Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Fortunately, one of his best friends realises he hasn't returned as expected and goes looking for him, calling out every few seconds. Just after midday on the second day he's been searching for him, he hears his friend.
"Geoff, is that you?!"
"Sure is mate!" Geoff says as he catches a glimpse of his lost friend, Jamie, through the trees.
"Thank God you found me!" The two exhange a warm brotherly hug and sit down, and Geoff gives his friend some warm dry clothes, a few energy bars and a drink.
After a few minutes, Geoff sees that Jamie's got plenty of energy left to walk back out. He gets up and motions Jamie to follow him. "Let's get going. I've got a GPS and a map, so I can lead you out. We're having a party at my place - they'll be a spit roast, BBQ, plenty of drinks - it'll be great. We'll be able to make it there before dinner if we leave now."
But instead, Jamie makes himself comfortable where he's seated. "No, it's hard walking through the forest and it's so great to have you with me here, so I'd rather just stay and talk with you. All I need is to have you here with me."
Of course, you'll probably think that Jamie is being a bit silly, and this response seems very unlikely. Yet I think it reflects a little of what Christians sometimes do. They sometimes make having a "personal relationship with God" so all-important that forget about following Jesus. The forest represents behaviour and character attributes that are harmful to us - "sin", to use some Christian jargon. The party outside the forest represents the righteous way of life that Jesus showed people to live. The point of the story is that Jesus wanted to free us from sin into righteousness in a real, tangible way. God loves us too much to not mind if we continue to hurt ourselves and others with wrong thoughts, words and behaviour.
Perhaps it doesn't occur to some Christians that there is in fact a righteous way of life that is (at least comparatively) free of sin. They can't see the proverbial wood from the trees and think "it's all forest" out there, so there's no use in trying to escape sin because we can't. But Jesus' message was good news precisely because he showed them a way to be free from the hurt of sin - his message is that there really is a place outside of the forest and he can show us the way.
But being freed means we need to actually follow him, just like in the story above. Jesus wanted to help us learn the art of living so that we could truly enjoy a fulfilling life and help others do the same. That means we have to take some responsibility to take some action. Yes, Jesus said it comes at a price. He said it would be difficult sometimes. But he also said it would be worth it, and I am finding that it is.
So, the moral of the story is that Jesus came to show us "The Way" to live, not to just give us "The Personal Relationship" to have. When he said "follow me", I think he meant it.
Sunday, December 17, 2006
It's tempting for Christians to think that the good in people is "tainted" by their bad. And this is true in one sense, but adding mud to pure water. But also think we can see true goodness in people despite their other bad character traits. I like to think of the good parts of people's characters as being like nuggets of gold, treasure in the midst of more mundane clay and hard stone. Stones represent bad aspects of character. Clay, though, has potential to be shaped, and I think it can eventually turn into either stone or gold (just go with the analogy here, don't think too hard about the chemistry of that). In other words, as people grow older they create more stone or gold in their hearts - more self-centredness or kindness, more bitterness or joyfulness, more short-temperedness or graciousness...
And the scary and beautiful thing is that I think other people can have a huge affect on what sort of character traits develop in people. Scary because people often promote bad character traits in people, but beautiful when we encourage each other on toward goodness.
So, my thought was simple - see the good in other people and encourage that good in them. Praise them for it, rather than picking on their flaws. Because I think that's a great way to actually help the good in other people grow and at the same time make them feel less gloomy.
PS: If you read this, how about leaving a comment? I like comments =)
It's the sort of silly-sounding idea that Jesus spoke of, that those who "find their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for his sake will find them." (Although I suspect this verse is based more in a martyrdom theology than in social psychological theory, and more about being willing to die to Jesus' and his cause than what I'm using it for, but I'll say it anyway.) My point is this, that by giving some other people equal (or greater) priority as ourselves our own lives become far richer, "bigger" and more complete than if we are selfish. Our world isn't a one-person world that revolves around ourselves, but instead is filled with other people we love.
