Why It’s ok to Doubt

“It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.” [Dostoyevsky quoted in Harold Victor Martin, Kierkegaard, the Melancholy Dane (1950)]

A key responsibility of a Christian leader and teacher is to present the truth of the gospel with confidence. But if the church leader is honest with themselves, they will know that they too carry serious doubts. How many churches have a healthy culture that allows people to express their doubts?

All Christians will be endangered by doubt and we must realise that this is normal. We will ask ourselves questions about the relevance of our theology, and even the existence of the object of our theology (God). Karl Barth defines doubt as ‘swaying and staggering between Yes and No.’ Doubt may arise from spiritual attack, or church disunity, ongoing secret sins of the theologian and the cognitive dissonance that results, self righteousness, or just a lack of love for other people. Doubt is real, one should have a healthy perspective on it, not entertain it necessarily – have a healthy dash of shame about it – but don’t despair, rather wait while hoping for Jesus to return.

Church leaders must be aware of the damage done in churches that don’t allow space for individuals to externalise or discuss their doubt. There’s nothing that irritates me more than hearing about Christians who have been dismissed by their pious pastor or overly religious congregation members as ‘liberal’ or ‘flakey’ because they admitted to doubting this or that.

The church where I minister, Merri Creek Anglican, seeks to promote honesty in the community about our doubts. Having doubts is not a sign of being a bad Christian. Nor is it a disqualification for ministry. Rather, it’s a sign that you’re a real Human Being living in the ‘now but not yet’ (Romans 8:18-30); it is the reality of worshipping an invisible God. Only in Heaven will faith and doubt be gone, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

It is important, however, in the midst of your doubts, to humbly trust in Jesus. There is a danger, as the Apostle James writes, that we will be “like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6). The “wave” occurs, when we let the doubts dominate our thoughts.

So how can we manage our doubts? It might sound counterintuitive, but when a person tells a Christian friend that they, for example, doubt the bodily resurrection, or have shifted away from orthodoxy on sexual ethics, or question the teaching of the Apostle Paul, they have more chance of persisting with their faith in the long term than if they kept their doubts private. Externalising doubts enables us to process our thoughts in a supportive Christian context.

On the other hand, when we suppress or hide our doubts, and never speak them out loud to someone in our Christian community, there is a resulting cognitive dissonance. This dissonance is between (1) the mask we put on – which is the confident faith we think we are supposed to show to other people; and (2) the truth behind the mask – the very real doubts we privately harbour about our faith. Thus we experience a deep psychological clash: we are torn up inside, and end up feeling depressed or disillusioned, and have an existential crisis.

In an attempt to resolve this dissonance we say to ourselves: “I’m living a lie to my Christian community, I’m pretending to believe what they (supposedly) all believe, I’m in a different theological place to my congregation, I don’t feel like I belong here anymore.” Once we’ve come to this decision, we usually slide out of church gradually, coming less and less, checking out other churches who might affirm my doubts or changing theology. Or perhaps we will find another community that is not ‘church’ but which will accept us.

This could have all been avoided, if only we talked openly about our doubts to someone, in the safety of a loving and humble church community.

Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay writes:

Certainty denies the very essence of faith. It is the impenetrability of life’s mysteries that encourages our leaps of faith not merely into the unknown, but into the unknowable. That’s why doubt is the engine that propels and sustains faith. We believe (in anything) precisely because we doubt. This is the great paradox of faith: we yearn to know but cannot know, so we construct or accept, ready-made from an established institution, a set of beliefs that satisfy our need to make sense of what’s going on. If it’s not religious belief, it might be astrology, the free market, feng shui, superstition, science, a particular psychological or philosophical orientation – Buddhist, Freudian, Jungian, humanist – or a moral code we believe will make for a good life and, by extension, a better world … But if we knew as objective facts the answers that faith supplies, there would be no need for faith. And if faith – that mystical, clouded, elusive yearning – is corrupted by the arrogance of certainty, it ceases to be faith and becomes mere delusion … The religious truth-seeker, the pilgrim, yearns to see with the eye of faith but constantly falters. The plea from the father of a sick child healed by Jesus, quoted in Mark’s gospel, captures the idea perfectly: ‘I believe; help my unbelief’.

So it is perfectly reasonable and healthy to be a believer who acknowledges their doubts. The highly regarded Emeritus Professor of philosophy from Oxford University, Richard Swinburne, explains that the relationship between faith and doubt is about probabilities. Scientists and engineers work in this faith–doubt paradigm: they create a rocket, for example, and send it to the moon, taking a risk with the lives of the astronauts and billions of dollars of tax payer’s money. They do this having faith in their calculations and the quality of work of the engineers: they believe that it will ‘probably’ get to the moon and back without the astronauts being killed.

A similar argument can be made about faith in God. Just as the scientists and engineers believe their rocket will probably work – the believer trusts that their faith will probably work. The scientists and engineers move beyond believing that their theories work, to believing in their theories by building the rocket. Similarly, Swinburne says we need to consider the difference between believing that there is a god verses believing in God. Believing that there is a god is believing that this state of affairs is true – but you might not respond to this belief. Religion goes beyond this because it requires you to believe in something.

Believing in God means trusting and relying on God. This belief directs your actions – you are guided by your God and your religion. If you were an atheist then it would be foolish to let religion guide your life.

But if you were somewhat unsure, but also somewhat persuaded, then you might think to yourself: ‘if Christianity is probably true, and it matters to me to live a good life, a worthwhile risk for me to take is to invest my life in this religion. I can let it guide my life. I will put my trust in the God of the Bible.’ Swinburne says that this is your calculated risk for a better life – the better life of a Christian disciple who worships their creator, serves other people in dependance on God, participates in the Christian community and lives in an other person centred way – not to mention the better life in eternity with God.

So faith and doubt are natural bedfellows. Don’t feel ashamed or worried if you doubt. This is perfectly normal for any believer who is honest with themselves.

An exercise to help you is to write down all your doubts and share one of them with a Christian friend you trust.

Perhaps you could have a service of lament that has an open mic time of public sharing of doubts?

We are God’s Masterpiece

IMG_4248Masterpieces take a really long time to perfect (so I’ve been told). When I visited Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona, it astounded me that building and construction, including extra architectural and engineering work, had been ongoing since 1882, and by 2010 was only halfway through. Even smaller scale masterpieces take a long time. The process whereby Monet painted The Japanese Footbridge took several years: he built the bridge, planted the water lilies, and then finally put brush to canvas. Bruce Springsteen took a whole year in the studio for the album Born to Run (plus six months editing the lyrics to the title track).

A consequence of being in relationship with Jesus is that God takes us like a sketch of an artwork, and slowly brings us to perfection. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”  (Ephesians 2:10).  The Greek word for “handiwork” is ποιεμα (poiema), which translates to “work of art, masterpiece, artefact, or poem.” I love the idea that we are God’s masterpiece – his work of art – his poem. The Melbourne biblical scholar Leon Morris aptly stated God’s creative act: “Salvation is creation, recreation, new creation.”

