Mission Shaped Intro has got off to a great start in Toronto. Twenty people have come faithfully each week to sessions led by John Bowen and Jenny Andison. We have had great group discussion, watched video clips from such movies as Sister Act, and done a number of practical exercises. We have experienced a variety of styles of prayer, watched videos of fresh expressions of church in the UK, rewritten Acts chapter 2(!), eaten bread freshly baked during the session, and discussed why night clubs sound like fun while church sounds so boring. A measure of how well the session has gone is that several people are wanting to take the materials and use them to teach MSI in their own home area.
Vincent Donovan was a Catholic missionary to the Maasai in Tanzania in the 1960’s and 1970’s. His book Christianity Rediscovered (Orbis 1978) has been a best-seller ever since, and I am not the only teacher who has used it in classes on mission and evangelism to help students think through issues of Gospel and culture.
Donovan has come to prominence recently in North America through a discussion of his work in Brian McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy (Zondervan 2004), and in Britain by being highlighted in the ground-breaking Church of England report, Mission-Shaped Church (Church House Publishing 2004).
What did Donovan do that has captured so many people’s imagination? When he got to Tanzania, missionaries had been engaged for decades in building hospitals and schools to serve the Maasai, but there were few Christian communities. He asked his bishop for permission to go and simply ask people in the Maasai villages whether they would be interested to talk with him about God. Their answer was two-fold: Who can refuse to talk about God? and Why did it take you so long to ask?
So, for a year he visited the villages each week, and they talked about God. In the process, Donovan realised how woefully inadequate his theological formation had been to deal with a front-line evangelistic situation like this. He also came to the conviction that he could not impose on the Maasai a western-style Catholic church, but that they would have to learn to “do church” in a way that authentically expressed their own culture.
You can see the attractiveness in such an approach for Western Christians trying to figure out authentic witness in a post-Christian society. Donovan addresses two of our main questions: How do we explain the Gospel to people who have no Christian background? and, What does church need to look like to serve those people in their culture? (For those of us in theological education, he raises a third question: How should we train people for pioneering ministries in this culture?)
In the past three years, I have been on something of a personal quest to find out what happened to the Maasai churches Donovan founded. (He himself died in 2000.) In the course of that quest, I have visited a priest in Tanzania who was trained by Donovan in the 1970’s and is still working among the Maasai; been with him to a mass in a remote Maasai church; visited other missionaries who worked with Donovan; and been entrusted by Donovan’s sister with the task of editing his letters home from Tanzania (due to be published by Wipf and Stock in the next year; Brian McLaren has agreed to write the foreword).
So what did happen to those churches? Briefly: things did not turn out as Donovan expected. There were three problems. For one thing, it turned out that the Maasai themselves (like many Africans) were very conservative and did not want to do church any other way than the way the missionaries themselves already did it.
As a result, the mass I went to was very traditional in form, except that it was all in Maasai. But there were touches of local culture: the priest wore black (the sacred colour of God), and had a stole embroidered with cowrie shells. He held grass, symbol of reconciliation, in his hand through the service, and blessed the people by sprinkling them with milk during the prayers. And the singing was haunting, and unlike anything else I have ever heard.
Secondly, very few Maasai have gone through the rigorous and extensive training required for Catholic ordination, and there is little provision for lay ministry except for the fine work of locally-trained itinerant Maasai catechists. This means that, once this generation of missionaries dies out (and for the most part they are now in their seventies), many of the scattered Maasai churches will likely die too.
The third problem was that the Catholic hierarchy in Tanzania had no interest in inculturation. Perhaps this is because they are still relatively new Catholics, and feel the need to prove themselves as “real” Catholics.
Thus an irony exists: that the white American missionaries have been pushing for things to be done in a Maasai way, while the Tanzanians themselves (both at the grassroots and among the hierarchy) prefer to do things in a European way.
Was Donovan’s work then simply an inspiring but naïve experiment, doomed to failure? “Failure” is a tricky word to use in the Christian life or in ministry. Just because things do not work out the way we expect does not mean that, in the economy of God, they have failed.
In the case of Donovan, the way his ideas are being picked up in North America and Britain are encouraging. In particular, the three obstacles he encountered are likely to be less in this part of the world.
- In the Fresh Expressions movement in Britain, there are certainly many non-traditional ways of being church which are attracting people with no Christian background. New people are not complaining that “this is not the way church ought to be.”
- In terms of theological education, Wycliffe College is following the lead of seminaries in Britain and moving towards training ordinands for specifically pioneering types of ordained ministry.
- And, as for bishops, my experience is that there is great openness among Canadian bishops to new forms of church and ministry. I spoke to one bishop after the Vital Church Planting conference in Februarys and asked him what he had learned. “That bishops have to be permission-givers,” he replied.
Not that Vincent Donovan is the be-all and end-all of missional ministry. He in turn was greatly affected by the writings of Anglican missiologist Roland Allen, such as Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?(1912; Eerdmans 1990) And both of them found the example of Paul in the Book of Acts the most helpful model for what they were trying to do.
But, of course, Donovan and Allen—and Paul himself—were all inspired by the ultimate example of missional ministry: the Word of God who became flesh—and moved into the neighbourhood.
“Have you read The Shack?” If you haven’t been asked that question recently, you probably will be. The book has two claims to fame: it has topped the Globe and Mail fiction best-seller list for eleven weeks and counting—and it is not easy to find at Indigo. The former tells you lots of people are reading it, the latter that (as the conspiracy theory goes) that the book is (shhh) Christian.