It has been an ongoing challenge for me to actually be less self-centred. I often speak warmly of the concept and idealise it, but my life doesn't change. And I think I've worked out why: I'm too afraid I'll somehow come out worse off, I am not sure I'm willing to take the risk of really loving other people like this. I mean, if I let go of myself - maybe I really will lose myself. It's hard enough having my own life to worry about, let alone expanding my heart to include more people.
And I'm still figuring out how to really put this idea into practice. But I think I've stumbled on a helpful concept. I've realised that I have been trying to my my life special. My hopes, dreams, and aspirations have all been centred around trying to make my experience of life good. But what if I instead made my aspirations, dreams, and goals about making the lives of those I love good and special? What if my life's work was not about me, but about giving joy, friendship, love and life to others? What if my life was not so much about me, but instead about other people?
This idea sounds both appealing and frightening to me. It sounds noble and wonderful and honourable and good; and scary and risky and difficult and difficult and difficult... I know it's easier said than done. I know I need people who have mastered some of this art of real love more than I have to show me how it's done. And I'm excited and a little afraid of the prospect of slowly, painfully slowly, learning this art myself - but I think I'll be glad I did, so I hope I'm bold enough to try.
Thursday, December 14, 2006
"we have not been made gods from the beginning, but at first merely men, then at length gods...." [Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4:38:4, in ANF 1:522.]What I'm about to say might not have been Irenaeus' point, but I'll say it because I think it's true anyway...
These days, I think we don't appreciate spiritual growth nearly as much as we could, or perhaps should. There are many ways in which Christianity is significant for people.
It can be something that meets my needs. It becomes for me. I am hurt, I am fearful, I feel sinful and bad and I find acceptance and love from God. This can be true and important and good.
It can be about what I do for others. Something from me. I help others, I show compassion, I give my time and energy and friendship and love for the sake of those around me. This also can be true and important and good.
But I have recently been thinking that Christianity is also about who I am. Something in me. It's about my very person, my thoughts, my emotions, my heart - and all those things about who I am that I just can't express.
I think this because I see many people (Christians and others, and myself at times) whose hearts are small, timid, and weak. We live in a generation of lonely people. People who are not satesfied and not able to understand why. People who can hardly handle being alive and scarcely manage being in love. People think it's acceptable that they can be this way, because they have love and acceptance and care from God, and with luck other people. And it is acceptable...
But we could be so much more than small, timid, weak spiritual infants. And I think God wants us to be more, to be more mature, because it's better. I think he wants us to help us become people with hearts that are big, bold and strong. Not always remaining as children - with childish minds and feelings and problems - but becoming fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers... The wise old men and women we look up to because they are people who have learned to be people well.
This ties in with my previous post about salvation. I don't think God wants to save us so that we can merely be forgiven of our shortcomings and not feel so bad about our faults. He surely doesn't want to leave us as we are - children. He wants us to grow. You could even say he's saved us from the death of not growing into life... because to live is to grow. He wants us to transform us, to teach us the art of living. The skill, the discipline, the art, and the beauty of being people who are people well, people who are truly alive. He wants to give us the wonderful pleasure of becoming persons with hearts that aren't immature, but have become and continue to become like God's heart. Because I think it is wonderful that in this way we should become, so to speak, little "gods".
I want to be one.
Monday, December 11, 2006
There are two ideas here: 1) Salvation 2) Grace.
Evangelicals have made this word refer to "being saved from hell". In biblical usage "saved" had a more general, this-worldly meaning. Israel was saved from captivity, for example. When the NT talks about salvation, it is a really big assumption to say it's talking about salvation from hell (especially seeing as I doubt they even had the modern concept of hell, which I think was a Persian/Greek idea).
It seems clear that in the context of many verses, the NT writers mean that God has saved us not from hell, but from the harm of sin: sickness, oppression, immorality, and even death (think of some people Jesus healed, for example).
Furthermore, the early Christians kept the Jewish tradition that final judgment was in fact based on our character and behavior (I'm not going to prove this here). In Jesus, they saw that God had shown them how to be and live in such a way that was favourable to God. In other words, they believed that Jesus had shown them that if they follow his way of life, they would receive a favourable final judgment.
