Friday, 28 September 2012

Are you quite done?

Is it off your chest and on the floor? Do you see how it looks now?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian minister who lived during Nazi Germany and eventually died at their hands just days before the end of the war. I came across one of this books this week that really seemed to speak into what I've been wrestling with.

A few things stood out with regards to the desire we all share for an inspiring and authentic church community. I thought I'd share them as I've found them to provide a sort of balm for the irritation of commercial Christianity we all sometimes feel from time to time.

Our desire to be part of and help build the sort of sacrifical, other-centered, powerful community that we read about in the New Testament is a good desire. The trouble is that this desire or hope, when deferred, makes us sick, frustrated and disillusioned with church. We conclude that it was a 'pie in the sky' utopian dream that was never going to happen. 

Bonhoeffer's comment was that 'There is a vision of community that can damage the formation of a community.' Whether it is a worldly vision of what community should look like (one where people are united by things other than Christ) or a scriptural one (like the church in acts 2). If we're not careful even a good vision can become a heavy weight to carry and eventually a stick to beat people with. Living with the vision of church as presented in Acts 2 is a good thing but if we start getting frustrated and bitter and grumbling that our church is not like it should be, then it is a bad thing and can destroy a church:

"The life or death or a Christian community is determined by whether it achieves sober wisdom on this point as soon as possible."

Spiritual communities united by Christ exist because of him and are created by his grace. We might say 'look they had all things in common and met together daily in one another's homes, we ought to do the same.' We want the outward appearance of community because of how it matches our vision of community, all the while not being aware that this longing can quickly become a hindrance to the sort of genuine article we're all looking for.

Human love can produce the community described in Acts 2 but it cannot produce the type of people we imagine were part of the community. Paul says 'I can sell all my possessions and give all I have to the poor,' not an impossible thing to do in the natural sense. I think it would be hard to do this in an unloving way and yet he goes on to say 'but if I have not love, I have nothing.' How can one give all their belongings away to the poor and yet be without love? Bonhoeffer says is is because the love we need is the love of Christ, a charitable divine love that forgets the virtue of an act but instead is caught up with the one who is Love himself.

I can enforce a 'house to house' policy on a church or I can open up my home and invite people to come round everyday. I may produce the outward signs of community but if it is not a community created by Christ it will not be the church, it will not proclaim the excellencies of 'him who called us out of darkness and into light.' I often love others out of selfish motives that look pure but in reality are masking my own selfish desires; I need to feel valuable and important or 'saintly'. Alternatively I can love others in Christ for Christ's sake and not my own. If I love them like this I allow them to be free and just as they are as God made them to be. Christ's love is a servant hearted, sacrificial, self-giving love that seeks to bless without any thought of exact returns. Human love is often a tit-for-tat 'I'm keeping tabs' sort of love; a self-justifying love. A love that is dutiful but that ends in feelings of pride or moments of self-congratulation at a duty done or a service enacted.

"Every human wish dream that is injected into Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive."
It is not a desire for 'community' that unites us and empowers the formation of a community but the identification with Christ, the unity of his Spirit that sees as a sort of by product or after thought the forming of a wholly unique community.
"Christian community is like the Christian's sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification... Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so too, the Christian community taking its temperature."
 A practical way that we can see a Christ-centred community formed is through thankfulness. Give thanks for the little things, the everyday and apparently mundane. Give thanks for the community we are, enjoy the church you're a part of. Thank God for the small and he will give us the large.

Avoid grumbling, offer support, keep gratitude as the prevailing attitude in your heart and see how God can add to it.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Lure of Hypocrisy

Spoiler alert.

I feel sick of slick. I feel sick of people who smile sweetly, who present a 'got it together' image. Sick of downloading vodcasts and podcasts of the latest Christian personality.

I feel sick of the celebrity culture in the church. The 'I follow Apollos' mentality that decides whether I'm in or out, credible or not. Bright lights and a camera on a crane. Popstars and doting faithfuls, carrying the bags and hanging on the words of bright minds and sharp wits. Sick also of the 'anointed' frauds I hear about and read about. 'Follow me' Jesus said to a group of fishermen and outcasts. Was this really in his mind? A church full of TV presenters and the nausea inducing age of Christianity I live in?

I haven't got room in my stomach for name-dropping or rhetoric. Words seem too deceitful to trust. I don't know who I am, or what I really think. I like only the sound of the syllables and the images, the twists they create in my mind. A clever phrase here, a long pause there. Tugging on heart strings, looking for weak spots for a good 'way in' to someone's heart. I hate it that when I hear a good story or am moved by a touching illustration my first thought is to file it away for a rainy day or a sermon that's lacking some 'fizz'.

