Another blog post from my wife.
Did you know there are black holes in the Bible? There are mud puddles, canyons, and prickle bushes as well.
I know about these because I tell Bible stories to kids.
Have you ever noticed how many empty spaces there are in Bible stories? For instance, what did Jesus and Zacchaeus discuss over lunch? And what was happening on Easter Saturday?
Try telling these stories to children. They’re not afraid of black holes. They will launch straight into them.
Slimy mud puddles that most Sunday school teachers avoid, such as how Mary got pregnant? Kids will take a running leap into that one.
Tricky prickle bushes that college theologians won’t venture near? No problem for the minds of 5 year olds. A group of preschoolers once explained the Resurrection to me.
Grownups can read the signs at the top of a cliff that say “Don’t go too close to the edge” or “Danger. Unstable cliff edge”, but kids only see an opportunity to explore.
Burning bushes, talking donkeys, floating zoos, miracles…
And the best part is that they will joyfully take the grownups by the hand, if we are willing to let them lead us.
Next time you’re reading your Bible and you find a black hole, find a child to tell the story to. Sit alongside them and wonder together. No space suits, flack jackets, parachutes, or safety harnesses required.
Another blog post from my wife.
A while ago I found a book in a secondhand shop near our home. It had a title that caught my eye – “Portrait of Jesus” by Alan T Dale. I bought it and put it on my bookshelf, alongside all my precious children’s Bible books.
Recently I took it down and discovered what a true gem it is. But more than that, I found one of those award certificates pasted onto the facing page.
Amazingly, I know both the Sunday school student who was given the book 28 years ago, and her teacher.
I held the book open at this page and stared at the names. I could see those women before me. A older woman who encouraged me when I was ministering to the children in our church, and a young lady who gave such dedication and devotion to the children in her care that she was an example to me. And now I was using the book to prepare for another teaching moment.
The older woman happens to be a neighbour, so yesterday I went for a walk, with the book tucked under my arm. She answered my knock on her door, invited me in, and listened as I explained what I’d found. Yes, she remembered her student from 28 years ago.
We sat together marvelling at God’s goodness. He gave all three of us faith. He gave us opportunities to share that faith. He placed us, briefly, in the same time and space so we could encourage each other. And then He sent us onto our next mission.
Here in my hands I hold the testimony to this truth.
I have just finished reading Walter Brueggemann’s book “The Prophetic Imagination” (1978, revised 2001). From the outset I want to make it clear that I don’t understand all of it. His descriptions, allusions and theological ideas left me floundering on more than one occasion. I found his writing style difficult. Yet, it is one of the most exciting books I had read in recent times.
Breuggemann’s main thesis is that the prophet’s task is to lead the people in the groans and complaints (grieving) over the current order (which he calls the “royal consciousness”) with its lack of compassion, justice and with its propensity for self-justification and self-preservation. Positively, the prophetic is called to lead the vision and praise for a new kingdom – a new future led by Jesus himself.
Brueggemann takes us on a journey through the Old Testament, from Moses to Solomon and then onto Jeremiah. He explores the idea that the God in the midst of His people in Moses time had been subsumed to the King’s wishes from Solomon onward. The “Royal consciousness” of Solomon’s kingdom (much like the arrogance of pharaoh’s royal consciousness) had overrun the alternative community inaugurated by Moses when he led the people out of Egypt. The prophets’ task then was to grieve for that which had been lost and the kingdom’s deathly future and to herald a new possibility.
Brueggemann says much about the grieving of the prophet for the addiction to the culture of death. This resonated with me. Because we live in a culture of death at present and we, like many of our fellow citizens, are blinded to its decay and futility. The powers of our age with their spin, bread and circuses camouflage the fact that our present social order is toxic and deadly. Even our churches have taken on many of the attributes of royal consciousness in the way they operate.
