Summoned to be Christian Amidst a Global Pandemic


A guest post by Trevor Hart

I’ve been reading a book by Timothy Radcliffe entitled Alive in God: A Christian Imagination. And it has raised some troubling questions for me about Christian response to the pandemic. But in one chapter he cites the third century Bishop of Alexandria, Dionysius, writing in the midst of a terrible plague in North Africa in 260CE which killed a third of the population there. In an Easter letter Dionysius writes as follows:

Most of our fellow Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead. The best of our brothers and sisters lost their lives in this manner, a number of priests, deacons and laymen and women winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.

Dionysius, Radcliffe notes, contrasted such behaviour with that of the wider public, many of whom, at the first sign of the disease, pushed its victims aside (even members of their own families) and left them to die alone or in colonies of disease, leaving corpses without proper burial, in order to protect themselves from infection.

It’s hard to read stuff like this in the current climate. Despite the very real differences between our situation and that described by Dionysius, there are just too many resonances. If parallels are sought, then it is not, in our case, Christians who are known and lauded for their willing self-exposure to risk, but NHS staff and many other (easily forgotten) ‘frontline workers’ who are doing so daily, because the demands of their work and their sense of duty respectively compel them to.

Why should the parallel be drawn at all, you may ask? And why should Christians even reckon with the possibility (unless, of course, they are already frontline workers) of making themselves available to be put at risk? What good would that do? What use could it possibly serve? That’s a comforting set of questions to ask, perhaps, for those of us doing as we are told by our political leaders and remaining for the most part behind closed doors. But what is troubling me is the growing suspicion that there are some perfectly good answers to them; answers that ought at least to be reckoned with rather than conveniently swept aside in a rush to social conformism.

Dionysius refers to his fellow-Christians’ bravery as ‘the result of great piety and strong faith’, and it is hugely significant, of course, that he writes his account of their behaviour precisely in an Easter letter to his diocese – Easter, the same season in which we find ourselves today. What, then, was the substance of this ‘strong faith’ and the driver for their ‘piety’? Not, I think, the wrong-headed (and finally selfish) lack of respect for life that thinks it can and will ‘earn heaven’ by stepping up and volunteering for an early exit strategy. But rather two convictions in particular: First, the conviction that, in the resurrection of Jesus from death, God has shown and promised us that death is, however unwelcome and unpleasant, nonetheless not something to be afraid of, for it has no final hold on us. And, second, the conviction that in Jesus God defines ‘godliness’ (‘piety’) for us not in terms of cold showers and clean thoughts, but in the willingness to face even suffering and death in order to extend God’s love to others by meeting their needs.

You can probably see where this is heading, and I don’t like it any more than you do. And you can rest assured that I’m not headed towards any firm conclusion – just sharing an uncomfortable question or two for those of us profess an Easter faith. Because I suspect that there are things that those who, while being frightened of suffering and dying (who isn’t?), refuse finally to be afraid of death, and who are called to place the lives and well-being of others (especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged) before any attempts to secure our own, might in fact be able to do, and to do without being socially irresponsible.

There have already been calls for volunteers to assist with various public tasks, and so provide vital support for key workers. As the unpicking of lock-down gradually begins there are likely to be many more such opportunities as lots of people, we are already being told, are fearful of venturing out until they can know that they are ‘secure from the risk of infection and death’. Christians, it seems to me, cannot in good faith demand that security for themselves, and might be in an ideal position to respond to such calls, no matter what is involved. Of course, lots of others are likely to respond too. My point is simply that Christians have no excuse not to.

But let me be more radical still! One of the more distressing aspects of the pandemic so far has been the way the sick have been isolated from ordinary human contact, and the dying often compelled to die in circumstances where, for fear of infection, not just the presence of loved ones but even the ordinary touch of human hands has been denied them. Of course they are cared for with skill and compassion. But the sterile environment of barrier nursing cannot help robbing them of the sort of contact which matters so much to our basic sense of humanity. In Jesus’ day, too, sickness tended to result in the isolation of its victims from ordinary social contexts and ways of behaving. That’s why, when Jesus touched lepers in healing them he not only breached all manner of social and religious regulations, but gave them back their humanity in the process – refusing to leave them treated as though they were ‘untouchables’ and less than fully human.

Touch, being held, matters to us as human beings from birth all the way to death. And no one, if possible, should die with the indignity of being refused the touch of another human hand the opportunity to be held in their moment of dying. That COVID-19 victims are not currently permitted that comfort is of course, a sensible strategy to avoid the needless infection of doctors, nurses, and other NHS staff.

But what if there were people who, without placing undue strain on our health services, were willing to make themselves available simply to sit with the dying, doing nothing for them other than extending that last unprotected human presence and contact – a gauntlet-less hand and an unmasked face? People able to do this because, although they, too, longed to carry on living, they had no good reason to fear death, and so no good excuse for not offering. People summoned to do so, in fact, by a God who has himself ‘healed our diseases’ not by remote fiat or from behind a sanitary prophylactic barrier, but by touching us, ‘bearing our infirmities’, making his own life vulnerable to suffering and death in order to love us and hold us through dying and death, without letting us go. Loving us all the way into that new creation where neither suffering nor death will have any place. What if there were a people like that?

Some stuff on the stove


Shouldn’t Baptist churches retrieve the practice of venerating the saints, that is, engaging in corporate worship acts designed not to worship the saints, but to remember, honor, learn from, and celebrate saints from our Baptist family and from other Christian communions? Until we regularly include commemoration of the saints in our worship celebrations, we will continue to neglect the opportunity to give proper value to those from our past who have borne courageous witness to faithful discipleship. Commemorative acts done in our Sunday morning services would provide a suitable accompaniment for the tradition some have already developed as part of their Vacation Bible School program, in which stories are told of great spiritual leaders worthy of emulation … [HT: Steven Harmon]

[Image: from Old Picture of the Day]

Following Jesus means learning to say both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’

yes noOver the years, I’ve learnt to be grateful – really grateful – for anyone who helps me to take more seriously what it means to follow Jesus. And part of what I’ve learnt – and need to keep learning – is that to follow Jesus means not only learning to say ‘Yes’ but also learning to say ‘No’; not only learning to say ‘I love’ but also learning to say, with equal discipline, ‘I hate’. Yes, I agree, ‘hate’ is a word that ought be used sparingly. And yes, I believe that Martin Luther King, Jr. was right to insist that only love can drive out hate, and that Frederick Buechner is spot on to observe that pure ‘haters simply lose themselves’. But ‘hate’ is not, for these reasons, a word that ought to be completely outlawed or which is out of place in faithful and loving speech. In fact, sometimes it’s quite the opposite. So, for example, it’s because I love my partner that I hate all that threatens to diminish our relationship. It’s because God loves marriage that God hates divorce (Mal 2.16; and, yes, I know that there are alternative renderings of this verse).

But back to ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. The Barmen Confession, more explicitly than perhaps any other Reformed confession, reminds us that genuine confession of faith is always both an affirmation of truth and a denial of untruth. Elsewhere, Barmen’s chief author put it thus: ‘If the Yes does not in some way contain the No, it will not be the Yes of a confession … If we have not the confidence to say damnamus [what we refuse], then we might as well omit the credimus [what we believe]’ (CD I/2, 631, 630). Of course, that there is a ‘Yes’ and a ‘No’ to be said (and acted upon) doesn’t rusticate the ‘Maybes’. But that there are not only Maybes means that to be a response-able human being is to live other than on a fence. Luther’s famous ‘Here I stand’ speech comes to mind here, as does Kierkegaard’s Abraham. And so, for example, it’s because I want to say ‘Yes’ to the Father whose face is made available to me in Jesus Christ that I must say ‘No’ to those church liturgies which replace/mimic the triune name with a set of functions. (Isn’t it a no brainer? God has a name. God went to a lot of trouble to tell us that name. So use it!) It’s because I want to say ‘Yes’ to Christ that I must say ‘No’ to Caesar. It’s because I want to say ‘Yes’ to the ploughshare that I must say ‘No’ to the sword. It’s because I want to say ‘Yes’ to life that I must say ‘No’ to life’s enemies. It’s because I want to say ‘Yes’ to personhood that I must say ‘No’ to individualism. It’s because I want to say ‘Yes’ to prayer that I must say ‘No’ to distraction. It’s because I want to say ‘Yes’ to faithful tellings of the gospel that I must say ‘No’ to the way that the likes of John Piper and Mark Driscoll sometimes spout theological bullshit in the name of Christian truth (and ‘No’ to the way that so-called Christian publishers profit from their verbiage).

So back to ‘Hate’. While those who live in – and so are formed by – Facebookland are dis-encouraged to feel so strongly about anything that they should ‘hate’ it, or even ‘dislike’ it, human beings are not called to live lives constituted by Mark Zuckerberg but by the event of God’s decision to be human among us, an event that calls everything into question. Some of those questions will be met by a ‘Yes’ and others by a ‘No’, some by a ‘Love’ and others by a ‘Hate’. And I was reminded of this recently when watching this wee clip of Uncle Stanley (who is one of those who has helped me to take more seriously what it means to follow Jesus) talking about the things that he hates.

