Cafe Agape

I have relaunched one of my preaching blogs in WordPress form.

“Read all about it…” at http://cafeagape.wordpress.com/

Belonging: Aloneness

In the first session of this series I introduced you to Richard Kelly’s novel Crusaders and the characters of local vicar Simon Barlow and church planter John Gore.  One of their conversations goes like this:

Barlow: It’s not a class thing…that’s not the attraction.  It’s about friends telling friends there’s a place they can go and make new friends.

Gore: [P]eople on the estates…can lead quite isolated lives.  We have a chance to get them together in a group, however small.  Make them welcome.  Treat them well.

Joe Myers says that belonging happens when you identify with another entity.  Belonging need not be reciprocal: to whom we belong is within our control, but who belongs to us is not.  It is sad but true that there are many people who consider themselves to be part of the local church until they are confronted by someone who tells them otherwise.  There are hundreds of people who belong to our congregation who we have no idea of.  Either we have no knowledge of their existence, or we know who they are but we don’t know that they belong until they tell us, usually by getting the hospital or the funeral director to ring our minister.  Tribal loyalty takes place in public space; these people belong to the Uniting Church team in the same way that I belong to Geelong Cats: publically. I am nameless at Kardinia Park but I am not a stranger: I am a committed public belonger of the club.  When we think about it like that then all belonging is significant.

It is possible to communicate to people that they do not belong, to actually disinvite people from engaging with us.  One common example of this in the broader setting is the way in which, with the best of intentions, a worship leader may publically excuse visitors from putting money in the collection.  This might seem pastoral, but it can also convey the message that these people are isolated from the blessing in the tithe because they don’t belong here. They have been welcomed, but they don’t feel belonging.

In our generation there is a culture of aloneness; of people longing for community but afraid to get close, surrounded by friends but feeling ever more alone. You can see this in the great documentary series of Generation-X; eleven years of a show called Friends where six people fall in and out of relationships with each other and the people on their periphery.  We all want friends, but we don’t know how to be friendly because we have learned it can be dangerous to be too vulnerable.  According to John Burke this generation…craves [the] sense of community inside a spiritual family.  If they don’t experience hope for authentic relational support, [it doesn’t matter] how hip the service…the music, or…the vibe [:] they won’t stick.  The challenge for leaders is first to learn how to live in community with others, and then to provide ways to ensure that nobody stands alone.  As a local church, we need to form a strong community around ourselves into which we can welcome others.  As was said several sessions back, some people bring others to church, and some people are the church to which others are brought.

As participants in this culture we can help our leaders create healthy environments in which people naturally connect.  If we concentrate on building the environment instead of the result we might see healthy, spontaneous friendships emerge.  This is the way a slime mould works; as individual organisms when the physical conditions are harsh, and as a single organism when conditions are favourable.  With sufficiency in the environment each “it” becomes part of a larger “they”.  A Mexican Wave does not occur because of a coordinated plan, but because of a mass movement of individuals moving in time with their neighbours: as each person watches only the people around them they know when to move.   This is how swarms, schools, and flocks operate in the animal world.  In the light of each of these examples we can understand that spontaneous does not necessarily mean random.  It would seem that with a few environmental suggestions a sudden epidemic of cooperation may arise.  As a local church we need to help people to connect; not just look to entertain.

Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress.

Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to the author William Mahedy many young people are suffering from the same sort of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that American veterans came home with from the Vietnam War.  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder arises out of a stressful incident beyond the normal range of human experience and Mahedy thinks that for young people these incidents arise out of issues of feeling abandoned as children in the divorce of parents, or in sexual or psychological abuse along with overexposure to media violence and sexual exploitation. We are living beside a generation with widespread problems with stability, self-image, feelings of emptiness, depression, suicidal and self-destructive thinking, lack of hope, and a fear of the future.  To be effective in reaching this sort of world the whole Church must create a culture that will welcome a generation that feels alone.  The Baby Boomers valued anonymity above all else when coming to church, but the Generations which follow seek community.  It doesn’t matter how postmodernist we are, no one will return to a place where she feels ignored or disconnected, where she is an outsider.  This is especially true of spiritual seekers: no one wants to feel alone.   There is a difference between being alone and feeling alone.  Most people like space, some want more space than others do, but even when we are by ourselves we need to know that we belong.

Flickr friends

Flickr friends (Photo credit: Meer)

This generation longs for deep connection, yet often settles for shallow ways of relating: the one-night-stand means that I “belong”, even if only for fifteen minutes.  The generations reared amongst divorce and abuse want to belong, yet their history of neglect has programmed them into an aloneness that goes much deeper than simply being alone. This sort of aloneness comes from longing for people to see you and know you, yet still feeling isolated even with lots of friends around.  If local churches do not help connect people into the Community of Christ in meaningful ways then we have failed in the full ministry of reconciliation: of restoring authentic relationship.  According to Paul, local congregations are supposed to be the rebuilders of broken bridges.  II Corinthians 5:16-19, 6:11-13.  The irony of this generation is that although we long for people to reach out to us, we fear appearing needy.  We know we need help, but we find it difficult to trust people with our vulnerabilities because we have been hurt, neglected, and rejected before.   I am fragile.  I am china in a bull shop.

We long for those who are already engaged in community to draw us in, but when they do we tend to forget how isolated we felt at the beginning and we neglect to engage the newcomers who followed us to the edges of community but were not brought in.  One way to make visitors and new people feel welcome is not to make them stand up and identify themselves, which can be daunting, but to stand up and identify ourselves.  We give the new person permission to approach us: if you are new here let me tell you we have coffee in the hall behind this building, turn left outside the door.  You are welcome to come with me and talk with me because I would like to talk to you.  Often that permission is all some people need.

Another principle of connection is to get people involved early: however, it must be recognised that not everyone feels ready to dive into spiritual community, and often simpler, low-commitment connection fosters the trust needed to move forward.  We must not exclude newcomers from joining our teams, but we must remain careful not to demand it from them either.  The goal is to raise people through teams to be team leaders, but then beyond that to leadership which is not just leading a task but spiritually developing the people who serve on the team.  Therefore, there is a word of caution: we should encourage non-Christians to serve as ministers in our church by meeting a need no one is meeting, but we cannot allow them to become until they submit to Christ’s lordship.  Let them serve, and belong before they believe.  Nevertheless, expect that they will believe before they lead.

