Wednesday, 9 November 2016

How to write a worship song

1) Take a classic and well-loved hymn of which people are unaware. (This isn't too hard because your punters are aware of very few classic and well-loved hymns. It helps, though, if it comes from a slightly different tradition from your own.)

2) The hymn should be out of copyright. This means it can be chopped and changed at will; no one (apart from you) will need paying. It will generally be projected onto church screens with no mention of the original author at all. 

3) You will be adding a chorus, so it is important that the hymn is not too long. Look through it and cut out the verse or verses that seem least singable today; heavy theological terminology especially needs to be pruned. Don't worry if the verses cut were intrinsic to the logic of the hymn; that is going to be different and less clear now anyway. 

4) Feel free to alter other words to suit. You may have to do this again after you have written the tune so as to make them fit. Some changes may be to modernise, others will be random, and still others may be simply because someone goofed the lyrics in a key recording, and that became THE version that went out on YouTube. 

5) Write a decent, post-Coldplay tune. It must have a new and rousing chorus. 

6) The soul-stirring qualities of the song and especially of the chorus must come mainly from the tune, as the words you are adding to the classic hymn will not really say anything. Always remember, when fitting random evangelical cliché phrases into your new chorus, that main verbs generate meaning, and meaning generates controversy. Some song writers even believe that verbs are actually of the devil. 

7) Find a single word title for your "new song". It needs to be snappy, contemporary, and possibly related to building practices of which most users of the song will be intensely ignorant. 

Purlin? Nah. Bulwark? Better. Foundation? Better still. In fact, I'll stick with Foundation.

Cornerstone's already been taken. 

Friday, 4 November 2016

The Selfie Pout and the Worship Meeting

I was alerted to the following quote by its use in a recent blog by Kevin de Young. I am not always a fan of the perpetually curmudgeonly "Theodore Dalrymple" in the Spectator, but on this occasion he speaks pure and necessary truth:
No doubt the decline of religion accounts for the rise in self-obsession and self-importance that is everywhere observable. One of the great advantages of the Christian philosophy was that it managed to reconcile the unique importance of each man with humility. Every man was important in the eyes of God, and in that sense was at home in the universe because the universe was expressly created for beings such as he. His every action was known to God, and was therefore not without significance, however ordinary in other respects it might be; moreover, death itself was not without meaning, nor was it the end of his existence.
Yet, by comparison with the author of his being, he was infinitely small, as indeed was every other human being. However scholarly a man might be, God, being omniscient, was infinitely more knowledgeable; howsoever powerful a man might believe himself, it was finally God who disposed, so that all human power was both illusory and transitory. In the midst of life we are in death, the funeral service of the Church of England puts it; and it might have added, in the midst of importance we are insignificant.
I am not here concerned with whether this outlook is philosophically justified: with whether God exists, and if He does, with whether he is more interested in our doings and more solicitous of our welfare than He is with those of an ant, for example. All I am concerned to point out is that the religious outlook referred to above manages the difficult feat of assuring a man of his supreme importance without giving him a swollen head. (The New Vichy Syndrome, 63)
I think that is an extremely helpful thought from a professed atheist, and I have been mulling it over through the last few weeks, especially as it reflects on our meetings as Christians.  

In the non-conformist tradition, just as in the Anglican, it is as much the liturgy as the sermon which constantly reinforces our awareness of the tension between "humbling" and "exaltation". The fixed points of our meetings place us weekly in this glorious, near paradoxical space between "how like an angel" and "quintessence of dust." 

We are called to praise and adoration through readings and hymns which set before us the greatness and holiness of God in objective terms. That leads us to see ourselves objectively in our littleness and impurity, and we move naturally to confession of sin and prayerful declaration of our dependence. And then comes the sermon - a proclamation of good news to sinners, that leads us back to praise and fresh personal commitment, a subjective response.  

That cycle of objective and subjective, of seeing God and the glory of his Christ, seeing ourselves, seeing the gracious provision in Jesus, giving of ourselves, is wholesome and healthy and normal. You can see the same patterns in OT worship. And different Christian traditions have been strikingly similar, under the skin. 

Until now. As an observer of and a participant in Christian praise in many contexts over 40 years, it is possible to say that those "norms" of Christian praise are becoming increasingly rare, right across the world. It is not uncommon to attend a "Christian meeting" where the name of Jesus is not mentioned and where the main focus of the songs is not on God himself. Instead, we sing about how great we feel just for being present, with a kind of self-congratulatory narcissism. It's all about us. You feel at times that anything that might point to our smallness and poverty, be it by virtue of our creatureliness or our sinfulness, has been deliberately excised from the meeting. On no account must anyone be made to feel small, let alone bad. 