This book also made me think about so many issues our society faces – refugees, minorities, aborted children, in fact all those dis-empowered and on the fringe. His solution however is Christ centred. The answer he discovers from Scripture is a real king and a real kingdom that has been inaugurated and that calls its citizens to both grieve for the present but also energize the new.
Brueggemann also reminded me of the “prophetic” element of the Christian’s “prophet, priest and king” calling. There is the challenge for the body of Christ to be far more grief stricken for that is which is unjust, deadly and flawed in our culture and to proclaim and embrace a more Christ-like vision.
Even though this book has been around for a while I believe it has a particular relevance for our present time. And moreover, you are probably smarter than I am and can even get more out of it.
I have deliberately made the title vague. It can be taken in a number of ways.
I have just been observing the lead up to Christmas and Christmas itself in Europe. In some places like Seville there was a Christmas market which only sold items for nativity sets. In another few markets I could have bought gloves, scarves and solar panels to do me for a few lifetimes. There has been a mixture of the sacred and secular. All in all, the secular wins.
But Christmas is only a microcosm of society’s attitude to faith and religion in general. So little of the Christ of Christmas remains but that is true of life in general.
So has Christ left the church, in the sense that even the church has left the Christ of Christmas tucked away in some small corner? We sing the carols, attend church for the one time in the year but they are empty tokens. How many sermons were preached this Christmas that declared a radical Christ who introduced a new kingdom through his own death and resurrection? How many sermons declared Christ’s own words, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” That politically incorrect statement comes from the Messiah and is unpopular in many churches today. The cute baby in in a feed trough is easier to speak about and certainly less confronting.
But there is an even scarier perspective. Christ withdrawing himself, not unlike the Shekinah leaving the temple in Ezekiel. Christ leaving because the people who bear his name do do so thoughtlessly. I know he says in Matt 28 that he will be with his disciples to the end of the age but that was on the basis of their continued faith (not perfection).
The radical Christ, the counter cultural Christ, the Christ of a new and everlasting kingdom, the Christ who purchased the lives of his people on the cross and is now preparing a place in eternity for them, the Christ who dwells in his people through the Holy Spirit, the Christ who fought injustice and prejudice, the Christ who tells us that this life is only a brief pilgrimage … He is so hard to find in many churches and many western lives. Alas in my own life.
Has Jesus left the church? Only if we, his representatives on earth, have left him. In our syncretititic and politically correct age we need need to have the courage of the one who gave us his name to stand up to the culture and attitudes of our age and reveal how amazing his message really is. This Christmas have we been overawed and amazed that God became one of us because He loved us so much? Have we been humbled by his claim on our lives? Are we rejoicing in the revelation of His kingdom?
The following is an observation by my wife:
There he was, a boy of 5 or 6 years, standing alone in front of the altar. He danced a little, twisting this way and that, and then he stood perfectly still and raised the camera to his eyes and snapped. His parents quietly moved around the cathedral as the dozens of other visitors were doing. They must have been watching him, but they never interfered with his discoveries and his picture taking.
The cathedral was nothing but the usual Spanish Catholic variety; we had seen many like it. But it was new for this lad and whatever his eye saw was quickly recorded with his camera. The altar table, the decorative railings, the statues, the windows, the tourists.
I wondered and pondered on this for a while.
A child discovering the church in his own way.
A child finding the gospel in a language he knows and understands.
A child making memories and questions.
Parents letting go of their child enough to facilitate this.
A church full of images and symbols and furniture to capture a child.
A camera. Technology that a child can use.
How can we – parents, and faith communities – symbolically give our children a camera in the church?
As a homeroom teacher who has a group of students for three years from year 10 to year 12, one of the topics that constantly exercises my heart and mind is, how do I prepare my students for the rapidly changing future? After taking the roll and making the daily announcements, what do they need to hear from me that will assist them, not just for a school day – but for eternity? I would love to hear from other Christian teachers.
I have a few basics:
The Bible needs to be a constant reference, and prayer is essential. My own example is important because if I don’t walk the talk then anything I say is made void. But that is just the beginning.
