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Monday, 19 April 2010

Churching in a time of "me"

A visit to a large Anglican church in the north west Bible belt of Sydney last Sunday was to say the least a revelation. It was the 10am family service with probably over 200 adults after the children had left, after the initial burst of singing.

Key observations:
  • From the structure of the service there was nothing that would have told you that you were in a worshiping community that located itself in the Anglican tradition, no trace of even the most informal of the liturgies from any prayerbook that I am aware of.
  • The music was essentially of the Hillsong style - 'praise" characterised by tunes that are not tuneful, that is not easily singable by the congregation and driven by the instrumentalists and vocalists.
  • The lyrics were focused on the benefit to"me" of what God had done. In one song almost every line had a reference or I and/or me. The drift of the lyrics while supposedly emphasising the wonderful things that God has done for me, ends up focusing on the "me" as being important and the real focus of what is happening.
  • The building had no element of decoration that would have conveyed that you were in a place where people were gathering to celebrate and no artistic expression of the life of the community and its relationship to God, the community and the world.
Questions that came to mind:
  • How much is the cultural emphasis on our role as consumers infiltrating our worship?
  • In an era in which churches are competing in a marketplace of choice how can we build critical resistance against consumerism and inculcate the characteristics of the beatitudes and the challenge of the call to discipleship and community?
  • How do we hand on the traditions of the faith as a challenge and a claim on us rather than a feel good consumer option?

Monday, 12 April 2010

Anarchy & Grace - Will D Campbell on disorganised religion as ecclesiology

Despite all my reading on the sociology of institutions and the way movements become institutions not least the Christian movement I find something bracing about Will Campbell's anarchic views and practice of a radical Christian discipleship. In the light of the current difficulties created by institutions of established Christianity commitment to self preservation in their handling of sexual abuse cases you can't help feeling that he has a point.

In his account of a personal struggle for soul freedom he observes:

As most of you know my institutional flings didn't work out. None of them. There is not time here to list them nor explain their demise. To do so would serve no purpose. Doubtless part of my failure within the structures had to do with my own intractable genes. Whatever. I was a pastor, a university chaplain, an employee of the allegedly most free religious institution in the world. I didn't keep any job for long. But through it all I discovered one thing. All institutions, every last single one of them, are evil; self-serving, self-preserving, self-loving; and very early in the life of any institution it will exist for its own self. So beware out here this week. True soul freedom cannot be found in any institution. That is the guts of my testimony to you today. True soul freedom can never be found in any institution. If they will pay you, let them. I did it too. But never trust them. Never bow the knee to them. They are all after your soul. Your ultimate, absolute, uncompromising allegiance. Your soul. ALL OF THEM. Jesus was a RADICAL! And His Grace abounds.
 There are echoes here of William Stringfellow with his vigorous assaults on the institutional structures of the Episcopalian church in the name of the Gospel.

Will Campbell - what's worth reading

A much delayed introduction to Will Campbell's writings. Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of his
published works.

There are now a couple of anthologies of his theological works available:
Writings on Reconciliation and Resistance By Will D. Campbell Edited by Richard C. Goode (Cascade Books) and Crashing the Idols The Vocation of Will D. Campbell (and any other Christian for that matter) By Will D. Campbell, Richard C. Goode  (Cascade Books)

I am not familiar with most of those listed but there are a few that I have read that have moved me profoundly particularly his memoirs:

Will Campbell has been a subversive presence continuing to subvert religious and political certainties in word and action out of a deep conviction that we are called by God's to be reconciled and that that reconciling grace has little to do with maintaining respectability and alignment with the powers that be.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Remembering Bhonhoeffer (a little belatedly)

April 9 is marked for the memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his death in a Nazi concentration camp.

The followers of Christ have been called to peace. And they must not only have peace but also make it. Christ's disciples keep the peace by choosing to endure suffering themselves rather than inflict it on others. In so doing they overcome evil with good and establish the peace of God in the midst of a world  of war and hate.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Blogging towards Easter - Mary Magdalene, passion and a new politics

A somewhat delayed finishing of my blog towards Easter using Samuel Wells study Power and Passion: six characters in search of resurrection due to attendance at the National Folk Festival.

Mary Magdalene stands clearly at the end of our journey. Mark 14:1-11 with its account of Jesus' anointing  unites the twin themes of passion as voluntary suffering and as overwhelming love.  Mary here shows a passion which shows the intimacy of touch, a transformation of self that is extravagant and not bound by scarcity and expresses beauty. Jesus' passion and power here are intertwined with the poor with whom he is present in a way that they were never a 'they' but always an 'us'.

In Mark's account of the passion it is the women who are able to face the reality of the cross. what do the women do that the men cannot? simply that they follow Jesus. Wells observes that ... the debate in the following centuries would not have been on the question of whether women could lead God's people but about whether men could. (p.173)

Jesus according to Wells in closing the study invites a new kind of passion because he brings a new kind of power, the power of the resurrection.

