Monday, April 11, 2005

MOVED!

Yup, I've given up here and have moved to http://lesstravelled.net/ so if you're kind enough to have bookmarked me, please update your link.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Bad blog day!

I spent most of yesterday trying, unsuccessfully, to get in to blogger to update a post. Major frustration overload.

So, I've thrown a hissy fit and am moving my blog to less travelled where I shall continue this madness with hopefully a touch less frustration. I shall try and move over some of the more intelligent things I have said, along with comments, as best as I can.

Grace and peace, and see you there!

Friday, April 08, 2005

Take the John Dekker Challenge!

A little while ago, my new friend John Dekker made an interesting observation about one of the church notice boards in my neck of the woods.

In the interests of a little light hearted fun (with the ulterior motive, so cleverly disguised that you probably won't even see it, of perhaps engendering a small degree of compassion towards small churches doing the best they can on low budgets to faithfully serve Jesus, following the traditions of their religion as handed down to them by their forefathers ;-) ) I would like to open the inaugural John Dekker Challenge!

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to suggest wording for a church sign. What you need to attempt to convey is the following:

The 11am worship service is one which, while retaining the pattern and liturgy of a traditional prayer book service, does so in a relaxed and family-friendly manner. The service aims to be more accessible to 'modern Melbournians', choosing to worship with contemporary songs and choruses (as opposed to the pipe-organ hymns of the 9am traditional service which it is differentiating itself from), and offering a more informal interpretation of the prayer book liturgy. On this given Sunday, Holy Communion will be celebrated (and given that it may not be offered every week, letting people know that it is on this week is probably considered important).

You have 25 letters in which to do this: GO!

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

"we don't talk about that"

Tuesday night - bible study night. But with the hyperactivity of Easter, combined with a break in routine brought about by the group taking two weeks off, meant that none of us were really well placed for a stimulating discussion on Romans 6, least of all me. So, I pulled out a documentary I taped off the History Channel, on books banned from the bible, and a great conversation followed.

The docco itself was pretty entertaining. They had Dominic Crossan as one of their 'experts' (I guess you'd call them), who I know of as a friendly sparring partner for N.T. Wright (occassionally referred to as "my mate Tom" so as to fly that particular bias of mine like a flag from the mast). He is a former co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, which for those of you who are familiar with them will speak volumes to you about the slant of this documentary. Needless to say, the conversation ranged over topics such as "all retelling of history is a telling from a person's viewpoint".

What struck me from the night, very profoundly and uncomfortably, was watching one of the group members face as we got on to talking about the process of the NT canon being established. Not far into that topic, and they shared that more or less their entire foundation of trusting the bible had been shaken. They had never realised that the putting together of the bible was such a "human" process, or that there were so many bishops involved (which was a definite down-side for them!). It simply hadn't occured that, in part, forming the canon was a reaction to other developments inside and outside the church. They had always assumed that the process of selecting books for the canon was this purely objective, I suppose 'godly' affair: the reality was much messier, much more politically charged and opinionated, much more human, with a touch of lowest common denominator thrown in. Their hermeneutic of suspicion took hold of this idea with a vengance, and they sat very quietly wondering whether they could actually trust the bible at all.

What an excellent bible study leader I am.

As the discussion continued, we talked about things like the motivations of the biblical writers (on the whole, these are faithful people who are writing things down with no malicious or deceitful intent) and of some of the reasons why books were either endorsed or disputed within the early church (who was the author? where did their ideas / understanding / teaching come from? etc), and other useful stuff. We were able to move past the idea that any level of human involvement in the process instantly equated to a conspiracy theory to lead us all away from the truth, and that there are things about the make-up and contents of the bible which we can have great confidence in, which don't require it to have dropped out of heaven in complete form. They regained some trust in the bible again, and went home with both a sense of trust, while still needing to have two or three deep conversations with people as they sorted it all out in their mind.