The anchor must be a regular and ongoing reference to Scripture and its overarching story of redemption with coming of the king and his promised return to fulfill his kingdom plans. This vision of a place in the Kingdom, I believe, must underpin everything I say and do. It is the foundation. Regular communication with this personal God is the next layer. However, the next step is crucial. How do these two underpinnings apply on an ongoing daily basis as these young people prepare for their future? This future, as every adult knows, will have twists and turns, pains and joys – incredible highs but also incredible lows.
Recently we have been exploring the lives of Christians in predominantly non -Christian and often persecuted cultures. Our children need to know that in the history of the church, Christianity has not always been part of the dominant culture. In fact it has been at its best when marginalised and persecuted. The history of God’s people from OT Exile through to the early church and beyond has revealed the amazing story of God and his kingdom, in the darkest of times. Not knowing the future, my students still need to know that a personal God has his children’s future in His hand.
My students also need to know how the story ends. There isn’t any doubt where the victory lies and who has the victory. But in the meantime there is work to do as we prepare for the return of the King.
Year 10 students are by their very nature idealistic. This idealism is a wonderful trait as it can enable them to develop Christlike eyes for the world. How does Jesus look at injustice, asylum seekers, the poor distribution of resources, persecution, pain suffering and … so on. A year 10 student doesn’t have that hardened adult cynicism but rather looks for the possibilities – possibilities we need to encourage and not stifle.
Our students need to have a vision of hope. In a materialistic and often hopeless or directionless world I need to pick out perspectives of hope: hope for their own heart and lives, hope for the possibilites as they serve their God, and hope for change that is empowered by God himself – change in themselves, others and the world in which they live.
I would love to hear what other Christian teachers do to encourage their students vision for the future – a future that is anchored outside themselves in the God who reveals himself in creation and especially, Scripture.
We like to categorise. Put things in baskets. Label. It makes life so much easier. In Christian circles we have this advanced grid at work. Catholic – Protestant. Once we have chosen that basic category, then in the Protestant section we then select the denomination. And then what end of the spectrum: Liberal – conservative. We fine tune: Adult baptism – paedobaptism. Creationist – evolutionist. And if a creationist – what sort? A clever person could make a flow chart of all these distinctions and many many more. It is a trick we use to enable us to place everyone on the faith map somewhere and have likeminded people around ourselves.
I sometimes wonder what it was like a few years after the last apostle had died. John was gone, now what? We have to think for ourselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. No more letters to or from Paul. No flying visits from those who had personally known Christ. Now the early church had to live the gospel by themselves (and I am not forgetting the Holy Spirit). The Word still needed to be applied, lived, meditated upon in this volatile Roman world but without some of the human reassurances.
Not much different to today really. But now after 2000 years we have these categories – measuring sticks and safety alarms (like my trusty Calvinometre – which measures how far someone is from a Calvinist position on any topic). My question is: How helpful are our categories in enabling and empowering us to understand how the gospel needs to be radically (from the root) lived in 2015? Does it blind us to what the Word may be saying to us today. My nagging suspicion is that it does.
Does that mean we accept all views? Of course not. Paul and John warned of false teachers. But then again, in 2000 years we have built some human fences that may no longer be helpful.
A number of books have been written in recent years that suggest that the direction the Christian Church has been going is profoundly warped and dysfunctional. Just take for example:
- Radical by David Platt, which explores how we have shaped the gospel to suit ourselves and suggests, as the title implies, some uncomfortable remedies – uncomfortable for the materialistic, middle class, self-centred Western Christian.
- Exiles by Michael Frost looks at how the church has been marginalised in Western cultures and offers new alternatives at being church.
- There have been a host of books by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis looking at more effective ways of being the body of Christ.
- Vishal Mangalwadi in The Book That made Your World shows how Western cultures influenced by the Bible have made huge strides but also reveals how we in the West have dropped the ball as we allow this heritage to dissipate.