On jobs for Christians

Article 16 of The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome (c. 215) notes that there are (or were) some occupations that are simply deemed incompatible with being a Christian. (Parallel lists appear in Tertullian’s De idololatria (c. 211) and De spectaculis (c. 197–202)). What immediately strikes me about the catalogue of occupations that would render one ineligible from admission into the catechumenal process is the commitment to a non-violent ethic and an evading of the praxes of idolatry before you even begin the journey. In some ways, I guess it would be like refusing someone who works for one of the subsidiaries of News Corporation or for a bank who profits from usury from attending an Alpha Course:

If someone is a pimp who supports prostitutes, he shall cease or shall be rejected. If someone is a sculptor or a painter, let them be taught not to make idols. Either let them cease or let them be rejected. If someone is an actor or does shows in the theater, either he shall cease or he shall be rejected. If someone teaches children (worldly knowledge), it is good that he cease. [It seems that this prohibition, which is particularly strong in Tertullian’s thought, is based on the logic that teachers were required to teach about pagan gods and to observe pagan festivals, a bit like teacher’s today observing Anzac Day or Melbourne Cup day, I suppose.] But if he has no (other) trade, let him be permitted. A charioteer, likewise, or one who takes part in the games, or one who goes to the games, he shall cease or he shall be rejected. If someone is a gladiator, or one who teaches those among the gladiators how to fight, or a hunter who is in the wild beast shows in the arena, or a public official who is concerned with gladiator shows, either he shall cease, or he shall be rejected. If someone is a priest of idols, or an attendant of idols, he shall cease or he shall be rejected. A military man in authority must not execute men. If he is ordered, he must not carry it out. Nor must he take military oath. If he refuses, he shall be rejected. If someone is a military governor, or the ruler of a city who wears the purple, he shall cease or he shall be rejected. The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God. The prostitute, the wanton man, the one who castrates himself, or one who does that which may not be mentioned, are to be rejected, for they are impure. A magus shall not even be brought forward for consideration. An enchanter, or astrologer, or diviner, or interpreter of dreams, or a charlatan, or one who makes amulets, either they shall cease or they shall be rejected. If someone’s concubine is a slave, as long as she has raised her children and has clung only to him, let her hear. Otherwise, she shall be rejected. The man who has a concubine must cease and take a wife according to the law. If he will not, he shall be rejected.

While some may argue – and have indeed argued – that such a holding of the keys is the flip side of the church refusing to bury certain people because of their association with particular vocations, at the very least such a list invites us to not only consider what the church today might catalogue as occupations that render one ineligible for baptism and so for life in the community of God (of course, it is difficult to imagine how such a radically disparate and commercialised body not only outside of but also within Rome could today agree on anything, let alone pronounce on vocational anathemas), but also to think about how the call to repentance is among the first words that the kingdom of God proclaims. It also invites us to wonder more deeply about St Paul’s claim ‘where sin increased, grace abounded all the more’, and about the size and reach of Paul’s God.

John Webster on discipleship

Some six hours in the car today provided me with the opportunity to catch up on some of my MP3 and podcast listening. The highlight? Two older lectures by John Webster on discipleship from the 2005 Scottish Evangelical Theology Conference which was concerned with the theme of ‘Being Disciples, Making Disciples’. These are outstanding, and the question time helpful too. The lectures are available for download via the following links:

School(s) for Conversion – a commendation

On 14 January 1935, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned the following words to his brother Karl-Friedrick: ‘… the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do this …’

Whether we are thinking about explicitly religious, or of broader, expressions of new ways of being human community, the birthing of new types of monasticism has long been a feature of ecclesial existence. While having at times drifted in and out of neomonastic communities, and while wrestling frequently with the kingdom-foreignness of the way of being-in-communion that my own introverted default setting reboots to, I’ve mainly been an intrigued onlooker who has read very little in the last decade or so that has come from within the movements themselves that articulates in any depth the intentionalism of such life together. (Whether or not all such communities characterise the ‘new type of monasticism’ for which Bonhoeffer longed is not the point here.)

But I’ve been eager to read and think more. I was delighted, therefore, to discover Wipf and Stocks’ New Monastic Library Series, of which School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism, a book edited by The Rutba House, is a part. (I’m also currently reading Community of the Transfiguration: The Journey of a New Monastic Community by Paul R. Dekar, and “Follow Me”: A History of Christian Intentionality by Ivan J. Kauffman, both of which I’m enjoying immensely.)

The ‘new’ monasticism differs from the ‘old’ in a number of ways. Here are three, for example: (i) vows of celibacy, poverty and obedience are relatively rare; (ii) while geographic proximity of members is preferable, it is not necessary; and (iii) distinctive religious habits have been largely replaced by non-distinctive Levis.

The movement of the Spirit from which this book is birthed sees itself as characterised by the following twelve marks:

1) Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire;

2) Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us;

3) Hospitality to the stranger;

4) Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation;

5) Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church;

6) Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate;

7) Nurturing common life among members of intentional community;

8) Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children;

9) Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life;

10) Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies;

11) Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18; and

12) Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.

This book attends to these marks, one chapter on each, exploring each theme drawing upon Scripture, contemporary examples, and personal experience.

Taking up Alasdair MacIntyre’s challenge to construct ‘local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us’, the contributors to this volume believe that when such longing as this instructs the church, ‘the local forms of community for which MacIntyre calls are no longer primarily for the sustenance of intellectual and moral life. Nor are they communities that withdraw from the world to insure their own survival and the flourishing of their members. Rather, within the life of the church a new monasticism exists to sustain knowledge of the gospel of the kingdom that was proclaimed, embodied, and accomplished in Jesus Christ. And the communities of the new monasticism exist for the sake of witness to Jesus Christ who is the life and hope of the world’.

This book is written not by theoreticians or monasticism-virgins cutting their idealistic and yuppie teeth in a utopian wilderness for a while before retreating back to ‘the real world’. Rather, these challenging essays betray a maturity and realism that one might expect from those who have the runs on the board, so to speak, whose commitment to embodying the kingdom which is truly the life of the ‘real world’ is humbling and utopia-destroying, and who love the church as God’s community in travail and often so slow to be on the way.

Reducing to nothing the things that are: a wee reflection on the politics of power

Vince Boudreau’s book Resisting Dictatorship: Repression and Protest in Southeast Asia begins with these words:

There are times and places about which nothing seems more significant than the sheer energy and violence that states direct against basic freedoms. The snippets of information that filter from these dictatorial seasons – tales of furtive hiding and tragic discovery: hard times and uneasy sleep – describe lives utterly structured by state repression. Authoritarians bent on taking power, consolidating their rule or seizing resources frequently silence opponents with bludgeons, bullets and shallow graves, and those who find themselves in the path of the state juggernaut probably have trouble even imagining protest or resistance without also calculating the severity or likelihood of state repression. Such considerations surely influence whether individuals take action or maintain a frustrated silence, and will over time broadly shape protest and resistance. (p. 1)

My long interest in the people and politics of Burma, in particular, means that I think a lot about this kind of stuff, and particularly about how the community of God might witness to and in the midst of such situations where the abuses of authority birth such blatantly evil fruit and where the climate of hope has been beclouded in fear. [Rose Marie Berger’s recent post on Guantanamo: When Will it Get Foreclosed?, for example, recalled such fruit in another part of the world]. Certainly, all human relationships and institutions live under the constant threat of the abuse of power. And even a cursory reading of history will reveal that the Church too has been both victim and perpetrator of such abuse. (I am aware that already I have used the words authority and power interchangeably here. Certainly they are at least related, and the proper understanding and use of each will decide whether the ways being pursued bring the fragrance of life or the stench of death to a situation.)

In my teaching, I am particularly interested to encourage thinking about the relationship between power and pastoral ministry, between the politics of power and what I call the ‘eucharistic ontology’ of Christian witness. Of course, we might do just as well reading 1 Corinthians 1.27–29, and recalling that ‘God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, what is weak in the world to shame the strong, what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God’. I guess that I am concerned with exploring the Church’s option of resistance to powers’ abuse as noted by Boudreau; namely, whether we ‘take action or maintain a frustrated silence’. And if the Church is called, among other things, to participate in Jesus’ work of destroying ‘the works of the devil’ (1 John 3.8), then what weapons does God (for surely, to paraphrase Bonhoeffer, that section of humanity in which Christ is taking form must resist the temptation to take up other weapons!) arm the friends of Jesus with?

In his ‘Reflections on the Notification Sent to Jon Sobrino’, published in Getting the Poor Down From the Cross: Christology of Liberation, José Comblin recalls that ‘Christendom has meant that there has been a close alliance between the clergy and the civil powers, meaning the civil authorities. A long reflection that is not only theory, but that has emerged out of living together with the poorest of the people, has demonstrated that this alliance has left no space for the Church of the Poor. This alliance has treated the poor like beggars, and has not allowed them to grow socially and/or culturally. This has been the case despite the pretty speeches of the authorities, meaning the dominant aristocracies’ (p. 75).

