The definite answer

For many of us with our evangelical background we have been intuitively taught to believe that there are answers (not so bad a concept) and that we have them (not always a good concept!). This is also compounded if we also have a personality that is biased toward the black and white approach of there being an absolute that is knowable in every situation. Maybe add a little bit of youthful energy and we will always be looking to receive or to give the definitive response. ‘I’m glad you asked me, and even if you didn’t ask me I am more than capable of telling you the answer. So pin back your ears…’

I suggested in conversation recently that when we are younger in our faith and in our stage of life that we are often ready with the answer, but as we develop we move away from being equipped with the quick answer to seeking the slower and less easy task of trying to help find solutions. An answer based approach will say ‘this is right, that is wrong, I know that because…, and so this is what you need to do.’ A solution based approach might even say ‘I don’t have the answer, and I am not sure there is an answer, and probably what you are experiencing will be an untied loose end and won’t even be resolved.’ A way forward (a solution) can consist in ‘there is no answer.’ Strangely knowing that there is no answer can help us find the solution, whereas holding on to an answer can leave us vulnerable to the many turns and twists of life.

I listened recently to a part of a video where the person said, in effect, that he had come to them with questions for their answers. That is not something we like when we want certainty! Yet doubt and uncertainty is not the enemy of faith, but are the companions that enrich our faith.

There are answers to many of our situations, it is not as if all of life is a loose end – thank God! But a premature answer can also sell us short, so that we avoid the journey in waters unknown, and do not discover what needs to change within us. Maturity is not marked by finding all the answers (becoming a human ‘wikipedia’) but in meandering ever closer to the God who does not always deal with rights and wrongs but in redemptive solutions that move life forward. (Life is a meander because we do not always know in what direction we should head, but somehow as we walk in humility our meander takes on a distinct direction.)

We can see this kind of meander in Paul (an apostle meandering – whatever next?). We read:

Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygiaz and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas (Acts 16:6-8).

They were headed toward Asia, presumably because they felt clear to head in that direction, but hit a block; they tried to enter Bythinia but were prevented. Not exactly clear apostolic direction at this point. There must have been a relief when at last Paul got his act together announcing he had had a clear dream of where they should go – Macedonia. The dream of the man calling for help clearly restores faith in his ability to receive apostolic direction! So off to Macedonia (Philippi) they go and ever so quickly they walk into the fulfilment. Or do they? It is not a man of Macedonia that features but a woman – Lydia! Of course there might be ways of resolving it all (the jailer and family respond later) but I like that there is not a clear – ‘and as a result of the dream this is what came about and all the boxes were ticked.’ The Bible helpfully leaves things unresolved – it is a book of God’s solutions not simply his set of answers. It is not a codified text of a way to live but a narratival account of the meanderings of those who were not among those who were mighty, highly intelligent and lived happily without a doubt again ever after.

I suspect God is not scratching his head seeking to find the answer but is willing to open his heart to us and help us find a way forward. And the way forward just might be a messy one.

Solutions are not always the answer, but answers are not always the solution. Solutions open the future; answers try and explain the past. They might be related, and maybe one day we will receive all the answers to the questions we had, but I suspect when we fully live the other side of the solutions we probably won’t be interested in the answers.

PS: You can present all the answers in the comment section should you wish!!

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To, for or with?

For the past couple of months I have been mulling over these three words in the context of our relationship to ‘the world’. Here then are a few of my not totally formed thoughts (partly provoked by a video clip of Dr. Sam Wells that I watched). My guess is this is an extension of contemplating how to be ‘in’ the world but not ‘of’ it. The application should be into a much wider context than evangelism (and I think the primary biblical paradigm is ‘witness’ not evangelism as defined by modernism) but will use that as my means of dialogue.

In the TO the world, my approach is shaped by a view that I am over here, the world is over there and there is a gulf in between the ‘washed’ and the ‘great unwashed’. I have an obligation to do something to them, but in taking that approach I enter into a I-it relationship (Martin Buber’s usage to describe something that falls far below a true encounter). I do this to someone as we are very different, they are truly the other, and other in the sense of inferior. Evangelism is done to in order to convert, if there is a conversion then they can move over here to where I am, and then together we can act to do more ‘to’ those who need conversion. If there is no conversion then necessity means I should move on with the hope that someone else I do this to will be more responsive.

