Losing our way: A metaphor for the spiritual life

on Thursday, 10 February 2011. Posted in Blog Archives

Exploring the seemingly unending rolling hills of my backyard on my mountain bike is soon becoming one of my favourite past times. If the clouds didn’t sweat throughout the day, then I try to finish my business responsibilities by mid afternoon so as to be on my mountain bike by about 4pm. This leaves me with a good two hours of daylight to ride my bike to my heart’s content.

 

But I must be honest with you: I get lost. Often. It’s not that I am a complete stranger to these mountains; it’s just that I have only ever explored them with a vehicle. Now a vehicle is a good way to get a basic orientation of the landscape, but it doesn’t get you to a third of the places that the mountain bike does.

 

Strangely enough I don’t really mind getting lost. For some reason I have always had a good sense of direction, so if I can see the sun above me then I’m quite fine. Knowing this, I don’t mind going down dirt roads or chasing horizons that I have never investigated before. And it’s not as if I have a map either: just a hunger for new landscapes and a tempered confidence in my own navigation skills (or should I say in the sun’s ability to give me direction?). I get lost ever so often, but once I go down an undiscovered path and eventually find my way again, I gain knowledge of the landscape that I did not possess before. And if my road leads me to a dead end? Well, that’s easy: I simply turn my bike around and go back the way I came.

 

As I once again rode my bike through previously unknown landscapes yesterday afternoon, past waterfalls and up steep hills, I thought about how this cycle of perpetually getting lost and finding one’s way again is a good way to describe the spiritual life. There’s a lot of talk in church circles about getting or being saved, and I have no hassles with that. But you get a certain kind of individual that seems ‘overly saved’, for a lack of a better expression. You know the kind of individual I am talk about, right? They never seem to lose their way, never seem to doubt and never seem unhappy. It’s as if they have got all their ducks in a row and everything figured out.

 

Now I don’t know about you, but I am weary about people who seem to have everything under control. I prefer a certain measure of chaos that calls for creativity and risk. I would much rather follow someone who has lost his or her way a few times before, for I know that there is no better guide than the one who has discovered a way home for themselves.

 

I’m just spit-balling here, but maybe we should reconsider the way we use words like ‘being saved’ or ‘being lost’. Maybe the one we consider saved is actually just comfortable with his own safe definition of what it means to be saved, and maybe the one we consider lost is not lost at all but simply exploring, preparing a way for others to follow.

Sharing Solitude: Why I want you to come and visit me

on Friday, 04 February 2011. Posted in Blog Archives

I am beginning to settle in nicely here in my mountain abode. Yesterday I took my SUV into the nearby mountains, and when I could no longer go at it with four wheels I got onto my mountain bike and braved the unknown with two wheels. I feel more alive already.

 

Some of my friends, though, have expressed concern about my move to the mountains. One of them urged me not to become like some of the mountain folk who smoke weed and cultivate a lot of magic mushrooms. Another one of my friends, whose opinion I value highly due to his immense wisdom and depth of union with God, made me aware of the dangers of isolating myself from authentic, Christ-centred community. But they can rest assured that I have no intention of becoming either a pot head or a lone ranger follower of Jesus. I sometimes find it hard to choose which voices to listen to and which to ignore. I have come to the paradoxical conclusion that the most important thing in life in this regard is not to listen to what other people say about your life. The second most important thing is to listen closely to what others have to say about your life. I guess you just stick to whatever resonates with your spirit and leave on the shelf whatever doesn’t.

