Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Just how hard is the Christian faith?

I think my anonymous dialogue partner makes a good point about Christianity being for everyone and not just intellectuals in his comment on my recent post on Michael Gorman's new book. I think the challenge for Christian teachers is simple: how do we grasp the depth and breadth, height and length of God's word to us and pass it on so everyone can respond to it.

The Christian faith is both disarmingly simple - as Karl Barth famously said: 'Jesus loves me this I know for the the Bible tells me so' - and mind-stretchingly complex and intricate.

I actually think that what Gorman is saying is fairly straight-forward - he speaks, of course, as a theologian and New Testament scholar and as with all branches of knowledge, this discipline has its own language (jargon, if you like) and ways of expressing ideas that can appear opaque to those unfamiliar with them. Again, it's the job of the teachers in the church to take what is opaque and try to make it clearer - without dumbing down.

The simple idea at the heart of Gorman's book seems to me to be that Jesus calls us to die to self and live to God; he calls us to stop running our lives according to our agenda - the what's-in-it-for-me approach to life - and start listening to what God says and living it out at home and work, in politics and in our relationships with one another.

The New Testament, says Gorman, uses a number of pictures for this of which 'becoming like God/sharing the divine nature' (theosis) is one central one.

The question that immediately arises is 'how does this happen?' There are lots of people who want to lead less self-centred lives that pay attention to the needs of others, especially those who haven't landed on their feet the way we have, but who struggle to do so because the impulse to look after number one is so strong.

Gorman's answer is that God pours himself out for us (that's what kenosis is all about) in Christ, so that we can be empowered through forgiveness and receiving new life (his life through his Spirit being poured into us) to live as Jesus lived (this is what he means by justification - being put right; this is one of Gorman's distinctive and more controversial suggestions).

One central idea he uses - based on Galatians 2 and Romans 6 - is of co-crucifixion, that by faith, we share the cross of Christ so that we might share his resurrection. I will blog on the detail of this later - once I've finished and digested the chapter dealing with these two texts.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Finding grace in Hyde Park

I was at a wonderful, uplifting gathering in Hyde Park yesterday. A racially and culturally mixed group of thousands sang and raised their arms, pointing excitedly at the sky, joining in with the songs they knew, smiling and shouting affirmation when something good or that they agreed with happened. The music was varied, even Amazing Grace on an old church organ.

The event was Neil Young's blistering set at Hard Rock Calling, a two hour energy filled finale to a day that included Fleet Foxes, Seasick Steve, Ben Harper and the Pretenders.

It was great, but it held no lessons for the church except one, I think. And that was not that we need to erect stages in fields and ape the world's greatest music form (rock and roll) at big gatherings. It was a much smaller thought. Simply this: we need to be people who are far more life-affirming than we traditionally are, much more aware of the grace washing around the world in all sorts of unexpected places.

I saw this particularly in the set from Fleet Foxes where the soaring music and tight harmonies are wedded to lyrics that are full of wonder at the world we live in, open to experience, curious and inquiring. When was the last time you experienced that in church?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Thoughts on Michael Jackson

I awoke this morning to the Today programme playing Michael Jackson's Thriller. So I knew he had died. He was taken ill during Newsnight last night and one had the sense that it was serious. Radio 4's flagship news show, normally awash with grey men talking about affairs of state, rang with the sounds of Jackson's back catalogue and a slightly awkward James Naughtie interviewing a range of people from the world of pop.

And how do I feel about all this? And where do I put him in the pop pantheon? I only ask that second question because someone asked me earlier this morning.

I feel that Jackson's death is truly tragic, the end to a life that has been lived in three stages - as Paul Gambaccini said on Today - the child star, the megastar and the freak show. The third part would be swiftly forgotten, he said, leaving only the memory of the electrifying performer at the height of his powers in the trilogy of albums he recorded with Quincy Jones.

I wasn't a fan of Jackson's music - though I sat up into the wee small hours to see the world premier of the Thriller video (all 17 minutes of it) on Channel 4 - but I recognise his talent. Beat It, Billie Jean and Thriller are great pop songs, superbly crafted and produced.

But I do find it hard to disentangle that from the freak show Jackson became - his eccentric behaviour, changing facial appearance, his family life, allegations of abuse - both to him in his childhood and by him at his Neverland ranch.

When he launched his come-back tour - 50 consecutive nights at the O2 - I thought 'who's he trying to kid?' He looked frail, wild-eyed, unable to string sentences together. Surely this waif wasn't going to manage ten nights, let alone 50. It seemed a surreal final fling in an increasingly bizarre drama. And so, tragically, it turned out. His close friend Yuri Geller (that says something about his judgement) seemed to suggest it was the stress of the impending tour that killed him!

