Sundays on Mark (7)

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections on the Gospel of Mark:

The arrival of Jesus’ mother and brothers into the overcrowded and charged atmosphere becomes a teaching tool to the crowd sitting gathered around this charismatic rabbi. The family are unable to get near to Jesus. And in a very Jesus-like way, he takes the opportunity afforded by unfolding circumstances to teach and challenge the listeners about his own identity and the nature of his mission.

‘Whoever does God’s will are my mother and brothers’ is an extraordinary claim. In saying this Jesus is explicity claiming he knows, and is doing, God’s will. Those who accept him will be part of the family of God. Here, I think, is the Messiah re-forming a renewed Israel around his own person and mission. The invitation is open to all the listeners.

PRAYER: Lord God, you give us ears to hear but also feet and hands to obey and do your will. Help us to have the courage and faith to be doers of your word as well as hearers. Amen.

Jesus’ Mother and Brothers

31Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

33“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.

34Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

Saturday story of the week

I’m thinking of taking Saturday to comment or reflect on a story from the week’s goings on nationally. So we’ll see how it goes.

The big story this week was the Irish Bishops’ summoning to Rome. They spent much of Monday and Tuesday meeting with the Pope and senior curia. The goal of these meetings was described by Primate of All-Ireland Cardinal Seán Brady as “one step in a process . . . which will lead to a journey of repentance, renewal and reconciliation”.

Gladys Ganiel in a series of informed and sceptical posts doubted Brady’s optimism. William Crawley took a similar line. I’m with Ganiel and Crawley. Why? Because there is something far more systemic to face up than a failure “to act effectively” by the Irish Catholic leadership – as the press statement put it. [And as the statement itself suggests, that Irish leadership is not united in the aftermath of the Murphy Report].

Christendom Catholicism Irish style was formidable: the corrosive institutionalised culture of loyalty; a general culture of deference to authority; fused with nationalism; all mixed with a high sacramentalist theology where everyone is ‘in’ from baptism, led IMHO to a culture where the spiritual qualifications for Christian ministry were so marginalised as to be irrelevant. Having a son ‘go for the priesthood’ became a symbol of cultural prestige regardless of whether he had truly been converted by the Spirit to new life in Christ. Perhaps even the question would have seemed a strange one.

It is interesting that the statement did say this:

The Holy Father … stressed the need for a deeper theological reflection on the whole issue, and called for an improved human, spiritual, academic and pastoral preparation both of candidates for the priesthood and religious life and of those already ordained and professed.

The New Testament qualifications for spiritual leadership revolve around character, integrity and Christ-likeness, all recognised within a local community of faith. This is a long long way from recent Irish experience. As Catholic thinkers themselves have acknowledged, “We have baptized and catechized but not evangelized.” And the reason for this is, in my view, is the overly-sacramental nature of Catholicism. As a result personal faith is downplayed and the necessity for new birth is marginalised.

The Pope’s statement is spot on – it will take BOTH profound theological shifts about the nature of faith and conversion as well as improved spiritual preparation for leadership for lasting change to take root. [and in saying this I’m in no way saying evangelicals somehow have got it all right, I’m just focusing on this particular story].

Atheism and the goodness of God

Earlier this week I had a hour long debate with Ciaran Mac Aoidh of Atheist Ireland. It was hosted by Steven O’Neill on his Monday Night Radio Show (Nightlife) on LifeFM 93.1, a local station based in Cork City. This is the first specifically Christian radio station to be given a licence to broadcast by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland [BCI].  Steven is doing a series on Christianity and Atheism.

I think it was a civil and good conversation and it sure covered a lot of ground. The main theme was God and morality. I was arguing that atheism logically cannot believe in any objective basis to morality. To be fair Richard Dawkins tries to construct some sort of evolutionary foundation for morality in The God Delusion. But what he suggests in the end is not objective morality at all – simply an explanation for why it may be mutually advantageous to act nicely to eachother in certain circumstances.

Ciaran (as best as I can recall) rejected the idea that Bible is an objective metaphysical basis for morality since it is a human book interpreted in different ways by humans. And even the content of that book is full of immorality – God is not good at all, he does (and commands others to do)  horrible things – we’re back here to issues we’ve posted on earlier such as the conquest of Canaan in the OT and the injustice of hell in the NT.