Realising that we are God’s masterpiece helps us to understand some of the pain and suffering of life. A masterpiece is worked on and worked on, refined, and fine tuned. Some aspects are discarded to push the work closer to perfection.  C.S. Lewis discussed the implications of this in The Problem of Pain:

We are, not metaphorically but in very truth, a Divine work of art, something that God is making, and therefore something with which He will not be satisfied until it has a certain character.  Here again we come up against what I have called the “intolerable compliment.” Over a sketch made idly to amuse a child, an artist may not take much trouble: he may be content to let it go even though it is not exactly as he meant it to be. But over the great picture of his life-the work which he loves, though in a different fashion, as intensely as a man loves a woman or a mother a child-he will take endless trouble-and would doubtless, thereby give endless trouble to the picture if it were sentient.  One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and recommended for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumbnail sketch whose making was over in a minute. In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more but for less.

Know that God is working on you everyday. He is editing the lyrics of your life; He is blending the colours on your canvas; He is chipping away at your stonework.  And this will continue until the end of your life. As you experience these changes, even if they are painful, be inspired by The Divine Artist who is perfecting you into His masterpiece.

Prestige Podcasts and Preaching

‘Podcast The Oxford Dictionary A digital audio file made available on the Internet for downloading to a computer or portable media player, typically available as a series, new instalments of which can be received by subscribers automatically.

Over the past decade, it has become increasingly commonplace for preachers to podcast their sermons: but this has been a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because we now have access to thousands of recordings from some of the most gifted preachers in recent times. Also, if you don’t make it on a particular Sunday, you can stream your pastor into your headphones. And if your pastor is appalling in the pulpit, then at least you can find compensation in somebody else. Of course the downside to all this is that we now have access to thousands of sermon recordings from some of the most gifted preachers in history – which puts a lot of pressure on the rest of us. And if you can’t be bothered going to church on Sunday, don’t worry because you can stay in bed and listen. I think you get my drift. 

But there is another intersection between preaching and podcasts that is worth considering. In the past year, with the surge in popularity of podcasts such as Serial, Pop Culture Happy Hour and StartUp, we have seen the rise of the first golden age of podcasting. As prestige television has competed in production values with the best of cinema, so too the Prestige Podcast (PP) competes with the best of radio, but perhaps actualising something new. Indeed, James Atlas of the New York Times labels the podcast as “A new literary form.”. 

I am interested in discovering what the medium of the PP might reveal about postmodern audiences so as to discover ways of making preaching more effective. These are questions about method and manner and perhaps even about content. Why are Postmoderns devouring PPs? What techniques do the PPs use to reach their audience? What lessons could the preacher learn about speaking into the hearts and minds of their congregation?

What makes a podcast prestige?

A podcast moves into the level of prestige when it does the following:

  • It has a minimum production standard with clear audio and is tightly edited
  • It is carefully researched
  • There is a strong story arc
  • There are presenters with specialist knowledge
  • It offers access to unique information or A-list guests

If you’ve got some of those elements in place, you can position yourself to draw a large audience. For a leading example of PP check out Pop Culture Happy Hour. Here you will find insightful and entertaining discussion about the latest in pop culture from some of America’s best professorial culture writers. Or Josh Horowitz’s Happy Sad Confused, where each week he offers 40 minutes of candid ‘Hollywood insider’ discussion with actors such as Al Pacino, Woody Allen, or Gillian Anderson. Similarly Alec Baldwin’s WNYC show Heres the Thing involves long chats with the like of Julie Andrews, Jerry Seinfeld or Thom Yorke. It’s almost as if you’re listening in to them have a private conversation over coffee.  

The 2014 standout example of PP was Serial, the true crime series investigating a 15-year-old murder case from Baltimore County, Maryland. The show received huge attention from culture watchers because of its popularity – 5 million world-wide downloads per week. The New Yorker described Serial:

Combining the drama of prestige-television-style episodic storytelling, the portability of podcasts, and the reliability of ‘This American Life,’ the show [Serial] has been, perhaps not surprisingly, ranked at No. 1 on iTunes for much of the past couple of weeks.

Linda Holmes from Pop Culture Happy Hour points out that what was strange about Serial is that people were listening to, and publicly discussing it like they have done with television series such as House of Cards, Breaking Bad or Fargo. The difference is: “it’s not fiction!” There is a new obsessiveness: a hunger for quality journalism. Reditt has hundreds of Serial threads where people have pursued their own independent investigations. In a fictional show people might ponder about the characters, but deep down they know that their theories will end nowhere because the writers haven’t got answers. But in true crime journalism, loose threads that seem intriguing end somewhere even if it ends as surprising consequence: this is the allure. We also know Serial is special because it has attracted its own podcasts – podcasts about the podcast; the most prominent being Slates Serial Spoiler Special. So the commentary is becoming a secondary form of entertainment. On 19 November 2014, Pop Culture Happy Hour even did a podcast episode about the Slate podcast that is about the podcast Serial a podcast about a podcast which is about a podcast. Perhaps this is a rediscovery of the aural text? Atlas writes,

The aural/oral revolution won’t mean the end of the book any more than the e-book did. Besides, the “non-text-based” work of literature has a long tradition. “In the history of mankind, words were heard before they were seen,” wrote Albert B. Lord, the author of “The Singer of Tales,” a classic work of scholarship that traced oral literature from Homer through “Beowulf” and the tales, still recited today, of Balkan poets capable of reciting thousands of lines of verse by heart. Progress doesnt always mean going forward.

Meeting a Desire for Intimacy

PPs seem literary because of their power to build intimacy between the listener and the broadcaster. In the case of Serial, for example, the host Sarah Koenig talks through her thought processes as if she is pondering her findings out loud with you personally. One commentator called this ‘show your work journalism.’ This is an impressive illusion because it sounds improvised and slow, whereas, in reality each episode has been strategically crafted and edited. The New Yorker Journalist Sarah Larson wrote: “it sounds like your smart friend is investigating a murder and telling you about it”. This can sometimes venture into voyeurism – a criticism pointed at Serial. A positive spin on this would be to say that podcasts offer a close up view of an ecosystem. In one episode of This American Life, or Death, Sex and Money you can be helicopter-dropped into the world of junior high teenagers, or a family going through a divorce, or a factory worker and his work mates. Australian ABC journalists Leigh Sales and Annabelle Crab recently launched their podcast Chat 10 Looks 3, where they just ramble about whatever is on their mind. What makes it so interesting is that they are some of Australia’s best political commentators talking off-script. You get a sense that you really know them. In the first episode Sales admits to an obsession with musical theatre and then proceeds to sing and play a song on the piano. They make giggly in-jokes with each other, which is ok, because you feel included. Recently they went to see Fifty Shades of Grey just for laughs. As they give you their candid ‘elite college girl’ review over a cup of tea, the whole time you think: ‘these are the same women who ask the hard questions to the politicians on prime time.’ This chemistry is working.