John Burke tells the story of a group who served together for seven years on the vegetable-chopping task of their food service ministry.  They met to complete the task, but they also met together to pray with each other.  This team became a group of friends who cared for each other and interacted in each other’s lives in prayer and follow-up conversations alongside having fun on the job and out on social dates.  I have always enjoyed the fellowship of the ministry kitchen; the team I worked with at my church in England, Because We Can was becoming such a team toward the end of my time there.  I did not have the social skills to lead it, but I had the vision and the passion and when I stepped aside the community blossomed.  People want to get involved and connect: often jumping into a small group discussion feels too intimidating, but serving and feeling useful can be a great first step of connection with surprising spiritual results.  At Bible Study I would rather help with the dishes and have a 1:1 or 1:1:1 discussion around the sink, than sit and chat over a cuppa in the lounge-room.  Being in the kitchen is one of the places in which I find my belonging.  We should encourage seekers to plug in to community and serve in ways that don’t require spiritual maturity.  Like the famous Hillsong Church London truck, you don’t have to be a Christian to serve but your doubts about Jesus and his church probably won’t survive for long when you’re on team with down-to-earth servant Christians.  If we allow people to belong in this way it can help them to sort through their questions within an authentic community, and encourage them toward a genuine, applied faith.  People long to connect with those to whom they can relate: as I have said before, seekers are looking for people to be like.  Community plays a vital role in encouraging development.

The responsibility of Christians to be active in alleviating social concerns is clearly expressed in scripture in the narrative of Hebrew history.  As C.S. Lewis said, pain is God’s megaphone to a deaf world.  Perhaps because of their empathy with others who have been broken by the contemporary world, Generations X, Y and Z care deeply about the needs of the poor, forgotten and marginalised.  A local church that does not engage in acts of compassion could not possibly represent God to postmodern people.  Indeed even for me, I wouldn’t have left Hillsong Church London to return Port Lincoln if it weren’t for the Uniting Church’s particular work with the Orphans and Vulnerable Children’s ministry in Zambia.   Compassion is an easy way for people to connect with others as they serve together. You don’t have to be a Christian to serve others in need, but by serving alongside Christians, new people in church see a supernatural love and motivation that attracts them to Christ and his community.

For those who have suffered, especially at the hands of “Christians” it is important for them to know that Jesus has always been present in their trouble, but that he can be shut out by the actions of others.  People can decide things about Jesus that have a negative effect on their lives, but that does not mean that God was not present or that God was unaware or is uninterested.  God will not override the freewill of abusive parents to intervene and protect children, because to do so would be a dishonouring of God’s charge to them to raise their children.  However, we remember that God is aware and present; God is always watching, and often weeping.

One of the reasons why sin has such an appeal to our generation is that we don’t know how to enjoy life together as God intended.   The best deterrent to sin is joy, the sense that life with God is so good that I don’t want to do anything to screw it up.  When behave out of a sense that life is good in God’s stream we won’t want to change it.  A key task of God’s family is encouraging each other in enjoying life as God intended.  When we experience more and more enjoyment of life together the last thing we want is to turn away from the source of this new life.  God is a God of immense joy: God’s spirit gives joy and a life overflowing with blessing when God fully has God’s way with us.

If people feel at ease with each other from the outset, opening up to each other in an environment of fun and safety, then connections can be formed that will allow people to develop trusting friendships that will last for years.  There is plenty of time to read the Bible and pray together in a group, but we only get one chance to make a first impression and lay the foundation for creating a sense of family.  If family cannot be created then the group will never become the place of healing and life-giving community that God intends.  The early Church was a group that did life together in food, recreation, and service.

John Burke tells of a man he calls Jim, a man who had travelled with Christian ministries around the globe and had been involved speaking and teaching, a man who Burke describes as feeling isolated and alone, constantly pitching Christian faith like a travelling salesperson. Sadly, Jim was unable to talk openly about personal demons [and] he crashed emotionally.  I can relate to this, yet I know that this must not be.  Unfortunately, it will be the case for many of us unless the Church is able to find and demonstrate ways to be vulnerable in community, a community that believes what it says and acts what it believes about a God of abundant grace and sacrificial love.

Belonging: Brokenness

In No Perfect People Allowed (page 44) John Burke wrote nothing poses a greater challenge and opportunity to the church than the overwhelming emotional pains that drive our generation into so many addictive behaviours….If God is going to use his church to reach [this] generation the church must be prepared for these struggles of brokenness….If [we] are going to minister to [this] generation [we] must create a culture where broken people are welcome and healing happens….Broken people are wounded people…they often run from those attempting to help them.  Leaders must create a safe climate, so that the healing work of God can begin in their lives.

Burke (page 206)  goes on to quote an anonymous person who asks if this is fate, if this is all I deserve, why can’t I just accept it?  Why do I keep hoping?   When seekers come to church they usually know something’s broken; but they don’t always know there’s hope for something better.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

The message of our congregation is that God sees all that we endure, and it counts.  (Hebrews 10.)  Even for Christians it might seem sometimes that there is no honour in doing the right thing, yet if God exists then maybe it means something to God.  Sometimes the greatest act of faith is simply hanging in there until, it gets better, and to remember that God knows what we are enduring and that it matters to God.  We all need this hope that despite all our screw-ups and misguided stabs at life we can still become all God intended us to be by relying on God’s protection and God’s wisdom to see us through.

One of the greatest challenges that Christians face today is correcting the misperceptions of the nature and intentions of God that people have so that they can learn to trust God.  Someone might ask how does God handle me getting it second best all the time?  and if they have a wrong idea of God then they will have a wrong answer to that question.  They may even have a negative answer to that question.  Perhaps for them God does not handle me getting it second best all the time.  If the Church does not create a context for hope and healing, and provide opportunities for people to come and receive it, then those in the world will keep acting in sinful ways because of their pain.  The Christian community must become a safe harbour from the storms of life that beat people up and throw their lives upside down.  This problem compounds when suffering people come into our gatherings and rather than hear the predominate message of  hope in Christ; that the Creator of the seas wants them to come on board and navigate them towards life;  they only hear that God is angry with them about the reefs they keep hitting.  People who hear this sort of gospel are not likely to feel encouraged by our invitation to let an angry navigator on board, their lives are miserable enough.  However, as Christians we know that until they do allow God to navigate they will keep running aground, and they will never become all that God intended.

