Did The Catholics Get it Right?

I’ve often cited one of the benefits of ‘being Baptist’, (or any kind of free church) as the idea of freedom of conscience – the ability to think for ourselves and hold different / dissenting opinions on various issues. There is no central ‘rule’ in Baptist churches and no one person who calls the shots. The ‘church’ doesn’t tell us what to think or do and if they try to we usually get gnarly about it. For example, our church (QBC) has no official stance on same sex marriage. The upside of this is a decrease in the level of control exerted over people – a lessened call to conformity. No one gets shoved around or forced to comply with a theological position they don’t hold.

I have always felt for Catholics whose church makes decisions and decrees and then expects it’s members to toe the line.

But this week I was reflecting on the weaknesses in our own system. When no one gets to call the shots then everyone gets to frame truth their own way. When there is no recognised authority then in an increasingly individualised world we often find that authority in ourselves. We become our own reference point – our own best guide. You have to admit that is a bit scary…

While I am attracted to the freedom of this perspective I’ve also become disturbed by the conclusions it allows people to reach and it has prompted me to consider the value of the ‘Catholic’ model – placing authority in the church – being willing to submit to the church’s authority. That’s a big call I know…

Our approach assumes people read scripture, listen to God and discern his mind on issues, and when we come together we practice communal discernment. It’s a great idea…

The truth is we are more often driven primarily by the winds of culture and sometimes – not that often – by what we see the Bible saying – if we can read it diligently enough and coherently enough to make sense of it. Honestly – I don’t think more than 20% of people do this – and I’m being generous.

The Catholic way assumes that some people are able to read the Bible much more capably than others and that they are then able to discern a) what God is saying b) what is best for the church. It assumes that on our own we will likely veer into a ditch of misinterpretation and misapplication. It then expects it’s members to accept the statements the church makes. In our current climate the Catholic Church is clear on its stance on same sex marriage – but if you’re a catholic I’m guessing no one sought your opinion or input!

The problem with the Catholic way is that when the bloke/s at the top (because it’s not gonna be the women) gets it wrong then everyone gets it wrong for a very loooong time! There is minimal opportunity for grass roots questioning and dissent. And history has shown that we do get doctrine wrong sometimes.

Ok so there is no perfect method but lately I’ve found myself veering somewhat back towards a church that is willing to take a stand and call it’s constituents to fall in line. Why? Not because I want to retard individual thought but rather because I sense we have lost the ability to submit – to think communally and to allow someone we disagree with to speak for us.

In an increasingly individualised world I sense we are going to splinter theologically into thousands of pieces unless we are willing to allow ‘the church’ to speak for us in some way. I’m not sure how that plays out – and I honestly I don’t like the thought of having my own freedom impinged upon – but I can’t help but wondering if we are going to end up tripping over our own autonomy and finish up in a place of mass confusion.

Desperation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back in October 1974 I arrived in Australia as a chubby, freckle faced 10 year old Irish kid with an almost unintelligible Belfast accent. To make matters worse I thought football was a game played with a round ball which in those days cast serious dispersions about my sexual orientation… We rented a house in one of Perth’s cheapest, but roughest suburbs and in those first 3 months I struggled to fit in at my new school and I became the obvious target for ridicule and bullying.

Pasty white skin, a thick Belfast brogue and no clue how to kick a real football meant that I spent lunchtimes in the library away from people, or with my only friend – Charlie – one of the ‘special’ kids as we called them then. Charlie didn’t know I was a loser so he was happy to be my friend.

It wasn’t a great start to life in this new country.

When the new year came we moved house and school. I was relieved as I wanted out and I wanted friends. In this school I knew one person, another kid my age called Mark. On that first morning I went to school I prayed. I don’t think I could even call myself a Christian at this point, but I was desperate and I hoped God might take pity on me and cut me a break. The prayer went something like this, ‘God I know one kid at this school. Could I please sit next to him and be friends? Please?…’

It was simple and direct – the way prayer ought to be I reckon. If I’m honest it was said more in hope than confidence, but I was desperate and prayer always seems to be the place we go to in times of desperation.

