Lone Rangers to Power Rangers…thinking about spiritual gifts.

It’s common today, especially within charismatic churches, to point out how young children instinctively view themselves as superheroes or princesses in their playacting and that Jesus commanded us to be like little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. There’s an excellent point here that we’re made for adventure. The Christian life is far more than living under a rule book, it’s being empowered by the Spirit living in us to be on adventure with Jesus. Afterall, Holy Spirit doesn’t only produce in us character (Galatians 5 fruits of the Spirit…which is a miracle in itself!), but works in us gifts (1 Cor. 13; Romans 12) and calls us into ministries (Ephesians 4). Praise the Lord!

But here’s a question when we’re thinking about things like Spiritual Gifts….what kind of superheroes are we?

http://therecruitinglab.com/the-lone-ranger-the-rainmaker-or-the-firm-owner-which-business-model-is-right-for-you Sometimes we can act like a Lone Ranger. We live in a society where the individual is king; increasingly we’re wanting products that are customized and personalized for us; we’re wanting to find our ‘dream job’, to only do what fits ‘the real me’…and so we’re first seeking to understand and establish who ‘I am’ before we begin to even think about how we engage with others. There’s something crucial about knowing our identity in Jesus, but things become squiffy if we think finding this identity means focusing on me over and against (or simply without reference to) any other people. Spiritual Gifts become about finding my gift, my place, my ministry…it’s good to know all of these things, but not if this is where we’ll find our identity or if this means we will only serve or relate to churches or ministries where I fit

http://www.ew.com/article/2015/08/06/fantastic-four-original-movies-vaguely-defendedSo it seems common sense to try for something more like the Fantastic Four. We know afterall that there are things we can’t do on our own, that we are called to be part of a team, that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts when we all work together. Excellent and true, and definitely there is some resonance here with St Paul’s image of the Body of Christ – we’re all one body and individually members of it…we need each other…but I think Paul’s getting at far more than the need for team work… What is so supernatural about that anyway? You don’t need the Holy Spirit to tell you it’s good to be part of a team…
http://movieweb.com/power-rangers-movie-art-zords/

Maybe the superheroes God is forming are more like Power Rangers…remember them? Certainly these awesome foursome had individual gifts and talents, and they did pretty well beating off individual little baddies. But there came a point in every episode where the enemy would suddenly be super-sized to immense proportions and at that stage it wasn’t even enough just to work together…at that stage “it’s morphing time”….they had to actually merge together to become a superhero far larger than they could ever be on their own. They weren’t a group of individuals coordinating efforts…they became a super-sized individual with different parts…one body, many members.

I believe this is an (undoubtedly limited!) analogy for thinking right about the church. We can so emphasize individual salvation, calling, ministry, gifting that the church becomes a voluntary collection of individuals we make important by emphasizing that life is simply better together…

http://movieweb.com/power-rangers-movie-art-zords/…but the truth is far more radical, far more awesome than that. The church is the Body of Christ, made of many members to be sure, but one body united to Christ our head. No member is complete on our own just as no hand is complete without the arm, shoulder, etc, etc…We are one body only together. Reading through 1 Cor 13, Romans 12, Ephesians 4 and many other passage dealing with the body of Christ, I can’t get away from realizing that God deals with the body first and individuals as members of it. In other words, when the Spirit gives gifts He gives them to the body and does so by giving them to individuals… This subtly but significantly shifts our focus. The question isn’t: what gifts have you given me God? It becomes: what gifts are you giving this body and how do you want to use me within it? Suddenly we don’t get jealous when someone has a gift I don’t have or get defensive trying to establish ‘my place’…rather we celebrate that we have this gift and we are firm in our call to this community, this body.

We begin to ask: what are you calling us to as a body…? We discover the adventure is far bigger than we thought…the enemy’s we can fight are far larger than we dreamed…

There’s so much more to say on this and please do say it by leaving a comment below. But at the very least I hope I’ve given you here a thought to ponder – when you think of church membership, of spiritual gifts, of ministry…what superhero are you? We’re saved to be part of a something so much bigger than ourselves… ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ bringing light into darkness, life into dead places…as we celebrate this Christmas let’s remember He’s among us still through His body the church. What an adventure to be part of!