Twelve Reasons We Love PP

I think there are about 12 reasons why PP are finding their audience:

  1. Intimate and personal (see above)
  1. The feeling of authenticity Even when episodes are researched and scripted, like This American Life the presenters are careful to speak in their natural voices. It rarely feels forced or contrived.
  1. Literary style detail As James Atlas commented in the NYT about Startup Listening to Mr Blumberg describe his meeting with the venture capitalist at a sushi restaurant on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles(I love all these details; they remind me of … books), I think: Dude, give him the money.
  1. Niche You can finally find a bunch of nerds who are into Dr. Who as much as you are.
  1. Self-curated You can create your own radio station, where your favourite shows play at the time that is most convenient to you.
  1. Slow but easy You can listen to people talk for hours about one movie. There are no limitations on length.
  1. A high turnover Podcasts don’t require much in the way of complex production work, so it’s easy to produce fast content. 
  1. Reactive The Slates Serial Spoiler Special were ‘dropped’ within a few hours of the latest Serial 
  1. Subversive A reaction to the managed content of the network television and print media. Journalists use podcasts to speak candidly, off script.
  1. Egalitarian An easy access medium where unknowns can compete with elites.
  1. Imaginative A reaction to the over-stimulation of film and television.
  1. Psychological A fascination with learning about, and pondering on, the human condition. See Invisibilia, The Ted Radio Hour, and Death, Sex and Money.

Implications for Preaching

I have drawn out nine implications for preaching:

  1. Authenticity The best PPs have a strong tone of authenticity. In the same way, it goes without saying that if you want to reach postmoderns you need to be authentic, real, honest and transparent. Young urban Australians have a permanent authenticity detector on at all times. Don’t try and be something that you are not. Admit your limitations and struggles. Find your genuine passion.

The paradox for preachers is that on the one hand preaching is a performance — in that you have to project or amplify the emotion and narrative of the Bible — but on the other hand you must be genuinely feeling those emotions and not-performative. The first twenty years is the hardest

  1. Intimacy Closely linked to the previous point about authenticity, it is important to try and cultivate a style of preaching that builds intimacy with the congregation. Authenticity that leads to intimacy comes about from being candid – not ‘over-sharing’ your darkest secrets – but letting people into your thought processes. Intimacy also comes from having a genuine affection for the congregation: relating to them as brothers and sisters rather than in a ‘father knows best’ classroom mode.

 Also, (this is not new but it is worth reminding), in the same way that Serial reveled in their ‘show-your-work-journalism’, so too can preachers develop intimacy with their congregation by walking them through their thought processes and interpretive steps. And in the process, teach the congregation how to read the Bible for themselves. Part of the magic, however, is to do what Sarah Koenig from Serial also did, which was to ponder a few paths with the listener, not just the path: “perhaps this is what it means? Or it could mean this?”

  1. Close Proximity to the source It’s not enough to regurgitate the Bible commentaries or ‘borrow’ heavily from other preachers. You need to do your homework, dig deep, and then refine it to be your material. While you are not required to be an expert on everything, you can’t get away with waffle or being sloppy (misquoting statistics, googling quotes without knowing the context, poor exegesis).

I love the illustrations and concepts that come from Tim Keller, but I learned a while ago that there is something sloppy about regurgitating Keller. If I want to borrow from Keller, far better to go back to his sources (which he usually references). What you soon learn is that Keller is borrowing from the likes of Kuyper, Calvin, Luther or Augustine. Likewise, reading Charles Taylor’s Secular Age or C.S. Lewis’ complete works and drawing my own conclusions is far better than simply echoing Keller’s quotes.

  1. Imaginative content Preaching should be accessible and engaging: it should have application that is clear and achievable. The points should be memorable: convicting the comfortable and soothing the discouraged. Sometimes, through poor preparation, or a boring delivery, preachers send an unnecessarily angry tone or judgmental message. As Bonhoeffer wrote, “So many people come to church with a genuine desire to hear what we have to say, yet they are always going back home with the uncomfortable feeling that we are making it too difficult for them to come to Jesus.”

In the 2000s many preachers went through a phase of connecting with the visual based culture of their younger congregations by tarting up their message with glossy projections and video content (hello Rob Bell). But now that we are over-saturated with visual content (sitting on the couch of an evening with three or four screens) nobody in your church is turned on by your big screen and your six-thousand ansi lumens HD projector anymore.

The rise of the PP suggests that congregations might be hungry for a simpler, but more imaginative sermon without visual special effects. Simple rule: spend less time on your Powerpoint and cheesy videos and more time on making your text and delivery more vivid.

  1. The contracted spring principal Most preachers and teachers know that when you suggest to congregations to read something, that there will only be one or two who will. The saying “too long, didn’t read” is symptomatic of a culture that is reading less but this doesn’t mean they don’t want the knowledge. If they could plug their brain in and download War and Peace they would. TED talks are popular because you can surf around niche themes and in ten minutes quickly download a condensed and refined parcel of content. Now at your dinner parties you can converse knowingly on diverse topics such as nanotechnology, jazz improvisation or advocating for the virtues of democracy in Islamic youth culture.

Preachers need to work out ways of delivering content as a ‘contracted spring.’ Perhaps this involves providing links to other easy and slow teaching content? There are some great free Bible and Theology lecture series from the Reformed Theological Seminary on iTunesU. As well as a growing garden of delights on youtube, you just need to know where to look. Here are some ‘discipleship gold’ examples on youtube:

  1. Drama Ira Glass and his team at This American Life have become expert story tellers. See my post on Ira Glass and Homiletics. Preachers should not only grow as storytellers, but also develop as scriptwriters. The whole sermon is a narrative — not just the illustrations. It is crucial that you learn how to use tension and release, surprise, contrast, pace, varying intensity, emotion, humour and pathos.

Don’t mistake depth of content with seriousness of tone. Humour doesn’t necessarily equal shallowness. PPs have shown us that we have an appetite for exploring the depths of human condition. Preachers must use dramatic devices such as narrative arc and character development to achieve this dramatic effect.

  1. Leverage off your peculiarities Staff at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National were surprised when they released the suite of their shows as podcasts, seriously underestimating how popular they would be around the world. These shows covered themes such as philosophy, literature, spirituality, and politics and they soon discovered that there was a demand for high quality niche audio content.

Not enough preachers discover their niche personality and material. I have a particular set of interests which include: 1960s and 70s music, art, the films of Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese, and New York… For a long time I hid my hobbies from the congregation because I assumed they weren’t interested. But as soon as I did let them in, they engaged more with my preaching, even if they weren’t particularly interested in the niche cultural idea itself. (Disclaimer: this all has to be managed with a fair amount of self-awareness. There’s nothing worse than a preacher who can’t stop talking about his favourite football team every week, or who references the Matrix in every sermon. Know your audience.) Perhaps the power of niche is that it is another way of thinking about authenticity?

John August and Craig Mazin, the experienced Hollywood scriptwriters who host the Scriptnotes podcast, argue that while scriptwriting consultants will push scriptwriters to conform to their so-called ‘special rules’ of scriptwriting, it is the outlier scripts, those that are ‘out-of-the-box’ and break the rules, that get noticed.

The same goes for preaching. It is safe to say, if harnessed well, your peculiarities should help build your unique voice as a preacher.