In the FOR mode, I recognise how much I have that the world does not have, therefore am moved to share what I have with them. The invitation is to come to my ground as I have something for them. This normally moves beyond a simple I-it relationship, but can prove very problematic when there is no response leading to conversion. Does the relationship continue or is it now unprofitable as there are others who I can relate to in a ‘for’ them relationship. The hope is that they will convert, join me in my ground and together we invite others across to hear what we have for them. If they do not convert I am in a bit of a dilemma as I only have so much capacity. If it was a true I-thou relationship do I drop them and use my energies with others?

In the WITH mode, I recognise that there is a commonality between us all. I do not abide in some separate piece of ground, but live, move and have my being as all others do in God. This commonality means I am seeking always to relate to anyone, regardless of how ‘other’ they are in a I-Thou relationship (Buber’s term). I see we have much in common, this commonality is not based on a specific response of faith – and Paul’s relationship with the Asiarchs is a powerful example on this (Acts 19). We are not simply coming with our projects, but with our gifts, calling and faith to discover ways of being ‘with’ people. There will be a very strong ‘with’ whenever there are those who dream of a different world, for if anyone is in Christ they do not simply dream of a different world – there is a different world.

(The above I have applied to ‘evangelism’, but it needs to be applied to so much of Christian charitable work also. It might be a great experience to go and work in an underprivileged place, and there might be many reasons why we cannot simply go and live there, but the deepest relationship is the ‘with’, not the ‘for’, and certainly not the ‘to’ relationship.)

The believer in Christ lives in two places: in Christ / heavenly dimension and geographical / horizontal relational level. (‘To the saints in Christ in Corinth’ was a typical Pauline greeting.) We have to be faithful to both settings, and both settings are lived in simultaneously. Our faith determines how we live in the second setting. We live there to humanise others, to be full of hope, to bear witness that our world view is shaped by the Transcendent one who entered into a I-Thou relationship with us. Tangible signs also accompany us: the signs that Jesus gave marking the change of time, those of supernatural healings and of the marginalised hearing the sound of good news.

To be in the world but not of it necessitates living in both spheres simultaneously, of determining to be shaped by the ‘with’ mode. A new day is always being offered; a new day should have been our habitat given the resurrection. Maybe the sound of a new day has been muted because the body of Christ has not been too quick to live out the new day in the ‘with’ mentality.

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Small and diverse

I have been using a phrase over the past two years or so that I want to try and expand here. The phrase is:

The multiplicity of the small and the richness of diversity.

Too often we have looked for the quick solution, hearing news of the latest ‘new thing’ and tried to replicate it where we are. The ‘new thing’, particularly due to our means of communication becomes a center and can be found and often connected to pretty easily. A center of that nature of course administratively is normally tightly run so usually comes with a ready shape to the content, thus a package can be imported.

Those centers have indeed helped open horizons for us, but maybe by default they have helped support the myth of what ‘success’ looks like. (An aside: I am not sure ‘success’ as defined by how we appear is a biblical criterion, I would rather suggest ‘effectiveness’ as a better criterion – and that will be measured much, much later.) If we were to look at the growth of the early church from where it started in Jerusalem we would come up with a figure of around 40% growth per decade. Not staggering growth, but growth that was not simply centered on people coming to faith but on the impact on society to undermine all societal divisions.

God so often grants us what we ask for. Israel asks for a king – he gives them one. (Beware what kind of leaders we wish for as the body of Christ. A strong leader that restores order might just open the door to all kinds of hierarchies and inequalities that we never thought possible. The rise of Hitler in Germany was not exactly because he was damaging the economy nor failing to make Germany feel good about itself again, as he set about reversing what he declared was unjust. For sure, we face this in Europe at this time and the church has to be so careful about simply supporting those who tout ‘traditional values’.) Maybe in response to the many prayers for ‘revival’ he has given us some wonderful ‘big’ new things, maybe though now is the time he wants to give us something deeper and longer lasting? If so it could be along the lines I am suggesting, of the small and the diverse.

Jesus worked hard to distribute, not simply delegate, authority. This seems to be one of the offences that Judas did not deal with, and combined with personal weakness and theological conviction set him on a path of betraying Jesus. The Last Supper, and every Eucharist or meal table since, was an amazing symbolic act of distribution. Jesus gave himself. There was no center to remain as he followed through on his words of ‘better I go away’. His absence will be better! The Holy Spirit from Pentecost onward has marked the same trajectory. The Spirit comes to ‘each’, the Spirit is for ‘you’. There is a distribution of the Presence of God and therefore of authority. This does not negate gifting to serve, but gifting must never practically negate this universal distribution.