1 Making Sense out of Suffering
The Shack is an unusual book, and for me the measure of that is that I have put it on a very short list of helpful books to do with suffering and evil. The list really came about by accident. For years I have felt that the best book I knew on suffering is Peter Kreeft’s Making Sense out of Suffering. It is in Kreeft’s best style: lucidly written, witty, wide ranging (“Seven Clues from the Artists” is a typical chapter heading), and in the form of a dialogue—by which I mean that The Reader frequently interrupts Kreeft with “What on earth do you mean by that?” or “Well, OK, but how do you explain X?” or even “You’ve got to be kidding!”
2 Cry the Beloved Country
Then, more recently, my wife encouraged me to re-read Cry the Beloved Country, Alan Paton’s heart-breaking 1948 novel of a black South African pastor’s son who goes to the big city and gets into deadly trouble. As I read it, I thought with amazement (how could I have been so slow?): this is actually a book about the problem of suffering. Probably I hadn’t seen it that way before because, well, I was twenty-five years younger for one thing, but also, I suppose, because we now live in a postmodern world where story is more powerful than proposition. Not that Paton gives you The Answer to the problem of suffering—he hardly even gives you An Answer—but he shows you something more helpful—a man of faith (the pastor, Stephen Kumalo) coping with the most unimaginable evil with grace and patience and love that are both remarkable and totally believable. So that went on the list.
3 The Boys
The other book that’s on my short list, and which speaks of suffering in a narrative kind of way, is by a friend and neighbour of mine, John Terpstra, nominated for the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry in 2004. In 2005, John wrote a book—not poetry this time—simply called The Boys, about his wife’s three younger brothers, who died, one after another in their teens, of muscular dystrophy. The amazing thing about this book, like Cry the Beloved Country—although this is a true story, not fiction—is to watch a family of deep faith dealing with the most outrageous form of suffering possible (to lose one child is inconceivable to most of us—to lose three is beyond words) with resilience and faith, and even humour. And that went on the list.
4 The Shack
And so to The Shack. This is fiction—although it is clear that the author himself, William Young, and his family have endured trials beyond the lot of most people—and it is also about the problem of suffering.
The story opens with the main character—Mack—receiving a note from God, inviting him to meet at the shack. Mack’s youngest daughter Missy was abducted and killed some years earlier at this shack—and now God is inviting Mack to meet him there. If that were not a bizarre enough premise, when Mack arrives, he is greeted affectionately by a large black woman named Papa, Papa’s son Jesus, who looks Middle Eastern, and Sarayu, a mysterious Asian-looking woman. Yes; you guessed it: this is the meeting with God.
Over the course of a weekend with this God, Mack has endless discussions with the three, and has (literally) awesome experiences and encounters which change him, his outlook on life, his feelings towards God . . . and the murder of his daughter.
The book is far more didactic than either Cry the Beloved Country or The Boys—what would you expect in conversations with God?—but on the whole Young’s touch is light and even humorous, and the lessons find their mark. One friend commented, “But he doesn’t answer the question!” And it is true: why do awful things happen in this world? If you surgically extracted the lessons of The Shack, you would probably end up with ten propositions about suffering and evil that are familiar to any thoughtful Christian. On the other hand, the lack of new conclusions shouldn’t surprise or even disappoint us: author after author over millennia—from the Book of Job to, well, Peter Kreeft—has wrestled with the question and done the best that limited human beings are ever going to do. Nobody is going to wake up tomorrow morning and cry, “Eureka! Finally I have it: The Answer to the problem of suffering!”
So, yes, Young traverses familiar ground in terms of the content of what he says about the problem of suffering. What is new is the way he tackles it: in the form of a story that is alternately harsh and whimsical, realistic and mystical. What he says about suffering may not be new, but the way he says it engages the imagination and the heart in such a way as to circumvent what C.S.Lewis calls “the watchful dragons” which keep us from a real encounter with God—the God who made the world, who allows the world to suffer, who suffers along with the world, and who will one day wipe away every tear. A God who might just appear as a large black woman called Papa.
The name Eckhart Tolle is hardly a household name—at least, yet. Earlier this year, his book The New Earth, was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as the choice of her Book Club and has sold 3.5 million copies so far. (And to think I was excited that my Narnia book has sold almost 1,000!) He has appeared with Oprah several times and they have hosted webinars (online seminars) together when people phone and Skype in with their questions: over two million people have taken part in these courses so far, and 27 million have downloaded them afterwards! That’s why I say we had better get used to the name Eckhart Tolle.
So who is Tolle and what is he teaching? I have read most of his book, The New Earth. I have watched videos of him and of Oprah and of the two of them together. (Lots of them are on YouTube.) And I have read a cross-section of what people are saying about him and his teaching. The most helpful I found are a pastor and theologian called Greg Boyd, and a teacher from Tyndale Seminary in Toronto called Jim Beverley. Some of what I am going to say is based on what I learned from them.
First of all, there are things in this book that are very positive.
- Tolle talks about the importance if living in the present. If we are always planning and worrying for the future, or living in the past, we miss out on the good things that are happening right now—the smile of a child, a sunset, or the smell of a flower.
- Tolle reminds us that it’s no use trying to get our sense of self-worth from things or from money or from having influence over other people. It’s a waste of time, because it doesn’t work and it doesn’t last.
- And he reminds us that religion can damage our spiritual health. Instead of being a door into helping us to explore our spirituality, it can actually be a door slammed shut against our spirituality. Many of us have known the kind of churches he’s talking about. Nobody wants that kind of religion . . . and it certainly has nothing to do with Jesus.