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Colours on the Horizon – viewing the future from the Father’s table

There is a new season coming for the church.  A season characterised by creativity and community.  As a friend and I were praying and talking yesterday we were struck afresh by how true this is, how we can see signs of it already bubbling up, but how we have no idea what it will look like.  Like colours on the horizon we can see signs of it, but can only walk to it step by step, doing what God says each moment.  This isn’t a set model that we can develop a tried and tested strategy to reach. We feel like we have been given an opportunity to explore what it might look like in one particular church gathering that we’re part of.  Exploring by simply doing what God says to do each step.  First we began eating together, now we want to encourage, demonstrate and release creativity and expression towards God.  That is what has inspired this poem.  It’s not meant to be polished or amazing, it is the beginning of an expression of praise through creativity, of me finding a voice I didn’t think I had, in the hope that others might find theirs.  (Click on the image below to read the poem.)

Background Image from http://lloydbleekcollection.cs.uct.ac.za/images/bleek_nb_lowres/BC_151_A1_4_015/A1_4_15_01494.JPG

Dwelling: The Christian Life Part 3

From: http://dailyjesusnow.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/dwelling-in-gods-secret-place.htmlFaithfulness is the center of the Christian life, perseverance is how we respond to opposition, dwelling in God is where the two come together.

Psalm 91 is considered by a number of scholars to be a psalm describing spiritual warfare.  (Why not read it now?)  The references to ‘the fowler’s snare’, ‘deadly pestilence’ and ‘the terror of night’ for instance, are probably references to demons and gods of the nations at the time.  In other words, this psalm is talking about how we find safety in the battle that we enter as Christians.

So how do we find safety?  The answer in this psalm comes in the very first verse:

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High, will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. (Psalm 91:1)

When it comes to opposition and spiritual warfare we are called to dwell in God.  There is huge similarity to the call to perseverance we find in Nehemiah.  Again it is John Wimber who helped me see this incredible truth that, no matter what the enemy may throw at us, nothing can harm us when we dwell in God.

Wimber describes how, during the second world war, numerous bomb shelters were being built near his home in America.  One day there was an accident by one of these shelters and a house was blown up.  Wimber remembers hearing a man say, “What a shame the house wasn’t in the shelter rather than near it!”From: http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/homefront/shel/shel2.html

God is our shelter, the one in whom we are safe.  It is not enough to live near God – to have right doctrine or remember a particular experience from time ago – we need to live in Him today and every day.

Dwelling in God is a journey.  It is a journey of intimacy.  And it is this intimacy that links perseverance and faithfulness together.

Jesus said “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.  The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them” (John 14:21).

Dwelling in God is to remain in love with Him.  As we love Jesus we are loved by the Father – this is the place of safety – the place where no opposition can harm us.

Yet this love and dwelling comes from obeying God’s commands.  Does this mean that God does want us to achieve for him, to fulfill his tasks before he will love us?  Only if we misunderstand the commands of Jesus.  The greatest command is to love God with everything we have and to love our neighbour.  The command Jesus wants us to obey is the command to love Him, to live with Him, to be His children – the command to be faithful.

Let me conclude like this: the three words of these three posts are different angles on the same theme.  Faithfulness. Perseverance. Dwelling.  There is a mission for the church, callings for every Christian, a purpose for which we are made.  These are important and worthy of all that we have.  But these are not the essence of the Christian life, they are not tasks God expects us to fulfill or goals we are meant to achieve.  We could do nothing to save ourselves before Jesus saved us and we can do nothing by ourselves to achieve the purpose Jesus saved us for.  We were saved when God brought us into relationship with Him and now the focus of our lives is to keep in that relationship.

Faithfulness means walking with God; perseverance means not getting distracted; dwelling in God means trusting we are safe when we simply stay with Him.  The Christian life is about faithfully persevering in dwelling with God.

Perseverance: The Christian Life Part 2

From: http://www.gembapantarei.com/2008/11/7_leadership_lessons_from_a_mountain_goat.htmlThe purpose of the Christian life is to be faithful – to live with God as the kind of person He has made us to be.  This is what we are called to focus on and put our effort into.  This is the essence of the last post.  But there is more.