The fact is, as Duncan Forrester has also reminded us of in his Theological Fragments, Christian worship loses its integrity when it becomes either isolated from the realities of life, or an escape from the implications of oppression. ‘It is impossible to keep company with Christ if we refuse to accept the company he has chosen to keep. Following the patristic principle ubi Christus ibi ecclesia (where Christ is, there is the Church), it is necessary to go to find Christ and therefore the Church among the poor he loves, to listen to them, and to learn afresh from them how to worship God in Spirit and in truth … Worship separated from the great issues of liberty and justice has become idolatry, an instrument of ideological manipulation, a way of hiding from God rather than encountering Him’ (pp. 109, 110).

So the need to keep worshipping, to keep being confronted by the Word who puts us and our schemes to death and then calls us to participate in his action, and to keep hoping, like John the Baptist, that the One we encounter on the road might be ‘the one who is to come’ (Matt 11.3//Luke 7.19–20).

The World Communion of Reformed Churches: A Wee Reflection

Bruce Hamill and I have spent the last 10 days or so in Grand Rapids, Michigan, serving as delegates of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand at the United General Council of the newly-formed World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC). The Council has been involved in the bringing together of two former bodies – the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and the Reformed Ecumenical Council (REC) – into one World Communion that represents over 80 million Reformed Christians worldwide. It has been a very exciting meeting to attend, and I have felt a deep sense of privilege in being here as a participant.

It has been a rich time of worship, of meeting delegates and visitors from all over the world, of catching up with old friends and making new ones, of sharing resources and ideas about ministry, theological education and mission, of attending to administrative matters (there was no shortage of this), of hearing about what God and God’s people are doing – and are not doing – in different parts of the globe, and of reflecting on both the catholicity and the reformed identity of this branch of the Church, among other things. And, as is typically the case at these ecumenical gatherings, there has been no shortage of talk about ‘justice’, ‘peace’, ‘mission, ‘unity’, and about addressing the powers of empire. The spirit of Accra abides.

One of the issues that I was keen to ‘place on the table’ at this gathering concerned the relationship between Reformed Churches and the State. It seems to me that a tradition like mine which is so heavily imbedded in what is now a rapidly-disappearing Christendom has well and truly entered (in most parts of the world) a time in which our relationship with the State is overdue for a rethink. Put differently, is it time for Reformed Churches who have long been in bed with the State to start thinking about wearing an ecclesiastical condom, at least at more ‘risky’ times of the month? Conversely, is it time for Reformed Churches who have long  sidelined themselves from their societies to re-think their bed etiquette? One place that I thought that such a rethink may be encouraged is in the teasing out of a few implications of being a ‘communion’, as opposed to a being a mere ‘alliance’ (Bruce has more to say about this distinction here). So I trundled along to a section called ‘Reformed Identity, Theology and Communion’, naïvely thinking that the topic of conversation at such a group might have at least something to do with Reformed identity, theology and/or communion.

After what felt like countless hours of talking around in circles about neither Reformed identity, nor theology, nor communion – hours made all the more painful by an incompetent section moderator – I offered the following proposal:

‘The World Communion of Reformed Churches acknowledges that the affirmation of communion has implications for our life together. The shape of this life together is fashioned upon the Gospel, that is, upon the gracious economy of the Triune God who makes us one.

Our identity and communion is created, sustained and fleshed out by Jesus Christ. This reality, which the Bible calls ‘life in Christ Jesus’ (Rom 6.23; 1 Cor 1.30; 2 Tim 3.12), redefines and reconstitutes our identity thus making all other identify-forming relationships secondary.

Therefore, as one of the many concrete expressions of this communion:

  1. We will not kill one another.
  2. We will make disciples in our congregations who might learn to resist participation in the State’s machinery of violence and thereby offer a distinctive Christian witness to an alternative way of living that is determined to not perpetuate the practices of that world which is passing away but which is formed by the new creation inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
  3. We will communicate – in word and in action – to our respective states and governments that our principle allegiance is to Jesus Christ.
  4. We will offer our full support to all those in our communion for whom this commitment will come at great cost.

We are a people who confess to follow one who puts himself in the way of evil, who intervenes on behalf of the oppressed and the weak and the downtrodden, and who does so not with swords and spears, but by bearing on his body the blows and resisting retaliation. Jesus confronts the cycle of violence and declares that ‘The violence stops with me’. He suffers in his own person the wrong that is done, and trusts the outcome to God. That is the pattern of obedient life that Christians are called to follow and into which they are incorporated through baptism. Forgiveness, compassion, prayer and sacrifice are the tools that Christ takes up in his war against evil and sin. When those who bear his name take up arms to wage war, and insist that such action is necessary, unavoidable and a last resort, they are resorting to a logic other than that of the Logos incarnate. It must be confessed therefore that they have failed in the call to inhabit God’s new creation, a call which allows for no exceptions when it comes to loving even our enemies’.

Unsurprisingly, the proposal received very little support (something like 15% I guess). That it received so little support was less disappointing to me, however, than the fact that here was a group of intelligent and articulate reformed thinkers and church leaders who – because of an incompetent moderator – were not afforded the opportunity to even discuss the issue/s being raised. It was, sadly, a wasted opportunity and I can only thank God for the many informal discussions that arose after my presentation. It was also a learning opportunity for me in ecumenical diplomacy (something that I hope never to be too good at) and at the importance of having well-moderated meetings.

After dusting myself off, I decided to give my modest proposal another (if even-more modest) crack in a session the following day, and that via the addition of a single sentence to a report of the Policy Committee. The Report serves as the guide for the future work of the Executive Committee of the WCRC. To the recommendation that ‘WCRC, working with appropriate member churches and other organizations, seek ways to accompany member churches through prophetic solidarity, education and advocacy’, I suggested the following addition: ‘This will include a commitment to not participate in violence against one another’. This time, the proposal was enthusiastically received, but again there was no discussion. And perhaps just as well, for a body of this size (around 1000) to engage in a meaningful conversation about the implications of such a statement would have us stuck here in Grand Rapids for many more moons, and while Calvin College is a extraordinarily-beautiful setting to be hanging out in for a few weeks, I’m looking forward to getting home and to doing some further thinking myself about reformed identity and about the shape of reformed ecclesiology in post-Christendom states.

[Photo by Erick Coll/UGC]

No faith is an island

In a previous post, I draw attention to a comment that Stanley Hauerwas made in an interview wherein, discussing Friendship and Community, he said:

‘The last thing in the world I want is a personal relationship with God. Our relationship with God is mediated. And that’s the reason why without the Church we know not God … Our faith is a mediated faith through people reformed by word and sacrament. So I would never trust myself to have a personal relationship with God’.

I was immediately struck by this comment, spurted out in true Hauerwasian style. And while I reckon that Hauerwas needed to introduce a distinction here between ‘personal’ and ‘individual’ (I assume that it is the latter that he most concerned with) I think that his basic point is right.

Paul Tillich, in one of his clearer bits of writing (and there aren’t many of those), also argued that ‘the life of faith is life in the community of faith, not only in its communal activities and institutions but also in the inner life of its members … There is no life of faith, even in mystical solitude, which is not life in the community of faith’. (Dynamics of Faith, 118)

This same word was brought home to me again recently when I was reading Robert McAfee Brown’s book Is Faith Obsolete? In that book, Brown makes the point that we do not believe by ourselves, as individuals in isolation; ‘we believe as part of a community of believers, whether the community is a Benedictine monastery, a communist cell, a Protestant congregation, a Jewish minyan, or a Hindu ashram’. He continues: ‘To be sure, we must personally appropriate the faith of the community to which we belong and make it our own, and in this sense Luther was right in insisting that everyone has to do his own believing just as everyone has to do his own dying. But we need to remember also that the faith we personally appropriate is the faith of the community, and this means that even the most internalized, existential act of personal commitment will bind us into a communal relationship of shared belief with others. Even if the faith I appropriate were somehow brand new, never before conceived, the product of no apparent community save my own internal dialogue with myself, if I really believed it to be true I would perforce share it with others and thus, whether I directly willed it or not, a new community would be created around it’ (p. 141).

There is, Brown insists, a relationship between faith and community which is ‘inextricably joined together’. ‘Community’, he writes, ‘can only be created around a faith; faith can only be creative within a community’. And then he helpfully proceeds to identify five ways in which community nurtures and strengthens the life of faith.

1. The community is an economy of relations wherein the faith of individuals can be tested against the faith of the community. ‘The community has a long history; better still, it has a memory, which means that it can put its history to use. The individual has a short history that needs frequent checking against the community’s longer history’ (p. 142). This means that the practices and learnings of the present are to be in critical relation with, and to exemplify, the life of faith as the creative appropriation of an open past.

2. The community is an economy of faithful relations where the faith of the community can be tested against the faith of the individual. This means that ‘any community that is truly a community must be able to suffer fools gladly and even embrace the heretics that threaten its peace. Since communities are almost always careful and conservative, they need the leaven of fresh ideas, along with new interpretations of old ideas, and these are contributions that only the most venturesome within their midst are likely to propound’ (p. 143). This, Brown insists, is how communities stay alive and grow. He cites Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Hans Küng and Daniel Berrigan, as examples of those who were used by God to bring fresh wine alongside old wineskins.