Large centers inspire, help shape an atmosphere of faith, but can also draw everything back to that center. It is sad to meet people who have been in those centers at some point, but for whatever reason become disillusioned and then to become adrift in a sea of total uncertainty. In those situations apparently the big center could not help them sustain faith as they navigated the necessary growth environment of doubt. We all have to discover the glory of God that is present in the wilderness if we are to develop, we have to know that the wilderness is not cursed of God, nor the domain of the enemy but the place where miracles are born – for that is there the ‘wild beasts were with Jesus’.

One size does not fit all. If society becomes yet more diverse, culturally and religiously, there will be even a greater need for a greater diversity than ever before. Just as water fills the shape of where it is poured out, so the expression of the distributed life of God has to fill the space where it flows. Gayle and I are very fluid in our situation, but are not critical of other situations that are not fluid. Maybe the context they are in needs much more shape than we are comfortable with. Our conviction is it takes all shapes to release the life of God in the world.

I recently wrote in a newsletter about the need to find true north. That the issue facing the body of Christ is not to find the right shape, but to find the right direction – a direction that will lead the people of heaven to be ‘with’ the world and not simply seeking to do things ‘for’ (or worse still ‘to’) the world.

I look for a future that will be diverse. In diversity comes incredible richness. I look for the future to be the multiplicity of the small. The brave seem to me to be able to point the way to this possibility. Multiplicity and richness – centered on Jesus. Seems to flow from setting the compass to true north.

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Bless at all costs

Quickly bless Israel or we will be cursed. Thank God the embassy has been moved (sigh of relief) now God can bless. The question of Israel, the chosen people, is a thorny issue and one that is sure to divide. The two polarised positions of the church as a kind of stop-gap and the future being that for Israel with Jesus reigning literally from Jerusalem, and that of Israel as chosen being over has divided Christians for ever. Terminology such as ‘replacement theology’ has been branded against the latter and the former is termed ‘Zionist’.

So up front: I am closer to the latter position than the former and do not consider simple support for the nation of Israel is warranted by Scripture. I do, however, acknowledge that there is a very real issue of Israel being marginalised with certain nations / ideologies committed to see it removed from the earth.

There has always been a critique of Israel within Scripture

The prophets – as they always should – challenged the ‘Israel exceptionalism’ that was prevalent. (This is why the prophetic voice is not going to sound patriotic in any situation!) Their challenge to Israel can be reduced to two main points:

Are you willing to trust God as your PROTECTOR – or the weapons of warfare?
Are you willing to trust God as your PROVIDER – or is it the trade and exploitation of others so that Israel is first?

Always within Israel’s history there was the challenge of ‘who is Israel?’. Only the most liberal were able to accept race as being the defining issue. Ask a Maccabean, a Pharisee, or an Essene and they would quickly shout another criterion – faithfulness to the God who called Israel. They denied that race gave a person ‘salvation’. The New Testament seems to follow along. Consider the very harsh words of Jesus:

“I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word. I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you are doing what you have heard from your father.”
“Abraham is our father,” they answered.
“If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the works of your own father.”
“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.” (John 8:37-47.)

Strong words in the extreme. It is hard not to read the above words as declaring that all Pharisees who opposed Jesus are not Abraham’s children but the children of the devil. No-one could get away with making those statements, but they are recorded as being from the mouth of Jesus.

Paul is maybe a little less polemic (other than when writing autobiographically saying that his pure racial inheritance was ‘dung / crap’) but picks up the typical intra-Jewish debate of who really can lay claim to being of Israel:

Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children (Rom. 9:7).

It was not considered enough to be physically descended from Abraham to be included as part of the ‘Israel of God’. Faithful Israel was less than physical Israel, and Israel suffered many times the judgement of God by foreign imperial captivity because of the unfaithful in the land. This is what drove the pre-Christian Saul / Paul to persecute (Jewish) believers in Jesus as the Messiah. He was totally justified in doing so as one faithful to the covenant. (Later he saw such behaviour as an indication that he was the ‘chief of sinners’.)

Jesus, born of a woman (human), born under the law (Jewish) laid claim to Israel’s calling as ‘son of God’. Out of Egypt he came (Matt. 2:15 / Hosea 11:1). It is little wonder therefore that post crucifixion (the Roman penalty for rebellion, and would in 66-70AD become the very visible penalty for Israel’s rebellion) the apostolic appeal was to all who were descended from Abraham to save themselves from this corrupt generation (Acts 2:40 quoting Deut. 32:5 – ‘They are corrupt and not his children; to their shame they are a warped and crooked generation’) through baptism into Jesus.