There are callings that God places on our lives, things that He is wanting to do through us.  Ephesians 2:10 describes the Christian as God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works prepared in advance for us to do.  We are called to put our effort into being the person God has made us to be, but there is also a purpose he has made us for.  This purpose is something that God will work through us as we focus on living faithful to Him.

Yet I wonder how many of you have, like me, experienced the reality that when we put our face to the work God has given we begin to face opposition?  When we hear the call of God and decide to walk with Him, things often get difficult.  The fact remains that we are in a battle and this battle is real.  But how do we fight it?

Here the book of Nehemiah reveals a simple yet profound truth.  Our secret weapon in spiritual warfare is Perseverance.

Nehemiah is a book in the Old Testament that described the work of Nehemiah in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.  A number of years after God’s people had been exiled and Jerusalem destroyed, the Persian King gave Nehemiah permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city.  What we read both describes the historical situation and offers an example of how the Enemy brings opposition to God’s work and how we respond.

Opposition to the work comes mainly from Sanballat, the leader of the neighbouring people who did not want Jerusalem rebuilt.  Throughout the book we see numerous attempts from him to obstruct Nehemiah.  First he mocks and ridicules the very idea of rebuilding the wall.  Next he begins to threaten.  Later he calls Nehemiah to have a conversation giving a false sense of security, but then begins to spread lies that Nehemiah is seeking to revolt.

Mockery, accusation, distraction, and lies.  Ring any bells?  Anyone who begins to follow a clear call of God, no matter how great the experience that led to that call, will experience some or all of this issues.  Having moved cities or started a new role or stepped out in a particular way we’ll face ridicule that we’re being stupid, accusation that we’re doing the wrong thing, distraction that we should be busy with something else, and potentially even lies accusing us of things that have no basis in truth.  We may even find, like Nehemiah, that close friends of ours begin to speak the same things to us – even when well meaning.  It was one of Nehemiah’s friends who tried to convince him to hide in the temple due to fear that Sanballat was sending people to kill him.

What was Nehemiah’s response?

From: http://dwellingintheword.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/654-nehemiah-4/

This is what I find particularly interesting.  Nehemiah fought this opposition by simply keeping on keeping on.  He persevered with what God had said.

Too often we can slip into thinking, as soon as opposition raises it’s head, that we need to stop, turn aside and ‘deal with the opposition’ before we carry on with the work.  The assumption is that we must first make this opposition stop before we can continue with what God has called us to

John Wimber, whose teaching brought this to my attention, puts this wonderfully: ‘Nehemiah didn’t stop building the wall in order to fight the opposition. Rather, he fought the opposition by building the wall.’

Now, Nehemiah didn’t simply ignore opposition.  He took some precautions by arming some of the workers and setting people as watchmen.  He also brought every issue to God and we repeatedly read that, when accusation or threat came, he went straight to God in prayer and asked for help.  But he kept on building.

The Christian life is a call to faithfulness and the response to opposition is perseverance.  Why?  Because ultimately it is God who works through us to do what He has planned to do.  Our job is to keep in step with Him – to be the people He has called us to be in order that He can do through us what He has purposed to do.  There is no opposition that can stand in the way of that and there is nothing that can harm us when we dwell in Him.  And that is the topic of the next post.

Faithfulness: The Christian Life Part 1

From http://www.faithfulmagazine.blogspot.co.uk/Being Faithful.  That is the heart of the Christian life. It is the name of this blog because it resonates with me as being the simple center I want my life to be built around.  Whatever issue or situation we’re facing or thinking about, from personal finances to social morality, the focus point we always return to is the call to be faithful.

In these next three posts I want to reflect on three terms that have brought this home for me recently.  Faithfulness. Perseverance. Dwelling.

Faithfulness.

First things first: what does it mean to say that ‘being faithful’ is the heart of the Christian life?

It means recognizing that God has not called us to achieve but to follow.  His focus is not on what we do for Him but on who we are.  Think of it in terms of success.

