Friday, September 25, 2009

Global Wake-Up Call

As a follow up to my recent post about flashmobs, here is some footage of these events:

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


SHB at dawn on 23rd September. Image by Marching Ants.
Sydney awoke today to red skies and a layer of dust on every exposed surface. The amazing images show a deep red tinge over everthing during the early morning light.

A massive dust-storm blew thousands of tonnes of topsoil from drought-stricken inland Australia over the east coast. Such dust storms are not unusual in a very dry country, though it is very unusual that one so large would make it to Australia's largest city. It was described by the Bureau of Meteorology as a "pretty incredible event" that was "the worst in at least 70 years, if not the history of the state".

I feel I have missed something significant in the life of my city. I would love to hear reflections from those who were there.

Our cities are built on dust and to dust they will return.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Work, rest and ministry: how many hours should a Christian pastor work?

A few years ago, I completed a B.D. at MTC. Most of my classmates are now serving around Sydney (and various other bits of the world) leading congregations as full-time paid ministers of the word (some are translating the Scriptures in other lands, some are teaching in schools, some are being full-time parents, some are doing other excellent things here and there).

We keep up with each other through an email list whose discussions have at times been very amusing, very useful (as people share resources and ideas and struggles) and occasionally very contentious. Over three or four years studying together, we developed a healthy mutual respect and learned to rely on each other's insights.

A day or two ago, a new debate started (or restarted, as it has been discussed a number of times before) concerning the appropriate number of working hours for those serving as pastors of Christian congregations (which includes the majority of the group). A number of excellent points have been raised and discussed and a number of models suggested. I thought I would post my contribution to the discussion (slightly edited to remove references to specific names).

Dear all,

Coming from a bunch of girls and guys who only work on a Sunday, I don't know what the issue is!

But then again, I'm approaching my 31st birthday and have spent the grand total of 11 months in full-time employment, so I don't know why anyone would listen to me on this matter. Thus, everything said here ought to come with a sodium warning for the amount of NaCl with which it must be taken.

And so, more seriously, thanks to M for raising what I think is up there as possibly the #1 long-term danger for pastors, presbyters, priests and paid-ministry-of-the-word staff (does that cover everyone? Hmm, "PhD students" also starts with 'p'...). And thanks M for your honesty about your struggles with this issue. It is not easy, and the fact that the kinds of roles that many of you fill do not have obvious distinctions between work and non-work only makes it harder. Furthermore, it is easy to seek quick answers through adopting a one-size-fits all approach, as well as easy to repudiate such an approach as legalistic and believing that my situation/character/marriage/church is unique.

And even if we don't set ourselves up as superior to our classmates and colleagues (able to handle constant pressures that others need a break from), perhaps we sometimes (consciously or unconsciously) set up our work as more important than the work done by our congregation members. If I am serving God's church and proclaiming his good news for the poor and teaching his word and ministering his holy sacraments and so on, then how can I stop for anything other than death (and its foretastes in hunger and tiredness)?

However, even leaving aside the highly problematic (and self-serving!) division of "gospel" work over against "secular" work, this question fails to note an even more important distinction: between work and rest (as P has so eloquently reminded us). In the beginning, the culmination and high point and goal of creation is not humanity, but Sabbath. And in the second creation account, the 'adam was created and placed in the garden to work and serve the ground, but also to enjoy the trees. We are made to smell the roses, not just put manure on them. We are first recipients of all God's good gifts (beginning with the breath of life and culminating in the holy Breath) before we are co-workers with him. We are first his children before being his servants. We are first those whose feet are washed by Christ before those who will die with him. In these ways, passivity is more fundamental to our creaturely (and Christian) existence than activity. And being presbyters, priests or PhD students doesn't change that. Christian leaders are Christians before being leaders.

Taking a slightly different tack, as someone who struggles more with laziness than workaholism, I wonder whether both sometimes arise from a similar source: the desire to please others (as M as suggested), otherwise known as status anxiety. While the workaholic may (as well as having wonderful and godly motives) fear the disapproval of others and so keep working, the lazy freeloader like myself may fear the discovery that even trying as hard as I could I would still not please others and so hangs back from trying too hard in order to avoid having to face this reality. Both the workaholic and the bum are (partially) motivated by a good desire (the desire for love and approval) that has been misplaced. It is good to be loved by others and to delight in being delighted in. But we are the delight of God.
"YHWH your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”

- Zephaniah 3.17*
*Yes, this is said to Israel, but onto this tree we have been grafted.