One of the major results of brokenness is addiction.  Addiction is not about having a 24/7 interest in something, it’s actually about being unable to shake the need to return to something that gives us meaning and pleasure.  You might go days or weeks without meeting your need, but when you are feeling broken you will return to the thing that gives you comfort, even if you know it to be wrong or even dangerous because you are trapped.  Addictions drive people into a state of absolute helplessness, a state Jesus referred to as spiritual poverty Matthew 5:3.  Jesus calls it a blessed state to be in because spiritual poverty cracks our shells of denial and our desire to hide away, and forces us to recognise either our deep need or our deep dependence on God. So it is kind of ironic that those close to this so called blessed condition, those in greatest need of grace and truth, are often not welcome in Christian circles.  This is why there is so much hurt around the churches; many who know they need help and that the Church is the right place to get help find themselves mistreated or ignored by Christians.  But as a local church we cannot simply invite the addicted in and hope for healing.  We must be prepared with groups and programmes to welcome people into, or at least try to make ourselves aware of outside resources available to help set people free.  We must help, even if only to act to connect them with better-able agencies.

True healing requires a lengthy process of righting the wrongs and uncovering the lies of the past.  Recovery from brokenness is a lengthy process, you cannot microwave healing

Prayer

At the core of most addictions is cycle of shame.   Shame is the feeling that there is something unacceptable about me at the core, yet I have a desire to put things rights and prove I am acceptable.  As local Christians we need to recognise and teach that shame is healthy because those who feel ashamed have not given up!  If you didn’t care, and if it doesn’t matter, then you won’t feel shame.  But we can’t allow people to stay ashamed, and we must be careful ourselves not to add to their sense of shame.  Shame opens the way to grace, and grace is what we do because as we learned a few weeks back grace is something that only the Church can access.  The world can offer tolerance, but God alone can provide grace and accomplish complete restoration in a broken person’s life.

As a chaplain I can tell you that a person with addictions often finds relief from his pain by acting out in ways that are often extreme.  Yet this acting out brings comfort because he temporarily feels good or alive.  Almost immediately though, feelings of being horrible and unworthy follow.  Once he is out of control the addict tries to regain control again by acting in: compulsively cleaning or dieting or spending longer hours at the office to try to feel better about himself.  But this attempt to do better never relieves the isolation and disconnectedness shame creates so the pain builds and builds.  Like clockwork he will act out again seeking relief, and around and around the cycle of shame he goes.

The underlying cycle of shame only gets broken when grace meets with truth in a person’s life.  When the person learns to take responsibility for her actions only then can she put her life and her will into the care of the God who will love her and give her the power she needs to overcome.  But this act of surrender usually only comes when the pain becomes intense.  Until the pain is severe, she will find it very hard to look honestly at her harmful behaviour patterns, because to her admitting her behaviour is wrong means admitting that she is unacceptable.   This is why as leaders, chaplains, or even as local Christians we must become comfortable letting people go through painful consequences at times.  Pain brings awareness and awareness brings healing.

In all things broken people must be reminded that regardless of what they’ve done in the past it’s not too late to honour God and honour yourself.  We can read Jesus doing this in John 4 where he is speaking to the Samaritan woman.  While he sits and chats casually beside the well Jesus steers his conversation with woman towards the real issue: which is not the sexual and relational mismanagement of her life, but her need to put God first in her heart, soul, and spirit.  Her greatest need was for authentic worship, a vibrant connection with her creator; and Jesus knew that unless she had living water springing up in her soul, flowing out of a right relationship with God, she would forever drink from muddy puddles.  As Christians we must not focus on where these broken people are in their lives, instead we need to encourage them to move on from that place enabled by God’s grace.  We must listen attentively to their stories and then help them to plan the best ways forward.  We must support people in moving toward Christ regardless of their past.  Many addicts have an agenda for what they want God to do when they come to God.  That’s why the first step is to admit that they have no control, over their life or over God or over their addiction.  We can help them with this through our own testimonies of depending and living from grace.

It is important that when we are meeting with people who are coming to terms with their addictions and their brokenness that we provide the help they need.  You would not send a reforming smoker to Alcoholics Anonymous just because “AA works with addictions”, since AA meetings are usually full of people smoking who are trying to give up alcohol.   One of the insights I gained as a prison officer while working alongside RAPt (the Rehabilitation of Addicted Prisoners Trust) in the United Kingdom is that many smokers don’t want to do a 12-Step programme as they don’t want to be viewed as having a problem with drugs.  Work with the broken man or woman; don’t treat an addicted case-study.

The effective local congregations in this generation’s Church have realised that just saying “that’s morally wrong, stop it” isn’t enough to help people to break free.  For example whilst it is true that lust is harmful people need to know that lust and sexual attraction are two different things.  Marriage in and of itself will not cure a man or woman’s addiction to pornography.  But those trapped by lust also need to know that God’s vision for sexual wholeness gets them what they truly want; intimacy, wholeness, belonging, identity; and in a far more satisfying and longer-lasting way.  The best we can do for people struggling in any area is to create a safe place to talk about these struggles.

We must remember that all addictions share a common root and a common solution, regardless of outward expression.   Addiction, like all sin, is an attempt to meet a legitimate need by an illegitimate means.  (It can also be the meeting of an illegitimate need: an unhealthy and unnecessary want.) Broken people in this generation struggle with many addictions and the Church for this generation must be prepared to encounter all types of people if we want to create a culture where healing and release can happen.  The local church needs to become a healing community which ministers to those around us who are consumed and enslaved by addictions. Healing and spiritual growth require support and connection, and in a generation longing for connection but wired to stay isolated and alone the local churches must be places where nobody if left to stand alone.  Our job is to help people connect with the Jesus with skin on.

Belonging: Truth

One of the great quotes of the Easter story is when Pontius Pilate asks Jesus what is truth.  I am not going to try to answer this, what I am going to do is look at the question itself because it is one of the key questions that people ask today.  It also raises an important idea for the Church: how can we express what we know to be true in ways that people will to want to hear it?  One of the criticisms levelled at the youngest and most educated parts of today’s generation is that they resist truth.  This is not entirely correct, they don’t resist truth; they resist arrogance.  To some extent postmodernists, but especially teenagers and twenty-somethings, long to find something solid that feels true but which is prepared to consider the claims of others. Christians don’t need to compromise the gospel with half-truth, but we need to be prepared to participate in discussion.

Christ before Pontius Pilate, Mihály Munkácsy,...

Christ before Pontius Pilate, Mihály Munkácsy, 1881 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Intellectual doubts are almost never the final barrier to accepting the gospel.  What holds people back is their fear that Christian life is somehow a net loss of value.  What keeps them from exploring faith is their perception of what Christians are like.  They might agree with our arguments but they baulk at making a decision that will make them “become like” us, or what they think we represent.  People are attracted to Christ by the attractive lives of Christians, not by our watertight arguments.  Truth used to relative, but now truth is relational: who are you that is telling me this?  is far more important than is what you’re saying believable?  People will do things they do not want to do, even feign interest in things that bore them, just to feel a sense of belonging or to hang out with people who accept and care for them.  Often people who are searching for a gracious God will not try the Church because it does not occur to them that God can be found amidst the arrogant and unloving judges of Christianity.  How sad is that?