I found myself reflecting on what had just happened. Thanks to my leading, my input, my choice of a documentary to watch, one of my group members was now asking questions that they had never thought to ask before. Is that a good thing? Or am I just dragging other people into my own world of questions, forcing them to join me on my own spiritual journey? It raises all sorts of questions for me, about whether responsibility and integrity actually live on opposite sides of the scales when one is in leadership in the mainline church. Am I expected, as a leader, to not raise topics which would make other people ask difficult questions?
I thought about how these questions were handled when I was growing up as a Christian, and realised that it was always the trusty "we don't talk about that" defense. So one either dropped the question, or left the fold. Surely that isn't a better approach?

I don't know. The whole notion of personal integrity versus community responsibility is really troubling me at the moment. The fact that there is even room for a "versus" in that sentence - even if it really only exists in my own mind, and not in the minds or expectations of anyone else in my community - is troubling. Is there some sense of balance that I ought to be seeking? Or is it more a case of "you can't change the direction a stream flows, so go find a stream that's flowing in your direction"? Or is that a false antithesis?

Of all the feelings, struggles, issues or questions I have experienced as I have been journeying down this path in search of an authentic faith and faith community, the inner conflict between personal integrity and responsibility to "toe the line" is the worst I have ever experienced. It isn't that the ministers at my church are dictators. It isn't like they don't think, and don't recognise others' needs to think and ask questions. It is that they are my friends. I love them dearly, and it causes me great discomfort and pain, each and every time I realise that the direction they are heading, the direction they are wanting to lead the church, leaves me estranged and isolated in ever increasing degrees. But again, we just don't talk about that. Maybe that's my fault, because I just don't want to have that conversation with them, where I say that everything they are trying to achieve leaves me feeling more like an alien each day.

I don't know. There seems to be so much happening right now that I don't understand, like the wind has changed direction or something. Thinking new thoughts, asking new questions, making new friends, making new enemies (Emerging Church is apparently a virus - for some reason, I actually like that image!!!)... I'm speaking up where I used to remain quiet, I'm finishing sentences with an exclamation mark instead of a question mark. There's a scene in "The Lost Boys" where the guys are hanging from the bottom of a railway bridge, and one by one they let go and drop down into the fog below. I think I feel like I've let go.

Monday, April 04, 2005

On the Word of God

The phrase 'the word of God' is used in many ways in the bible. What it refers to or describes changes as one moves from book to book, from testament to testament; sometimes these changes are subtle, sometimes they are abrupt. There is, I think, a consistency about it, a common thread which we can identify, and cling to, which can help to make sense of this phrase which is already laden with meaning, though much of it I fear we put onto the phrase, rather than get out of it.

But, as a starting place and matter of historical concern, I hope all can agree with the assertion that not one of the biblical authors ever had the 66 book canon of old and new testament in mind when they used the phrase. One may argue that the New Testament writers had the Hebrew Scriptures in mind. One may argue that the New Testament writes may have been aware that they were writing Scripture, as 2 Peter seems to allow for, and thus they may have had some contemporary writings in mind when using the phrase. I don't hold with either of these arguments, but one could mount them, historically speaking. But I insist that one can not hold, that any writer of a biblical text clearly intended to refer to the book which we now know as the bible, when they wrote about "the word of God." Let us call this "point 1" so that, if someone would like to correct me on that, and offer up a plausible argument for authorial intent to ascribe the title "word of God" to the reformed canon of scripture, they can do so by referring to "point 1" for simplicity's sake.

Which leads us, conveniently, to point 2, which is this: if the biblical writers did NOT have the 66 book bible in mind when they spoke of "the word of God", then what were they writing about? They must have had something other in mind, which was the intended object of their comment. To them, the "word of God" must have meant something else, and that is at the heart of the question. To what were they referring? And is it correct or appropriate to take what they wrote about this other thing, and apply it to the bible?