In all of this, the church is reflecting society. Ever since the triumph of existentialism at the popular level, and its going to seed in the current breakdown of objective truth (let alone a True Word from a Creator 'out there') the measure of man is man, and every individual carves out identity and meaning for themselves, with only their own lives as their raw material. It's all about me. We are gods. We have only ourselves to admire, and so we pout at our cell-phones. 

Of course, we aren't islands. When it's all about me, we can't help but keep more than half an eye on all the other 'Me's out there; self-obsessed, we actually measure ourselves by the lives of others. Or rather, the projected, apparently perfect lives of others. Every day we are surrounded by thousands of selfies. Via social media, we know that everyone else is having a great time. They sure look like gods! Amazing!

No wonder that we all of a sudden have such a rise in issues of confused self-image, appalling lack of confidence, crises of anxiety and depression. Having placed ourselves on the pedestal as gods, we immediately knock ourselves off and into misery when we are honest, even for a split second. We cannot live up to any of our expectations of ourselves. Our culture is heading into the deepest of existential crises. 

But if someone goes to a church in this context, what will they find? What will the selfie generation find in the Christian community? 

Effectively, they will find many congregations indulging in mass selfie making. Our "worship" amounts to holding up a giant phone and gawping at ourselves. We come with our varied lives, from our varied weeks, with our varied pains and needs, but together we apparently must immediately lift up heads and voices and sing of how great we feel for being there and how much we are pouring out our very selves. Our meetings are about us and our feelings from the off.

Gone is the great, levelling, objective declaration of the reality of God, that brings a perspective to our lives, to moments of triumph and misery alike.  If the first place I have to look on coming to the meeting is me, what is going to wean me from my pride? What is going to lift me up and deliver me from my despair? 

By echoing the self-absorption of our culture, the church has abandoned its essential and distinctive contribution as highlighted by Dalrymple. We are seeing more and more people lost in sadness and a sense of deep inadequacy, because they have looked within for their meaning and have found themselves wanting. We see a general moral chaos and lack of direction, for everyone is encouraged to do no more and no less than what is right in their own eyes. Instead of sliding down into the same self-worship and relativism, the church needs to be offering the radical alternative: Behold your God! Look to him! 

Very often the difference will come down to simply reordering the elements in our meetings. Some particularly stupid songs may need to be abandoned, but others just need to be sung in the right place. Hymns of response need to be a response to something. A hymn of personal commitment may be entirely appropriate after we have heard of God's love in Jesus, but it may be a cruel or ludicrous mockery at the outset of the meeting. 

However the change comes, the church will only survive the present cultural landslide if we hold our nerve and recover our message. There are people out there who seem more lost in their lostness than our society has seen in centuries. Rudderless ships, sheep without a shepherd. In compassion, we have to show them something better than a sleeked and preened church selfie. They need more than statements of how great it is (or we are) to praise God, or songs that communicate massive commitment without expressing much about who we are committing to or why. 

The church in its meetings needs to recover the heart of Christianity. Our meetings need to beat with a gospel rhythm. We need to say to ourselves and say to each other what we should be saying to the world: You lost and wandering ones, look not at yourself; look outside, to your Maker, Judge and Redeemer! Hear about him: his greatness and kindness and justice and love. It is great to worship him, but because he is wonderful, not because we are! Look to him, and you will find him to be a Friend, and he will put you on your feet and make you stand, in present storms and at the last day. 

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Dear American Evangelicals...

Dear American Evangelicals,

We are following the run up to your presidential election with concern and, at times, amazement. As Donald Trump has gone on his way, turning being a rank outsider into political currency, we have been stunned by the numbers of evangelicals who are openly and even enthusiastically supporting him. I include dear personal friends in this. As matters seem to have come to a head (or yet another head?!) I thought I would put in my two pennyworth. You ought to know that our pennies are not worth very much at the moment...

It was not surprising to read a very swift piece from Rachel Held Evans regarding the latest Trumperies. Her reaction was strong, articulate, and very predictable, given her stable. I find it more interesting when conservatives speak out. This piece from Louis Kinsey, Church of Scotland Minister, a strong evangelical voice, is just one insight into how the rest of the Christian world views the tendency for evangelicals in the USA to support Mr Trump. I find it particularly powerful precisely because I have found myself on the opposite side to Louis in some of our recent important domestic political questions! (Please note, therefore, that I am not presuming or de facto coopting his agreement to what follows...)

