Thursday, 12 January 2017

Supernatural or super-natural? Some thoughts around Bethel Church Redding

A disclaimer: I've never been to Bethel Church in Redding. But over the past few months I've read a couple books from key Bethel leaders. The first was Danny Silk's Culture of Honour: Sustaining a Supernatural Environment. The second was by Bethel's senior leader, Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth: A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles. I'll be interacting with these books in this post.

I believe that most people who take time out to write Christian books or lead Christian communities are genuinely seeking after God, and there is usually something I can learn from them. I also believe we need to be in conversation with people who think differently from us to continue learning and seeking what God is saying to us and what he thinks about is.

Three points of critique
1) The titles of both books tell the story. They are both obsessed with the supernatural. Johnson says this:

'Salvation was not the ultimate goal of Christ's coming. It was the immediate target...Without accomplishing redemption, there was no hope for the ultimate goal--which was to fill each born again person with the Holy Spirit. God's desire is for the believer to overflow with Himself, that we might "...be filled with all the fullness of God"...Consider this: we could travel off of this planet in any direction at the speed of light, 186,000 miles a second, for billions of years, and never begin to exhaust what we already know to exist. (p. 71)'

My issue with this statement is not that God is not capable of the miraculous signs and wonders, but the lofty place in which they rest in his thinking. Christ's death on the cross and resurrection three days later was not so we could travel at the speed of light. Redemption was achieved to draw humanity and all of creation into right relationship with God.

Moreover, why should we elevate the supernatural over the way God uses everyday, ordinary acts to draw people to himself: someone offering a friend down the road a meal because they're unwell, speaking a kind word to someone who has had a rough day, the church inviting less-than-popular folks to join in their fellowship because of an unwavering belief that everyone is made in God's image. Why are those acts less important, less spiritual than miracles?

In fact, I could argue that God has been at work helping us understand biology, chemistry and medicinal studies so we can create cures for illnesses like smallpox which has claimed many lives. This may lack the 'supernatural' edge but is no less miraculous or the provision of God.

In my opinion, the elevation of the 'supernatural' over the 'natural' has more to do with Greek philosophy than it does the Bible. Plato taught that what we sense with our 5 senses is merely a pale reflection of what we can't see: our intellects and the world of the gods. However, the Bible teaches that God created this world and that it is good. While the world is corrupted by sin, it still retains in some sense that goodness. Christ, in his death and resurrection, wasn't seeking to do away with God's original creation, but seeking to restore it. God doesn't hate what is natural. Indeed, God created it to be part of our ordinary, everyday lives. And so God takes those moments and uses them for his glory as he does with the miraculous. It's not either/or, but both/and. God uses normal, human practices as he uses supernatural ones to bring glory to his name.

2) A second critique of these books is the way they talk about revelation (not revelation as in the book in the Bible, but revelation as God revealing himself to us). Christians by and large believe that knowing God can only be accomplished through God making himself known to us. Primarily, we come to know God through Scripture (or God reveals himself to us through the Bible). But some have believed that God reveals things directly to them. A famous example is Joseph Smith. He believed he received many direct revelations from God, and from those revelations was born the Church of the Latter Day Saints or the Mormons. In the 2nd Century AD, these kind of direct 'revelations' were called gnosticism and labelled heresy. The early church then gathered what they considered to be the canonical scriptures--which today we call the Bible--to become our standard for understanding who God is and what he says about us. The sustained reflection upon God and the Bible is what we call theology.

I believe Silk and Johnson are close to a modern day form of gnosticism. Silk gives us the best example. In talking about the role of apostles he states:

'It is as though God himself has given blueprints to certain individuals to reproduce Heaven on the earth'

Then about teachers he says:

'Most (Christian) teachers today are fixated on the written Word of God (the written Word of God is the Bible). They say that the Word of God is the source of life and truth on earth. Their value for the Word is much higher than their need for the supernatural. These are the lawyers, scribes and Pharisees of our day...The role of the teacher is to help replicate the processes of the supernatural and then train and equip the saints to cooperate with those processes. (Culture of Honour, 68-70).'

I'm sure Joseph Smith considered himself an apostle.

