Entering God's Ongoing Story

on Monday, 18 October 2010. Posted in Blog Archives

Here are a few paragraphs from my book's current Introduction:

 

People and their stories fascinate me. It reminds me that life is neither as fixed nor as boring as we are sometimes made to believe. It reminds me that the globe is bigger than my one-dimensional world with my own little troubles and ambitions. It reminds me that the world is indeed rich and colourful, despite all evidence to the contrary. Most of all it reminds me that somewhere hidden behind the interesting stories of our up-and-down lives is a Master Storyteller that is skilfully at work writing a best seller than is aimed as His glory and our good. When I do eventually sit down with the girl I met in the coffee shop I will do so with the intention of listening to her story. If I am really fortunate I will not only listen to her story but also become a part of it in whichever way. To enter into her story I won’t dissect her character or probe her history in the way that systematic theologians do with God. I won’t compartmentalise her existence into various categories for easier future reference, nor will I write down jotted summaries about her essence so that I may get my head around her. To any man who has lived past the age of five it should be reasonably obvious that God didn’t create women for us to understand them. On the contrary, if we treat women the way many of our theologians treat God, we’ll most probably get slapped for wanting all that information without having any real interests in getting to know them personally.

 

Which kind of gets me thinking about our whole approach to knowing God: maybe our fixation with all the facts surrounding God without any real interest to get to know Him personally is as offensive as a man asking a woman he has just met about her weight or age. Luckily I am not a feminist who prays to ‘our Mother who art in heaven’: the idea of getting pummelled by Divinity doesn’t sit very well with my delicate constitution. Not that the idea of gathering facts about God ever appealed to me much anyways. Doing so has its place I guess, but only if it contributes to us getting to know Him better. After all, God is not a doctrine that can be understood but a person that desires to be known. Like any relationship between free-willed and life-pulsating individuals, we get to know God better by entering into His ongoing story, and allowing Him to enter into ours, and not simply by gathering facts about Him. In fact, life becomes most beautiful when we discover the synergy between God’s story and our own and allow Him to orchestrate the rhythms of our existence.

 

(To download the complete Introduction for free, go to the 'Current Projects' section of this website and follow the easy steps.)

Based on a True Story: Table of Contents

on Sunday, 17 October 2010. Posted in Blog Archives

For those of you who might be interested, below is the current table of contents of the book that I am working on.  If you navigate to my 'Current Projects' section of the website, you can also find this table of contents with the chapter summaries.  These are basically one or two paragraphs summarizing each chapter in a nutshell, and it will give you a good feel for the book.  Then, as you will see, you can also download the introduction to the book as well as three complete chapters.

 

 

 

Table of Contents

Introduction

1. The stories we find ourselves in

2. Recognizing our place in God’s ongoing story

2.1 Clearing up the confusion

2.2 Leaving the house to find a home

2.3 Responding to the involvement of God within our lives

2.4 Perfecting the art of doing nothing

2.5 Where does the Bible fit into the ongoing story of God?

2.6 Vocation: Giving expression to the involvement of God within our lives

2.7 Where I find my heaven

3. Accepting our place in God’s ongoing story

3.1 The tension between who I am and who God is calling me to be

3.2 I want to follow Jesus but...

3.3 Why I want to kill myself and why I am not going to

3.4 Surrender means accepting God’s way of doing things

3.5 Faith: The best way of life possible

3.6 The same God who says “follow Me” is the same God who says “I will take care of you”

4. Celebrating our place in God’s ongoing story

4.1 Joy is the serious business of heaven

4.2 Celebrating my oddity

4.3 Celebrating the present moment

4.4 Surrounding ourselves with people who celebrate our lives

4.5 Celebrating a friendship with Jesus

4.6 Alive in His world that knows no end

5. The story that beckons us

 

This is the final format of the book that I will send off to the consultants in America.  As I have learned by now, a lot can still change and probably will before we agree on the final format for possible publication.  Nonetheless, this is the current state of affairs.  Your comments, questions and constructive criticism are most welcome.

Discovering New Oceans

on Wednesday, 06 October 2010. Posted in Blog Archives

Ken Howard is a swell guy. When he learned that I was interested in his new book but that a copy was still unavailable to me over here is South Africa, he sent me a PDF version of Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them . Now I’m not really one for e-books. I think the only other e-book I’ve ever read is The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, and even that I printed out before reading. But this book gripped me from the very beginning, and the thoughtful content was well worth the unsatisfying experience of staring at my laptop screen.

