Tuesday, November 10, 2009

35. IDEAS


I love reading, and have just finished the second-best book I’ve ever read on How to Read and Why (Harold Bloom, Scribner, 2000). The best? Eugene Peterson’s Take and Read (Eerdmans, 1996). I’ve noted the following to read (or read again): Guy de Maupassant’s Madame Tellier’s Establishment, Hemingway’s The Sons of Kilimanjaro, Shakespeare’s King Lear and Hamlet. (Bloom is a Bardolater: he mentions Shakespeare on just about every page and believes Shakespeare defines ‘human as we know it’ (see pp. 115, 199, 201, 203).

The greatest idea I've ever had concerns God's radical grace. And that we middle-class Christians may be the most disadvantaged in the world at understanding unconditional love. We relatively 'good' people have not had to be forgiven much, so as Jesus said we won't identify easily with prodigals, or the marginalized. After all, we got to be where we are by hard work, hard study and thrift. 



There have been two exponents of this idea for me: 


[1] John Claypool was a progressive Southern Baptist preacher who later joined the Episcopal Church. I subscribed to his printed sermons throughout the 70s and 80s and when they arrived monthly in the mail I would usually stop everything to read them. They still enrich my - and my wife Jan's - preaching. 


[2] During the 1980's to the present the Franciscan Richard Rohr. Do a keyword search on the JMM website for some of his brilliant writings.

I believe it’s important not to be naïve about human egocentricity and evil. There’s an interesting bit in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. He has Lady Bracknell say (as she pulls out her watch): ‘Come dear (Gwendolin rises). We have already missed five, if not six, trains. To miss any more might expose us to comment on the platform.’ As if people are going to notice!

Just this morning (my birthday, December 5) a new idea hit me as I was having my devotions. There's a reading near the beginning of Tuesday morning's (Anglican) office from Ephesians 2:4-7 about the 'immeasurable riches of God's grace.' Now right-wing religious groups (particularly Pharisees) actually measure God's grace. They know how much grace applies to whom, who's in and who's out. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman said in answer to the question 'What's the Old Testament about?: 'It's about a God of grace who often breaks the rules God has set for God's creatures.' Wow!

*****

1. GOD

Today (at Queenscliff, Victoria, Australia on 3 November 2009) my Spiritual Director invited me to consider who God is for me. Here’s what I scribbled:

At the outset, as I approach this awesome subject, I need to assert again my deep ignorance, and take the shoes of arrogance from my feet.

First, God is. I have never seriously doubted God’s existence, encountering God in the lives and commitment of the ‘saints’ in our childhood church, later in the ‘works of God’s hands’ in nature, and ultimately/most importantly – until today – in Jesus, Lover and Lord (the notion of ‘Christ’ may be meaningful for Jews who follow Jesus, but isn’t so much for me). This God is not far from any one of us: in God we live and move and have our being.

God is Being, the life in all living things, and infinite (centre everywhere, circumference nowhere). Our feeble attempts at understanding, describe God as enlivener, enlightener and empowerer of all creatures: God is Creator, God is Truth, God is with us. Christian ‘Spirituality’ is about nothing else.

I also believe God is personal – father/mother/friend. I know the biblical writers used anthropomorphic language in their struggle to depict who God is, but the clear message throughout is that God desires a relationship with me, a relationship, astonishingly, with reciprocal dimensions. This is what’s behind the beautiful Hebrew idea of hesed, which is almost untranslatable into English, but ‘covenant love’ or, better, ‘lovingkindness’ will do for now. (And I will use masculine pronouns for God, if only to remind me that he is for me the ‘Father’ I never had…)

God chose to reveal his ‘nature’ and ‘purposes’ to/for us via some ancient sages, poets and prophets, but ultimately in Jesus of Nazareth. So what is this God like? He is ‘Grace’ (justice-love) and ‘Truth’.

God calls each of us to a special vocation: to serve others in whatever unique ways for which we are destined and equipped. First, our calling is to know him (the main means: prayer) and out of that to communicate his grace and truth. Both prayer and service to others are best done with deeds (plus words if necessary). Occasionally (this is a great mystery for humans) we are equipped to pray and serve better through suffering: being with Jesus ‘outside the camp/ the city walls’ (ie. our social group’s sometimes unhelpful or evil distractions and expectations). It is even good to be thus afflicted, so that we can better learn God’s decrees (Psalm 119:7).

Again: who is the God to whom we pray and whom we serve? God is grace (loving us unconditionally before, as, and after we change, and whether we change or not). And God is holy (beyond any blame, and who gives us truth/laws to that we might better journey towards blamelessness). Love and law are complimentary, as a train is to the railway tracks: all the propulsive power is in the train, but the tracks give direction. Without the tracks our imperfect ideas of ‘loving’ can be selfish or even chaotic; without a train, tracks are sterile – pointing to a destination but powerless to help us get there. People who are preoccupied with the tracks are called legalists or dogmatists: Jesus got very angry with such people.

