas responds that in effect being caught up in joy means “the great adventure” of refusing “to let the old world overwhelm the world that we have been given in Christ”.

The Christian life as the great adventure of joy – I like that.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

What is the place of joy and laughter in the Christian life?

You might read this question and think several things:

You might think, ‘But joy is not equivalent to humour and laughter’.

And of course you’d be right. Joy, in a New Testament sense is a hopeful rejoicing in light of the gospel, whatever particular circumstances we find ourselves in (Philippians 4:4). There is joy even, or particularly, in the midst of suffering and persecution. But I’d like to maintain that it all nigh but impossible to be joyful and for that joy not to find expression in humour and laughter, in some form of visible delight at life and in others.

You might think this is a rather silly and trivial question for this normally deeply serious and intellectual blog (!)

I’d like to suggest that it is perhaps one of the most serious and important theological questions we can think about.

You might think that this is a naïve question that could make those who struggle with depression and other mental health issues feel even worse for rarely ever feeling joyful.

Yes, that is a possibility, but I’m not suggesting a law or required behaviour. Joy and laughter cannot and should not be forced.

So here are some admittedly superficial musings on joy and the Christian life. They take two forms.

One is ‘ON SERIOUSNESS’  – where life is just too grave, earnest and significant to be distracted from what is truly important (this post)

One is ‘ON JOY’ – for joy to be a visible, tangible and frequent characteristic of a mature Christian faith (next post)

Feel welcome to add your own comments for either side.

ON SERIOUSNESS

Humour and joy are not exactly what come to mind listening to the news each day. The world is a very serious place. Here’s a particularly cheery vision of the future to brighten your day.

Is it therefore a sign of triviality to find joy and laughter in the midst of what can seem overwhelming darkness? A type of naïve superficiality indicative of a moral and intellectual failure to engage with the realities of the world? A retreat into self-absorbed self-delusion where we fool ourselves that the world is not as bad as it seems while amusing ourselves to death? (to paraphrase the late Neil Postman)

There are many Christians who say ‘Yes’ to these last three questions. They may not have worked out a formal ‘theology of non-joy’ but their theology is visible in their lives and faces and worship. (Like the old joke about Presbyterians being people of deep deep joy – so deep it never surfaces).

Such Christians are resolutely serious – there is, after all, much ministry to be done which has eternal consequences. There is much pain and suffering to try to alleviate – and to endure. There is much sin and injustice to confront. All this doesn’t leave much room for the self-indulgent superficiality of laughter.

After all, the Bible is not exactly a joke book. Indeed, from Genesis 1-11 onwards, much of its power and relevance comes from its stark unsentimental realism about the world and human nature. The history of Israel is true to our world of violence, power-politics, human pride, injustice and forced displacement. The wisdom literature of the OT faces the darkness and ambivalence of our human experience head on.

Jesus is the ‘man of sorrows’ and apocalyptic prophet of the kingdom of God – not a slick, easy on the ear, joke a minute preacher. The climax of the biblical narrative leads to a crucified Messiah. Darkness and evil are confronted at the cross. One day in the future all will be judged by a perfect and righteous God. Christian mission has therefore eternal consequences.

I can think of many sober and serious Christians I’ve known. Mostly I can think of their rather grim faces. (There is an Ulster saying about someone having a face like a Lurgan Spade. It was used to cut peat in the bog and was long and thin).

And I freely admit to belonging to this tribe at times – of sometimes despairing of hope when looking at the state of the world and man’s inhumanity to man – let alone my own sins and failures. It seems to me that without Christian hope, the only logical attitude to life would be nihilism. Atheist optimism seems to me to be whistling in the dark.

And there certainly is a type of ‘Christian’ joy that is a sign of triviality and self-indulgence. Where life is focused around ‘me’ and what makes me happy. Where I am in my own little bubble and either unable or unwilling to step outside it to listen to and help others. Where I am joyful if I have all I want and miserable if I don’t. Where God is there to meet all my needs and faith is little more than a resource to help me live a more fulfilled and happy life.

This is a pseudo-faith that finds happiness in a lack of engagement with a holy God, a lack of worship, a lack of repentance,  a lack of lament, a lack of mission, a lack of self-sacrifice and a lack of service.