 

I don’t want to comment on the book as such. Many others have done this in the past week or so, all of which can be accessed by following the ‘Blog Tour’ link below. As usual, Africa was late to join in the party, so I am not going to try and repeat what has already been said. Rather, I want to pick up where Ken leaves the reader in his concluding chapter: on the ‘coastline of (an) undiscovered country’.

 

This phrase reminded me of a sentence I read for the first time when I was travelling in the British Isles back in 2005. There, in the town of Lancaster on a bench in Williamson Park, I read the following words: ‘Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore’. And I think this is an apt description of both the joy and the challenge that lie in front of people like Ken and I and many others who seek to experience Christian Community beyond the ‘us vs. them’ divide: in order to arrive at our desired end, we must let go of the familiar definitions and practices rooted in our ideologies of church that divide rather than unite the family of God.

 

I want to share a story from my personal history to illustrate what I mean. During the same time of extended travel in the British Isles, I made it my aim to visit some Celtic ruins and Catholics monasteries like the ones I have read about in the books that some of my evangelically orientated friends frowned upon. My suspicions about chubby little monks sipping away at communion wine and talking to Jesus in Latin was initially confirmed by an early visit to a Benedictine monastery in the North West of England. It was only a day or two into the visit that I realised I was lucky enough to have joined them as they were celebrating resurrection week, the only time that they really indulged in really good food and rather decent liquor. And, as it turns out, they weren’t talking Latin after all. Some of them simply couldn’t handle their booze.

 

Whatever the case, I was one of the first Protestants (a classification I have since disavowed) that had ever visited them in such a manner and, by the looks of things, I was also one of the first ones some of them had ever had a decent conversation with. We didn’t, for one single moment, argue points of doctrine or discussed matters related to church politics. We simply and unashamedly talked about Jesus and our own journeys of faith, and soon discovered that we had more in common than what we disagreed about. What’s even more important is that we had the one thing in common that mattered the most: all of us in some form or another had put our trust in Jesus Christ, and that was enough grounds for fellowship and mutual respect. I didn’t have to participate in or even agree with their strict liturgies and monastic offices, and they didn’t have to agree with my sleeping habits and long hair or even my interpretation of Matthew 16:18. There was no us and there was no them. There was only One, and all of us in Him. For a few short days I experienced church life as I always knew possible.

 

So here then is my challenge to those who will take the fundamental message of Ken’s book seriously: find deliberate ways to understand and interact with people you disagree with on points of doctrine and theology, but who nonetheless identify themselves as followers of Jesus Christ in some form or another. For some of you this might mean seeking an audience with the Pope, or Brian McLaren for that matter. But for most of us it will require looking no further than down the street, our mobile-phone contact list or our Facebook friends. When you actually do connect with these people ‘on the other side’, seek ‘to understand, rather than be understood’, to use a gem of wisdom I discovered when reading that other e-book I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this post.

Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them

on Sunday, 03 October 2010. Posted in Blog Archives

A Facebook friend of mine, Ken Howard, is in the middle of a very interesting blog tour for his new book called Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them. I have never met Ken, and I knew nothing about him until a month or two ago. I can’t exactly recall how it is that I started taking note of him, but what I do know is that he is onto something profound with what he is calling an ‘Incarnational Orthodoxy’.

 

What first attracted me to Ken and this book is his idea of a Jesus centred community that celebrates its existence beyond the confines of certain dividing lines that have plagued our story as God’s people for centuries. The book was released in the United States only a few weeks ago, and to the best of my knowledge it is still unavailable in South Africa as I write these words. Having not read the book I cannot recommend or critique it, so I will leave it at that – see the end of this blog post for more information on the book.

 

I am extremely intrigued by the idea of a Christian community that has moved beyond the ‘us and them’ divide, and I have been for some years. One of the questions that have plagued and consequently shaped me over the years is how a faith that ought to be defined as the ‘loving community of God’s people’ can end up with so many arrogant, back biting, gossiping and hypocritical individuals and parties who all claim that they are God’s preferred people in this world. I also wanted to know (and still want to know to some extent) why it was so necessary for me to belong to any one of these factions. For all their fighting and disagreements, most of these churches, groups, movements or denominations seemed to be agreed on at least one point: in order to truly qualify as a Christian, one has to belong to one of these groups, preferably their own. I found that whilst it is acceptable in some cases to still belong to one of the other groups, it is inexcusable not to belong to any group at all.

 

In the light of this, I have begun to ask and explore four fundamental questions that are busy challenging and liberating my understanding of church. These four questions are:

1. What is the church of Jesus Christ?

2. How do we define participation in and belonging to the church of Jesus Christ?

3. How do we celebrate a localized expression of the church of Jesus Christ in a given locality without falling into the ‘us vs. them’ trap?