 

The fact of the matter is that I have no desire or intention to isolate myself from other people, especially not my brothers and sisters in Christ. But genuine, heart to heart community isn’t simply about coming together and bearing each other’s presence for a few hours each week so that we can get it over and done with and move on with our ‘real’ lives. Christian community is an extension of the union and fellowship that exists within the Triune Godhead, and it is only when our individual lives are rooted in Him that our communal lives give expression to His desire for a family that exists within Him. Solitude, then, is an indispensible ingredient to community, whilst community is the natural outflow of solitude. I cannot say it better than the late Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

 

‘Every man is called separately, and must follow alone. But men are frightened of solitude, and they try to protect themselves from it by merging themselves into the society of their fellow man and their material environment. They become suddenly aware of their responsibility and duties, and are loath to part with them. But all this is only a cloak to protect them from having to make a decision. They are unwilling to stand alone before Jesus and to be compelled to decide with their eyes fixed on Him alone…Though we all have to enter upon discipleship alone, we do not remain alone. If we take Him at His word and dare to become individuals, our reward is the fellowship of the Church.’

 

So here then is my conclusion and also my invitation: If I want to live a truly meaningful, Christ-centred life, then I cannot escape my need to enter into that place where I find myself connected with my Source. That said, my solitude opens up the possibility for you to really get to know me for who I am and not simply the lost and insecure self that has been formed by the expectations and opinions of other people. So, if you are reading this (and my counter says about 100 of you do so per blog post), feel free to come and visit any time.

Why I’m moving to the mountains

on Wednesday, 19 January 2011. Posted in Blog Archives

I’ve mentioned a couple of times on this blog before that church, for me, boils down to a group of people who share a common life and mission under the Lordship of Jesus. I have also noted the obvious but weighty fact that if there is no life present in an individual, then there will be no life to share.

 

The last few months have seen me become almost completely inattentive to the voice and involvement of God’s Spirit within my life, so much so that as I quietened myself down two nights ago in order to pray I had no idea where to begin. It’s not that I’ve been particularly bad of late, I’ve just been extremely busy. The tragedy of it all is that I can’t really pinpoint where exactly all my time and money is going. All that I know is that I am bleeding life quicker than I’m cultivating it, and just when I think the crust is dry something else calls for my time and attention and resources which once again leaves another cut on an already septic wound.

 

As I’m sitting here typing these words I am still uncertain how to get back into the flow of God’s divine rhythms for my life. What I do know is what is lost over time isn’t simply regained in a moment. I cannot live an inattentive live geared toward my own ambitions and comfort and think that one little prayer here or a few more minutes in solitude there is going to alter my awareness of God’s involvement in my life. What I need is a complete change in how I live my life. And whilst I don’t exactly know what it is that I should let go off and what to hold on to, I do know that if I am going to simplify my life then I am going to have to simplify my desires. If a dog chases two rabbits at once he will only succeed in losing both of them. I need to make a firm decision whether or not I am going to live to gain the world or gain my soul, but living in limbo between the two is profiting no one.

 

I’ve thought about this choice before me long and hard the last few months, and have come to the conclusion that what I need most in my life now is not more of anything but less of everything. I need to remove the clutter that chokes the seed of God’s word within my life. All that I will have to show for my life in five or ten years from now if I carry on the way I’m going is a bit more money. Maybe. But what I will not have is more depth of spirit, more meaningful relationships and more understanding into the will and ways of God.

 

Therefore it’s been decided: Come month’s end, I’m moving to a small two bedroom chalet that overlooks a mountain and a pond near Haenertsburg, a small village about 60 kilometres away from my current town. It’s not that I want to become a hermit or lose track with reality. It’s just that I want my reality to be birthed from a healthier and holier place than the constant hustle and bustle that’s come to define my life of late. There’s a spare room as well as a bunch of Arabians that needs to be tamed, so if you’re ever in the area come and say hello.

Allowing ourselves to be moved

on Monday, 22 November 2010. Posted in Blog Archives

Every now and again I feel myself deeply moved by someone or something. A few days ago I was driving in my car from Polokwane to Joburg and I found myself moved by the beauty of the lush green bushveld after the first summer rains. I really do believe that God was showing off when He made South Africa. Part of my journey was spent in silence and listening and awe, and another part was spent enjoying the awesome talent of Josh Groban. Listening to his voice and music, I found myself moved once again.