No longer is passion simply an erotic or idealistic distraction from politics; no longer is it a cultivation of self or sentimentality in the face of the realities of sin and suffering.  In the light of the power of the resurrection, passion is now any and every intimation or reflection of the yearning love of God for his people and his longing to restore relationship with them, even if it means the cross. This passion is patient, because it waist as long as God does. Sometime is is painful ... It is tender in the way the anointing at Bethany was tender.It is persistent in the way that Mary Magdalene's vigil at cross and tomb was persistent. It is never ending as Mary Magdalene's search for Jesus ... is never ending. It is invariably in the home of the sick and in the company of the poor as we saw at Bethany.  And it is on a cosmic scale, as it consciously or unconsciously displays the fundamental pouring out of God's love and restoration of friendship. It is a passion as crazy as the crazy heart of God.
I call this "the politics of power and passion" because it highlights that the new power and the new passion have truly social significance. These are not simply personal things ... the old power assumed that certain things were given - most of all death - and that what mattered was who controlled the maximum of resources, especially those that were publically accountable ... and who enforced compliance via coercion to the point of death. Passion in this context is just window dressing - a distraction from the serious business of politics which is about negotiation and manipulation of power. But into this situation comes the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the overturning of the power of death.No longer can coercion to the point of death maintain a stranglehold on power; there is here a greater power. No longer can the distribution of scarce resources be the characteristic nature of politics. Politics becomes the reorientation of life according to the freedom made possible by the power of overcoming death and not just death but sin - through the power of forgiveness.  thus those aspects of society that had previously just been window dressing - lament in the face of death, bitterness and regret in the face of sin, in short passion - now become the key points of transformation, the nerve centres of the new politics. We still need laws and we still need taxes, but the control o9f these things is no longer the definition of politics; politics is the reordering of passion in line with a new order of power. Now in the resurrection of Jesus, we can see that every small gesture of reconciliation or care of the vulnerable is part of the way God is transforming the world. Power and passion come together at last. (pp.184-5)

Blogging towards Easter 5 - friendship, forgiveness and resurrection

Samuel Wells fifth character in Power and Passion is Peter.

This is a rich exploration of the characterisation of Peter in the gospels which relates his failures at the end of the Gospel to the his confession of Jesus as messiah in the middle of the story.

Wells comments on Peter's confession is relevant to consideration of the church's current difficulties over its covering up of abuse of power in matters of sexual abuse.

The church is still Peter. That is the church is a fragile people inspired by God to speak the truth about Jesus. Peter spoke the truth about Jesus; so does the church. But Peter was not infallible. Neither is the church.  ... Peter was sometimes stupid, selfish, scared, and just plain wrong; so is the church. But Jesus chose Peter. And Jesus still chooses the church. Who are we to differ?
... so long as it continues to live as a fragile people inspired by God to speak (live?) the truth about Jesus the church will never be extinguished by evil or death. (p.139)
Peter according to Wells demonstrates that passion is not enough as his bravado at the last supper demonstrates. This form of passion is often driven by the tendencies that are illustrated in Peter's behaviour in the Gospels,  an assumption that one is superior to others, a profoundly misplaced confidence in our own dependability and a sense that one knows better than Jesus.

Three things more are needed:
  • Forgiveness driven by a logic that has no foundation other than resurrection. "Resurrection knows the power of death, yet loves with the force of life. This is the only logic that truly sustains forgiveness". (p153)
  • Friendship which survives through the hard times and earths and disciplines the passions and is grounded in the sharing of bread, sitting down to a meal together.
  • Resurrection: tied to friendship it becomes a matter of the transformation of real people over time, in joy and sorrow.
Wells concludes: The most powerful force in human experience, the heart of politics, is not, it seems, the might of Rome and the merciless will of the governor; it is Jesus' cross and resurrection and the friendship and forgiveness they make possible. (p.156)

    Saturday, 3 April 2010

    Random comments on Easter

    Good Friday service - the Gospel readings are powerful and drive forward with political intrigue and manipulation and the flawed responses and lack of courage of some key characters. Others with walk on parts deliver the surprise or are surprised, Marks young man who runs away naked, Pilate's wife with her cryptic reference to suffering in a dream on behalf of this Jewish activist who is calling the empire into question and Simeon of Cyrene who must have been relieved to get away with nothing worse than an interrupted day.

    The meditations around it however leave me increasingly puzzled and concerned. So much of it in the end comes to a focus on "me" and "my sins" rather than on Jesus and his confrontation with the powers and his call to follow him. Surely we should be more concerned about what it is to follow Jesus than excavating into our psyches and exploring our weakness and our failings. It is here that I begin to understand Bonhoeffer's critique of a "methodism" of in-wardness rather than responding to the call to follow Jesus, who as Mark reminds us calls us to meet him back in Galilee on the margins of religious orthodoxy.

    Commentary by church leaders on atheism show mostly a defensive grouchiness, focused on taking care of institutional interest, or at least coming across that way, rather than a call to join an exciting adventure, powered by the hope and generosity of the resurrection.