From: https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=faithful&aq=f&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hl=en&tbm=isch&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi&ei=8n47UY_IN8rb7AaQjICIAQ&biw=1438&bih=754&sei=9X47UbHlA-KJ0AXMx4GgAg#um=1&hl=en&tbm=isch&sa=1&q=success+happiness&oq=success+happiness&gs_l=img.3..0j0i24.33143.36992.2.37060.17.11.0.6.6.0.53.495.11.11.0...0.0...1c.1.5.img.5xgH2AQ_Bkg&bav=on.2,or.r_qf.&bvm=bv.43287494,d.d2k&fp=331fcdb54cbdf1dd&biw=1438&bih=710&imgrc=NsbHnIRHqKzcsM%3A%3BjbJOAbcVwp63OM%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fwww.actionforhappiness.org%252Fumbraco%252FImageGen.ashx%253Fimage%253D%252Fmedia%252F37928%252Fhappiness-success_230_x_240.jpg%2526format%253Djpg%2526compression%253D80%2526width%253D230%2526constrain%253Dtrue%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fwww.actionforhappiness.org%252F%3B230%3B240It’s fair to say that most people today want to be successful.  We want to do well.  Bookshelves are full of titles designed to help us live better, be happier, to succeed.  For many, though we may not verbalize it quite like this, there is an underlying belief that if only we can succeed in the next thing we’ll be happier, more loved, more significant.

It is easy in this context to view Christianity as just another set of principles and ideas to help you succeed.  I know many Christians, and indeed was one myself, who essentially ‘Christianise’ the way of life, priorities and understanding that we had before coming to faith and meeting Jesus.  ‘Success’ may now mean not doing naughty things, bringing more people to church, telling more people about Jesus – but however we define it, succeeding remains the priority and the basis of our value.  God will like me if I do well.

The entire Old Testament demonstrates how, even when we are given God’s perfect rules, we are unable to live as the kind of people He has made us to be.  That is precisely why Jesus came and paid the price we could not pay on the cross, so that we could come close to God.  The incredible truth of the gospel is not that we are given even better rules, but that we have been made children of God.  That we have been made alive in Christ, rather than dead in sin.  That we have been made saints rather than sinners.

This is what it means to ‘become a Christian’ – that who we are is changed – but it also shapes what it means to ‘grow as a Christian’.

Having explained this incredible truth of the gospel – that we can now, through Christ, ‘participate in the divine nature’ (i.e. become like God) – Peter goes on to summarise what it is God wants us to actually do:

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.  (2 Peter 1:5-7)

‘Faith’ is trusting that what God says He has done for us, He has done – namely, that we are made new in Him.  He wants us to add to this ‘goodness’, then ‘knowledge’, ‘self-control’, ‘perseverance’, ‘godliness’, ‘mutual affection’ and ‘love’.  None of these are goals to achieve or things to do for God.  All of these are about the kind of people we are called to be, no matter what we are doing.  All of these are about faithfulness – living like God based on believing the truth about God.

There are things that God calls us to do, but these are promises of what He will do through us, not tasks we are expected to achieve.  The focus for all of our efforts is in being like God, which comes from knowing that we are with Him.  It doesn’t matter if you are an international preacher or a dinner lady, a president or a dustbin man – whatever we do we can live fully for God, being a completely successful Christian, as we focus on being the kind of person we are called to be.

Christianity is about faithfulness.

We ARE the church on mission… (Talking to Michael Moynagh Part 2)

So, last post I introduced Michael Moynagh’s argument that mission is a task for the Christian community, not individuals alone, and the need to recognise that ‘church’ can be any Christian community in any context – not just Sunday gatherings in residential areas.  This post I want to offer a response….

Yes Michael!

I couldn’t agree more that the Christian community is essential for mission.  I think Hauerwas is spot on that it is in this community that we learn what it is to be Christian, that we learn the language, actions and perspective that shapes us to live faithful to God.  I think Newbigin is totally right that the gospel will only look credible today when people can see a community who are actually living it out.  We can shout opinions all we want, but if we can’t point to a community of people actually living as if those opinions are true then they’re seen to be empty and hollow.

A couple of minor points I’d like to tweak a bit….