It is not sufficient to say Jesus replaced Israel, but an understanding that his death was the death of Israel, for their sake, and his resurrection was the resurrection of Israel on the third day (Hosea 6:2). He dies in Israel’s place, the mother hen willing to sacrifice its life when the fire comes so that the chicks could survive. There were those of Israel who survived – witness the 3000 on the day of Pentecost mirroring, and contrasting, the 3000 who died on the day when the Levites exercised judgement on all those who were unfaithful (Exodus 32:28).

Jesus, ultimately is the one true Israelite, the one true human. The future centres in on his work for Israel, for the world. The future does not centre in on Abraham and his physical descendants, thought without them there is no God incarnate as a faithful Jew.

The complexity of it comes out in Paul’s anguish in Rom. 9-11.

As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. (Romans 11:28-32.)

They are loved because of the patriarchs. Race counts for something, yet they (those who have not responded to Jesus) are now enemies and disobedient, but the result is salvation to the Gentiles. Indeed, Paul suggests we are all in the same boat: disobedient whether Gentile of Jew (all have sinned, both Gentile and Jew) with the result that all can now receive the mercy of God ( NB he states NOW, not at some future date).

Bless Israel? Well if that means no criticism of policies that does not seem to line up with Scripture. And to suggest that modern Israel as a secular state means that all those who are Jews within it by race are chosen – there seems a big weight of Scripture opposed to that, and if we were to draw a straight line from OT theocratic Israel to secular Israel today we would have to do with the critical lenses of ‘Provider and Protector’.

Disregard Israel? There still seems to be that ‘loved because of the Patriarchs’ element hanging there.

But there remains the chosen nature of humanity that only Jesus fulfilled. As servant to the nations, as suffering servant on behalf of one and all. Yes he took that on as on behalf of Israel, but that was only ever for the sake of the world. Israel was never chosen to condemn the world, but to enable the world to truly live and move within the Presence of God. Whatever we make of Israel’s current status I think is academic if we as the body of Christ fail to live up to our calling – to bless the world. To live knowing that a new creation is our habitat, one free of fear of the other, and one filled with faith for the future, the future that the one true Israelite, the one true human, the God-incarnate one came to release. That was the calling of Israel and is the calling of the body of Christ. Quite something to live out and something the nations are still calling for.

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But if he is not in control?

I have put up a few posts that have referred to Open Theology that suggested God not being in control. It has provoked a few comments and even an email or two so thought maybe I should explore it a little further in a post. I have always leaned toward what is known as Open Theology where the future is not fixed and that it is not known in an absolute sense by God. Arminianism holds to a future that is known and Calvninism a future that is fixed. The divergence is really over how foreknowledge and predestination interrelate. For Calvinism foreknowledge is because of predestination. God has set something in motion, the outworking is according to his will and divine purpose therefore foreknowledge follows as an absolute. Arminianism reverses those. God knows the future and so what is predestined is according to what he foreknows. If we add to that the possibility of God being outside of time suggesting that he sees the end and the beginning simultaneously. Outside of time gives me immense issues (so Greek and not Hebraic) as it means that everything that has taken place, is taking place and has not yet taken place is now at one given ‘moment’ taking place in God’s experience. Really? The God who thinks, responds, reacts, ‘repents’, waits to see what we will do is not presented as an ‘outside of time’ One. We can resort to those descriptions of God as being anthropomorphic (though I am not convinced by that) or that there are aspects of God we do not understand, and insist that we cannot say ‘man’ (sic) with a loud voice and result with the word ‘God’ – as Barth said. Yet this God is knowable so we cannot simply make him the wholly other to us.

I was first introduced to Open Theology through YWAM and one of their main teachers in their discipleship schools, Gordon Olson, then came the writings of Clark Pinnock, James Sanders, Greg Boyd and others. Perhaps then for me the book Uncontrolling Love by Thomas Jay Oord was one of the best I have read on it. Open Theology challenges the supposed core historic given that God is in control. Comforting as that is at a personal level, it opens up a huge charge against God in the face of natural calamities, human abuse and the tragedy of suffering. God in total control is a comfort to me when I don’t know which way to turn, and probably is of comfort for those displaced from their nation en route to the ‘safety’ of Europe, but for those whose ‘boat’ has just deflated on the Mediterranean and they cannot swim and there is no rescue at hand I am not sure they are comforted that what they are about to experience is the will of God.

At least the Arminian position is easier to sit with, though if God is all powerful and he knew certain events would happen why no intervention? For the Calvinist (and the Muslim) where the will of God is being fulfilled it is genuinely hugely more difficult to explain, other than resorting to the category of ‘mystery’.

