Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Cultural pendulum of purity

It's easy to adopt a revisionist view of missions history, believing our missionary forefathers stumbled through foreign lands with British blinkers on, blind to cultural sensitivities which have only been discovered by us in this global generation.

This assumption is arrogant and wrong. From the very beginning of the spread of the early church we find Paul relating the gospel first to Jews in the synagogue with a narrative they understood, then to to the Gentiles, adapting his story to point to the same Jesus. His Athenian preaching is well noted as a masterpiece of bridge building cultural awareness.

Later, some of the early church Fathers used the philosophical worldview of their day as a launch pad to communicate the gospel. Origen's strategy was simple. In his own words, he used philosophy 'in the same way the Egyptians were plundered by the people of Israel.' Their wilderness tabernacle was built by instructions given by God to Moses, but it was constructed with materials and treasures taken from a pagan society, redeemed to enable worship of God.

The danger was the same in Origen's day of carelessly swallowing all other aspects of culture, unthinkingly incorporating them into the thought and practise of the Christian life. 'There are those who from their Greek studies produce heretical ideas and set them up like the Golden Calf in Bethel.' In other words, these golden riches and ideas also came out of Egypt with God's people. Some things were right to assimilate into worship - other things most certainly were not!

Perhaps because of this danger with discernment, contemporaries of Origen like Tertullian advocated the opposite view. It was surely better as a Christian to withdraw from Greco-Roman life than to try to mix but become tainted by paganism?

All this is ancient history, but it is startlingly relevant in our generation. It is also helpful for us to recognise that we are in no way the first to face these cultural thought dilemmas. Each successive generation has swung like a pendulum, reacting to the excesses of the age before - over engagement with culture leading to unthinking excess and compromise - then reactive withdrawal, culminating in purity but also stagnation.

In 'Post Christian' Europe, the pendulum is rightly swinging away from rhe withdrawal and isolation of a pious but dead religious church, to an engagement phase that seeks to reach the unchurched and the un-boundaried with the same old message of the gospel. Only time will tell whether our rush for relevance and connectivity is fruitful missionally without compromising purity.

(This post is the 2nd on culture, following a post on 25 Oct 2012)

Friday, 23 November 2012

The ghost of Christians past and the modern Romanian

One amazing conversation in Romania last week highlights more than anything the huge shift that has taken place in 20 years or so since the fall of the Communist regime.
Aurel, a 26 year old teacher was a small child when Communism fell. Whilst things can still be incredibly tough for young Romanians, Aurel is a part of the generation that have grown up with relative freedom and without the oppression of the old order.

As a Christian, Aurel told me that he had got hooked on buying bibles! So many bibles, in so many shapes, sizes, versions and covers are now available: From red letter words of Jesus, to two tone leather pocket paraphrases - Aurel was hooked and buying them all!
One night recently in a dream, he had a conversation with William Tyndale! Tyndale is the father of bible translations, martyred for his English bible under Henry VIII's own brand of controlled regime.

Aurel says that Tyndale approached him in the dream holding a big black leather bible. Speaking in a stern voice, he scolded him saying, 'Will you just start to read this book!'
The next day, convicted of a sinful attitude regarding his growing bible collection, Aurel began to give his bibles away, keeping just the one, which he is now devouring every day - scared into change by a vision of a bearded Englishman!

Whilst this is great news for Aurel, it struck me as symptomatic of the new threat to Romanian christianity. A creeping familiarity and complacency, dulled by consumerism and materialism which could be more insidious than the more overt challenge of an athiestic Communist regime.
Remember, only 25 years ago, Brother Andrew was smuggling bibles into the city where Aurel now buys them by the shelf full. These smuggled, scarce scriptures were read, shared, copied by hand, even torn into portions and distributed in some rural areas. Young men and women gave themselves to memorising the portions that they had been privileged to receive.
Ioan Ianchis, who leads the group of churches we are serving had no bible until he was 25 and when he finally received one on the black market ,it cost him half his salary. 'How precious to me are your thoughts O God', is a sentiment that Ioan and his generation took literally - so precious that I will risk prison to own a bible and give away half of my salary!

In reflecting on this change, I'm thrilled that Aurel no longer has to face the pressure or hardships of those who have gone before. I'm thrilled that he has free access to bibles and books that will help him to grow. But I'm concerned about the challenge of complacency, and wonder whether the awful darkness of the Communist era actually produced stronger believers, who loved the word of God more as a result?
The answer is certainly not to long for the nostalgic days of persecution - there was nothing to be nostalgic about. But we must pray for Aurel and his peers to take hold of God in these days of openness, not to be distracted by western values that we have exported to them. Failing this, perhaps we can pray that Mr Tyndale will be engaged in more nocturnal visits to scare and stir this present generation into a true hunger and thirst for the word of God!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Women Bishops and the wife who wouldn't stay in the box

The General Synod of the Church of England will decide today whether to appoint women as Bishops. Many say this is the biggest breakthrough for women in the church, but history would contend with that idea.
The true architect of the Anglican church, Thomas Cranmer had woman trouble himself. The idea of appointing women to the clergy or to hold the office of Bishop would have been laughable to him. Cranmer’s women's issue was about his ability to even take a wife!