The truth is that Jesus Christ offers the only reliable way to God.  However, in a world of such diversity as ours we need to ask which expression of Christianity is the only way to Jesus Christ.  Of course, no one denomination or theology is the sole answer; and it might even be true that the grace of God revealed in Jesus can be found outside Christianity as well.  All paths lead to him, if only to show that there is insufficiency in any path except the one where we rely on grace.  What we know about grace is that even the path of religious legalism leads ultimately to Christ.  God allows religions to show up human need for a God of grace: but God also sent Christ to be that God of grace in plain sight.  This is the truth in the absence of arrogance, or as Rev John Gore from last week’s novel said: sometimes it would be nice, just to be left alone with the faith.

Today’s generation has been taught to view Christianity through a distorted worldview, not out of spite but out of ignorance.  Those who claim to speak for, or about, Christianity present biased or outdated views that are inconsistent with the teaching of Jesus and the attitude of many parts of the modern, local church.  Their truth about historical Christianity is different to our truth about a gracious and wonderful saviour.

One of the great quotes attributed to Winston Churchill is that “history is written by the victors”.  This suggests that what we know and teach about the Past is a biased view that reinforces the people already in power and oppresses the masses, women, natives, slaves, refugees; other people who are not like us.  Christianity has been part of “The System” in the Past; therefore, we have a reputation for being bossy.  It is correct to say that there is no unbiased history, postmodernism and liberation theologies address this and seek to find different points of view, but honest Bible study does the same thing. Some secular academics say that the composition of the Bible is not about the Word of God so much as it is about the political intrigues of the Byzantine Empire: the Bible is just another, biased view from antiquity.  We need to be aware of this: what we think is the truth of scripture others think is the political spin of the Eastern Roman Empire.  However, no author or teacher is purely objective or unaffected by the thoughts and opinions of others, even the secular academics.  Everyone writes what he or she think is the truth and he or she writes in such a way that others will come to believe that too.  (Those who point the finger at others always have three of their own fingers pointing back at them.)

A further challenge upon truth is that truth and morality are cultural.  There is no such thing as absolute truth because no single society or person has all the information. Truth is subjective and interpreted through a cultural viewpoint.  This is also correct, but then since we believe Jesus is “The Truth” we disagree at some level too.  I don’t have all the information, and the Church doesn’t have all the information, but what Jesus revealed about God is enough for us to trust God for what we don’t know.

What it comes down to is that arrogant claims about absolute truth display what some see as Christianity’s desire to put people down, and is the cause of all great wars and acts of hatred.  Arrogant truth is the greatest evil the world will ever know, and that goes for militant fundamentalists of any philosophy, religious or atheist.  We know that the absolute truth Jesus proclaimed is that God is gracious to all comers, which hardly sounds like a system for keeping the natives in servitude, but not everyone knows that.  Our arguments must take a back seat to acceptance when presenting truth in a postmodern context.  Remember the key question is not is this true? but do I want to belong to the sort of people who believe this stuff?

So what do we need to do about this for the people who want to know about God, but are reluctant to let the local brainwashing cult loose in their personal headspace?  The Church must communicate both the reasons why Jesus is the truth and the practicalities of knowing and following this truth.  We need to teach how life with Christ in charge actually works.  Everyone seeks purpose for his or her life and work; they are looking from a perspective of life that says this must all mean something, surely.  It matters that it matters: it is easy to lose motivation if there is no purpose.

It is important that we really do believe what we say we believe, and that we are prepared to defend it in conversation.  But it goes beyond that.  Our arguments may be well structured and well presented, but is what we are promoting a viable alternative to the ways of life offered outside the grace of God today?  The quality of life the Living-Truth produces must be evident in our church or we will continue to lose the battle for the individual souls of this generation.   The way we know God produces such freedom and eternal quality of life: Jesus taught the world to know the truth and the truth will set you free (John 8:31-32), yet this great asset is unknown in the world because it has not been seen in the weekday lives of many Christians.  Our goal is not to get people to pray “The Sinners’ Prayer” but to love God and to love people, and to show people how they too can love God and know God’s love for them as we do.  Salvation opens the door, but life in Christ is the real goal.  We exist to help people trust God in mundane and practical ways.

The Church can make the Truth practical by telling stories of matter-of-fact faith and by teaching how to do life with God.  We must be doers of the word so that those who are learning from us are not just hearers but are doers themselves, and therefore enter into the life of freedom and grace that we know, and are learning more about ourselves.  Even those who are not seeking for “The Truth” are still looking for “The Life”, or rather what is life giving.  Postmodernists will often try God on like a suit before they buy into Church; acting like God is real before accepting the claims of their Christian friends and taking the plunge into belief for themselves.  We could match their risk in doing so by taking our own risk and encouraging them in this:  go ahead, we say, try Jesus and see that life really is better when lived by faith.  This is equally valid for those who have lived within the local church by obedience to The Law or a cascade of meritorious service.  By first experiencing The Life, a life better than what they had without God, a life of joy, peace, better relationships, less worry, they are then open to considering The Truth.  For this generation truth is pragmatic, it is not true unless it can be seen to be functional.  Not only must it be right, it must be seen to be both beneficial, and workable.  However, even this is not enough in itself: there must be reasons why Jesus is the Truth.

 

Bible

Bible (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

 

The important truth, which we must never lose sight of, is the person of Jesus Christ.  The other issues will often sort themselves out as new Christians embark on the journey, but in focussed discussion beforehand they can confuse the issue.  The central question, and the best starting point in rational discussion about truth, is who is Jesus and the answers that can be found in the Old Testament where God foretold Jesus’ life.

Many people in Generations X, Y, and Z process truth in community.  Today’s young people are returning to tribal ways of thinking where individuals are not likely to break away from the group decision.  The implication is that conversion is more than just a philosophical or logical decision, it is a social one.  People are unlikely to commit to Christianity if they don’t feel comfortable changing tribe and all that includes in terms of friendships and lifestyle choices.  It is a change of way of life, of way of expression, and of friends and family.  Emerging generations are not likely to want to throw away their tribal loyalties to seek truth alone, but if they can be shown the authentic, relational aspect of what the Church is, and if they feel involved and loved by serving on team or joining small groups, then there can be a subconscious decision to change tribes which precedes the decision to follow Christ. In the belong-before-they-believe model, spiritual seekers usually change tribes before they change beliefs.  It is also important to consider this tribal nature in terms of reaching the friends of those newly coming to Christ.  If new Christians can maintain their friendships in their old tribes the Church may see whole groups of friends finding faith together.  Conversion can therefore be a matter of one-in-all-in like when the Philippian gaoler was baptised along with his entire family (Acts 16:31).