Uncontrolling love does not mean:

  • everything is out of control. A parent or guardian who does not control their children in an absolute sense does not mean that without control all children run amok. Values and an inner conscience bring some measure of self-control.
  • that God is without power and can do nothing! However, it does put a far greater emphasis on the effect of prayer.
  • that God does not know us. He knows us better than anyone else ever could. He has been present with us from conception.
  • that he does not have a purpose for our lives. It does not mean that he cannot speeak prophetically to us about events yet to come (and bear in mind that prophecy is conditional).

Uncontrolling love begins with ‘God is love’ and that love is releasing, he travels with us, works for our good with whatever room we gives to him. It means that the tragedies in the world are tragedies to us and to him – there is no ‘mystery at work’ for some higher purpose, though God will work through all things and there can come incredible redemptive results. The redemptive results do not witness to how there was a higher purpose but to the everlasting, unchanging, redemptive love of God. Witness Joseph to see a God at work. Betrayed and sold into slavery, but at the end he more or less states ‘you did not do this, but God did it!’. I suggest that he is responding with a heartfelt emotionally healed statement rather than a theologically nuanced response!

Uncontrolling love means that to use the term ‘omnipotence’ in the sense that God can do anything (but does not seem to!) is meaningless. It is not to suggest that there are limitations to the power of God, but that love determines where that power is shown and that love is uncontrolling.

Uncontrolling love means that God looks for partnership (prayer / availability / faith) to intervene. The heavens ‘belong’ to God but the earth is in the hands of humanity (Ps. 115:16). This is the pattern from the beginning, with humanity as the stewards for God on earth. The situation is further compounded with the partnership between humanity and the fallen powers. To destroy the works of the devil as a human was the task set before the Son of Man. His mission was to see on earth as in heaven and he gave that prayer to the disciples.

To pray let your kingdom come, is to acknowledge that the manifest extent of God’s rule does not include creation. Creation itself sees it this way as it waits for a manifestation of the children of God. Hence prayer is vital. When we pray we do not know all that is involved. There are factors at times beyond ‘God come do this’ that we might not be aware of, yet it is that prayer and desire that releases the hand of God.

Unanswered prayer…!!!!!!! Sometimes it is that we were misguided and not clean in our motives, but there are times when prayer is not answered as we desired. Maybe we did not discern the resistance and remove it… and maybe a whole bunch of reasons that we don’t know why. Praying for healing and the result being premature death is a challenge. Scripture faces those things head on. Premature death is in Scripture and it is not expressed as the ‘will’ of God. One reason is the divisions and jealousies in the body of Christ – and it is not always the guilty ones who die!! Paul rebukes the Corinthians – ‘and some of you have died’ – no need to rebuke them if the guilty have already died. They seem still to be alive hence the rebuke.

For sure there are things we do not see clearly. There are disappointments in prayer, yet I do not see how we simply categorise all of them as the will of God. In and through all of them if we remain faithful he will pull through a higher purpose. He certainly works that way for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.

The most positive aspect I find in the Open Theology field is that of partnering with heaven, of opening up a future that is good and healthy. I see nothing in it that minimises God, rather the opposite. A God who is never defeated, never depressed, always loving, always creatively calling, always longing for the partnership we can offer. There is no future that will take him by surprise, all possibilities and every permutation of it he knows. We are the ones who can create space for him, just as many throughout Scripture have before us.

However we work all this out God has us in his hands. ‘Cast all your anxiety on him for he cares for you… Be anxious about nothing, but in everything with thanksgiving make your requests known to him.’ So not controlling does not mean things are out of control and God can do nothing. He is with us and loves to hear us dialogue with him so that he can do those redemptive acts that do not cross the line of control. (The very real acts of judgement I consider have to nuance that limitation and there is an element to which judgement is an inbuilt result of behaviour.) He knows us intimately – from the mother’s womb and has been present throughout and will be.

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Maybe no connection

When we were in Prague with a focus on prayer for the Czech Republic and for Europe one of the central focuses (plural = foca / foci / focuses???) was that of praying into time being unstopped and moving forward. The symbol of the metronome overlooking the city was helpful to us, provoking us to pray that time will not be marked with a ‘keep in step’ rhythm but by the imagination of a new future.

Now maybe there is no connection at all but so often there are signs that accompany prayer and a few nights ago I woke to remembering that I had watched a short news clip on a European community-wide survey that has been opened on changing the clock in Europe. A survey has been opened from July 4 – August 16th as to whether citizens want to retain the practice of summer time change. (An example article.)

