theologyontheunderground

Random thoughts and questions


1 Comment

Attractive and distinctive people seek others for longterm relationship

Attractive.

It’s not a term often used for the people of God as a whole.

Individually – yes – I know many attractive Christians – beautiful, winsome, comely, handsome, noble.

As a whole, though – old-fashioned, bigoted, misogynistic – these perhaps would be the politer words in use.  Gandhi used the term “Jesus’ leprous bride” and one feels that with recent and on-going scandals of child abuse, much angrier and vitriolic depictions are being employed.

All of which is a long way from the intention of God for his people.

Paul in his letter to Titus talks about the people of God ‘adorning’ his message. (ch 2.9)†.  In Jeremiah, the people of God are likened to those who should be like a high-fashion, high-cost, high-staus sash that attracts admiration and renown for its wearer.  (Jer 13.1-11)  The fact that this sash was then left to rot in a hole for several months (to show how the people of God were actually shaping up) means that a low reputation for God’s people is not a new phenomenon.

There is a fascinating moment in the dedication of the temple that shows a fundamental assumption of the Bible.  God will attract the prayers and worship of those who do not yet know him.   This is a part of the prayer that Solomon prays:

1 Kings 8:41-43 New International Version – UK

‘As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name – for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm – when they come and pray towards this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling-place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.

Solomon says ‘These people who are not yours – WHEN they come, for they WILL hear of your name and your strength, answer their prayers, that your fame and renown will increase’ – a great moment of universalism in the Old Testament (some would even say the greatest, though Isaiah might disagree).

In terms of mission, this assumption is both uplifting and energising. There are people praying around us – people who are not yet Christians, yet they are still reaching out to God. There are people saying ‘thank you’  to God – for moments of beauty, peace or joy – who are not part of any faith group.  They are  spiritually seeking and they are being attracted by the God who seeks them.

Its also a challenging assumption.

It means that we need to be an ‘attractive people of an attractive God.’

In other words not an un-appealing people, un-attractive, un-welcoming or un-wholesome.

To be an unlikely people is OK, unfashionable is possible (some would say inevitable!), un-assuming is good, un-prejudiced is better.

This is not about facial regularity, manicures, skin-tone or air-brushed imperfections.  This is about authenticity, spiritual health, good will – and most of – it’s about God’s love and life in us and through us.

There are people already reaching out to our attractive God.

God, help us to be part of your reaching out to them.

For your comments – what would you add to an un-words list – either side of that divide?

† for this insight and for lots more on this thought of the people of God attracting attention to an attractive God, see ch 8, of Christopher Wright’s ‘The Mission of God’s People,’ Zondervan, 2010.

Advertisements


The wearable lightness of being

What does holiness look like?

What makes a person (or a people) holy?  What are the traits that would mark them out?

Some images that may pop up in your thoughts…

  • Holy people make sure they are there ahead of time. (To quote a recently and oft-heard maxim ‘To be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late, to be late is unacceptable.’)
  • Holy people are always washed and presentable(because Godliness is next to cleanliness)
  • Holy people are very straight-laced and never lose control, emotionally…

Really?  Holiness is not actually about piousness, respectability or being stiff-upper-lip English.

I seem to remember that Jesus was noted as turning up in his own time, rather than on other people’s timetables, that he wept over his friend’s death, and that wearing sack-cloth and ashes was a Biblically acceptable way of showing grief.

Chris Wright points out this list that follows the ‘stark headline of Leviticus 19.2 “You shall be holy…”’:

Holiness in Leviticus 19 involves:

  • Respect within the family and community (vv. 3a, 32)
  • Exclusive loyalty to YHWH as God; proper treatment of sacrifices (vv. 4, 5-8)
  • Economic generosity in agriculture (vv. 9-10)
  • Observing the commandments regarding social relationships (vv. 11-12)
  • Economic justice in employment rights (v. 13)
  • Social compassion to the disabled (v. 14)
  • Judicial integrity in the legal system (vv. 12, 15)
  • Neighbourly attitudes and behaviour; loving one’s neighbour as oneself (vv. 16-18)
  • Preserving the symbolic tokens of religious distinctiveness (v. 19)
  • Sexual integrity (vv. 20-22, 29)
  • Rejection of practices connected with idolatrous or occult religion (vv. 26-31)
  • No ill-treatment of ethnic minorities, but racial equality before the law and practical love for the alien as for oneself (vv. 33-34)
  • Commercial honesty in all trading conditions (vv. 35-36)

As Chris Wright points out – this entire list is ‘thoroughly practical, social and very down to earth.’†

‘Holy’ in its first definition means ‘a characteristic of God’ and then secondarily ‘belonging to God’ (ie the tabernacle and its fittings which were dedicated to Him.)  It’s only at a third level that ‘holy’ becomes a trait of how God’s people are supposed to live.