4. How do we cultivate and sustain a genuine love for one another even if we don’t reach the same conclusions or share the same convictions regarding the idea and expression of the church of Jesus Christ?

 

I hope that you will join me in the conversations that will follow on this website and beyond by exploring these questions with me.

Practicing Irreligion: Why Should Atheists Have All The Fun?

on Monday, 27 September 2010. Posted in Blog Archives

In the book that I am currently working on, I say the following about the incompatibility between the way of Jesus and religion:

 

‘In my mind, Christianity cannot be called the world’s greatest religion simply because in its truest form it doesn’t qualify as a religion. Religion is not the need, religion is not the answer, and when it comes to the ongoing story of God, religion is not the offer....I am by no means proposing irreverence or immorality, but simply irreligion – a life with Jesus that is not dictated or determined by our religious traditions. I know this is easier said than done, especially because we have made words such as religion and reverence pen-pals instead of antonyms. But it can be done. What’s more, I am convinced that it should be done.’

 

There is a lot of talk these days about the uselessness of religion, about how society in general is moving beyond the need for religion. With increasing frequency people are re-visiting people like Marx, Voltaire, Russell and Nietzsche (to name but a few noticeable thinkers who had anti-religious tendencies). What’s also interesting is that there seems to be a renewed awakening and interest in the concept of spirituality. Hence it is not uncommon these days to hear people refer to themselves as ‘spiritual, but not religious’. Where some of our forebears concluded ‘God is dead’, many of us are now concluding: ‘God is not dead, He is simply misunderstood and misrepresented.’

 

Religion, like spirituality, is an interesting word. Neither words are inherently evil or good; what makes them either positive or negative are the connotations we attach to these words. Someone like C.S. Lewis would talk about the true religion. Thomas Merton, on the other hand, may talk about an authentic religion. Both of them use these and similar terms to describe the same concept I am trying to express when I say that Christianity is not a religion at all. For me, religion is a word that carries too much baggage, and my fundamental definition of religion is that it is man’s attempt to domesticate God.

 

Unlike many religious people, I welcome the growing disillusionment with religion and everything it implies. It is my opinion that we make the way of Jesus something less than it is when we reduce it to a mere religion. My single biggest concern with this move away from religion is not that it is happening, but that it is being spearheaded by atheists and agnostics and questionable ‘spiritual gurus’ instead of the followers of Jesus. Those who have yet to discover the mystery and the joy of a life in God can only lead us to become men and women filled with cynicism and disappointment, yet those who have woken up can marry their critique with an invitation that will move us beyond suspicion to a place of trust and redemption.

 

May God rise up men and women that will do exactly this.

Why I Need You (But Not Your Religious Agenda)

on Friday, 24 September 2010. Posted in Blog Archives

A friend of mine who works for a very influential religious organisation in South Africa recently emailed me and asked me what I mean when I say that I have ‘waved goodbye to organised religion’ (see this website, Free Downloads, The Spiritual Disciplines).  Does it mean, he wanted to know, that I no longer go to church on Sundays?

 

‘Yes’, I said to him, and ‘no’, because it means so much more than that. The fact of the matter is that I don’t go to church on Sundays anymore, or any other day of the week for that matter. But me not going to church is simply a symptom of an underlying philosophy that have clarified for me the last few years.

 

Here’s what I mean. Going to church or doing church is fueled by an underlying philosophy that defines church as either a place or a program or both. Most people I know hold to this view (if not in theory, then definitely in practice). At the mention of the word ‘church’ they will immediately associate the word with a building or with a certain way of going through the motions of that which typically happens inside this building. This is true not only of big Sunday-event driven gatherings with their professional music and eloquent preaching, but also of many so called house-churches with their informal conversations and unplanned liturgies: the focus is still too often on a place (where church happens) and a program (how church happens).

 

I can honestly say that the aforementioned idea of church never sat quite right with me throughout all the years that I have been a follower of Jesus. I nonetheless stuck with it for over a decade due to a lack of a better alternative. Yet a year or so ago the tension between what I believed and what I practiced became unbearable and I could no longer tolerate being a living contradiction. And so it was that I stepped away (literally and figuratively) from the ideology that defines church primarily as a place or a program in my quest to experience church as a people.

 

In doing so I did not step away from the people whose view of church is still governed by the place and program paradigm, although this is how many of them interpreted it. I did so not out of anger or a feeling of superiority. Neither am I inferior to explore the concept and practice of church simply because I don’t officially belong to any defined group. To those who don’t understand my decision and who prayerfully worry about the state of my soul, I ask only this: Don’t worry for I am not lost, I’m simply exploring. But by all means continue to pray for me.