In contrast, authentic Christian faith is genuinely a serious business.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

Contested Love (5) the deadliest opponent of love?

9780300118308Getting back, eventually, to Simon May’s fascinating book Love: A History.

We are in chapter 7 on ‘Why Christian Love is not Unconditional’

We don’t tend to link thinking about money with thinking about love. They are very distinct things are they not? What has one to do with the other? We assume that wealth, and the things that go with it, are benign, if not actively good. It does not have much to say, one way or the other, about our loves lives does it?

May writes as a philosopher looking in to Christian theology and ethics from the outside. While I don’t agree with some rather sweeping generalisations, he nails the Bible’s warnings about the spiritual danger of wealth and its connection to pride.

Pride destroys our capacity for love. Thus it is the deadliest sin of all.

Jesus’ greatest enemies, he says, are money, pride and hypocrisy. They feed into vanity, greed, selfishness, a lack of concern for others, and a vain morality that pretends to be for the good of others but is about making ourselves feel good.

Love, in contrast, is a determined focus on the good of the other.

“Jesus’ tremendous focus on money and the vices of pride – hypocrisy and self-righteousness – returns us to a central theme of this book: the precondition for love … is submission to the real presence of the other; submission to her individual lawfulness and what she calls on us to do …

And this is why money and the pride and self-sufficiency it fosters, are Jesus’ main target in his prophetic denunciations within the Gospels

… pride and the some of the conditions of wealth-accumulation can be huge impediments. Pride is about self-protection, self-sufficiency, barricading oneself against one’s neighbour, absorption in, or the business of self-esteem, a myopic dedication to one’s own prestige and power that darkness the mind to the reality of others – all attitudes that exclude submission; while the pursuit of wealth necessarily places the impersonal demand of utility at the centre of our relations with those caught up in this ambition – a far cry from the attentiveness that is at the heart of love …

This theme is so overwhelmingly pervasive in Jesus, that May asks this question.

What might your answer to it be ?

Why then has Jesus’ message been so perverted? Why has Christianised civilisation been so concerned with sex, and so much less inhibited by Jesus’ preaching against pride, possessions and power? Whether we are talking about the historical Church, the ‘civilising mission’ of Victorian Britain, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (the atheistic embodiment of the deeply religious Russian nation) and its unspeakable vanity of bringing revolution to the whole world, the ‘manifest  destiny’ with which American ‘Anglo-Protestantism’ dignifies itself, or the Christian fundamentalism that gives it such strident voice today – in all these cases intense sexual prudery is combined with ruthless pursuit of power and property, flaunted with the very pride, the very self-congratulatory lording it over others, to which Jesus’ whole life and death are a standing reproach …

He concludes with this stinger.

it is remarkable how often people who seek to civilise the world by force, often in the name of Christianity and with a sense of being guided by God, themselves profess a hierarchy of values so completely at variance with those of Jesus.”

pp. 105-6.

Do you agree – is pride the greatest opponent of love? What else makes the flourishing of love all but impossible?

The Bible and Refugees

This is the text of an article I wrote recently for Vox Magazine (Issue 34, April – June 2017)

The Vox team (Ruth Garvey-Williams, Editor;  Jonny Lindsay, Layout, Advertising and Promotion); Tara Byrne, Operations) do a remarkable job of producing a high quality magazine that captures stories, news and opinion from across a broad Christian spectrum of Irish Christianity. There is nothing else that begins to do this job.

THINKING BIBLICALLY AND THEOLOGICALLY ABOUT REFUGEES

We have always lived in a violent and broken world. People have always had to flee war, famine, torture and persecution. But today, the scale of forced population movement is unprecedented since the end of WWII. The implosion of an entire country like Syria, added to desperate crises in places like Myanmar, Iraq, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan, has led to millions of refugees forced to seek safety outside their home nations. The UNHCR says that today there are about 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide and a further 21.3 million people are refugees.

A refugee has been defined as a person who has fled their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution on one of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. A refugee is typically in a highly vulnerable situation: often without official status; lack of access to basic resources; removed from networks of family, language and culture; and often deeply traumatised by violence or fear of violence. Over half of refugees globally are under 18 years old.