A few weeks later Gayle and I were in the north of Scotland and a focus there was on setting true north. If that is set then we can know how to navigate. So two key issues – time being unlocked, and direction being set. On the latter it is not about getting the shape of the church correct (this was such an emphasis back in the day when the apostolic and prophetic foundations, 5-fold ministry etc., was our focus) but of the positioning of the church. That positioning has to be for (and set by) the world. I say set by as perhaps I should not have used the word ‘for’. If we are set by the world, then it will determine we are ‘with’ and even ‘in’ the world, and only in that sense ‘for’ the world. The day of doing things ‘for’ has to be superseded by doing things with, which can only result from being with.

I wonder… will there be something coming on the radar, short news snippets on ‘true north’? If there are maybe it will bear no connection to what we have prayed, and yet so often there are gently encouraging signs. Just wondering…

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Spirit & Power: religion set the rules

Glad I call this site ‘Perspectives’ as it gives me an opportunity to write from time to time some musings that enter my head. Today’s musing began when Gayle read me concerning a lawyer who used to play on his home beach in Mumbai as a child but when he returned as an older adult it was covered in trash. He began with one other person to try and clean it up and eventually engaged the wider community. It took over a year till they began to see the beach restored. When the beach had been in good condition all those years ago turtles had come and laid their eggs on it, but none had been seen in the previous 20 years. After cleaning it up the turtles returned. Although there is ‘no more sea’ in the new heavens and earth this surely is a theological statement concerning the imagery of the sea as the source of chaos and not a material statement about its non-existence. If what we do now is providing the building material for the age to come (our good works) maybe what this community is doing is making some sort of provision for that age. (Perspectives / musings!!)

The story did get me thinking about something that many religions have in common. They seem to elevate ‘spirit / spiritual existence’ above physical existence in a way that denigrates humanity. Thus embracing the ‘soma sema’ of Greek philosophy (the body is a tomb, the real me is inside this tomb… real life is non-physical, death is an escape, etc.). Or they embrace the exercise of power over as being the mark of righteousness. We see this with Paul as a ‘righteous’ Jew. Persecuting those who were renegade to the faith, viewing them as enemies and deserving of the expression of his zeal. The Crusades and some aspects of current terrorism are religiously motivated with the desire to impose what is ‘right’, and what is right takes precedence over the lives of others. In the realm of legislation we see this in a desire to express ‘sharia law’ over a society, and also the Christian variety of that where we wish legislation that imposes Christian values.

I, as do most believers, oppose abortion except for some very few cases. As far as I am aware this was also the personal position of Obama in the USA although his position on legislation was that it was a personal choice. Abortion is one of those very difficult areas for believers who are in public office. Personal beliefs and public legislation cannot always line up. The arguments are very far reaching, but the fact that the abortion rate was lower at the end of Obama’s time than before the famous Roe v. Wade ruling indicates the complexities involved.

Faith has a huge impact on the public life of a society and rightly so, but a religion, any religion that seeks to impose on the wider society often draws on the concept that righteousness is aligned to power over. Add to that the elevation of life that is a removal from society (spirit is superior) and maybe we can suggest that (most) religions have those two elements in common. The two elements result in a withdrawal from the wider society and an engagement that is an imposition of a change from above.

The Jesus way I think is different. Righteousness cannot be about expressing zeal against people. Paul concluded that what he formerly considered was an expression of righteousness he now saw as excrement and that he was indeed the chief of sinners. Righteousness has to be centred on enemy love. Zeal has to be a zealousness for the ways and character of God to infiltrate society: love permeating all relationships and actions. A spirituality that is life-affirming, that sees the (eternal) good in the actions of all around us.

Does such an approach compromise the message of the Gospel? Yes, if the Gospel is about power and the denigration of human existence. But if the Gospel calls all those who have heard the voice of Jesus to follow him and lay down their lives for others, and then ‘go’ with a focus on discipling all peoples there is no compromise, particularly when on that journey there is no elevation of self over others.

I end my musing with the question as to what contribution religion, in all its forms, has made to the world as we have it today when shaped by the twins of spirit above matter and power over others for righteousness’ sake. And what might happen if there was a genuine Jesus revolution by a new apostolic wave that was willing to work for the future with patience, knowing that the multiplicity of the small and the richness of diversity could yield a future so different to the one that will be ours if we continue on this current pathway.

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Why God Is Not in Control

Here is a link to an article by Tony Campolo: Why God is not in Control.

He begins with:

All too often when there is news of a tragedy, such as a mass shooting or a child suffering from bone cancer, there will be someone who will say something like, “God is in control. We must accept that what’s happened is part of God’s plan!”

At the funeral of a young man who died in a mountain climbing accident, the pastor said in his homily, “We must see what has happened as God’s will!” At that, the father of the young man stood and shouted, “The hell it was God’s will! When my son died, God was the first one who cried.”