And so being loved (or hated, or - worst of all - simply ignored) by others can take its secondary place. Held in God's embrace, we are freed from constant anxiety and constant activity, freed to enjoy, to receive, to be. Our work is good and rightly takes time and care, effort and attention. But our rest is better.
While writing this post, my message on the list received this reply:
And yet, the Sabbath which is the high point of God's creative project is one in which he continues to work (cf. John 5.17) and is the (temporal?) context in which he invites humankind to join him in that work. Is it rest as passivity or rest as shalom, toil-less, peaceful labour which has the prior claim on our agendas? After all, the first command is to fill, not contemplate, creation; and although the trees of the garden are aesthetically pleasing before bodily nourishing, 'adam is placed there to work and not to watch, but watch over.
Here is my reply:
It was neither passivity per se nor (self-serving!) contemplation that I had in mind, but rest as receptivity that I was particularly arguing for. That, although it is more blessed to give than to receive, we can only give if and because we have first received (and continue to receive) everything from God. I am quite suspicious of turning "rest" into "doing more work" (even "gospel" work) because it sounds like the addict justifying her habit through special pleading. My point is that unless we acknowledge and dwell in the fact that we are creatures whose every breath comes as a free gift, then our frenetic activity can quickly become self-justification.

Before the first command came the first blessing. And that is what I am saying. Being blessed comes before obedience.

Flashmobs for climate action

Next Monday at 1pm, I'm joining a climate change wake-up call flashmob event in Edinburgh. It’s organised by Avaaz and is one of almost two thousand events taking place on September 21st all across the world to demand a strong global climate treaty.

Here is the Avaaz description of the idea:

Flashmobs are fun, peaceful demonstrations in which participants assemble suddenly in a public place, blending in with the crowd, perform an unusual action simultaneously for a few minutes, and then quickly disperse.

On the morning of September 21, everyone participating will set our alarms and gather together a few minutes before the assigned time, at locations chosen by the hosts in our local area. When our alarms go off, we'll hold up our mobile phones and find each other, and then, as a group, call our leaders to urge them to go to Copenhagen and sign a fair, ambitious, and binding climate treaty this year. We'll make as much noise as we can, while recording videos and photos for the UN presentation -- then head back to work, school, or home to upload the results!
Want to join me? Here's the link. And here are the details:

When: 21st September, 2009 at 1:00pm
Where: St Andrews Square, Gardens -- Edinburgh, Edinburgh, SCT

Not in Edniburgh? Find one near you.

By themselves, protests like this might not change much. And personally, I'm fairly downbeat about the likelihood of Copenhagen resulting in an agreement over ambitious global targets. I'm also not persuaded that carbon trading is some kind of magic bullet or even the best way forward. Nonetheless, the size and success of symbolic actions like this help to keep ecological issues on the political agenda, which is one small good thing.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Jesus: all about life (new book)

While I try to avoid excessive advertising on this blog (and have not and will not ever include paid ads), I have no qualms about the occasional plug for for quality material produced by some of my nearest and dearest.

Jesus: All about life
As part of the Jesus: all about life campaign, my brother Murray has written a short book introducing Jesus to high schoolers (teenagers between about 13-18 for those outside Australia).

At first glance, the book is attractive and accessible. Published in a widescreen format (I would use the more technical publishing term, but members of the visual age will probably get this better) with images on one side and text on the other, it feels like something you can dip into, or read from start to finish. The images are varied and high quality and the headings draw even idle readers in.

And when we take a longer look, the message of the text is just as interesting and attractive as the initial impression. Dealing with a wide range of issues in a personable and relaxed tone, the text approaches Jesus via reflections on the good bits and the ugly bits of life. Murray's historical knowledge (he is currently completing a PhD in early Christian history) is shared without excessive technicality or over-simplification. And throughout, the life of Jesus is put forward as the hidden cohesion and meaning of all of life, both the good bits and the ugly ones.

Although aimed primarily at youth, Jesus: All about life would not be inappropriate sitting on almost any coffee table or bedside table. You can order copies from here and you will find them quite easy to give away - if you can avoid diving in yourself!