And here is where grace comes in. You see, they had a problem. Not only did they not know how to live in a way that pleased God, but they needed help to change. In Jesus, they saw God as graciously coming and helping them while they were still sinners - to help them become righteous, to free them from sin and show them give them a new way of life. He didn't have to help them. They didn't deserve his help, but he helped them anyway. Because of all this and their new way of life, they could be sure that he had indeed forgiven their sins. God not only forgave them, but he freed them from sin. God was graceful in an active, helpful way... not simply a passive "I've not send you to hell" way.
This concept of grace becomes even more powerful when we realize that it is exactly this kind of grace that Jesus taught us to display to others. Just as Jesus showed grace to free sinners from sin, we are to show grace to free more sinners. We are to carry on his work, his mission and ministry to further his vision - the Kingdom of God. So it is not merely God who shows grace, but it should be followers of Jesus also. The kind of grace is exactly the same.
In these ways, I can affirm the biblical concept of judgment based on our character and behaviour (not mental belief that Jesus took away our sin on the cross) and I can also affirm the passages that speak of being saved by grace. We are saved the grace of both God and his human agents in the world from sin (ours and others') into a righteous way of life, and this is here, now, in the present. As a result, we become righteous. God wants heaven to be for righteous people - and that’s what we become because God has graciously led us to that way of life. We can now stand in God's GRACE (i.e. favour) because he has helped us to be people who do actually please him (the NT authors used grace both in the sense of "a favour" and also in the sense of being "in someone's favour").
Let me mention that we don't "earn salvation" by being righteous. Rather, God saves from our unrighteousness so that we may be righteous. Nor do we "earn access into heaven" by being righteous, because God helped us to be righteous in the first place. And being righteous doesn't even make us deserve to go to heaven, or force God to let us in - it still depends on his grace.
Let me give an analogy (which, like all analogies, shouldn't be taken too far):
Imagine only surfers will get into heaven. God's decided that heaven is just for surfers. You don't know how to surf. Tragic, you're doomed. But God is graceful toward you - he comes and shows you how to surf. Then, having then been taught how to surf and saved from not being able to surf, you can get into heaven. But you also can also surf before you die, and teach others how to have fun by surfing. And what if this was the whole point? That surfing is the ultimate thing to spend you time doing, that it was what God made us for.
Here's the parallel. Surfing is analogous to living in a righteous way, the way that is ultimately best for us, and for this reason it is the same way of living that God is pleased with.
So we are still "saved from hell" by grace, if you want to say that... it just works in a different way to the evangelical gospel. In my opinion, this is how the NT writers understood things and is a far more consistent view. It is also consistent with modern scholarship and historio-social investigations of recent years.
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Let me explain. Jesus was a revolutionary. Jesus wanted to right our relationships not only with God, but with others. His vision was the Kingdom of God, a radical new culture and society in which people experienced and enjoyed life as God had intented. This would be a life of freedom, love, compassion, kinship and kindness. It would free people from thinking about things wrongly, and from treating each other wrongly as a result. Jesus called people to follow his vision and believe in it, live for it, suffer for it, and even to die for it. And why? Because it is the only way the world will ever be free from the hurt of people's wrong thinking and wrong behaviour, and it is the only way we will ever experience such a world. Continue to live in this way, even into the new life after death promised to those who live in this way. This was the message of Jesus.
There was nothing particularly religious about his message. To the contrary, Jesus opposed the religious systems and thinking of the day. He opposed it because it missed the point of loving others, and even loving God. Jesus know God doesn't want people to concentrate on rituals, rules and propostional theories, but on loving others in a way that fits those called "children of God". Jesus didn't want to put in place more rituals and rules, but bring a whole new way of life that is built on the principle of love for other people.
What can we see of Christianity today? Thankfully, there are many followers of Jesus who have remained true to his message, and live according to it by loving others. Surely, these Christians deserve great commendation, because they increasingly seem to be a minority. It seems that more commonly, Christians have made Christianity a religion based on rules, rituals, and propositions.
