Of stones and ants

Before I was an officer I went to a church in an area with many ‘halfway houses’ for people who had recently been released from psychiatric institutions. Given that a lot of those institutions had been closed down recently, and the residents just turned out on the street with little thought for their ongoing care, you can imagine what our neighbourhood was like.

A lot of these guys (I don’t remember any women) would come to our Sunday evening meetings. There would always be one or two coming in in various states of sobriety and psychosis. They didn’t know how they were supposed to act. And they added a certain… tang to the atmosphere.

It seemed to me that we needed to do something for these guys. They lived (almost literally) next door, whilst the rest of the church came from miles away. Why weren’t we doing something during the week? They obviously wanted to be involved in our community. We could organise a drop-in coffee lounge, or put in a pool table. We could organise a Bible study for those who were so inclined. I spoke to my officer about it.

“No,” he said. “These folk will always be welcome here. But you can’t build a church on people like these.”

“That’s funny,” I thought. “I thought the church was built on Jesus, and we are just the stones.”

We never did do anything for those guys.

Years later—in fact, just a few weeks ago—I was having a chat with another officer. We were discussing some of the issues we were having with leadership in our churches. I mentioned how we had quite a few simpler folk at our church. On the whole, we have a very faithful bunch of people, but very few of them are capable of any serious leadership roles.

The conversation continued. I made the observation that these folk were very good at bringing their friends to church. I remarked that this didn’t help the leadership problem at all, because the friends that were brought were normally just as simple as the folk that invited them!

“Yes,” replied my friend. “You have ants in your church. The problem with ants is that ants only attract other ants.”

I could see the point, but when it was put that way I could also see how wrong I’d been. When I look at all the dreams I have for our church I see lots of white middle class people with good educations coming along and worshipping in a particular way. In other words, I want a church full of people like me.

Yet as I thought years ago, I’m not the one building the church. God is. It’s not for us to tell him what stones he should use. And let’s face it, the gospels are the story of how Jesus became an ant among ants, and attracted even antier ants to himself. He didn’t show his power by strength. He showed it by being weak.

The Salvation Army has always identified itself as a church for the poor and simple. I’m proud of that fact. Yet sometimes we lose sight of it. We’ve had people advise us to not to grow churches in poor areas, but in affluent areas that are near poor areas. Once you have a good sized middle class church you will have the money and people to start working in the poorer area.

That makes a lot of sense. But it misses the point. The poor aren’t some funny group we have to help once we get our church sorted out properly. They are the very reason the Army was established.

Jesus can make a church out of anyone he jolly well likes. If they’re not all like me, that’s my problem. If he wants to use those whom common sense tells us to shy away from, so be it. Perhaps he knows something about ants that we don’t. I think it’s time we start letting Jesus build the church, and get our own petty egos out of the way.

Myth and revelation

There’s been an interesting discussion going on on Scot McKnight’s blog about the problems evolutionary theory presents for traditional Christian theology. I won’t go into the details, but the idea is that if there was no literal Adam and Eve, how should we understand the Fall? What are the consequences for the doctrine of Original Sin?

It’s a very interesting discussion, and there’s some pretty good but readable discussion of the issues involved. I just want to draw your attention to one of the comments, which concisely captures how we should view mythical content in the Bible.

(It’s author is Michael Kruse of the Kruse Kronicle. If you’re interested in a well-balanced and refreshing look at economic theory, or even if you’re not, do yourself a favour and check it out!)

So all I’m saying is that People in Moses’ day had an exceedingly limited understanding of what we would today call medicine, biology, geology, astronomy, etc. This presents a challenge from the standpoint of special revelation at those points where such revelation touches on issues related to these bodies of knowledge. Does God,

A) bring the hearers of the story entirely up to speed on these bodies of knowledge so he can give them a precise accurate accounting of something like how life came to be? (Keeping in mind that the “how” is peripheral to the revelation.)

B) present the timeless truths he needs to communicate to hearers of the story in concepts and forms that will be comprehensible to them but imprecise and sometimes inaccurate to an audience more knowledgeable on these bodies of knowledge?