When we got allocated to classes I found myself in the lower academic group and Mark was nowhere in sight. I wasn’t convinced prayer worked so that was no great surprise. The morning went slowly, but about an hour before recess the teacher introduced some new maths to us – long division. She gave us a bunch of problems to solve and told us it would take us through to the break. I finished the lot in 10 minutes and got all of it correct. She was clearly a little puzzled at my academic capacity. Starting school a couple of years earlier than everyone else back in Belfast had definitely given me a headstart on the Aussie kids who hadn’t heard of long division until that day.

At that point the teacher decided I really didn’t belong in her class after all and brought in the principal to re-locate me. They had a brief conversation and then told me they were going to move me into the class next door – the smart class – woohoo! As I got to my new class I discovered there was only one seat vacant in the whole room – right next to a kid called Mark…

Now I was the one puzzled. Crikey… this prayer stuff really did work!

Mark became my friend and introduced me to all the other kids at his table, who oddly enough shared my love for football played with a round ball… I instantly had friends and the sense of belonging I wanted.

Although it was over 40 years ago now, I remember that morning vividly – the first time I recall God ever answering a prayer of mine – and what an important one it was to a kid who really needed a friend. Since then I’ve prayed plenty of times and some seem to get answered how I’d want, while others obviously matter more to me than to God.

I can’t say I understand how prayer works – except to suggest that if we see God as a good father then it’s a bit like when my son comes to me and asks for something. I love him and always want what’s best for him so sometimes he gets what he asks for and other times not. That’s what good dad’s do.

No doubt someone will call that experience a co-incidence, a lucky break and that I have just assumed it was an answer to prayer. Honestly?… Maybe you’re right. I can’t be one hundred percent sure it was an act of God, but over the years as I’ve prayed and got to know God I’ve developed a confidence in him that causes me to believe that he actually does care and does want to get involved in the lives of ordinary people – even lonely 10 year old Irish kids who play football with round balls.

The End of Semi-Tasking

No – I haven’t got it wrong – that’s what it is.

For a while I thought I was onto something with so called ‘multi-tasking’, watching a movie while clearing emails, or sending invoices only to discover that I couldn’t follow the storyline or even remember the movie when it was over. I gave up on a number of movies because they didn’t make sense, but in hindsight I wasn’t actually paying attention.

‘Semi-tasking’ crept into my life fairly innocuously – it seemed silly to watch TV and not do something ‘productive’ at the same time, but as time went on I realised I was losing my grip on either or both of the things I was doing. Then it went from doing something productive, to just doing something else, so I’d surf Facebook or Instagram, or eBay while ‘watching’ a movie.

I discovered it became a habit to surf and watch, but a dissatisfying habit and I’d guess even a destructive one.

Maybe its just me, but I get the sense we can either do one thing well or multiple things at a fraction of our capacity. I’ve decided to return to old fashioned mono-tasking and see how that goes.

I’m doing some personal reflection on the place of screens in my own life and this is the first shift. One thing at a time… seems so ‘last century’… but I think I’d like to go back there.

The Long Road

This is the road I drive every day either to or from home.

There is a faster road… by about 30 seconds… It cuts thru the streets and gets us home that little bit quicker, but really, why would you take the 'fast' option when for 30 seconds extra you can drive past this ocean every day?

Sometimes in life – maybe even often – efficiency is over-rated and beauty is minimised. I'm pretty utilitarian and practical by nature, but I also know it's important to enjoy moments of 'pointless beauty'.

It enriches the soul and shapes identity in an intangible way, but in a way that matters very much.

When God Kills People IV

I’ve put down Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God for a bit as the further I get into it the more disturbed I become – not so much by his ideas per se, but by the sheer complexity of it all. Is the Bible really that hard to understand? I get that we read with 21stC western lenses and we need to re-enter the culture of the people and their writing to appreciate it. I get that we are always interpreting and we need to interpret well, but I fear he has made this so inaccessible that it almost becomes absurd.