Most of us, long before this latest revelation - which - let's face it - comes as no surprise at all, does it? be honest now! - were already utterly appalled by the man, for his attitude to women and his attitude to... people. Just the way he speaks about his damned wall ought to be enough in and of itself. 
We have no right to speak, of course. Let alone vote, or try to interfere. But, as you guys are quite fond of saying, the USA is the most powerful country in the world; that is true, and the whole world will have to live with the consequences of your vote. Some of you even regard the USA's place in the world as God-given - which at one level, it is. But once you start to use the langauge of "God's man for the job" and the like, you elevate the question beyond the bounds of normal democracy. Once you use that kind of language, you make the question global and ecclesiastical - anyone who truly knows God and loves his word is just as entitled to an opinion about what He is doing in the world today as the United Statesian voters who will decide your election.

We may be able to understand some of your antipathy to Clinton. We are not blind to the issues that trouble you about the Democratic party, or your "Washington elite". We have similar feelings of deep division and discontent here. But when some of you move from (at most) grudging support for the "least worst" candidate in Trump, to embracing him enthusiastically as God's choice, the right man for the hour etc, we are absolutely gobsmacked. We are really left wondering if we are on the same page spiritually at all. I guess we all have blindspots, and the cultural gulf between British and American conservative evangelicals has been a mighty chasm for years, but this time the sense of unity and fellowship is getting very strained indeed.

We love you and are grateful for you. Personally, when I think of US evangelicals I think first of world evangelisation: if the 19th century was the great age of British missions, the 20th was the time of the American missionary, and your commitment, giving, vision and zeal have been amazing. I know many of you through friendships forged in Brazil. But at so many other levels we share so much; preaching and publishing, thinking and interacting - we owe you a great deal. We are family.

And as family, as brothers and sisters, we ask you: please think very hard before you vote for this man. You are concerned about the future of your country, and rightly so. Our nations would appear to be under the judgement of God, and for so many reasons. Our concern is that a President Trump would only add fuel to that particular fire - that he is cause for judgement, not a Saviour from it. Or even that he IS an aspect of the judgement.

We know you have a most unenviable choice of candidates, we know it isn't easy. It is just that many, many of us on the outside think that seeing Mrs Clinton as "least worst" is not rocket science. It is unfortunate that the choice appears to be binary - either Hillary or Donald, either unborn babies or Mexicans. But as someone has put it, if Trump hates so many who are alive, why would anyone think he really loves those who are unborn? He is appealing to the politics of hate, and that cannot have good fruit.

As you approach the election, please be assured of our prayers and love. I hope we can at least hold the family together, even when the world is going to hell in a handcart.

Our Father will, anyway! He knows those who are his. There I can rest!

God bless,


Friday, 30 September 2016

Messengers of the Gospel - A Postscript

I had broadly planned my last blog post before the welcome weekend for new cadets. As it turned out, on the Sunday at WBC London, the UK Territorial Commander himself spoke of exactly what it means to be a Messenger of the Gospel. He too made clear that that should include all of us. Much of what he said stole any thunder from my forthcoming piece, which left me running the risk of looking like I was trying to steal his! Such is life. 

TC Clive Adams was as direct and to the point as I have ever heard him. Perhaps as direct and to the point as I have ever heard anyone in a major SA gathering. He summarised the gospel message, highlighting the gravity of the problem of sin (however much we don’t like using the word), the crippling, universal inability that sin means for us, the awful reality of hell, and the centrality and uniqueness of the cross-work of Jesus in atoning for our sin and opening the path to life. He was serious and he was sober and he was visibly moved. When he had finished there was a strong response in the hall, with extra chairs being needed to enlarge the mercy seat. 

My own reaction throughout his sermon was tears of relief and happiness to just hear the gospel. Here was the truth, presented with care and passion. It was thematic rather than expository, the themes unfolded with deliberate precision, firmness and love. The night before, I had actually said to Sarah that I was considering leaving the Army for lack of gospel clarity and hope; here was the very message to steady and encourage me. I wept with joy that anyone in a big SA gathering would publicly and strongly affirm the points he made. 

