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The Green Eyed Monster

In my last post I discussed how I was planning to experiment with moving from having one ‘church’ to having two ‘churches’. This experiment is now moving along, and I have to say that I’m pretty happy with it so far

In midweek I go to St Gregory’s, our rather staid oldLOGO-120831 13k Anglican-evangelical congregation with its pronounced Pharisee leanings, its ‘try harder’ theology and the Holy Spirit relegated to the role of a bit-part player. That’s OK. Our Men’s Group meet over bread, cheese, and wine to read the bible, discuss, enjoy, and generally to put a human face on our Christian existence.

On Sundays I’ve been attending the New Creation megachurch pastored by Joseph Prince in a massive auditorium with great worship, professional sound, and above all a great gospel message of grace, grace, and more grace. It’s impersonal, of course—with up to 20,000 attending every Sunday it can hardly be otherwise, but that’s OK also—that’s the flip side of that kind of organization. I can be inspired there, and I feel I can take non-Christian men and women there and guarantee that it will have an impact on them, which is important.

WHAT IS THE CHURCH? I’m approximating here!  A quick search shows the word ‘church’ 114 times in the New Testament. Many, many times it is clearly referring to the one, total, universal church.  Very often it talks of ‘the church in such-and-such a place’. And then frequently Paul and others talk of ‘churches’, plural, to describe gatherings of Christians in certain places.

 It’s always unfortunate when one word gets used to describe two different things, as here, as it generally leads to confusion. There’s nothing in my word-search to change my view that the word CHURCH should primarily be applied to the one, universal, bride-of-Christ, overall sum of all Christian believers, and that the other meanings are secondary to or derivative from that.

Like all the Christian life, it’s an experiment, and so far it’s going well.

Actually, as I’ve been going through this transition, it has seemed that something like scales have been falling from my eyes, as I’ve suddenly realized something which should have been self-evident to me a long time ago. That is, that we talk about this church and that church, there really is only one church in Singapore (or anywhere else for that matter) and that is the Church of Jesus Christ. There are many congregations, but there is only one Church.

That’s why I’ve put ‘church’ in quotes in the first paragraph of this article, because suddenly I find myself very uneasy about using the word to describe something that ideally would not be called a church at all. A congregation, a gathering, a fellowship of believers, whatever you want, but not a church. I’m not quite sure why it took me so long to figure this one out. Of course I’ve probably always known it but now I know it. I’ve internalized it. Now it’s obvious.

I think we just get brainwashed by the language. Everyone’s talking about this church and that church, and before long you get taken up by it and forgot just what the Church really is. It’s the bride of Christ. The one, whole, universal, worldwide Christian Church. St Gregory’s is not the bride of Christ, and New Creation is not the bride of Christ. Christ has only one bride, and that is the whole universal sum of Christian believers, the whole lot. That’s how God sees it, and if we see it any other way that that, then we are out of tune with the mind of God, failing to align ourselves properly with him, simple as that.

I think a lot of the Christians I meet in this city-state of Singapore actually understand this pretty well. They’ve grown up in a connected world where distance no longer exists. Communities are no longer defined by geography, they are defined in other ways. You don’t need to be in the same room any more. And the same is true of our Christian communities. It gets more flexible, fluid, and dynamic. Christian ministry becomes more of a resource to be mined. You go here  for this, you go there for that, you take in online preaching from the most gifted preachers from around the world. Then you can drop down the road for this overseas visiting speaker, and meantime maintain your online Christian network with friends from ten different ‘churches’ spread over a dozen countries and a few continents.

That’s the new world and the new Church in which we are living. For better or worse? Irrelevant question. It’s here, it’s the new reality and it’s not going away. So we get on and live with it.

So people are more comfortable now moving from church to church. And it’s healthy. People are taking—under the guidance of the Holy Spirit—responsibility for their lives, and that’s what God wants us to do. That’s why we have the Holy Spirit (one reason), so that we can make right and responsible judgments. So we can say, “Sure, it’s a great church in many ways, but it grates on me their talk about give, give, give all the time. Or their overbearing authoritarianism. Or their legalism or their literalism or whatever. So I moved to another and now I feel at peace.”

Of course, there’s one group of people who are often—not all of them, but many—unhappy with this new reality. That’s the church pastors.

Well, I can understand it and feel some sympathy even. In the first place these are the full time religious professionals, dependent for their livelihood often on the financial goodwill of their congregations. Movement into a more fluid kind of church structure is something that can obviously leave them feeling very, very insecure. It can require a lot of grace for a pastor to say something like, Well. . . if the preacher down the road is speaking more to your situation than is mine, then clearly you must go. Go with my blessing. A lot of grace. Particularly if you’re taking your money with you.

But that’s how it goes, and that’s how it has to go. We hear a lot about the Christian in the market-place of the world, less about the church in the Christian market place. But that’s what we have. And as with any other market place, it’s the best guarantee of quality. If you’re peddling rubbish, then sooner or later you’ll be out of business, and the ones with the higher quality wares take over. So I can understand that insecurity. I’m not sure what the real practical answer to it is. Perhaps Paul found one answer—making tents.