For example, Moynagh argues that, although Hauerwas recognises the problem of Christians being isolated in most of their lives by suggesting we should be sent out in pairs, he doesn’t go far enough to see the missional role of community because he is stuck with an assumption of church as the Sunday gathering in residential areas.  Maybe, maybe not.  I would argue (indeed, I have argued in an MPhil where I also strongly stated the missional role of community), that Hauerwas’ thought includes a concept of improvisation (thanks Sam Wells for the terminology).  Part of our character being formed to speak, see and think faithful to Jesus, is that we find new ways of expressing that faithfulness in new contexts.  Thus, new forms of church are not excluded by Hauerwas, they’re arguably a natural progression of his thought…..we should see them emerging!

But that is a minor point…..here are two more significant comments….

1) We are never going to avoid being sent out alone…..from any community.  Moynagh is so right that we need to encourage Christian communities to form in different spheres of life.  But that doesn’t mean we will all be able to have a community in every sphere of our lives.  For one thing, real community requires a level of commitment that simply can’t be spread amongst a work church, gym church, neighbourhood church and pub church…..we’ll form loose networks not real community.  That means we are going to find ourselves sent out from our community at some point…..and I think that’s ok…..

2) …more than ok, I think it may be necessary.  Another unease I felt was the underlying assumption that we all have very different spheres to our lives that are distinct to one another.  The assumption that I need a church at work as well as in my neighbourhood because these are two distinct spheres of life that have little contact with one another.  Now, that may in some ways be true, but one of the concerns I have about contemporary society is our willingness to compartmentalise our lives as if how I am in one place has no bearing on how I am elsewhere.  I may lie at work because that’s what you do there, but I won’t lie ‘in church’ because it’s not right……and I’m cool with that.  I wonder if the church should be a community that challenges the assumption we can compartmentalise our lives, rather than seeking to provide an alternative community in every compartment of it…..

So these two points lead me to end with this thought: does it make a difference if we see our mission as to form disciples rather than to plant churches?  (Neil Cole of the Organic Church movement argues this….it’s not a Sam original!)   Is the greatest need not for Christian communities in every sphere of every individuals’ life, but for Christian communities that form disciples who see their life as a whole and live faithful in every part of life?

The church is not simply a community to which I belong, it is a something of which I am a part – we are the church.  And we are the church everywhere we go.  Wherever and however often I gather with the rest of the community, I will always be the church in every part of my life….there is never a time when I am ‘isolated’ from that community, when the church is no longer with me or relevant to me.  That is not to say I won’t feel ‘isolated’ and there are certainly ways for Christian communities to improve in supporting one another when we’re not gathered together, but we remain part of that community whether we are physically together or not.

This is a thought that may require more space to get more clarity!  I’d value your thoughts….I’m still thinking this through.  In any event, I strongly recommend having a read of Moynagh’s book – it’ll get you thinking and give you some ideas!

Mission: alone or together? (Talking to Michael Moynagh Part 1)

Not cheap, but worth it!If you have any interest in organic church, emerging church, missional communities, fresh expressions, new monasticism or any other recent expression of church and mission READ THIS BOOK: Michael Moynagh’s Church for Every Context written with Phillip Harrold.  He brings together about a decade’s worth of theology and practice around new forms of church and mission.

Chapter 7 piqued my interest in particular as Moynagh poses the question: is mission by individuals or communities?

Reflecting on Stanley Hauerwas and Leslie Newbigin (guess why I was interested?), Moynagh argues that, though we often recognise the importance of the church community for mission, our general model is to gather in a residential area and then send individuals off alone to evangelise throughout the week.

Hauerwas recognises
the importance of church community as the place where Christian character is formed.  This community shapes the language, actions and perspective on the world of its members and thus shapes them to live distinctively.  It is in these distinctive lives, shaped around Jesus, that Christians point people to God.  Similarly, Newbigin argued that the only way the church can faithfully and credibily represent the gospel in today’s society is by a congregation of men and women who believe and live it.

So the church as community is essential for mission….but…

Moynagh argues, both Hauerwas and Newbigin seem restricted by their inherited view of what ‘the church’ actually looks like – they have in mind gathered congregations meeting in residential areas on Sundays.  This means they continue the model we see all over the place of the majority of mission being left to individual Christians sent out into the week on their own.  In workplaces, leisure centers, schools and colleges, Christians are left isolated from the essential community.

The solution? Recognition that mission is the task of the community not just the individual.