3. The community is an economy of relations of faith where the burdens of doubt can be shared. Faith always – and necessarily – involves risk, some of which are too overwhelming and potentially destructive to be shouldered by the individual alone. At such times, Brown reminds us, ‘the community can be the place for “the bearing of burdens,” where things too heavy to be borne individually can, at least during crucial moments, be borne corporately. It need not be a sign of individual weakness, but rather it can be a sign of communal strength, when an individual can say of the forgiveness of sins or the inevitability of the victory of the proletariat, or whatever: “Look, that part of it just doesn’t make sense to me right now. It did once, and I hope it will again, but for the moment the rest of you will have to do the believing for me”’ (p. 144). This quality of sharing is not to be interpreted as an exposure of weakness but rather as charismatic, i.e. as gift.

4. The community is an economy of relations which contributes to the life of faith precisely because it functions as the locale where faith can be celebrated and faith’s loves embodied, where the community’s members may ‘draw assurance that their faith is a future possibility for all because it is a present reality for a few’ (p. 145). Is this not precisely why we compose community-forming liturgies, and, conversely where we are made communities by that same liturgical action, in order that we might dramatise our graced convictions and spur each other on to participate in, and be continually recreated by, the faith we share and which has taken hold of us. At the very centre of this action, participation and recreation is the eucharist, that event-location around which communities gather to both remember, in the sense of recalling the past, and also to re-member themselves. There is an important (re-)ordering that needs to takes place here too, and that with ecumenical implications. We ought to eat and drink together first, and then talk theology. To invert this ordering is a nonsense. Debra Dean Murphy recently reminded us, ‘Through the sacramental gifts of Christ’s body and blood, the community receives itself – it becomes the body of Christ, blessed, broken, and shared. As the Great Thanksgiving says, we are made “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” In this act the Church is united across time and distinctions between the global and the local are collapsed, for in every local assembly is the whole body – “the world in a wafer,” as Bill Cavanaugh has said’.

5. Finally, community is an economy of relations which ‘contributes to the life of faith by being the place where faith is energized to turn outward. Communities cannot remain ingrown, concerned only with their own inner life. They too must exemplify faith as the dynamic interrelationship of content and commitment. They must thrust their members out into the “strange land,” into the arenas of life not populated by the community’ (p. 146). In other words, the community called by God and re-membered around generous helpings of broken loaves and poured out bottles of Shiraz is ever the apostolic community, i.e., it is always a people being ‘sent’ out in order to invite others to the feast.

Perhaps Hauerwas’ comments are not so strange after all.

Mythologies to live – and to die – by

‘The greatest tragedy of the church and of our people I see, at this moment in time, lies in the fact that in the powerful popular movement a purified, glowing, national feeling is linked up with a new paganism, whose unmasking and attacking is more difficult than with free-thinking religion, not only on emotional grounds, but because it goes around in Christian clothing’. So penned Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1931 during his first trip to North America, and published in No Rusty Swords (p. 69). This temptation, so powerfully resisted in Bonhoeffer’s own person, is also identified by Joe Jones in his exciting book On Being the Church of Jesus Christ in Tumultuous Times (reviewed here). In the Introduction, Jones recalls how throughout the church’s life there has been a ‘constant temptation to Christians to regard their national cultural identity as more basic than their Christian identity’ (p. xxi). This too is my concern, a concern nicely echoed in Ben Myers’ recent post on Anzac Day and the god of war, a subject which I too posted on last year under the name Aliens in the Church: A Reflection on ANZAC Day, National Flags and the Church as an Alternative Society. This shared concern seeks to speak into the confusion about the most basic self-understanding of the people of God, about our identity in the world and about which ‘mythology’ we choose to have our minds and lives most shaped by. Jones rightly, to my mind, contends that one symptom of the disarray in the church today is that most of us are more decisively formed and informed by our national identity than by our identity as disciples of an-other kingdom.

Jones proposes that the decisive identity for the church is an identity grounded in affirming Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Without some clarity about the priority among our various socially-conferred and socially-constructed identities, the church will, he contests, be utterly incapacitated to think pertinently about much at all, including issues about war and peace, and about its own unique identity, as well as its own theologically-determined political and economic life. He writes: ‘In the absence of a vigorous self-understanding grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the church devolves into being no more than a mirror image of the values – the discourses and practices – that shape the world in which it lives. Hence, being the church of Jesus Christ in tumultuous times at least involves understanding what it means simply in all times and places to be that community that is the Body of Christ in the world’. He continues: ‘This problem is most acute for the so-called ‘liberals’ and the so-called ‘conservatives’ among the church, for both seem determined to think about the war and terror simply according to the their liberal or conservative political dispositions. Completely lost in this is how to think and act, first and foremost, from the perspective of being a confessing and disciplined member of the Body of Christ in the world. Put another way: the discourses of the church should be the means by which Christians come to construe the world of the nation-states, with their internal and external politics, as the world over which Jesus Christ reigns’ (p. xxii).

We ought to thank God for those ministers and churches who on this recent Anzac Day refused to baptise a pagan ‘mythology’ but instead embraced the opportunity to engage creatively, graciously and prophetically with the soul of the community around them, to identify points of contact with that wider community, to encourage public discourse about the deepest realities of human being, and to hold up a new imagining of human community grounded in Jesus alone. That next year’s ANZAC Day falls on Easter Monday, only helps – one hopes – to make that conversation even more arresting, the clash of ‘mythologies’ even more striking, and the choice before us even more stark.

Karl Barth on worship and the cost of discipleship (on Romans 12:1–2)

To celebrate my recent success, I awarded myself with a copy of The Early Preaching of Karl Barth: Fourteen Sermons with Commentary by William H. Willimon. Thus far, I’ve resisted the temptation to post on it, to rave about the homiletical energy of the twentieth-century’s greatest theologian, his exegetical insights and proficiency in what is arguably the preachers’ most difficult task, namely application. But I give in. Here he is on Romans 12:1–2, from a sermon preached on 3 March, 1918:

‘In the words “well pleasing to God” it is said that our thoughts, words and works are in need of God’s blessing if they are truly to be a worship of God. It is indeed right when we search for God and wish to bring about better conditions in the world, but God must also be able to say yes to the ways and means we have of doing it, for otherwise nothing will come of our efforts. It is indeed good, for example, to pray for and pursue the conversion of persons, but if one cannot put aside an evil way of being that pricks and stings, God is not in it. To give the needy from one’s surplus is also good, but whether or not God rejoices in it will depend, for example, on how one has gained the surplus. To turn the world upside down, like the Bolsheviks now want to do, would also be good and much needed, but when they wave around their automatic weapons, the blessing of God cannot be in it. Good, pure persons are needed in order to serve God in a good, pure way, a way that is well pleasing to God. What passes by this good and pure way of being can never lead to the goal.

I think that we now understand a little of what Paul meant when he said that a sacrifice is needed for a reasonable worship of God. Here we must look deeply into what is holy. Something must be brought, presented, given. In the words themselves we already notice something of that serious, radical, and personal decision that the Bible requires of us and before which we are rightly perplexed. It is difficult for us and even hurts to give something away, even if it were only a little money that we would rather keep, or a friendly word, when we would rather say something sullen or rude, or an hour of our time that we would rather have for ourselves. The word “sacrifice” always attacks us, like a sharp knife. We would rather serve God in some other way than through sacrifice. In what Paul calls a reasonable worship of God, the giving of a little money is not enough, nor is a good word, nor a little time. One must seriously question whether any of these is a “living sacrifice, holy and well pleasing to God.” In fact, they are holy sacrifices only when another and much greater prior sacrifice has taken place, so that it now stands behind them.

For there is only one sacrifice that God acknowledges and accepts from us, and if you do not make this sacrifice, the rest collapses like a house of cards. This one sacrifice, according to Paul, consists in “presenting your bodies.” What he means is your personhood, your own self, without making a difference between the outer and inner person or of what is spiritual in us and what is natural. He says expressly “your bodies!” and not “your souls!” What Paul means is that there is no difference, that when he speaks of the body he includes the soul. We like to make fine and seemingly intelligent distinctions, as when we say, “Inwardly I am also of this opinion, but outwardly I do not wish to show it”; or, “In my heart I stand on this side too, but with my person I would rather not confess it”; or, “In my soul I want to belong to God, but my body – which means all that I am outwardly in the concealment of my private life, in my family, in my business, in my position in the village – this body of mine may keep going along as usual and often goes fully other ways than the ways of God.”

The Bible does not make such fine and clever distinctions. Paul prevents them simply by saying, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and well pleasing to God.” Here none of those distinctions and the like are acknowledged, such as when one reads worshipfully in the hymnbook on Sunday morning, but on Sunday afternoon goes a completely different way, as many of our teenagers in the confirmation class do. Here one is not allowed to be an idealist that reads good books in the evening, but in the factory during the day acts on the basis of the same principles, or rather lack of principles, as everyone else. Here one is not allowed to be a child of God who today cannot boast enough of the glory of truly trusting God, but tomorrow gets entirely out of sorts when their store of goods has dwindled in some small way.

