Toxic Cynicism

It’s a thing. A nasty thing – that is easy to laugh along with but that in the longer term often erodes both bad and good aspects of the subject under critique.

Cynicism and Its Negative Impact

Around here I ask questions of the church, mission and our interaction with the world around us (hence ‘backyard missionary’) and I admit – confess even that in days gone by my critique has had a slice of toxic cynicism in it. At times I have gone beyond the brief I gave myself to question, challenge and critique and at times I have just been sharp and destructive – albeit under the guise of questioning.

Quite honestly I am sorry for any damage that may have done to those who have also been questioning and critiquing but for whom peace hasn’t been found, but instead the whole faith aspect of life has been cast off either because the church wronged them or because some questions of faith couldn’t easily be reconciled.

If you’re wondering where these thoughts come from, I’ve been in the Gold Coast the last few days attending and speaking at the Exponential Church Planting Conference. I haven’t been to many conferences of late so it was interesting to be back in that space and reflecting on ways forward for the Australian church.

I met a lot of new people – which was inevitable, as I only knew 3 of the 600 who were attending. Some conversations were short and sharp, others longer and meaningful. One of the latter involved chatting to a couple who had recently closed their church plant after several years because, in their words, ‘it was no longer a community centred on Jesus.’ (Just as aside I wonder how many other churches would close if that criteria were applied with rigour…)

They shared a rather tragic story of planting with great hope, attracting a large number cynical and disaffected Christians / Ex-vangelicals and then walking with them as their faith wandered further and further from its centre. In the end it wasn’t a community centred on Jesus – it was a community of people who wanted to be good people in the world. A moment of clarity came for this couple when they surveyed their church on their hopes and dreams, their beliefs and their sense of commitment to the future. The results were devastating revealing that the majority of their church were really not committed to following Jesus and their questioning had led them further away from faith.

To their credit the couple closed the church – because it was no longer a church… It was a group of friends for whom an organised event had been scheduled and they would turn up and enjoy it (if they could.)

Curiously, there wasn’t massive disappointment at its closing – just some comments that of course they would all still hang out ‘organically’. Would it surprise you if I said that didn’t happen?

A community that began with such hope got tangled up, and self destructed. This was a really sad story to hear and I could feel the pain from this couple who started with such hope, only to finish up in such devastation. Certainly one of the hardest parts of my own experience leading churches for the last 30 odd years has been watching people say ‘yes’ to Jesus and then at some point later lose their way as they deconstructed their faith to a point where nothing was important – nothing was to die for.

But back to toxic cynicism – the kind of cynicism that moves towards destruction rather than towards faith and hope. You will know it when you feel it. It doesn’t ask questions that call for a deeper dive into our theology and ecclesiology. It just tears down, shames and despises the subject in question.

For example – church… Church is such an easy target and it isn’t hard to dislike some practices or be hurt by ‘the church’. How we deal with that is another thing.

It seems the word of our time is ‘deconstruction’, both of faith and of our understanding of church and how it operates. I have done my own fair share of deconstructing over the years. I have shifted ground significantly on some important theological concepts and at times I have simply had no answers whatsoever to disturbing questions. On occasions so I have then been forced to simply trust that God is good even when I can’t grasp what he is doing (or not doing.)

As well as doing my own re-thinking and pondering I have been keen to ensure that church is a place where questioning and doubting is welcomed. We are all gonna ask questions – we are all gonna review our theology from time to time so why not have a safe space to do it? Churches that don’t welcome questioners will generally create a brittle faith that does ok in happy times, but literally shatters when under duress.

So when does deconstruction become dangerous?

When it moves into cynicism, because the toxic cynicism is only a step away.

Deconstruction asks ‘tell me again, why do we meet like we do for church… Can we do this in other ways? Can we re-imagine this whole thing?!

Cynicism snipes and growls – ‘church?! Yeah right… I’m so over it – same stuff every single week and that guy is so deadly boring!’

Toxic cynicism takes it one step further. It says ‘hey church sux right? Let’s just catch up, but let’s no have meaningless prayers, lame singing or preaching that assumes there is one ‘right’ way to look at something.’

And it really becomes dangerous when it allowed to be the dominant culture of the group. When toxic cynicism is allowed to rule the show unchecked, then faith has a hard time surviving. I know we all have times of cynicism and frustration with the church, but if we lead with this it can be utterly devastating. When this is our primary MO then it also becomes tiresome to be around. It ‘white ants’ faith, both of the cynic and of those around him or her.

To move back a step, I’m not afraid of helping people deconstuct – in fact I think its an important stage of faith (see James Fowler for more on this) but ‘deconstructing’ is about dismantling unhelpful paradigms and opening new ways of seeing things. Take Father Christmas as an example – sooner or later we have to deconstruct that belief and the whole myth that goes with him. Maturity requires it. In the same way faith matures and toughens as it encounters questions, doubts and challenges and moves thru them.