I’m a big believer in the ‘teenager test’ – can I explain my ideas in such a way that a teenager can get them? If not then I need to go back and re-think them.
I posed the ‘teenager test’ on the CWG Facebook forum and discovered I wasn’t the only one frustrated with the hermeneutical gymnastics Boyd was calling for in order to make sense of these difficult passages of scripture.
So I’ve read 1000 pages and have 500 to go… I ‘get’ his points and I understand his theses. I’m yet to be convinced they are the best answers to the questions, but I’m more concerned that if someone said to me ‘what’s the deal with all the killing God orders in the OT then I doubt I could use Boyd’s framework as an explanation unless the person had a theology degree and a half hour to spend.
On a slightly different tack, I discovered an interesting podcast the other day – ‘Unbeleivable’, a series of debates between believers and atheists hosted by a Christian apologist, Justin Brierly. I like the premise of these podcasts – that we don’t need to fear honest debate although I’m not sure how much movement there would be on either side when a convinced atheist comes to defend his position against a theology scholar! Both are entrenched and unlikely to shift, but it is interesting hearing the arguments that get posed.
This one was centred on ‘genocide in the Bible’ and looked at 1 Samuel 15 – apparently the most offensive chapter in the entire Bible according to a ‘Ship of Fools’ survey (ok hardly reliable…) I’m a fair way into it now and the atheist is making a much better case than the Christian so I’m not sure the answers lie there – ha!
So at this point I feel far more aware in dealing with these difficult passages, but I’m yet to settle on answers that I can own. I imagine I will read further afield to see the other modes of reconciling these stories with the nature of Christ.

Reading about Fairies…

After a disappointing read with ‘Into the Sea’ I was ready for something a bit richer and stronger. I decided to give Hannah Kent’s latest novel ‘The Good People’ a shot and it was well worth the effort.
Kent wrote Burial Rites and this is her second novel. It’s the story of a poor village family living in Southern Ireland in the late 1800’s. The novel opens with the husband dying suddenly and this being the second bereavement for Nora in the year as her daughter had also died. She finds herself left with the care of her 4 year old grandson who was once a healthy boy, but now is suffering from some debilitating illness that prevents him from walking or speaking. He is totally dependent on others so Nora, struggling with grief and the weight of responsibility, hires Mary, a young farm girl to be her assistant and to care for him.
In time Nora is convinced that the boy (Micheal) is actually not her grandson but that he is a fairy – that ‘the good people’ (the fairies) have stolen him and replaced him with one of their own.
The local expert in folk remedies (Nance) enters and the remainder of the story follows their various bizarre, but sincere attempts to rid Micheal of ‘the fairy’. 
It is an interesting reflection on the power of superstitious belief and the degree to which it affects us. It highlights many practices of the (not so) ancient Irish and as you read it you realise our society is only different by degrees and not by kind. We still believe and practice odd things from time to time (touch wood…) in the curious belief that there is another power at work. I had written ‘a higher power at work’ but I’m not sure it’s necessarily seen as higher – just ‘other’.
As it finishes the story depicts a primitive Irish culture alongside the more sophisticated mainstream, but it also shows how deep and strong the folk beliefs lie. When a culture is formed over thousands of years simple rational explanations for sickness and struggle are unlikely to suffice.
As well as dealing with the subject of folk religion, it deals with how we perceive and interpret illness, especially serious mental illness. It looks at how we view calamity or lack of prosperity. It looks at how grief affects us and it is unique in that it focuses on the issues faced by single women, an elderly spinster, a widow and a young single girl. Nance the elderly spinster says: 
‘An old woman without a man is the next thing to a ghost. No one needs her, folk are afraid of her, but mostly she isn’t seen.’
It’s a statement I have heard several times – that older single women are unnoticed in society.
From a faith perspective we would often pooh pooh superstitious practices, but we are sometimes blind to our own ‘folk Christianity’, that believes
– if we tithe faithfully God will bless us with abundance…

– That ‘x’ wasn’t healed because she didn’t have enough faith…

– That certain prayers must be recited word perfect to deal with spiritual oppression, curses and the like (because God won’t pass a near miss)

– That trouble in life is because of sin – that God is repaying us and balancing the ledger… because Jesus’ death was inadequate.
I could go on, and I’m sure you could suggest plenty more that you have heard or experienced. 
While it is based on real events, it is still an odd subject for a novel, but Kent opens up the world of the Irish village community so well that it becomes intriguing and enjoyable to read.

Get Me Out of Here – Now!

I hardly ever write negative book reviews, but there are few things that annoy me more than a bad novel. 

I just finished a re-read of one of my all time faves, The Poisonwood Bible – a brilliant book that was even better on a second pass. Then I moved on to ‘Into the Sea’, a novel that based the story around the subject of surfing. It was set in WA in the late 70s to early 80s as two mates get into surfing and get hooked.