And it is that sense of surprise and relief that makes me write this postscript. With one arguable exception, at no point did he go a single doctrinal step beyond what every soldier and officer says they believe when they make their commitment and covenant. He proclaimed to cadets of the Salvation Army doctrines that they themselves will publicly affirm at their commissioning in two years, truths to which every soldier and officer in attendance has subscribed. And yet, what was striking was how out of the ordinary it was. And the fact that, alongside the widespread reactions of glad receptivity and personal commitment following from what he said, there was also a palpable undercurrent of shock and some negativity.

In the Salvation Army we have multiple belief streams. We have diverse approaches to truth coexisting, sometimes happily, sometimes with tensions, occasionally clashing severely. That diversity is perhaps more visible on Facebook than it usually is in major formal gatherings, but it is there nonetheless, and can surface. I’ve written before about the need to recognise that diversity, and to work out how to talk to one another within it. But for me, Saturday’s meeting highlighted two paradigm shifts with regard to doctrine that need to occur if the Salvation Army in the UK is to recover its role as an evangelistic, growing church. 

The first has to do with the nature of “Doctrine” in itself – or “The Doctrines” in themselves. I know that sometimes they are honoured as much in being ignored as being looked at; I've lost count of the number of Salvationists who have told me that there was a cursory or even dismissive discussion of the doctrines when they became soldiers. Or no discussion at all. 

And one gets the impression that when we do look seriously at doctrine, it tends to be primarily with a view to just such moments of transition. Doctrinal study occurs in preparation for our key steps of commitment – be it preparation of recruits for soldiership or cadets for commissioning. Approached like that, it is all too easy to see the doctrines as a static test, a one-off exam, a hurdle to be jumped. But doctrine is actually doctrine. It is the stuff we teach. It is a summary of our message. Doctrine is what we say, what we proclaim. It is an active, dynamic, exciting concept. “We who are being commissioned today are looking forward to getting these truths out into the communities which we serve.”

The trouble with the word “doctrine” is that for some reason it gives the impression of stuffy dustiness, of staticness. It is not only in TSA that “The Doctrines” are those old statements which are signed ‘at the beginning’ and never more referred to. But that isn't and can't be and mustn't be the case for any church. We should be saying, “Here is the centre of our message!” This is what we talk about, what we proclaim: God in his glory, his Word in its authority, his Son in his wonderful person and atoning work, his Spirit and his holy-making transformation, the eternal urgency of it all. When a senior officer proclaims the doctrines of the Salvation Army at a welcome service for new cadets, and that is cause for remark or even complaint, it does leave you wondering what he is supposed to be preaching!  We need to recover the Doctrines as Message, as Teaching and Preaching synopsis.

The other paradigm shift that is needed is to accept that the Salvation Army doctrines are a statement of specifically evangelical doctrine. Actually, they are a statement of a subset of evangelical doctrine; the eleven sections are a description of specifically Wesleyan belief and exclude evangelicals of other streams. They are more restrictive than the breadth of Evangelicalism, and deliberately so. 

Now, one of the oddities in Salvation Army theological circles is the frequent affirmation that the opposite is the case.  It is said that the doctrines were always very flexible, very broad, very accepting. The implication is that our statement is actually wider than evangelical doctrine. Indeed, despite the Army’s own self-description as an “Evangelical part of the Christian Church” (see, e.g. here), it seems fairly common to show disdain even towards the word evangelical. Given the awful mess the term finds itself in through association with Trumpery and the like in the USA, I can empathise, but historically there is no doubt that our doctrines position us squarely in one specific part of the movement called evangelicalism. 

The view we need to recover can be shown diagrammatically like this: against the backdrop of all the “non-evangelical” options out there, evangelicalism classically defines itself in terms of its beliefs. Salvationism, with its roots in the Methodist New Connexion, is a narrower subset within the evangelical family. Anyone coming to the SA doctrines with previous experience of the great, detailed, 17th century confessions (Westminster, Savoy, London), and then of the short 19th and 20th century doctrinal bases of the evangelical movement (EA, IVF, WEC, OMF etc) would immediately recognise the SA statement as falling into the pattern of the latter group. They would also quickly spot that we have a distinct Wesleyan slant that has deliberately excluded Calvinists, who would be welcome alongside Arminians in the other evangelical bodies. 

In contrast to this, a common view at present is shown in the second diagram. What is frequently implied, or even explicitly stated, is that the Doctrines are somehow wider and more flexible than evangelicalism, taking in views that would certainly be regarded as non-evangelical historically and at present. 