Looking at the list above, how would it be if God’s people were known for the whole collection of standards rather than mainly the ones which focus on the ‘religious’ aspects of life?  In other words, the Church stood for social and trade justice, strong families, ethical dealings with one and all as much as matters of faith?

At this juncture, Christian friends of mine from all directions who are involved in international development, who are campaigning against both international and domestic poverty and debt, who are running parenting classes and  refugee projects (amongst many other things) are jumping up and down and shouting at me ‘What do you think we are doing?’

My point is that these are things are seen as secondary characteristics of a religious institution, rather than the distinctives of a justice-loving, practical, socially-concerned, holy people. They’re spin-offs, not foundations.

Lunch time conversation involved discussion of a charity telethon that took place at Westminster Central Halls and the comics who were presenting the event being very aware that they were in a church.  If the ‘integrity, compassion and justice’ Leviticus 19 holiness were the prevalent characteristic of God’s people, I doubt that this would have been such a big deal.

Holiness is actually a missional issue.  To quote Jesus on the subject, after calling his followers ‘salt and light’, in other words be distinctive change-makers where you are, he gives us this purpose:  ‘Make your light shine, so that others will see the good that you do and will praise your Father in heaven.’  (Matt 5.16, CEV).

Bless others – live holy lives – make a difference – so that God will be made known.

† pp. 125-126, Chapter 7, People who represent God to the world, ‘The Mission of God’s People’, Zondervan , 2010


2 Comments

I’m leaving, on a jet plane… Well, leaving anyway.

Exodus.

It’s a word usually following the preceding ‘mass’ (as in mass exodus).

Which is a surprisingly Biblical image.

A mass of people leaving, quitting the place where they were, walking out the door, turning their backs and going.

But leaving from where and going to do what?

In the book of Exodus, the people who were the descendants of Jacob, were leaving Egypt and going to… well actually, physically, they weren’t sure.  At the time, the important thing was that they were leaving.

They were leaving behind a whole bunch of stuff.  An economic status – where they were slaves, living tools for the Pharaoh to direct in building projects.  Politically, they were resented outsiders, who were being oppressed by threats against all their boy children.  Socially, their lives were being interfered with by this threat of infanticide by the Egyptian army.  They were also escaping a spiritual regime where one man stood in for the many gods of the Egyptian pantheon.

In other words, they were escaping from slavery to freedom – and in that, the geographic location of ‘where to’ wasn’t the priority.  This liberation is the result of God’s intervention and his command to Moses. He was their rescuer – their redeemer.

Their Exodus is a journey (physical and literal) that has economic, social, political and spiritual meaning.

As a result of this journey, a nation was born – one with a unique identity because of the way it came into being and the relationship they were gifted by God.   Not only were they rescued, the whole company was given a purpose – to be God’s people before the nations.  They were given laws that dealt with the release of slaves in a very particular way; there were laws about corporate justice systems and individual responsibility, about celebrating their freedom and keeping their freedom.

The exodus is the prime image of rescue and redemption throughout the Bible.  In describing Jesus, the exodus underlies the descriptions being used. The various aspects of the exodus – economic, social, political as well as spiritual – are all reflected in the language that the followers of Jesus employed as they talked about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  So for instance…

  • Economically – debts are forgiven, the price of redemption is paid and slaves are freed.
  • Politically – the phrase ‘Jesus is Lord’ was a subversive and dangerous one to the Roman overlords whose diktat was ‘Caesar is Lord’;
  • Socially – the new Christian community cut across boundaries – national, economic, gender – and brought new relationships into being.
  • Spiritually – there is a new relationship with God as Father.

In other words – the many dimensions of the cross are portrayed.

What would it be like in your situation, if the message of the Gospel was not just a spiritual one, but also economic, political and social?

The cross is not a way to escape humanity’s ills – its a way to engage with them.


Do not pass ‘GO’…

The first command is ‘Go’.

In the stripped down version of Abraham’s blessing from God in Genesis 12, the first element is ‘Go.’

This is the directional word that sets the trend for the people of God.  From now on, they have an assigned task, they are’ sent out’-  a ‘missio’ in Latin.

The people of God have a mission.

It’s outward looking, forward –facing

Actually, Abraham’s mission was not precisely any of these things.

His mission was first to actually ’go’ – to move.  Not metaphorically, in a ‘It’s been a real journey.’ X-factor kind of way – Abraham was told to pack his belongings and move house.  Or re-pitch his tents, leaving the city of Haran (in what was then Upper Mesopotamia and is now in the south east of Turkey) and travel through the Fertile Crescent to what we now call Israel.