I suspect it'll be wall-to-wall Thriller, Billy Jean, some of the Jackson 5 hits over the next few days, pages of obituaries and memories of his 'friends in show business' and then the dust will settle. Like Elvis the myth makers will get to work, the cult of Jackson will arise, wacko will live on in a sub-stratum of the wacko celebrity world he inhabited.

But the music will stand. The Thriller album is probably one of the ten best pop records of all time (for all that I don't really like it) with it's strong tunes, infectious, machine-driven rhythms and crisp, clear vocal track. It has been hugely influential on the development of pop in the 25 years since it was released.

The tragedy is that Jackson never seemed to find the peace and friendship he so obviously craved. In that he is a true icon of celebrity culture.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Next year's Assembly takes shape

Just back from an Assembly Project Team meeting in a very sunny Plymouth.

The excellent news is that next year's Assembly will run from Friday to Monday (that's four days). This has happened because the Assembly organisers have listened to Assembly goers which in these days is a good thing to hear.

Themes are being worked on and there'll be news about that ahead of the summer lay-off.

So, now I have to put a team together to run Prism. Because we want the Assembly to be more deliberative, I am keen to have a smaller crew, so that delegates have more involvement in creating the programme as we travel through the weekend, with lots of space for people to be working together discerning what God is saying to us about our mission where we are and across the world.

I'm also minded to have no sung worship but rather a liturgist, a poet and a solo musician (who don't necessarily have to be three separate people) gathering our thoughts and reflecting back to us where our journey is taking us.

What do people think?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Imitating our extraordinary God

The great thing about the NAM's conference is hearing the stories of ministers finding their feet in the wacky world of the pastorate. There was a good mix of ages this year plus more women than I remember from three years ago when I was last involved and more black ministers too.

The stories are pretty diverse, as you can imagine, with some new ministers being pitched into chronically unhealthy churches and having to try to sort things out, while others are parts of well-functioning teams and are able to put what they've learned into practice in a supportive environment. I have to say that the latter is less common than the former, sadly.

I've been reading Michael Gorman's new book that luxuriates in the title Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification and Theosis in Paul's Narrative Soteriology. However, it's a lot more readable than that mouthful would suggest!

So far, I've read the first of the four chunky chapters that form the the kernel of the book. It's on what Gorman describes as Paul's master story, Philippians 2:6-11. And it's wonderful. He argues that this story tells us as much about God as it does about Christ, suggesting that God has always been kenotic and cruciform and that Jesus is just the most perfect and accessible image of that.

He argues that the narrative arc of Philippians 2:6-11 follows the pattern 'although 'x', not 'y' but 'z' where 'x' is Jesus as the form of God; 'y' is the human expectation of what that will mean, how it will play out; and 'z' is how it actually works. So, although Jesus is God he doesn't consider this as something to exploit for his own advantage, but empties himself (using 'empties' in the sense of emptying a liquid from a bottle to a glass).

So, here's a flavour:

'God, we must now say, is essentially kenotic, and indeed essentially cruciform. Kenosis, therefore, does not mean Christ's emptying himself of his divinity (or of anything else), but rather Christ's exercising his divinity, his equality with God.' (p28). In a lengthy footnote, Gorman points out that saying God is cruciform does not mean that God is constrained in his being by a particular form of Roman execution but that because the perfect revelation of the divine kenosis for Paul was in the cross and especially 'in the voluntary rejection of power/ privilege and humble self-giving' (p28 fn 67).

This leads to Paul's understanding of the shape of discipleship and leadership. 'We see, then, that Paul believes that in his decisions not to use or exploit his apostolic power and rights, he does not renounce his apostleship or divest himself of his apostleship but in fact exercises true apostleship because he thereby acts in ways that are in conformity to Christ. That is to say, as an apostle - an ambassador (2 Cor 5:20) of the self-emptying, crucified Lord - Paul acts kenotically and cruciformly.' (p24).

As ministers we are called similarly to lives of kenotic and cruciform discipleship so that, like Paul, we can be models and examples, calling others to follow our lead (Phil 3:12-17). That's a tough call but it's what it means to have the same mind that Jesus had (Phil 2:5). It is only leadership modelling such a lifestyle that will lead to the creation of missional disciples which is essential if we are to embody and communicate the good news of this kenotic and cruciform God to our neighbours and colleagues, families and friends.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Explaining the hiatus

I've been at the Baptist Union Newly Accredited Ministers' Conference this week - hence the lack of blogging. It was pretty good. There's a good crop of new ministers working their way through the system who'll do fruitful things in the years to come.