For those of us who are leaders, the great challenge is to know how to create a safe space for doubt and questioning without simply facilitating a group deconstruction and abandonment of faith. It means being strong on some things and choosing not to negotiate or question – even when we are unable to fully explain a question ourselves. It means holding our own inner cynic in check when it would be easier to snipe and sneer. I feel like this has been one of my own practices in over the last few years. I can enmpathise with people’s questions and doubts without needing to affirm them with a cynical ‘oh yeah, tell me about it…’

Deconstruction isn’t going to go away. Unless we lose all connectivity to the world around us, we are now permanently exposed to people who ask questions like we do, and if we use google to seek out the answers then that algorithm will feed us with more doubt and will lead us further down the rabbit hole of toxic cynicism. So if we can expect deconstruction to continue to be a thing in the days ahead, what might we do to help people keep going with the faith journey?

Build a strong foundation – Build it on core essentials of the faith. Keep circling back to Jesus, the things he taught, the things he did and the significance of the resurrection.

Keep questions on the radar – so that we are always acknowledging mystery and paradox – I wonder if sometimes people get knee deep in faith only to discover that the water they are soon to be swimming in is murky and unclear at times. If we can negate the element of surprise and disappointment by acknowledging it early then I feel like we might do a better job of dealing with doubt. It will happen. We will ask questions together, but we will hold as not negotiable that God is good and that Jesus is our living picture of what he is like.

Hold your theological ground – there are plenty of issues that I see as unclear in scripture – which is why we have so many denominations. But you will have some core convictions that you simply can’t negotiate on. For example the bodily resurrection is one of the central points of faith, whereas the ‘shape of creation’ is much more up for grabs.

Don’t be afraid to nail your colours to the mast on stuff that matters and allow those who want to leave to leave.

And if you’re reading this as a cynic then please heed the warning that you could just be a step away from being a spiteful, sneering toxic cynic. Maybe better to deal with the source of your cynicism and just be aware that it is present in your make-up.

So by all means ask difficult questions, seek more satisfactory answers, but when you get to a place of mystery and bewilderment choose to pray for faith to move forward rather than allowing toxic cynicism to win the day.

If We don’t Talk About it Then Maybe it Will Go Away…

In the last few days I have heard the word ‘de-construction’ (in relation to theology) used so many times I have lost count. Ok – so I did listen to a ‘Nomad‘ podcast – which is asking for it – then I tuned into Carey Neuhoff interviewing Shauna Niequist (and yes – he does need to change that dreadful intro to this podcast – sounds more like a gameshow!)

But it’s also come up in personal conversation several times as I’ve listened to people trying to reframe their theological understanding.

‘Deconstruction’ is happening for many people whether we like it or not. It was encouraging to hear Shauna Niequist speak of her mother’s experience in this area. As the wife of a well known mega-church pastor she may have been expected to not encounter faith questions and challenges, but fortunately when the fog descended on her, both her husband and the elders of the church gave her permission to not attend church if she wished and to walk thru the questions at a pace that she could manage.

Clever people.

I have observed that some people like to lean into their questions and ‘fog’ whereas others want to either avoid the fog altogether or chart a very certain course through it.

I’m not a fan of the latter. There is so much fog in the Bible that we are foolish to try and pretend we can shoo it all away. Systematic theology may have appeal, but these days I look it all with a bit of skepticism. It sounds a little too certain for my liking – too clean-shaven to be believable. The Bible far too complex to try and organise it neatly into blocks of clearly explainable data packets.

As an example, in 31 years of being a pastor I have never taken the time to teach thru the book of Revelation. I did begin the process, only to encounter the varying perspectives on how to engage with the book and eschatology in general. There was so much reading and learning involved that I just gave up on it. I spent a significant amount of time on it – but I simply didn’t have enough time to do it justice. Nor could I just choose a perspective and teach as though the other angles didn’t exist. That would be unfair to the people in the congregation. But I also doubt anyone wants me to spend time unpacking the various ideas and then leaving it to them to make their minds up. If you want to know what I’m talking about then watch this video titled ‘An Evening of Eschatology’. where 3 theologians of different perspectives engage respectfully in a conversation around this issue. Once you’ve listened you’ll find it harder to dismiss any of the views. As a consequence I’m very wary of people who nod knowingly and say ‘we’re in the end times you know…’

Whatever the issue, I am convinced that as churches we need to create communities where people can express their faith questions, where ‘heretical’ views can be aired and shared and where good conversation can help move people forward rather than leave them pretending the questions don’t exist. And by ‘forward’ I don’t mean so they agree with the consensus. I mean to a place where they can rest before God with their conclusions.

This week I listened to Robin Parry present his perspective on Christian Universalism – the idea that one day God will reconcile all people to himself thru Christ. My mate Stuart asked me if I’d heard him.

‘No… but I will check it out’. Stuart didn’t speak either affirmingly or otherwise, but I did think I’d like to hear this bloke’s perspective on a thorny issue. Some of you reading are already concerned for me – worried I am on a slippery slope… Hold that thought.

