Exploring the interplay between ortho-doxy (right belief) and ortho-praxy (right action)...

...and encouraging a life where these intertwined thoughts and deeds simply happen... by default.

31 May 2006

love to wrestle - wrestle to love

People love to wrestle.

They just do. Sure, it doesn't always involve mud, sumos or fake punches (W.W.F.), but people like to engage one another. Games like arm-wrestling, mercy and tug-of-war show that we like to test our strength against that of an opponent.

Things like talk-shows (with their intentionally explosive topics), newspaper opinion columns, web-site battles, negative book reviews and many more examples show that such wrestling often takes place on the battlefield of ideas. Some, when they hear or read an idea that they disagree with, they are compelled to corrective action, as if driven by an unseen force that motivates them to set the wrong to the right. Even people who don't like to argue will engage in some passionate sharing from time to time. This testing, trading and exchanging of ideas seems to be ingrained into our very humanity.

I think this 'wrestling' is a healthy, beneficial and necessary practice for Christians to embrace. But in our 21st century, western, comfortable church communities, there's a problem...

We're horrible at it.

We avoid conflict. We avoid uncomfortable subjects. We avoid wrestling. We let things grow and fester until an issue that would have been merely uncomfortable becomes one that is seen as hopelessly unbearable. Often, issues that need resolving are never dealt with, and if/when we finally do deal with it, our relationships are often never the same or so severed that they seem beyond repair.

I'm convinced that communities that wrestle are much more likely to be communities that can foster lasting unity. Somehow, we seem to all expect unity to happen though avoidance, sugar-coating and/or positivism. I don't see how it can happen that way.

Unity must be grown, maintained and fought for. Certainly this is evident in the Scriptures. Whether it was Moses disciplining the Israelites, one of the many Hebrew prophets calling the people of God back to true worship, Jesus rebuking the disciples and Pharisees, or Paul exhorting the new covenant communities back to their identity in Christ, the struggle for unity is evident.

I find the Apostle Paul to be a shining example in how he protects the unity of the various communities he addresses. First, we can recognise that Paul was probably not writing to these churches because he had nothing better to do, but because there were existing issues that compelled him to write. Second, we can observe how he responded to the various issues that he was confronted with. In Romans 14, he doesn't take sides, but points both the 'strong' and the 'weak' back to an ethic of sacrifice on the behalf of the other (v.14-21 in particular). Consistently, however, Paul becomes incensed any and every time an additional burden is placed on the churches - particularly the Gentile converts (Gal. 5:1-12 and Phil. 3:1-3). Paul didn't even hesitate to name names and even challenges his co-Apostles (Gal. 2:11, 13; 2 Tim. 4:14)!

Whether we like it or not, it seems we - all of us, not just pastors, elders or other church leaders - have a responsibility to know our faith and protect the unity of it. To submit to this calling is to be willing to both give and receive correction - to sharpen and be sharpened - to bounce ideas off each other - to allow others to think differently - to challenge and be challenged - indeed, to wrestle.

This powerful, unique, simple and foundational unity is worth the effort it takes to protect it. How we go about this is paramount. Our protection of unity must not be characterised by control. Unity is not unity if it is forced. This means we must allow people to discuss, question and explore ideas other than our own (which are often actually the ideas of others that we've embraced or been taught).

One misconception I perceive is that we confuse unity with uniformity. Neither Jesus, nor Paul seem interested in everyone being the same in every way (Mark 9:40; Romans 14:5; 1 Cor. 6:12, 7:6-9), however, both are uncompromisingly steadfast concerning the truth of the Gospel (Matt. 10:32-39; 1 Cor. 15:16-17; Eph. 4:4-6).

For the Church, there are many hard and difficult conversations to be had. Many long-standing and long-questioned doctrines and/or traditions are being reviewed (although some of these doctrines and/or traditions may not be as long-standing as we think). Voices that have been silenced and controlled by church leaders throughout the centuries are finding ways of being heard. The Internet alone has provided instant messaging, chat-rooms, web-logs and post-threads where people can find long-desired wrestling partners, and ask the questions they were either never allowed to ask, or were given short, insufficient, simplistic, careless answers to. This is both liberating and scary.