There must be a dynamic where we listen to God and search what Scripture says. Otherwise we run the risk of having one or two powerful leaders who lead us from God into something else (i.e. Joseph Smith). So the apostles and the prophetic must be informed by Scripture and not the other way round. Further, the hierarchical nature in Silk's five-fold ministry (1. apostles 2. prophets 3. teachers 4. pastors 5. evangelists) makes it difficult to push back on the prophet and apostle as they are 'hearing' or 'seeing' directly from heaven.

This leads me back to gnosticism. While Bethel perhaps doesn't quite fall into that category, it strays very close to it and if left unchecked can become that.

To be fair, Bethel still holds the Bible as authoritative. But in some places it sounds like other forms of revelation are elevated to an uncomfortable degree and the Bible is downplayed.

I do agree though, that our interpretation and understanding of Scripture is lifeless without the work of the Spirit as we read it and hear it preached. Knowing God is not just amassing information. Knowing God is being drawn deeper into relationship with our Creator and Saviour which is the work of the Spirit.

3) The third critique is the way--Johnson in particular--seems to have no time for critics. While no one likes being critiqued, no one person has everything right. My theology is deficient. Johnson's theology is deficient. If we isolate ourselves and only listen to voices that mimic our own, we can easily become inflated with our own ego. The irony here is that Johnson creates a straw man out of 'intellects' saying they are afraid of God's activity in the world and that knowing Scripture leads one to pride (p. 94). The antidote to pride, Johnson argues, is being able to do miracles (p. 90-91).

I personally believe that anyone can be prideful with what they have. Whether we are doing amazing things for God or offering the only thing we can (i.e. serving cups of tea after a Sunday service), we can become prideful. Pride, I suggest, is best dealt with by constantly bringing ourselves to Christ and allowing ourselves to enter into meaningful dialogue with other people...even people who may disagree with me.

Johnson says that someone gave him a book critiquing the Toronto Blessing. Johnson would not give it the time of day and threw it out. While I can sympathise with Johnson that there is not enough time to read all the books I'd like to, the attitude is (in my humble opinion) prideful and not open to entering into conversation. The need to be open to others is especially heightened by events like the Lakeland Revival and how that movement was inseparable from Todd Bentley and the Nine O'Clock Service which descended into chaos after allegations of sexual and spiritual abuse by its leader.

While we may disagree with what the other says, inviting people into conversation and being willing to hear what they have to say is a sign of humility. Maybe this is partly what was in my mind in reading these two books (as it must be clear by now I'm on a different theological side than the Bethelites!).

Three points of appreciation
1) One of the things I appreciate about these books is the unflappable belief that God is at work in the world. While that largely pertains to signs, miracles and wonders, I think we can extend that further. God is at work in the hearts and minds of folks. God is drawing this world to himself. God is healing broken hearts and desperate people. God is doing miracles in all kinds of ways, including the unexplainable, supernatural kind. Once we stop believing that God is at work in the world we might as well agree with Friederich Nietzsche that 'God is dead'.

2) Another thing I appreciate is Johnson's talk about surrendering ourselves to Christ. Paul in Romans 6 talks about becoming slaves to righteousness. We give ourselves to God for his glory and take up life in the Spirit which produces in us, as Galatians says: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

3) A third thing I appreciate about Bethel is the excitement and enthusiasm they bring to many young people in their pursuit of God. While I may disagree about exactly what is causing the excitement (is it Jesus or the 'experience'?) I know that God can use all kinds of things to draw us to himself. For myself, God used an 'ecstatic' experience to make me realise that he was God and I was not. My life since then has never been the same again. Even though I wasn't looking for that experience, God came and found me. I long to see people, young and old, excited about following Jesus and passionate to see his mission done here on earth.

Putting it all together
In my opinion, Bethel has an obsession with the supernatural over and against seeing God at work in the ordinary, everyday. What perhaps frustrates me most is the way they seem to discount the heartfelt and faithful service of many over the years who have humbly and quietly gone about God's business and responding to his call on their lives as second rate simply because they've never done miracles (186-187).

In his book, Participating in God, Paul Fiddes says:

'The New Testament word (for the gifts the Spirit gives) is charismata, but unfortunately this term is frequently drawn into a distinction between two separate realms that are named "the supernatural" and "the natural". Spiritual gifts are often contrasted with natural gifts, and so a kind of spiritual elitism develops, as well as an escapism from the natural world. Usually, more spectacular phenomena like spiritual healing, prophecy, deliverance from evil powers and speaking in tongues are classified as "spiritual" or "supernatural" gifts, and activities like hospitality, generous giving, acts of kindness and efficient administration are dismissed as "merely natural gifts", despite the fact that they appear in a list of charismata in the New Testament (Rom 12:7-13).'