  1. Speaking to Needs One reason podcasts are popular is because they are a form of self curated and convenient content. In the same way, preachers would do well to allow the congregation to shape the content of the preaching series. This ensures that you are connecting the story of the Bible to the story of your congregation. Do a survey for preaching topics or Bible books to cover. You could also have question time. Don’t monopolise the pulpit, bring in other voices in an attempt to speak to reach people.
  1. Group think Flowing on from the previous point, PPs also make good use of engaging with their audience through social media. If you can promote ‘group think’ by including other voices from within the congregation in your preaching, then this will increase engagement. If you need a powerful real life example of something, then getting someone up from the congregation to share their story is a powerful This American Life style approach.

I also like to ring up congregation members to get their thoughts on a passage. Remember Jesus said to his disciples: “But you are not to be called Rabbi for you have one teacher” (Matthew 23:8). This is a good way of humbly submitting yourself to Jesus and the community while still holding the responsibility of pastor and teacher.

Thanks to Peter Corney, Erica Hammence, Kim Beales, John Cavanough and Elizabeth Culhane at the Melbourne Faith and Culture club for their thoughts for this article.

Avoiding ‘Bait and Switch’ Mission

What about Bait and Switch?

One of the big concerns that many urban Christians will have with mission, is the problem of the perception of being someone’s friend just so you can then Bible bash them: this is sometimes called ‘bait and switch’.

Christians have a bad reputation for running events that just seem like a bit of fun, and then surprising everyone at the end with “well guys, we’ve been playing a fun game of footy today, and did you know that being a Jesus follower is a bit like playing footy, if you know the rules, then you can be free to kick the goals of life!” We must not see people as gullible ‘conversion targets’.

If you have a congregation of people who are sensitive about authenticity, transparency and community, then you are less likely to succumb to ‘bait and switch’ tactics.

Lauren Vasquez in Relevant Magazine wrote,

Jesus did not minister this way. He had a strong sense of purpose, but He never had an agenda. He loved people where they were, and this is what drew them to Him, not being lured in on a pretext. Wouldn’t it be great if the Church were known for loving people without an ulterior motive, the way Jesus did? He related to people naturally, honestly, with tremendous love. And He wants to impart this love to us.

In His last recorded prayer before his arrest, Jesus prayed, “Righteous Father, … I have made you known to them [the apostles], and will continue to make you known, in order that the love you have for me with may be in them, and that I myself may be in them” (John 17:25-26). We show that Christ is “in us” when we see nonbelievers as people, not as projects, and love them for themselves. Only through love without an agenda will we build a relationship that earns us an audience to share Christ.

Just to make sure you don’t run a ‘bait and switch’ mission strategy there are three things you can do:

  1. Let your mission be an outflow of your love for God. Don’t do mission as a religious person trying to get a conversion score, but as a person who is excited about your faith so much that you want to tell others. This enthusiasm is a fruit of the Holy Spirit working in our hearts.
  2. Let your mission be an outflow of your love for people. The life of the missionary disciple of Jesus, is a life of sacrificial love. It will be messy and difficult. That’s what we have been called to.
  3. Always be upfront about being a Christian or the church. That way people won’t get a surprise.

Should Christians believe in Freedom of Speech?

i am charlieSince the recent terror attack in Paris I’ve had a few people ask me about what I think about Charlie Hebdo and especially about freedom of speech. It intrigues me that only about a year ago, the Urban Left in Australia were (in the most part) rallying against the Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Attorney General George Brandis’ Freedom of Speech (repeal of s.18C) Bill 2014. The consequence of Abbott and Brandis’ amendment would be that people would have more freedom to say what they think, and not be at risk of litigation from others who might be offended. Advocates for this change were even willing to say that people should have the right to be bigots if they want.

And now, less than a year after Abbott took the Bill off the table, many of the same people who opposed it have been holding up signs saying ‘I am Charlie’ (code for)’ I am for freedom of speech.’

In response to this contradiction of values, former Liberal Party Minister Amanda Vanstone wrote an insightful piece in The Age on January 19, arguing:

For those who don’t think much beyond a level that might appear to be, shall we say, deeply shallow, the inconsistency may not have risen to surface consciousness.

The outpouring of apparent support for free speech around the world has warmed the hearts of many. Is it really support? Or is it, and I think this is more likely, just another example of today’s de rigueur team sport of conspicuous compassion. Put more bluntly, it may be just a very elegant way of saying, “Look at me, I am a thinking, caring person”.

It is one of those “costs so little, feels so good” sort of things people can say or do. Charlie Hebdo has poked fun and caused offence indiscriminately for years. “Je suis Charlie” placards support their right to do just that.

And I think Vanstone nails it when she concluded that,

Sadly, all too many recognise a disaster of any type as an opportunity to improve their own position. Be there, look concerned, improve your image. It can be sickening to hear the modulated voices of concern.

I agree that there is fine line between the virtue of public displays of solidarity in justice causes, and mere self-promotion. I remember in my undergraduate years some of my fellow students who joined in with the trips up north to protest against the Jabiluka Uranium Mine: going in part for the cause, and in part for the girls. So whether one cries “We are the 99%” or “#iwillridewithyou” we need to check the genuineness, and consequence, of participating in these popular protests. Not that I expect that anyone can have completely pure motivations, but it is striking (as in the case of the Australian participation in the Charlie Hebdo protests) when our espoused values can be the exact opposite of our private values. We want acceptance in the tribe so much that we are willing to betray our own consciences. (I guess it is possible that some may be against unrestrained freedom of speech while wanting to show solidarity for their fellow community who died from terror violence. But that does not seem to be the essence of the ‘I am Charlie’ movement.)

I have found this contradiction of values to sometimes be the case with regards to secular people’s publicly espoused values about faith. I have had people tell me at the start of a conversation that they are an atheist, then some time later they acknowledge that really what they are is spiritual but not religious. Then another half an hour goes by and they reveal that they in fact pray and have had their children baptised. Without the evidence to back up my claim, my hunch is that more secular people than we expect will publicly identify as atheist/not-religious (because that’s a key qualifier for the secular urban majority like being socially liberal) but privately they dabble with the notion of a God who they can petition.

It is easy to be sloppy when it comes to the formation of our values. For the Christian, however, this should not be the case. We do not have a silent God or an obscure faith, rather we have a God who reveals mysteries (Daniel 2:29) and he is given us the Bible so that we can have everything that we need for salvation (2 Timothy 3:16).

Should Christians be in favour of Free Speech?
So let’s return to Charlie Hebdo and the issue of free speech? Should Christians be in favour of free speech? To tell you the truth, I think a Christian can be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ and sit on either side of the debate. But as I begin to discuss this, you will see just how complex this all is: complex issues interlocking with other complex issues.

Part of me wants to be in favour of free speech, because it’s a nice ideal, and the preacher in me doesn’t like the idea of others telling me what I can and can’t say. And I do believe that I should be able to return the favour to others: let them express their views. Therefore, like all minority groups will say, if freedom of speech is to be tampered with, let it not be so that I can’t express my views! (This is a problem we are going to have keep in view).