Surely not! I hear you say. We are not saved by following rules! We only need to:
1) Accept that we are sinful and need Jesus to save us from hell
2) Believe and trust that Jesus paid the price for our sin on the cross so that God would give us access to heaven
3) Recieve the free gift of salvation.
4) Show our gratitude to him by praising and worshiping him.
And surely rituals aren't part of Christianity today? We merely go to church, sit in the pew, sing songs repeditively, close our eyes, lift our hands and mouth "Jesussss" quietly. We make our Christian network feel completely foriegn and religious to those outside Christian circles by the sort of language we use and the things we talk about - but that's not a sign of any rituals, is it? The secular world, who have not grown accustomed to our rituals, often see Christianity as being full of rituals.
These two things may not be the worst, for modern Christianity has born a whole new kind of religion - a religion based on propositions, doctrines, and beliefs. Of course, these things are necessary foundations for living in the way of the Kingdom of God - we need to see things more like Jesus did, think more like he did, and believe things more like he did. But these ideas are not the goal. They are not the message. They are not loving God and loving others.
Modern Christianity has made ideas, doctrines, beliefs and propositions more important than the practice of following the way of life Jesus urged us to follow. It has become so focussed on the glamourous, exotic, and esteemed "beliefs" that Jesus' down-to-earth, every-day, flesh-and-blood message has often been left aside. This is why I call modern Christianity a religion, because it has forgotten its cause and instead filled its vision with philosophies - as if philosophies were the point of the gospel.
Let me venture something even further - that propositional ideas, theories, doctrines and beliefs matter only in the extent that they affect how we love God and love others. Now I see many people who put Christians to shame in how they live, for they follow Jesus' message more faithfully than many Christians. Does it matter that they do not share the "Christian" doctrines of propitiation, soteriology, escatology, trinity and grace, when they have understood Jesus' message better than many Christians who believe these ideas? Far too many of the perspectives, ideas and doctrines in Christianity today bear no correlation to how we live - I dare say some even promote the very opposite of what Jesus wanted. These ideas don't matter because they aren't part of Jesus' message to love God and love others.
It is little wonder, then, that so few people in the world outside of Christianity are inclined to "convert" to Christianity these days - to attend our religious services and believe our religious ideas. They see it for what it is, religion, and people today want more than religion. But I wonder what would happen if Christianity regained the original focus that Jesus had, and began again to live as Jesus lived and love and Jesus loved. If Christianity returned to the simple, non-religious message to love that Jesus taught, perhaps it would be something worth other people believing in once again. I hope so, because it has made all the difference to me.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
I’ve noticed recently that many people don’t explain what they mean very clearly. This lack of clarity is rampant in Christianity. Here, analogy and metaphor seem to dominate conversations and doctrine.
For example, I hear people often talk of “God working in us” or doing things “in God’s strength” – but very few people ever actually try to spell out what these actually mean. These “loaded” phrases encapsulate much more than the simple English interpretation (which often doesn’t make sense). Even single words become “loaded” with meaning that is sometimes quite different to the normal English usage. For example, I heard “grace” used to mean things like “favour”, “blessing”, “forgiveness” and “tolerance” – all in one Sunday morning service yesterday. These are only two of the endless examples.
For some reason, Christians don’t use language that is particularly clear. Now it’s fine if the people someone talks to share the same idea of all the words and phrases – but what if they don’t? I think this happens often, and people don’t realised that their using the words and phrases to mean slightly (or significantly) different things. This opens up room for misunderstandings (especially with people unfamiliar with the terms). More commonly, though, I find that when pressed to describe some of the loaded terms clearly, Christians either use other loaded terms or simply say “it’s a mystery.”
It is this last response that troubles me. Most Christians these days have no problem with the idea that they don’t clearly understand their Christian faith and how it “works”. It’s “beyond our ability to understand”. It’s “the unfathomable depth of the gospel”. We “don’t need to understand it, just believe it”.