Three ‘solutions’ face refugees. One is voluntary repatriation, in which refugees return in safety and with dignity to their own country. Second is local integration, in which the government enables refugees legally to integrate into the host country. The third is resettlement to a third state which has agreed to admit them and in which they have permanent residence status.

Tragically, of course, for most refugees none of these ‘solutions’ is their reality. The vast majority are left in limbo: stateless, homeless, friendless and penniless; living in camps or trying to survive on the margins within neighbouring nations. It’s important to know this: only about 1% of refugees are ever resettled to a third country despite the fact that the UNHCR reckons that about 8% of refugees globally now need resettlement.

So that’s the context. It is, of course, a hugely political issue in Europe and the USA as politicians grapple with their own population’s fears of ‘uncontrolled immigration.’ It is not an issue that is going to go away anytime soon.

How should Christians think about one of the major humanitarian issues of our day?

What follows are some proposals drawn from two key Bible texts that I believe should begin to shape a biblical and theological response. My main concern is to argue that there are absolute non-negotiable attitudes and priorities for Christians when it comes to thinking about refugees because they are based on the good news of the character of the God we worship.

Key Text 1: Deuteronomy 10:17-19

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

  1. God is Impartial

The great news of this text lies in the character of God. God is utterly unimpressed by ‘important’ people with money, power and all the right connections. This magnificent indifference to human status means that he is impartial and incorruptible. He treats people, whoever they are, equally. This goes utterly against the power structures of the world, then and now.

  1. God loves the outsider

But even more counter-culturally, God ‘loves the foreigner’ residing within Israel and takes care of their needs. This is not just something he likes doing, it is something he is. We could quote multiple texts from the OT and NT related to this theme. God is a God ‘for the poor’.

  1. God’s people are to love as God loves

As God loves the foreigner, so are his people to imitate him. They should do this because they themselves had been slaves in Egypt. Another important example is Deuteronomy 23:15, “If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.” This is radical stuff. Instead of hard borders and forced repatriation, the refugee fleeing from slavery is to be given shelter. Instead of oppression, they are to be given freedom, safety and a new start in life. This is exactly what refugees today long for (if they can’t go home).

Key Text 2: Luke 10:25-37 – The Parable of the Good Samaritan

Jesus’ famous parable about ‘neighbour-love’ deepens and radicalises the teaching of Leviticus 19:18 to ‘love your neighbour’. Leviticus is aimed within Israel. The uncomfortable point of Jesus’ tale is that the neighbour-love includes those religiously, culturally, politically and socially alien to us. The parable puts flesh on the bones other famous Jesus commands to ‘love your enemies’ (Mt. 5:44) and ‘do to others as you would have them do unto you’ (Lk. 6:31). Like Israel’s love in Deuteronomy, Christians will love this way out of their own prior experience of God’s saving love. That experience should transform us to be the neighbours that Jesus calls us to be. In a globalised world, our neighbour surely includes, for example, the Syrian refugee.  Each one of us should ask ourselves ‘How would I like to be treated if I was in his or her shoes?’

The teaching of Jesus raises two final points.

  1. Refugees our teachers

So much of the refugee crisis is framed around what ‘we’ (in the West) will ‘allow’ refugees to do or not do. It is a fantastically unequal relationship of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. ‘We’ have all the power. ‘They’ have had the most traumatic experiences of their lives, and yet ‘we’ view ‘them’ primarily as a threat to ‘our’ way of life. ‘They’ are ‘lucky’ if we permit them to enter ‘our’ promised land. And, if ‘they’ behave themselves, ‘they’ will be blessed to become like ‘us’. Rarely, if ever, do ‘we’ think that we might have a lot to learn from ‘them’. Yet Abraham and Sarah, Lot, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, all of Israel, Ruth and Naomi, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Esther, Daniel and his friends, were all refugees for various reasons, as were many of the first Christians (Acts 8:1, 11:19). God himself enters our world and becomes a refugee (Mt. 2:13-15). What questions, do you think, this raises for those of us living in freedom and security?