There are, then, several problems to consider. And the biggest problem lies in the concept of ‘freedom.’ Neo-classical liberalism, which emerged in the late Nineteenth Century, promotes the idea that human freedom comes from being unrestrained, and, therefore, government interference in the lives of the people should be minimised. Thus, freedom of speech is one of those freedoms that the neo-classical liberal wants to vehemently protect.

Christians, on the other hand, believe that the foundation of neo-classical-liberalism is false. Christians believe that true freedom comes not from being unrestrained to make one’s own decisions but from life in the Triune God.

  1. Freedom is a gift from Jesus:
    • ‘So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.’ (John 8:36)
  2. Jesus’ gift to those who believe is the freedom that comes from receiving forgiveness of sins and being set free from the burden of the law:
    • ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.’ (Galatians 5:1).
    • ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.’ (Romans 8:1-4)
  3. Once forgiven and saved, Christians then receive the freedom that comes from having the Holy Spirit dwell in them:
    • ‘Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.’ (2 Corinthians 3:7)
  4. Therefore, freedom comes from the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ:
    • ‘To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)
  5. The disciple who has received salvation, then can go on experiencing the freedom that comes living out the gospel applied – which is especially about being obedient to God and being other person centred:
    • ‘You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.’ (Galatians 5:13)
  6. Ultimately, freedom in Christ is the destiny of the whole universe:
    • ‘For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.’ (Romans 8:20-21)

The Christian may or may not believe in free speech, that’s up to them to decide. Either way true freedom does not come from having free speech or from having boundaries around speech. Rather, true freedom for the Christian, as indicated above, has the ‘content’ which is the Gospel. In this content, Jesus has given us examples for how to apply the gospel to our lives.

In Matthew 7:12 Jesus said, ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.’ This means just as I would want others to give me the right to talk about my faith publicly, so should I want that right for other groups – even those who oppose me. Just as I would want those critical of my faith to still maintain respect and graciousness in our public and private words, so should I have respect and graciousness towards those with whom I disagree. This is what it means to have an open and charitable dialogue with the no religion tribes about Jesus. In fact, if Jesus is my example, those whom I can be most aggressively critical towards are my own people (Matthew 12:34); but even then, the disciple of Jesus must never incite persecution or violence.

If you keep looking at the content of the Gospel, high at the top of the list of priorities is the Christian’s responsibility to be an ambassador for the Kingdom of God, promoting love and justice in society. Christians must stand up and show Christlike (Good Samaritan) love to persecuted people (Luke 10:25-37; John 7:53-8:11).

Given this is the case, I can understand why a Christian might want to place restrictions on free speech. We want to protect those on the margins and have a society where minority groups are not verbally abused and where people don’t stir up hatred against each other.

However, if we don’t want the freedom of speech laws to hamper our ability to speak publicly about our faith, we are going to have to work hard at learning to speak about those challenging issues that relate to persecuted minority groups (such as other religions and sexual minorities) in a way that is faithful to the gospel, challenging and also gracious and loving. Unfortunately, enough damage has been done in our history so that we have a bad reputation in the broader society for being ungracious rather than having speech ‘seasoned with salt’ (Colossians 4:6).

Freedoms should consider the cultural history
Complete Freedom of Speech might work in some societies, but not in every context. Societies don’t exist in cultural and historical vacuums. Germany, for example, has their horrific historical context of the holocaust: so their legal concept of Volksverhetzung (laws against the incitement of hatred against segments of society) makes sense. Similarly, with Australia’s history of persecution and violence towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, it is understandable (in light of Andrew Bolt’s racial vilification court case) why so many Australians were anxious about the proposed changes to the Freedom of Speech laws.

Don’t think that, however, that I’m necessarily arguing against the Christian’s choice to be in favour of free speech. If that is what you choose then go ahead! But as you do, make sure you apply the Gospel faithfully to your life. Don’t wrongly believe this is how you will find true freedom. Keep your focus on standing up for those in society who are persecuted – over and above protecting your ‘right’ to free speech (an American right not an Australian right – while we have some rights in Australia as protected by law, we don’t actually have a Bill of Rights yet, and we certainly don’t have a law that ensures complete freedom of speech in that neo-classical-liberal sense).

Seek the Peace of the City
In the early chapters of Daniel we read of Daniel taking the advice of the prophet Jeremiah who told the Jews in exile to embed themselves in the Babylonian community and to build their lives there (Jeremiah 29). Most of all, they should seek the peace and prosperity of the city (Jeremiah 29:7) which is the very thing Daniel did when he stepped up to interpret the King’s dream and thereby save his fellow public servants from being killed (regardless of the fact that they were pagan magicians and sorcerers). While Daniel should be an inspiration for us, he is only a shadow of Jesus, who would come about 500 years later to be the true saviour of the world. Jesus not only brought peace to the city, He brings peace to the whole world, for He is the Prince of Peace. Defend freedom of speech or not, either way, seek the peace of the city – don’t be an inciter of hatred – rather protect the lives of minorities – for that is the Jesus way.

We don’t need to be sloppy with the formation of our values. We also don’t need to be confused about where our freedom lies. We have Jesus and his Gospel which brings true freedom. Whatever our views on freedom of speech are, let us pursue consistency (rather than inconsistency) of values by drawing them out of the Gospel. Let us imitate Daniel and seek the peace and prosperity of our city. And let us imitate Jesus: the personification of divine grace, as we interact in our complex world.

Responding to Secular Extremists

What is ‘Secular Extremism’? Scattered amongst the recent commentary around the intersection of religion and society you will no doubt have heard the voice of a small but noisy movement of ‘Secular Extremists.’ These are fundamentalists whose doctrine romanticises The Enlightenment. Their primary agenda is to marginalise and silence the influence of all major religions on society: everyone from the Pope to local synagogues and mosques – and youth pastors. Key strategies for this campaign of marginalisation include: 1. using ‘professional academics’ who claim to be able to expose the intellectual flaws in religion; 2. humiliation and public bullying using cynical comedians; and 3. scare campaigns about the hidden missionary agenda of religions in public society. Their ultimate goal is to turn the public against religion, and they are making some limited progress. Just last week, columnist for crikey.com.au, Helen Razer, wrote an insightful piece about a recent television talk show panel that included the actor Ben Affleck, controversial American neo-atheist-comedian Bill Maher and one of the High Priests of neo-atheism, Sam Harris. During the discussion, in an attempt to attack Islam, Harris banged on about the virtue of the Enlightenment – reason over religion. Razer points out, however, that in fact, if you think about recent times, the main bodies that are rejecting the findings of ‘good science’ are not so much Isalm, Christianity or any particular religion but are, in fact, governments:

The western failure to act on the overwhelming findings of science is due far less to The God Delusion than it is to the exigencies of a global market, itself a descendent of Harris and Dawkins’ beloved Age of Reason. And the western decision to act, again and again, in Iraq has a fair bit to do with the market as well.