Universalism wasn’t the view I grew up with so I was interested to hear how he constructed his argument. I’d much prefer his ‘Christian universalism’ to be true than either ‘eternal conscious torment’ (which I just can’t swallow) or even my current preference which is annihilationism. But chances are if you raise this kind of question in a church there will be people rushing to shut you down with comments like ‘don’t listen to that nonsense’ (which only makes people want to listen more!)

How do people figure out faith if they are not given permission to explore the tough questions in a safe environment? How do people grapple honestly with Old testament violence or biblical inconsistencies if they aren’t allowed to air questions and ideas that are frightening? How do they develop new theological understandings if they aren’t given the capacity to release old ways of thought?

This morning I stumbled on a provocative blog post from Richard Middleton who asks ‘did Abraham get it all wrong with how he chose to obey God with the sacrifice of his son?‘ He argues that God wanted Abraham to object and to challenge him because child sacrifice was the domain of pagan deities. In his conformity Abraham failed the test God put for him. That’s a new thought for some of us right?…

I remember reading that theologians fall into two categories when it comes to new ideas. There are explorers and protectors. If you just read that last paragraph and instantly dismissed it as yet another speculative theologian with too much time on his hands, who has missed the point then you are probably a protector. if you want to know more and you are currently scanning his blog for other articles then maybe you are an explorer.

The explorers wade into the new ideas, try them on, look them up and down to see if they are a good fit. If so they ‘wear them’. If not they leave them aside. The protectors are different in that they adhere tightly to a well developed theological understanding so when questions arise they are ready with answers or reasons to not pursue a line of thought.

I fit firmly in the explorer category – which means I have veered into theological ideas that are far from orthodoxy at times because I need to think thru the implications. I hesitate to give an example as I may well end up in a theological fight I don’t have the will for… That said I wonder about the importance of ‘correct theology’ especially when it comes to the issue of salvation. How ‘correct’ do you have to be in order to make the cut? Because we are Baptists we assume our theological understandings are correct (not at all arrogant) But what about Anglicans?… Catholics?… Seventh Dayers?… JWs?… Mormons?… Where do you draw the line?

In doing some research for a sermon I stumbled on some Youtube clips of a mormon conference. It wasn’t until I did some diving into the origins of the clip that I realised it was from them. It sounded like solid Baptist fare. How will Mormons stand in the judgement? If they live life as Jesus speaks of in his kingdom, but fail the theology exam for heaven (and ‘heaven’ is another subject to be pondered) are they then consigned to hell for ever?…

If this post makes you decidedly uneasy then I am probably flaring your ‘protector’ instincts. But please hear me all of you who protect. Thank you for your work in helping form and organise theology as you have done. There is much good in the work of the protectors. But please don’t dismiss those who find themselves not accepting your answers to difficult questions. Please create space somewhere for people to talk heresy and to ask difficult questions.

Because it will happen whether you like it or not. Deconstruction can turn into demolition and devastation if people are dismissed and left to their own devices to think thru difficult questions. However if a church can be a safe place to have difficult conversations then chances are we will see people reach maturity and ‘re-construct’ in a positive way.

Just As I Am…

Making Altar Calls: Is it Justified? – Malaysia's Christian News Website

I remember well my time as a ‘zealot’ type youth pastor giving altar calls while preaching and seeing many young people come forward in response – ostensibly to express their desire to follow Jesus. These were moments of great excitement and immense joy. Young lives had found their way to Jesus and they were boldly putting it all on the line. Even as I reflect on those times now it evokes a wonderful feeling of happiness at what was happening.

But I also remember that when I shared this information with other older people their responses seemed less exuberant than I anticipated. I expected long term God botherers to be whooping and hollering at the stupendous news of new birth in the kingdom of God. But often the response was restrained and quite unexpressive, as if I had said ‘tonight the youth watched a movie.’

‘Oh yeah… Nice.’

I remember when I had these experiences I would wonder what was wrong with these older Christians who did not seem at all inspired or encouraged by the news of new faith. To this day I still feel their responses were a little befuddling and may have spoken somewhat to the state of their own spirituality. I judged them much more harshly then, as half hearted, luke warm wannabes who had lost the plot in their own faith, so it was no wonder they found it hard to share in the joy of new life.

Interestingly over the last few years as I have heard similar stories both from our own church and others I have found myself with some similar reactions. I certainly share in the good news of young lives saved, but inwardly my responses are more muted and nuanced. Because 20 years on from my time doing this kind of evangelism my ‘where are they now?’ filter suggests many did one lap of the track and then found something else to devote their lives to.

Perhaps it was a failure of discipleship processes or perhaps it was just that they ‘got a better offer.’ Or perhaps the altar call’ itself is a problematic tool in evangelism. In my teen years I remember attending rallies and events where we painfully endured ‘just one more verse’ of ‘just as I am’ because there was still someone out there who needed to make peace with God. The potential for emotional manipulation in these spaces is very high and young people are particularly vulnerable. Did they really understand what they were signing up for?…

Who else remembers those words ‘every head bowed and every eye closed’? It was the cue for the Holy Spirit to begin his work… Or it was a part of a process that not so subtly messed with people’s emotions and may have even manipulated them into a position they would not have been in if they had been sitting in a silent, well lit room.