That the first diagram corresponds accurately to our historic and present identity is borne out by the excellent introduction to our Handbook of Doctrine:

Our doctrinal statement, then, derives from the teaching of John Wesley and the evangelical awakening of the 18th and 19th centuries. While there was significant correspondence between evangelicals in the mid-19th century, indicated especially in the nine-point statement of the Evangelical Alliance of 1846, the distinctives of Salvation Army doctrine came from Methodism. The Salvation Army Handbook Of Doctrine Page xviii

The tendency to emphasise the breadth and liberty implicit in the doctrines often leads to discussing them with an emphasis on flexibility and diversity of interpretation rather than from the standpoint of definite and clear shared truth. Sometimes one feels that the driving motive for this claimed flexibility is precisely the accommodation of non-evangelical views while “affirming” the doctrines. Beliefs that the SA founders were deliberately and explicitly excluding are now accepted as falling within the range permitted by a new, elastic reading of the founders' words. It is that reading which is an innovation, and insofar as it seems to permit people to say they believe the doctrines while actually believing something else, it is a danger to the movement. 

This may have been one motive for any angst at the TC’s sermon; by appearing to foreclose the question of “flexibility” through affirming the doctrines, he seemed to make that elasticity and the whole business of “exploring interpretations” look redundant, or worse.  Certainly, what he had to say entered into sharp confrontation with simple unbelief. I cannot forget being told “No one believes those crazy doctrines!” by an SA employee some years ago; however much that statement came out of immaturity and the desire to shock, I think it was a manifestation of a mindset with which the TC came into conflict at the welcome weekend.

I know I am an oddity in TSA. I can’t even sign the doctrines myself! But I am honest about that, and I don’t sign them. And I am trying to honour them. And I don’t think I am alone in longing for one thing, and one thing alone, to dominate again in our church – we want Jesus and his gospel. We long to hear about God and his creation and our fall into sin, and new hope through his Kingdom coming in Jesus. We long to hear about Jesus’ life and kindness and wisdom and death and resurrection and the coming of his Spirit. We long to hear about repentance and faith and assurance and growth and holiness and hope and homecoming. We long to hear about heaven and hell. We long for the old, old story. We long for a message which is recognisably the message of our Founders. We long for Blood and Fire – the atoning work of Christ, preached in the power of the Spirit.

That is what God gave us through the TC last Saturday night. We don’t yet know whether the hardest task for the Messengers of the Gospel is going to be to go on preaching the authentic message when they are ridiculed by the world... or ridiculed by the church. But until the headline “Territorial Commander Affirms the Doctrines at Cadetsʼ Welcome; All Present Agree Fully” sounds a bit less Babylon Bee, I fear that it may be the latter.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Messengers of the Gospel

Sessional Song
24th September 2016 and yet another Cadetsʼ Session began at William Booth College, London, as it did at other Salvation Army training colleges around the world. As ever, the session has a name: Messengers of the Gospel. I think that the General has decided that the next few sessions will all be Messengers. This is an interesting move, which may reveal something of what he sees as the pressing priorities of the time. 

What does it mean to be a Messenger of the Gospel  ̶  or even a messenger of the gospel, as every Christian should be?

First, you have to be a gospel person. You have to believe the gospel and live the gospel. The heart of Christianity, as summarised in our own Doctrines, must be in your own heart. God, who spoke the world into existence, has gone on speaking into the world he made, even after we had turned our backs on him. We were so affected by our rebellion, morally incapacitated in all aspects of life, that we had rendered ourselves unable to get right with God. We were cut off, estranged from him, strangers to his kingdom. But God, in his amazing mercy, grace, kindness and love to the utterly undeserving, sent his Son, his Word, into the world, incarnate as Jesus. This Jesus brings Godʼs kingdom into a kingdom-rejecting world  ̶  he brings rebels back to God. At the heart of his work was his atoning death on the cross, which dealt with the problem of sin and opened the way that we might know God. That is seriously good news  ̶  it is real gospel  ̶  and it is communicated to the world by the Holy Spirit, who opens eyes to see Jesus, changes lives to look like Jesus, and opens mouths to speak of Jesus. Godʼs word through people, empowered by the Spirit, is  a dead-raising, life-giving, world-transforming word that ALWAYS makes a difference. That is how God builds his kingdom, and this powerful, kingdom-building, Word-Spirit communication will go on until the end of the age. Then there will be a judgement, and our lives, and our treatment of this Jesus who we encounter in the gospel word, will go on trial. And then there will be two eternal destinations  ̶  one of unspeakable joy in Jesusʼ new world and another of unspeakable sadness in the place to which Jesus sends determined exiles. 