The tradition of clerical celibacy, approved of by Henry VIII in both his Catholic and Anglican phases, meant that Priests like Cranmer were unable to marry. In fact, it was simply easier to take a mistress, this was generally accepted as necessary, fulfilling the letter of the law if not the spirit of it.

Upon his first marriage, Cranmer had to resign his post at Jesus College and was almost reduced to poverty. Sadly the first Mrs Cranmer died in childbirth.
Cranmer’s rise to power was sudden and unexpected, as were his increasingly Lutheran views. After his appointment to Archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer came home to England with a second wife. She was kept so secretly that no one is even sure of her name. Certainly, Cranmer’s many enemies were not even sure of her existence. There are some wonderful stories of the new Mrs Cranmer being smuggled into England in a large box with ventilation holes. Not quite the honeymoon she had dreamed of!

The problem may not have been the actual act of marriage, but rather that the wife in question was from German Lutheran stock. Either way, when the tide turned again with the Six Articles, tipping the balance back towards catholic doctrines and celibacy, Cranmer was forced to move his wife and children out of England for safety.

The big challenge for Anglicans from the beginning has been the pressure to compromise doctrines in order to hold differing factions together within a broad church. From rules about wives, to constant alterations of the prayer book - This gentle approach has meant the survival of the church, but is it a church of biblical faithfulness, or one which turns with the tide of current opinion?

Both sides in today’s important debate will undoubtedly feel the weight of history, doctrine and righteousness behind them, both cannot be right. What began with Cranmer’s hidden wife has opened a box which now cannot be closed. For 21st Century Western Anglicans shaped by cultural sensitivities, the inevitable end point will come today with Women Bishops out in the open.

I wonder whether Cranmer himself would rather it remained all hidden away, but we no longer have that option. No longer is it easier to use the analogy of taking a mistress - allowing women to officiate on the quiet in all but name, fulfilling the rules on a surface level. At least the situation will be clear, and perhaps with this new openness will come the breaking apart of the church that Cranmer started?

Thursday, 15 November 2012

From Hobbit holes to the ends of the earth!

I've been enjoying the Hobbit again, this time with my youngest son for the first time. Maybe it is stage of life, or coincidental to what I'm currently teaching through from the bible, but I'm seeing so many connections between the life of Bilbo Baggins and the call on ordinary people like us to wake up to the big promise of the kingdom.
The Bilbo we meet early in the story may have hairy feet and three breakfasts, but in every other respect he mirrors our lives - a love of comfort; a fear of strangers and of the outside world. The word "adventure” is not one he would use, that kind of thing is for others. For the Hobbit there is the satisfied pattern of a familiar, easy life.

Bilbo doesn't even know that he has a hidden longing for adventure built deep inside of him, it's in his Tookish side, in his blood, it's what he was really made for. Listening to the Dwarves sing their deep, mysterious songs of far off places, “Something Tookish woke up inside him and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine trees and the waterfalls, explore the caves and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick” Tolkien describes it as a fierce magic moving through him, awakening him to his true destiny.

I'm Bilbo Baggins, you are too. He is the epitome of our longed for simple, domesticated lives. One mundane day can follow another with quiet efficiency, whilst inside our spirits die. Risk, adventure, exploration become so high stakes that we stifle the desire under the heavy grey blanket of bland living, choosing instead to get our kicks in a fantasy world, through the TV, books or movies. Why else do we still send aging Attenborough to explore on our behalf, or enlist D list celebs to take our vicarious thrills and terrors and swallow them whole for us? Why else do we waste night after night playing Call of Duty with the lights out just to create some tension in our lives?

Most of us live out our days, feeling we ought to stir ourselves, leave our warm, cosy indent in the sofa and head off into the sunset, but the desire is so deeply hidden that the impetus only emerges through necessity or a realisation of calling. Bilbo breaks free into his destiny only because his calling literally comes knocking at his door, awakening the magic and leading him out, still against his better judgement

Gandalf's prophetic description of the nervous Hobbit is true of us, "There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself”
We were made for more than this. The big story of the bible speaks of a Saviour who knocks on the door of our settled lives and calls us out to join a new reality, an adventure far beyond the scope of our narrow confines.
The realisation that awakens is one which propels us to engage in a mission to the ends of the earth, starting in our own street. It will cost us everything we have, if we go after it, we will never be the same again, it will draw on the ordinariness of our lives and redeem all that we are into the process.
Even this week in Romania, I have seen this reality dawning in the lives of my travelling companions. Not professional explorers, missionaries or adventurers, but a Market Research guy and a Town Planner, stepping forward with all their life skills and experiences and leading others into freedom! Imagine what God can do with the life of an IT guy, a plumber or a stay at home mum, if we will hear the call and walk with him in adventure?