One reflection on our discussion:- faith or un-faith ultimately revolves around who we believe God is. Is he utterly good or is he not? I believe that he is. Yes atheists like Ciaran are asking real questions. But Christopher Hitchens, Dawkins et all give the impression that Christians are either too credulous or too naive ever to have thought of these questions themselves. Christians have been wrestling with these questions for centuries precisely because they believe and know God to be completely good.  One recent and very readable book is God is Good God is Great edited by William Lane Craig and Chad Meister.  I’m not going to work my way through the whole thing – but will post some reflections from different chapters along the way.

Missional Musings 6

As we’e discussed in this series, if Christendom Irish style is fragmenting, this poses new questions and missional opportunities for Christians. Stuart Murray Williams has done a lot of thinking about this from an anabaptist perspective in the UK context. The following is adapted from his thinking. I think it captures excellently where ‘we are at’ as well as raising great challenges. I’ve commented on some challenges in the right hand column.

Do add yours to the conversation  …

Post-Christendom realities

Symptom / challenges

From the centre to the margins

Is there even a ‘centre and margins’ any more?

From majority to minority

Rapidly decreasing cultural and political and religious influence

How engage with and live alongside others who hold radically different values and beliefs? How do we do unto others as we would have them do unto us and what might this mean in practice?

Settlers ( at ‘home’) to sojourners

Exiles, aliens, pilgrims

A vision of counter-cultural lives and counter-cultural communities. Re-capturing the radical call of the Christian life.

Privilege to plurality

One voice among many – with especially negative attitudes to Christianity in light of the past

The call to be good news as well as talk about good news

From control to witness

Influence by witness, engagement, dialogue and respect – especially in light of Ireland’s legacy of control and authoritarian religion

From maintenance to mission

From a comfortable self-sustaining support base, into unknown territory of missionary engagement with western culture

Missional church – full of missionaries with a clear vision of their identity in Christ and calling to follow him

From institution to movement

Unwieldy ecclesiastical structures / bureaucracies – towards flexible, maneuverable missional communities

It is the Spirit who empowers the church for mission, who leads and guides and transforms his people. Study, reflection, prayer and seeking the Spirit’s lead

World Christianity 2: lessons from Joe & Janet Campbell

Over Christmas we received a newsletter from friends who have been involved in peace and reconciliation ministry in Nepal for the last few years. In it they outlined some of the lessons they have learnt as Western Christians. The parallels to what Philip Jenkins is saying in New Faces of Christianity are remarkable. Completely independently, from lived experience, their story could fit like a glove in his descriptions of faith in the global south. Here are the lessons in their words (used with permission). Worth pondering, wonderful stuff: – what are your reactions?

Living with uncertainly.

Uncertainly is about the only certainly. Intermittent electricity, politically motivated strikes, road blockages due to breakdowns and accidents and fuel shortages. Fierce monsoon rains wash away roads, houses and all in their path. All this and much more is teaching us patience, flexibility and adaptability. There are many things we just cannot change, and like bad weather need to be experienced and lived through, making the best of it. Even welcoming and greeting the unexpected is a wonderful gift we have been learning something about.

Living in the present enjoying the moment, “taking no thought for tomorrow” is a highly honed skill of Nepali people.

Apart from neighbour India there is probably no country where family, tribe and caste count above everything else. You are not an individual here you are a representative of your people and therefore carry enormous responsibilities for others. The extended family living together simply extends even further when hardship strikes, through accident, illness or death. No one is excluded from care or left without a basic roof over their head.  The education of younger siblings is the responsibility of those who are older if they have a job. Money you earn is not yours, but belongs to the family since there is no social security system. We are learning something of this hospitality and generosity.

Of course we came here to help, to somehow, out of our experience support others to make a difference. Perhaps we have been of some assistance to a few. But all against a backdrop of our inability to end poverty, hunger and homelessness in the UK and Ireland. So what makes us westerners think we can do it here thousands of miles away? So we are learning more humility. Making do with a lot less. Repairing rather than renewing, the way our parents lived.  We have discovered what it feels like as westerners to be part of the problem, having and using too much of the scarce resources of the world. When the vast numbers of people on the planet do not have anywhere near enough for basic needs.

People are always more important that things. I think we knew that before we came but boy is it underlined here. Relationships are key, not education, wealth, gender or position. If you have a positive relationship with a Nepali, even if the language remains foreign and you are clumsy in their culture. Your friendship and respect for them will more than make up for your mistakes. Spending time nurturing that relationship, endless cups of sweet Nepali tea, lots of chat, and time spent just hanging out with people. All this is essential for living well in Nepal.