Other excerpts:

The story I get straight from scripture is that there are evil non-rational principalities and powers that are loose in the world, sometimes working through evil people (Ephesians 2:2) and that God is not the author of the confusion and disorder that come from these destructive powers (1 Corinthians 14:33).

All that God created was meant to be good, as it says in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis. Today, however, things are not as God willed for them to be…

As hard as it is for us to grasp, we have to accept that we have a God who was willing to give up power and give up control in order to live out love for us. That is what the cross is all about. The salvation story is about a God who humbles Himself and emptied Himself of power (the words “empty” is the translation of the word kenosis in the Greek of the New Testament) in order to express fully His love for us. In Christ, God became weak for our sakes and became, according to the theologian Jürgen Moltmann, the Crucified God. It’s the choice that God made when he came to us in Jesus Christ.

As a professor at Eastern University, I earnestly try to challenge my students to define themselves as agents of God..

On the societal level, they all are called to participate in the political process in wrestling against the “principalities and powers.” According to theologians such as Walter Wink and Hendrikus Berkhof, these powers and principalities include the corporate institutional structures of government and economic systems so that they can do the good that God wills for them to do, rather than the evil for which they are often responsible (Ephesians 6:12).

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Our Fears…

If you are European a great weekly resource is Jeff Fountain’s weekly newsletter from The Schuman Centre for European Studies. In my inbox this morning came False Expectations Appearing Real. At a recent summit Dr Katrine Camilleri gave a blistering talk. She works in Malta right at the centre of the migration route from Lybia. She said:

For a country the size of a rock these arrivals strain not only our logistical capacities but also our longstanding tradition of hospitality. It is a little ironic that the country that prides itself on having welcomed St. Paul with unusual kindness, as the Acts of the Apostles tells us, welcomes these arrivals by locking them up in detention centres.

Migrants were held in detention in some cases up to 18 months. The conditions were completely substandard. The centres were overcrowded. People didn’t have access to basic services, which we knew were desperately needed.

Walls

Many, she said, were fleeing war and massive violation of human rights. The journey itself made many of them pass through hardships difficult to imagine. Many were legally entitled to international protection. Katrine couldn’t but ask if receiving these people who turned up at our doors asking for help was not completely out of sync, completely incongruent with our self-perception and with our European values?

The response of the EU to the asylum seekers who came through Greece in 2015 was much the same, she continued. Although we are part of a Union founded on the core values of solidarity and respect of human rights and human dignity, we saw states acting alone, refusing to see this as a European challenge and refusing to develop a common and effective response.

‘European states are still responding by putting up walls,’ Katrine said. ‘We put up these walls to protect ourselves from real or perceived threats to our culture, to our Christian values and heritage, to our stability, to our comfort and possibly to our security. Walls in many shapes and forms: border walls, ever more sophisticated and militarized border control measures, agreements with third countries such as Turkey, and Libya, countries where asylum seekers can’t find effective protection. The list is endless.

‘These walls are, in part, the result of indifference. Pope Francis talks repeatedly about the culture of indifference, which doesn’t allow us to see the needs of the other, much less to empathize with them. Fear makes you completely unable to think of anything else except your own protection. Everything looks like a threat and you respond accordingly. You put up walls to protect yourself.

Less human

‘On the individual as well as on the national level, fear leads us to build walls and makes us incapable of looking beyond our own self-preservation, to the needs of the people who are going to be affected by those walls.

‘I don’t want to minimise the challenges posed by large numbers of arrivals. The challenges are real. People worry that it will change Europe, and I say they are probably right. But I believe that what will change us is how we choose to react to this challenge. We can choose to put up walls, to react out of fear, out of an instinct for self-preservation or we can choose to welcome, to receive the people who are arriving at our shores, who are fleeing as we ourselves would want to be treated.

‘Reacting out of fear is also very problematic for what it does to us. Fear prevents us from seeing refugees arriving at our borders as people, as individuals with needs and with rights. Dead people at the border, arbitrary detention and miserable conditions, ill-treatment, abuse: what to do? Fear allows us to assume that the violation of human rights is in certain circumstances necessary and justified. Fear allows us to dehumanize the refugees and close our eyes to their needs and suffering, which we are obliged by law to respond to. We are obliged by law to protect and assist refugees.

‘Not only the face of Europe is changed but our soul. We become less human. We turn to the opposite of what we profess as individuals and as a Union, which is supposedly founded on solidarity and respect for human rights. We respond in a way that is anything but Christian even if we do it ironically to protect our Christian heritage.’