  1. Christians are not to be driven by fear but by love

There is a tremendous sense of fear in much of the West today. Fear of terror. Fear of the future. Fear of refugees. Some politicians are ruthless in exploiting this fear to get elected. Many others are, in turn, afraid of those politicians. Christians are not to be people of fear but of faith, hope and love. In Deuteronomy 10:16, Israel is told to “Circumcise your hearts’ and love the foreigner. Similarly, Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is aimed at those who felt justified in not helping those in need. We need to hear these texts afresh and have our own hearts softened. We fool ourselves if we think there is some great status gap between ‘us’ and ‘those refugees’. God doesn’t see it that way – remember he is magnificently indifferent to our man-made boundaries of money, identity and power. Rather, he calls us to be people of radical counter-cultural generosity; to be communities of welcome and grace to those in need of help.

For this is what our God is like.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (10) what is good preaching?

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This is an excerpt from the final chapter (8) on Preaching, Praying and Primary Christian Langauge.

Some questions discussed below are: What do you consider good and bad preaching? What form should sermons take? How should the sermon relate to the text? Should the preacher bring in personal stories or generally keep them out of the sermon? What assumptions should the preacher make about his / her listeners in a post-Christendom context? How critically should listeners listen to sermons? 

I always am trying to remind students in class that the purpose of good theology is, to use a phrase from J I Packer, for ‘doxology and devotion’. In other words, there is no artificial boundary between a life of worship and theology (thinking about God, faith, and what means to be a Christian in the modern world).

One of the many things I like about Hauerwas is his lifetime of resisting modernist epistemological dualism – the notion that there is the detached objective world of knowing and the subjective world of values, beliefs and feelings. In his life and work he has consistently prioritised prayer, preaching, theologically reflective writing and some biblical commentary. He is on record as saying this is the work he cares most about and see as most significant.

I’m focusing in on their discussion on preaching. Brock creatively identifies common themes from Hauerwas’ sermon material – which provokes this from Hauerwas on preaching on the relationship between the sermon and the biblical text:

Those are extremely interesting observations. I  always take the text very seriously. I am against idea-sermons. What you say in the sermon always has to be dependent on the text you’ve been given. One of the things I also try to do is work very hard not to exclude the Old Testament text. So I try to preach, as much as I can, in a manner that the text of the Old Testament is seen as crucial for what we’re saying in the New. So there is a certain sense that I  hope my sermons are really exegetically responsible. That involves why it is that I believe Christianity is a form of Judaism and that I don’t say that but I try to show what the implications are for the reading of the text we have before us.

To this I want to shout AMEN! Preaching, if it is to be authentic, has to engage well with the text itself – doing the work of exegesis that underpins what is being communicated. What has a preacher to say if he / she is not preaching the text? I’m sorry, but far too much preaching is ideas merely hung on a handy text. Such preaching is dismaying. The Scriptures are powerful and Spirit inspired – the preacher’s job is to let God’s Word speak.

And I’m with Hauerwas completely on how the text is best located within the wider biblical narrative.

… sermons cannot be what they are without being embedded in the story of “Out of all the peoples of the world I have chosen you, Israel, to be my promised people.” (251)

He adds this caution that while all texts are located somewhere within the biblical narrative, sermons themselves are best not stories. Because our stories can be anthropocentric distractions :

But that doesn’t mean that the sermon itself tells a story. I worry that, for example, when preachers tell the story of “When me and my wife . . .” I always think, “Oh no.” That’s just an invitation for the congregation to think, “Isn’t our preacher clever?” I don’t like that at all. I try to stay away from any self-revelations or stories that have shaped my life. (251)

Do you agree with SH here? Is the preacher best to keep personal stories out of his / her preaching?

Preaching is a wonderful privilege but also a great source of temptation. Human nature being what it is, it is so easy, even unconsciously, to be motivated by the basic human desire for affirmation, praise, admiration and respect. And so, to present a particular story about ourselves to our listeners that feeds into those desires.  The best practice I think therefore is to keep stories of ourselves and our lives out of the frame. A sort of ‘And lead us not into temptation’ sort of ethic. Yes, let’s have creative illustrations and relevant stories that illuminate the text, but let’s keep the ‘me’ out of those stories.

At one point Brock asks Hauerwas about his oft quoted proposal that sermons should be argumentative.