I feel sick that my life and mind are full of inconsistencies and holes, I am double-sided at best. Am I successful Christian because I can preach? Am I faithful because I can hold a crowd or gain a following?

I want only to follow the saviour, want only to see him save souls, heal the sick and transform lives. I don't want hype, flashing lights, smoke machines and emotional responses. I want honesty, integrity and authenticity. Honestly. 

I feel the draw of jargon more than ever before, the lure of hypocrisy like I've never known. If I can present an image or a brand, use the right words, avoid scandal and keep everyone happy then I'll have made it. Grow a church and live a quiet life, isn't that what Paul told me to do? Act therefore. Fake it until you make it. Right?



Authenticity. I hate the word because of its overuse but I have no other. Authenticity. Not a brand or an image but a genuine heart felt and honest pursuit of Jesus' intended meaning for my life. Oh how I want to love people, to see people healed and delivered, to see the Kingdom of God established as Jesus and Isaiah described it. His vision for my life is far better than anything I could ever have concocted on my own, his understanding of my nature more comprehensive than I ever would have dared to admit, his remedy more satisfying for my soul than I could have imagined. 

Surrender. Complete and utter, honest surrender. The end of hypocrisy, the end of acting. The end of idolatry and self-centered decision making. The end of 'I'm ok' and the end of 'I'll do it my way.'

As I am he bids me - "come". Shortcomings and all, questions-a-plenty and the removal of any masks I might wear. 

I shall live for ever in pursuit of him and his vision of church: a crowd of honest, faith-full, spirit empowered lovers of God and others. A place of no pretence. A place where healing, restoration and obedience sometimes-through-gritted-teeth and other times in joy and delight honours Jesus; the God-man who conquered our greatest enemy and rose to new life and complete authority. The greatest hoax the world has ever known - or true.

Nothing else will cut it, nothing else will do. The world has seen a show, it's been to the West End and it has watched countless X-Factors. Now let's give it the church.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Jesus my colleague


He's the one I work with, sorry for. You may have heard of him. He's there in every meeting I attend and since I work for a church, most meetings are about him. Occasionally I take time out to ask him what he thinks of this or that decision but most of the time I assume I know what he wants, I've read his book after all.

I want people to follow him, and I'd love to introduce people to him but in reality I don't much like talking to strangers and it's hard to change someone's mind about the type of toothpaste they use, let alone the god they worship. Surely he knows that.

I do want him to be worshipped and honoured as the ruler and king that he is. In our church services I want to sing and shout and dance and delight, but I sang this song last week, and the week before that and I'd really rather sit down and listen to a talk about him (it's far less demanding).

I do love working with, sorry for Jesus but it's just that he follows me home as well. If I could do a job and say goodnight at the end of the day it might be ok. I could clock out and go home and do what I want - on my own time.

I'd like to tick off my to-do list and tell him what I've done and how I tried to point more people to him. Maybe I could get the occasional bonus (or be the recipient of a church member's Spirit-led generosity) for my labour.

The trouble is (and it is a trouble) he's more concerned with my marriage than with my ministry - oh wait that's not the right distinction is it? I mean he cares more about how I speak to Amy than he does about how many emails I replied to that day, and that's a nuisance. I wish I could impress him simply by putting in more hours, by showing him how devoted I am. I wish I could gain his approval by avoiding certain films or by swearing less. I wish my colleague (sorry my boss) would give me clearer targets, ones that could be ticked off and filed away. That way I'd be able to show off how good I am.

In short I wish I could be left alone when I'm at home. I'd like to emotionally withdraw to build a castle and live in it and have him make no demands on me. I wish I could indulge in my selfishness and be answerable to no-one.

I only wish I could be left to build my own kingdom where I'm appreciated and respected (but from a distance so that I'm not bothered too much) by all. I wish people would speak highly of me and make their every decision only after consulting me (and afterwards give me the credit for any success they experience). I wish every sermon could have a reference to my piety and talent or humility and authenticity, that every illustration had me as its example. I wish I could set trends in fashion and influence people's shopping habits. In short I wish people would acknowledge my brilliance so that I wouldn't have to try and prove it to them.

The trouble is that Jesus, as much as he is my colleague (and my boss), is my friend and my redeemer. The trouble is (and it is a trouble) that Jesus doesn't care too much about what I do as a day job, but only how I do it. Jesus is far less concerned with externals than I wish he'd be. If only I could pull the wool over his eyes. If only he'd be happy with my TV presenter persona, the image I present to the world or to the church.

Oh. Bother.

What a (insert sufficiently watered down and less religious sounding version of 'wretched' here) man that I am. More like the Father of Lies than my Father in Heaven.

Who will save me from this body of death and wickedness and self-centered, ego-stroking life of mine?

Thanks be to Jesus, my colleague from hell - but my saviour and rescuer from heaven.