I’m not a fan of altar call evangelism. I’m not even sure if it ‘has it’s place’. If it means mood music in a dark room at the end of a long night and a persuasive speaker offering a choice between heaven and hell then it feels like a bit of an ambush for those who have attended.

My final few attempts at ‘altar call’ style evangelism – probably 12-15 years ago – met with minimal success. Because in I painted a picture of discipleship to Jesus, we don’t have any ‘sign me up’ music – just silence – and I invited people to stand up where they were as a statement of their intent. No eyes closed and heads bowed, no mood music, just a raw decision.

Do it or don’t do it.  I’m not going to make it easy for you.

I’ve only done this 2 or 3 times and the response has been underwhelming on each occasion. However by setting the bar higher and choosing to paint a more holistic picture of what it means to follow Jesus I think those on the edge may have said ‘Oh… I need a bit more time to really think this thru…‘ If that is all my altar call accomplished on these occasions then I am content, knowing that if one day that person does decide to sign up they do so with a much greater consciousness of what it entails.

So hear me on this; I do want to be able to share in the joy of our young people as they see their friends find faith. I don’t want my years in the game to simply turn me into an old cynic. But I also want to acknowledge that the ‘conversion moment’, if there really is such a thing. Is but one small step in the journey of faith. When Paul wrote of those who are ‘being saved’ he seemed to be implying that it is an ongoing process, an experience I would concur with. I cannot track my ‘conversion’ to any one moment, but I can speak of many ‘moments of conversion’ where I chose Christ over the other options life offered me.

Somehow 40 years on from my own teen years I am still following Jesus and still ‘being saved’ regularly. Now I am less attracted to shiny things and more able to make the choices intuitively as distinct from my teen years when I was having to choose intentionally and often.

There is a line between cynicism and wisdom and it’s a hard one to walk in these situations because there are people who have responded to these calls and walked in faith for years to come. My unverified hunch is that those who responded and are still going likely came from Christian families where it was hoped that at some stage they would respond in faith, but for those who live in families as the only Christian I’d suggest the attrition rate is much higher. (This is a generalisation so your own story may prove me wrong…)

So – by all means please celebrate the young people finding faith and beginning a journey of discipleship. But more than that let’s make sure they have the support around them that enables them to keep making ‘conversion decisions’ when the option to give up will often be much easier. And as older people who may be aware of this, let’s enter into the joy and maybe we can just do our bit by praying for them.

And if you want to explore the (very recent) origins of the altar call then here is an article that may be helpful.

Struggle Well

Did you know there are twins in New Zealand and their parent’s named them ‘Fish & Chips’?… True story.

Another family have 3 kids – Faith, Hope and… yeah you guessed it… Kevin! Not surprisingly ‘Fish & Chips’ has been banned as a name in NZ, along with other choice names like ‘Robocop’ (Mexico), ‘Circumcision’ (also Mexico) and a host of others.

Names matter. And while these days people want to know ‘what’s cool’ in naming, in the ancient world names carried weight and significance. They spoke to our very identity. So when Jacob from the book of Genesis was given his name – meaning ‘deceiver’ or ‘supplanter’ it spoke to who he was and how his life would be lived. His twin brother was far less significant – Esau just meaning ‘hairy’.

If you aren’t aware of the enmity that developed between these two then check it out in Genesis chs 27-32. Jacob deceived both Esau and his father Isaac and took what was rightfully Esau’s. Not cool. And not surprising that Esau wanted to kill him.

After a significant time apart Jacob believes he needs to go home and see Esau again. He is on his way when he hears Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men – which only serves to confirm his worst fears – that he is a dead man. Anticipating the worst, Jacob splits his family in half and sends them in different directions – clearly hoping that at least some of them will survive the carnage.

Jacob sends them off and then stops for a while on his own. Then follows the most bizarre but transformative encounter.

v 24 says: ‘So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.’ 

I’ve done a lot of camping, but never have I had someone approach me and ask for a wrestle! And the idea of fighting through the entire night seems equally weird. The ‘man’ (who Jacob later realises is God – or an angel of God) couldn’t ‘overpower him’, which I sense means he couldn’t get him to tap – to quit. Clearly the ‘man’ was able to end the fight as the eventual touch on the hip suggests, but he couldn’t get Jacob to quit.

Just before this encounter was Jacob’s dream – a beautiful, grace filled moment when God reaffirmed his covenant to him. God chose to use a betrayer and deceiver as the father of the nation he would call his own…

And now in this moment Jacob boldly says to the ‘man’ ‘you can’t go unless you bless me.’ He receives that blessing, along with a new name. God changes his name from Jacob to Israel – from deceiver to ‘the one who struggles with God’.

The people of Israel are those who will struggle with God. As I read that story again recently I was reminded that as the church – the ‘new Israel’ – we inherit that identity and we too are those who struggle with God.