That, in some form of words or other, is the Message. A messenger needs to believe it for themselves. You need to be a real Christian. You need to know and love this Jesus and his saving love and work for you. You need to be living a life which is being shaped into his likeness by his word and by his Spirit. You need to worship him with your mind, learning more and more of the shape of this message, and working out how to communicate it in your context and generation.

Because that is what you are going to do. Here is the second requirement: You have to be a speaking person. With life changed and heart on fire, with mind engaged and will responsive to His call, you will be looking all the time for ways and means to get that message over. You will be a conscious messenger, a communicator of this message in words. You know that it isnʼt a matter of “when necessary, use words”; you know that God has given you a message to get across, and your duty and joy is to use words in the best way possible to show people Jesus. 

To be a messenger of the gospel is at one level to be as free as a bird. You donʼt have to answer to earthly masters, impress the great and good, get the approval of intellectual elites and academic examining boards. Even your accountability to the law of the land is relativised by having a message that comes from God. You have no one to impress but Jesus. You can be free of all earthly limits, but you are not free to adulterate or skew the message,  to make it more acceptable to the latest incarnation of “this corrupt generation.”  That you cannot do. You are free to communicate verbally in any way you like, provided you are totally unoriginal with regard to the message itself.

You must use your freedom, because if you donʼt, you will preach irrelevantly. You must be unoriginal, because if you arenʼt, you will fill the hearts and minds of your hearers with a fake gospel which converts no one. You will become part of the great process of vaccinating people against the gospel which has been a major and disastrous accomplishment of the church in the West for so long. Don't fall for that - be a real Messenger of the real Gospel.

So far as the cadets in London SE5 are concerned, there are many, I'm sure, who want to commit to praying for you all that you may really be what your sessional name implies and demands of you. And we pledge to help in any way that we can to stimulate and encourage you in the communication of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Personally, I canʼt do much; I am a fly on the wall at WBC, and on an outside wall at that! But I hope at least Iʼm a benign fly and not a hornet, and Sarah is certainly a productive bee; our home is open for cadets to come and talk, share and study.

And if youʼre not in SE5, thereʼs always the Internet!

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Doctrine versus practice?

Mark 3:20-35 NIV
20Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”
22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”
23So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? 24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. 28Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”
30He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.”
31Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”
33“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
34Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

Mark chapter 3 gives us a first watershed moment in the tensions that surrounded Jesus early on in his ministry. Teaching and miracle-working are not neutral activities; people will want to own you or disown you, and both reactions are dangerous. In this passage – a typical "Marcan sandwich" – we see the family of Jesus coming to "take ownership" of him, followed by a section on the official teachers' opinion of him, and closing with the actual arrival of Jesus' relatives. The final words, "Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother" are seen by some as a strong call to correct practice as over against the sterile theologising of the intellectual authorities in Jerusalem. Is that right? 
The passage is, of course, a notorious one for its central difficulty: the teaching on blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But it is that difficulty that gives the lie to the idea that "it's not what you think or say, but how you live, that matters."  
Jesus' family think he's mad. That may have its roots in genuine concern for his wellbeing, as his life seems overwhelmed by so many demands that he and his inner circle can't even eat. However, the language of "madness" and of "taking charge" shows a mix of lack of understanding and a paternalistic sense of ownership. Perhaps there is also a desire for the kudos that comes from that ownership being seen and admired. Whatever their motives, they are not 'reading' Jesus right. They have not understood, and are acting/reacting in ways that reveal their non-understanding. 
As for the teachers of the law from Jerusalem, their opinion is just perverse, as Jesus shows in his sequence of 'kingdom' and 'house' sayings. When they say that Jesus is possessed by the devil, they are deliberately, obtusely, wilfully, wickedly refusing any openness to the most obvious explanation of Jesus’ ministry: he is the Strong Man from God who has come to destroy the Evil One and all his works. Such a deliberately obtuse refusal to countenance the truth about Jesus is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit; it is a locking of the door against the gospel and against any hope of salvation. 
When Jesus is told that his family has arrived outside the building, his reaction seems cool, even harsh. This is not the only time that he reacts with apparent coldness or rebuke when people close to him get things badly wrong about who he is or about his purposes. "Who really is my family?" he asks. 

And he looks at those sat round him and says, "Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” And out of context, that might seem to say that right living is all there is to it. But how do we do God's will? How do we understand it? How do we hear it? 