Razer explains that Harris’ big problem is that he wants to replay the ideological war between religion and science that took place during the Enlightenment, and then blame religion for every evil and injustice in the world. But,

when he revives this melodrama by placing himself in opposition to the dumbest fundamentalists he can find and casting them as the Pope, or when Dawkins compares his own fearless inquiry to that of Charles Darwin, he is no longer a freethinker. He is a hopeless, arrogant ideologue who tells us falsehoods about the sites of real power. And he is also a mystic.

Razer’s closing comments are poignant and cutting (emphasis mine):

And no, teapot, I’m not just saying, as others have, that ‘atheists are just as fanatical as religious fundamentalists’. I am saying, in fact, that they are more fanatical because they have evolved such a complex delusion where the methodical doubt they claim to champion is itself impossible. If you convince yourself that you are a champion of pure reason and that reason itself always moves from the laboratory of the individual mind into the world without creating conflict, well, you probably need to go away and learn how to think.

If you watch the discussion you’ll see that what they were promoting was hate speech against Islam disguised as confident intellectual insightfulness. Ben Affleck tried to come to the rescue by calling them out as no different to the other middle-aged-white-racists that are a blight on American society. Unfortunately, while Affleck had good intention, his heated emotions didn’t necessarily help to progress the conversation. For a stronger response watch this example of the American academic Reza Aslan exposing Bill Maher and these CNN presenters as promoting lies about Islam. How should we respond to Secular Extremism? The temptation is to respond to Secular Extremists defensively and to sink to their level. However, I have come up with three simple guidelines:

  • Nuanced Arguments: Secular Extremists might use reductionistic arguments, for example: ‘religion causes war.’  It would be easy to respond by saying ‘what about the murderous atheist-communist-dictatorships of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot?’ Don’t respond to simplistic arguments with a simplistic argument. The better and truer response is that historians know that causation in world history is highly complex and should not be reduced to one throw away scapegoat. Neither religion nor atheism is the simple ‘cause’ of war.
  • Accuracy: Learn your facts. When you talk about other people, make sure you know what you are talking about. As Razer pointed out in her article, Secular Extremists like Richard Dawkins, love to take the eccentric worst example of a Christian loony, and then say that all Christians are the same. Don’t do the same thing. (See the Reza Aslan video mentioned earlier)
  • Cool headed: When applying my second guideline – remember most Atheists are not Secular Extremists. In general, most atheists will be reasonable and respectful of other people’s beliefs. This recent article in The Saturday Paper, which examines Allain de Botton’s School of Life in Melbourne, shows a community of Moderate Atheists at work.

Even as a Christian minister, when I talk to people about my faith I find it daunting: I feel the reality that I am part of a minority. Most Christians I know have this experience. The point for us is not to win any culture war, as such, but to be able to speak in such a way so that others can hear and experience the life changing message of Jesus. Christians are ‘ambassadors for Christ’, and so we have to be careful about what we say and how we say it. People may or may not hear the gospel at first, but they will certainly make a surface assessment of it based on our behaviour.


Learning Homiletics From Non-preachers: Ira Glass

One of America’s great contemporary storytellers is the hip NPR announcer Ira Glass who is the host of America’s highest podcasted radio show, This American Life.   In the clip below Glass gives some great insight into how to craft an engaging story.

He shows how to take an uninteresting anecdote and to make it gripping by drawing out ‘the universal something.’ Storytelling, in his opinion, is about building empathy. Enjoy!

The Freeing Alternative to Narcissism: Serving Jesus at Home and Work

On 22 July 2011, in the peaceful country of Norway, 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik, posted online a 1500-page manifesto that outlined his hatred for Muslims, Liberals, Multiculturalists and Feminists. Evoking the spirit of his revered Knights Templar, he then went on a campaign to promote his message.

In a violent rampage that demonstrated his desire for Nordic purification, he exploded a car bomb at government buildings in Oslo, killing eight people. Then, armed with assault weapons, he went to the island of Utøya, to a Labour Party youth camp, and massacred another 69 people, mostly teenagers.

In her new book, The Life of I, Australian journalist and social philosopher Anne Manne exposes the rising culture of narcissism in Western culture and begins with this massacre.life of i

Psychiatrists diagnosed Breivik as having an extreme narcissistic personality disorder, consistent with the major traits of narcissism: he lacked empathy, claiming that he himself felt disturbed having to watch the violence; he had an inflated sense of importance posting photos of himself as a modern Knight; he was obsessed with his personal appearance undergoing plastic surgery to look Aryan; and he had an outlandish sense of entitlement, demanding a better view from his prison cell. Breivik believed himself to be far superior to others, was self-aggrandising, and had a “destructive rage.”

Pathological narcissism is a disorder predominantly found in men: in particular, their ability to love is greatly restricted.

While narcissism might be a pathological disorder, its seed is in all of us. The Bible calls it ‘sin.’ From the earliest chapters of Genesis, man and woman declare that they want to be God.

Adam and Eve believed that, despite God’s clear instructions to the contrary, they were entitled to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Their son Cain, in a destructive rage, took the life of his brother Abel. And so the pattern of human self-obsession was set. By the time of Noah it had become an epidemic, and God responded in judgement.

What was evident in Noah’s day, is clearly still evident all around us today. Yet deep in our psyche we know self-obsession is wrong. In the opening chapter of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis calls our innate sense of morality ‘The Law of Nature.’ Lewis also points out, however, that none of us can keep the natural law. The dissonance between these two truths form the foundation for humanity’s need for redemption.

This redemption has come by way of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so that Christians should be able to resist the narcissistic urge and say: “I am not the most important person in the world, rather I know that I am part of a bigger story. I am part of a community who submits to Jesus as Lord. When I sacrificially and humbly love and serve others and God – when I die to myself – I truly find life.”

In Colossians 3:18-4:1, the Apostle Paul offers a Christlike vision for human relationships. Paul has already told us earlier in 3:1-4 that we can keep our faith on track by keeping our hearts and minds focused on God. We have a new life as a Christian – a new life in the pattern of Jesus Christ.

We need to remove our ‘old clothes’ and put on the ‘new clothes’  (3:8-14). Here, then, is a practical application of what that looked like in the extended first-century Christian household which included family members and slaves.

We are Really Serving Jesus

In Colossians 3:23-24 Paul says:

23. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24. since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

This sets up the Gospel logic for a new way of relating. As we live in our ‘new clothes’ as children of God, we must remember that we only have one master: Jesus Christ.

This is going to be important because it’s going to help us when we are in hard situations at home and at work. It will also establish a pattern for human relating that is characterised by justice.

The reality in most human relating, whether it be at home or at work, is that there will always be power differences. But if we constantly remind ourselves that we ultimately serve Christ, then both the more powerful and the less ​powerful will relate in a sacrificial and humble way.

This is truly what it means to have spiritual freedom. There are three ways this makes us free:

  • We are set free from having to please people because ultimately we are geared towards pleasing God.
  • We are set free to work wholeheartedly instead of begrudgingly (because of who we serve).
  • We are set free from worrying about our reward because we have the ultimate reward of inheritance from God.