 

The next few weeks I will be blogging along these lines a little further. Please join in the conversations by leaving your comments and asking your questions. I’m not lying when I say that I really do need you.

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(Anti) Climax

on Tuesday, 21 September 2010. Posted in Blog Archives

A few days ago I went cycling in the local game reserve, intent to spend some time alone to pray and look for answers to some of the nagging questions that have been clawing away at my soul of late. After about an hour in the saddle I found some shade and, surrounded by birdsong and a few grazing Nyalas, entered a silent place where I could pray and listen. Do you want to know what happened next?

Absolutely nothing.

After a half an hour or so of silence meeting with silence, I got back on my bike and started my journey back home, slightly disappointed that my expectations were greeted with thin air. Was God on holiday? Did I not pray enough or in the right manner? Did I need to do some more penance before I attempted this fusion between humanity and divinity?

The next few days I went about my daily tasks meditating upon this unsatisfying encounter. One of the things that dawned on me as I did so is the fact that God works at a slower pace than what we are used to. For us, an encounter or experience (whether good or bad) is usually memorable only if it ends with some sort of bang: The Edinburgh festival ending its celebration of art and music and culture with a dramatic fireworks display; the rush one feels when one’s football team scores a goal or, better yet, wins the match; the high of a cocaine hit or the ecstasy of an orgasm.

Climactic experiences aren’t per definition wrong or harmful, but it does very easily condition us to ignore many meaningful moments in our lives that aren’t necessarily spectacular. We often take this conditioning into our spiritual lives, and to the extent that we do so we become impatient consumers of religious goods and services who engage God not for our transformation but for our excitement. When we do this we lose step with God’s rhythm for our lives not because we can’t keep up but because we can’t slow down.

In his timeless book, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster has the following to say about slowing down: ‘Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today in not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.’

The more I walk with Jesus (or, should I say, the longer He bears with me regardless of my own waywardness), the more I discover the unhurried nature of God. He goes about His business of transforming me into a person of depth and spirit not by fast-forwarding me from one high to the next (though they are there), but by strolling with me through the mundane and ordinary of everyday life with a steadfast promise and a simple challenge: ‘I am with you always, now learn to live with Me wherever you may find yourself.’

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Celebrating Critical Thinking

on Wednesday, 15 September 2010. Posted in Blog Archives

About a year ago I visited my wannabe surfer-bum friend called Hugh in Cape Town.  One night the two of us were sitting on the stairs leading up to his flat after dinner whilst his girlfriend and brother were washing the dishes (yes, that’s how good he’s got it).  Our conversations usually steer toward the stuff that matters most in life, and this time was no exception.

Somehow or another we ended up talking about the concept of truth and our relation to it.  It always amazes me how a good conversation has the ability to stimulate a latent vocabulary within me as it brings forth words to my mouths which had lived in my heart long before it fell on anybody’s ears, including my own.  As our conversation matured and gained momentum, we made a distinction between the two main ways in which we usually relate to truth.  One way is conceptual; the other is personal.

Conceptual truth is the kind hand-me-down truth which we believe and follow (or disbelieve and reject) because somebody more educated or qualified than us told us that this is the truth.  Personal truth, on the other hand, is the kind of truth which we believe because we have made up our own minds about it.  As Hugh and I pondered about the kind of truth that have influenced us the most, we both agreed wholeheartedly that it was personal truth, the truths that we have owned because we have made up our own minds about a certain thing, which influenced us the most.  We also identified something of a pattern: the older we both get, the more prone we are to let go of conceptual truth and the keener we are to live our lives according to personal truth.

Personal truth is arrived at through one’s own lived experience.  Sure, one’s personal truth may be under-developed and even totally misguided, but it is still your truth – and that’s the truth you will fall back on time and time again, regardless of what you ought to believe.  The trouble with conceptual second-hand truth, the kind of truth you were told to believe, is that it leaves us unchanged even if it’s true.  That’s why engaging in humble and prayerful critical thinking both individually and within what I have come to call an interpretive and interpreting community, is of utmost importance if we are to live our lives honestly and truthfully.

Maybe this is what Thomas Merton had in mind when he said the following in one of his best books entitled Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:   ‘Freedom from domination, freedom to live one’s own spiritual life, freedom to seek the highest truth, unabashed by any human pressure or collective demand, the ability to say one’s own “yes” and one’s own “no” and not merely to echo the “yes” and the “no” of state, party, corporation, army, or system.  This is inseparable from authentic religion.’

What do you think?

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