The choice is to how we struggle. We can struggle well – honestly engaging with God, grappling with our expectations and disappointments, or we can struggle badly. We can disengage – give up the fight – or just live forever in anger and fury at a God who didn’t do all we had hoped. Or again we can live in denial – we can parade the ‘victorious Christian life’ to those who look on – we can speak the lingo – look the part, all the while disintegrating internally because our experience does not match our rhetoric.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘struggling well’ and at church we have just started a new teaching series around this theme. I love the energy it has created as people have sensed a subject with which they can really engage.

So many of us struggle.

Correction – we all struggle – it’s in our DNA – to wrestle with God in some way. But often when we speak of ‘those who struggle’ we do it in pejorative terms, as if they were our ‘bench players’, or our liabilities.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Seriously – if we are ‘those who struggle with God’, then to struggle is what we were made for. And it is actually in the struggle that we find our wholeness and our identity as the people of God. Over the next couple of months each time we gather I have invited men and women from our church community to take 10 minutes to share their journey – their story of where life is at – and usually its hard – and then to speak to us about what it looks like for them to struggle well.

These are not our bench players. These are our heroes – these are the people who have stepped into the ring and who are engaged in the fight. These are people living up to the calling God has put on us.

And if you don’t struggle?

Oh – you do – maybe you just haven’t put a name to your struggle – maybe your struggle is that you aren’t even able to see your own blind spots. That’s ok – just invite the Spirit to shine some light and you will join the rest of us pretty soon.

My great hope is that we will have a church of people who are actually real and raw about who they are, and where they have been, That will be confronting for us and maybe we’d prefer a squeaky clean, ‘stock art’ image of the Christian experience, but it just isn’t real… It is actually an illusion – a dangerous illusion.

At any given time there will be people at peace with God, wowed by God and thrilled at who God is, but there will also be people angry with God, questioning God, sooking with God. And that can make us uncomfortable. That won’t ‘look good to others…’

Easier to put on the victorious Christian life, Sunday face and just pretend. But when you do that you don’t actually get to know God.

You just play religious games. You worship a fictitious God and you miss out on the experience that awaits you if you will just dive in head first and face the struggle.

Our heroes ought not be those who appear to have it all together, rather they should be those with bloodied, tear stained faces who have hit the depths, met God there and have been able to struggle well.

The God Who Sees You

I’m guessing from time to time many of us feel like God doesn’t even know we exist, let alone loves us or wants to be involved in our lives. Or maybe we have followed him – done all the right things and it seems he is deaf to our cries and unaware of our struggles. I know it’s the reason some give up on faith. ‘I tried… but I just couldn’t connect… couldn’t hear him, feel him and so on…’

No amount of reasoning, logic and philosophising can replace a tangible experience of a relational God. At some point, in some way we need to encounter God – personally – in a way we can remember and come back to – otherwise the whole ‘relationship with God’ thing just sounds like a very hollow mantra.

I try to spend the first 30 minutes or so of each day reading the Bible, meditating and praying, and I probably have as many ‘significant’ days where I sense God in the words of the story, as I do ‘insignificant’, where it feels like God didn’t show up, or maybe he was tired too…

Lately I’ve been reading Genesis which doesn’t really sound like a book that is easy to engage with reflectively, but its actually been great, especially for reminding me of how much I just haven’t yet got a hold of.

I was disturbed again by God’s shoddy treatment of Cain – because his offering wasn’t up to scratch, I was puzzled again by the whole Babel story (I should have this one under wraps by now right?…) and there have been enough of these bizarre incidents that I’m thinking one day I might just do a sermon series on ‘all the stuff I still don’t understand’.

But this morning I did understand what I was reading and it was worth sharing, so here goes…

Abram and his wife Sarai have been in Canaan 10 years and still no child as promised… I agree with Sarai that 10 years is a fair wait. Its not like she didn’t give God a fair crack to deliver the much promised child. Surely we would also be thinking ‘we heard God wrong’, or whatever the ‘explanatory language’ is that your tribe uses.

So she tells Abram to get it on with Hagar and hopefully that will bring a child into the world. I know Genesis 30:1-3 is credited with being the basis for the Handmaid’s Tale, but I think this passage suggests Hagar might be the original ‘handmaid’, not that she wanted that ‘honour’.

So Abram sleeps with Hagar, she gets pregnant, despises Sarai who then gets down on her and as a result she does a runner. She is an Egyptian slave, used as a baby incubator and now pregnant and on the run from her mistress with whom she is in conflict. – not a happy place to be. She is hiding in the desert when an angel shows up to speak to her.

Ok – so what mental image came to mind when I just said angel? Hold that thought for later.

Its documented as a very brief encounter, but essentially it’s a conversation between the angel and Hagar, where he acknowledges her plight and tells she will have a son named Ishmael – for whom things won’t go so well.

But it’s the next section that is significant, where she reflects on what has happened. She realises she is not alone in the world as this God ‘sees her’.

13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” 

That was enough for her – to know that God ‘sees her‘ and to know that he is aware of what is going on. I have lost count of the number of people who have told me that it seems God has forgotten them, or his silence is destroying them. I wonder why he doesn’t show up more often like this – in the form of an angel – and just put the doubts to rest.