Sometimes decisions are made more by ideas and images than by facts.  If seekers associate Christ with friendly and confident people who are enjoying their lives, this may sway them more than a good telling of the gospel story.  Once again, the big question goes beyond believing in a set of ideas to does the hearer want to be like the evangelist and his friendsDoes he reflect what I would like to become?   This is why when we begin to incorporate new belongers into our congregation, and especially into a small group, it is important to match people who are at the same or similar life-stage.  Otherwise the newcomers will not connect.  The members of the group may well be polite and respectful of the idea behind connection, and of the spiritual leadership, but they will not feel safe to be open.  People need to know that it is okay to have trouble and that they can feel safe in sharing these day-to-day experiences with their group.  As mature Christians, we must create an ethos where everyone can be vulnerable. By displaying some of our own vulnerability and transparency, we can help people to connect with each other and journey together towards a deeper faith.  Another quote from Richard Kelly’s Crusaders:

It made a magisterial case for faith, this old Cathedral, no question…People would always come – for the sense of time and lineage, the efforts inscribed in the walls.  They would come and fill the place, to visit or study, to be quiet and thoughtful or just to say they had seen it.

What if we didn’t need to go out and find “Lost” to save because they want to come, and they want to belong, because of what they have seen while silently and secretly watching the Christians in their world?

How do we welcome the uninvited who are in fact the very ones we want to encourage?   How do we handle them coming in on their own terms?  What if they are already coming and going from the back few rows of Sunday church, or the friendly tables of Tuesday fellowship?

What if the truth [that] will set you free is the truth that you are loved and valued by God, rather than the truth of some theological standard?  Is this the truth that our congregation proclaims?  Is this the truth that undergirds our mission and vision statements?

The truth is that you are welcome to come as you are, because that is what the Cross and all the serious doctrines of Christendom are all about.  (Isn’t it?)

 Amen.

Belonging: Tolerance

Cover of

Several years ago I prepared a paper entitled “The Future is X” in which I summarised the ideas that underpin the thinking of the majority of people born in the 1960s and 70s, those of us currently in our thirties and forties.  One of the keys for the Church which I raised then is that the churches of the emerging generation are not missionary works in a post-Christian culture, but networks forged out of post-Christian people.  It’s not about coming out of our Christian bunker to make forays into a fallen world, but about an indigenous church rising out of the surrounding culture to form the Body of Christ.  Whilst we are not of the world we acknowledge that we are in it.

I want to address the question what is the surrounding culture and how can it be reshaped in a form that Baby Boomers and those born before the Second World War can identify as being the Body of Christ.  The Millennial generations, Y and Z, are already rising up behind Gen-X and reshaping the world to suit their ideas: these are the people who are currently engaging with church through “youth” events.  But it is Generation-X who is taking on the reins of the world at present, and it is they who will be our governments and our business leaders within the next ten years.

Over the course of several of my Night Patrols when I worked in one of England’s prisons I read a novel by Richard T. Kelly, a man born in 1971.  His book Crusaders was about a Church of England church plant in a rough area of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and one of the conversations was between John Gore, the new Post-modernist Liberal-Lefty cleric from London who came to plant the church, and Simon Barlow, his peer in age and former classmate from seminary, a Conservative Evangelical and quiet Charismatic.  Rev Barlow was vicar of the parish into which Rev Gore’s new venture was being planted. It went like this:

 Gore: I won’t have any problem telling people that the faith can mean something quite different to any one of them.

Barlow: Oh will you?  Nice, John. But you know what? You’ll be preaching to an empty church.  Empty, mate.  You know why? Because people who like that sort of guff, they don’t go to church.  They don’t read the Bible.  They go to the theatre.  And they read the Guardian. People who go to church on a Sunday want to hear a sound man, someone who believes what he’s saying when he baptises their kids.

There are people who belong to our congregations who have not asked our permission to do so.  These are the people I spoke of last time who belong to us at the social level.  So how can we be tolerant without being wishy-washy?  Can we be tolerant at all if we seek to proclaim the unchanging gospel of The One who is the same Yesterday, Today, and Forever?  In response to this John Burke reminds us that there is only one thing the Church can do which the world, as a social state, cannot do: the Church alone can offer grace.  Every other religion offers ways to earn God’s approval, only Christianity offers the love of God for an individual as is.  In essence, tolerance is the world’s substitute for grace: but it is incomplete.  Tolerance does not value people, it simply puts up with differences in behaviour or belief.  Tolerance cannot accommodate mercy, the best tolerance can do is look the other way.  If the Church is truly going to represent God to this generation we must do more than offer tolerance to those people who disagree with us, we must show God’s grace.

But then as Christians we have standards don’t we?  Even with all we have learned about grace and the welcome of the God who came to meet us at our lowest point, there are some things that are inconsistent with life in Christ aren’t there?  Of course we know that that is true, it is true, so please allow me to reassure you that acceptance of people is not the same as agreement with their life choices, behaviours or beliefs.  Come as you are is tagged with but don’t stay that way. Yet we must remain patient with those new to community, and even more so with those new to commitment to Jesus.  They may well misconstrue our acceptance of them with an agreement of their wrong thinking, but we must be as gracious with them as God has been with us.  It is far too easy to stall the development of a seeker because we try to play God and “fix” some issue before God’s time is right.  If a person within our fellowship has not made a commitment to Christ we cannot expect her to act as if she has.  We introduce her to Christ and keep her in community while Christ works to change her into his likeness.  Our task is to be her companions, Christ alone does the “fixing” as he did, and still does, with each of us. As Philip Yancey said in What’s So Amazing About Grace?  it is only by being graced that we learn to show grace.

Cover of

Cover of What’s So Amazing About Grace?

Tolerance, incomplete as it is when compared to grace, remains the highest value of the postmodern world, and as such it is an important bridge between our culture and that of the people outside our door.  Tolerance is the world’s test for authenticity: do we practice what we preach, and is our preaching practicable?  There are three key questions which the world asks of the Church, so let’s take time to look at them and come up with some Biblical answers.

  1. What are you doing in the local community to alleviate suffering?
  2. What do you think about other religions?
  3. What do you think about homosexuality?

Each of these is seen as an indicator of authenticity when someone encounters a local church, and these are not only questions from university-educated Gen-X but from all of “this generation”.

