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. 

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

I know thee who thou art

I know thee who thou art,
And what thy healing name;
For when my fainting heart
The burden nigh o’ercame,
I saw thy footprints on my road

Where lately passed the Son of God.
Thy name is joined with mine
By every human tie,
And my new name is thine,
A child of God am I;
And never more alone, since thou
Art on the road beside me now.
Beside thee as I walk,
I will delight in thee
In sweet communion talk
Of all thou art to me;
The beauty of thy face behold
And know thy mercies manifold.
Let nothing draw me back
Or turn my heart from thee,
But by the Calvary track
Bring me at last to see
The courts of God, that city fair,
And find my name is written there.
General Albert William Thomas Orsborn 1886-1967
This is one of the few Salvationist hymns which are known at all outside the movement. There are others that perhaps ought to be, but this one certainly deserves its place; it is one of the best hymns from the Salvation Army fold. 
The author was the sixth General of the Salvation Army, serving in the UK and for a period in New Zealand. He knew something of intense suffering, and it seems to me that this hymn probably came out of that. If anyone has further information on the circumstances, I would be glad to know! Not least, it would be interesting to know if it predates the well-known poem Footprints, which itself has disputed dating/authorship.
The language of the hymn comes from someone steeped in English hymnody, and especially Wesley. The hymn is notable for the progression of consciousness of God's presence: v1 footprints are seen, v2 the Lord is walking beside, v3 there is deep conversation and fellowship and in v4, this heavenly companion brings the writer home.

It's worth watching out for the subject of the verb "o'ercame" at the end of the fourth line of the first verse. And I would be interested in what people think Orsborn meant by "every human tie" in verse 2 line 2.

This hymn has become very precious to me recently, though it also brings back a sad memory from many years ago.

Friday, 1 July 2016

One hundred years since the Battle of the Somme

About 43 years ago (that is 43% of the way back to the battle) I saw this image for the first time. I have never forgotten it. 

A little later I went by train to Paris and remember the thousands of white crosses flicking into lines... columns and rows and diagonals, as we sped past.

The man happens to be German, but you would need to know a bit about uniforms to tell, wouldn't you?

Don't forget. 

Whole lotta shaking going on

It is arguable that the UK is now in its biggest mess since the last World War. The difference being that then we were, by and large, united. This time the mess is in the disunity. The Tories and Labour are both torn apart, with the opposition in particular disarray and carrying the can for what was really a Tory row. People say that they don't know who they can look in the eye in the street. Families are divided, with the traditional alliance between teenagers and their grandparents under special strain. And immigrants and transients feel insecurity and fear as at no point in most of their lifetimes. 

The most striking thing to me is the degree of disruption that has also occurred in relations between Christians, and church leaders particularly. At a General Election, very few ministers come out strongly and publicly in favour of one or other party. Still less is there an attempt to theologise the vote, in the sense of bringing arguments that claim a biblical basis for a particular choice. This time though, between a sudden attachment to, for instance, "the biblical concept of the nation state" and the discovery of the "vital role of the EU in preserving freedom for gospel work in Europe", we were pushed this way and that by strongly worded claims. It was all too easy to imply that, ultimately, only a Leave, or only a Remain, vote would have God's approval and blessing.

And strongly-worded we were. At a time when we were undoubtedly being lied or spun to by politicians on every side, Christian ministers were also going for the jugular, and the strain in relationships was and is visible. Some have had to get out of social media. Others have dropped or blocked brothers and sisters in Christ. To the best of my knowledge, the only friend I have lost was a Christian woman with whom I remonstrated for her apparent willingness to let anger turn to physical assault on a public figure. It's been rough, hasn't it? 

It is time to calm down, breathe deeply, look at ourselves, and deal with some issues. Above all, we need to think biblically and in a way that sees the Kingdom and the power and wisdom of God in all of this. 

1) God rules over the nations. He directs the heart of the king as a gardener directs the hose onto his prize roses. He does that for voters too. This referendum has surprised and shocked a lot of people - including, it would appear, some of the victors! Our sovereign Lord wasn't surprised. If you are happy with the result, don't let your happiness simply flow from a sense of "we did it."  Give thanks to God. And if you are unhappy, or very unhappy, let your unhappiness be tempered by the awareness that God is sovereign over this mess too and he has his purposes in it. 

2) Christians are to submit to the authorities. In this case, in any democratic process, that means submission to the will of our fellow voters, unless we are being forced along a path fundamentally inconsistent with our faith. That is surely not the case here. The issue was important, but not actually one where Christian faith itself was at stake. So, submission must now be our principle. We argued hard beforehand precisely because we knew that every individual's mind mattered and we wanted to win minds. I can tell you, whinging after a vote has gone against you ain't going to win any minds. The only way to change things is through proper democratic process - we are at liberty to work within democratic mechanisms to effect change, but I don't see that we are at liberty to simply refuse to submit to the decision as taken. 