God is indeed at work in the world. And he uses the superstars of the faith, and the barely faithful in his mission. He calls those with 'spiritual' gifts and those who go about doing administrative work for the Kingdom. We participate as Kingdom of God builders as we love those around us, as we seek to know God more, as we gather together in worship and are sent out empowered by God's Spirit in his mission.

Fiddes talks about the Holy Spirit as 'the disturber' (Participating in God, 264). God enters into our lives by his Spirit and disturbs us. He did it to the prophets in the Old Testament. He did it to a group of folks in an upper room on Pentecost. He does it to us today. He breaks into our lives and disturbs us. He calls us and enables us to enter into relationship with Father, Son and Spirit. He disturbs us by doing signs, miracles and wonders. He disturbs us by someone forgiving someone else for a serious crime committed against them. He disturbs us by offering us grace. He disturbs us by calling people we don't like to follow Jesus.

The Spirit is the disturber and he disturbs us in all kinds of ways. And I'm sure he is at work amongst the faithful followers of Christ at Bethel Church in Redding. But he's also at work amongst the struggling parish in a small rural town in New Zealand. And that's because that's who our God is, a God that disturbs us by doing the most unlikely of things with the most unlikely of people.


Friday, 23 December 2016

The Dragon and the Child: A Christmas Story

I recently stumbled across a blog post which on the surface seemed a little surprising. When sharing a Christmas reflection I usually default to Luke who tells the story of Shepherds being greeted by a choir of angels heralding the birth of Christ. On occasion I'll look to John and his reflections on the Word putting on flesh and pitching his tent alongside us. But never in my life had I used the cosmic imagery of an enormous red dragon waiting to devour a child that can be found in Revelation 12.

And yet, this is a Christmas Story and it goes like this:

'A pregnant woman is about to give birth. Standing in front of her readying himself to devour the about-to-be-born child is a giant, red dragon with seven heads and ten horns.

The child is born. He is one who will rule the nations. But before the dragon can devour the child, the child is snatched up to heaven.

And then an epic battle erupts in Heaven. Michael and his angels fight against the dragon and his cronies. But the dragon is defeated and hurled from Heaven. And as the ensuing song of victory declares, the dragon has been defeated by the Blood of the Lamb.'

Revelation is written in an apocalyptic genre. It uses fantastical symbols and images to retell stories. The closest parallel I can think in more recent literature is the way C.S. Lewis uses strange characters and events to retell the gospel story in his Chronicles of Narnia. Revelation draws richly upon Old Testament symbols and 1st Century Greco-Roman images to retell the story of Israel, Jesus and the church.

Here in Revelation 12, John is retelling the Christ story. It draws out images and meaning we don't tend to correlate with the Nativity Scene. When thinking of Christmas we think of peace, singing, joy, a baby in a manger surrounded by smelly animals, shepherds and wise people.

And yet Revelation 12 draws out other aspects of the Christmas story. Namely that in the birth of Christ, God is invading the world. He's choosing to go to war against the dragon who is the picture of evil in all it's hideous strength.

Enough is enough and the havoc the dragon has wreaked--injustice, brokenness, hatred, fear, loneliness, violence--will be ended, and the Prince of Peace will reign throughout the world.

So while the Christmas story is a story about a defenseless child who is the hope of the world, it's also a story about a summons to battle, a grand strategy to defeat evil which culminates with this little child living amongst us, being crucified and rising again to life on the third day.

While Christ has won the victory, the battle still rages. We see the dragon rearing his ugly head in all kinds of ways. But let us also remember this Christmas, that when God invaded the world on that starry day in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, he called us to join with him to continue fighting the good fight. While we still see brokenness and evil, death and violence, we know that ultimately the victory has been won because Christ is with us.

Hallelujah and glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace because the Saviour is born this night.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

What I've learnt about South Islanders

My wife and I have now lived in the South Island for two years. They've been a great two years. We've enjoyed the scenery and the people. And for the most part, these Southern folk are similar to their Northern neighbours. They share similar qualities and values: DIY, gumboots and number 8 wire, tramping and extreme sports, Tall Poppy Syndrome, L&P, Rugby and cricket. On the face of it, we are one people. But after living amongst these Southerners I've picked up on a few quirks. Let me share some of these distinctive qualities that have emerged from my engagement with the Dunedin locals.