The local church must understand its local community, and acknowledge its responsibility to address the social injustices of its neighbourhood.  The difficulty many new ministries face is that too much can be attempted too soon.  Nevertheless, the heart of compassion, an ethos of concern for those beyond our doors, should be evident from the outset of any Christian adventure, even if only to say “we know what is going on, but at the moment we are too small to do more than this one thing”.  The world may not know much about Christians, but they know we are supposed to be loving and caring.  They also think we are supposed to be tolerant, yet when you get down to asking individuals what they mean by tolerance they actually mean compassion.  The world expects Christians to be compassionate.

The grace of God is the strongest point in the good news of Jesus.  Grace is what makes Christianity unique as a message and it must be told over and over again.  We must experience grace for ourselves; not just have a personal theology of grace but have personal testimony of the liberation found in God’s perfecting love.  This is the story of “tolerance” we can tell to those coming to us for God’s help.  The local church is the only place where practical grace can be found: we are not so much evangelists as e-vandal-ists, here to destroy the walls thrown up by society and to repaint human lives with the amazing love of God revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ.  I quoted Cornelius Plantinga to the Baptists a few weeks ago, of how sin is the vandalism of shalom.  I want to encourage you to see grace as the vandalism of inequality, intolerance, and injustice.

So how do we help broken people who come to us for help?  What happens when their questions go beyond a hypothetical test for authenticity and we are faced with a broken, hurting person?  Our first desire should be to see the child who is muddy, and not the mud on the child.  The priority of our thinking demonstrates our foundation on either law or grace.  Even those who appear to have it together, where you can’t see the mud, still have need for Christ which only he can meet.   John Burke tells the story of a woman he calls Cassidy: who felt as though God had a big “tote board” of her sins upon which God kept score of how much she had suffered against how much she had sinned.  Her god would remind her that she’d not suffered enough to repay her sins.  She said that when her friends or family tried to reach out to her, to hug her physically, she would flinch.  Touch actually hurt: physical pain along with the emotional pain of isolation.  Many people share her experience.  (I have felt that way at times, it’s one of the emotional symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.)  Cassidy described the huge risk as she opened up about the past to others in a small group.  Happily she felt loved and accepted, but many don’t, even when they have come to church.  Cassidy hid her pain at church for over a year, Burke says no one knew she was hurting, and he reminds us that many even within our congregation suffer under huge silent burdens that only grace, mediated through an accepting group, can unload.   (Remember last session and the lonely leader, uncomfortable in the presence of many other people who “loved” him.)  Joseph Myers tells us that small groups in the church sense are not always the answer, but fellowship which is based on genuine friendship and affection is unbeatable.  Supportive small groups must be based on the idea of asking each other how well they are living up to a corporate standard, then offering forgiveness and encouragement for those who fall short.  This sort of group exposes problems but does not offer solutions: it is the Law.  What is needed is grace and truth, without condemnation, even in failure.  Seekers need to know that it’s not for them to try harder next time, but to learn to depend entirely on God.

When we begin with salvation by grace, but then backpedal into walking by law, we make a mistake.  People don’t grow like that, they may conform outwardly but they will stay broken inwardly.  This is just as true for Christians well into life with Jesus as it is for new converts.   As with feeding babies, growth is a messy process, most new believers do not need discipline, they need patience.  Mature Christians must assess the trajectory of the church and the point at which a specific person is sitting when faced with an issue.  Is this the rebellion of a mature believer, or the stumbling of a toddler?  It may be an exhibition of the same outward behaviour, but is it a mature Christian falling back or an infant falling forward?

One final point before we move on to the questions of sexuality and other religions: it is always important to ask hurting people what help they want.  Sometimes hurting people don’t want to get better, and sometimes it isn’t the obvious that is their priority because they know the underlying cause.  I have told the story before a time when I went forward to prayer during a healing service at one of my previous churches.  I had a cold and the prayer group immediately went to work on that, laying hands all over my face, head and back and praying for a release of my fever.  But for me it was just a just a sniffle.  What I had wanted prayer for was a bout of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the physical and emotional pain I was in; pain which was so much bigger than my runny nose.  Remember what I said earlier about how when I am sick it hurts to be touched?  This group praying for my sneezes and putting their hands all over me was not a blessing for me: in fact I went away even more upset and anxious than I had been when I went forward for prayer.  I lost faith in that prayer team and stopped going to prayer meetings for a month even though I was a Church Councillor and the Prayer and Missions Coordinator.  In the same way we must actively work against the Mister Fix-it person who wants to give quick answers to everyone’s deep problems.  Such people are possibly the most destructive force in church.

Now: what do we think of other religions?  Actually the choice between religions could only be made if there was a direct compassion between beliefs.   There isn’t.  Our “tolerance” of other belief systems allows us to celebrate their existence without having to find some way of either defending the claims of Christianity above all else, or of falling back into brand-loyalty when all is much the same between religions.  Christians claim that God intervened in the world by making Godself known in Christ.  Christianity is objective, so it doesn’t actually matter what we choose to believe about Eternity, what matters is what God said for Godself.

Jesus is unique among religious leaders in claiming to reveal the nature of God.  Only he acted in ways that cause our generation to consider the viability of his claims.  The question is not about whether Christianity is right and other religions wrong, but about whom God is and whether God has revealed Godself.  Sometimes we need to tell others about the limited claims other religions make in order to explain Christ’s uniqueness.  Buddha, Krishna, and Mohammad never made the claims that Jesus did, therefore Christianity cannot be compared alongside Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, or any other religion.  The Bible does not teach that Christianity is right and every other religion is wrong: the Bible teaches that God is right and individual people are wrong, but that they can be made right in Christ.   It is true that religions all teach the similar things about morality, but they don’t teach the same things about the nature of God or the solution to the human problem.  Not every religion claims to have been revealed by God: indeed only Christianity, Islam and Judaism claim that the Creator has revealed Godself and clearly expressed God’s will.  All religions claim wisdom to address the human condition, but only these three religions claim that God has expressed an opinion.  Indeed the Buddha, an Indian mystic named Siddhartha Gautama, never claimed to reveal anything from God despite the syncretistic claims of many Buddhists who believe that he is a god.   The point is not that Christianity has better arguments; the point is that Christianity has a unique stance and therefore cannot be compared to other religions.