Such fine distinctions are not possible for Paul. “Present your bodies as a sacrifice!” Then God will receive what God wills to receive from you and what God can use. As long as we do not wish to present our bodies, we wish to give nothing of ourselves. If we have once understood the inner and the outer, what belongs to the soul and what belongs to the body, one’s personal human spirit and one’s physical person – then we will sacrifice what must be sacrificed; then it will be a living sacrifice, holy and well pleasing to God, just as God is living and holy; then we will give ourselves into the power of God!

That is what is meant by a reasonable worship of God. What a pity it is and what a distress that at bottom we all fear the gods so much that we are all so religious and full of endeavor, and yet understand so little of this sacrifice, of giving ourselves, our bodies, as sacrifices into the power of God. Oh, how would the doors that are now closed to us open – all the doors of sin and care before which we so helplessly stand; the doors of persons we do not understand nor they us; the doors of sad social conditions that we presently cannot change – how would truth and salvation come to light, how would the change of things that we wish for happen, if we would only break out of all our so-called worship of God, our religions, convictions, and endeavors! We would break out of all these prisons, over which is written, “My intentions are good,” and instead enter into what God intends, into that reasonable worship of God in Spirit and in truth. This is what the Bible places before us in such a great, natural, and healthy way!’ – Karl Barth and William H. Willimon, The Early Preaching of Karl Barth: Fourteen Sermons with Commentary by William H. Willimon (trans. John E. Wilson; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 51–3.

‘Who shall unseal the years, the years!’: Around the traps

A Script to Live (and to Die) By: 19 Theses by Walter Brueggemann

These 19 theses by Walter Brueggemann are the most interesting thing I’ve read all day [to be sure, it’s been a bit of an admin marathon today], an encouraging invitation to those of us striving to live by, and to train others to live by, what Brueggemann calls ‘the alternative script’:

1.        Everybody lives by a script. The script may be implicit or explicit. It may be recognised or unrecognised, but everybody has a script.

2.        We get scripted. All of us get scripted through the process of nurture and formation and socialisation, and it happens to us without our knowing it.

3.         The dominant scripting in our society is a script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism that socialises us all, liberal and conservative.

4.        That script (technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism) enacted through advertising and propaganda and ideology, especially on the liturgies of television, promises to make us safe and to make us happy.

5.        That script has failed. That script of military consumerism cannot make us safe and it cannot make us happy. We may be the unhappiest society in the world.

6.        Health for our society depends upon disengagement from and relinquishment of that script of military consumerism. This is a disengagement and relinquishment that we mostly resist and about which we are profoundly ambiguous.

7.        It is the task of ministry to de-script that script among us. That is, to enable persons to relinquish a world that no longer exists and indeed never did exist.

8.        The task of descripting, relinquishment and disengagement is accomplished by a steady, patient, intentional articulation of an alternative script that we say can make us happy and make us safe.

9.        The alternative script is rooted in the Bible and is enacted through the tradition of the Church. It is an offer of a counter-narrative, counter to the script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism.

10.    That alternative script has as its most distinctive feature – its key character – the God of the Bible whom we name as Father, Son, and Spirit.

11.    That script is not monolithic, one dimensional or seamless. It is ragged and disjunctive and incoherent. Partly it is ragged and disjunctive and incoherent because it has been crafted over time by many committees. But it is also ragged and disjunctive and incoherent because the key character is illusive and irascible in freedom and in sovereignty and in hiddenness, and, I’m embarrassed to say, in violence – [a] huge problem for us.

12.    The ragged, disjunctive, and incoherent quality of the counter-script to which we testify cannot be smoothed or made seamless because when we do that the script gets flattened and domesticated and it becomes a weak echo of the dominant script of technological, consumer militarism. Whereas the dominant script of technological, consumer militarism is all about certitude, privilege, and entitlement this counter-script is not about certitude, privilege, and entitlement. Thus care must be taken to let this script be what it is, which entails letting God be God’s irascible self.

13.    The ragged, disjunctive character of the counter-script to which we testify invites its adherents to quarrel among themselves – liberals and conservatives – in ways that detract from the main claims of the script and so to debilitate the focus of the script.

14.    The entry point into the counter-script is baptism. Whereby we say in the old liturgies, “do you renounce the dominant script?

15.    The nurture, formation, and socialisation into the counter-script with this illusive, irascible character is the work of ministry. We do that work of nurture, formation, and socialisation by the practices of preaching, liturgy, education, social action, spirituality, and neighbouring of all kinds.

16.    Most of us are ambiguous about the script; those with whom we minister and I dare say, those of us who minister. Most of us are not at the deepest places wanting to choose between the dominant script and the counter-script. Most of us in the deep places are vacillating and mumbling in ambivalence.

17.    This ambivalence between scripts is precisely the primary venue for the Spirit, so that ministry is to name and enhance the ambivalence that liberals and conservatives have in common that puts people in crisis and consequently that invokes resistance and hostility.

18.    Ministry is to manage that ambivalence that is crucially present among liberals and conservatives in generative faithful ways in order to permit relinquishment of [the] old script and embrace of the new script.

19.    The work of ministry is crucial and pivotal and indispensable in our society precisely because there is no one except the church and the synagogue to name and evoke the ambivalence and to manage a way through it. I think often I see the mundane day-to-day stuff ministers have to do and I think, my God, what would happen if you took all the ministers out. The role of ministry then is as urgent as it is wondrous and difficult.

[These theses were presented at the Emergent Theological Conversation, September 13-15, 2004, All Souls Fellowship, Decatur, GA., USA]

Drifting or resolve?

‘One of the most striking evidences of sinful human nature lies in the universal propensity for downward drift. In other words, it takes thought,  resolve, energy, and effort to bring about reform. In the grace of God, sometimes human beings display such virtues. But where such virtues are absent, the drift is invariably toward compromise, comfort, indiscipline, sliding disobedience, and decay that advances, sometimes at a crawl and sometimes at a gallop, across generations.

People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated’. – Don Carson, For the Love of God: A Daily Companion for Discovering the Treasures of God’s Word, Volume Two, 23 January.

Hauerwas on sex, marriage, politics and love

Jan van Eyck, ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ (1434). Oil on oak panel of 3 vertical boards; National Gallery, London.

Jan van Eyck, ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ (1434). Oil on oak panel of 3 vertical boards; National Gallery, London.

‘The dominant assumption has been that the evaluation of different kinds of sexual expressions should center on whether they are or are not expressive of love. On the contrary, the ethics of sex must begin with political considerations, because ethically the issue of the proper form of sexual activity raises the most profound issues about the nature and form of political community. I am not denying that sex obviously has to do with interpersonal matters, but I am asserting that we do not even know what we need to say about the personal level until we have some sense of the political context necessary for the ordering of sexual activity. Indeed, one of the main difficulties with the assumption that thc ethics of sex can be determined on the basis of interpersonal criteria is the failure to see how that assumption itself reflects a political option. To reduce issues of sexuality to the question of whether acts of sex are or are not fulfilling for those involved is to manifest the assumption of political liberalism that sex is a private matter. The hold this political theory has on us is illustrated by how readily we also accept the assumption that the private nature of sexuality does not involve issues of political theory …

‘We must understand that if Christians and non-Christians differ over marriage, that difference does not lie in their understanding of the quality of interpersonal relationship needed to enter or sustain a marriage, but rather in a disagreement about the nature of marriage and its place in the Christian and national community. Christians above all should note that there are no conceptual or institutional reasons that require love between the parties to exist in order for the marriage to be successful …

The requirement of love in marriage is not correlative to the intrinsic nature of marriage but is based on the admonition for Christians to love one another. We do not love because we are married, but because we are Christian. We may, however, learn what such love is like within the context of marriage. For the Christian tradition claims that marriage helps to support an inclusive community of love by grounding it in a pattern of faithfulness toward another. The love that is required in marriage functions politically by defining the nature of Christian social order, and as children arrive they are trained in that order.

Moreover, Christians should see that the family cannot, contrary to [Bertrand] Russell’s claim, exist as an end in itself nor by itself provide a sufficient check against pretentious rationalism. Such an assumption is but a continuation of the liberal perversion of the family and only makes the family and marriage more personally destructive. When families exist for no reason other than their own existence, they become quasi-churches, which ask sacrifices far too great and for insufficient reasons. The risk of families which demand that we love one another can be taken only when there are sustaining communities with sufficient convictions that can provide means to form and limit the status of the family. If the family does stand as a necessary check on the state, as Russell and I both think it should, it does so because it first has a place in an institution that also stands against the state – the church …

‘ … the ambivalence of the church toward marriage is grounded in the eschatological convictions which freed some from the necessity of marriage – i.e., singleness becomes a genuine option for service to the community. This is a dangerous doctrine indeed, for it is a strange community which would risk giving singleness an equal status with marriage. But that is what the church did, and as a result marriage was made a vocation rather than a natural necessity. But as a vocation, marriage can be sustained only so long as it is clear what purposes it serves in the community which created it in the first place. With the loss of such a community sanction, we are left with the bare assumption that marriage is a voluntary institution motivated by the need for interpersonal intimacy …

‘Many want to treat sex as just another form of communication – like shaking hands. I suppose in response to such a suggestion one can at least point out that sex is often more fun than shaking hands. However, the reason that we seem to assume that sex should be reserved for “special relations” is not that sex itself is special, but that the nature of sex serves the ends of intimacy. But intimacy is indeed a tricky matter to sustain, and that may be the reason why many have argued that marriage is necessary to provide the perduring framework to sustain intimacy.