3) The Kingdom of God is the real and lasting kingdom. Essential to our understanding of it is that, while nations, alliances, empires and civilisations come and go, Jesus' kingdom will endure and grow and dominate at last the entire created order. And the other kingdoms HAVE TO come and go for that to be seen. Think about the rise and fall of empires as seen in Daniel's prophecy. Think about the smoke of Babylon rising for ever in Revelation - and the fact that the smoke of destruction is the subject matter for a neat little worship song. Think of every knee bowing at the name of Jesus. It of the essence of Christian faith that the British empire (like all the others) did not last for ever!

We are citizens of another kingdom, and the mighty hand of God lifting up and casting down countries and politicians is to be a reason for praise, not fear. We need to take into account the possibility that God is actually in the process of dismantling much of what we have regarded as normal. The preservation of that "normality" or even its transformation in a direction that we want cannot be our highest priority. 

4) The biggest issue facing all of us as individuals, and the root cause of the spiritual bankruptcy in our society is our citizenship, or lack of it, in that kingdom and our relationship with its King. In the light of that overriding issue, I have been alarmed by the level of passion applied by Christians in arguments re Brexit. The question certainly has arisen - are we as fervent in persuading when it comes to the good news of Jesus? It has staggered me that gospel ministers of maturity and repute have weighed in so heavily on social media when talking to complete strangers of whose spiritual standing they know nothing. One suspects they may not be used to talking to people who actually think differently from them. I felt I had to write to one prominent conservative evangelical leader who had been arguing in a thread on my Facebook, just to give him a heads up regarding some of the people he was talking to. I received no reply and I saw no change of tone in the argument, still less any use of the moment to communicate anything related to the kingdom of Christ. 

When people bump into strangers on the Internet, they often get into heated arguments. We all know what social media can do to usually mild-mannered people. But a Christian must not hide in the anonymity of the internet. We are going to give account for every idle word. And there is no such thing as a "random stranger", for Providence is behind every conversation. There is no one who we will never meet again, for one day we will all give account at the judgement seat of Christ. All will meet there. Every internet conversation forms part of our story and of the story of those we "meet" in this life. How will we give account for our passionate persuasion re Brexit and our indifference to people’s ignorance of God, his commands, his judgment and his grace?

5) The referendum has both revealed the frustration, disenfranchisement and anger that already affected a vast number of people in our country, and has increased the division, turmoil and uncertainty that our society faces. We are in an appalling mess. 

At the political level that tells us that we had better be listening, talking and engaging in real conversations with struggling people who feel that an elitist system has let them down. There has never been a better time to get involved, but it had better be with a genuine, honest open-handedness and readiness to help people. They will know if it isn't. 

And at a spiritual level, we are seeing a meltdown of the things that people have relied on. There is a great shaking happening - within our nation, and between nations. Things are very disorientating. Where can people turn for any higher certainties and values than the dross of false promises and dashed hopes that have come from politicians? At such a time, the church needs to be united, loving, understanding and clear in its proclamation of grace. 

I am accustomed to the fact that some liberals have drifted from the urgency and overriding priority of the eternal, eschatological gospel; I am really disconcerted when conservative evangelicals let a political agenda usurp the place of the gospel in their conversations. 

For my part, I apologise for any and every interaction where I have failed in balance, kindness or understanding over the last fraught weeks. I want to appeal to you, especially to gospel preachers, to make a conscious effort to examine yourself, put right any relationships that words and attitudes have strained, and do all that is within you to preserve and demonstrate the unity we have in the Spirit. This is for our good as individuals, for the good of the church, and for the good of a hurting, lost, blind and fragmented world. 

I am strangely excited about the present situation. Not because I have come round to thinking Brexit was a good idea politically, but because I can recognise that in uncomfortable times, God is at work. I think that a much more radical breakdown is entirely possible, with potential for terror and violence on an unprecedented scale. I can also see Islam going through death throes, with a new openness to the grace of Jesus Christ already being seen amongst many who have fled from (let's face it) persecution by other Muslims. No wonder they are open!
But I can also see new waves of hate, and more readiness to show it. If British streets run red with Muslim blood, will you and your church be ready to stand between the immigrants and the mob? Will hospitality and love to strangers be the hallmarks of your religion? 

If the post-modern tide reaches its peak and the church really is persecuted, will you stand firm? Or if an anti-post-modern, anti-political-correctness backlash should take hold, will you be ready to stand equally against that tide and with the newly-oppressed? 

We don't know which of those futures it will be. But we do know who holds the future, and we know that he has work for us to do still. Let us plead with him for his Spirit to be poured out again, for his church to stand firm again, for holiness and love to mark us out, and for an as yet unimagined harvest to be brought in. The hope for Europe isn't the EU, or Brexit, Dexit, Frexit or any other Exit. It is God, in Christ, reconciling people to himself by the Spirit's power.