Moynagh sees precedent for this in the nature of God – that He exists in community as the Trinity; in human nature – that we were made ‘male and female’ – made for community; in the history of the church – that Jesus formed a community and the early church met as community in homes, public places, shops and other places of life.

Moynagh gives a couple of examples of what he has in mind:

1) Mid-size communities that begin to meet maybe twice a month in a particular place with a focus on mission in that place: maybe an estate, or helping disabled children. These communities can begin to plant further communities from them.

2) Groups of Christians starting to meet in work places to run courses or find ways of serving their workplace.  They could invite other people in by simply explaining what they do: “We discuss how to serve our workplcae, then read and discuss a story about Jesus, then play some music and those who believe pray quietly”.

There are a myriad of examples, but the point is to find simple and practical ways to form Christian community wherever we are.  We need to recognise that a community living faithfully to Jesus, demonstrating His love, and being easily accessible for those who don’t believe, is extremely effective for mission. (Point of interest: I concluded my MPhil with a very similar sentiment.)

In my next post I’ll share some of my reflections on this, but for now what do you think?  

Is mission a call for communities or individuals?  

If you’re a Christian, do you feel isolated during the week with a pressure to ‘do mission’ on your own?  

Do you have other ideas for how to form Christian community in different spheres of life?

Post a comment and let me know…

Doing for or Being with?

Iain McGilchrist was not the only speaker at the Young Priest Theologians network meeting (for posts on McGilchrist see this and this), the other was Sam Wells, who is actually a bit of a hero of mine…but that’s by the by.  I found Wells as challenging as I found McGilchrist interesting.

Wells began with this question: what is the greatest problem of human existence?

When we look around the world and see violence, hunger, disease, and suffering, I think we can agree with Wells’ summation that mortality seems the greatest problem. So much of the grand project of humanity today is about overcoming our limitations, our mortality.  Obviously, this has always been a major problem, but in recent decades a shift has taken place.  With advances in science, technology, knowledge and understanding, these limitations no longer seem inevitable – they now appear more like problems to be solved.  There is a greater emphasis in medicine to cure, not simply care for, the sick.  We celebrate overcoming limitations more than anything else whether it be in olympic/paralympic sports or jumping through the sound barrier or ridding nations of diseases.

This is good!  But Wells threw out a challenge for the church.  Whilst the human project at the moment is focussed on ‘doing for’ people, is this really the emphasis of God’s call to us?

What is the greatest human problem wasn’t mortality?  What if it was isolation?

Wells asked us to imagine a few common scenarios, like buying a birthday present for a family member we’ve grown distant from.  We don’t really know what they want or how to close that gap so we end up spending too much on something they probably won’t like.  Their face as they open it tells us we were right and we leave their party frustrated.  Or inviting all the wider family round for the weekend and stressing in the preparation so that we dominate the kitchen, get angsty with those around and end up spending the weekend fussing over dishes and desserts.  We say goodbye lamenting not having actually talked and collapse exhausted.  The issue is that ‘doing for’ in these situations doesn’t mend the relationship or allow for community.  ‘Doing for’ is laudable, but it leaves many things undone.

What is the Christian hope?  Heaven?  What is that?  Not clouds and harps, but being with God.  The whole biblical story is saturated with the central purpose of God with us – Immanuel – the name God took when he came in human form.  Creation was about God making us for relationship; the incarnation was Jesus coming as Immanuel to be with us; the last words of Jesus to his disciples were ‘I am with you always’; and the final words of Revelation (the last book of the Bible) are that a time is coming when God will dwell with us for eternity.

Wells challenged us to think whether the mission of the church is to ‘do for’ – to solve the world’s problems – or to ‘be with’ – to be a community of people who will pay the cost of true relationship with others.  This is a harder call.  ‘Being with’ requires a shaping of our lives around others in a way that ‘doing for’ does not.  We can’t simply provide knowledge, technology or money for others – we need to give time, vulnerability, ourselves – without witholding the rest.  Yet we see the value in the problems we cannot solve….Christians are called to be those who stand with others even in situations that seem to have no solution.