I’m saying it is the latter. Revelation is always delivered into a socio-historical context. When we read scripture we are not reading something written to 21st Century westerners. We are “listening in” on a conversation from another socio-historical context, the record of which was superintended by God so that, as Doperdeck wrote in #69, “God does not err and the scriptures accomplish every purpose for which they were given without leading us into error.”

Therefore, we can boldly and confidently claim that this record of revelation is an authoritative accurate account of God revealing himself into a particular socio-historical context. We live in a different socio-historical context and it is reasonable to expect that if God was giving such special revelation today he would use different concepts and forms appropriate to us. It would have to accommodated to our level of understanding on many issues. Since he is not giving special revelation in the form of new scripture, we read scripture, ever mindful we are “listening in” on revelation in another socio-historical context accommodated to their ignorance of medicine, biology, geology and astronomy.

The strict literalist position makes no allowance for the contextual accommodation for ignorance of these scientific bodies of knowledge and ends up making the accommodating explanations the supreme measure of truth for all time. It metaphorically sets up the story given to the four year old as the measure to which all scientific knowledge must now conform.


The cost of non-discipleship

One of my themes over Lent are the words of Jesus about discipleship:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? (Mark 8:34b–37, NRSV)

I think the application to Lent is fairly clear. Taking up the cross is about sacrifice, hardship and ultimately death. If we want to be Jesus’ disciples, we know what to expect.

If you want to read a good book about this subject, get hold of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Be warned, it’s not an easy book to read.

I have often wondered where I’d be now if I wasn’t a Christian. I have the intellectual ability to do pretty well any job I’d like. I could easily have been a lawyer or a doctor. I would certainly be quite rich. I’d have a very nice house, a very fast car, and I would take holidays in very exotic locations as often as possible.

However, following Jesus has led my to be a Salvation Army Officer. It’s a pretty strange deal. I can’t even moonlight as any of those things I really would like to have been. I’m looked after fairly well, but many of the nice things in life are simply out of our reach.

And there’s the problem. I am looked after fairly well. I have a good car to drive, a nice house in which to live, and I get more than enough mnoney to cover the basic necessities of life. It’s not a lot, but I can afford to go out once in a while and buy a DVD or a video game.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that it’s too easy for me to remain a disciple of Christ. There’s a barrier to leaving. If I decided I’d had enough of this caper and wanted to give it away, it would actually be a hard thing to do. It would have a big effect on my family–the way the Salvation Army works means it mightn’t be that easy for Trudy to continue in her role as an officer. We’d have to move out of the house and probably back to South Australia where our families are. We’d have to start paying rent. We’d have to find jobs. We’d have to buy a car. Our standard of living would probably decrease quite substantially.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining! I am very grateful that I am able to enjoy the lifestyle I do. It just seems somehow wrong that it’s easier to be a disciple of Christ than not. I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant!

Wearing the flag

This post is part of the Australia Day Synchroblog.

Australia Day means many things to Australians. For most, it’s a public holiday that marks the end of the holiday season. Christmas and New Year are distant memories and the kids will return to school in the next week or so.

Over the years a few traditions have grown up around Australia Day. The ‘Aussie’ thing to do is to have a barbecue with your mates, watching the cricket and tennis with a cold stubbie in one hand and a burnt sausage in the other.

Australia Day has a more formal side as well. Most local councils conduct Citizenship ceremonies, National honours are given, municipal awards are bestowed, speeches are made… you get the idea. Australia Day is about thinking about the meaning of ‘being Australian’ and we celebrate it by doing very Australian things.

Over the last couple of years this seems to have taken a slightly new form. We seem to have become more nationalistic. People have taken to wearing flags (a quick trip into any department store will confirm this) and trying to be very ‘Australian’. This isn’t a problem, but it all seems a little, well, unAustralian.

Australians have never been overly nationalistic. That doesn’t mean we’re not proud of our country. We routinely hit far above our weight in sport (for a nation of 20 million people we seem to bring home a lot of Olympic medals!) and we have an awful lot going for us. Why wouldn’t we be proud?