A sense of the spiritual is always near the surface here and no effort is made to hide it. Religious celebrations are public; the Divine is to be revered, respected and spoken openly off, without any sense of embarrassment. The PC culture is still refreshingly far off. The Christian church grows by about 14% each year. And this in a country having over 90% Hindu. I am convinced the growth is simply people taking their faith seriously. Believing what the Bible says and simply living it out. No questions asked.

Death and dying are open topics for conversation. No burial here, only cremation and not hidden away but right in the heart of the city at the main cremation site, and in keeping with tradition and belief it is beside the river which eventually will wend its way to India and join with the great and holy Ganges. In fact it’s on the tourist trail. Family, friends and the public can see the body being placed on the pile of wood and the fire lit by the eldest son of the deceased. When the fire has consumed all, then the ashes are swept into the river for the long journey south.

By contrast in the west death is rarely spoken about and often hidden. Perhaps its because in our materialist and individualist society we don’t want to be reminded that wealth, fame, possessions and education are for one life alone. Few have a faith that prepares for death. St. Paul says: “ Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where O death is your victory? Where O death is your sting?”

Interview with Chris Wright

During his recent visit to Dublin, Chris Wright spoke at our annual student retreat. It was a brilliant weekend of great craic and great bible teaching from Chris. There has been lots of appreciation, discussion and talk among students ever since his visit. God used him to make a big impact. I also took the chance to interview Chris – so here is this fledgling blog’s first EXCLUSIVE 🙂 Chris is not afraid to challenge the (Western) status quo. What strikes you from this interview?

Chris, you’ve been here in Ireland speaking about The Mission of God and the work of the Langham Partnership. From your first-hand experience of global Christianity, what are some encouragements that you praise God for and what are some challenges that you observe?

I’m praising God for the phenomenal growth of the Christian community around the world in places like Africa. Latin America and Asia. The church in the West in now a minority of the world church (perhaps about 25%). The great majority of the world’s Christians now live in countries that we used to think of as the mission field but we need to stop thinking that way.

The challenges are that as church growth happens rapidly it can also be very shallow. Shallowness is not just a feature of the church in the majority world, it is universal. There are a lot of shallow Christians in the West as well. One of the results of shallowness, as Jesus pointed out, is that people become very vulnerable to false teaching and to the cares and temptations of the world. There are forms of alleged Christianity in parts of the world which are corrupted by syncretism with the cultures that surround them, whether that be a complete disconnect with biblical teaching about God’s presence in the world with his people in suffering or about a sort of ‘sanctified covetousness’ which regards success in the kingdom of God as identified with wealth, prosperity and health and so on.

Yet, some of that I think is a very debased form of Christianity flourishes alongside forms of Christian faith that believes in the miraculous power of the Spirit of God to change things, to liberate people and to bless people. So, it’s like Jesus said; when the kingdom of God is working, you get wheat and weeds in the same field. So, there is simultaneously that which is of the Spirit of God (and is positive and healthy and good) and that which is very definitely from a different spirit and not healthy.

Another challenge is that there is a need for the evangelical community around the world to ask itself what it means to be evangelical, not only in belief but also in behaviour in terms of commitment to the Bible, to the Lord Jesus Christ, to serving his kingdom and not just to a form of religion without the power of it.

What then are some of the challenges the growth of the church in the Global south poses to the church in the West? What are some of the idols that we face?

One is to for the church in the west to recognise its own relativity and to see that we are simply a part of the body of Christ. We are no longer the ‘home church’ or the ‘elder church’ and we need to have a greater degree of humility and spiritually in our attitude and in our practice towards our brothers and sisters in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere.

Another is to recognise that idolatry takes many forms. The Western church, I think, is very much polluted by its syncretism with idols of consumerism and a materialistic lifestyle. There is almost no difference between the way evangelical Christians live in America and Britain and the way everyone else lives. We worship the same gods as our culture. There is also syncretism with the idolatry of national pride and militarism – the putting of our hopes and security in the government and the army – which is syncretism of Christianity and patriotism. And that can be very powerful and becomes very destructive of relationships with other parts of the world that suffer some of the effects of west self-aggrandisement and empire building. These idols within western Christianity can also be the despair of our brothers and sisters in the majority world. They look at the western church with love and gratitude for its missionary outreach in past centuries, but also with a degree of bafflement that there is so much in western Christianity which is corrupted and detrimental to the best interests of the body of Christ. For example, we live with vast inequalities. A quarter of the world’s population live on less than a dollar a day, about 25% of those will be Christians – our sisters and brothers. Yet, we are not impacted by this because they live far away.