There’s a second and more insidious resistance by pastors to church fluidity. That’s the green-eyed monster—jealousy.

I make it my habit now, when I want to evaluate a pastor, to look at how he speaks about other churches. The great men of God (as I perceive them) were all inclusive. D.L. Moody was inclusive. Billy Graham was/is inclusive. The small men of God are exclusive. That’s the difference. An on that criterion there a lot of small men of God around here and not many great ones.

If that’s the test, then I don’t find many pastors here who pass it. Sad to say, it’s rare indeed to hear one speak a good word about another congregation. In St Gregory’s the silence is more eloquent than the words. You could attend for ten years, and you’d never even know that Christianity existed outside of Anglicanism and a very narrow circle of favored academic institutions. If you ask them you’ll get a whole string of arguments about doctrinal inaccuracies, falsehoods, heresies, etc. If you push the point and ask why, if these churches are so wrong, they seem so much more effective than ours, that’s easy. . . Well of course, if you make it that easy, dilute the gospel enough, then you’ll get that! Really?

OK, obviously we all think we’re right, and better in our belief and practice than the other. If we didn’t, then clearly we’d change our belief and practice until we did. So by definition we believe in what we’re doing. But it goes further than that. Some of it is about insecurity, which is understandable. A lot is about jealousy, which is worse. It can have green eyes, as Shakespeare told us, but it’s actually a master of disguise. It’s the great mimic. I’m running out of space and I’ve only just started! I’ll sign off with one of my favorite quotes, and continue this next time. …

Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo.

– H.G. Wells The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman

Rethinking Repentance

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I’m halfway through listening to an audiobook—The Jewish War by Flavius Josephus.

The book was written in AD 75 and recounts the history of the Jews starting with the Maccabees and proceeding to the Jewish War and the final destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70 by the Roman general Titus.

I started a bit reluctantly expecting it to be dry and boring, but in fact it’s been quite the opposite. It’s a fast moving story, racy, full of blood, gore, torture, individual valour, family intrigue, betrayal etc. etc. It makes great reading, and it’s the best possible way to get a detailed insight into the political environment of Palestine before, during, and after the life of Jesus, written by an articulate writer who was there and witnessed it all.

Strongly recommended!

But that’s not what I want to talk about. Rather, I want to pick up on one word, in one sentence, from Josephus’ preface.

Now Josephus was a wily operator. Consider this, that he started the war as a commander on the losing side (the Jews),  and ended the war as an honoured Roman citizen on a full state pension provided by the Roman Emperor Vespasian, working as a trusted advisor to the Roman military. That takes a bit of doing. So when we read Josephus singing the praise of Titus (Vespasian’s son, future emperor, and the general who supervised the siege and capture of Jerusalem), and telling us what a kind, generous and warm-hearted man Titus was, we can perhaps take it with a large pinch of salt. But no matter. I’m concerned with something else.

”Titus Caesar who destroyed (the Temple) is himself a witness who during the entire war pitied the people who were kept under by the seditious (Jewish leaders) and did often voluntarily delay the taking of the city and allowed time to the siege in order to let the authors have opportunity for repentance.” (Josephus, Preface to The Jewish War)

 

There it is, that word! In effect Joseph is saying, Titus had no desire for all this killing and destruction; and if the Jews holding out in the city would but repent and stop fighting, then Titus would have been more than happy to accept an honourable surrender on generous and humane terms.

It’s that one word, REPENT. We hear it so often in church, but here it’s being used by this entirely secular first century writer, a contemporary of Paul and the Apostles, in a totally non-religious context. That’s what really hit me.

And what does Josephus mean by it? He means just what the word should mean, which is THINK AGAIN!  Josephus is using Greek, and the Greek word for repent is metanoia,  from noiein (to think) and meta (after, further). So it’s ‘think again, change your mind’.

That’s all Titus is saying to the defenders of Jerusalem – Think again Jews! Stop fighting and surrender! Lay down your arms and accept a fair and generous settlement!

We need to remember that these ‘technical’ theological terms that get thrown around in church usually have ordinary, everyday meanings, and often if we stick to the everyday meaning we may get closer to the truth than we would otherwise. With repent, I think that we can be too heavily conditioned by the mediaeval Catholic church and its rather narrow concepts of sin, so that as soon as the word comes up, immediately in our mind’s eyes we are looking at flashing billboards of the Ten Commandments—Murder! Theft! Adultery!  And so on. And I grant that all that can indeed be a part of if, but is that really getting to the heart of it?

I think not.

In our Men’s Group this week we were discussing Acts chapter 2. Here Luke summarizes the gospel message in a few simple words:

37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2.37-38)

And the natural question then is, Repent of what? Of course we can all find things—OK Lord, I admit it, I jumped a red light on my way home yesterday. I won’t do it again—until next time! But is that really what it’s about? I don’t think so.