Moreover, once the political function of marriage is understood to be central for the meaning and institution of marriage, we have a better idea of what kinds of people we ought to be to deal with marriage. Most of the literature that attempts to instruct us about getting along in marriage fails to face up to a fact so clearly true that I have dared to call it Hauerwas’s Law: You always marry the wrong person. It is as important to note, of course, as Herbert Richardson pointed out to me, that the reverse of the law is also true: namely, that you also always marry the right person. The point of the law is to suggest the inadequacy of the current assumption that the success or failure of a marriage can be determined by marrying the “right person.” Even if you have married the “right person,” there is no guarantee that he or she will remain such, for people have a disturbing tendency to change. Indeed, it seems that many so-called “happy marriages” are such because of the partners’ efforts to preserve “love” by preventing either from changing.

This law is meant not only to challenge current romantic assumptions but to point out that marriage is a more basic reality than the interpersonal relations which may or may not characterize a particular marriage. Indeed, the demand that those in a marriage love one another requires that marriage have a basis other than the love itself. For it is only on such a basis that we can have any idea of how we should love’.

– Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Sex and Politics: Bertrand Russell and “Human Sexuality”‘.

Forsyth: Sunny Love or Solemn Grace?

forsyth-10‘The old layman demanded depth at any cost, for which he was willing to pay the inward price and meet the preacher half way; the new demands simplicity at no cost at all, and will have everything brought, cooked and flavoured, to his door. Simplicity for him is not what clears a concerned conscience, but it is what speaks the language of his business or consecrates the voice of his bosom. It is the Gospel deposited at his private address, without effort of his, for family use; it is not a Gospel which he travels miles of spiritual preparation to hear, and which might cost father, mother, wife, or child. He does not dig for it as for hid treasure – the ministry is there for that purpose, in the preparing of sermons. And the ministry fails because it either has to dig alone, or it is discouraged to do more than hoe the ground, and then finds nothing to make it more than a carrier and turn it to a prophet. In church going many hope at most to be impressed, and at least to have a treat: what they fear is to be humiliated – broken up, cast down, taught an obedience, frightened about their soul, and born again. Theirs is a cordial faith rather than a joyful – as the New Testament understands joy. It is a faith of the heart rather than the conscience, a faith in sunny Love rather than solemn Grace’. – P.T. Forsyth, ‘Lay Religion’. Constructive Quarterly 3, December (1915), 781-2.

Christians on their best side

rembrant-prodigal-son-detail‘In invocation of God the Father everything depends on whether or not it is done in sheer need (not self-won competence), in sheer readiness to learn (not schooled erudition), and in sheer helplessness (not the application of a technique of self-help). This can be the work only of very weak and very little and very poor children, of those who in their littleness, weakness, and poverty can only get up and run with empty hands to their Father, appealing to him. Nor should we forget to add that it can only be the work only of naughty children of God who have wilfully run away again from their Father’s house, fond themselves among swine in the far country, turned their thoughts back home, and then – if they could – returned to their Father … Christians who regard themselves as big and strong and rich and even dear and good children of God, Christian who refuse to sit with their Master at the table of publicans and sinners, are not Christians at all, have still to become so, and need not be surprised if heaven is gray above them and their calling upon God sounds hollow and finds no hearing. The glory, splendour, truth, and power of divine sonship, and of the freedom to invoke God as Father, and therefore the use of this freedom – the Christian ethos in big and little things alike – depends at every time and in every situation on whether or not Christians come before God as beginners, as people who cannot make anything very imposing out of their faith in Jesus Christ, who even with this faith of theirs – and how else could it be if it is faith in Jesus Christ? – venture to draw near to his presence only with the prayer: “Help my unbelief” (Mk. 9:24). Mark well that this has nothing to do with Christian defeatism. It describes Christians on their best side and not their worst, in their strength and not their weakness (2 Cor. 12:10).’ – Karl Barth, The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV,4: Lecture Fragments (trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981), 80.

Thirteen Propositions on Voting: a repost

I rarely do this, but some time ago, I posted Thirteen Propositions on Voting. Looking over them again today in light of tomorrow’s US elections, I thought that it was worth a repost:

A preamble: this is not an exhaustive list.

1. Remember, if you are a Christian then you are part of a pilgrim people who ought never really feel at home in this world because we have been made for another.

2. No matter which government is in power, the Church’s charge remains the same – to preach the Gospel. This will include, among other things, at least a 4-fold word: (i) challenging the structures of our society that demean humanity made in the image of God; (ii) challenging the agendas of our society that leave the poor and the widows and the orphans without a voice; (iii) challenging the complacency of a people who refuse to think, or can’t be bothered thinking, about the consequences of the decisions we are making (this has obvious international consequences); and (iv) challenging the selfishness of those who get fatter and fatter at the expense of others, and at the expense of the creation.

3. God’s people receive their identity not from earthly governments, but from the knowledge that they belong to the Lord Jesus and live under his government, and by his word.

4. Regardless of what’s going on in the fleeting world of politics, the Gospel will always have something to say to the world, and to a Church that must continuously strive to keep itself from ever thinking that the Gospel of the Cross is not enough.

5. We must beware lest we fall into the trap that so many Christians throughout history have fallen into of believing that there is such a thing as the only and true Christian form of government. No political party can be baptised, nor any political system. The radical call of Jesus remains regardless of what the government of the day is doing. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to bring about godly reforms and laws in the land, but it does mean that we mustn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we can create a heaven on earth.

6. The temptation to deny Christ exists no matter what the political situation and culture is.

7. Don’t be among those who see voting as a chore and as a painful waste of time. Remember that it is a privilege to vote. God has placed many of us in countries where we have the opportunity to take part in decision making as well as in the keeping of our elected leaders accountable. Thank God that some of God’s people live in such places. [I have always struggled to understand how a democracy can encourage non-compulsory voting, not least given the claim of support for democracy-making in other parts of the world!]

8. Thank God for democracy, but never trust it. ‘Democracy’, wrote Forsyth, ‘is but a half-truth. It must have a King. Aristocracy is just as true and as needful. It builds on an authority in things no less than democracy builds on an equality. The free personality of democracy is only possible under a free authority. The free soul is only possible in a free King … There must always be a House of Moral Lords. There must always be leaders and led, prophets and people, apostles and members, genius and its circle, and elect and a called. Ah! democratic and aristocratic principles are both deep in the foundations of our Christian faith’. At the end of the day, ‘democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time’ (E. B. White). Recall the words of C.S. Lewis: ‘I am a democrat [believer in democracy] because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that every one deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true … I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost. Much less a nation … The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters’.

9. Remember that even secular leadership comes under the domain of God’s sovereignty, and that God uses non-Christians, as well as Christians, to bring about his purposes. The Bible assures us that all those who serve the people well are servants of God. So thank God for his own sovereign governing of the world (Rom 13:1-7).

10. Pray diligently for the leaders and all those in responsibilities of power and decision making. We are commanded by God to pray for all our leaders. Pray that they would make wise and just decisions and govern with mercy as well as strength. Pray for those who do not know Christ, that they would become Christians.

11. Pray for wisdom about your vote. Make your vote count. Make your vote a wise vote.

12. Don’t vote for the party who will best serve your pocket and own interests, but vote for the government or person who you prayerfully and honestly believe can best think through the necessary and complex issues with an attitude of serving others within their own country, and beyond.

13. Once the election has taken place, don’t grumble if your choice of party or person is not elected, for Peter tells us to, ‘Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honour the king (1 Peter 2:12-17).

Karl Barth on the task of every Christian

‘Biblical study … is not merely the affair of a few specialists but fundamentally of all the members of the community. For none is infallible, and all need to be subject to the control of the rest. And again, it might some day be asked of any Christian to give an answer to those without concerning “the hope that is in you” (v. 15). For this no little knowledge of the Bible, and indeed some understanding and therefore study, are indispensable. The statement: “I am a mere layman and not a theologian” is evidence not of humility but of indolence … The Christian must also be in a position to see his way clearly and not to be constantly bewildered in the dramas, tragedies and comedies of the past and present history of the community … Hence there is need of the catechism and even of some memory work’. (CD IV/3, p. 870f.)

‘The task of every Christian … is his task as a bearer of the Gospel to the others who still stand without. To what end? To bring them into the Church, to make them Christians? In the event this too, but the real point is that to all those who by reason of their being outside demand an account of the living hope that is in him this account should be given by what he does and what he leaves undone, by his work and word. More restless than the most restless, more urgent than the most urgent revolutionaries in his immediate or more distant circle, he asks: “Where art thou, peace of all the world?” – and he asks it the more restlessly and the more urgently because he is sure of this future peace, because he consciously looks and moves forward to the future which is filled by it. To him who is thus endowed and blessed there applies the “go” of Mt. 28:19, not as a member of a Christian collective, but very personally. Here are the marching orders which are given directly and specifically to him’. (CD IV/4, p. 200f.)