There is a lot more in you than you guess, you will only find out how much on the journey. There is only really one way to discover what you were made for, who you were made for, the mission you are called to serve on. Can you hear the sharp knock at the door? Will you leave the sofa, lay down your walking stick and all the comfort it represents, pick up a sword and head out of the door?

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Mainstream Mitt? What do Mormons believe?

Mitt Romney has not only brought slick hair back into American politics, but his Mormon faith has stirred up questions on both sides of the Atlantic.In the last few days I've been asked a number of times about what Mormons believe and whether they are mainstream or a cult. Assumptions range from Mormons being dangerous cultists, across the spectrum to believing that they are essentially Christians. Where do they stand?

This isn't a political blog posting, nor is it anti Mormon. Indeed, whilst the Mormon theology may be off track, Christians might find themselves closer to a Mormon politician on values than we realise. As Luther put it rather crudely 450 years ago, it's better to be ruled by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian. I'm not calling Romney a Turk any more than I'm labling Obama a fool - but I am against knee jerk dismissals of potential leaders simply because they don't tick all of our boxes. Some Christian commentary has been so angrily obsessed with Romney's Mormonism but never raised an eyebrow at Al Gore's liberal secularism a few years ago.

Acknowledging that Mormons may share similar values whilst not believing the same things as Christians is healthy, and may even help us to see that this is possible with other faith groups too.
However, the purpose of this blog is to consider what beliefs are behind the values.

Here is where the conciliatory tone ends. Mormons, or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints are in no way a true Christian church.
On the question of authority, Mormons will assert that the teachings of their founder, Joseph Smith, the prophet, supersede the earlier revelation of Jesus Christ. The latter day revelation given to Smith by the angel he calls Moroni, is the basis for the full name of the church, and the first reason why they are considered a cult. Indeed, a comparison of the life of Joseph Smith against the life and teachings of Jesus is enough to settle any argument about who you would want to follow.

The second measure of a cult is their use of scripture. It goes without saying that a faith which asserts the authority of a self proclaimed 19th century prophet, goes against the clear teachings of the bible. Mormons do use the King James Version of the bible, but with hundreds of additions and omissions. However, they hold up the Book of Mormon as essential in addition to other works by Smith.

The Mormon view on Jesus is most damaging. The belief that God the Father engaged in some kind of spiritual sexual union to give birth to twin sons Jesus and Lucifer robs Jesus of His eternal place in the Godhead and elevates Satan to an authority he has never had. The odd idea that Jesus visited North America after his resurrection to form the one true church with the Israelites or Indians becomes their warped basis for historic succession.

Lastly, Mormons deviate from Christianity with their view on salvation.
Jesus spoke to Nicodemus in John's gospel and told him, 'You must be born again.' The Mormon plan of salvation is literally a dead end.
For Mormons to enter eternal life they not only need to demonstrate faith in the God of Mormonism, but also in the authority of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; in reality this means a Mormon form of repentance and getting baptised in an official Mormon temple.
Then there are the rules to keep, what Mormons call the 'Word of Wisdom'. These are not bad things in themselves, but as a means to salvation they are more dead works. - abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine, tithing to the church; attending weekly sacrament meetings, supporting the current Mormon prophet, doing temple works, and actively supporting the church. Don't do the works - don't get to heaven.

Let me reiterate: Being clear that Mormonism is a cult does not mean we need to wave placards in front of our Mormon neighbours or that we treat them as dangerous. Remember, we may share more values than we realise, and it could be better to live with kindness around Mormons. Better to share the truth in a patient and loving way, leading them to the true prophet, priest and king, Jesus Christ who promises to take all their onerous burdens, lead them out of dead ends and give them true rest.

To Mitt and Obama today - May the man with the best values win!

Thursday, 1 November 2012

All Saints Day discipleship with Thomas Cranmer

Regular readers of this blog will have heard me wax lyrical about one of my heroes, Thomas Cranmer on numerous occasions. His 1549 and then 1552 revision of the Prayer Book would have changed English social history for ever had Edward VI only lived a few more years. As it was, Edward's untimely death meant the end of a reformed Prayer book, and soon after, an end for Cranmer, burned alive at the stake under Queen Mary.

We reformed modernists have turned our back on the old church calender with it's connection to the land, the seasons and the peoples of another age. However, the nuances of Cranmer's measured language, and his systematic teaching of theology to those who knew nothing of the gospel or the grand narrative of God's dealings with men, has yet to be surpassed in any generation. Quite simply, Cranmer discipled the entire English tribe with his simple daily prayers and scripture readings. His biblical ideas gradually becoming established and embedded in a nation that lay under the darkness of catholicism.

Here are his words for today, All Saints Day, which have been spoken and prayed in this way for over 450 years.

The Collect:
O Almighty God, who has knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Grant us grace so as to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys, which thou hast prepared for them that unfeignedly love thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Cranmer's Epistle reading is taken from Rev 7.2-12. The great multitude that no man can number, of all nations, and kindreds and peoples and tongues.
His Gospel reading is from Matt 5.1-12. Jesus on the mountain with the multitudes, teaching the Beatitudes.