I can’t say any of these are new ideas, but it’s helpful to be reminded of them.
But there are things I feel less positive about. For instance, what he says about:
- Religious beliefs
Tolle says he is against what he calls “belief systems”—“a set of thoughts that you regard as absolute truth.”(17). He thinks we should let go of “form, dogma, and rigid belief systems” (18) so we can be free to experience enlightenment. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
The problem, of course, is that on every page of his book he is setting out his beliefs, “a set of thoughts.” What’s more, he’s very dogmatic in his beliefs. For example, he tells you what Jesus really meant, which apparently nobody has understood for the past 2,000 years. And if you disagree, well, you’re wrong—or at least unenlightened. But Tolle never tells you how he knows the things he says: he just says them, gently and with a smile, but dogmatically and with great authority.
It’s ironical, isn’t it? Although he says he is against religions which think other religions are wrong, what is he offering in their place? A religion that thinks other religions are wrong. What is wrong with this picture?
Let’s look at some of his specific beliefs, beginning with the most crucial one of all:
Let me read you a very revealing part of this book:
It has been said that “God is love” but that is not absolutely correct. God is the One Life in and beyond the countless forms of life. Love implies duality: lover and beloved, subject and object.
That sounds innocent enough, to say “that is not absolutely correct.” But it’s actually very radical. When the Bible says God is love, it means there is a God who is separate from me, who is my creator, and who loves me and the whole world.
For Tolle, there is no “God” in that sense, no God who is separate from me. In a sense, everything is God, including human beings. In fact, he often refers to people as “I AM” (in capital letters), a name God calls himself in the Old Testament.
Now, the way you think about God is going to affect everything else you believe. That’s true for example about what Tolle believes about:
He takes the view that people exist just like waves on the sea. A wave is there for a short time, but then it goes back into the ocean and loses its identity. Human beings are the same: we exist for a time, but really we are a part of the ocean of universal consciousness, and that’s what we return to after death. That’s an ancient and respectable point-of-view. But it is diametrically different from Christianity.
Christians want to say, No, human beings are more than waves on the ocean. They are made in the image of God—not that we are God but that there is something amazing and wonderful and god-like about every one of us. And this fact that we are who we are—our personhood—is a precious gift from God.
And that’s why to say God is love is not nonsense: however much we lose ourselves in the love of God—in the same way you can lose yourself in a good conversation or a good game—we will always be us and God will always be God—even beyond death. C.S.Lewis asks his friend Bede Griffiths why God would bother to make us separate in the first place if God always meant us to lose our identity in him? (Letter, 27/09/49)
Tolle doesn’t so much talk about salvation so much as about enlightenment. Enlightenment means realizing that you are just a wave of the sea, that you are a part of universal consciousness. When you’re enlightened, you can then live in harmony with the universe, and that brings a kind of peace.
But this is not the same peace the Bible talks about. Being at peace with God, as Christians understand it, doesn’t mean that everything is one. No, it means that we can be friends with God our Creator because Jesus has dealt with our wrongdoing. It’s like the peace that comes after a war, when the peace treaty has been signed.
And then there’s Jesus:
Tolle quotes Jesus about a dozen times in this book, and (how can I put this nicely?) I would say every single time he twists what Jesus meant. How can I say that? Am I being dogmatic too? Yes!
I say it because he totally ignores the fact that Jesus was Jewish, that he lived and breathed the air of the Old Testament. For him, Jesus as a real person really isn’t that important: he’s just a guy who said some wise things that can mean whatever you want. So, for example, he quotes Jesus’ words, “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (234) Let me read you the whole section:
When you hear of inner space, you may start seeking it, and, because you are seeking it as if you were looking for an object or an experience, you cannot find it. This is the dilemma of all those who are seeking spiritual realization or enlightenment. Hence, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God . . . is in the midst of you.”
But when Jesus says “the kingdom of God” there is no way he is thinking of “inner space” or “spiritual enlightenment.” He is a first-century Jew and what he meant by the Kingdom was what all first-century Jews meant by the kingdom—the community where people live in relationship with God and with one another and with the world around in accordance to the Creator’s laws—not what 21st century New Age Western teachers mean by it!
There’s lots more that could be said. But let me finish with this: Eckhart Tolle reminds us that people are deeply spiritual, and that they are seeking for some kind of spiritual reality beyond this world to make sense of their lives.
But Tolle also reminds Christians that we really haven’t done a very good job of representing Jesus to the world, and helping people discover true spiritual fulfillment as followers of Jesus.
As we come to the table this morning, and hold out our hands to receive the bread and the cup, it reminds us that we are not God, and that our destiny is not universal consciousness. It says to us that God is our Creator and our Lover, and that we are his creatures, his children, and his friends. It reminds us that he loved us enough to die for us. And that he invites us to live for him.
This is a continuation of http://institute.wycliffecollege.ca/?p=112
The first part of this article was about in-house distinctions of spirituality: what are the different branches of the Christian tree, if you like. In this second part, I want to think about—well, I guess the opposite of in-house is out-house—what distinguishes Christian spirituality, this Christian tree (whichever of the five types we’re taking about) from other forms of spirituality?
Before we get to that, a couple of things by way of introduction:
1. You have probably noticed that the word spirituality is used in our culture as though it is just one thing, the same the world over. But in fact this is not the case. Different religions and traditions actually have different definitions of what it means to be spiritual, and indeed of the idea of spirit. This is one reason the word is notoriously difficult to define!