Paul is more concerned about the Colossian church’s relationship with God than their relationship with each other: he wants that to be set right first. His concern is also for their present situation rather than changing the future. Thus he applies his principle to slavery (rather than trying to abolish slavery). This message, if lived out, would bring the Colossians happiness no matter what context they found themselves in.

Serving Jesus in the Household Politic

Thus, verse 18 which says, “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord” should not seem so controversial to the postmodern mind. If you weren’t thinking clearly, you might come to believe that this passage is not about freedom, but it is about defending patriarchy and slavery. In truth, it offers freedom and hope for people living with both of those social problems.

Paul advises husbands to love their wives and not to be harsh with them (3:19); children should obey their parents (3:20); fathers should not discourage their children (3:21). The fact that he doesn’t mention ‘mothers’ is simply because of his cultural context — in this society, fathers ruled, and they needed to be told how to do that in a Christian way.

You might say: “shouldn’t Paul be setting up a new post-patriarchal framework for the family?” No, that’s not his purpose. His purpose is to work at a higher level than that and offer discipleship principles that can be applied — in any cultural context.

The big Kingdom of God principle Paul is presenting is: all human relationships have power differences –  so no matter where you are on that scale of power – you should treat the people around you as Jesus would, remembering that you are ultimately serving Jesus.

Everyone in an Ancient Near-Eastern household understood their place in the heirarchy: from Fathers down to children, and slaves down to the children of slaves. Nobody was challenging this social system. So Paul can say “wives submit to your husbands in a Godly way.” To the women in Colossae, the controversial part of that direction is “in a godly way” the word “submit” was a given.

The rule of the husband over the extended household was expected. What was unexpecteded, however, was Paul’s challenge for them to love their wives and not to be harsh with them. In Ephesians 5, Paul goes further by pointing to Jesus as the model for husbands: they must be willing to sacrifice everything for their wife.

But let’s think a bit more about our own context. The power dynamic between men and women is complex. It’s not always clear in a twenty-first century western household who is always actually more powerful and less powerful.

In my relationship with my wife, I am physically more powerful, that is clear. Also, at the moment I bring more money to the family, but this might not always be the case. We have different intellectual strengths. For some of the ‘intelligences’, she is stronger, for others, I am stronger. In the sphere of parenting, she has more power. These power structures are always shifting in our marriage. The point is, whether I have more power in a given context, or whether she has more power in a given context, we both need to remember that we are free because it is Christ who we ultimately serve.

That there is a complex power dynamic at play explains why both men and women find themselves being abused in unhealthy marriage relationships. While it is men who have the worse reputation for physical abuse, women also can be selfish and abusive in their relating; manipulating sexually and emotionally.

We are released from feeling like we need to constantly make each other happy by pleasing each other  – which sets up an unhealthy dynamic – because both of us ultimately live to please God. I please my wife because my love for God and God’s love for me makes me want to please her.

We are both free to serve each other wholeheartedly instead of begrudgingly, because ultimately we are serving Jesus. So, for example, I hate changing the sheets on the bed. But I should do that wholeheartedly, rather than begrudgingly, because my act of changing the sheets, is actually serving God. My wife and I both hate cleaning the kitchen. But we need to learn that our act of service is to bring honour to Jesus.

What if you are trying to live this gospel principle out but your partner, or other members of the household are not? Surely this is unfair? While I sympathise with your sense of domestic injustice, God calls to apply his gospel vision no matter what your context. You don’t want to give away your role as a disciple to anybody else.

If you are a martyr at home (and there are lots of us around!) confess this to God. Stop saying to yourself: “I am the only one who does any work around here. If I don’t do it nobody will.” Rather, see yourself as quietly serving Jesus. Stop worrying about your hard work being noticed by your family: “Did you see that I mopped the floor?” Stop moaning and groaning, and allow the Holy Spirit to soften your heart as you remember that you are serving Jesus. You have been set free. You will be rewarded. You will receive an inheritance of eternal life because of what Jesus has done for you.

Sure, you might have a case for feeling annoyed. It is true that many of us don’t do our fair share in the household duties. I have been reprimanded several times throughout my marriage for my laziness with the chores. There are constant surveys demonstrating that women still do a lot more household chores than men. Paul is not providing excuses for selfish men — he is, in fact, doing the exact opposite.

Moreover, I must emphasise that Paul’s teaching to the family does not endorse dysfunctional or abusive relating. If you are in a bad situation at home, you need to tell ​someone and get help. If you are being abused, physically, verbally, or psychologically, it is important that you ask for intervention. Children who are being abused by their parents need to be rescued from that situation.

Serving Jesus at Work

The second sphere to which Paul applies his principle of Christlike relating is slaves and masters. Colossians 3:22 says:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.

and 4:1 says:

Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

Because of a misunderstanding of verses like these, some have confused the Bible as being pro-slavery. Recently on the ABC television program Q&A, one panelist defended the place of Christian education in the school curriculum because, in his opinion, Christianity has been a positive force in Western culture: “it brought about the abolition of slavery.” Just after he made his point, a tweet appeared on the screen: “Christianity invented slavery, just look at the Old Testament.” Which was wrong for several reasons that we don’t need to prove here.

The important point is that Paul lived in a context where slavery was a reality. He was bringing the Kingdom of God to that context and reinventing it, providing hope for the slaves and compassion in the masters. This new freedom given to both the master and the slave set culture on a trajectory that would one day make slavery illegal in the Christian world.

’12 Years a Slave’ directed by Steve McQueen

The gospel brought freedom for the slaves first, and for the masters second. The slaves got it first. If you have seen the incredible movie 12 Years a Slave, you can see that the slaves, who the masters treated like animals, used their faith in Jesus to give them a sense of freedom and hope inside the persecution. It didn’t mean that they did not suffer, they did, and many were killed in the process. But while still living, the Gospel gave them a sense of higher purpose. And so they could sing, “We shall overcome.”

The application today is straightforward. If you exercise power over someone at work – as a boss or a manager – create a context of justice because you know that you serve your master Jesus, and that is what he wants. Pay your workers equitably. Let them have their holidays. Honour the contractual arrangements with women when they return from maternity leave. Don’t speak harsh words to your staff or ask them to do anything illegal, immoral or unjust. Bring the Kingdom of God to your workplace.

For employees, you have three new freedoms at work. Firstly, you are set free from having to please the people in your office because you too ultimately report to Jesus and only have to please him. So don’t get caught up in office politics. Treat your boss or your manager with respect. This is what it means to be ‘heavenly minded’ and to ‘put on your new clothes’ as a disciple.

Secondly, you are set free to work wholeheartedly. Instead of going to work with a frown on your face, know that you ultimately serve Jesus, so be positive. If you hate your job, you can always look for another. Thank God that you are not a slave. But even if you were, Jesus still calls you to work wholeheartedly for him.

Thirdly, you are set free from worrying about your pay or status in the workplace. Whatever your income or position is in the organisation, you have the ultimate reward of your inheritance from God. You can still work hard, aim for promotions, ask for pay rises, but don’t put your self-worth or identity in these things. Know this freedom that you have.