Or maybe he does – maybe angels aren’t glowing white with wings, but are just other people – ordinary people even – sent by God to let us know that he ‘sees us’, he hasn’t forgotten us and he is not looking away.

Interestingly it doesn’t answer all the ‘why’ questions that Hagar must have had at being used as a baby machine, but it does just say ‘I am with you’ and I have not forgotten you.

Maybe that’s enough.

God sees you.

And Then There Was Genesis…

So I’ve given the major prophets a really good workout this year and I was still feeling adventurous…

I had a couple of weeks in Ephesians just to refresh my mind for the teaching we are doing at church, but then I thought I really should have a crack at Genesis – another book that has enough stuff in it to puzzle me and make it easy to avoid.

One of the questions I find myself always asking as I read is ‘How would I teach this or what is the point being made here and what are we supposed to see?

Is it as simple as a world created in 6 days complete with talking snake? Or is it more complex than that? I’m not digging into any commentaries or resource material at the moment as I’m just reading it reflectively and devotionally, but those questions of creation perspectives are always there.

This morning as I was reading ch 5 I noticed Enoch as a stand out. Everyone gets to the age of X then dies, but not Enoch…

23 Altogether, Enoch lived a total of 365 years.24 Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.

The writer gives him credit for a faithful walk with God – and then rather than dying ‘God takes him away’. Curious…

Noah also get a good rap in the midst of bad. And of course then comes the ark.

I find it hard to read Genesis freshly because I have been so conditioned to ask certain questions (old earth / young earth – local or worldwide flood) that it gets hard to just ‘listen’ to what is going on.

I imagine it might need a few runs at it before I am able to read it with any clarity or insight. Right now I’m just trying to see what stands out from a ‘heart’ perspective and then I’ll go back and read it again in more depth.

This morning Enoch stood out – plain and simple – in the midst of evil – or even just in the midst of self centredness there was someone who chose to live differently.

May we be those ones. There is enough challenge in that to keep me going for a bit…

Rough Faith

Its been my feeling for a while that Tim Winton ‘gets’ faith in a way that I feel an affinity with. Its an earthy, no nonsense expression, where doing the right stuff matters much more than just believing the right stuff.

In this video he comments a bit on the character of Nev Keely who he created in Eyrie. Keely is a cameo character but there is a chapter devoted to him and he is something of an enigma when it comes to faith.

He’s a new convert with all the evangelical zeal of someone fresh to the faith, but he’s also rough around the edges and doesn’t mind using his muscle to get things done if he has to.

He becomes a local ‘pastor’ and the church admire their ‘rough around the edges’ trophy, that is until he becomes too rough around the edges and steps outside the confines of their ‘bounded set’ imagination.

He finds himself on the outer – probably where he belongs – mixing it with bikers and others who don’t fit. Perhaps this is where Winton finds himself? Winton alludes to the fact that works of fiction can be works of theology in a sense because in them you get to try on theological ideas on ‘real people’ and this is what happens in Eyrie

As I read of Nev I see some of Winton’s theology coming thru – of faith that is practical – whether it dots all the theological ‘i’s’  and crosses all the ‘t’s’ Nev is a bloke you would say is the real deal.

I like Nev.

Pathways to Joy

Have you ever been on holidays to a place you’ve been many times before and then one day suddenly found yourself ‘over it’ and never going back?… I think Busselton and Albany have fallen into that category for me. Every time we go we end up repeating the same cycle of activities and while they aren’t bad – I’m getting bored – verrry bored!

Lately Bible reading has fallen into that same space for me. I’ve been finding the Bible familiar, repetitive and dull. I understand how to do reflective/meditative reading, but my mind just seemed to be getting in the way. If I started reading John 1 I’d immediately be remembering big ideas – the incarnation – trinity etc and my brain would say ‘got it’ and then I’d struggle to stay with any kind of thought process. Either that or I would find the text being sub-conciously shaped into a sermon – again not the point…

I said to a friend ‘I’m finding scripture oh so very boring lately. I feel like I’ve ‘been there done that’ and I’m tired of going back to see if anything has changed. (I’ve also said to the family that I am ‘over’ Busso/Albany holidays – we need to go somewhere new and find some adventure)

Then as we were planning our second teaching series for the year at QBC I found myself saying ‘hey lets attack a major prophet! Let’s go after Isaiah, or Jeremiah or Ezekiel!’ I was feeling adventurous…

To give that some context, if I were honest I’d say I have carefully dodged any significant engagement with these fellas in my 28 years of Christian leadership so it was time to ‘man up’ (or whatever gender neutral term you prefer) and give this a go. The major prophets feel like dense, difficult to read books, not at all written in such a way that people can easily engage and follow. They are long, often repetitive and without a strong grasp of the context they may not even make sense.

So let’s do it… yeah…

We chose Isaiah – because he felt like the ‘sanest’ of the prophets. And if we got stuck then there were plenty of ‘inspiration texts’ to rip out of context and fall back on (wings of eagles and the like…)

So back in Feb I began reading Isaiah – reading – re-reading – reading and then reading again. I think I must have read the whole book 12 or 13 times just trying to get a handle on it. I was right – it wasn’t an easy read at all. My paper Bible was highlighted and annotated meaning that at some point in my life I obviously did take the time to engage with this book – but I have a feeling it was in days of Vose seminary c.1997, so I had forgotten quite a bit.