Let me start, as I so often do: in the middle. John's gospel describes "the word of God" as (a) that through which all creation was made, (b) as being both with God and as being God, and (c) as becoming flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. What does this tell me? (Please note, I have switched from talking about what "we" can see, to what "I" can. From this point on, I am talking about my own observations, theories, beliefs, etc. Of course at any point I invite comment, should someone feel that they can show me a different interpretation or offer a different perspective. But let me make one point clear: I am in no way saying that I expect anyone else to draw these conclusions. It is simply the case that, up to this point, there is no other conclusion that *I* can draw.) Again, what does this tell me? The word of God, in John's mind, is a divine, creative manifestation of the will of God. The word brings things into being (let there be light!), it gives life, and is the light of all people. The word is active: it does things. Where the word is, things get done. They happen. And when this will and action of God becomes flesh, the result is Jesus, who reveals the Father, who does the Father's will, and who undertakes and completes the task which creation needed to be done: the word become flesh is the Messiah, the suffering servant, the fulfillment of the covenant, the sacraficial lamb. When God's will and God's action becomes human, it becomes the human who solves creation's biggest problem: the estrangement of creature from creator.

Moving back into the Old Testament, how does John's picture of the word sit with the Hewbrew Scriptures? One of the main categories to describe the usages of "the word of the Lord" in the Old Testament is that of prophecy. Take 1 Sam 3:1 as an example: "The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread." Now to truly understand prophecy I think we need to keep one factor in the forefront of our minds: the relationship between God and Israel was that of a covenant. God had promised to be true to his people, to be faithful to them, to be their God. This isn't a case of someone like Samuel bringing in that week's horoscope (not, I'm sure, that anyone thought it was). But that is the point: the utterances from God isn't about telling the future. It's about who God is (faithful), who Israel are (God's chosen people), and what God wants them to do about it on account of the covenant. On account of their relationship. So what I see when I look through the Old Testament are declarations. They are statements by God who is keeping his end of the covenant; sometimes giving instruction, sometimes declaring judgement. Never random fortune-telling. Always covenental. Always affirming and reinforcing the relationship between YHWH and Israel. Well might one say "your word is a lamp to my feet"! Not because God's word is a moral code which keeps one on the straight and narrow, but because God's word is his covenant promise, and God is always faithful to his covenant, and his covenant is to bless his chosen people so that they may be a blessing to the world. That isn't a moral code, that is a covenant relationship with God.

If these words of the Lord were to be personified, what would they look like? If these words, intended to reaffirm or even renew and restore the covenant, if these words which were intended to bring life instead became alive, what would that life be life? Words of covenant, of the faithfulness of God and a call to faithfulness to God? Words of warning, words of judgement, words of blessing to be a blessing? Yes, yes it seems to me that such a life would look exactly like Jesus. That the message of reconciliation would become the sacrifice of reconciliation makes sense to me. Those words that went before, words of language, heard, spoken, and written, are but a glimmer. A crude - though effective!, but nevertheless crude - approximation, a pale reflection, of the will, creative power, and covenant faithfulness of God. What those words of God ultimately pointed to, Jesus is.

Forward now, to the New Testament, and the usage changes again. Let's look firstly at Mark 4:
13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”

"The word". Here Jesus seems to be using it as some sort of short hand for something. As if somehow in those two words he is capturing a much bigger idea: and of course that's exactly what he is doing. "The word", in this context, seems to be referring to Jesus' ministry. The Kingdom of God which he is inaugorating. The work of God in their midst. The fulfilment of the covenant, and the way of reconciliation with God. In short, what I would commonly (though perhaps errantly) summarise as "the gospel", Jesus summarises as "the word". So too in Acts, where "the word of God continued to spread", or "those who heard the word believed". "The word" has become a kind of short-hand for the covenant action of God. (Try, just for a moment, to substitute "the bible" for "the word" in some of these places, and even if you disagree with the method, try to grasp the discomfort I feel at that point. "Satan immediately comes and takes away the bible that is sown in them." "While we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the bible" (Acts 6:4). "The bible continued to spread; the number of disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem...") What would this covenant action of God look like, were it to become flesh? I think you know where I'm going on this one.

So what do I think the biblical authors are referring to in the phrase "the word of God"? God's covenant
action and relationship with humanity, ultimately revealed, fulfilled, and incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. It is the gospel, but the gospel as viewed throughout all of time and space: the good news that existed even before humanity did.

But doesn't the bible record this? Yeah, yeah it does. The bible is humanity's attempts to write down God's covenantal love and action. Were the authors inspired? I'm sure they were. I have no doubt about that. But. But what?