Rowan Williams: ‘Being Disciples’

Discipleship is, as your title indicates, a state of being. Discipleship is about how we live; not just the decisions we make, not just the courses we attend, but a state of being. It’s very telling that at the very beginning of St John’s Gospel, a text to which unsurprisingly I’ll be coming back later (St John 1.38-39), when the two disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus they say, ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’, Jesus says, ‘Come and see’, and they remained with him that day. The Gospel teaches us that the bottom line in thinking about discipleship has something to do with staying.

No accident then that later in the same gospel the language of abiding is what is used to speak about the relation of the disciple to Jesus. In other words, what makes you a disciple is not turning up from time to time. Discipleship may be being a student in the strict Greek sense of the word, but it doesn’t mean turning up once a week for a course, or even a sermon. Discipleship is not an intermittent state; it’s a relationship that continues. In the ancient world being a student was rather more like that than it is these days. If you said to a modern student or prospective student that the essence of being a student was to hang on your teacher’s every word, to follow his or her steps, to sleep outside their door in case you missed any pearls of wisdom falling from their lips, to watch how they conducted themselves at the table, how they conducted themselves in the street, you might not get a very warm response.

But in the ancient world, it was a rather more like that. To be the student of a teacher was to commit yourself to living in the same atmosphere and breathing the same air; there was nothing intermittent about it. Discipleship in that sense is a state of being in which you’re looking and listening without interruption. It’s much more like, for instance, the state of the novice monks as they appear to us in the sayings of the Desert Fathers, who are just hanging around hoping that they’ll get the point, who occasionally say desperately to the older monks, ‘Give us a word, Father’, and the older monk says something really profound like, ‘Weep for your sins’ followed by about six weeks of silence. Or indeed the relationship between (even today) the Buddhist novice and the master in a Zen house, where something similar applies. You’re hanging around; you’re watching; you’re absorbing a way of being, and you yourself are in a state of being. You learn by sharing life; you learn by looking and listening. So “‘Rabbi where are you staying?’ … ‘Come and see.’ … They saw where he was staying and remained with him that day.” is quite a good beginning to think about discipleship. And, as I hinted, I don’t think it’s any accident that John puts it right at the beginning of his Gospel. If we’re going to understand what he has to say to us about discipleship, we have to understand about abiding and sharing, and this non-intermittent side of being a disciple.

I shall have a little more to say about in a while about that sharing a place, an atmosphere, a state of being. But let us just stay with what it involves for a moment and think about it in terms of discipleship as a state of awareness. The disciple is not there to jot down ideas and then go away and think about them. The disciple is where he or she is so that they’ll change – so that the way in which they see and experience the whole world changes. That great Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones wrote in one of his late poems of the poet’s relation to God: ‘It is easy to miss him at the turn of a civilization.’ And discipleship as awareness is trying to develop – to grow – into those skills that help you not to miss God – Jesus Christ – at the turn of a civilization, or anywhere else. Awareness is inseparable in this connection from a sort of expectancy, and I think that is one of the characteristics that most clearly marks the true disciple.

The true disciple is an expectant person, always taking it for granted that there is something about to break through from the master, something about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape. The master is going to speak or show something; reality is going to open up when you’re in the master’s company and so your awareness (as has often been said by people writing about contemplative prayer) is a little bit like that of a bird-watcher, the experienced bird-watcher, who is sitting still, poised, alert, not tense or fussy, knowing that this is the kind of place where something extraordinary suddenly bursts into view.

I’ve always rather liked that image of prayer as bird-watching. You sit very still because something is liable to burst into view, and sometimes of course it means a long day sitting in the rain with nothing very much happening, and I suspect that most of us know that a lot of our experience of prayer is precisely that. But the odd occasions when you do see what T. S. Eliot called ‘the kingfisher’s wing flashing light to light’ make it all worthwhile. And I think that living in expectancy – living in awareness, your eyes sufficiently open and your mind sufficiently both slack and attentive to see that when it happens – has a great deal to do with discipleship, indeed with discipleship as the gospels present it to us. Interesting (isn’t it?) that in the gospels the disciples don’t just listen, they’re expected to look as well. They’re people who are picking up clues all the way through.

This is shown to us in very different ways in different gospels, different gospels which I think pick up those different keys and registers and styles of discipleship that all of us experience in different ways, so that we can recognize ourselves in very diverse modes. What I mean is that the gospel of St Mark on the whole portrays the disciples as incredibly stupid about picking up clues: they can’t do it. The kingfisher flashes past them and Peter, or someone (usually Peter), turns round and says ‘Oh, I missed that!’ Whereas in St John’s gospel, there’s a much more steady accumulation of moments of recognition and realization from the moment (right after the first sign in Cana of Galilee) when the disciples see his glory, and they pick up, moment by moment, and they see.

And that theme of seeing of course comes to its great climax when Peter and the Beloved Disciple stumble into the empty tomb and see the folded grave clothes. It’s an inexhaustibly wonderful text because it distinguishes so clearly between the first moment when Peter looks in and ‘notices’ and the other disciple comes in and ‘sees’. And you can draw up a chart of those words as they evolve through the whole of St John’s gospel. That ‘seeing’ – noticing and seeing – the noticing and seeing which is part of the disciple’s task. And although the disciples may still be a bit slow in St John’s accounts, they’re not nearly as dim-witted as they appear in St Mark. And that corresponds to dimensions of our own discipleship: those longish periods where, looking back, we feel ‘How could we have been so obtuse?’ and those periods where we think ‘Yes: I don’t see it all yet but it’s beginning to link up.’ And to me the excitement of reading St John’s gospel, in the context of trying to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, is something to do with watching that excitement of things linking up as the great narrative unfolds. And I’m sure that in reality, Peter and John and the rest of the disciples and the Twelve were actually not so very different from us: that is, they had their dim-witted days, and their bright days.

Disciples watch, they remain alert, attentive, watching symbolic acts as well as listening for words; watching the actions that give the clue to reality being re-organized around Jesus. Let me just remind you of the beginning of John’s story once again – the wedding at Cana (St John 2.11): Jesus performed this first miracle in Cana in Galilee. There he revealed his glory, he made his glory to be seen. And his disciples believed in him, his disciples trusted him. They see what’s going on and something connects.

Sometimes those signs are difficult or ambiguous. ‘What did you do that for?’ is a question that is occasionally hangs around the gospel narratives. There’s the occasion in the synoptic gospels of the cursing of the fig tree. Jesus goes to Jerusalem. The puzzlement of what’s going on there, a puzzlement which many modern readers share with the first disciples; but there it is, an action which Jesus so to speak offers to the disciples and says, ‘What do you make of that? Do you see what that’s about?’ Again, another strange exchange between Jesus and the disciples in the boat after the feeding of the multitude, ‘Do you see it yet? Do you understand what was going on yet? How many loaves? How many baskets of leftovers? What have you seen? Tell me.’ So, awareness and expectancy are very much around in the expectation that Jesus seems to have of the disciples. Watching the acts as well as listening to the words. Watching with a degree of inner stillness that allows the unexpected world-changing to occur.

And for us today, trying to be Christ’s disciples, awareness and expectancy are no less important. We are not precisely where those first disciples were. We are post-resurrection believers and, in theory at least, we ought to understand a little more than Christ’s first disciples in the gospels did. In theory at least. We have the Holy Spirit to direct and inform, to energize our awareness, to kindle our expectancy. But like those first disciples, we look as well as listen. We watch with expectancy the world in which live. We listen for the word to come alive for us in scripture. We look at the great self-identifying actions of the Church in the sacraments, asking the Spirit to make the connection come alive. We look, we listen – awareness, expectation. And (a point that I love to underline because it’s not always easy to hold to this in the Church) we look at one another as Christians with expectancy. It cannot be said too often, but the first thing we ought to think of when we are in the presence of another Christian is: what is Christ giving me through this person, this group? Given what we encounter in some of the other Christians we mix with much of the time, that can be hard work. But, none the less, that is the expectation of expectancy.

Jesus has brought us together precisely so that we look at one another with that degree of expectancy, which (as again I usually have to say) doesn’t mean that you will agree with everything the other Christian says. It simply means that you begin by saying, ‘What is Jesus Christ giving me here and now?’ Never mind the politics; never mind the policy; never mind anything, just ask that question and it does perhaps move you forward a tiny bit in discipleship. Can we live in a Church characterized by expectancy towards one another of that kind? It would be a very biblical experience of the Church.

But now, awareness, expectancy, discipleship as not something intermittent – all of this presupposes the category of following, which is so very basic in all the language about discipleship. This listening awareness, this expectancy, presupposes following because it presupposes that we are willing to travel to where the master is, to follow where the master goes. And, of course, in the gospels, where the master goes is very frequently not where we would have thought of going, or where we would have wanted to go. Hence, taking up the instrument of our execution – the cross – and walking his way.