While there are no places named in the story it was obvious the two boys grew up in a suburb near my own, in the same era I started surfing, so that part of the story resonated. Skipping school to surf, buying your first board, living for the waves, were all things we did in that time.

The story moves across to Cactus (not named) for another 100 pages where not much happens and then one of the characters heads off to Indo and doesn’t come back. His mate goes looking for him and finds him surfing perfect waves and happy in his island paradise. 

The end.

Yeah… it was a book pretty much devoid of plot. I read the whole thing, all 300 dreary pages in the hope that some energy would rise from it, but it just lobbed from one surf setting to the next with bland characters and little to hold attention.

Given its origins and characters, I had high hopes for this novel, but it was a mega-disappointment. If surfing magazines are ‘wave porn’, then this would be the equivalent of a porn movie – scene after scene of same same same… blokes surfing or talking about surfing. It might sound promising but it’s actually unsatisfying.

If you see it around give it a wide berth. A good novel ought to evoke some deep stirring, but this one felt like a suburban bus ride where every chapter was a prolonged stop. In the end I was just happy to be home.

If you enjoy reading then get a hold of The Poisonwood Bible instead and delve into the complexities of character, culture and religious nuance it offers. 

I’m onto Hannah Kent’s Good People now and already breathing easier…

Sorry Jay Laurie – if you read this… I really wanted to like your book, i even ‘saved it up’ for holidays, but in the end I just couldn’t. You got the era, the language and the characters down well, but something needs to happen for it to be a good story. 
 

Techy Bumbling

Sorry if you recently got a stupid number of bizarre emails from me!

If you’re a subscriber or follower you will probably have been deluged.

I have been experimenting with a new template for our church and thought I’d test it on the blog. I used to be pretty tech savvy, but I’m not so up to speed with all things wordpress these days.

I imported a template and some dummy pages and I think you got sent all the dummy pages. Anyway – this one’s the real deal.

It’ll save you all emailing me, texting or phoning to let me know 🙂

And thanks to those who already have!

 

Missional in the Neighbourhood 10 Years On – Part II

The title of this series is intentional. Its about mission in the local neighbourhood as distinct from going overseas or to a whole new sub-culture. It’s about being effective where we are.

Paradigm shifting was big in 2006. Part of helping people grasp a ‘missional imagination’ was deconstructing the heavily churched mindset that most of us had lived with for so long.

I remember saying things like ‘it’s not that God’s church has a mission, but that God’s mission has a church’. We spoke of Christology shaping missiology which in turn shaped ecclesiology (which in essence meant Jesus inspires us into mission and from there we allow our church communities to take shape). In that time paradigms did need busting, the church needed something of a kick up the bum to get back into the world and ‘revolution rather than evolution’ was the order of the day for the church. I loved that period and the energy that went with learning new things and being challenged to figure out how we do mission in this changing landscape.
But we’re not there any more. Pretty much everyone would sign off on the importance of the church getting back into the community and the importance of a tangible gospel rather than just a five minute spiel. We would agree on contextualisation and thoughtful interactions rather than just spewing a gospel message on people.

So my sense is that these days the issues are far more practical and pragmatic than philosophical. I imagine that’s why Mike Frost’s Surprise the World ‘workbook’ has been so successful – because people are convinced of the importance of mission but not sure where to start. Frosty offers a collection of practices that give shape to a missional lifestyle and I will be taking a similar approach with our crew.

I sense we need to more and more help people move into action and to form a missional lifestyle that is true to who they are. Not everyone is good at caring for the poor and needy, nor is everyone good at hosting parties. So helping people to play to their strengths and developing intentional missionary practices will be a part of what we do.

Our teaching series will only run for 7 weeks but it will be largely practical and each week will offer some tangible expressions of mission that people can pursue.

One of the things I have noticed in church leadership is that presenting people with a concept and allowing them to ‘join the dots’ and come up with their own missional idea rarely results in action – it seems to get filed in the ‘too hard basket’ but… plain old telling people what to do does get traction. Maybe that’s unfortunate but you also need to accept reality and play the hand you’re dealt.