Your book The Mission of God has caused plenty of discussion academically, within the missionary world and the Christian ‘blogosphere’. In it you speak of the big narrative of Scripture and how vital it is for us to understand our mission within the overall mission of God. What are some practical implications for churches and individuals who really ‘get this’?

I’m encouraged that some people have told me that when they read the book it’s meant a whole paradigm shift for their Christian faith. I think it has something to do with recognising that if we are not living by the Bible’s story we are actually living by some other story which is actually a myth. Because we know that people in other religions, like Hindus and so on, have their gods and we know we don’t believe their story, the trouble is that we think that ‘I’ve become a Christian and I’ve got my swipe card for heaven and I’m out of here’. In the meantime I just live in this world the same way as anyone else in the culture does. What we don’t realise it that we are living by the myths of Enlightenment modernity, consumerism, individualism, and all the unseen idols which run quite contrary to the Bible story.

So we need to become more aware that our lives are to be lived within the framework of creation, the radical implication of the Fall and sin, but we still live in God’s earth and God’s mission and plan is to redeem it. The plan of God is revealed in Colossians and Ephesians, it is to bring all things in heaven and earth under the redemptive work of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is a cosmic dimension to our faith as well as a personal dimension. I think that when people see that it gives them a greater sense of meaning and significance to their own lives as they actually live within a different story and with different values and priorities to the world around.

It means, I think, that one turns upside down the questions people ask when they become a Christian in the Western context and say ‘How can I fit God into my life?’ We need to ask instead, ‘How can I allow God to fit my life into his purpose?’ so that God becomes central, not my life. So we don’t ask ‘How can I apply the Bible to my life?’ we ask instead ‘Where does my life fit into God’s story in the Bible?’ I don’t think ‘How can I make the gospel relevant to the world?’ because God is actually going to change the world to be the shape of the gospel. So it turns upside down and inside out a lot of our thinking.

The final point in relation to the church is that it ought to mean that the church as a community of believers should recognise that they have been called into existence for the sake of God’s mission. Therefore, a church has to exist in mission. Not just by sending out missionaries to far off places around the world but by being salt and light in the community where they are. Mission is the very mode and existence of the church, it’s not just an extra thing we do, it is the very way we are.

In your recent book, The God I Don’t Understand, you tackle four ‘hard to understand’ questions of faith. It’s an autobiographical book in some ways, a personal book. In a world of such suffering, gross inequality and of natural disasters like Haiti and in light of violent judgement of God in the Old Testament – how can we believe in the goodness of God?

The title of the book is quite deliberate, The God I Don’t Understand. People ask me ‘How do you understand this and that?’ The whole point of the book is that there are certain things that I don’t understand! I’m quite serious about this. I want to say that it is okay to know and love God without knowing all of the answers. This is true of human relationships. Those of us who are married know that we can know and love and trust our wives or husbands without necessarily understanding everything that they say or do. This came to me again with Haiti. I feel angry, I ask God. ‘Why is that, yet again, it is where the poorest people live that these tectonic plates shifts and the earth groans and people get killed? Why do you allow that?’ That does not mean that I don’t believe in God’s existence. It means that I’m puzzled and angry about something that I don’t understand. But then I think about it in terms of human relationships. Would I rather, in human life, know someone I love in a marriage relationship – with whom sometimes I get angry and do not always understand – rather than have nobody at all? Would I rather have the non-existence of a relationship than a relationship which sometimes causes me pain? I think most people would say that they would rather have a relationship where there is pain, and puzzlement and anger that no relationship at all. Therefore I have to say I don’t find Haiti or the Tsunami a reason for doubting the existence of God, but rather a source of pain and puzzlement as to why God allows such things to happen.

On the issue of evil, the book does address suffering, the Canaanites, the cross of Christ, and the end of the world. In each case, I try to explain the things that I think the Bible does explain and leave as matters of mystery (sometimes as puzzling mystery and sometimes as glorious mystery in the case of the cross) and leave those as the Bible does – as things that God has chosen in his wisdom that it is better for us not to fathom.

