Thursday, April 20, 2006

... on axes ...

The most profound truths come to us in tension. From big theological issues like the transcendence and immanence of God to the everyday issues that come with living for him - like the blog I posted previously on the internally-focused church (alongside the externally focused church).

I find people struggle with truths-in-tension. It feels like a contradiction is going on and they don't like that feeling. A characteristic of immaturity is an unwillingness to embrace the truths 'at both ends'. The possibility of the contradictory actually being complementary gets lost.

Going back to my Easter talks to young adults... Once through that 'door' and wanting to be committed followers of Jesus, they are confronted immediately with all kinds of complicated decisions. It is not easy. They need help. I would argue that virtually all those decisions can be distilled back to working with some combination of what Jesus models (grace and truth) and what Jesus commnds (salt and light).

[NB - I quite like the illustration of the Periodic Table of Elements: just as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen comprise so many organic combinations; so also grace, truth, salt, light are the basic elements which comprise so many missional combinations]

Furthermore a case can be made that 'salt' and 'light' speak of truths in tension with each other: one urging us to participate and be involved, the other urging us to be different and distinctive. Similarly, with 'grace' and 'truth': one feels soft and open and compassionate, the other one is hard and closed and under conviction.

Now to illustrate truths-in-tension I like reaching for the mathematical image of the axes. On this occasion I used two 4m poles and laid them down there are on the stage - with the vertical axis depicting the level of penetration of the salt (from low to high) and the horizontal axis depicting the level of distinctiveness of the light (from low to high) ... and then there are similar axes with grace and truth.

My burden for young adults?
That their decisions increasingly represent the top right hand corner of these graphs ... highly involved (as salt) but also - at the very same time - highly distinctive (as light). So very open and compassionate (as grace), particularly with people; but also so very closed and under conviction (as truth), particularly with ideas - at the very same time. It IS a tension, but it is a tension we must find and live. Be it attending work parties or signing up to sports clubs, be it music or movies, be it relating to gays or to muslims, be it alcohol consumption or sexual activity ... it just goes on and on. Making decisions with an eye on the axes helps so much.

My fear for young adults?
We live in an era when people are pigging-out on 'high salt' (and, to a lesser extent, 'high grace'). Poll after poll says that there is no discernible difference between the behaviour of those who follow Jesus and those who do not follow him. This should not be so. Relevance has become a bit of an idol today. We like to blend and fit in ... and we are losing sight of just how being different can be attractive.

nice chatting


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

on doors...

I can tend to avoid speaking in youth and young adult settings. I am not loaded with funny material. I cannot dredge up dramatic stories from a sinful past that holds people spellbound. I do not think well on my feet and tend to need my notes (although I am working on that one!). I am put off by the trivial stuff that can fill talks given in youth settings which contributes to dumbing down, and thereby disrespecting, the audience. I like to be serious and demand thought-filledness from listeners. And one thing I do have is a deep burden for youth and young adults and the challenges they face in this world if they are to be authentic followers of Jesus. I so want to help...

This is why, with some trepidation, I took up an invitation to speak at the 'young adult' stream at an Easter Camp this year. The talks I gave have been geriminating inside me for about a decade and I've never done them as a bunch before. As I drove home I decided I would post a synopsis of each one on my blog and kinda 'put them out there'...

I used a tangible prop each time. My first talk placed a door on the stage. The idea was to symbolise the moment of conversion with this door - but to include lots of space either side of the door so that something of the timeline of the Christian life could also be pictured. So - to the far left of the stage would be the time of apathy/hostility towards Jesus through to recognition of sinfulness and our need of Christ - then through the door with an act of faith/conversion - and then on into the space to the right of the door, symbolising the life of following Jesus in which we grow into maturity, becoming more and more like Christ.

My burden with the door is a simple one. What has become of our attitude to sin and sinfulness in ourselves and in others - and the evil in our world?

Within the church there are signs of a growing softness towards sin - or at least not being as strong on it as the New Testament is. We can tend to have a 'saatchi and saatchi' gospel in which we 'accentuate the positive:eliminate the negative' out of fear of offending people (and, ironically, back-burnering the reality of sin as an offense to God) and out of a desire to attract people. This can be a flaw in the mindset of the seeker/guest service approach. There are those who argue that the 40Days material is weak on sin and sinfulness as well. I've even seen this conclusion made about ALPHA. I don't know as I have not used these resources extensively - but it is worth examining. The same could be said of the Emerging Church literature. There is a lot of softness around...