Jesus: All About Life
by Murray Smith
RRP $14.95 AUD
Bulk Price (30+ $7.95)
Preview (3.2MB pdf)
Order here

Monday, September 14, 2009

Who is a child? II

A few weeks ago, I began a new three part series hoping to reflect upon the theological assumptions behind parenting. Although it’s taken me a while, today I return to that series with my second post. A third will complete the sketch at some point in the future. My first post argued that a child is a a precious gift from the Father of all and a member of the community of creation.

A brother or sister for whom Christ died
If children are a gift from the one who is Father of us all, then they are also brothers and sisters with us in the same family. Our children are also our siblings. Although they may be younger siblings, they are nonetheless full members of God’s family and in that sense our equals. They belong within God's community as much as any adult and they are as welcome to approach God as the rest of us. Jesus said, “Let the children come unto me” - and woe to those who would turn them away. Children are therefore not proto or potential Christians, but can be welcomed from birth as those who are loved and welcomed by God. And in this, they are in the same position as everyone: we all only love because God first loved us. Our loving is always learned from a prior experience of receiving love.

Although it is a much disputed issue in some circles, this is the theological basis for the ancient and widespread Christian practice of baptising children. While their confession of faith might not yet be explicit, they are nonetheless already enfolded in God’s love, included in his promise and welcomed by Christ.

And God’s love is manifest to all through the death of Christ on our behalf. And this death was for all, and so also for children. There is a widespread belief in contemporary society concerning the primordial innocence of children. Yet this Romantic conception is relatively novel and only became popular during the Victorian period. If Christ died for the sins of all, then he also died for the sins of children. They are just as much in need of salvation and healing as the rest of us. Traditionally, this has been expressed in the doctrine of original sin. Despite much confusion, this teaching basically claims that we all begin in a broken situation, with divided hearts and amongst a fractured world. Even before children are able to express any kind of conscious or deliberate rebellion, they are born and raised in patterns of behaviour that dishonour God and diminish life. This teaching can be unhealthily overemphasised, but without it, our conception of children will be dangerously naïve.

An image-bearer called into service of neighbour
Like the rest of us, the young need to be taught how to live. To act naturally no longer comes naturally. It is only through repentance and humility that children (or any of us) come to learn what it means to be human. And when we stop trying to fly, we might learn how to walk. Indeed, the metaphor of walking is used repeatedly in the holy scriptures as an image of how we live. For those of us who seek to walk in the true and living way of Christ, learning how to live means learning to take up our cross and follow him. As Christ was the image of God, giving us a picture of God’s love and generosity, his gentleness and patience, his grace and truthfulness, so we are to mirror Christ and so also present an image of godly character to the world.

But what can it mean for children to be bearers of the divine image? Jesus said that the rule of God belonged to children, and that unless we become like children, we can never enter it (Matthew 18.3; 19.14). Again, it is not their alleged innocence or purity that we are to emulate, far less their ignorance, and not even their curiosity. To be a child is to be dependent; and children mirror to us the deeper truth that applies to us all: we all rely on resources beyond ourselves. Not one of us is self-sufficient. No one is a self-made woman or man. We have all received our existence from others and our life is lived for others. Ultimately, we have all received our lives from our heavenly Father and it is towards him that we are oriented. And so, to become a child in order to receive the kingdom of heaven means that God’s rule is acknowledged by those who give up the project of making themselves something and recognise the limited scope of their agency and responsibility.

Yet children are also to grow up. There is a way of embracing one’s limitations that is irresponsible and seeks to escape from the tasks placed before us, that uses our relative impotency as an excuse. Children need to learn and grow and become more than they presently are, to delight in new experiences and gradually to shoulder new (though still limited) responsibilities. To be mature is better than being immature. But if we listen to Jesus when he tells us to become like children, we also learn that part of maturity is recognising that I am not yet mature, that I still have room to grow, new responsibilities and possibilities to embrace.

And so we raise our children as equal siblings in God’s family. And we raise them as those who share the same vocation of mirroring God’s love. To grow in the capacity to give and receive love is what it means for a child to flourish. And we raise them aware of our continuing immaturity and the perpetual openness and ongoing repentance required of us all as we seek to grow up together.
See here for the first post and here for the third and final post in this series.
First image by JKS.