As I read I saw themes and ideas developing, I found myself buying some new commentaries and spending hours on the net asking questions, emailing my old theology lecturer and reading various people’s ideas on the different texts. I began to understand the setting of the book and as I did the message made more sense. I found myself flipping across to Kings and Chronicles, Ezra and more to get a better handle on things. This was good stuff…

Then last night around 11.00pm I found myself getting stuck into Lamentations – quite literally with the thought of ‘ok so what the heck is this about?’ And it was great. I read it through and enjoyed its content.

I chuckled as I finished – who would have thought I’d be reading Lamentations late on a Friday night – just for the fun of it?… For the last couple of months I’ve also been telling people how much I’ve been loving reading Isaiah and loving the stretch that its been to preach it.

The Bible has actually started to grab me again. And as I realised what was going on I remembered how much I enjoyed my time studying theology at Vose. I know plenty of people viewed theology as a dry subject and one that sucked the joy and vitality out of faith, but for me its always been the opposite.

My heart and head are connected and when my head is engaged and stirred my heart begins to come alive. I knew this – but it had been a while since I’d bothered to do anything about it. It was largely laziness that had me in a trap of working with the familiar and being able to use it in teaching easy enough, but losing some of passion that goes with fresh discovery.

So tomorrow I get to teach thru Isaiah 40 – and not just the juicy bits at the end that make for good preaching – but the context of exile and the hope of restoration, the nature of God and the rather sad and predictable shape of our own character.

As well as marinating in Isaiah, I’ve downloaded Rob Bell’s 4 part series on Leviticus – heck – if we’re going to get adventurous then lets see how we go in the ‘Simpson desert’! Those MP3s are now my staple ‘go tos’ in the car as I drive and I’m enjoying hearing his take on this most curious of books.

So – if you’re in the same boat – bored – sick of the same groundhog experience then maybe it’s time to go an adventure to somewhere new and to really go there – to live there, rather than visiting as a ‘tourist’ and checking out the highlights. I feel that’s what I have done in the last few months and in the process accidentally activated that part of me that finds joy in the Bible.

The Worst of Lies








Some lies are worse than others. There are some lies actually try hard to ‘do good’ or prevent pain, (does my bum look big in this?…) while others only serve to wreak havoc and destruction.

Yesterday evening at our Yanchep community I was teaching around the subject of communion – such a significant and important part of our gathered experience as Christians – and I was reminded again how deep the lie of ‘unworthiness’ cuts.

‘I can’t take communion because I am not worthy…’

‘When I start to live a life that is Godly and pure, then I’ll come back to the table.’

‘I should let the communion bread and wine pass me by because I don’t deserve to participate’.

You’ve heard this stuff right?

Maybe you feel it.

And it’s such a common lie because it’s been peddled so hard over the years. We need to ‘examine ourselves’ and determine if we are ‘worthy to participate’. We need to earn our way back into ‘credit’ before we think about going anywhere near the communion table.

But its a lie… a lie… the worst of lies because the very place where we encounter forgiveness and grace and the love of a father welcoming us home is at this very table. We come because we are not worthy but because he has made us acceptable to God.

Everyone is welcome at this table no matter how screwed up they are. That’s good news! There is absolutely nothing good in the message that when you tidy your life up you can take a seat. In fact it’s the opposite of everything else the Bible teaches.

Remember how context is everything when it comes to interpreting the Bible? Well when pulled out of context those verses sure do seem to say ‘examine yourself’ to which we add ‘and see if your behaviour stacks up’, and in our psyche we feel that this makes sense. Its’ how life works by and large – but it’s not how grace works.

And it’s not even close to what Paul is saying. This chapter in 1 Corinthians 11 concerns some people coming to the meal early and eating all the best food, and getting drunk on the wine, leaving only the crumbs and the cheap drinks for the poor or the slaves who had to work late.

20When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. 22Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?


This is the context of his critique. It is not even remotely related to our moral stature before God. If it were then we all unworthy. We can never make ourselves ‘worthy’. Isn’t that the whole point of Jesus’ death and God’s forgiveness?

Paul goes on to describe the communion meal and then says:

 27Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. 29For anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. 32When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world. 33So then, my brothers,  when you come together to eat, wait for each other. 34If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

Wait for each other.

Wait for each other.

That’s when we eat and drink unworthily – when we fail to recognise the nature of Christian community and the injustice that gets done when we slight one another and push ahead. Waiting for one another matters to God – because it says we value one another as brothers and sisters. We love each other.

But wouldn’t it be a clever trick to make Christians think they are ‘unworthy’ to participate because of their sin? Wouldn’t it just mess with everything to keep people from experiencing grace and remembering that they are forgiven?

If you have bought this lie then hand it back and breathe in the truth – the good news that says you are acceptable to God because of Jesus’ death and his taking care of our sin.