Then within the world there is a growing celebration of sin. Recently our newspaper had an article noting that a feature which top performers on the share-market had in common was that they all were doing business within the worlds of one of the seven 'deadly sins' - making bucketloads of money by catering to these sins.

A lot is at stake here! We are in danger of going from "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me" to "Innocuous grace, how dull the sound that saved a nice guy like me". It is not possible to magnify God's amazing grace and love without deepening the recognition of our own wretched sinfulness. That is the whole point of the story in Luke 7 where Jesus is anointed by a woman 'who had lived a sinful life.'

Back to the door and the space to the left... My burden is that youth and young adults can tend to 'come to Christ' through a window, or a backdoor. They hear some effective testimonies. They sing some affective music. An invitation comes. They respond to something. But if the invitation given does not contain some focus on what the cross achieved in light of their sinfulness - and therefore what the door opens ("the wood that made the cross is the wood that made the door") - by some paraphrasing of concepts like reconciliation, or justification, or redemption, or propitiation... then we run the risk of spurious conversions. Later in the year we will find ourselves speaking of young people as 'back-sliding' when, in fact, maybe they were never converted to begin with. This creates massive counselling problems for us.

Back to the door and the space to the right... My burden is that young people are stepping through what they think is the door (sometimes a window!) and doing so with unrealistic expectations. Temptation does not turn off like a tap. There is a difference between the penalty of sin and the power of sin. The cross paid the penalty for sin (God forgives us and treats us as if we had not sinned) - but the power of sin lingers on. This is where the Holy Spirit comes in - to make us holy (duh?!). This is a painful process which includes developing new disciplines and forming new habits. Salvation in the New Testament is 'past/present/future.' We have been saved. We are being saved. We will be saved.

Now you may ask - is this emphasis on sinfulness really the way to go with young people who have a tendency beat up on themselves as it is. Well - yes it is. The love of God for them is that much sweeter, for starters. If we are not accurate with our diagnosis we won't be accurate with our prescription either! And we do want to be based on the New Testament, don't we?!!.
But it is always better that sin be spoken of gently, with (genuine!)tears in our eyes. Sometimes I do worry that the loud soap-boxers are projecting their own battles with sin, hiding their own 'dirty little secrets' (as I think a compelling contemporary song/video expresses it) with volume and passion...

nice chatting


PS - I spent Easter watching a DVD entitled "A Billy Graham Music Homecoming". Whatever you may think of Billy or of those crusades (I think the day of crusades is pretty much done), there is no denying the simple spirituality in those cross-focused, sin-acknowledging, Jesus-loving songs. Brought tears to my eyes multiple times!!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

22 or 23?

Heading into Easter this year I have been absorbed, for some weeks now, by the fact that as Jesus hung on the cross we read that he reached for Psalm 22:1, rather than Psalm 23:1...

It was "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?"

It was NOT (as far as we know) "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall lack nothing ... Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me."

nice chatting


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

That C word again

There's plenty of chat about consumerism today, isn't there?

I have just finished Duncan MacLaren's Mission Implausible (Paternoster, 2004) and towards the end he identifies various characteristics of a society driven by consumption:

(a) The primacy of individual choice
(the path to personal freedom - a long, long way from obligation, duty or loyalty)
(b) The expectation of novelty
(as the consumer's desires are insatiable, new products are always needed - always innovating; boredom is unacceptable)
(c) A belief in a natural right to abundance
(the consumer can, and does, buy anything they want to keep life full and exciting)
(d) The acceptance of obsolescence
(there is a shelf-life for products, they have a built-in 'use-by date')
(e) The duty to be happy
(pleasure is what the anticipation and act of consumption is all about)
(f) The construction of an identity through consumption, rather than consuming stuff for their usefulness
(the 'label' culture within the clothing industry, for example)
(g) The framing of consumption/shopping as a leisure activity
(as it is in leisure that freedom is found and expressed)
(h) All this is an illusion! Consumers are victims of aggressive, but tacit, forms of social control.

Two reflections come to mind...

(i) Yes, MacLaren does go on to give us a peek at what consumer religion looks like by seeing each of these in church life today. But I am more interested in what you think. How do these features reveal themselves in the way we 'do church', for example? Is this good? bad?

(ii) The Consumer World follows the Producer World, just as the shopping mall has followed the factory as the architectural icon of society (NB - before the factory there was the ... cathedral!). Is it harder to be a Jesus-follower in a Consumer World or a Producer World?

Gee - this is starting to sound like an assignment. Sorry! But seriously, I think a lot about these issues and am really interested in what you think.

By the way - the book is just 200 pages. Absorbing and provocative. I recommend it!

Nice chatting