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Can we hold the space?

The European project that has been a gift to create peace among nations is under great threat. That project, with such Christian people as Robert Schuman (1886-1963) at the foundation, has been criticised as it developed into the EU. Certainly far from perfect, but if any demise will lead to a pulling back into self-protective borders, we might be regretting the jettisoning of the imperfect. I do not simply refer to the Brexit, but to the responses and tensions within the EU over how the humanitarian crisis is faced. And of course this is not just a European issue but one that is affecting the USA very acutely also.

I live as a privileged immigrant. We have food, we have legal, if not full status. Yet we have come not too different to many other immigrants who are arriving for external reasons. They are forced to come and many wish to make a contribution to the land. We are not here for external reasons, but by inner conviction and seek to make a contribution to the land. We pay our taxes here, and as a result pay significantly more than if we remained registered in the UK. Many come here as privileged immigrants, do not pay taxes and call themselves ex-pats. Those who act in that way are not under any great threat of expulsion from Spain or another similar country. They are, after all, only doing at a personal level what major institutions do at the global level. Finances and power give them the right to live / exploit where they want and when. We do not want that right, and many cast adrift on the Mediterranean of course do not come with finances or power… but if given the opportunity would make a home in the European lands and seek to make a contribution.

The EU is more likely to collapse as a result of the shutting up of borders to the outsider than it is simply post-Brexit. A number of years ago, long before the Brexit we were sent an open vision someone had while praying. She saw that a hand came and took the UK out of a European map. Then colour and light drained out of Europe. This was long before the Brexit and at a time when there was no-one predicting that the referendum would go the ‘leave’ route. We held it as the track record of the person is exceptionally high and noted that she said the Brexit referendum would be about the future of Europe. A number of us have travelled to the place where the colour and light disappeared in the hope that we could sow into the future. There was a second part of the vision also.

While in Prague we were told that most of the Eastern European countries are looking to tighten their borders. We were told this by believers who did not seem to see this as an issue. However, it is not just Eastern Europeans. There are very real issues that Italy and Greece face as most immigrants arrive in those lands and it is easy to criticise their actions of turning away mercy ships. If they turn away ships and other European nations turn away we have a problem.

We are grateful that Spain (Valencia) welcomed the Aquarius (and two other ships) with 600+ rescued from the Mediterranean. Grateful that into a port that brutally shipped Spanish born Muslims in the 1600s it now welcomed some 400 years later others in return. This we have prayed for, ending in Gibraltar last year, and curiously the ship arrived under a Gibraltar flag!

There are very real issues being faced in the so-called developed West over immigration. However, we have contributed to the problem over decades. The supply of arms to these nations where the conflicts exist have meant countless thousands have been made homeless and lives put at risk is down to us. The wealth we have accumulated at the Southern hemisphere’s expense has likewise driven people this way. (And when in Prague, an ex-communist city, it was easy to see that there is no difference between capitalism in its dominant neo-liberal expression or communism. Both are servants of the evil of bio-power. Human resources are their fodder.)

We are not politicians, and they certainly need prayer for wisdom as to how to move forward as so much is at stake. We are not politicians but the Gospel does not allow us to think of the message of Jesus as non-political. We, as the body of Christ, and therefore some individuals within that body will have to step up, have to somehow hold open the space for the future. And in holding the space begin to speak some content into that. God created through holding space (to counter the ‘without form’) and then filled that space (to counter the ‘and empty’). We likewise have to hold space and this is vital at a time when there is the desire to collapse borders. The shape of the EU is not the issue but living as family across Europe is. The Pauline Gospel seems to drive us that way. Living in the one-world government era his one passion was to get to the extent of the borders. The Jews in Exile had a great opportunity to live out life in the imperial world of Babylon – but they hankered for the land and created the synagogue!

Can we hold the space? The lands are changing, and need to change. We have utterly failed in our stewardship of the lands, failing to be a resource to the rest of the world. We can only anticipate that there will be wholesale shifts of population. Can we hold the space for the new? This is not a time to allow small borders to shape the future. And in holding it can we begin to prophesy what will fill that space?

I hope, as a Brit, that the Brexit did not sow something into Europe of closing borders that is now being replicated in other nations. Maybe the Brexit had little to do with political shape and more to do with how open we will be to the other. If so something must begin in the body of Christ as we are called to be the salt of the earth. We will have to step up to hold back the pollution that rises so easily.

We can do so little. Gayle and I can live here as immigrants, love the land, refuse to live with a border mentality. We can begin there in response, but we know that will not in itself be enough. There will be more we will have to do, but we must start with what is in our hands.

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