But if you don’t understand what you believe, then you don’t really know what you believe. If you can’t explain it clearly using normal English language, then you don’t really know what your faith really is. And this is exactly what we see – Christianity is terribly confused by the dozens of different groups who all use loaded terms differently. Many Christians think Christianity obviously doesn’t need to be clearly understood because Christians obviously don’t clearly understand it.
I think Christianity can be understood and explained in clear and non-jargon language. And I think it should be. We can apply clear language in the sciences, mathematics, law, and countless other professions – why not speak clearly about our Christianity?
Yes, why not? Here’s why - because I’ve found that sometimes Christians don’t actually like the clearly stated versions of their beliefs. They find it necessary to be deliberately vague and endlessly caveat their beliefs, lest they actually say something definite. So, for example, when talking about “grace” they may say things like “We are so sinful and yet God graciously overlooks what we do”, but then need to caveat that with “but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to imitate Jesus”. Then they need to caveat that with “but we shouldn’t strive, we should let God work in us to change us into his likeness”. Then caveat that with, “but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.” Then, noting that “trying” is a lot like “striving”, they might add, “but it should be because we love God for saving us, and not to try to please him so he gives us eternal life” and “plus, all our good works count for nothing anyway.” Then, noting that that makes imitating Jesus seem useless, they might say, “It’s lucky God is the one working in us then, isn’t it? We just have to be open to him.” Then, noticing their lack of Christ-like-ness, they cheerfully respond “Isn’t it so good that God is in control, so it’s all working together for good anyway!” and perhaps link back to their first idea about “grace”.
I’ve seen conversations like this many times. I think Christians aren’t clear about their beliefs for two reasons: 1) they don’t understand them clearly 2) if they did they wouldn’t actually agree with half of the ideas they believe. It is this second one that I’ve found by simply trying to restate what other Christians say clearly back to them, to clarify what their saying. They say something, I clarify it, and then they disagree with it. It’s fascinating and sad all at the same time.
I’ve learned that many Christians don’t like my scientific, engineering approach to Christianity. I like to pin ideas down, lay them out clearly, and see and understand how they work. The Christian faith to me is a bit like learning to play the piano, a skill that you learn through practice that ultimately changes how you do things. I like to figure it out. Many Christians don’t share my view, though. Many Christians seem to approach Christianity like a piece of modern art. They look at it and think, “wow”, and that is enough for them. They don’t feel the need to clarify and explain the mechanics of Christianity because they don’t think Christianity works that way – they don’t see it as being a way of life. Instead, they see it as something added to their lives that benefits them. They think that by trying to figure it out and learn the “skill” of Christianity, I’ve missed the point because Christianity isn’t supposed to be “figured out” but simply “accepted” (this is modern “faith”, of course).
So, is Christianity more like a piece of art or something that you don’t need to understand, or more like a skill that is learned and understood and developed? If people view it as the former, there is no problem with vague descriptions of it that are open to interpretation. But if it is like the latter, then unless we are clear about it then people won’t be very skilful at living as followers of Jesus. Is Christianity something you need to understand to live by, or something you can accept “by faith” without understanding? Should Christianity be clear? Should it make sense?
Sunday, October 29, 2006
I'm sure he'd be impressed with the lights, the awesome sound and the skillful musicianship. I'm sure he'd be flattered that they praise him so very much in their songs. And no doubt he would lift his hands, close his eyes, and feel very spiritual while people around him whisper "Jesussss"...
But he would feel like a stranger.
I think Jesus would probably feel more comfortable visiting people in hospitals or city missions. Maybe he'd go and talk with the prostitutes and the drug addicts late at night. Perhaps he'd even set up an Alcoholic's Anonymous group or a safe house for victims of abuse. Or go and look after people who aren't able to look after themselves. Or perhaps he'd find a disadvantaged few school kids who are really struggling to help out. He'd hang out with the people who wouldn't like church, wouldn't feel welcome there, and probably wouldn't BE very welcomed there.