It was forward facing if he didn’t want to trip up as he walked.  It was outward looking – because he was outdoors looking around.

But the place he was called to was definitely not the place he started.

Many (most?) church programmes are based on an ‘attractional’ model.  Come into church and see what we’ve provided for you – the most obvious definition of the word ‘church’ being the building that the people of God meet in – rather than church being ‘the people who gather’ (the original definition).  Most Christians’ understanding of the aim of ‘outreach’ is to pull people into the church building for one purpose or another. Few would say their mission was to go out into the community and do whatever programme they have in mind there, where the people are.

‘Come in’ is diametrically opposite to ‘Go out to.’  How did that happen? 

Most people blame the Emperor Constantine. He inaugurated the era of ‘Christendom’ where Christianity was the officially sanctioned religious option.  The Church legitimised the authority of the ruler as being part of God’s providence and the ruler recognised the church’s structure as having authority within the land.  This synergy (be that good or bad) existed across Europe for more than a thousand years, in various forms.  During this time, the church was the place where people gathered for many reasons, not just worship, but as a place where rents were received, tithes paid, manorial courts were held, where social business was carried out.  This church did not have to go out to the people – by necessity, they came in.

Then the industrial revolution changed the pattern of living, as people transferred from a rural life to the cities; the church (in its many forms, by now) was no longer the legal, financial and social hub – it was one factor that was a part of the life of the city, along with law courts, public houses, civic societies and the mills and factories of the Industrial era.  In 1851 in the UK, the census recorded that there were more people living in cities and towns than working on the land.  (Thank you, QI, for that fact!)   The central role of the church had been taken away from it – but the idea that people came to the church had been firmly entrenched.  Hey, this was an idea that had worked for nearly 1500 years!

It is notable that as Christian reform movements happened, one quite common element was that the reformers went out to the people – Wesley with the Methodists and William Booth with The Christian Mission being two obvious examples.  The early day Christian Mission continued this ‘going out’ theme with the use of various premises for their meetings – an ice-house, a jam factory, a boat-house and a dance hall, amongst others.

It is also a fundamental characteristic of the current ‘missional’ church movement that its direction is relentlessly outward – Christians going to the places where people meet, being salt and light in locations where they can meet a need, start a conversation, be a blessing and start a community there.

Going back to Abraham – he obeyed and he went.  Not perfectly – but he went.  He left behind people that were dear to him, practices that had nurtured him, the familiar, the comfortable – and he struck out into the unknown, trusting that he was called.

It may be time for us to think about going, too.

And when we’ve thought and prayed about it – to go.


How human do you feel today?

Moment of confession: I’m not sure I’m fully human until after my first morning coffee… Jeremy Vine on his lunch time Radio 2 show has been asking ‘What does it mean to be human?’ and the guest contributions have been quite fascinating and hugely varied.

Chris Wright looks at this through the lens of the Genesis account of God’s first commands to Adam & Eve, in other words ‘These things are your purpose.’  He also notes that the name Adam is closely connected to the Hebrew word for earth – so closely, that in fact translated the name could mean ‘earth-man.’  Adam is an integral part of the whole living eco-sphere, even though he’s about to be given a very particular role.  For Adam & Eve, read humanity: we do not exist separately from this planet; what affects it, affects us.

The commands that are given to Adam and Eve are these:

  • Be fruitful (Gen 1.28)
    Multiply – in fact, fill the earth. This bit humanity has quite successfully managed!
  • Rule over the land (Gen 1.28)
    This has been understood in many ways, with differing degrees of rapacity (sadly). Chris Wright’s interpretation is that this ‘dominion over’ or ‘subduing of’ the land is to be done in a way that is the image of God’s own kingship, ie we are to model his compassion and wisdom.  This instruction is not about tyranny over or exploitation of the land, but about stewardship – as the next words indicate…
  • Work the land (Gen 2.15)
    The oldest profession is gardener, not anything else. The word used is one that means ‘to serve’ – Chris Wright notes ‘with connotation of doing hard work in the process of serving.’†
  • Care for the land (Gen 2.15)
    Interesting one of the meanings of the Hebrew word that underlies the translation – which literally means ‘to keep safe’ – is to treat it ‘seriously as something worthy of devoted attention’ – ie by studying and understanding it.‡

Note that these commands form the mission given to humanity – the Christian is first a human (after coffee, anyway!) then a follower of Christ.

Chris Wright then goes onto explore how God’s people might more effectively think about the world around us as being a part of God’s plans – in worship, in redemption and in consummation.