 

As I found myself moved, I started to think about the ways we human beings relate with God. When I studied theology some years ago, I was quite certain that the day will come when I will have God figured out. The discipline of systematic theology helped me to categorise and dissect the God-life to such an extent that every conceivable question and possible experience had a reference number attached to it. This worked relatively well until I stepped out of the classroom into real life, only to discover that neither life nor God is as predictable as the text-books taught me to assume.

 

A few years down the line I still value study and knowledge and all that go with it, but I am not half as confident about my own conclusions anymore. As the years went by my pursuit of God became one that has less to do with facts and figures and more to do with awe and wonder. After all, God is a person who desires to be known and not simply a doctrine that can be understood.

 

I think this is why it is so important for us to be and become a listening community, a community that shares and celebrates the involvement of God within and amongst them. When we listen to God’s Spirit, we allow ourselves to be moved by Him. When we allow ourselves to be moved by Him, we begin to participate in His ongoing mission within this world.

 

Too often we have this process backwards. It’s simply too easy to accept our current context and insights without reserve, and it’s all too common to fit Jesus into the world that we have created for ourselves. But this is wrong thinking and wrong theology. To understand God’s mission on this earth we have to begin with the person, reality and work of Jesus Christ. To the extent that we see Jesus for who He is, to that extent we will begin to comprehend God’s mission on this earth as well as the role of the church within this mission. To use theological language, our Christology must influence our Missiology whilst our Missiology must determine our Ecclesiology. When we start with our unquestioned and static Ecclesiological interpretations and expressions and work our way backwards, we will always end up with a wrong perception not only of God’s mission but also of God’s Son.

 

I think this is an important observation because church renewal is not simply about changing certain structures (important as this may be), but about rediscovering our identity as God’s people and dwelling place on this earth. To change the structures without changing and challenging the underlying understanding that gave rise to these structures will be at best a short-lived adventure in missing the point.

A Listening Community

on Sunday, 14 November 2010. Posted in Blog Archives

After a hectic few weeks that saw me working non-stop for almost a month, I decided to take a day and a half retreat to the nearby mountains in Magoebaskloof. Armed with my mountain bike, Nikon D80, two books and a generous supply of water, I climbed into my car and headed out of town.

 

Arriving in Haenertsburg, I sat down to a cappuccino at the Red Plate to finish the last few chapters of Barbara Brown Taylor’s excellent faith-memoir called Leaving Church. From here I drove to the Magoebaskloof Hotel for some lunch, biting into the first few chapters of Ian Morgan Cron’s Chasing Francis at the same time. With my satisfied stomach calling for an afternoon nap, I booked myself into the nearby Black Forest Mountain Lodge, a favourite spot of mine.

 

After a solitary night filled with pizza, reading and a symphony of frogs and insects lighting up the night with their songs of praise, I got onto my Silverback the following morning and aimed at a high peak which I visited once before by vehicle which gave a breathtaking view of the surrounding area. I underestimated the steepness of the climb completely, but after some time peddling, walking and vomiting out a portion of my morning breakfast, I reached the top and I was not disappointed. Apart from the view that invited my eyes to gaze into all directions, crossing forests and hills and lakes, I found myself standing in an unending wide river of a gazillion white butterflies spilling over the mountain from the west and flying east. As I drank in this glorious spectacle for about a half-hour or so, I reminisced on how I would’ve missed out on this beauty if I had given into the temptation of turning back when the climb became too steep for me. If fortune favours the brave, then beauty definitely favours the patient.

 

‘Ascending the mountain’ to reach some sort of epiphany seems to be a favorite biblical metaphor. More than a metaphor, it also seems one of the preferred ways in which God chooses to relate with His people. Think of Abraham, Moses and even Jesus. There’s something about the journey up a mountain – the increasing solitude, the time to reflect, the sheer exhausting nature of it all – that prepares us to receive something special from the hand of our Creator.