    Something is lost and missing in the public utterances of the leadership that is still shaped by the mentality of Christendom and a resentment that that era has gone.

    The questions raised by atheists, since I for one do not really recognise in their critique the God I meet in Jesus, offer us the gift, the opportunity to go back and say what in their statement points to our failure to point clearly to Jesus?

    Where in our witness and response do we display the openhandedness of God's grace, the joy the wonder that we are not imprisoned in the world of empire where there is no choice but to strike back against violence with violence, that we can approach our enemies with open hands and forgiveness and like Paul can live with the freedom available through the spirit of Jesus?

    Thank goodness the Spirit moves where it wills and is not confined to the institutions to whom the media go for quotes but lives on at the grass roots where hospitality is shown and a voice is spoken against those forces that would undercut the goodness of creation and the flourishing of human life.

    Thursday, 1 April 2010

    Blogging towards Easter 4 - dreams and suffering

    Samuel Wells gives a chapter to a fourth character who has only a minor supporting role in the Gospels, Mrs Pilate. She is only mentioned in one verse but Wells nevertheless draws out some reflective speculation that throws light on issue of the extent to which our perceptions of power and powerlessness  are less straight forward than they seem to those of us, say public servants who compare our power with those who are above us up the ladder, the Secretary of the Department, not those who have to comply with the rules and regulations that we create and enforce in order to access the services in our community.

    Wells imaginatively explores the extent and the character of the power that Pilate's wife would have had and tries to unpack what might lie behind this extraordinary intervention into the public life of her husband. Wells focuses his reflections on the issues of dreams and suffering.

    Dreams in the Bible are an inbreaking of God's future into the circumstances of the present. They unsettle the proud ... They vindicate God's chosen ... They involve even Gentiles in the discovery of God's strange, relentless providence ... And yet they do not coerce, destroy or manipulate. they simply draw back the veil between heaven and earth disclosing the purposes of God and the mysterious ways God's purpose takes shape in the lives of his people. For the powerful they are something to fear but for the powerless dreams are a point of contact with the place where true power lies. (p.116)
    On the question of suffering her statement that "I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him" suggests that she has shared in Jesus's passion. Had she caught a vision of Jesus and the conflict between him and the driving powers and values of the Roman Empire that leaves her caught between who she is and the claims of an inbreaking kingdom whose justice calls th empire into question?

    Seven Years of War in Iraq

    Peggy Gish from the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq has summarised the situation after seven years of war.

    After seven years of war, Iraqis live with:

    - A society (other than the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region) broken from the invasion and occupation, with the loss of  civil society, and the deterioration of trust and cohesion necessary for a peaceful society. There has been some reconstruction, but most infrastructure remains un-repaired. There is still contaminated water, an average of four to six  hours a day of electricity, and inadequate medical care.

    - Violence, killing and torture still the norm in the northern Iraqi Kurdish region because  the US, supplied and supported Saddam during the Anfal campaign (genocide against the Kurds).

    - Deaths of an estimated million Iraqi civilians since 2003. (Sept. 2007 poll by  British polling agency, ORB)

    - Continued economic crisis. Sixty-percent of the families rely on the food rations, which have been reduced. Unemployment is over 50%. Prices of food and fuel have increased, but not wages.

    - Iraqis in control of prisons and "security" but with many innocent detainees forced,  through torture, to confess to acts of terror they did not commit. Iraqis often feel terrorized by Special Forces. Many Iraqis say that the ways of Saddam continue.

    - Continued widespread anger and despair about the conditions of their lives.

    - Decreased violence on the streets in central and southern Iraq, but without the deeper problems being resolved. Iraqis still live in daily fear of kidnapping or other violence. Many say the groups doing greater acts of terror have moved to areas such as  Mosul and Baqubah where higher rates of violence continue.

    - Women subjected to increased violence and loss of personal rights and freedoms.

    - Children growing up seeing violence and killing as the norm.

    - A country polluted with radioactive depleted uranium from U.S. weaponry used in the 1991 and 2003 wars with Iraq, resulting in increased cancers and birth defects.

    - A ratified constitution and current elections, but a government plagued with power struggles. Kurds in Kirkuk and other northern disputed areas are afraid of civil war between Arabs and Kurds.

    - U.S. government still giving military intelligence to Turkish military planes to fly over Iraqi airspace and bomb civilians in villages along Iraq's northern borders, turning a blind eye to Turkish attempts to destabilize the Kurdish region, while using the actions of the armed resistance group, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) as their excuse. Turkish bombing and Iranian shelling across the borders cause destruction of hundreds of villages and displacement and disruption of thousands of residents' lives.

    - An estimated 4.5 million Iraqis having fled their homes to other countries or as displaced persons in their own country, because of the hardship and dangers.

    Though Iraqis suffered from brutal policies of Saddam's regime and US and UK interventionist policies before 2003, words cannot express the anguish that the Iraqi people have experienced in these last seven years of the continued war. Occupying forces have exacerbated ethnic conflicts and oppressive political forces in their country that will continue to cause suffering and hardship for generations.