1) The Weather
When I first arrived in Dunedin, I was given the advice to never bring up the weather. That has never been a problem for me, because Southerners seem preoccupied with the weather. I'm not sure whether it's because half of the folks are farmers and the weather is really important, or whether it's because they are in some ways constantly apologizing/defensive about the 10 seasons in one day that Duendin constantly serves up or the way the window freezes up on the inside of the house in the middle of winter.

2) Holiday Homes
I use the word 'holiday homes' to make sure we are all talking about the same thing. You see, in the North Island we call them 'baches'. In the South Island, they are 'cribs'. I always thought a crib was something a baby slept in. It made for an interesting conversation when I was first invited to stay in someone's crib...

3) The word 'wee'
Now this one, I'm pretty sure is localised in Dunedin due to its Scottish heritage. When I use the word 'wee' I mean to say 'little' or 'small' rather than something that you do in the toilet. Folks down here use that word all the time. In fact folks use it so often, they sometimes don't use it in the proper context. For example a 'wee' visit may last a couple hours.

4) Attitudes toward the North Island
The other day I was describing a recent holiday and in the course of the conversation caught myself using the word 'bach'. Well, the look I received. All I can say is 'if looks could kill'! But I think it's a pretty fair summation of a general attitude down here toward the North Island (It's pretty similar to everyone in the North Island's attitude toward Auckland). North Islanders are quick to say to tourists they should definitely tour the South Island. South Islanders are very quick to tell tourists not to bother visiting the North Island. Suffice to say, I don't often volunteer the information that I'm a born and bred North Islander...let alone the fact that I lived in Auckland for 6 years.

5) Everyone seems related
Growing up in Taumarunui I got used to everyone calling each other their cousin. Down here, everyone actually seems related.  One time I managed to introduce a sister to her brother. It does create a lovely familial feel though where cousins grow up together. The problem though is you have to be very careful complaining about someone to another person. Chances are they are somehow related.

6) Puffer Jackets
Up north, it's generally hard core adventurers and 12 year old girls who wear big, down feather puffer jackets. Due to reasons which will remain unnamed (see point 1) this is one contextual anomaly which I have whole-heartedly accepted. I'm pretty sure it must be part of the uniform down here. I have barely taken mine off the whole time since arriving. And the best bit is, you are no less of a man for wearing one.

These are just some of the quirks and distinctives of the South Island folks. I've thoroughly enjoyed the culture and my time here. It's well worth popping over the Strait for a wee visit. The scenery is amazing, and the people are brilliant too!

Friday, 27 November 2015

The curse(?) of church small groups

As a pastor, I have oversight of the small groups and small group structures at our church. One day I decided to ask our friend 'Google' what people think about them. I stumbled over a few blogs and short articles. One person reckoned they'd discerned the eights habits of effective small groups. Another article was titled, 'Fix my Small Groups! 6 Church-Tested Solutions.' Still another person had figured out eleven reasons why small groups usually fail. And then finally, one author leads to the dramatic conclusion declaring it was now time to 'euthanize this small group sacred cow' claiming they simply don't work.

Clearly, there is some feeling around the topic. I've talked to a number of church leaders from a range of denominations. Most of them believe that small groups in theory are a good thing but on the ground they're notoriously difficult. There's a range of reasons given for this. People aren't committed enough (or are too busy). There's that annoying person who always dominates the conversation (and if you can't think of anyone in your group who does then it's probably you). Groups always talk about doing something good 'out there' but hardly ever do. There's that other annoying person who always wants to talk about their foot because they think something's wrong with it and want sympathy all the time.

Small groups are messy. They involve people and so are frustrating, uncontrollable and ultimately are hard work. But then again, there is always the 5% of groups that give you hope. Everyone gets on, they talk about deep issues and have great Bible studies. And we ask ourselves why can't every group be like 'that' group (or worse, we ask how can we make every group like that one).

The question we often ask is: 'Are our small groups effective?' This question, though, misses the bigger point. I don't want small groups that are 'effective'. The question we should be asking is, 'do small groups grow good disciples of Jesus?'