This isn’t a denial of ‘doing for’.  Scripture is clear – love that isn’t practical is no love at all.  Yet it strikes me that fundamental to it is a focus shift off ourselves and onto Jesus.  If we believe that we are creatures, not the Creator, and that Jesus has already secured a future where the ‘problems are solved’ – a time is coming when there will be no more tears, pain, or suffering – then solving the problem is not our job nor our need.  Rather, our mission and call is to show the world that God has come to be one of us and God has done it all, that He is with us in every situation.  We show it by living it – living with God and with others – by not avoiding relationship or the difficult conversations needed to deal with past hurts or the giving up of control so we have time to be with others.

There is a huge challenge here, especially in a commuter town like Loughton – how do you give time to be with others when no one has time to be with you?  Yet we already see the power of it.  Some of the greatest changes I have seen in people’s lives since being in Loughton are amongst those who have come into our Cafe and simply found a place where they are loved and listened to.  In this place a deeper change seems to come than in solving someone’s problem alone.

Selective Attention and the Alpha course

This is the second post inspired by the Young Priest Theologians network meeting.  Again I want to explore McGilchrist’s thought on the brain, but before we go any further, if you’ve never seen the selective attention test with people throwing a ball, then take a look at this…http://youtu.be/vJG698U2Mvo

Did you see it?  To be honest, I don’t know if it actually works since I heard about the test with it being explained to me – kind of spoils it! McGilchrist used the phenomenon of selective attention to exemplify the difference between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.  As I said in the last post, the fundamental difference is one of attention.  Through our right hemisphere we gain broad attention – see the big picture; whilst through the left hemisphere we focus on detail and specifics.  The right hemisphere provides the context in which the left views and understands details – a context that is often assumed and unnoticed.  This is why, when focussing on details like the players in white throwing a ball, we can miss the bigger picture – because our left hemisphere perspective dominates the right.

McGilchrist went on to say that we always have a ‘take’ on everything before we see it, no matter how objective we may try to be.  The way we view the world is always shaped by some concept of the big picture every detail fits into – like wearing glasses that shape the way we see.  Our language, culture and community, for example, all shape the context in which we see and understand the details of life.

It can be difficult to accept that all our thinking is affected by an assumed context or perspective we may not have tested out.  Since Descartes the idea has been that you work out what is true by ignoring everything you assumed you knew and finding one small certainty (“I think, therefore I am”), then build up the big picture one piece at a time adding one verifiable fact to another until we’ve constructed the whole.  But the whole is never simply the sum of it’s parts – this is why, as I mentioned previously, poetry is more than the sum of words and grammar, music is more that the sum of notes and pauses – there is a whole that is greater than the detail put together.

So what’s the point?  This vastly affects the way we find out what is true.  First, it takes away the possibility of ‘proving’ anything 100% – every certainty is certain because of an assumed context.  But this doesn’t mean every viewpoint is equally valid – it means we find truth by questioning the big picture, by paying attention to our right hemisphere attention, to the context we easily assume.  We start to ask what assumptions we carry and challenge them by what we’re experiencing, by other people’s explanations, by encountering other ways of thinking that challenge our own.  McGilchrist points to Michelangelo’s ‘unfinished scultpure’ to say how creativity comes, not from a putting together, but a clearing away.  I would stretch the analogy to truth – we find what is true, not by adding details, but clearing away assumptions and finding what emerges.

Too abstract?  Well, take Alpha for example, a course where we look at a different aspect of Christian faith each week over 10-weeks. If people came as blank sheets then maybe we would be trying to establish one certainty after another from week one – who is Jesus…then why did Jesus die…etc.  But everyone comes with a ready made view of the world, a view we’ve been using to live by for years…but we may never have paid it much attention.  Alpha becomes about paying attention to that big picture and allowing evidence, experience and questions to challenge the way we see things….to keep asking, if this assumption changed, how would the detail look then?  What difference does it make if faith is not a blind leap, but a step based on evidence?  What difference if science and religion aren’t mutually exclusive? What difference if Christianity is not about what we should do for God, but what God has already done for us? What difference if Jesus, when we pay attention to what he actually said about himself, cannot be simply a good teacher, but must be mad, bad, or God?

Any of these differences could shift the way we see the details of God, the world and ourselves.  Any of these differences might help us see the gorilla in our midst.

Right brain, left brain…are we missing something?