English: Icon of Jesus Christ

Christ is the only way to God: this is what Christianity teaches, and this is what scripture blatantly declares.  The Church has a responsibility to hold to this, but we cannot hold it arrogantly or in a way that looks “intolerant” to this generation.  We must make it plain that according to God it is okay to be in the process of finding out about Jesus.  So what about those who die before they find out about Jesus?   The Bible teaches that God looks at the heart, not the religion, of every person: even of Christians.  The Church does not have the power to send people to Hell, but it does have the capacity to turn them away from Christ.  We need to remember that.

And so we reach the biggest stumbling block of our era, and of the Uniting Church in Australia as a denomination.  There are already people who are same-sex attracted within the Church: the question is whether we allow them to identify themselves and talk openly about what they think so that they can find hope and support and allow God to work in them.  Paul and Jesus taught that whatever we face, God created each of us for a purpose and we are much more than the sum total of any and all of our parts, including our sexual attraction.  It is our various sub-cultures that polarise the issue, not the gospel and not Jesus.  We know that God does not see an individual same-sex attracted person as “gay”, but as a person.  We also know that God does not want people to be unfulfilled or lonely, so when anyone seeks God for healing God is not interested in tearing them away from the love of their life.  Change is painful but it is a process that always leads to greater fulfilment.  How much more credible to the gospel, and the world, do we look if we can say to a gay man seeking God that he doesn’t have to move out of his boyfriend’s house, although sleeping in a different bed might help him to find the space he needs.

Seekers are looking for people to be like, so Christian lives look attractive because seekers long to be seen as people created by God; not as something deviant that is to be feared.   The answer for all people is to give God control over their lives.  God alone must be the centre; not sexuality, or tradition, or ethnicity, or brokenness or hurt.  Christians who have been through what unbelievers are struggling with can help them to disconnect from thoughts that take them down the roads they no longer wish to travel.  It is sad to say but sometimes the world can show more care for us when we are low than the Church does.  When your greatest struggles seem to happen at times when you are feeling disconnected from the Christians in your world, what do you say to the unbelieving mates who have gathered around you, and what do you say to the Christians when they come back?  Church is supposed to make us feel empowered and encouraged, like we matter.  “Gay” is not all that gay people are because one attribute or relationship is not all that anyone is.  Life is not about “being X”, habits are not a valid source of identity or definition of human nature; life is about becoming what God intended.  Individuals have needs that only God can meet through His community: the Church must seek to meet what needs we can, but we can always meet the need for acceptance.

Thinking back very briefly to last time we know that people search for community on their own terms.  No-one wants forced belonging: we must permit people to lead themselves in the same way that God permits them, and to learn from God how God does this.  Social space is the first area of connection and the one from which people decide to move towards a different level of belonging.  When we seek to set up avenues of connection, and then let people move themselves rather than insisting on doing it for them, we are doing what the world is looking for.  Compassion is letting people belong to us on God’s terms.

Amen.

Belonging: Trust

Uniting Church in Australia

Uniting Church in Australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I used to write book reviews for New Times, the Uniting Church in Australia’s South Australia Synod monthly newspaper and one of the books I reviewed was Honourably Wounded, a description of the stresses faced by Christian workers in overseas mission.  When the book arrived I wondered what its significance might have been for me.  After all, I am an Australian living in Australia, and even though I had recently returned to Australia after six years in the United Kingdom, and was still thinking in English-English rather than Australian-English, the culture shock of coming to regional South Australia from the Home Counties was hardly significant.  As I read, I was reminded that all mission, by its very nature, is cross-cultural.  According to John Burke in No Perfect People Allowed our culture is what shapes how we view life, and how we view each other.  As members of a particular culture, we speak a different language and view the world from a different vantage point to people from other cultures.  For some people, going to Church is a cross-cultural experience as real as any overseas visit.  The question we will be addressing over the next few weeks is, is it the responsibility of non-Christians to learn Christian culture in order to “fit in” at church, or is it up to us as the people of God to try to understand the people outside our doors so that we can invite them in and effectively communicate the gospel to them?  People who have never been to church can have strange ideas of what Christian worship is like based on what they have heard from others, or what they think they know extended from their own limited experiences.  It is the same with overseas visitors: I once thought England to be Australia with better manners, and I know that many English agree with Bill Bryson who once described his preconception of Australia as “Baywatch with cricket”.  Is Australia like Neighbours or Home and Away where everyone is white skinned and owns a swimming pool, or lives near a surf beach?   What do people think Church is like?

What is Church like?

The American college basketball coach John Wooden is quoted as asking, “we are many, but are we much?”  Christian worship events are the largest attended gathering in Australia on any given weekend, but is the Church influential along with its numbers?  I have been very involved in local footy since 2010, first in Port Lincoln and now in Whyalla and as an umpire I know how Australian Rules works.  I have been playing and watching footy since I was small, going with my dad and my little brother to watch the Glen Waverley Panthers play in VFA matches after we had been to the clinic at our primary school.  We didn’t have the age group teams that exist on the Eyre Peninsula, but we had drills every Saturday morning and about once a year our school would represent South Melbourne in the VFL “Little League”.  My brother, my dad, and I would also attend the annual Geelong versus Richmond game at the MCG or VFL Park, Kardinia Park was too far away.   I saw Geelong play Adelaide at Football Park in 2008 and 2012, and my sister andI saw Geelong play Port Adelaide at The Oval in London in 2006.  I know footy, but how confident can I be that non-attenders know what it is that takes place at Bennett Oval on a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon?  In the same way, how confident can I be that people who have never been inside our building know what our congregation does?  Are the events of my church as comprehensible as those of my local ground?  The two weekly events either side of the highway beg the question: in Australia, the Christians are many, but are they much.

So, how do we as Church get to be as influential as Aussie Rules in our city, let alone in our nation?  I believe there are two keys, both found in the sheds of local football: we must help people to develop trust in us, and we must help people to belong to us in the ways they want to belong.  Of course people need to trust in God, ultimately, because men and women will always let you down; and the Church can let you down more than anything because we have a higher expectation of it.  The Australian church leader and evangelist Dan Armstrong describes Christians as The Fifth Gospel to some people because people seeking God will never come to know God enough to trust God until they have first spent quality time with individuals and groups from the local church.  It might be true that until they pray “the sinners’ prayer” all stand in a position of alienation from God, but “the prayer” is not the goal.  The goal is the lifelong process of transformation into the likeness of Christ, of learning to trust and rely on God, and coming into an ever-deeper relationship with Him.  In Hebrews 11:6  we are reminded that without trust it is impossible to please God, therefore we need to model and encourage trust in God by being trustworthy ourselves with those whom God has given us.