A cursory look at the New Testament shows that small groups can be effective in creating and growing good disciples. Jesus had 12 committed guys who followed and learnt from him all the time. Times have since moved on. We don't see religious gurus roaming the countryside followed by their most devoted disciples. We can't simply pull the New Testament stories into our own context.

Still, small groups are important in church. David Ford in his book The Shape of Living says:

'Small groups that seek God and God's desires together have been at the heart of most of the major developments in the church over the centuries. They have also been fundamental to its ordinary flourishing, and they continue to be the most important single level of church life...Whenever such a group breaks out of routine and has an intensive time together or with others, transformations tend to happen.'

The problem with many small group structures is they become too mechanised and packaged for easy unpacking in another place with another set of people. The issues, the questions and the style of operation lack imagination and contextual significance. The hard work of figuring out what it means to 'do life together' to study the Bible and become disciples of Jesus is taken away from us, and we end up getting thrown together with a manual on how to do small groups according to the church's wishes and then left to it.

Obviously I'm being facetious and cynical, but the main point still stands. We relinquish the imaginative responsibility of being discipled and discipling others for a quick and easy pull-something-out-of-the-box approach.

So on the one hand, we see in Scripture and through church history that small groups are good things. But on the other hand, small groups are far too often routinised and dictated for them to be of any particular meaning.

So how can we redeem small groups? I would love to hear your feedback and ideas, but I have three of my own to get the conversation started.

1) Scripture needs to be wrestled with in a meaningful way
I found myself in the uncomfortable situation of realising a few days ago that a non-scripturally based 'small group' (like the 'Huddle' groups that are promoted by 3dm) could possibly do a better job of discipling Christians than the myriad of small groups where attendees supposedly gather to discuss the Bible.

Someone once said to me that in our small groups it's like we ascend Mt. Sinai, we meet with God and he gives us the glorious ten commandments, but instead of bringing them down and giving them a home in our lives, we leave them on top of the mountain and walk back down. Instead of finding ways to be shaped by Scripture as we discern it in our small groups, we tend to move on in our lives and give it no further thought.

During the course of his Master's thesis, a friend of mine asks what would it look like if small groups wrestled with Scripture together and then spent time figuring out what that would mean in their lives. Instead of going off individually to 'apply' it to our lives, what if we worked together to make Scripture meaningful in our lives, to allow it to shape us and form us in our small group.

2) The need for groups to be 'organic'
The word organic is overused and misunderstood. We assume that for something to be organic it must come about naturally and free from outside constraint and control. Unfortunately for all of us, the Christian life isn't 'organic' in that sense. The Christian life-like anything we want to achieve-has to be worked at. It requires patience, discipline and faithfulness.

In much the same way, small groups don't come about naturally. But I do think they need to be 'organic' in the sense that they reflect the individuals in a specific group. Maybe early on a group needs more guidance, but as they grow together and find their ways of relating and learning, the group itself needs to take on a life of its own that reflects the imagination, creativity and ways of being of those that take part in it.

This means there is no 'one-size-fits' all style of group. It's up to each group to work hard at figuring out what works for them, how they want to operate and what's meaningful for them. But to get to that place requires patience, grace and discipline, and even then, it won't always remain the same. As people come and go, the group will shift and change.

3) Accountability
I don't know anybody who likes the feeling of someone looking over their shoulder-especially when it comes to my Christian walk. After all, isn't the Christian walk simply about me and Jesus? Well, maybe for a select few like St. Anthony who was able to remain focussed by himself. But for the rest of us less holy folks, we need each other. Christianity isn't about me and Jesus. It's about me, Jesus and all those others who are on the same journey.

Small groups can be a great place to help keep us accountable. And I'm not talking about confessing all our sins and darkest, deepest secrets. But I'm thinking about things like, 'Last week in response to our study, you said you wanted to be more patient with your kids, and you came up with a plan. How is that going for you?'

Obviously there is always room for judging people to come in and use it as a measuring stick, but hopefully most people are generous and simply want to be supportive.

Overall, small groups aren't about ticking the 'good Christian' box. They are about growing disciples of Jesus. The question isn't, 'how can I make my small group effective'. The question is, 'how are we growing great disciples of Jesus?' Maybe some would argue they are the same question, but I think the emphases are miles apart.


Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The Listener and Preaching

So what feels like 10 years ago, I began a three-part series on preaching. This final instalment will reflect on the listener and preaching. When thinking about biblical preaching, my starting point is with God. He is the one graciously at work through the sermon event. Half the time when I hear a sermon I seem to be thinking about lunch, the other half I'm wondering what I would have said if I were given that particular text to preach--a downside of being a preacher I guess. But the problem with listening half-heartedly is that sometimes we are so focused on other things that we miss what God is calling us to, what he's saying to us that day, the type of person he wants us to be.

Now I'm not saying that all preaching is good preaching. And I'm definitely not saying that we don't need to have our critical brains functioning so we can discern whether the preacher is truly preaching Christ or something else. What I am saying is that if God is at work speaking to us through the preached word, then perhaps it's a good idea for us to sit up and listen. So to finish off this blog series, I have a list of three dispositions we should have when it comes to being listeners in the sermon event.

1) Have faith that God will speak
A lot of people in churches talk about expectation. 'We should expect God to move.' 'You should expect God to do a miracle.' The problem is that God doesn't have to do anything you tell him to do. You can't expect God to do anything. He's the boss and we are not.

The more biblical approach is faith. We believe that God has acted in the world in the past. We see how Jesus came to earth. We see how God has taken hold of our lives and brought us into relationship with him. And so we can have faith that God will continue to meet and speak with us. Faith doesn't demand anything of God. It simply understands his character and trusts that he will do what is best.

When it comes to the preaching act, we need not expect that God will speak to us because in fact he may not. Maybe the person in the second aisle from the back needs God's comfort, and he intends on speaking to them that day. But we should have faith that God is at work speaking to his people which includes you.

2) Prayerfully listen
As I alluded to earlier it can be a real challenge to listen throughout a sermon--whether that's because it's boring or that the sermon is so overwhelmed with illustrations that you aren't sure what's trying to be communicated or any number of other things. But listen we must. Not because the person up the front wields the power but because God may well be speaking to us. And how can you hear if you aren't listening.

Karl Barth once said this about Scripture:

'It is not the right thoughts about God which forms the content of the Bible, but the right divine thoughts about [humans]. The Bible tells us not how we should talk with God but what he says to us; not how we find the way to him, but how he has sought and found the way to us; not the right relation in which we must place ourselves to him, but the covenant which he has made with all who are Abraham's spiritual children and which he has sealed once and for all in Jesus Christ.'

What Barth is saying can also apply to preaching. The content of preaching should not be about how we must present ourselves to God, but about how he has searched and found his way to us. It demonstrates God's grace and love and how he has drawn us into relationship with him. Thus through preaching we are challenged as to how we live in relationship with this God and what he is calling us to. This exchange is not merely about information but primarily about relationship between God and the hearer. This requires prayerful listening.

3) 'What is God calling us to today?'
The final disposition is about asking ourselves the question, 'What is God saying today?' A lot of people decry the ineffectiveness of preaching. You often hear complaints from preachers that all their hard work counts for nothing because it never spurs the congregation to action (unless it's that theologically dubious person they are so fond of on the internet). If I'm being honest, I've felt the same thing. However, I'm also of the school of thought that for the most part, preaching is a long arduous journey that develops and builds over time. Preaching is like a coral that takes a long time to develop and take shape. People are slowly shaped and transformed as they encounter Jesus through the preached word.

Having said that, I also believe that it's all of our responsibilities to stop and take a moment to reflect on what we have heard and ask ourselves the question of what God is calling us to today. Is it to be more patient? Is it to think about how I/we (remember we don't go on the Christian journey by ourselves-we go with a community of people) can demonstrate the love of God to others through the way we live? Are we being convicted because Christ isn't the centre of our lives?

I'm not sure about anyone else, but once a sermons done, that's it, I don't give it a moment longer. I start thinking about morning tea and wondering what biscuits are being served. But, we need to take time to stop and ask God what he is saying and what he's calling us to. The only problem is that we mightn't like the answer.

Friday, 14 August 2015

10 Reasons you know you are a new homeowner

So I know we are two-thirds of the way through a series on preaching, but I wanted to do something a little different before we finish that off. Recently, Jess and I became homeowners. We are pretty stoked about it. But like any significant change in life, it comes with its own quirks and oddities.

Here is a list of 10 reasons you know you are a new homeowner:

1) You relearn the value of patience. That mortgage isn't going anywhere soon.