As we head deeper into the 21st century, many challenges await us. With these challenges comes the need for discernment. A balance between the evil of forcing or assimilating people to accept our ideas (are we not falliable?) and the greater evil of teaching that all ideas are equal. It is my suspicion that the more we force ideas on people, the more they will wriggle out from under our the control we think we have of them. However, the more we let them test and embrace ideas on their own, the more they will commit to (and share) those ideas.

While the future may look bleak, perhaps we should remember that we are not the first generation that has faced such challenges. False teachers, 'super-apostles' and 'other gospels' were no stranger to Paul and the Apostles, and they seem to have not gone away since.

Jacob (Israel), wrestled with God (Genesis 35:10), and the people that took his name (Israel) also took on his example. In my Judaism class, the rabbi shared how Jewish communities were and still are marked by their culture of 'wrestling' with God and each other over their Scriptures, yeilding a beautiful culture of learning and growth.

Finally, I suggest that a culture of wrestling will help us to keep small problems small, help us to maintain a sharpening, strengthening and growing ethic in our communities and help us deal with the challenges that the future has for the Church.

So wrestle well, and wrestle with love.


15 May 2006

give suffering a hug

Check out this selection of verses from the Bible...

"Though He (God) slay me, yet will I trust Him." (Job 13:15a)
"I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth; I suffer Your terrors; I am distraught." (Psalm 88:15)
"My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tonfue clings to my jaws; You have brought me to the dust of death." (Psalm 22:15)

(that all of these verses happened to be the 15th in their chapter was not planned!)

God 'slaying' Job? Suffering God's terrors? God bringing David to the 'dust of death?' Why the selection of such negative verses?

OK, I admit it. I've got an agenda. I'm trying to feature these kinds of passages in the Bible to make a point. What point is that?

I've been observing more and more a theme that seems to run right through the entire biblical narrative. I've observed that the people of God are marked by the way they embrace and/or accept suffering. Yep. Suffering.

The people of God before Christ suffered under Egyptian control, in the wilderness for 40 years, on the battlefield, during the ongoing and up-and-down cycle of replacement of Judges, as their kingdom was divided, under the oppression of the Babylonians and in the shadow of the Roman Empire (even though they were 'home' in Jerusalem). The church also suffered. The apostles and many others suffered beatings, oppression, imprisonment and eventually death for the cause of the advancement of the Gospel. I agree with many others who are convinced that the best thing for both the health and growth of the church is persecution. Indeed, one of the worst things to happen to the church might have been when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire in the 4th century.

I am convinced that the suffering of the people of God is an important characteristic for us to understand and consider in light of our surroundings. Do we embrace suffering like those that have gone before us? Do we (in our comfortable, western, affluent environment) really have the slightest idea what real suffering is?

Guess where the church is growing? Where it is suffering. Guess where the church is arguing about how to do church services, which are the best programmes and what are the right leadership structures? Where it is comfortable. I don't think that is a coincidence.

In the midst of battle, you don't need to know the rank, status and position of the person who is watching your back, you just want to know that someone - anyone - is watching your back! As a critically ill patient in a hospital, you don't care about the color of the wallpaper or the style of the physicians garments, you just want to know that someone will give you the medical attention you desperately need! Tough times certainly have a way of helping us (maybe forcing us?) to have better priorities!

It's interesting how we pick and choose our favourite Bible verses, and how those verses differ from the verses of those in 'developing' countries. As Rich Mullins said, "They underline different parts of their Bibles. We're all excited about being born again, and they are excited about selling their possessions and giving to the poor." Maybe instead of assuming we have all the right church-ways, we should ask them about church?

Here's a startling statistic from Don Fleming's booklet Catching The Fire, "By 1960 the number of Christians in the non-Western world had reached 32% and by 1970 was about 36%. But throught the seventies and since, the growth has been extraordinary. By 1980 the figure had grown to 50%, by 1990 it was 66% and by 2000 it had reached 75%... Today, possibly 80% of all evangelical believers are in the non-Western world. The sad reality is that most Christians in the West are either unaware of it or have difficulty accepting it."

Later on, he goes on to discuss how instead of us sending our books, programmes and church-ideas over to them, we should take out our pen and paper and take note of why it's working over there! "Christians in the West are still buying books, but many of these books have only a tenuous connection with the Bible... What's more, this dubious material from the West is being pumped into some of the poorer countries, because the Western producers can afford to send it free, knowing that poor people tend to take anything they can get for nothing. The Western church should be learning from the church in the developing world, but instead, it is spreading the West's disease."