Yet the idea of having to wear the flag seems very new. I wonder why that is. Perhaps we’ve lost our sense of identity as a nation. Or maybe we simply want to celebrate our sense of Australianity the way we see people in the US celebrate their USAness. I don’t know.

I do know, however, that celebration needs to be more than just vacuous symbolism.

marchFunnily enough, I belong to a denomination that suffers from many of the same problems. The Salvation Army is very proud of its heritage. We have a flag that symbolises much of what we believe. There is a section in the Salvation Army Song Book (our ‘official’ hymnal) dedicated to songs about the flag, not to mention many shorter songs in an appendix in the back.

Flag songs are very much out of vogue at the moment, but there is a push to revisit a lot of our older traditions. In part this push is a reaction to the fear that we have forgotten what we are about as a movement. A lot of those traditions were born when we were first forming an identity as an organisation. If we’ve lost that identity and drive, the theory goes, we might be able to ‘reset’ ourselves as a movement. In other words, we need to get back to basics.

I have no problem with this as far as it goes. I think the Army has a lot to learn from our forebears. However, we live in a different time. Whilst the old traditions may be instructive, they are not what we are about. The genius and identity of the early Army lay in understanding the times and adapting themselves to suit. Being the Salvation Army in the 21st Century will involve adapting ourselves to the 21st Century. And we do that by doing it, not panicking about ‘losing our distinctives’ and lengthening our list of ‘non-negotiables.’

We will not find our identity by making sure every Corps and social centre has a flag. We’re not going to do it by making sure that every soldier wears a uniform.

Our identity is wrapped up in what (and who) those symbols point to. The symbols themselves have no value. We will only rediscover what it means to be the Salvation Army by being a Salvation Army, not just looking like one.

John Gowans, a previous General (world leader) of the Salvation Army, summed up the mission of the Salvation Army in three phrases. We are, according to General Gowans, to

  • Save sinners
  • Sanctify saints
  • Serve suffering humanity

There’s nothing in there about wearing uniforms, marching in bands or calling our leaders ‘Captain.’ If we want to be a Salvation Army we should be doing these things. If banging a tambourine helps doing these, fine. If it becomes no more than a clanging cymbal or sounding brass we are just participating in an exercise of ecclesiastical masturbation.

Australians have to do much the same sort of thing. We all understand what being Australian is about. This is the nation of the fair-go, of looking out for your mate and living-and-letting-live. We don’t do that by wrapping ourselves up in a flag and shouting ‘Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!’ We do that by giving everyone a fair go, looking out for our mates and living-while-letting-live.

Oh, and throwing a piece of lamb on the barbie. Snag, anyone?

Studying for the right test

A few days ago I mentioned an ongoing discussion I was having on a mailing list with regards to public versus Christian schooling.

As so often happens, that conversation ran its course, but several others popped up in the meantime. We had a creationism vs evolution debate, a thread about whether or not Barack Obama is a Muslim Marxist, a conversation about the reality of global warming/human-caused climate changed, a discussion about how Israel is right to bombard Gaza the way it currently is… and more.

You get the picture. The frustrating thing is that I held the minority opinion on every subject under discussion. I stopped posting after a while—I didn’t have time to do justice to any of the topics under discussion.

I normally enjoy a good flamewar. But when discussions like these involve fundamentalist Christians there is a tendency to start labelling other people as heretics and in danger of blasphemy and hellfire. The accusation rarely comes up directly, but it often gets phrased as ‘…saying what you said is dancing on the edge of heresy.’

Then there will be a discussion about whether or not it is possible to hold such views and remain a Christian. That’s normally when I take my cue to leave the discussion.

Don Heatley offers this parable:

The Kingdom of God is like a student studying for an exam. Night after night, he studied Chapter Twelve of his history book. “Surely, I am prepared for my test,” he thought. The very next day he went to school and sat his desk. Behold! The test was on Chapter Thirteen. He had studied for the wrong test. He who has ears, let him hear!