I’ve been fascinated for years by a little and much overlooked verse in Hebrews. It gathers weight from its context—it’s in a list of what the writer regards as a list of basic Christian doctrines which the reader is supposed to know already. So it’s presented as central. And it says . . .

Not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works . . . (Hebrews 6.1)

So its foundational. One of the building blocks on which the whole Christian edifice is constructed.  Just a minute! I’ve heard of repentance of sin, but what’s this about dead works? Just that. The greatest sin known to man. The one sin of which above all we are called to repent is dead works.

So what are dead works? Just that. Works are things that you do. Rules that you follow. For the Jews it was their Law. And why dead? They’re dead because they can’t save you. Paul describes the Law as the ministry of death. (2 Corinthians 3.7)  Works can’t impress God, can’t put God in our debt. Nothing puts God in our debt. Nothing we do can impress God—he’s unimpress-able. Works are just that. Dead, dead, works

At the Men’s Group we got into trouble as we usually do, as one or two have not really understood the full ramifications of the free gift. But repent what? I don’t really think I’ve done anything too bad! You seriously think I can get to heaven by confessing to a red traffic light?  No. Please let none of us get into that mentality. If we repent, let’s repent first and foremost of dead works. Lay them aside and accept the free gift of God.

In a way we’re not unlike Jewish defenders on the walls of Jerusalem, surrounded by the massively superior forces of Titus. Like them we need to repent. Have a change of thinking. Surrender to the greater power and (if Josephus is to be believed) receive mercy at his hands. I’m not sure if I would trust Josephus entirely on that one, his track record is a bit mixed. But our God, we know we can trust.

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What Makes Us Human?

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11th January 2011   by Norman Walford

As a doctor by training it’s always been natural to me to look at human behaviour and responses in biological terms. As a Christian it’s likewise important to me to look at Christianity and religious concepts in the same way. I know some Christians yet very uneasy if I start talking about religious or spiritual responses, but to me it’s not just natural but essential.  After all it’s a fact that these things do actually exist. They’re not something that scientists dream up in their  imaginations. And any religion that cuts these things out of its observational horizon must be in some way deficient. (I’m often amazed by the number of Christians who are totally happy to use computers etc. in their everyday lives, and at the same time deny the reality or relevance of the science that underlies these devices and causes them to work.)

A key scientific element in understanding what makes us – and most animals – behave as we do, as well as understanding what distinguishes us from those animals, is DOPAMINE.

Dopamine is the pleasure neurotransmitter, the ‘feel-good factor’ in our brains. When we do things that make us feel good, the endpoint of the pathways we activate is the release of dopamine; it’s this dopamine that causes us to feel good about what we have just done. This pleasurable response is what makes us want to activate that same pathway again, to achieve that same response again. And every time we activate that pathway in the brain, we reinforce it – that is, we strengthen the neural connections which constitute the pathway, thus making it progressively easier for our brain to go down that road again and (perhaps more to the point) more difficult to resist. Thus we form a habit.

This mechanism is (probably) essentially the same for humans as other animals. So just as a human can be addicted to cigarette smoke by the promise of dopamine release at the end of the pathway, so a laboratory rat can also be easily addicted to cigarettes by repeated exposure

At this point however there comes a difference. The rat, once hooked, is never going to voluntarily quit. He’s not going to wake one morning and think, “Hey, this is doing me no good and probably not really making me happy long term either.” Once hooked, he’s hooked for life, and that reinforced dopamine pathway will continue as long as the smoke  is available.

For people, it’s different. A human smoker has the option of saying, “I’m not obliged to be a slave for this for ever. I can choose to break out. I can face the pain of cutting off the dopamine release by rejecting the cigarette path. It’s going to be painful, but I can still make that choice.” This is what we call free will, something we have and the rat for practical purposes doesn’t. Or we can think of it in terms of rejecting temptation. Temptation comes in many forms and a lot of these hold out the prospect of activating that dopamine-releasing, pleasure-inducing pathway. Rats cant reject temptation. We can. It’s our ability to choose to override this pathway that makes us truly human, puts us into ‘the image of God’.

It will always be painful to reject that pathway, but without it we cannot be like God. This is the meaning of our humanity. And conversely (I will return to this later) if we constantly choose to follow that easy, dopamine-inspired pathway, we will see our humanity gradually eroded, and we will become more and more like that rat.

On Prayer …

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3rd December 2010    by Norman Walford

I think I’ve got writer’s block.

What I mean is, I’ve been meaning to start on a series of blogs/short comments for a few months now and I’ve just been unable to get started. There’s a voice in my head that keeps saying, “Norman, the first one has to be a real blockbuster! After that you can get away with a bit more (or less) but the first one has to set a high tone.”

Complete rubbish of course, but these voices can be very persuasive, paralytic even. Continue reading