Now, what is God calling me – Rowland Croucher – to be and do? First to get to know God as well as I can, mainly through prayer. And then to communicate to others what I’ve learned about God (call that ‘evangelism’ if you like – spreading good news - so long as you don’t contaminate that idea with its many contemporary – or even ancient – caricatures). There are three ideas Jesus gave us which are apposite here, and must be placed together. ‘See the harvest? It’s ripe.’ So get a sickle? No: ‘Pray!’ See the people as sheep without a shepherd? So organize them into churches? Not really, or at least initially: ‘have compassion on them’. See the nations of the world? ‘As you have seen me live out my Father’s will, so you do the same where you live and serve.’

As a teenager who’d made a significant and earnest ‘decision to follow Jesus’ I vowed to get as well-equipped as I could to communicate the Gospel to as many people as possible. I handed out gospel tracts. I talked to fellow-students at Bathurst Teachers’ College, many of whom then decided to follow Jesus. I wrote a Gospel slogan on a drain-wall near Kogarah, Sydney, which thousands in passing trains could read (I told no one except my wife, but occasionally heard people in various places talking about it). I phoned radio-commentator Ormsby Wilkins and talked about Billy Graham (and wondered why others couldn’t or wouldn’t spend 10 cents on a phone call to communicate with 100,000 people). I wandered around Australia’s tertiary campuses for three years, conducting evangelistic meetings and training some of the future leaders of our nation. At Blackburn Baptist Church we did some things well and other things poorly, but every week on average during our 8 ½ years three people were ‘converted’. In the last two decades words produced from my keyboard have gone into a dozen books, and these days on to a busy website, into Usenet newsgroups, Facebook, onto some Blogs, and to thousands of emailers…

Now, I confessed to my Spiritual Director, I’m not much good as a pray-er (I’m often too self-sufficient for my own spiritual good). And I get too much of a ‘buzz’ thinking about all those numbers (I was seduced early in life into thinking that more is usually better). I learned too late that ‘ministry’ is not automatically self-nurturing. And I was sometimes too preoccupied with serving the Lord ‘out there’ instead of ‘ministering’ better as a husband and father. Often serving God has been more enjoyable than ‘wasting time with God’ (as Sheila Cassidy so beautifully put it in Prayer for Pilgrims). Sometimes I’ve sabotaged the whole operation with ill-chosen – albeit maybe clever - words and ideas which were too provocative to be useful in a particular context. And when that happened, I’ve been too negatively sensitive to the justly-deserved criticism which ensued. (But on the other hand, Lord, save me from the more secure route where ‘the bland leads the bland’).

So I think (I said to my Spiritual Director) that it’s probably time to be put out to pasture in 2010, travel less and write more, engage in no self- and very little ministry-promotion, and enjoy my 72nd year listening more attentively to God and sharing the Good News with more folks on-line. (And, Lord, you know that at this time I’m more than ready for a sabbatical).

2. GRACE

After God (or is it better to say ‘in association with God’?) grace is the biggest and best idea I’ve heard of. Today I read again Frederick Buechner’s well-known words:



Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.

A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams, Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace…

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing *you* have to do. There’s nothing you *have* to do. There’s nothing you have to *do*.

The grace of God means something like this: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you *are* because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.

There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.

Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.
(Wishful Thinking, 33-34).


3. OTHER PEOPLE.

Of half-a-dozen tertiary courses, the most interesting for me were not those about theology, but a Masters' in Education, focussing in the area of Social Psychology. What makes humans tick - especially when they're with other humans?

This led me into Family Theory and Family Systems: especially the needs of children for love, belonging, discipline, competence/serving others etc. and also into Institutional behavior by adults: what causes institutions - all institutions - to be degenerative? Why are humans so crazy about accruing power and prestige in institutions? Why - in the church - is clericalism (the idea that a certain religious caste has certain prerogatives others don't have) such an insidious evil?

Re institutions being degenerative: a Facebook friend wrote: The disease of institutionalism is a fruit of human fallibility of course. Human desires for security, for making a name for oneself, so feed the system that it takes on a life of its own, and cannibalises the very ones who think it will give them what they want...





There's also the theological concept of imago dei: all humans are God-like. 'New heavens and a new earth' are being prepared for all creatures. All? Yes, I think God is a universalist: but God has not given us fallible humans enough information for us to be dogmatic about all that...

4. PARADIGM SHIFTS. 



Some of the 'new ideas' which have crept up on me over time have included (in no particular chronological or hierarchical order):

* A concern for social justice

* God's alerting the worldwide church about the humanity and dignity of those born with a same-sex orientation



* Ministry as empowerment (also a subset of the social justice idea)

* God's special gifts to all - yes all - branches of his Son's Church. Like contemplative prayer (some Catholics), the dynamic doctrine that 'God was in Christ' (Conservative Christians), reverence for God's revelation in Scripture without its being linked to notions of inerrancy (Progressives), radical discipleship (many front-line groups who are getting their hands dirty helping the poor), charismatic renewal (Pentecostals) vs. the 'routinization of charisma' (pragmatists)... and so on and so on. 



5. THE INTERNET


AND FINALLY, MY INSIGNIFICANT LITTLE SELF.

* I want to love and live for God with 'all that is within me' (Psalm 103).

* I need to be guided in saying 'yes' to strategic things and 'no' to everything else (and feel OK about all that). When I invited my hero Dom Helder Camara to write a chapter for one of my books, he replied (in Portugese): 'If the Lord gives, I will give.' Beautiful!