Don goes on to explain:

Recently, I was having a conversation with a sincere fellow Jesus follower who demanded to know my beliefs. The questions they asked made it clear that this too was a test. The very first thing they wanted to know was my stand on homosexuality, my opinions about abortion, and my beliefs about the Bible.

I don’t think I passed.

Yet I wonder if, like the student in the parable, this person was studying for the wrong test. When we pass out the number two pencils and evaluate the orthodoxy of others, why are the criteria always issues that Jesus himself never addressed? Would it not be more appropriate to ask one another the questions Jesus asked, “Have you fed the hungry? Have you given water to the thirsty? Have you clothed the naked? Have you visited the imprisoned?”

This is why I don’t appreciate being threatened with hellfire for holding the views I do on certain subjects. God is not going to be testing me on my stance on evolution, homosexuality, climate change or American politics. He is going to be judging me on the questions of whether or not I loved him, and whether or not I loved my neighbour.

Even more importantly, he’s going to be judging me not on my works, but on the work of Jesus. That’s a theological concept I struggle to get my head around. Maybe I need to do more study.

Missional Tribe launches

Missional TribeI’ve been watching the buzz over the last few days about the new Missional Tribe network. It finally launched today, and there seems to be a bit going on.

So what is it? Well, it’s hard to say exactly. Very broadly, it’s about being the disciples Jesus called us to be in the world he created. And it’s a network, so it’s all about sharing ideas, stories and support.

From the site:

… offers a collaborative space to connect people and generate an accepting, supportive community that intentionally seeks for diversity.

… fosters dialogue in a respectful environment and gathers grassroots stories for mutual encouragement, teaching, and support.

… focuses on serving practitioners through resources, ideas, and stories from the front lines of incarnational engagement and radical transformation.

… shares the nitty-gritty of living our faith and sharing our life in order to break anyone’s sense of isolation on this journey, especially when a virtual support network may be the only community currently available.

… creates an “evergreen” space to capture and continue the collective wisdom of those seeking to pursue Christlikeness, stewarding it in ways that will keep it accessible beyond the first generation of participants.

… encourages using the website as a social space for befriending people of similar (or opposite!) interests, as a discussion space for interactive learning, and as an archive space for links and materials that might otherwise be forgotten.

… engages in discussion of any topic about the missional journey, with a minimum of gate keeping and oversight to maintain it as a safe place for all so that nothing would be off limits except for bullying or belittling others.

… celebrates both individual and communal expressions of a missional paradigm, and constantly seeks to broaden its demographic reach because of its commitment to embrace and learn from the diversity in Christ’s Kingdom.

… it’s not about methods, but about our paradigm and lifestyle.

… it’s not about polishing theory or theology in attempts to get it perfect, but about our movement forward in our practice of a missional lifestyle.

… it’s not about control or ownership by the few, but about empowering each of us to participate responsibly.

… it’s not about celebrities, but about us as everyday disciples.

This has the potential to be a very valuable thing. I’m involved in many online communities, Christian and otherwise, but none of them set out specifically to help me (and enlist my help) be a better disciple of Jesus.

Why not pop over and have a look? Networks are only as good as their members, so if you think you’ve got anything to contribute (or even if you don’t) why not have a look?

Should Christians send their kids to non-Christian schools?

Okay folks, I’m looking for your wisdom and insight here.

I’m subscribed to the ‘Linux for Christians’ mailing list (don’t ask!). A few days ago somebody posted this article, which is about a man in America who is on a crusade to get Christian parents to take their children out of the public school system.

I replied to the post (the whole thread begins here) and the conversation seems to have taken off.

Trudy and I happily send our kids to a public school, and we’re both very involved there. It seems, however, my approach to the matter isn’t in vogue amongst the more vocal members of the list.  The discussion has been going on a few days now, and I’d like to get some feedback from any reader with any insight.