It’s the difference between ‘think of a creative way to bless your street’ and ‘go knock on your neighbour’s door and invite them around for a meal’. Of course you have to cover that with a caveat that says you don’t HAVE to invite people around for a meal if hospitality isn’t your strength. But if we present enough clear practical alternatives then people will realise they can do stuff.

I get the sense we have come out of the dark ages of evangelism – think wacky door knocking and zany street preaching – but we aren’t sure what we are to move into, or how we are to do things in this context.

I’m all for discussing and reflecting on the higher level missiology stuff with those for whom it inspires and makes sense but I tend to think most folks just want some help to get practical and effective as the people of God

 

Expel the Immoral Brother

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So reads the chapter title in my 1984 version of the NIV bible over 1 Corinthians 5. When I look the same chapter up on Bible Gateway it has been ‘re-titled’ as ‘Dealing with a case of incest.’ A subtle change, but perhaps one that reflects a bit of how we treat things these days.

It ain’t cool to ‘expel’ people from church… It sounds like the kind of thing cults do and chances are you could even leave yourself open to litigation… In these days when numbers are already in decline who wants to willingly lose another person or family?

But what do you do with Paul’s words in 1 Cor 5:13? Is there ever a time for showing someone the door? Or do we always in every situation seek to keep them in the fellowship? Paul seems pretty clear on the fact that there is a time to exclude someone from the community and he speaks of it more than once. In 1 Timothy we hear him speak this way of Alexander and Hymenaues and in Titus he says similar of divisive people.

If we just take Paul’s words at face value then it seems very strong, but somewhat understandable. Where it gets a little complicated is when we read Jesus’ words in Matthew 18, where the final stage in the ‘conflict resolution’ process is to treat the person as if they were a pagan or a tax collector. What does that look like?

If we’re looking at how Jesus treated tax collectors and pagans then we see him eating with them and showing them love and acceptance, yet at the same time calling them to repentance. So some would suggest that ‘treating as a pagan’ is this kind of relationship. Normally I’m a fan of reading difficult passages thru the ‘lens of Jesus’ and concluding that his insights are given priority, but my take on this issue is that there is a time to show someone the door and let them feel the absence of Christian community.

The issue Paul deals with in 1 Cor 5 is one where he says ‘even the pagans don’t tolerate it’, so for the church to allow and even boast about their practice of incest is bizarre and abhorrent. Clearly no one in Corinth has been able to sort the issue out, or has been able to exert authority over the people responsible so Paul has been called in to make a judgement.

And that he does… He doesn’t mince words.

His clear point is that we aren’t to be about the business of judging those who claim no faith alignment, but when people do, and are part of a faith community then there is an obligation on the church to call them to account. To allow unrestrained, wilful sin in any form (Paul mentions sexual immorality, greed, idolatry. lying and cheating) is to minimise the problem of sin and to sap the church of its distinctive character.

The point to make here is that this is repeated and unrepentant behaviour that is clearly out of line. It isn’t for an occasional moral failure, or for sin that is confessed and repented of. Its directed at a person who rejects Jesus’ authority and insists on doing their own thing to the detriment of the community. And that’s another key – we don’t seek first the welfare of the offending person – we seek the welfare of the community as a whole and if by their actions they they show that they don’t value the broader community then they will inevitably bring destruction to that community.

In that case then they need to be asked to leave or even sent away from the community to live as an unbeliever and to accept the consequences of that. My experience is that we rarely get to this point as most people who choose a path of wilful sin slowly ebb away from the community anyway, or those who need to be confronted often get ‘offended’ and feel ‘judged’ and then leave because they believe they have been badly treated. Maybe they have… We don’t always do confrontation well in church, but even where a perfect process has been followed, a person who doesn’t want correction can find a reason to baulk.

In these situations I think Paul would say ‘Yes. You have been judged. Your behaviour and character has been considered to be destructive to both you and the community and for that reason you aren’t allowed to stay.’

That’s pretty unPC and sure would cause a fair degree of angsty vibe within a church, but if we are going to be a distinctive and Christ flavoured community then there is a time to say ‘we have exhausted every avenue of seeking to help you see the light – now you’re on your own.’

Its a tragic place to get to, but if we never allow for it then we end up with a church where anything goes and there is no authority.

So that’s tomorrow’s sermon in a nutshell…