Some time ago, my friend Faun Harriman drew my attention to an article in Chateleine magazine (that well-known authority on spirituality) which was quoting researchers at the U of T, who defined spirituality as “the beliefs we hold concerning our place in the universe and our connection to a higher power. Spirituality (they say) reduces stress, promotes healthy lifestyle choices and increases a sense of belonging.”
Is that right? Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Are those characteristics of Christians? Does Christian spirituality have to do with knowing our place in the universe? Yes, I suppose that’s part of it. Does it have to do with connection to a higher power? Sure, though it makes a big difference whether the name of your higher power is Jesus Christ or The Force of Star Wars!
Does it reduce stress and promote healthy lifestyle choices? Well, that depends. Faun commented that spirituality “didn’t exactly boost Jesus’ longevity.” Did it reduce his stress when he set his face to go to the cross? Was it a healthy lifestyle choice to oppose the Pharisees? What did the families of his disciples say when they went home and said the master had called them to take up their crosses and follow him? “Wow, that’s great. What a healthy lifestyle choice you are making! That’ll really increase your sense of belonging.” Probably not.
Those researchers are not describing Christian spirituality. They’re not making allowances for the diversities of spiritualities in our world.
If there could be a common definition, it would have to be a very minimal one, something like, “those things that connect a person to a bigger reality than the material.” As soon as we move beyond that, we start getting into differences.
2. The second thing is this: how many of us were using the word spirituality twenty years ago? Probably only one or two of us. So why has it become almost universal in recent years, as in the phrase, “I’m a spiritual person, but I’m not . . . religious”? There are at least a couple of reasons to do with changes in our culture:
(a) One change is that people have come to realise that there is more to the world than simply the material. We have realised that there are other parts of us, which for convenience we call our spirits, that also need tending and nurturing. It seems to me that that in itself is a good thing.
But the other reason it’s gained in popularity I don’t find so encouraging:
(b) In western countries thirty years ago, if we wanted to take care of our spirits, where would you go? We would probably have checked out some churches. But now we don’t want to do that, because we are “spiritual but not . . . religious.”
What’s the problem? Why do we make that distinction? I suspect that too is to do with changes in society in general. Church is too restrictive. After all, most churches/synagogues/temples/ mosques tend to have definite ideas about spirituality, and people now are more inclined to want to do their own thing, not accept someone else’s ideas. You’ve heard the kind of statement: “Nobody can tell me what to believe; nobody can tell me how to behave; I’ll decide what’s right and wrong for me.” It’s not rocket science to realise that that kind of attitude is hardly likely to drive people into the arms of organised religion (can you imagine someone saying, “I’m creating my own spirituality, so I’m thinking of becoming an Anglican”?). (It has to be said, however, that those who talk about organised religion obviously don’t have much experience of the average parish council.)
So the concern with spirituality actually comes out of the individualism of our world, it comes out of the idea that spiritual stuff is private and personal, and that if it’s for real it’s unlikely to have anything to do with an institution. (As someone pointed out recently, in our world, formal has come to signal hypocritical, while informal has come to mean genuine and authentic.)
These things should alert us to the fact that what Christian tradition has to say about spirituality may sound quite different, and not necessarily appealing to the average person who is “exploring their spirituality.”
One more thing: you know, don’t you, that the world divides into those who divide things into two categories and those who don’t? I do, so it won’t surprise you to know there are two ways of thinking about Christian belief and practice.
One is that it is like a tightrope—narrow and straight, and if you step even slightly to left or right, you’ll fall off. I know Christians who regard their spirituality that way, and maybe you do too. That’s not at all what I’m trying to do here: to define a tightrope for you.
The other way of thinking about it is that Christian belief and practice are like a field with a fence around it. It’s a big field, it’s a beautiful field, and there’s lots of space in the field for Colin and Astrid and Eddie and Chris and Samantha to run and jump and dance and explore and pick flowers. But the fence is there to say, This is the territory marked out for us by God: there are dangers outside.
So what I’m going to do is list some of what I would say are the fence posts that define the field of Christian spirituality.
Fence post 1: Christian spirituality centres around a relationship with God.
Now, you may ask, isn’t this stating the obvious? No, because this is not true for all spiritualities. Others might say the goal is to be one with the universe. (You know what the Buddhist said to the hotdog vendor? “Make me one with everything.” Buddhists tell that joke, so I think it’s OK.) Others might say the goal of my spirituality is self-fulfilment.
For someone like Shirley Maclaine, it is something else again:
I am God, you are God. God is not something or someone separate from the world or from me. . . . If one says audibly ‘I am God’ the sound vibrations literally align the energies of the body to a higher atunement. You can use – ‘I am God’ or ‘I am that I am’ as Christ often did . . . Each soul is its own God. You must never worship anyone or anything other than self. For YOU are God. To love self is to love God. (Dancing in the Light)
Now it’s her right and privilege to believe whatever she likes. But as a simple observation of fact, her understanding of God and hence her spirituality is not one shared by Jews, Christians or Muslims And all the streams of Christian faith we looked at in Part I say the same: God is in some mysterious sense has a quality we can only call personhood, and God is a “person” who is other than us.
C.S.Lewis describes a young woman whose parents were very concerned that she should not think of God as a person: as a result, when she was asked as an adult what her picture of God was, she replied, God is like an infinitely-extended tapioca pudding. No, as Christians understand God, it’s not like that. Think of the opening scene of the movie Contact, where the camera moves out from the earth, back and back and back, into the infinite vastness of the universe. The Christian claim is that behind all that, through it, in it, above it, is a vast, mysterious, wonderful, awesome Being who loves me and invites me into a face-to-face, I-Thou relationship.