But does that equate to the bible = the word of God? Is that the correct place to go with all this? I'm not so sure that it is. You see, there's a few things running through my mind on this point. All the internal references to "the word" seem to make perfect sense in the context of it referring to God's covenantal love in action. They make sense when they refer to the gospel - not the gospel as in a tract, but as in the event of God fulfilling his covenant and delivering his people and his Kingdom without end being established on earth. But when we say that equals the bible, I think we do two things. We distract ourselves from Jesus the risen King (to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given to) and we lock our understanding of how God's covenantal love in action should look in practice, to how it looked in the first century.

(Tangent. Perhaps there are some folks who can hold the phrase 'lightly' as it were. Who can talk of the bible as the word of God, and in doing so understand that they are talking about a two dimensional, black and white photograph of a multi-dimensional, full technocolour God. Perhaps that is true. I have a photograph of my wife on my desk at work; it is quite a nice photograph, and I am quite proud of it because I took it myself. It is a close up of her smiling face, sepia tone, about 5x7". I tell everyone at work "this is my wife" and I beam with pride because she is beautiful (and a sucker for having married me ;-) ). But we all know that it is only a photograph. We all know that just because the photo doesn't show 2 arms and 2 legs, still she probably has them. The photo doesn't show the back of her head, but we all assume that she has one because we understand the relationship between the photo and the reality it represents. And perhaps some people who use the phrase 'the word of God' to talk about the bible can actually hold those ideas together. But I promise you, not all do. I have met many people who throw words like 'unbiblical' around, as if to say that the photo clearly doesn't mention the back of the head, therefore it must not be there. And the photo clearly shows her face as smiling therefore she must have a smiling face. She has to see me before I have my first coffee - there are times she has no reason to smile.

I have been in conversations where someone has thrown out verse after verse claiming "the word is this, the word is that". And asserting from that, that their argument somehow has divine authority attached. And this I see as a great danger. One can idenfity every freckle or expression in the photo of my wife. One could take photos of her from every angle and create a life-sized, three dimensional model of her. But would that be the same as seeing her in the flesh? Are the photographs of her the authority when she is alive and well and present and available? I'm not trying to put this forward as a scientific or theological argument, rather as a desperate attempt to articulate some of the concerns I have which make me back away from using those words in the way that others do. Am I the arbiter of truth? No, of course not. But this whole discussion is about what I can believe about the bible and be faithful not only to God but to myself as well. And from that perspective, it is very significant. Tangent ends.)

I don't think that many, if any of the biblical writers actually had a collection of writings in mind when they used the phrase "the word of God". They may have been referring to a prophecy which is recorded in one of the scrolls, but in those cases I think that the emphasis is once again on the words that were spoken / written as a record of what God had said, not on the scroll itself as a document. I hope I have articulated that distinction well enough for you to follow. What's the point I'm trying to make? That I don't believe I can take a reference to "the word of God" as being a self-attesting claim about the bible. Make sense? Good, moving on.

There is, I think, a word which the biblical authors did use to talk about the collected writings of the people of God. And I think that there are some claims made about [at least some of] the contents of the bible, within the bible. And the word used in these circumstances is "Scripture". 2 Timothy 3:16 describes all Scripture as being God-breathed and as being useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. God-breathed. Useful.

Let me take a leap sideways at this point. I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe in the gifts of the spirit, and I believe in inspiration. I believe that the Holy Spirit inspires people today; inspires people when writing and delivering sermons, when writing books, when talking to people, when praying for people. Even occassionally I have suspected that the Holy Spirit inspires people when writing on blogs and the like. I don't hold these sermons or blog entries up beside the bible, of course. I believe that the revelation of God peaked in Jesus Christ, and that those writings written by those who knew him, or those who knew his friends, are the pinnacle of the record of that revelation. I don't think anything new should be added to the canon, as none today can comment on Jesus ministry, his life and death and resurrection, like those who knew him, or those who knew his friends. So while I don't compare the content of some modern day inspirations to those Scriptures, I do compare the nature of the inspiration. Do I see evidence that the biblical writers were somehow "more inspired" than the saints of today? I do not. Do I see anything that would suggest that they somehow had access to more of the Holy Spirit than we do today? I do not. In fact that second suggestion is laughable. But if I am to conclude that the same Holy Spirit at work inspiring the biblical authors is the same Holy Spirit at work inspiring Christians today, what can I therefore conclude from that?