And you know what, I think he'd find that doing those sort of things was far closer to what he had in mind for preaching the Kingdom of God than sitting in a pew listening to religious singing about how wonderful he is and being told about the three keys to experiencing more of God. If he went to church, he'd see the wonderful lights, see the raised hands, and hear the singing and the whisperings of "Jesusssss..." - and perhaps at the same time he'd think of the guy sitting in the back corner that looks like he hasn't had much of a family or friendship. Maybe he'd think of the woman he saw in the supermarket who looked utterly downcast. He might think of the guy who sleeps under the tree in Hagley park most nights...
Maybe he'd even get a chance to preach. What, I wonder, would he say?
Sunday, June 11, 2006
Stupidly I think,
Giving further food to silly thoughts that plague me
And drain me,
To become like a cake that forgets to rise.
I’ve made them a few times.
Every day these thoughts return,
Accost my mind and turn my eyes
To see things that aren’t there.
Disappointed when I compare
All this with wishful thinking.
Yet in these dreams
My heart sets sail
To catch the wind of what could be,
Pulling me to places
I wouldn’t dare normally.
Enjoy the ride.
Enjoy the scenes.
Enjoy the sound of
My heart beat
On the verge of something different.
Why can’t I stop and listen?
But if I can’t still
These currents beneath
I need not fight their tow,
For if I float on stormy dreams
That take me past new futures seen
Then maybe I will find some peace
Despite not knowing where they lead
And despite stupidity.
Thursday, January 26, 2006
Let me break the silence of my blog with something different - sameness...
Today, I hit snooze. Same as usual.
I got up and biked to work the same way I always do. My front gear changer was the same – broken. I parked in the same inadequate bike rack. Wore the same shoes. Sat at the same desk doing the same tedious work. And talked to the same people about the same things. The problem with the photocopier was fixed, but won’t be long before the same thing happens again. At least I didn’t need to worry about all my work, it was the same. Looked outside to see the same view through the same little windows while uncomfortably hot because the same feeble air conditioner was running just the same – pathetically. So pathetically that it would make you angry, if you were in the same position.
My work mate speaks Russian on the telephone, but to me it all sounds the same. So, I biked home through the park, noticed the same ducks. My insurance bill had arrived, but I didn’t need to worry about it either – it was the same as last year’s.So now I sit here at the same computer wearing the same glasses with the same hair-style as usual, looking at my cactus plant that looks just the same even though I’m told it’s growing. My table is the same. My CDs are the same. My room, my car, my interests, what I do with my time, my friends… I – am the same.
In fact, there’s really only one thing that is out of the ordinary – I’ve realised how much things are the same! Of course, that got me thinking how much things are different… like the fact that today I cleaned a BBQ that wasn’t even mine. And today there were an unusually large number of ducks swimming in
So how much of life is the same, and how much is different? Is there a certain ratio that’s good?
I think it’s easy to notice the different things that happen to us, and imagine that they make life varied and interesting. But they don’t. We expect new and different situations to arise – the unexpected is the same. I don’t often think of my reactions and the things I choose to do, and how much they are the same. Yet, I think they are far more important.
Getting into a mental rut is boring, because it fills my life with sameness… day after day. It’s not that the world not exciting and dynamic and full of exciting adventures just waiting to be enjoyed, it’s that I’m the same. I choose to be the same, act the same, think the same.
Why don’t I do something different? Why not add a deliberate non-sameness to my life, and choose to do something unusual each day? I suppose sameness is comforting. It doesn’t require us to learn anything new, or experience anything different… sameness affords us certainty of the future. It’s like animals that are raised in captivity when they are released into the wild and are too afraid of new things to be free. That is what sameness does to people.
After all, we are free. So why imprison myself in the chains of sameness, all the time wishing that my life could be different. Not much different, I think – but just not the same. Cause that’s the other thing about sameness, it doesn’t give us a chance to grow. Living the same is like a great deciduous oak tree that has dried up and died – it just sits there, the same. But if the same oak is alive, it goes through the splendid changes of the seasons. In spring the leaves burst out and change its colour, which turns brilliant orange in autumn and makes fun piles of leaves to play in.
If a tree can know how to escape sameness, maybe I can too.