And when we speak of the Incarnation, God being revealed in our world, it is as a person that God is known.
Suppose that Bill Watterson, the cartoonist who created Calvin and Hobbes, wants to communicate with his creations, Calvin and Hobbes. So he creates a new cartoon character, and draws him into the strip. His name is Bill Watterson. In character, he is very like the “real-life” Bill Watterson, but, of course, he exists in two dimensions, and he communicates through speech-bubbles. In the strip, this character shows what the “real” Bill Watterson is like: his ideas, his values, his attitude towards his creation are all consistent with those of the cartoonist. Thus Calvin and Hobbes can know their creator in a way that’s real authentic but of course it’s limited. They are faced with the possibility of a relationship with their Creator.
But this whole idea of incarnation only works because we believe God has this quality we can only inadequately describe as personhood.
Sometimes, you know, we may take it for granted, and talk flippantly about “my relationship with God”, or (to quote the movie Dogma) my “buddy Jesus” but actually it is radical and overwhelming thing to claim what Christians claim.
So this is our first fencepost: for followers of Jesus, the heart of our spiritual life is nothing more not less than to know God, this God, and to be known by this God. This is primary: everything else is secondary.
Here’s fencepost #2: Christian spirituality is not a do-it-yourself faith.
This too goes against the spirit of our age. We tend to say things like, “Do whatever feels good”; “Find whatever works for you”; “My beliefs are true for me but it doesn’t mean they’re true for you”; “Nobody can tell you what to believe.”
And so much current interest in spirituality takes a kind of mix and match approach: a bit of Buddhist meditation, a bit of Gregorian chant, and a weekly Catholic mass. In other words, take whatever practices you want from wherever you find them, and put them together in whatever way works for you (though what it means to say a spirituality “works” is not very clear). After all, who’s to tell you you’re wrong?
But in Christian tradition, the way we express the life of the spirit, the way we nurture our spirits, is not in the first place something we work out for ourselves. In this sense, Christianity is not a grass-roots faith: we don’t arrive at it by personal investigation or voting on it to find a consensus: it’s a top-down faith–by which (trust me) I don’t mean through bishops and synods particularly, but from God. Christian spirituality is, or at least claims to be, a gift from God, and our job is to receive it with gratitude. Now this is not to say there’s no freedom or diversity in Christian spirituality. Of course not—that’s what I wrote about in Part I.
This blend of a form given by God (on the one hand) and yet freedom that is up to us (on the other hand) is explained I think brilliantly by New Testament scholar Tom Wright. He suggests the Bible lets us in on the story God is writing about the world. (He says it’s a play in five acts. Following Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh in Truth is Stranger than it Used to Be, I think it works better with six.)
- In Act 1, God creates an incredibly beautiful world. At the heart of it are human beings who live in a dance of perfect harmony with the Creator, with one another and with the environment.
- In Act 2, things go horribly wrong. Human beings try to play God. They step out of the choreography of God’s dance. They get out of step with one another, and with the environment, and, most importantly, out of step with God.
- In Act 3, God begins to restore his work of art to even more than its original glory by calling one elderly couple, Abraham and Sarah, to be the ancestors of a nation through whom this restoration will come.
- In Act 4, God writes himself into the script of human life, to model for us what human life should really look like, to die for our sins and to rise again.
- Act 5 is the period between Jesus’ return to heaven and his return; and:
- Act 6 is the end of our world, when Jesus returns and restores the world to more than its original beauty.
Now, says Tom Wright, suppose a previously unknown play of Shakespeare’s were found today. He suggests that it’s all there except Act 5, which is missing. What could you do about the missing act? He suggests the best thing would be to get together the world’s top Shakespearian actors, tell them to immerse themselves in the play as we have it, and then let them loose on the stage. They would perform acts 1, 2, 3 and 4 as Shakespeare wrote them, but then they would ad lib act 5! All they know is that their characters have to behave in a way that is consistent with the play up to this point, and (if there are six acts) it has to connect convincingly with the events of the final act.
Now, says Tom Wright: that’s where we are. God has given us a framework for our lives, to understand the story as it was before we came on the scene, and as it will be after we are gone. And it’s as though God says to us: This is my story: do you want to be a part of it? This is the way your spirit will come to life and flourish. It will stretch you, there will be adventures you could never have imagined. Sometimes it will be hard, but it will bring you joy. And it will be the right part for you, the part I dreamed for you before time began and for which you were made.
Fence post #3 really follows from this: Christian spirituality affects every aspect of life
Christianity, you know, is a horribly practical religion. Sometimes it would be nice if it were only a matter of candles and incense and prayers. (I think it was Chesterton who said that Judaism was the first religion in the world to link spirituality and ethics: if you follow this religion, you have to act in a certain ethical fashion. When you think about it, there is no obvious reason why you shouldn’t keep your worship life and the rest of your life separate: it depends on the kind of God you worship.) Christianity, the child of Judaism, is the same.
As a result, our spirituality will invade every corner of our lives, from our work lives to our sex lives, from our reading habits to our shopping habits.
And, if we ask why the Creator of the Universe would care about such everyday things, the answer is simple: because God made the whole of life, not just the religious bits of it, and because God loves us and wants us to enjoy life to the full in this amazing world. You know what the greatest privilege is for any human being? It’s to able to live as God’s person in God’s world in God’s way 24 hours a day. It’s the most beautiful thing in God’s world. It gives God great joy. That’s why it’s so important for our spirituality.