Changing focus to the world of contemporary evangelicalism: you are chair of the Lausanne Theology Working Group and are involved in the upcoming global congress in Capetown in October 2010. What are some of your hopes for that congress?

Lausanne, of course, is committed to world evangelisation, that is in its bloodstream. I would hope that Capetown will result in many positive partnerships among people who are committed to the gospel and living the gospel in the world. I hope that Capetown will continue to affirm the holistic and integral understanding of mission that is there in the Lausanne Covenant – that evangelisation is not just preaching, it is also living and demonstrating; it is words and works. I also hope that Capetown will have an energising effect on Christian community, that it will give people a fresh sense of the importance of sharing the gospel with the world and that there are huge needs in the world that we need to be exposed to. There are millions of people who have never even heard of Jesus; that there are millions of people who have no part of God’s Word in their own language. There are enormous realities of the needs of the lost world of those who do not yet know Jesus that I hope that Capetown will inspire the church take up.

My other hope for Capetown is that evangelicals will be willing to take a self-critical look at themselves and hear the prophetic word of Jesus to ‘Repent and come back to me’. For unless God’s people are living in God’s ways and look a little more Christ-like, then what is the world supposed to want become Christian for? We can’t be bad news and preach good news. We actually have to be the good news that we are preaching. If we are going to share Jesus with the world we have to be like Jesus and that includes loving our neighbours as ourselves, loving our enemies, non-retaliation, humility, seeking justice, compassion for the poor – all the things the Bible tells us we ought to be doing.

The Church has got to be the church?

Yes, that’s right. One of the phrases of Lausanne is ‘The Whole Church Taking the Whole Gospel, to the Whole World’ which is a wonderful slogan (which is not unique to Lausanne). The difficulty is that it can make the church just like the postman. If the postman who delivers the letter to your door was committing adultery the night before, to you that does not matter as long as you get the letter.  However, the church is not just a delivery boy for the gospel, the church is supposed to be the embodiment of the gospel. We are to be a reconciled community of fallen sinners who have come to love one another through the Lord Jesus Christ. The quality of life of the church is to be a demonstration of the gospel alongside the delivery of the gospel.

A final question: You are back in Ireland. What are some of your impressions?

I’m encouraged by the growth of Irish Bible Institute. I’m also encouraged by the growth in evangelical witness both within Ireland and from immigration. It is tremendous that the third largest denomination in the country is the (Nigerian) Redeemed Christian Church of God. You almost see God smiling ‘If those Irish Christians can’t get it together I’ll send a few African Christians to cheer them up.’ God moves people around the world. From that comes fresh growth life from people who actually believe the gospel and want to live it and preach it. Consumerism seems to have replaced a very religious culture. If the empty idolatries of mammon have now disappointed, the challenge for Irish Christians is to continue to point people to the living God.

Interview with Patrick Mitchel, 30 January 2010.

World Christianity 1

One of the biggest events in recent human history is not one that tends to get reported on SKY or CNN. It is the phenomenal growth of the Christian Church in what is called the ‘Global South’ or ‘majority world’ – Africa, Asia and South America. Of course this is not a new thing that has happened overnight. But maybe it is a reality that we in the West are only now widely becoming aware of and it raises hugely important issues and challenges in an ever more interconnected world.

Tomorrow I’ll post an interview I did with Chris Wright. In it he talks about (among other things) how Western Christians now make up maybe 25% of the global Christian population – a percentage that is shrinking all the time.

One person who has perhaps done most to raise awareness is Philip Jenkins and his bestseller The Next Christendom: the coming of global Christianity which tells the tale of the ‘shift’ of world Christianity from north to south. He says ‘Christianity is a religion born in Africa and Asia, and in our lifetimes, it is going home’

Whereas in the past you might read about curious forms of marginal Christian experience such as ‘African theologies’ or ‘Asian theologies’ – soon the boot will be on the other foot and we will know when the shift has happened when we start reading about ‘North American theologies’ or ‘European theologies’. In others words – the West is no longer the ‘norm’ – ‘the’ Christian perspective against which all others are measured.

A couple of years ago Jenkins wrote another book called The New Faces of Christianity: reading the Bible in the Global South.  It’s a fascinating, thought provoking and hugely enjoyable book that makes you think afresh about both how we read the Bible and how much we have to learn from fellow Christians aroudn the globe. I want to use it to start a series on world Christianity.