The key is to see who he is speaking to. The Greek construction is so emphatic and repetitive it is almost funny – he looked around him at those seated in a circle around him. Here are the people who are recognising him for who he is, and having recognised him, are soaking up his words. They are physically close to Jesus, gathered round him, because they have seen something in him, love him and want to hear him. And of course, when we take that emphasis on the “gathered circle” seriously, Jesus’ words at this point are a breath-taking statement of who he is. “Who is my family? Those who do God’s will – which starts with listening to me!” He is either appallingly insane, arrogant, or the revelation of God.

Here is a world where those who should know better through the closeness of family life or the depth of theological training and privilege are dismissing Jesus as mad or demonic. But in that world some people recognise him for who he is and are listening to his every word. Recognition of Jesus as the Strong One who comes from God, and therefore careful attention to his words as being the revelation of the will of God – these are the prerequisites for doing the will of God. Doing God’s will is essential – it is the mark of the Family – and it starts with truth about Jesus. Obedience to the will of God starts with right thinking about his Son. Right thinking makes us listen to Jesus in humility as he describes himself and his work, and thus how we should live. Being in Jesus’ family IS good theology being worked out in practice. And as the gospel of Mark goes on, right living is spelled out in ever stronger and clearer terms – and always in relation to the person of Christ and the nature of his death as a ransom.

There is a tide of hatred towards orthodox thinking that loves to pit doctrine and praxis against each other. Such talk has the aim of preserving Christianity and carrying it forward in the post-modern and post-post-modern generation. But it is as wrong-headed and destructive as “He is mad!” or “He is of Satan!” No one can truly love and live for God and despise the Son he has sent or the work that he achieved through him. Doctrine and life are twins – Siamese twins – inseparable and interwoven. Despise either and you will kill both.

Recognise Jesus, love his person, his words and his work, walk in his ways, and you can be assured: You are part of his family, now and forever!

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Time for a bit more depravity

Some time ago I wrote a blog on the doctrine of total depravity. Various subsequent conversations have kept bringing me back to the subject. In The Salvation Army it is a key issue, possibly ranking only just behind the doctrine of scripture as an indicator of where we are and where we are going. In particular, the common misconception that there can only be responsibility where there is innate ability is a constant point of attrition, and reflects a misunderstanding of the doctrine of sin. 

What I have noticed is a tendency to set the doctrine of sin over against the doctrine of the image of God, in such a way that the two modify, or leak into, each other. The confusion gets worse still when the Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace is added to the mix. 

So, by way of just one example, in a Facebook conversation about whether we are "naturally attracted to holiness", a friend who is a Salvationist can say, "Although I agree that we need to know we are sick to know we need medicine, I think, although we naturally side with sin since the fall, God also does give us the power and the choice to live a life of Holiness. Because although we are fallen we also are made in the image of God, even if the fallenness does come out more often than not."

In that paragraph, the doctrines of Image, Sin and Grace are swirling around and intermixed. If "God gives us power" were related to grace, it would not be so problematic, but it seems to be based in the image of God. The result is, effectively, a watering down of total depravity which, as I hope my last piece made clear, takes the real urgency out of the gospel of Jesus and leaves us in the same boat as all the other religions.

The problem starts with a lack of appreciation of salvation history. If the doctrines concerned are only viewed in the abstract, uprooted from their place in the Story, then there will be a greater risk of 'leakage' between them. Salvation history should ground us. The image of God is a concept from creation; whatever happens to that concept as a result of sin, it must be understood as starting in that pre-fall condition. Total depravity describes the condition of those who are in the image of God. It is post fall; it describes the spiritual inability of fallen people. It cannot be "modified" by the Imago Dei; rather, it assumes it, as the Image is the very backdrop against which sin, and the doctrine of sin, comes in. Finally, God's grace is revealed, starting in the sequence of curses that come with the fall. There will be a victory over the enemy: a victory on behalf of people made in the image of God who have fallen into total depravity. 

As we move from the methodology of Biblical Theology towards a systematic approach, taking these doctrines out of their salvation history context and expressing them as abstract ideas, we need to take special care to still keep them separate. 

The Image of God (often called the Imago Dei; a bit of Latin sounds impressive!) is about the purpose and honour of humankind as created. In an era when kings set up statues in their likeness in the city squares of their empire, where heralds would stand in front of those images and proclaim their laws and demands for tribute, the language of "Image and likeness" was instantly recognisable when describing man as the one who would "have dominion" as God's regent and representative on earth. Within the framework of the narrative of the handiwork of God in Gen 1, the Image of God sets the human race apart as the pinnacle of his creativity, with particular dignity and honour within the created order, but the phrase above all highlights our purpose within the world. We are not merely in the image of God; we are the image of God. 