- If you’re an artist, your art will be different because you love God. Not that it will all be realistic paintings of Bible scenes (heaven forbid! those are not necessarily Christian!). But as you paint a landscape (say), it will be with the knowledge that God made that landscape, and that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” If you paint a portrait, it will be with the knowledge that it is the image of God you are representing. And so on.
- If you are a store-keeper, you will be aware that your calling is to be the channel through which God’s material blessings come to those who need them. So you will sell products that honour the creator—that are well-made, that didn’t exploit those who made them, that are beautiful as well as useful—and you will treat your customers not as your source of income, but as amazing creatures who reflect the majesty of their Creator.
- If you are a teacher, you will teach with the consciousness that you are teaching children how to live in God’s world, how to treasure it, steward it, make responsible use of it. And you will treat your students equally because each is in the image of God, and because Christ died for each one.
We could go on, but you get the idea. This is part of spirituality? Absolutely. Because in Christian spirituality, there is no secular/sacred distinction, as Samantha tried to get through to us in Part I. Our spirituality filters into every corner of our lives, and brings light and beauty, meaning and joy.
After that, #4 may seem rather jarring:
Fence post #4 Christian spirituality is tough
Those researchers at U of T seem to have missed this one. But it is crucial. Think of Christians who are killed for their faith—more, we are told, in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen put together—had they made a healthy lifestyle choice to follow Jesus? Yet Jesus made it very clear that anyone wanting to nurture their spirituality in the Christian tradition needs to know that it will mean some costly and uncomfortable choices, if it hasn’t already done so.
You know the sort of thing Jesus says: “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, child, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s very self—can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27)
Jesus, frankly, is not a nice person who only wants us to be happy and comfortable, and his spirituality is probably not a kind of spirituality we would choose, left to our own devices: “Hmm, I’ve got some ceremony here, I’ve got some mystery and some meditation. I think what I’m missing is a little suffering, and I guess I’d better be open to the possibility of martyrdom. Sure: why not?”
It’s unlikely we would do that. But if we begin to explore Christian spirituality, we will quite quickly discover that this is inescapable. After all, the cross of Jesus Christ is the central symbol for Christian faith. And we are told that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” so in the crucifixion God has also suffered. C.S.Lewis even wonders whether the act of creation itself may have been a kind of crucifixion for God: “Perhaps there is an anguish, an alienation, a crucifixion involved in the creative act.” (Letters to Malcolm) In other words, difficulty, suffering, hardship are inseparable from the heart of Christian faith.
But let’s notice this too: Jesus is not being a sadist when he says such things, though it can look like that at first sight; in fact, there can be days when it feels like it. No: actually the opposite: he’s being kind. He has understood something very profound about the way God has built the world. Listen again: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-25). Did you get it? God’s ultimate goal is not that we should lose our lives: he wants us to save our lives and he’s telling us the way to do that.
Now, this death and resurrection can happen in any one of a million ways. It’s about ten years now since I decided I was meant to be an evangelist (I’m still embarrassed by the word), and, as you might expect, it wasn’t an easy choice. I was doing good ministry, working with students, directing an area and supervising staff. But then there came a crisis: one of my staff burned out and I felt I was responsible and that I should resign. IVCF kindly said, We don’t want you to resign, but maybe there is a different job you should be doing with IVCF.
Well, as I thought about it, two options came to mind: one was that maybe I could be a teacher of the Bible available to students across the country; the other was to offer myself as an evangelistic speaker for students across the country. I had recently read Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled, and as a result I was thinking about the importance of taking risks. That would mean the evangelism option—certainly a road less travelled. Bible teaching would have meant appreciative audiences; evangelism could mean the opposite! And what if it didn’t work out? What would I do with my life then? What if no-one wanted an itinerant evangelist (specially an Anglican one!)? Did I even want to be known as an evangelist? What if no-one became a Christian through my ministry? What if there was opposition to the Gospel? Would there be the financial support to do it? It felt a lot like a choice to “give up my life”.
But it was one of those times when I knew Jesus was saying, “Take up your cross . . . If you give up your life you will find it.” To my amazement, within a couple of months, I had received invitations for the following two years. I was involved in that ministry of evangelism for almost ten years, and I have to tell you I have seldom found such joy in serving God. To my faithless surprise, I found that Jesus was right: when I gave up my life, I found my life.
Well, no two stories are identical, and I don’t know how Jesus has called you to give up your life or where he will call you to give up your life. But this I know: if you are a follower of Jesus, it will happen if it hasn’t happened already. It feels like cruelty, but in fact it’s kindness, and it’s central to Christian spirituality.
The next fence post can also feel like a death.
Fence post #5 Christian spirituality thrives in community
Again, there are many spiritualities which are individual and private. You can just figure it out for yourself, you can practice by yourself. There may be no-one else in the world who shares your spirituality, and that may not be important for you. But Christian spirituality is inescapably corporate.
I suspect for most of us this community thing happens on different levels. For myself, it works like this. My wife Deborah is my closest source of Christian community, with whom I read the Bible and pray and share life every day. But then I also have a prayer partner, a male, with whom I meet every three weeks or so, and we share different kinds of things and pray for one another. I have a men’s Bible study group called “Saturday Stuff for Guys” which meets every other Saturday morning, which I wouldn’t miss for the world because it brings me great encouragement. And then there is the larger, Sunday congregation, some of whom I know and love well, some of whom I hardly know at all, and some of whom (if I’m honest) I find a bit difficult.