What’s at stake in your insisting that “sermons should be arguments”? And what kind of arguments do you mean? You elsewhere suggest that the sermonic form is a better form of argument than theoretical argumentation. (252)

Hauerwas’ point here is that sermons must engage the hearers and proposing, unpacking and defending an argument is the best way to do this. Again this is helpful – a basic argumentative form invites listeners into a conversation that ideally is relating to their lives and their world.

There is much more in this rich conversation that I can capture here. Here’s is an intriguing aside:

This is why preaching in our time is fundamentally shaped by the assumption you are preaching to people who are only half Christian. Apologetics takes over. (254)

Absolutely right. The reality of church life in a post-Christendom world means that very little can be assumed of what people know and believe. My hunch is that many sermons assume far too much and that we might be very surprised at what many listeners actually believe.

I think a good approach to this is to preach about the Christian life / gospel in a way that avoids WE and US language as much as possible. This presents the gospel and demand of the Christian life and leaves but space for the listener to be reflecting on where they are. It makes no assumptions of the listeners.

Yes, by all means stress the corporate nature of the Christian faith, but WE and US language all too easily makes a dangerous assumption that everyone present is ‘IN’. And this slides comfortably into US switching off – while there might be something interesting to think about, nothing much is at stake in the message; it is really just about helping us to do a little bit better in our lives rather than a message that calls us to come and die to ourselves and live to the Lord.

On critical assessment of preaching, Brock asks Hauerwas this:

BB: … do you have any advice on whether we should allow our critical mind to start chewing on what the minister is doing in church?
SH: No, I think that’s exactly what we should do.
BB: Why’s that?
SH: Because the sermon isn’t the property of the one preaching it. The sermon is the congregation’s reception of the Word of God. You sure better be ready to think that that word should invite some critical response. The idea that the congregation is just passive recipients of the word means that you don’t get what the word is about. (255)

This is wise counsel. The worst response to a sermon I guess is that it creates no reaction at all – just indifference. A sermon should be expecting and receiving critical response. And depending on the context, that response may welcome the Word and at other times fiercely resist it. Both responses can be reactions to what the Spirit is saying – one good soil, the other perhaps stony ground.

That critical response can also be, as Brock’s question implies, reflection on the sermon itself. The challenge here I think is for the preacher / leader not to be defensive but to take the initiative to welcome critical feedback by setting up structures in which a learning loop can happen with a small but diverse group of trusted people. However good and experienced a preacher, everyone always has more to learn.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (9): Medical Ethics, Disability and the Cross

I’m deliberately posting this on Easter Sunday – the content is profoundly appropriate.

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This is an excerpt from Chapter Seven, Medical Ethics, Disability and the Cross.

How do we think of modern medicine? What questions do we need to be asking as Christians when facing life and death decisions? In whom or what do we trust and how is this revealed in what we expect or hope medicine to do for us? What should we be saying NO and YES to?

This is a long conversation ranging over a number of topics. The thread tying them together is Hauerwas’ work in critiquing liberal modernist assumptions within the practice of medicine and how ‘the disabled’ are treated.

As Brian Brock puts it at one point .. “the technical apparatus of caregiving, organized by liberal society, gets to define the field” (201). This is the tyranny of the expert; how power is ceded to the medical professionals : how we put our trust in medicine to such a point that –  as Hauerwas likes to say – we begin to believe that it will enable us to get out of life alive.

Books discussed are Suffering Presence and Naming the Silences. This post only touches on one aspect of the discussion – Brian & Stephanie Brock’s encounter of the health care system through the experience of their disabled son Adam, who also has leukemia and a degenerative eye condition. It’s a very honest and moving account.

Naming the Silences (1990) talks about the need to hear and listen to those actually suffering before talking about suffering. It also hones in on the issue of facing childhood leukemia. Brock, the interviewer, is coming at this discussion from first hand experience of both. He comments that

I feel in an especial position to revisit it and probe the whole theology of modern medicine and the role of church and family in offering a better way. (214)

These are my words and they may or may not be accurate to the discussion: the issue here is how the juggernaut of medical professionalism and high-tech treatments swamps our humanity. We treat because we can, but all sorts of ethical and moral questions do not get asked.