You could probably add to the list. But my point is this: the sheer scale of people writing and thinking about the church at present indicates that all is not well in Western churches. If we add to this a host of other issues such as young people leaving the church, Christians leaving the church but maintaining the faith outside its influence and the ongoing influence of theologies that marginalise Scripture, we can get a sense of the enormity of the problem. And we haven’t time to discuss all the areas of abuse the church has been involved in from paedophilia to scandals surrounding celebrity pastors, which have deeply wounded the voice of the church.
One of the stumbling blocks I see is that although some church leaders clearly recognise this problem their ability to act is limited. There are leaders in most churches who are alarmed by the figures both financial and human but in most cases they are seeking solutions from within the structure of their denomination. The structure is the environment their thinking takes place in. It is the structure, that for a whole host of reasons, from personal vested interests to tradition, that blinkers any genuinely radical Biblical vision. Property, jobs, “empires” and status are all involved in this unholy mix. This is not dissimilar to the conditions in the Roman Church before the C16th Reformation.
And then there is us, we who in the West have succumbed to the attractions of materialism. Our very view of life is shaped from the comfort of our easy chair. We too are part of the problem. Our thinking is shaped and anchored in our immediate self-interest. We too have vested self interests.
So, is it time for a new Reformation? I would genuinely love to hear the views of readers. And if it is, how will we hear God’s voice in the noise of our world? How can our hearts be open to the leading of the Spirit? What steps can we take in faith?
Currently I am reading “The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert” by Rosaria Butterfield. This book traces Butterfield’s journey from a lesbian professor of “Queer Studies” in the English Department of Syracuse University to a conservative evangelical wife and mother. She is certainly not the poster girl for LGBTI movement nor of the growing voice of the Gay and Lesbian community in evangelical circles. One can agree or disagree with Butterfield, but the book is eminently worth reading for a variety of disparate reasons:
1. It reveals how conversations between disagreeing parties can be held with honour and integrity:
One of the aspects of the book that I was most impressed with was the description of the respectful conversations she had with the Rev. Ken Smith over a long period as they explored each other’s beliefs and worldviews. After Butterfield had written an article in a local newspaper a lot of mail came in her direction which was easily divided between hate mail and fan mail, except for one from a local pastor who wanted to have a respectful conversation. It is the genuine consideration of the pastor and the willingness by Butterfield to engage in that discussion where I see a model of how conversations can be held in our pluralistic society. Christians in particular need to take note as often our voices are perceived as judgmental and harsh. It struck me as a model as to how Christians need to deal with those with whom they disagree. It is light-years away from much of the judgemental stridency we hear too often.
2. The book reveals how Christian conversion can be a gut wrenching process in contrast to some of the glib techniques sometimes espoused.
Butterfield calls her conversion a “train wreck”. This is such a contrast to the simplistic “believer’s prayers” which often pass for “Christian conversion”. She describes the amazing struggle to move from one way of life and worldview to another and the incredible personal cost. The process involved the reorientation of every aspect of her life. She says she lost everything except her dog. I see it as a very modern expression of what Bonhoffer calls the cost of discipleship – a cost that those of us who have been Christians for a long time may have lost sight of.
3. The book includes some astute theological observations. I find these particulalrly helpful as they come with fresh eyes untainted by years of tradition. An unpacking of Ezekiel 16 is one example that I would like to explore in a later blog.
4. The book also gives us an outsider’s view of how we often behave in churches – the good and the bad. Her observations are useful for us to assess our own behaviours and words and their impact on people who are unfamiliar with the ways of churches. Butterfield also gives an entertaining and sometimes humiliating view of what we look like from the outside.
Finally, it is a book about a personal journey that can teach us all something, whether it is about our attitudes, beliefs or simply the way we go about expressing those beliefs. I haven’t even finished the book yet and it has challenged me in so many areas.