But if Christian community feeds our spirituality, it can also be a real pain in the anatomy and very destructive. I bought a second hand car recently, and it turned out that the dealer was a Christian. I asked him what church he attended, and he said, “I’m not involved in church right now. I go to my Promise Keepers group, but that’s it. You know, I’d heard the saying that the church is the only army that shoots its own wounded. Now I know what that means.” And he wouldn’t tell me any more, so I didn’t pry.
If it’s any consolation, it’s never been easy. Even when Jesus hung out with the twelve, more than once they were divided over who was the most important among them. And the reason we have much of the New Testament is because letters had to be written to churches that were divided!
The easiest response to problems in the church, I know, is to say, Oh, I’m going to leave this church and go over to the next one. Eugene Peterson in his book Under the Unpredictable Plant says this is why the Benedictine Order added to the traditional three monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience the vow of stability. What does that mean? It means you can’t switch monasteries. Deborah discovered this not long ago, when she happened to be visiting a Benedictine monastery, and learned that not only can monks never leave their monastery, they will sit between the same two people every mealtime of their lives until they die and someone takes their place. (You just hope they have good table manners.)
Does it sound extreme? Maybe, but it’s saying something important. Christian spirituality is not nurtured in a community consisting of all the people we like best in the world. It grows by learning to live and work and worship with all God’s people, the difficult ones as well as the easy going ones, the ones who are like us and the ones who are different from us.
This isn’t just something God dreamed up to make life difficult for us. Rather, it’s God saying, This is how you function best. If you work at this, this is how you reflect who I am. After all, if God is a community of three, and we are in God’s image, then it is only in community that we will grow into the likeness of our Creator.
So . . . five fence posts around the field of Christian spirituality. Christians don’t need to be ashamed of their spirituality or apologise for it or water it down. It makes sense, it’s resilient, and, in spite of the abuses, it has produced the fruit of beautiful lives for two thousand years.
But, you know, I have to confess I don’t really like talking about Christian spirituality. It seems to me one of the good things about political correctness is that we call people what they want to be called. So we don’t call the Inuit Eskimo any more, because that’s not what they call themselves; we don’t call First Nations people Indians any more because it’s inaccurate and it’s not how they think of themselves. (I would like to think that one day this principle will be applied to the Welsh, since Welsh is an Old English word meaning foreigner.)
But what of Christians? Even “Christian” isn’t a word that Christians chose for themselves: it was a label stuck on them by other people. And I for one don’t particularly want to be thought of as an adherent of Christian spirituality! Sounds so dry, doesn’t it?
The way I want to think of myself is the way the first Christians thought of themselves, simply as disciples of Jesus, followers of Jesus, students of Jesus. The focus is not on us and our spirituality but on the journey and on him, our Teacher and Friend, our Lord and Guide, the Way, the Truth and the Life.
The simplest definition of evangelism I ever heard is: “preaching the Gospel.” But that of course begs the question: What exactly is the Gospel?
A few years ago, I was leading a workshop on evangelism, and said something about “the Gospel.” An elderly gentleman in the front row spoke up and said, “I’ve been in church all of my life, and I can’t say I have ever heard anything I would call ‘the Gospel’.” Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), his priest was sitting beside him, and turned to him open-mouthed: “But you hear it every Sunday!” he gasped.
So who was right? In a way, both of them were. Certainly there are many references in our prayer books (both BCP and BAS) to “the Gospel” and we always have a “Gospel” reading-so the priest was right. But Gospel means “good news”-and somehow that parishioner had never heard anything in church that struck him as really, really Good News.
So what is the Gospel? There are many ways to describe it, but I believe most of them, while true, are not big enough:
- The Gospel is that through the death of Jesus our sins can be forgiven, and the gates of eternal life are open to us. That is great news, of course, and we celebrate it every time we say confession and are absolved. But it’s only a piece of the truth.
- The Gospel is that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are offered reconciliation with God, and as a result, a peace and a purpose that comes from knowing our Creator. That’s wonderful news-and many people long for such peace and purpose-but it’s more than that.
- The Gospel is that by following Jesus, we become the people God designed us to be. The Holy Spirit shapes us, drawing out our gifts, helping us deal with our failings, so we can become more like Jesus. That is truly good news-far better to be God’s person than to be “my own person”-but it’s still not the whole story.
So what is the whole story?
I was born after the Second World War, and I remember my parents talking about the effects of that victory. My father came home, put aside his army uniform, and entered university. I was conceived and, in due time, born. Windows no longer had to be blacked out at night. Food rationing came to an end (though not as soon as people hoped). Every single change that peace brought was good news to someone. Every aspect of “normal life” that was restored brought joy to people.
But none of these single changes was the biggest good news of all. All were the trickle-down effect of what was truly the best good news: that the war was over.
Something similar is true of the examples I gave of the Gospel above. They are some of the authentic ways the Gospel impacts us as individuals. They are real and they bring joy. But what then is the overarching truth, the equivalent of “the war is over”?
I can’t do better than to quote Jesus’ words at the beginning of his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15)
The good news is that God, the God of Israel, Creator of the cosmos, is doing something new in the world, and we are invited to be a part of it. That “something new” Jesus called “the Kingdom.” That “something” hinges on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. That “something” is at work in the world at this moment, bringing life and hope and healing everywhere it goes. And that “something” will ultimately bring about the renewal of the whole of God’s world, such that it can be called “a new heaven and a new earth.” That’s the really big good news, that’s the equivalent of “the war is finished.”