Let me take you to St Luke 14 for a moment. In that chapter Jesus repeats insistently in what sort of lives cannot be lived by disciples. And they’re hard words. Those who come to me cannot be my disciples unless they love me more than they love father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters (14.26). And themselves as well: those who do not carry their own cross and come after me cannot be my disciples. ‘Cannot’: it repeats itself through that chapter in a very alarming way. But the point is that if you’re going to be where the master is, those things you think come naturally and comfortably are not necessarily going to be where you find yourself. The place where you’re going to be is always going to be defined by the master, not by you, because a disciple is not greater than his master, as both St Luke and St John in their different ways say.

Following so as to be in the same place as the master. There are two very interesting, rather different directions in which we can take this idea. First of all, a fairly obvious meaning, but one I think is quite important in thinking about discipleship in the New Testament. Being where Jesus is means finding yourself in the company of the people whose company Jesus seeks and keeps. So, when Jesus goes to be in the company of the excluded, the wretched, the self-hating, the poor, the diseased, that’s where you’re going to find yourself. If you are going to be where Jesus is, if your discipleship is not intermittent but a way of being, that’s where you are going to find yourself, in the same sort of human company that he is in. This is once again an important reminder that our discipleship is not about choosing our company beyond choosing the company of Jesus.

So that is indeed why so many great disciples across the history of the Christian Church, and indeed now, find themselves in the company of people they would never have imagined being with had they not been seeking to be where Jesus is. Those who have gone to the ends of the earth for the sake of the Gospel, and the spread of the Gospel; those who have found themselves in the midst of strangers wondering ‘How did I get here?’ – great figures like (one of my own personal heroes) Bishop Thomas French, a great CMS figure of the nineteenth century who spent almost his entire mission ministry as Bishop of the Persian Gulf at a time when there were (at a generous estimate) two Christians in the whole of the area he was looking after and who died alone of fever on a beach in Muscat. What took him there? The desire to be where Jesus was, Jesus waiting to come to birth – come to visibility – in all those souls whose lives he touched even though in the long years he worked in the Middle East he made barely one convert. He wasn’t there first to make converts, he was there first because he wanted to be in the company of Jesus Christ: Jesus Christ reaching out to and seeking to be born in those he worked with. It’s the very failure, and the drama of that failure, that draws me to his story now (not, I hasten to add, because I have any kind of affiliation to failure, though archbishops perhaps ought to get used to it) but because it just demonstrates the utter value of a discipleship that is concerned with being where Jesus is regardless of the consequences.

But then there’s another, deeper and I think more exciting direction to this, a dimension that comes again and again into visibility in the fourth gospel. ‘Where I am, there will my servant be also’, (St John 12). And where Jesus Christ is – St John has told us at the beginning of his gospel – is next to the Father’s heart. The Word of God in the bosom of the Father. And so, where he is we are to be also. We are to be not only where he is in terms of mission and outreach and service in the world, where he is in serving the outcast; we are also to be where he is in his closeness to the Father. We follow him, not simply to the ends of the earth, to do his work and echo his service; we follow him to be next to the heart of the Father.

As I was thinking about this I was struck by a thought that that had never really occurred to me before: that there’s a connection in St John’s gospel between the way in which disciples are to see and do what their master is doing, and what Jesus himself says about his relation to the Father. If you look at St John 5.19, you find the great affirmation of the Son doing what the Father is doing. The Son gazes on and absorbs the eternal action of the Father, and the acts it out in his own life, in eternity and in history. The Son, the Word of God, drinks in the everlasting act of the Father and then makes it real in another context. Does St John mean us to pick up a sort of echo of that in various places in his Gospel, where he speaks in similar terms about seeing and doing? Look too at St John 7:3: ‘Leave this place,’ say Jesus’s brothers, ‘and go to Judea, so that your followers will see the things that you are doing; for no one hides what he is doing if he wants to be well known.’ And then of course there are the great meditations of the farewell discourses (St John 17) where it seems very clear that the seeing and the doing are connected. The disciples see what Jesus is doing, and they also see that Jesus is doing what the Father is doing, they see the glory that Jesus and the Father give to each other, and that glory is given to them. But I suspect that we’re meant at least to make some connection there between the seeing and doing of Jesus in relation to the Father, and the seeing and doing that goes on between disciples and Jesus. This helps us again in thinking about what I called at the beginning the non-intermittent character of discipleship. The relationship of Jesus to the Father is not episodic. Jesus does not receive an occasional bit of instruction from the Father, his relationship is sustained, eternal and unbroken. He gazes into the mystery of the Father’s love and he does it, in heaven and on earth. And we in our discipleship are gazing into the mystery of that incarnate love and we are seeking to do that same will, to act that same action, on earth as it is in heaven, as the Lord’s prayer puts it.

So, that suggests the rather ambitious thought (but an ambition entirely justified by scripture) that the heart of discipleship is trinitarian; that it is as we understand more deeply the trinitarian life of God that’s uncovered for us in those wonderful passages of St John’s gospel that we understand more fully what it is that is the root and energy of our being disciples here and now. We see and we do, not just because that’s the way discipleship or studentship worked in the ancient world; we see and we do because that’s what the Father and the Son are involved in for all eternity.

Let me try to draw some of this together. What I’m suggesting is that to get some perspective on the biblical sense of the disciples’ identity means first and most obviously the simple willingness to be consistently in Christ’s company. What that means practically for the Christian today is being consistently in the company of other servants of Christ, in the company of the revelation of Christ in scripture, in the company of the Father and the Son in the Spirit in prayer, all of which will require of us a certain degree of inner stillness and, what I think I called earlier, a sort of poise: the attentiveness of the bird-watcher again. Attention and expectancy, an attitude of mind sufficiently free of the preoccupations of this or that business of the ego to turn itself with openness to what God in Christ is giving.

At the primary level, that will mean learning and deepening our attentiveness to the Bible, to the sacraments and to the life of the Body of Christ. And secondly, arising out of that, it means learning a level of attentiveness to all persons, places and things, looking at everything with the eye of expectancy, waiting for something of God to blossom within it. Being in Christ’s company, learning attentiveness and practicing that kind of still alertness that is looking and waiting for the light to break through. Then thirdly, it means being attentive to where Christ is going, keeping company with those he’s with. Among them we will find the most unexpected and unlikely characters, the kinds of people that Jesus seems to spend so much time with in the gospels and today. Most importantly we will find him keeping company with the Father, in whose company he eternally is.

Our attentiveness is not just a kind of aesthetic attitude, an appreciation of beauty. It is also a willingness to bring an active and transfiguring love into that situation of expectancy, to keep company so that an action and a relationship may come to being. So, being a disciple means being in his company, learning stillness and attentiveness, expectancy, being willing to go when Jesus is going and to be in the company of those he’s in company with, letting the action come through and the relation be made; letting his action come through us as the Father’s act comes through him. Finally what seems to be suggested by these reflections upon the biblical identity of the disciple is that our discipleship in the company of Jesus is a trinitarian mode of life that is imbedded in the relationship of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit: that is, it is a contemplative mode of life (not in the sense that we might all become Carthusian hermits, tempting as that often appears); but that we’ve all got to grow into what I’ll call a ‘mature stillness’, a poise and an openness to others and the world, so that thirdly, it can also be a transformative mode of living in which the act of God can come through so as to change ourselves, our immediate environment, our world.

A trinitarian living, a contemplative living, a transformative living: no opposition here (as there isn’t in the fourth gospel) between contemplation and action. (And we do need to say that: it’s one of the awful clichés that Christians have sometimes been trapped by: what matters more, contemplation or action? Perhaps the only answer to that is: just try and think of contemplation without action or action without contemplation, and you realize you’re drawing up a charter for really sterile, and potentially even destructive, human living.) Hold them together – contemplation as your openness to the real roots of transforming action – and maybe it doesn’t look like quite such a stand-off.

The greatest teachers of prayer and action have held those together in the most remarkable way, like the great St Teresa of Avila (1515-82) saying that when you have finally ‘progressed’ through all the hair-raising mystical experiences that she describes, what it’s all finally about is enabling you to do some very ordinary things a little bit better. As she says, when you’ve been through the seventh mansion of spiritual union with God you’re better at the washing-up. The habit of attentiveness and expectancy towards God and one another results, overflows, in modes of being and action in the world that – because it can be free from ego and anxiety – actually allows God-shaped change to take place around you. Not by effort and struggle, furrowed brows and tensed muscles, but by allowing something to rise up, something irresistible within your awareness that is God’s purpose coming through to make the difference that only God can make.

Finally then, discipleship is indeed about traveling, and about growing. You can’t begin to describe the life of the disciples in the New Testament without coming to grips with that dimension of traveling. Disciples were people called away from home because they must be where their master is. And that is never going to be comfortable; but perhaps it becomes intelligible when one realizes (something that again is writ large on every page of scripture) that the home where you will finally realize who and what you are is the home, the place prepared for you, by Jesus. And the disciple is engaged in a journey from a place that looks like a comfortable and manageable home towards a home that is eternal and that – as St Augustine says – doesn’t fall away or fall into non-existence because we don’t happen to be living in it at the moment. Discipleship is, paradoxically, a journey away from home, and a journey toward home. Just as the conversion that is the daily task of a disciple, is a break with what seems closest and dearest to us, and a cleaving to what is actually deepest and most natural in us.

[Source: Fulcrum]