How did we confuse that with the rich eating all the food?

Perhaps because it’s just the kind of lie that would devastate a community and cripple anyone from finding grace, forgiveness and joy.  It’s a clever ploy – but it’s a lie – the worst of lies.

Treat it as such and know your Father welcomes you no matter what state your life is in.

The (Futile) Quest For Grace

About 20 years ago I was wandering thru a second hand booksale in Busselton when I stumbled upon an autobiography that caught my eye. Manning Clark was a prominent Aussie historian and had written 3 volumes of work specifically about Australia. But it was the title of the book that sparked my interest – The Quest for Grace.

It had me intrigued. Who seeks ‘grace’ and what do they mean by that?

I opened the first couple of pages and inside the cover was a quote from Dosteovsky’s Brother’s Karamasov. It said:

I want to be there when we suddenly discover what its all been for.’

Wow… really?

This is someone’s raw quest for making sense of life – more than that – finding grace – so I snapped it up. Two bucks well spent.

As I read I discovered Clark was the son of a Church of England clergyman. He grew up in a pastor’s home and spent much of his early life around churches. He knew the ‘scene’.

Unfortunately this was disastrous for him as he says he witnessed hollow, stony religion rather than the Jesus he sensed was inspiring and captivating. When speaking of his experience in church he said :

The Protestant churches have been captured by the Pharisees. Church of England worshippers appear so confident of their virtues, so smug, have such a cocksure air that I wonder if they believe the resurrection morning will occur on the Melbourne Cricket Ground where they will have reserved seats in the Member’s stand, sheltered from the heat of the sun if it happens in summer and the icy winds of the Antarctic if it happens in winter – yes and the member’s bar will be open should there be a delay.

This son of a clergyman sees the pharisaical religious spirit rather than the beauty of grace and he wants to run a mile.  Of church leaders he writes,’they speak of religion as if it were a theorem in geometry’. The ‘walnut hearted people’ left him totally disinterested and as a result seeking ‘grace’ elsewhere.

What was both mildly amusing but also disturbing were the words Clark frequently used as synonyms for Christians. All through his book I read of ‘conformers – heart dimmers – life deniers – straighteners – God botherers – knee benders – petitioners – grovelers – miserable – frowners – smilers and as you can imagine none of them were compliments.

Clark grew up in the centre of a church community and was repulsed by it.

A tragedy… How can you be so close and yet be so distant?

Interestingly Jesus himself gets a fantastic rap from Clark  – even if he does refer to him as the ‘Galilean Fisherman’. I guess he did go fishing, but he was generally thought of as a carpenter… Clark writes of teaching Rupert Murdoch in one of his Divinity classes (yes – he taught Divinity…) and of the approach he took to teaching. Clark focused on Jesus – the ‘Son of Man’, the earthy, rugged, beautiful Jesus who cared for the outcasts and had time for the sinners. He was inspired by Jesus and he claims that he may have even inspired Murdoch, however he writes that after that class he was asked to never teach Divinity again.

Ha… Once again Jesus meets religion and the sparks fly.

I grew up in church communities that had their own ‘pharisaical’ quirks – their own tight ‘in house’ laws that formed a way of sorting the insiders from the outsiders. I was enculturated into that tribe and I became one of them. I abided by the laws and I called out those who flaunted them. My competitive spirit meant that rather than seeing legalism for the nonsense it was, I was driven to being the best I could be in it. King of the pharisees… it was my unconscious goal because this was what I thought a ‘good Christian’ looked like.

In reality this was religion of the worst kind – the kind that seems plausible – that doesn’t seem that harmful – and even appears noble and good…

Every now and then in those teenage years I would get a sniff of Jesus – the real Jesus. A prophet would come to town – a John Smith or a Tony Campolo who would speak of a Jesus who walked in grace and who would call out religious behaviour and rebuke it.

In those moments I felt like I had been locked in a dark room and someone had opened a door letting the light in. I didn’t realise it was dark because my eyes had adjusted to dimness – it was all I had known – but once the door opened I began to realise what I was missing.

I wanted to find that light, and live in it – I hated who I had become (even if I was proud of it at the same time…) and (not surprisingly) this new direction brought me into conflict with the religious people – who were ironically leaders in the church…

I loved Jesus – and I don’t mean it in that lovey dovey sense that some of our songs seem to suggest. I loved him in that I saw what he was on about and I wanted in. And I wanted to lead other people to follow him, but I was so tightly scripted for the religious gig that it was hard to shake.

I am a recovering Pharisee… As such I react a little violently to any hints of Pharisaism and legalism. I know its destructive impact but I also know the wildly liberating experience of grace – the Jesus I wish I knew as a teenager…

Manning Clark’s story disturbs me because it is the simple story of a man seeking grace – who found only stony law. He concludes by saying ‘there have been moments of grace’ throughout his life, but he never really found what he was looking for.

May we be communities of extreme grace and may the man of ‘grace and truth’ be the one who lead and inspires us.

(This post was an excerpt from last Sunday’s teaching at Quinns Baptist. If you’d like to hear the rest then you can listen to it here.)