And our response to the Gospel? According to Jesus, “Repent and believe.” Too bad “repent” and “believe” have become such exclusively religious (and often negative) words. They’re not meant that way. “Repent” means basically to change our minds. Jesus is saying, “Give up your petty ambitions and plans: they’re not big enough. Don’t you know the amazing adventure God is inviting you to?” And “believe” means to commit ourselves to that adventure -to throw our lot in with Jesus and with the new thing God is up to in our world.
Isn’t that good news?
First printed in The Anglican, Newspaper of the Diocese of Toronto, October 2008
Interest in Fresh Expressions seems to be everywhere. Bishops are talking about it. Students are talking about it. Every church doing something new-even a coffee hour after the main service-seems to be boasting that it is doing a “fresh expression.” And, of course, Canada now has its very own Team Leader for Fresh Expressions Canada-Nick Brotherwood.
But already the question has been asked, “Is this just the latest flavour of the month?” Is it just one more in a long line of bright ideas from another country, “guaranteed” to solve our problems and grow our churches? We’ve seen these before: they come and go, and nothing much really changes. How is this any different?
The simple answer is: Fresh Expressions both is and is not the flavour of the month.
Yes, it’s the flavour of . . . the next five years
On the one hand, yes, it is definitely a new-and transient-phenomenon. Fresh Expressions in the UK, after five years, has just committed itself to another five years of existence. After that, Steve Croft, the first Team Leader told me, they are not committed to keeping it going indefinitely. But you will notice that I used the term Fresh Expressions with capital letters. That refers to an organization with a staff and programs and resources.
Steve’s goal is that Fresh Expressions would so influence the DNA of the Church of England that, by the end of the ten years, no organization would be necessary to sustain the fresh expressions (lower case) movement. And this seems to be happening. For example:
- It is now possible to be assessed, trained and ordained specifically for pioneering (rather than traditional pastoral) ministry. You can hear the podcast of talks given by Archbishop Rowan Williams to the first group of forty Ordained Pioneer Ministers (OPM) at Lambeth Palace here: http://www.freshexpressions.org.uk/podcast.asp?id=3091.
- Seminaries are reshaping their curricula accordingly. Some are appointing faculty to teach pioneer ministries. Trinity College, Bristol, has deliberately switched the whole thrust of its training from maintenance to mission. And St. Miletus College in London is a whole new seminary dedicated to training for “church planting, fresh expressions, and other pioneer ministries”, as the Principal, Graham Tomlin, told me.
- In April of this year, the Church of England created a “Bishop’s Mission Order,” an official means by which a fresh expression can be recognized by and accountable to a bishop, even when it crosses traditional parish boundaries.
All this means that, five years from now, if all goes according to plan, the doors of the Fresh Expressions office in Oxford can be closed, and a sign posted, “Mission Accomplished.” Then those for whom Fresh Expressions has been a Flavour of the Month will have to find a new one.
No, it’s the flavour of . . . the missional church
However, there is more important sense in which fresh expressions (lower case) is not the flavour of the month, never has been and never will be. Fresh expressions was not in the first place a national organization with its own staff and budget, encouraged by the Archbishop of Canterbury. All that is a recent addition to the scene. Rather, it began as a messy grassroots movement of entrepreneurial young people trying to figure out what it means to be a follower of Jesus in post-Christian, postmodern Britain. In other words, they began to think like missionaries, as Christians in every century have done.
That impulse led to experimental ministries in many different forms all over the country. Leaders realised that what was needed was not simply new forms of outreach and evangelism-which would simply prompt people to come to traditional churches. The more “unchurched” people were, the less likely that was to happen. So why not “do church” in a way that was appropriate for whichever culture was being reached? Hence many of these by definition did not look like traditional churches. Indeed, critics asked, “Are these truly churches at all?” Hence the coinage of the phrase “fresh expressions.” It enabled people to fend off criticism by saying, “Well, we are not saying these are churches-not yet anyway-but they are fresh expressions of church.”
So “fresh expressions of church” are simply what the church has always done when it finds itself in an new and different culture: figure out how the Gospel relates to that culture, and enable an indigenous church take root and become incarnate there. Naturally, that will always be different, according to the culture. Thus the term fresh expressions (with or without the capitals) may wither and die: but while the church is passionate about the Gospel, the impulse to incarnate it in every culture will remain.
The alternative, of course, is for the church to lose that missionary impulse, and then it will die because it will have become the unpalatable and stale flavour of an alien world.
Many people love the Narnia stories. However, not all readers know the deep spirituality that underlies them. In some ways, the stories mirror Lewis’ own wrestling with his spiritual longings, and seek to help others on the same journey. He wants us to feel, as he himself came to feel, that what we long for at the deepest level of our being is to be part of a great story, indeed The Great Story, in which the stories of Narnia and the story of our world and the story of our lives find their true meaning.
“I love C.S. Lewis’ work, and I’ve read many, many books about his life and writings. This book stands out to me because I believe that Lewis himself would have truly enjoyed it. It does what Lewis himself tried to do: make the most important story understandable and accessible to “normal” people. And it does so with a winsome style that has so much in common with Lewis’ own.”
— Brian McLaren, author/activist (brianmclaren.net)
“There is a great deal written about C.S. Lewis but much of it, sadly, is hardly worth the effort. That is certainly not the case here. Original, perceptive, balanced and insightful. Essential reading for anyone concerned with Lewis and issues of faith.”
— Michael Coren, Author of The Man Who Created Narnia
Visit http://www.regentbookstore.com/ to purchase this book