 

In my previous post I made the simple observation that if there is no God-life present in the individual members of the Jesus family, then there will be no God-life available to share amongst each other. In order for us to become a sharing community, we first have to become a listening community. In order for us to listen, we need to place ourselves in an environment where we can hear what the Spirit is saying to the church. Creating listening environments is not simply an individual pursuit but also a corporate calling. What I am not suggesting is that we all run up mountains when we gather. What I am suggesting, though, is that we gather in such a way that will make it possible to hear what God is saying to us instead of simply jumping into our established routines and pre-determined programs. The next post will explore this idea in further detail.

Church: A Sharing of Divine Life

on Wednesday, 10 November 2010. Posted in Blog Archives

For those who have been following this blog for the last few weeks, a certain progression may have emerged concerning my understanding of Jesus and, more specifically, my understanding of His church.

 

I have conjectured that approaching the way of Jesus as a religion is not the best way to understand God’s purpose; in fact, I have argued that understanding it as a religion has causes more harm than good in general. After a Ken Howard detour and a quick glimpse at the progress of my current book, I identified the ‘Christianity as a religion’ paradigm with the various Christians subcultures which we often choose over and above the daring adventure of faith of daily following Jesus through the grime and glory of this world we currently find ourselves in. I then went on to write about the Lord’s Supper as a means of introducing a direction that aims to answer the much needed question: ‘If church is not what we have often made it to be, then what is it really about?’

 

If somebody asks me about my short definition of church, I usually say something along the following lines: ‘It’s a company of people who share a common life and mission under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.’ It’s a very simplistic answer I know, but I do believe it captures the Biblical essence of what it means to be part of the family of God. Over the next few months I will be unpacking this statement with all its consequences bit by bit. I invite you to join me and others on this journey as we seek to re-imagine how a church can look like that honours such a simple definition without ignoring all the hard questions and issues that often pop up whilst engaged in the Biblical mandate of contextualising the mission and message of Jesus within our highly complex Western cultures.

 

At its most basic level, church is about people who share their lives under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, which He administers through the presence and involvement of His Spirit within us. It’s not simply about going through lifeless liturgies and empty rituals on the one hand, nor is it about getting together every now and again to share our ideas about some abstract god-figure which we bumped into somewhere along the way. In its purest form, church is about the mutual sharing of brothers and sisters concerning the reality of what God is presently doing in their lives. Through such mutual sharing, which is best experienced around a table or other such informal and homely environments, the saints encourage and exhort one another to follow Jesus with increasing surrender and intimacy.

 

Whilst this is a very simple way, it is also a very challenging one, for mainly the following reason: If there is no life, then there is no life to share.  While we can still hide our lifelessness and utter inattentiveness towards God behind both our rituals and ideas, such a luxury is not afforded us when we gather as a Spirit dependent community in face to face environments. Within this context our emptiness, or our connectedness for that matter, soon becomes apparent not only to us but also to those within our communities. In short, this way of gathering makes church impossible to exist without the reality and involvement of God, unlike the other two approaches which we often settle for.

Moving from a religious liturgy to a table of fellowship

on Wednesday, 03 November 2010. Posted in Blog Archives

As it should be clear by now, I am undergoing a personal journey where I am seriously rethinking the way I have always understood and practiced church. To some this is an unthinkable journey, even an irreverent one, as if no-one should dare question the ways in which we have always understood and practiced certain things. To those people who seriously cannot fathom that their accepted ways may be incomplete or misguided and who find my thoughts upsetting, I ask that you will judge what I say against God’s Word, your own conscience and sound reason. I also ask that you will do so in community with other Christians, whether through conversation with trusted friends or by expanding your horizons by reading widely on a given subject. If you still find my thoughts too hard to swallow and you feel it your duty to correct me, please do so in a humble and Christlike manner, and judge whether or not this desire to correct me stems from a love for truth or from your own desire to be right. If this is too much to ask, then it may be better for you not to read what I have to say.