  • Is the public education system in the US as bad as it’s made out to be?
  • Is there any evidence of a conspiracy by the ‘liberals’ to wrest control of children from their parents, especially Christians?
  • How dangerous is a public school to the faith of Christian kids? How does it compare in Christian schools? What about home-schooled children?
  • How does the faith of young Christians fare after they leave the various educational systems?
  • How would these questions be answered in Australia?
  • Is it a legitimate expression of mission for Christians to send their children to public schools?
  • Is it fair to include our children in our mission this way?
  • How should children view the ideas of mission and evangelism?
  • Should we abandon the school system to the ‘evil liberals?’
  • What do we do with Christian kids who don’t come from Christian families?

I realise a lot of the answers to these questions will begin with ‘It depends…’ Still, I’d love to hear your responses.

Org-Mode gets footnotes!

Guess what, folks? Org-mode just got footnotes!

What’s org-mode, you ask? It’s a fantastic note-taking/planning/spreadsheet/agenda making/documentation writer/outliner/budget keeping/plenty of other things for Emacs. In short, it’s hard to explain, so go and have a look for yourself. And now, you can have automatic footnotes.

GNU Emacs
GNU Emacs
As I said, it’s an Emacs mode, so you need to have Emacs installed (and running, d’uh) to use it. What’s Emacs? Well, it’s a text editor that has been, umm, extended over time, so that it contains a lot of extra functionality. Out of the box you get two IRC clients, several mail clients, tetris, a web browser, a psychoanalyst… oh heck. If you want to see what Emacs is, does and can do, have a look at some of the links on the Emacs wiki.

I do a lot of my stuff in it. I use it to write music, hang out on IRC, MSN and Jabber, I sometimes blog from it, I sometimes tweet from it, I write my sermons with it, I write novels and short stories in it, not to mention essays and other scholarly things. If there’s one piece of software I’d want if marooned on a desert island, it’s Emacs.

And yes, I am aware that I get excited about the strangest things.

My New Year’s Resolution

I’ve been thinking about what I should resolve for the New Year. Let’s see…

I could probably lose a bit of weight. However, I’ve lost 10kg in the last year, and I’m still eating healthier food and working out several times a week. Let’s call that one retrospective. I don’t think I had it on my list for 2008, but there we go.

I could resolve to use apostrophes more carefully, especially when they relate to the term ‘New Year’s.’ But I think my apostrophe use is pretty good. I’m sure alert readers will have picked up one or two mistake’s, but they’re not intentional.

There is one thing I want to do, however: I want to be more graceful. I’m not talking about learning ballet or being more lady-like when I’m on the bench press. I resolve to be far less legalistic in 2009.

Jesus went to pains to recast the Law in the Sermon on the Mount. Christians are not beholden to a list of laws, except for two: Love God, and love your neighbour. He goes to great lengths in the Sermon on the Mount to make sure we understand this. Murder someone is just as bad as hating them, says Jesus. Ogling women to whom you’re not married is just as bad as jumping in the sack with them.

At the heart of this is grace. God is genuinely interested in our interests. He doesn’t make rules just so we can fail. And I think that’s why Jesus made it so simple. There will be times when things don’t seem so clear, but the important thing is to do the right thing by God and your neighbour. His grace can sort the rest out.

Now I realise that this can seem an awful lot like lawlessness. Well, in some ways it is. But it doesn’t mean that just anything goes.

For example, adultery is still wrong, because you’re breaking a covenant that you made with your spouse. That’s not loving your neighbour.

Murder is wrong. It’s not loving. Yet that’s what makes euthanasia such a difficult thing—it might be murder, but done with the best intentions.

Putting your job or house or family before God isn’t loving him the way he demands.

What about things like homosexuality? Well, on the face of it it doesn’t appear to break either of Jesus’ uber-commands. Well, it can, but you have to go via ‘God commanded it, therefore it’s a sin against God if you live that lifestyle.’ In other words, we replace ‘Love God’ with a whole list of laws, rendering Jesus’ words moot.

So here’s the deal. In 2009 I’m not going to tut-tut anyone who does something I disagree with unless it is an act of un-love. That includes gossip, slander, deceit, malice, and so on.

You know, maybe that’s what Jesus meant—also in the Sermon on the Mount—when he told us not to judge others. That’s the heart of grace. It’s all about letting the God who knows what’s in a person’s heart do the judging. All we should offer is love.