For example, in the children’s leukemia ward, progress of how to treat childhood leukemia is mostly made by what is, in effect, experimentation on children. There will be little benefit for the child being experimented on, but over time advances are made … and so goes the process. But this is a process that is largely hidden from parents and children. (215-16)

Brian Brock tells of he and wife fighting to have their son treated free from involvement in medical experimentation – and how incredibly difficult it was. Hauerwas adds:

SH: I was talking to one oncologist who said, “You know, we’re pretty good now at curing hard tumors.” And I said, “How did you get there?” And he said, “Oh we just used the drugs we had. We’ve had them on hand but we just got better at doing it.” I said, “How’d you do that?” And he said, “We experimented on kids.” And I said, “Did they die?” And he said, “Yes.” And I said, “Did you tell the parents it was experimentation?” He said, “No, we told them it was therapy.”

Even if they had told them it was experimentation, many parents of course are so desperate to have their children live they’ll say, “Oh yes, do whatever you think is necessary.” I do think that what’s crucial here is a truthful medicine, in which the parents have some sense that if they want to use these experimental techniques on their kids, that their children may well suffer pain they wouldn’t otherwise have suffered and will also die. (216)

Which leads a bit further on to this exchange ..

BB: We are in an odd kind of Mobius-strip world in which medicine can then only be funded because it is experimental and going to produce more high-tech medicine.

SH: I keep saying that Americans are committed to the idea that if we just get smart enough then with our medical technologies we will be able to get out of life alive! It’s not going to happen.

BB: Taking it back down to the concrete level: even with all the improvements in success rates, leukemia is still a terrible disease to treat because what you are treating is the bone marrow. You can’t get to it without a needle or a drill. And you treat it by injecting poison that is so toxic to the body that you have to put it in an arterial vein. If you put it into a peripheral vein it will burn right through the blood vessels and into the surrounding tissue. This means that when the disease is discovered you need both to get the chemo going and to surgically implant a port, so you don’t burn up too many of the peripheral veins with the chemo. But the kid at the point of diagnosis is pretty sick, so their immune system is not working very well.

I say all that because I vividly remember sitting on the edge of the hospital bed with Adam on my lap and holding the wound on his chest from where they’d put the port in. My despair was complete as I saw the incision slowly splitting open because his skin and his blood were unable to muster the strength to bind the wound. I tell this story because leukemia is a disease that leaves no marks at all, but the treatment leaves incredible wounds. I know people would find your comment about the barbarism of those treatments offensive, and yet any truthful account would say that it’s the treatment that is so scarring. You cut and stick and poison the kid because the only alternative is their dying. (218-9)

And Brock adds this from the perspective of a parent of son who is mentally delayed and largely non-verbal.

Adam hurts but he can’t verbalize where it hurts. He thus seems incapable of being incorporated within this medical narrative. In this, he seems to be more than a canary in a coalmine— another way that you often talk about disabled people— because he reveals modern medicine for what it is. Because he is impermeable to the mutual pretenses that govern our lives, for him there seems to be no other reality than trust and communion, or its lack. Without a horizon of future or past, he demands presence. (219)

And it is this demand for presence that meant that the Brocks decided that they would not subject him to the cruelty of a bone marrow transplant and 6 weeks in a bubble to avoid infection. To be separated from physical presence would be beyond bearing.

It did not come to this –  but these are the sorts of questions that Hauerwas and Brock are probing and encouraging Christians to think hard about rather than unthinkingly go with the modernist flow of whatever the medical experts say.

It would be wrong to end here without some more theological comment. At the end of the chapter Brock raises the idea that disability is a hermeneutical key to reading Hauerwas. By this he means that as Christians we are to live by and under the cross.

The Christian faith is not a success story. It is God’s glory revealed and victory won at the cross. The church and all theology can never move past the cross. We live in a world that Hauerwas has spent his life trying to engage Christianly – a world of war, pain, mental illness, physical illness and death, slavery, patriarchy and so on. (237)

He is, I think, an ‘anti-success theologian’. He takes seriously that the foolishness of God is wiser than the bankrupt wells of human wisdom.  And that is profoundly counterintuitive in a North American culture dedicated to success, happiness and positive thinking.

Comments, as ever, welcome.