The fall ushers in the era of failure to live up to purpose, and it does so precisely because the fall IS radical failure at the very heart of that purpose. Human dominion is to be under God; the world is there to be explored and enjoyed in submission to his supreme rule.  The exploration and enjoyment is to be shaped at its heart - at the centre of the map - by a seemingly arbitrary commandment whose purpose is to demonstrate commitment to his higher authority. At the moment that the couple eat the fruit, they come to the "knowledge of good and evil" in the sense of taking it upon themselves to define their own moral boundaries, instead of submitting to the creator. They are no longer heralds of his will, the spokespeople of his voice into the world. They now declare their own wills, and all hell (some hell, actually) is let loose. 

Imagine a magnificent car, from the classic era of big touring cars. Something like a 4.5 litre Bentley. Imagine it in perfect road condition, built for speed, able to race, turning heads, an awesomely beautiful machine. Then someone comes along and takes a crowbar to the valve rockers. They use the same tool to twist and distort the brake mechanism out of all functionality. They remove the steering wheel. They syphon out the fuel, and for good measure they blow up the oil wells and refineries; the fuel is made completely unavailable. 

The car is still magnificent. It is still intrinsically beautiful and valuable. But its fitness for purpose is utterly wrecked. It cannot move. If it rolls down a hill it is at the mercy of every bump and twist in the ground. It can't stop at the bottom. It cannot be moved uphill except by an outside force. It is impressive and full of grandeur. Further vandalism would still be crime, but it is totally unable to fulfil its purpose. 

We are not machines, but that is a description of total depravity. The dignity and worth of the image remains, but functionality is hopelessly compromised. Every aspect of purpose is affected and rendered useless. If you saw the wrecked car in motion, you would know that it was more of a danger than a joy. If you saw a number of them rolling down a hillside, you would know that, despite apparently chaotic paths taken, they had one thing in common - the downhill pull of gravity. 

No, we are not cars. A car can't wreck itself, which is what we did. But insofar as any illustration is useful, the car helps. We are beautiful, but unfit for purpose. Valuable but unable to fulfil our role. Pushed about by circumstances and trends of thought instead of ruling with maturity and stability under God. In the chaos of human existence, the one thread running through human behaviour is sin, as we career downhill and away from our Creator. 

What we must not do is play the doctrines of Image and Depravity off against each other. We are not permitted to look at that classic, wrecked, car and say, "It's so beautiful - I can't believe it's useless!" or, conversely, "It's so wrecked, it can't have any value!" Rather, the brilliant glory of the Creator is seen precisely in the fact that something of his magnificence is still so clear even in his vandalised handiwork. And the gravity of sin is highlighted by the grandeur and obvious dignity of what was wrecked. 

It is against that backdrop that we see grace. We are utterly unable and utterly undeserving to be what we ought to be, even though what we ought to be is written all over us. And yet, instead of coming in judgement, God comes to our wrecked creaturehood to bring light, to repair, to enable. His grace operates at precisely the level where the fall occurred - he draws us to a humble submission to his word and away from proud, independent self-sufficiency and self-determination. But the Word to which we are drawn is not simply a word of command, the proving point of who has authority in the world, but a Word of promise, the commitment of the Creator to forgive, to re-create, to transform, to re-form humanity. By grace we are remade in the full glory and perfection of his unspoiled image, gathered round a new man, our head, our captain, our champion, our authentic Adam, Jesus Christ.
In a depraved world such grace is "wholly other".  It isn't an outcropping of the image of God - it isn't a "bit of goodness left in us". It is all from God and it is all new. Once again, we mix the concepts at our peril. Leakage of Image into Grace will destroy the doctrine of Depravity - and then grace will no longer be grace. 

Last Saturday saw the commissioning in London of new lieutenants of the Messengers of Light session. The Territorial Commander spoke of exactly the distinctions seen in these doctrines, but in terms of light and darkness. Into a world of original chaos and darkness, God spoke Light at creation. But then human beings, the shining crown jewel of God's brilliant creation, chose darkness instead of light. We chose it, it overthrew us, we wallowed in it. And into that new, man-chosen darkness, God spoke light again. Personified light. Light incarnate. The Light of the world. And for those new lieutenants, as for every Christian, our calling is to carry that light into the world.  The way to be faithful Messengers of Light is to live in the light consistently, and to communicate the light in truthful words. Nowhere is that more critical than in clarity on sin and grace.