The input - from Ian Coffey and Karen Smith - was first class and John Rackley proved to be an excellent chaplain.

All-in-all, four days well spent. But because it was busy, it means I haven't been able to do as much as I'd hoped. So I'll have to catch up tomorrow and Saturday.

I'll post some reflections on stuff I've been thinking about later

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Lessons from the widow at the temple

One of the stories in this evening's chunk of Mark (12:18-44) is the one about the widow in the temple.

I've always found this a complex and fascinating episode. Traditionally, she's seen simply as a model of self-sacrificing generosity. And that's how Jesus commends her to us. But just a couple of sentences before, he's drawn our attention to the scribes getting rich because 'they devour widows' houses' (12:40), leaving them in the state exemplified by the widow in this scene.

So, here's a picture of this devout woman dropping her last two coins into the treasury to pay for the upkeep of the scribes' power base and relieve the poor of Jerusalem. It's a somewhat more nuanced scene than we often see.

I think it serves both a negative and positive example.

She is an example of a widow being ripped by a system built on religious hucksterism. She's the victim of the worst kind of telly evangelist-style exploitation; the sort that says if you send a dollar, God will bless and heal you; a victim of the devouring of widow's houses that Jesus has just condemned.

But she is also an example of self-sacrifice, a picture of Jesus in giving her all for the good of others - even others who do not deserve it. Jesus is about to offer his body as a sacrifice on behalf of sinners - like the scribes, like the temple authorities who hound him to death, like this widow, like you and me.

We assume the audience of the teaching in v38-44 is primarily the disciples. Jesus is telling his friends not to be like the scribes, motivated by money, using religion as a means of making a fast buck at the expense of the vulnerable. Sadly it's a lesson we need to learn in each generation.

The lesson probably ripples wider to those in any kind of public service. After all, the scribes were among the political elite and rulers in Jerusalem. The widow is a lesson for all who enter politics - that it's about serving not being served.

And it's a lesson for us who are privileged to live in a system where we're allowed a say in who governs in our country. Are we looking for people who live lives of self sacrifice, seeking the welfare of their communities, paying particular attention to the poorest, the most vulnerable, the marginalised and weak?

Judging by the results of our recent round of elections, that doesn't seem to be the case. we still vote only for those who offer us the best deal, promise to protect our standard of living. We who have enough ought to be looking at the poor widows giving everything they have to keep their communities alive, get alongside them and share our fortune

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

All my ducks in a row

I've spent the morning sorting out my New Testament Theology course for Sri Lanka and then sending papers and articles for distribution to the students. Hopefully, it'll work ok. I have to sort out and send papers for my New Testament Social History course and then I'm all set - apart from jotting a few notes and aide memoires for the lectures themselves.

I am also trying to finish the notes on our church's series on Mark and the next episode of Approaching the Apocalypse. So life's full and challenging, interesting and stimulating. Can't ask for more than that, can you?

Monday, June 01, 2009

God creeping in at the edges

We had an excellent Pentecost Later Service last night. It worked really well despite being deceptively simple in structure.

We started with an explanation and then listened to three songs that in various ways explore what it means to be human in today's world - U2's Magnificent, the Killers Human (my favourite single of recent months) and Brett Dennen's Aint No Reason. People were invited to chat about how they felt about the songs as they played (they had lyric sheets to help them).

For further exploration we had three zones - one with the newspapers, one with notes on the section of Mark's Gospel we'd reached by yesterday and an art zone. In each of these people were invited to explore how we express our humanity in the worlds of work and politics, arts and culture.

The same questions were displayed in each zone - What does it mean to be human? What’s our calling as humans? What’s my calling? What does the Holy Spirit have to do with this? - plus some more specific ones.

Having meandered between zones for half an hour, we came back together for some liturgy and simple illustrative rituals - washing our hands to symbolise the cleansing that comes through the Spirit, drinking water as a symbol of refreshment and being anointed with oil as a sign of being filled with the Spirit to live as the people God calls us to be.

It was all very simple. yet it was a very profound evening. One reason for this was that we'd learned of the death of a regular member of our later service and the format gave space for those particularly affected by the news.

But I think something else was going on which is that when people are given freedom to explore a fairly well focused subject, that's what they do. And while they do that in a variety of ways, God is able to creep in around the edges and surprise us.

So, it was a good, simple and in many ways profound evening where lots of us encountered God in ways that aren't often possible in church.