That the inspiration I see today works in and through, but not against nor counter-acting, the humanness, the fallenness, and the amazing talent for stuffing things up, of the person being inspired. If I am inspired to write of God's love, I still only have one word in English to choose from: love. Oh that I were inspired to write in Greek! But no. When I see inspiration at work in my own life or in the life of those around me, it is clear that God is at work. And it is equally clear that the person through whom or in whom he is working is still painfully aware of their own humanness, and imperfections. What is my point? That I think inspiration works in and through humanness, but does not override it.

Now, let us take that idea back to Scripture for a moment. It is God-breathed. It is inspired. It is useful. In places it records the utterly unambiguous revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, and yet some of the accounts squabble over some of the minor details. Perfect? No. Infallible? As infallible as you or I. But inspired? God-breathed? Useful? Yeah, I'm quite comfortable with that.

There are other things that I wanted to address: the process of canonisation as a reactive move against Marcion's canon. The fact that the early church never agreed on a single method for interpreting Scripture. That, despite everything that I have said and in much that I haven't, I love and treasure Scripture as an irreplacable gift from God, and that I believe he uses its contents to move, empower, inspire, convict, and change people. I believe that it is not only the record of the word of God but that it has become a vehicle for the word of God, and that communities can help one another draw fresh understanding about God from its pages. And I believe that in all these things, the grace of God is made clear in the fact that this book is so patently human, that it still bears the fingerprints and personalities of all the people inspired to put ink on parchment. A God whose grace can be revealed through the fallible but faithful witness of his covenant people: that is the sort of God that I can believe in. That is the sort of God I believe the Scriptures speak of. And ultimately, that is exactly the sort of God who promises to guide me into all truth, despite those times when I cannot believe. I think such a God respects the integrity of those whose cry is "I will not proclaim what I cannot believe, yet I still believe in you!"

But it is late now, and late nights make me a grumpy boy. I'm sure there's more than enough in here for people to give me thoughts on; suggestions of what I may be overlooking, different interpretations, different opinions. Whatever you may want to share, I will be grateful.

Grace and peace to you all.

When do you stop?

Just spent a very sad weekend, trying to discuss emerging church with those charming folks over at EmergentNO. Not the most fruitful exercise in the history of the church.

Randy commented on one of my earlier posts that Carla and her friends are miles away from me. I had assumed that he meant theologically, which is certainly true. It appears, however, that the observation is also true with respect to our understandings of Christian charity, basic civility, the Christian's responsibility to actually *help* a brother or sister one considers to be in error, or in danger of becoming so. Oh, not to mention little things like actually reading what someone else has written, responding to questions asked, explaining and justifying comments and criticisms.

I have no problems at all with people disagreeing with me. I am the first to admit that (a) some of my ideas are still in formation, and (b) it is highly unlikely that I have gotten everything correct. In short, I am always open to - and infact invite - people discussing with me about those ideas or theories I have which are wrong. I need people to explain things to me. I'm humble enough to believe that I need input from others in the church, and arrogant enough to believe that to be true of everyone else. But when that discussion is not forthcoming, when there is no attempt to engage with what has been said and explain the problems therein, or answer the questions I ask, then I can't see how this is conduct which benefits anyone. Some of the folks over at EmergentNO seem much more satisfied in attacking views held be EC folks (or the folks themselves) without checking the accuracy of their claims. And I just don't have the energy to keep battling against that.

Thanks to all those (pro-ec, no-ec, what's-ec, and the rest) who have taken the time to engage with what I and others have actually said or asked. I value your thoughts and look forward to challenging and being challenged by you all as we all seek to grow in our journeys following Jesus.

Grace and peace to you all.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Good Friday Crucifix


Painted by an accomplished artist, the vicar of my church. A truly moving symbol.