 

Talking of which, I have been having some very naughty thoughts lately in regards to the Lord’s Supper. These thoughts are liberating both my understanding and practice of what was once little more than an arcane ritual I participated in from time to time during a specially sanctioned church service. More often than not, this ritual was preceded by a summons to repentance from the minister’s understanding of 1 Corinthians 11 to examine myself before I partook of the cracker and grape juice. Yet this summons always left me with the idea that whilst salvation is a gift from God, the bread and wine somehow required my own righteousness.

 

That is, of course, until I started having these thoughts that maybe the Lord’s Supper is not about a ritual but about a feast in celebration of the resurrected Jesus, complete with wine and bread and everything else that makes for a good meal. Maybe some sound exegesis on the passage in question will reveal exactly this: that the church in Corinth gathered around a table with the intention of sharing the Lord’s Supper, which was a meal with enough supply to glutton and get drunk. In fact, it was exactly because some of them acted like drunks and gluttons that Paul warned them about their misconduct, admonishing them to rightly discern the body of the Lord, which is His church.

 

What is even more fascinating are the three chapters that follow 1 Corinthians 11, which deal (amongst other things) with the use of spiritual gifts and the proper order in church meetings. I think what most of us fail to appreciate is the fact that the proper context in which to interpret these chapters are according to the setting described in chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians: that of a table and a meal. Most of us, of course, simply read our own overtly liturgical contexts into these passages.

 

When I started having these thoughts I began to see that God’s preferred way for His New Testament people to gather was not according to a liturgy, however free and spontaneous, but around a table and a meal. How will it change our view and practice of coming together as Christians if these thoughts that I and others are having turn out to be valid?

Clearing up the confusion

on Friday, 22 October 2010. Posted in Blog Archives

Here are some thoughts from my upcoming book:

 

If you are anything like me you will find the Christian story inaugurated by Jesus Christ some 2000 years ago a bit confusing, and that’s putting it mildly. There are so many camps and constituencies which associate themselves with Jesus Christ that I find it very difficult if not impossible to keep up with all the ‘Christian’ ideas and ideologies doing the rounds in the world today.

 

Today we have created our own Christian subcultures in the Western world inasmuch as a Christian is nowadays defined not so much by his or her relationship with God but, amongst other things, by the music they listen to and the preachers they follow. For those who have grown accustomed to and comfortable with these subcultures, it is somewhat unthinkable that a person can be a Christian without being immersed in and up to speed with the latest trends within these subcultures. For the time being it would do no real justice to the principle to be overly specific about who and what exactly are involved in the subcultures that come to mind when I think about my own situation and context. What I would say is that I am continually pushed to conform to certain preferences that discovered their origins in the likes and dislikes of my contemporary popular culture, preferences that took on their own unique (and mostly irritating) character as people took these contemporary and popular preferences, baptised them in the name of conformity, clothed them with proper church attire, and set them on the stages of our church buildings for people to reverence and adore: ‘Have you bought their latest CD?’; ‘Did you read his latest book?’; ‘Did you see her on the television this past week?’

 

People become very sceptical about the validity of my faith whenever I don’t appear interested or moved by the aggrandised clutter of popular Christian culture. They become even more concerned when they discover that I am actually into Coldplay and David Gray, that I fancy literature of a mystical nature, and believe that most of what I see on Christian television or hear from church pulpits no longer proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. They fail to recognize my connection with God in Christ, for they are looking for the signs of the subculture within my life instead of trying to recognize the presence and involvement of God. They also fear the prospect that it is actually possible to be a follower of Jesus without having to be part of their conditioned lifestyles – a fear that takes on new proportions when they realise that what they have is maybe nothing more than a subculture, and that in order for them to once again become Christians, or become it for the first time, they would have to surrender everything that pertains to their Christianity.

 

The final hurdle between separation from and union with God will always be man’s own religion – and in many cases it is the religion that is built upon the popular Christian subcultures of our day.

 

(For more on this, go to my 'Current Projects' section of the website and download 'Clearing up the confusion'.  As always, your questions, responses and constructive criticisms are welcome)