Last Monday I had a great day at the ‘Young Priest Theologians Network’ meeting at Lambeth Palace.  There is much fun to be had thinking how ‘Young’ in the CofE means anyone under 40 years old (!) and I did enjoy telling friends I was off to a meeting at Lambeth Palace….lovely!

Besides all that there were two very interesting talks that will inspire a few posts – here’s the first….

Iain McGilchrist is a retired psychiatrist who has also studied English Literature, Theology and Philosophy.  In his recent book The Master and His Emissary he explores the difference between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.  His thinking began by asking the question: why do works of art lose their potency when analysed in a critical manner?  He recognised that the issue is when something implicit is made explicit.  A poem may have technically poor grammar, banal content and odd phrasing when critically analysed….but when encountered in it’s entirety it can have a powerful effect on the reader.  The whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

As he explored psychiatry, McGilchrist began to see how so much of our communication occurs implicitly – picking up irony in someone’s tone, a subtle wink or facial expression.  People who lose the use of the right hemisphere of their brain lose the ability to pick up these signals and here is the clue to the difference in hemispheres.  They give us different attention.  The right hemisphere allows a broader view – it recognises the connection between all things – it picks up subtlety, irony, metaphor – has the big picture.  The left hemisphere attends to details, sees the distinction between things, enables us to use tools, mechanisms and see logical progression.

Think of the classic philosophical dilemma of how a person remains the same through time even though every cell in their body will change every 7 years.  We are no longer made of the same stuff, but we are still the same person.  The left hemisphere cannot understand that – it doesn’t make logical sense.  But the right hemisphere can understand ‘the flow of life’ – the truth in the metaphor that we are like a river: the water flowing through constantly changes, but the river remains.  The left hemisphere wants to give us ‘quick and dirty certainties’ so we can move on in life, whilst the right hemisphere constantly asks the question, “what if?”

Since the Enlightenment, McGilchrist argues, the right hemisphere thinking has been pushed to the side and left hemisphere dominates culturally.  We see this in the appeal of scientism – the idea that all truth must be scientifically verifiable, anything that can’t be seen or tested isn’t true; or in the trust of technology to eventually solve all problems; or the relegation of religion to ‘private lives’ whilst anything public must be a ‘solid fact’.  The unsettling doubt the right hemisphere brings is that not everything that’s ‘true’ can be known as a verifiable fact – often deep truths are found through metaphor and imagery.

Why am I talking about this?  Well, apart from it being fascinating in its own right, my right hemisphere latched on to a connection with something else I have been hearing a lot about lately: the need to reawaken the ministry of the apostle and the prophet in the Western Church.  Alan Hirsch, Mike Breen, Bill Johnson and a host of other theologians and church leaders are beginning to raise awareness that we have a debilitating hole in the ministry of the church today.  Reading Ephesians 4 as a constitution for the church we find Paul’s description of the government of the church involving five ministries, given by Jesus the head: apostles, prophets, teachers, pastors and evangelists.  The current church is arguably dominated by teachers and pastors, with prophets and apostles largely ignored and misunderstood.

What is the role of apostles and prophets?  According to Danny Silk’s Culture of Honour (a great book for any church leader), these two ministries have a particularly strong focus on the reality of heaven – on seeing heaven come to earth (as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer so often…).  They are both big picture ministries.  Apostles carrying the vision Jesus gave for the church and seeking to bring it into new ground, breaking through current assumptions of how things should be done and limitations.  Prophets having a passion for the ‘now’ word of God and constantly pointing people back to what He is saying – the annoying voice that won’t let us simply carry on with are current ‘quick and dirty certainties’.

If we agree that the contemporary western church is often preoccupied with strategies, tactics and busyness as we seek to work out what must be done and do it ourselves….rather than a deep sense and reliance on the presence and leading of God in our midst….then you may agree that this could be due to a lack of apostles and prophets.  If you agree with that, then I wonder whether we could even say the apostles and prophets are like the right hemisphere of the church’s brain…without them we’re stuck with the left….which is essential in making things practical and concrete, but also prone to missing the point and a false sense of optimism.  McGilchrist goes as far as to say a solely left hemisphere culture is ‘sleepwalking aimlessly toward the abyss’……Maybe it’s time to wake up?