Yes, there is a culture of narcissism going on in our world. But a narcissistic culture only brings destruction, injustice, and unhappiness. God is calling us away from the self-obsession of Adam and Eve to his Kingdom, where the pattern for life is Jesus and his self giving death on the cross. We live and work for him, and in doing so, we end up living and working in a just and positive way for others. This will transform our families, transform our work, and give us freedom.

A Spirituality of ‘Boring’: Finding the Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life

In contrast to my last post, which encouraged a spirituality of adventure, now I want us to consider finding the extraordinary God in the ordinariness of everyday life.

It’s not hard to find preachers who will tell you that God wants to give you an amazing life. Of course, the discerning theologians among you will know that the truth of this all depends on your definition of ‘amazing.’ boringAuthor Michael Kelly argues in his book Boring: Finding an extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life (2013) that while it’s good to chase your dreams, and have a spirituality of adventure [see my last blog post], we also need to be careful that we don’t start finding our significance with God only in what is big, showy and exciting. Kelly’s point is that we should resist thinking that being ‘extraordinary’ (in the popular sense) is what matters to God:

What if the whole idea of “ordinary” is a myth? And what if a life of great importance isn’t found by escaping the details but embracing them? What if God actually doesn’t want you to escape from the ordinary, but to find significance and meaning inside of it?

Kelly wants us to learn to find the beauty of God and his gospel in the ordinary. Learning to do this is important for any Christian who wants to experience spiritual nourishment. Sure, you can walk the Camino trail in Spain, spend time with the Taize community in France, or go to the Hillsong conference in Sydney, but what if you could experience transcendence while cleaning your bedroom?

In Colossians 3:23 Paul tells us: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” He wants the Church to be a people who do not have their hearts and minds focused on earthly things, but on things above.

This requires a kind of mindfulness. Merri Creek Anglican member Ed Cavanough recently gave a great talk about being heavenly mindful. He urged us (along with the Apostle Paul) to embrace our new lives as people who have been “raised with Christ” (Colossians 3:1) by setting our hearts and minds on “things above” (Colossians 3:2).

I loved this idea of Christianising mindfulness, so we are not just being mindful in the earthly here-and-now, but so we become mindful of God in the here-and-now.

Mindfulness has become an important practice for helping some people overcome depression and anxiety. When they struggle to move on from the difficulties they have experienced in the past, depression can set in. Mindfulness can certainly help people move their focus away from the past and onto the present.

Mindfulness is not necessarily Biblical — it is, in fact, Buddhist in origin — yet Ed did not reject mindfulness as a concept but used it to build a bridge to Paul’s idea of a ‘Godward posture’ or, as the writer of the Hebrews says, to: “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2).

In the last couple of blog posts I have written about the problem of being religious but not spiritual (RBNS). Heavenly mindfulness is another great way of becoming spiritually nourished for people who only experience dry religion.

How, then, can we become heavenly mindful? What are some discipleship practices that can help us find God and the beauty of the gospel in the ordinary?

  • Say grace before your meals
  • Pray in the car on your way to work
  • Put a cross up in your kitchen to remind you of Jesus when you are doing the dishes
  • Read your Bible and pray each day
  • Make a point of asking your Christian friends about how their faith is going (not just about their work and family)
  • Pray for the little things as well as the big things (“God, please help me to find my keys”)
  • Practice the spiritual disciplines which help you focus on God, such as meditation, silence and fasting
  • Choose a posture of gratitude to God, which could include, each day, making yourself name ten things for which you are thankful
  • Put a Bible on your desk at work as a prompt to involve God in your decisions and interactions with colleagues (you may even want to read it!)
  • Set reminders on your phone to pray (there is a good app calledCommon Prayer for Androids and iPhones that can send reminders).

The list I have given is not meant to be prescriptive: hopefully you will think of your own approach. The point is to build systems that bring God into your everyday life.

A Spirituality of Adventure

If you consider the ways in which Western culture has radically shifted over the past century in regards to politics, economics, media, or technology, you would be sympathetic to anyone complaining of change fatigue. Institutions and individuals have found themselves tumbling in an awkward and painful period of transition.

The Western Church has lagged behind, with a confused identity: what does it mean to lose our traditional authority? As a result, we’ve grasped in the darkness with regards to worship, mission and even theology (think about all the anxiety around gender and sexuality).missional spirituality

In their 2011 book Missional Spirituality: Embodying God’s Love from the Inside Out (IVP), authors Roger Helland and Leonard Hjalmarson describe this cultural context as, “liminality … a threshold, an in-between place of ambiguity and uncertainty, disorientation and transition.”

Liminality does not have to be a threat; on the contrary, we can perceive it as an exciting opportunity. Australian mission and church specialists Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch point to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings as an inspiring example of someone responding to a higher calling and consciously stepping into disorientation. He left the comforts of The Shire, with a high chance of failure, and ventured into the mysterious and dangerous regions of Middle-earth.

But most Western people do not have the Frodo sense of adventure. Most people respond to liminality by trying to create for themselves continuity and success, safeguarding themselves against surprise or loss. Helland and Hjalmarson argue, however, that the secret of the Kingdom of God for Christians is to follow God into danger:

“Only radical commitment to God’s kingdom, as we walk in the ways of Jesus in the power of the Spirit will enable us to welcome newness and surprise as we join God on a mission to reach lost people who also experience liminality.”

In my last post I suggested that too many from our Western Christian context are Religious But Not Spiritual (RBNS). We participate in Christian religious behaviour, hold to a Christian identity, but experience constant spiritual dryness and so look to other contexts for our spiritual nourishment. Perhaps we contribute to our spiritual dryness because, instead of trusting God in the adventure, we opt for middle-class security. Helland and Hjalmarson write,

“The author of Hebrews described Abraham as going-but-not-knowing. And so it is with us. It is difficult to grasp what a mission-shaped spirituality is like while we live in such a security-focused culture. When tomorrow looks the same as today, when our world is stable and predictable, we have little need for faith.”

Let’s face it, churches that try and avoid liminality by safeguarding themselves against loss and being change-resistant, bleed a slow death. Alternatively, churches that are open to God, daily responding to his grace, allowing him to make them more Christlike, by the power of the Holy Spirit, find themselves spiritually alive. Frost and Hirsch write in The Faith of Leap (IVP, 2011):

faith of leap“When we embrace liminality – that in-between, discomforting place … and engage it head-on, we discover the truest sense of adventure. In fact … without the adventure we lose the necessary pathos by which we can truly understand the human situation and the meaning of the church.”

I am inviting you to jump off the ten metre high diving board of faith. Join a church plant team, step up into a new and challenging ministry, form friendships with marginalised people, or mentor someone. Take a risk for the Kingdom of God. This will require courage. I know that I have experienced some of my most spiritually enriching times over the past eighteen months while leading the Merri Creek Anglican church plant. I also know, however, that now that it has been eight months since we launched, it would be very easy for us to return to being comfortable Christians.

If you are RBNS, then perhaps you’ve moved too quickly to set up for yourself safety measures against change and loss? Surrender your insecurities to God, and follow him into the unpredictable and messy liminal space. You never know what kind of adventure you might have.