Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"My name is John Johnson"

In the early hours of Saturday 5th November 1605 a man claiming to be John Johnson left a cellar underneath the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, and was promptly arrested. Inside were found many barrels of gunpowder. So ended an 18 month conspiracy led by Robert Catesby and involving the arrested man – not called John Johnson but Guido Fawkes.

Catesby, Fawkes and co had sought to kill King James and replace him with his daughter Elizabeth. A political move to suit their own purposes. Who will be on the throne? They said; we will choose.

Three thousand year old song, Psalm 2 describes a similar kind of conspiracy on an altogether grander global political scale. In v1-3 the kings of the earth plot together.

1. Who is the conspiracy against? 
V2 The LORD and his Anointed 

 That is to say, the Father and his Christ. We do sin against one another but Psalms tell us that our real problem is with the LORD and his Christ – human beings conspire against God, to overthrow him and place themselves on his throne. When we harm one another we’re harming those made and loved by the LORD and his Anointed, defacing and damaging their image bearers.

 2. Why do they conspire? 
V3 “let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.” 

I wonder if that’s how we see God’s word in our lives? Restriction? Hosea 11:4 speaks differently, God says “I led them with cords of kindness, with ties of love… I bent down to feed them.” Why does humanity conspire to overthrow the LORD and his Anointed – because we mistake his kindness for cruelty, his love for restriction.

Who will be king? We will, because God can't be trusted to act for our good... and so we act like co-conspirators with Fawkes... hiding in cellars, trying to cover our tracks with a quickly adopted false names. All because we doubt that the LORD and his Anointed aren't kind.

I know a little of my own heart and the anxiety I experience when I'm out of control. I want to pull the strings. My hands might not be strong enough but when I'm holding things at least it's 'in my hands'. Can we be honest about ourselves? Can I? And, is there any possibility that we've misread things? Might his restraints be for our good? Might his bonds be safe for us? When we look at Jesus in action can we really label him as cruel? When he says that to see him is to see his Father can we really say a cruel deity lurks behind a kind Jesus?

In the next part we'll see how the LORD answers the conspiracy, but for now: see the kindness of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Unanswered is the problem - we have conspired... what then for us in the hands of the true king?

Image - Creative Commons - Antony

Monday, August 22, 2016

Who's in and who's out?

Paul Hiebert's 1978 paper 'Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories' poses the question of what's required to say someone is or isn't a Christian. He poses the senario of an illiterate peasant in Indian who professes faith after hearing the Christian gospel once. What would it take to say they're actually a Christian?

This sort of thinking could be applied to other things too - I'm a member of a running club, Suppose there's a person has paid up but never runs... and there's another person who runs with us but hasn't formally joined... who is the club member? So too, political parties etc.

Hiebert looks at the way Christian faith is popularly considered to be a bounded set - with a clear boundary between Christian and not a Christian based on orthodoxy or orthopraxy, where the key task is to get someone over the boundary. There's much good in the model, but Hiebert's question is - what about his new believer Papayya? He's in a culture without a church and he's just confessed Christ... his life looks fairly similar to before he believed. And if you quizzed him about his beliefs, so much of his thinking is shaped by his pre-Christian culture... he'd fail many tests of orthodoxy. Is he in, or out?

What if there's another model? Hiebert suggests centered sets. Here there is still a boundary but it's a centre point, Christ. What counts here isn't how close you are to the centre, but which way are you moving? One can be near or far from Christ in terms of knowledge or experience, the issue is whether one is seeking to follow Christ or moving away from him.

I've heard this choice described as the difference between having fences or gathering around a flag, well or campfire. Both still have a clear boundary category, both still have in/out criteria.

Fires, wells and flags are more attractive than fences, though both models still have boundaries in reality, and I'm not sure either can fully deal with the massive adjustments in worldview understanding that cause Hiebert to raise the question concerning new believer Papayya.

Seems to me that both models offer a helpful insight.

In the end, the Christian gospel is an in/out matter, Adam or Christ, lost or found. Both models accept that. Bounded-sets offer help when it comes to assurance - when you're in you're in, and nothing can take you out of Christ. Bounded sets offer helpful clarity and confidence. And fences protect those inside from wandering into danger, being attacked from the outside, and enable biblical measures of kind discipline that exclude to jolt someone into repentance. Bounded sets fit are institutionalised when a church has a formal membership, the approach enables strong mutual commitment. But, what do you then say or do about non-members...?