Coming back to the topic of suffering, Don writes about what he calls our Western exectation of a pain-free life. "We do not know how to deal with suffering - not just illness, but death, war, persecution and poverty - much less how to embrace it in the name of Christ. We know what the Bible teaches about accepting hardship and sharing Christ's suffering, but in reality most of us secretly feel we have a right to a pain-free life... After the devastating floods of Mozambique in 1999, the response of one local Christian was, 'We don't blame God; we trust Him.' "

I can't agree more. Our faith seems to only affect what CD's we buy and which church services we go to. Our comfort and laziness have, as Don suggests, made us "the world's greatest complainers."

Where is the Job-like attitude that is reflected in the opening verse, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust Him."? Why do we read the Bible looking for verses about ME? History is His story, and it's primarily not about us! We are not commanded to be successful, efficient or organised. We are commanded to be obedient. Certainly we will grow (and be successful as a by-product) as we reach people - and certainly we don't need to waste resources (time, money and people) - and certainly dis-order and/or chaos is warned against (1 Cor. 14). But it's easy to see these things outside the proper perspective, and let them become our goals rather than by-products of our goal.

At any rate, my growing conviction is that it is not the growing, obedient and flourishing church in the developing world that needs our critique or advice, but actually it is the assumptions and traditions of our own comfortable, convenience-infused and selfish churches that need to be fiercely challenged. May we have the integrity to take an honest and humble look at ourselves and even more so may we have the courage to make changes where needed. Corporately and Individually.


5 May 2006

creating an honest-ward ethos

'Dougherty' was a nice guy.

Aside from chatting about sponsoring a particular charity, our conversation turned to many random things. Campbell clans of Scotland, Life in New Zealand (he was from Ireland), and... human sexuality. He told me about a friend of his that had a pastor who gave him some opinions about sex that were so devoid of coherence that I won't bother repeating them here. Though I perceived we didn't see eye-to-eye on human sexuality, I was pleased that our conversation remained peaceful. Talking about human sexuality is controversial enough, but my, how the sparks can fly when you discuss this topic from a faith perspective!

Unfortunately, meaningful dialogue about this issue is nearly impossible. I say it is unfortunate, because I think our understanding, respect, appreciation, and use of sexuality is one of the most important things for us to be talking about. I see a few things that make these needed conversations more difficult:

-Sexuality is often one of the most emotionally charged topics, and therefore one of the most avoided.
-The chasm between opposing viewpoints is not getting any smaller.
-Little or no desire to see the other individuals' or groups' perspective is apparent.

Christians are much to blame for this lack of dialogue. Even when motivated by genuine concern, our message can often be received as one of hatred, indifference, self-righteousness, exclusion and arrogance. Indeed, as someone has well said, 'We are all too often known for what we're against, than what we're for.' We appear to be quite concerned with pointing out flaws in others and not as concerned with being open to such correction from those around us (take a moment to look up the very familiar Matthew 7:1-5 and compare with the less familiar Isaiah 65:5).

If I am to be truly loving, I cannot approve of all behaviour. I do, however, have a growing conviction that so often the way we deal with 'mis-behaviour' can actually create a culture which causes people to hide from each other, rather than a culture of honesty, transparency and healing. Another way to say it is to assert that whilst our wounds can't be dealt with if we ignore them or pretend that we are 'wound-less', we also must remember that a 'wound-hunting' ethic fosters a 'wound-hiding' ethos. In my friendships with others, I am committed to building an ethos of transparency and honesty. If I truly care about my friends, I must not sugar-coat their problems (or put band-aids on their gushing wounds). They must be discussed openly and frankly. This will never happen if my relationships are characterised by formality, pretense and positivism.

I will probably never see Dougherty again, but I hope our conversation can be one step among many in the direction of creating a more honest dialogue between the Church and the world. With God's help, we can - one person at a time - change the world's perception of the Church. We can repair the broken and shattered image of grace that is meant to accompany the term 'Christian.' We can restore the withered message of love that is meant to be embodied in our lives. We can mend the torn fabric of truth that puts on flesh and loves, heals, comforts, cares-for, mends and restores people. We can be the hands and feet of Jesus - again.