2) All of a sudden, things like kicking a soccer ball inside seem like a silly idea. Disclaimer to other people's houses that we have rented over the past: it was a silly idea then too.

3) You don't feel guilty putting a nail in the wall. You can put what you want wherever you want without the wrath of a landlord in the back of your mind.

4) You start wondering what projects you can undertake around the home. It doesn't matter whether you actually have any skills to be able to do it or not

5) You wonder whether you'll be able to go on holiday ever again. The bank assures us we will have financial freedom again in another 30 years.

6) Insurance is important. Only having car insurance just doesn't cut it anymore.

7) You're keen to have people come over and check out your house, except it means you have to see people. Hey, it's my personal space. Well we actually co-own it with the bank. Ok, ok, the bank mostly owns it.

8) Covering the cost of the fortnightly repayments seems reasonable enough. Until you start getting the bills for the 'hidden' costs: insurance, rates, lawyers, plumbers.

9) You're still pinching yourself about getting through the long and arduous journey of buying a house. Looking for a good house, negotiating a price, mortgage brokers, Lim reports, banks, lawyers, Kiwisaver, unforeseen circumstances and complications, etc.

10) You lie awake at night running through different scenarios to make sure you can cover the cost of the mortgage. What if I lose my job? What if my wife stops working? Heaven forbid, what if my wife gets pregnant?!

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Preacher and Preaching

'Whenever a human being, Bible in hand, stands up before a group of other human beings, invites the gathered assembly into a particular text of the Bible and as faithfully as possible tries to say again what the living God is saying in the text, something always happens. Something transformative, empowering, life-giving happens.' And so begins Darrell Johnson's The Glory of Preaching.

This is a huge, daring statement to make. I'm sure the only thing that happens during some of my sermons is that people have a space to take a nap. But something happens during a sermon. Something transformative. Something life-giving. That's a huge claim. Not because God isn't able. He can do whatever he wants. That's in his job description. It's a huge claim because there is one person in the middle who always seems to mess it up: the preacher.

Here are some insights I've gleaned through my research in theology of preaching and from preaching I've done.

1) No preacher is qualified enough to preach
I think some preachers pretend they know what they are doing every time they start preparing for a sermon. In many ways it's far easier than facing the honest truth. We have no idea what we are doing, and we are completely incapable of doing it. If preaching is an act of God, if it's something that God does, if it's a relational event where God comes down to speak to his people, then of course no preacher is worthy or able to stand in front of the congregation. The only one who is good enough to preach is Jesus and look how that turned out for him. No preacher is qualified or able to truly preach.

2) A preacher preaches because she has to
So, if a preacher is unable to preach, then why do we have sermons? The simple answer is because we have to. Barth speaks about the necessity of preaching. 'God gives the church the task of speaking about him' (Church Dogmatics I/2, 756).  God calls men and women to speak about him to the gathered congregation. They are tasked with opening the Bible and speaking about it. What makes this word come alive isn't based on the stylistic, rhetorical or theological ability of the preacher but solely rests on God himself choosing to take up those poor, incomplete words and use them for his purposes. The moment I start talking about God, I stop talking about him because he transcends words and concepts, phrases and clever alliterations. But the church must still preach because God calls us to.

3) Sermons and sermon preparation should be bathed in prayer
I'm not always the most spiritual person. But when I am 10 minutes away from preaching I have this sense that I am totally out of my depth. Who am I to speak about God to these people? How can I ever express the beauty of God's being? The preaching event is nothing less than God extending his grace toward us. So that means a preacher can do no other than pray that God will be with her through the act of preaching and through sermon preparation. Prayer should be the foundation of any sermon and be woven into every aspect of its preparation. Preachers need to understand the text, they need to figure out how to word things but most importantly they need the Spirit to be at work shaping the hearts and minds of the hearer. A preacher relies on God's grace. They can do no other.

In the quote we started with, Johnson reminds us that something always happens when someone stands at the pulpit, Bible in hand, ready to speak. This can happen because of the preacher and often happens in spite of the preacher. But for whatever reason, God chooses to speak his word through people. He did it with the biblical writers and prophets and continues to do it through the words of preachers. All we can do is be obedient to what he is calling us to and thank God that he is at work in our churches and in our communities. There is nothing within a human preacher that deserves it. There is only the sheer grace of God.