But Biblical language and categories also call for growth and progress,that the notion of centred set allows us to think more about what in-ness and out-ness look like, and offer the helpful categories of direction of travel, journey, L-plates, progress and joy in the faith that are helpful for aspects of Christian discipleship and soften the temptation towards them/us mentality. Campfires are attractive and warm and we - human beings - all need the gospel. Centred-sets remind us that there is more of Christ to be had for each of us. Papayya can be "in" because of his new direction of travel, though his faith is low on understanding and low on change. I something similar see that in the beginnings of my own walk with Jesus.

What if you think of a church in terms not of it's confessing membership but more in terms of its parish... everyone in the parish is either moving toward faith or away... on the final day, who is in and out will be evident. Here and now, many of our measures are what Jonathan Edwards calls 'signs of nothing' - no certain proof either way.

Healthy church practice surely needs to hold in tension the clarity of a bounded set and the movement of a centred set. Faith without boundaries is unkind. Faith without concern for growth is unclear.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Mission as prophetic dialogue

Some interesting observations on Christian mission from Roman Catholic priest Stephan Bevans' paper Mission as prophetic dialogue. Not my general 'go to' for insight, but I enjoy reading widely, learning from the differences, learning from what's good even if sometimes there are bones to spit.

Bevans, with Roger Schrader, begin with God:
That mission is dialogical is rooted in the reality that God... is dialogue. God is not a lonely monad but a communion of persons, distinct from one another and yet one in identity and purpose... This communion of giving and receiving Love overflows into the entire cosmos that God created out of sheer grace, and calls it into communion with Godself. This is what we mean by God’s mission, the Missio Dei.
Union with Christ brings us into the life of God.
Through Baptism, Christians share the very life and of the Trinity, and so they are enjoined to carry out God’s mission in the same dialogical way. Concretely, this means that Christians who engage in mission need to make real efforts to “bond” with the people among whom they minister.
Mission that is shaped by being friends and good neighbours fits with the God of the Christian gospel. A different gospel might validate a different kind of posture - there are plenty of deities you could imagine that would fit with a distant and detached approach - but Trinitarian religion is dialogical, friendly, loving and about moving nearer to people where they are.

Citing, V.S. Azariah in 1910:
“...the Indian Church will rise up in gratitude to attest the heroism and self-denying labours of the missionary body. You have given your goods to feed the poor. You have given your bodies to be burned. We also ask for love. Give us FRIENDS.” Mission as dialogue is ultimately about ministering out of real relationships, about making friends.
Or, as Jon Tyson puts it - 'love people and be available'. 

Churches can run ministries and events and programmes to connect with others, but the nature of the God who knows us and who we know and proclaim leads us toward favouring a relational and personal posture - to the slow work of making friends.

In approaching the task of such missional friendship, Bevans counsels...
...the missionary always recognizes that she or he is a stranger and guest. As a stranger he or she needs to realize how little he or she knows, and how much she or he needs to rely on the local people for knowledge in that place. And as a good guest, missionaries should not presume too much. Even presuming to help out by doing the dishes or something like that could be an insult to the hosts. The missionary needs to look and listen long and hard so as not to abuse the privilege of being hosted by the people of a certain place. One does not enter another’s garden lightly. One enters first of all to gaze and admire, to enjoy the beauty of what is there. Maybe after getting the trust of the gardener the visitor might be able to give advice about planting or watering or arranging—but even then it should probably be done gingerly.
We may be very keen to invite others into our garden, to meet us on our turf, to enter the places in which we feel safe, but we go first to theirs, tentative, careful, teachable and aware of our capacity to blunder and offend. Developing that kind of sensitivity might help us to make our own garden more accessible.
[Paul] writes, “we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our very selves, because you have become very dear to us” (1Thess 2:7-8). If the gospel is to be brought to people effectively, it must be presented worthily—it must be lived. A dialogical spirit is not simply a prerequisite for preaching the gospel, in other words. Even less is it merely a means to attract. It is an integral part of the Good News itself: the God of the gospel is a God who really cares, who is really involved in this world, is a God who respects human freedom. Our gentleness and self-gift in mission are sacraments of the gentleness and self-giving of God as such.
Mission implies real involvement 'in this world', the long yards of being a stranger and a guest, looking and listening long and hard, and making friends. A posture like that creates space in which to speak worthily and compellingly. As Donnie Griggs advises: Let integrity, generosity and compassion be something the whole town cannot escape when they are around you or the folks in your church. 

See also - Tanya Marlow - For every wannabe missionary: Assimilate or go home.