Does all of this mean that the Church should be addressing a green agenda?  It does – the initial blessings bestowed by God are ones addressed to the living world.  ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ is a blessing addressed to humanity after the teeming creatures of both sea and sky have had a taste of it first!  What affects the planet affects us – we need to look after the world that first cares for us.

Does it mean that we can look at the living world as a place where God has spoken and can still speak?  A new and increasing interest in a nature-based spirituality that are very old (Celtic Christianity meets Forest Church) would say ‘Yes, we can.’

If we are aware of nature as the ‘second book of God’ (read Ps 19, verses 1-4) – how do we attune ourselves to hear things about God through it?

The more we are aware of the world we live in, the more human we are.

† p 51, ‘People who care for creation,’ Christopher JH Wright, ‘The Mission of God’s People’, Zondervan.

‡ ibid.


Looking wider (or – does my blog look big in this?)

There aren’t many books that are improved by starting to read twelves chapters in.  (Please feel free to suggest some that might do, if any occur to you.)

I mention this, because in the last blog, amongst other questions that arose, ‘Why start referring to the Bible at Genesis chapter 12?’ was one that was still lurking, waiting to be asked.

Actually, Chris Wright might be quite irked that I picked up his narrative at this point – because he very carefully starts at the beginning (ie Genesis chap. 1) and works forward from there. When he says ‘Whole Bible theology’ – he means it!

(Although it also has to be said, in considering the whole story*, he first references Jesus words of instruction to his followers to go and make disciples, which is set at the end of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection – 28 chapters into the New Testament)

So what have I missed out?  The first 11 chapters of Genesis are big-screen stuff (quite literally in the case of Noah – although many would want to dispute large chunks of Darren Aronofsky’s recent epic film!); The universe comes into being, humanity springs up and falls over, there’s fratricidal murder, ecological catastrophe, animal rescue, drunkenness, sky-scrapers and city-building, the division of the nations…

These stories are the back-drop to Abraham’s story, describing a multi-ethnic region where cities abound, where trade goes alongside war and where immigrants were regarded with suspicion; an area where people thought ‘You know, once, it was all much nicer…’ Sound familiar?  The technology may be very different, but the people sound very much the same.

Within this back-drop is the thread of God’s reaching into the picture, indeed the making of the frame – his involvement in the whole business of the material world, his blessings, his judgments and indeed his first covenant promise.  (This covenant is notable because it is not made to an individual or a family or even just humans, but with every living creature on the planet.  Even cockroaches are recipients of God’s grace and promises!)  Many important themes that run through the whole of the Bible have their origin in these chapters (some would argue that all major threads start here).

SO – why start at chapter 12?  Mainly because the focus changes from ‘The way things are’ to ‘the story of a people charged with a mission.’  There is a movement from ‘pre-history’ to ‘the story of a tribe.’  The focus closes in on a single place and a single man; Abraham and his encounter with God that starts a whole new ball rolling and the beginning of a new episode in the story of God and humanity.

That story is something that the group of Jesus’ disciples understood as being their story; they were taking it on, making it real in their generation – obeying God to ‘Go – bless – and bless all nations.’  They weren’t starting something new; they were living out, sharing in a new way, the foundational and transformational message of God’s interest in and care for all people and nations.

So the question comes back to us again – is this our story? And how do we share it?

*Chapter 2 ‘People who know the story they are part of’, p 35, Christopher JH Wright, ‘The Mission of God’s People’, Zondervan.


Get on with it, then… and what’s with the penguins?

So what is this mission? I will not prevaricate about the bush any longer.

Chris Wright boils the mission down to this skeleton that comes from God’s words to Abraham in Genesis 12.1-3:

Go…

and be a blessing…

and all nations will be blessed through you.’*

Now you (like me!) may have various reactions to that.

  • Is that all?  Isn’t that just a bit simplistic? (To quote the penguins from the film Madagascar: ‘Smile and wave, boys, smile and wave…)
  • I can do that! Or I think I can – if blessings means smile & be pleasant to…
  • That doesn’t sound like what the Church has done to the world, to me.  ‘Nuff said.
  • Through me? How? All nations?

And the list might go on.  (Please feel free to add other reactions.)

My predominant reaction, though, is the glorious lightness of this task (even if it also promises to take me to dark places in order to fulfil it): I am (we are) supposed to be in the business of being a blessing to others.

And not just when they sneeze.

There are a number of questions that come out of this summary, of course (which is why Chris Wright’s book runs to nearly three hundred pages).  Stuff such as – ‘Why Go?,’ ‘Bless how?,’ ‘Which nations?’ and ‘What happened to Genesis chapters 1-11?’  More on these later.

(Bonus marks for those who can spot a hidden penguin in the above.)

* p. 73, The Mission of God’s People, Christopher JH Wright, Zondervan