It has been said of this generation that it needs to belong before it believes.  Remember “this generation” is not just “the young people”; “this generation” is everyone who lives in the twenty-first century.  Baby Boomers do not think quite like people born in the 1980s, in fact Boomers seem to think that people born in the 1980s do not think at all, but across all of the age groups there has been a shift in how people negotiate new friendships and new belongings.

All people want to fit and belong, that is why they join clubs or pick a footy team.  When they enter a new situation they are looking to discover, what the rules are so that they know how to conduct themselves.  When we were at Football Park in 2008, I told my dad about how different the AFL is from the EPL.  Football crowds in England do not mix as they do in Australia, in fact, the stadium for the soccer team I support has a separate entrance for visiting fans and they are restricted to one particular road between the railway station and the stadium.  Pubs are segregated, or at the very least, you are not allowed to wear “team colours” inside.  When Dad and I went to Football Park not only were we surrounded by both Cat and Crow fans at the ground, we travelled between West Lakes and the city on the same free buses.  The rules are different because the culture and what it means to belong are different.  I love Geelong Cats, but I wouldn’t take a broken bottle to the face to defend our honour.  In a similar way my brother who defected to support Richmond in 1978 has not been shunned or assaulted by his brother, sister, and father who remained loyal to the One True Faith.  Teased yes, rejected no.

Our job as the ones who already belong is to uphold the culture set by our leaders that welcomes new people and allows for vulnerability. Vulnerability requires a sense of security, which as Christians we believe can come only from God.  The Holy Spirit and our local ethos guide how much we feel comfortable sharing

Geelong Football Club wins its first AFL Grand...

 with each other within the Church, and show us how to be vulnerable and honest without showing insecurity or sinking into spiritual voyeurism.  Church is for hurting people.  To be sensitive to seekers is to be sensitive to hurt as well as “relevant” to sub-culture.  The smoke machines and doof-doof of a youth service or a Pentecostal church, alongside the golden old hymns and the mediaeval torture devices we call pews, are useless in themselves of meeting the deeper needs of people.  Do I trust these people beside me?  These expressions of worship may make people feel comfortable in our environment, but can they make them feel safe in our company?  What makes people feel safe is an attitude of care, the absence of condemnation, and the unspoken willingness to listen and pray with someone who needs reassurance.  John Burke reminds us that seeker-friendly small groups must be founded on a culture of dialogue.  People must be free to come and talk without the fear of others launching into the chaotic situation of trying to “help”.  This is a situation that usually drives people away.   I don’t know about you but that’s certainly turned me away on many occasions.  The Church is a place for people who are incomplete, so if we say no perfect people allowed it implies that everyone in the group is moving toward completion, (wholeness, perfection), as no-one has reached it yet.  In James 5:16a we read that believers should confess their sins to one another and to pray for one another so that they might be healed.  This is about having a model of authenticity, not a priestly sacrament: there is no penance involved, only unity.

It’s nice when we don’t have to pretend: authenticity and the permission to be authentic is liberating and it’s only the Church that can offer this.  Authenticity breaks down the trust barriers that are preventing this generation from pursuing faith.  Such a culture, where people are free to be themselves, is the soil where God produces growth.  However, authenticity must not be left alone; it must be accompanied by acceptance because that is where the grace is.  It is not enough to encourage people to open their wounds and their hurts to small-group scrutiny if there is no complimentary abundance of grace.  This “one-but-not-the-other” has caused much hurt and disappointment across the Church in recent years.  Even “well established” individuals within the Church, and I can put my hand up to that, will only feel free to share their story with you if they know you will still love them in ten minutes time.  Why should unbelievers, let alone unbelongers, behave any differently?

We must remember that we are “chosen by God”, but our choosing is selection for responsibility, not election for merit.  This was the mistake of the Jewish nation, and particularly of the Pharisees, who were actually the good guys of Jesus’ time.  They let religion get in the way of compassion, but they were faithful to God as revealed in the Old Testament, just a bit slow to accept the new revelation.  Therefore, to prevent us going down the same road, let’s review what an authentic spiritual life looks like and what it is we are hoping visitors will find at our church.  Life in Christ means:

  • Experiencing a life of growing connection with God.
  • Growing in love for God and all people.
  • Believing more and more that God is what I am desperately searching for.
  • Believing God is the source of the kind of life I really want.
  • Living a life others would want to live. Christianity is all about showing people the life they can also live with Christ.  This is my life; you can have this life too.
  • Finding the experience of life in Christ so fulfilling that I cannot contain it; I have to give it away.

Is this what visitors find here?  Is this what regulars find here?  Is this the experience of the people of our city to whom the pastors go during the week?  Do we serve beyond the food vouchers for the poor or prayer and company for the lonely and sick?

Burke describes what he calls “sticky statements” which are statements used by leaders that colour what everyone in the group sees.  A sticky statement sticks with you, and reinforces your thinking in a group way, not by brainwashing but by a clear declaration of a common goal or value.  These statements come though stories and dialogue of issues in an authentic culture.  Authenticity should be the stickiest statement. The message of our congregation is the message of grace: that human value and worth come from who you are in Christ, not what you do as a Christian.  We also believe that Christianity is not about enduring hell on Earth to be rewarded in Heaven, but to live with an Eternal mindset while still serving the world’s needs.  If we live like that, we should find that we are trustworthy and patient with those people coming to us with the questions we ourselves had before we met Jesus.

Authenticity, and encouraging trust in ourselves, has one key expression in this generation.   As a Gen-X’er I want to ask, “What does it look like?”, and as a Gen-X‘er the answer is “it looks like space.”  Not space as in stars and blackness, but space in the sense of room.  People find connection within communities at their own level, so our task as the local church is to invite the stranger in and make him or her welcome.  We do not invite strangers in for intimacy; we invite them in so they will no longer be strangers: we give them space and they find belonging.

In his book The Search to Belong, the Christian writer Joseph R. Myers lists four circles of belonging: Public, Social, Personal, and Intimate.  One of the questions he asks of the churches where he acts as a mission consultant is how many public belongers connect with the individual people and with the congregation.  What would happen, he asks, if the experience of belonging publically would be counted as significant as those who belong personally?  How can people who belong to a local church at the public level show their commitment?   The question is how we define belonging.  Can people belong to our congregation in the same way that I belong to Geelong Cats Football Club, or is church supposed to be closer than that?  We will be returning to these sorts of questions in the coming weeks, so don’t worry if this seems a bit new now; the point we want to consider when talking about shared trust is that people belong to us at different levels and we need to find ways of working within that.

One of the men Myers worked with made the comment “I do not really have many friends, I have people who are comfortable around me, but I am not comfortable around them.”  This man was one of the most popular guys in the church, and was in fact a friend of Myers, yet he felt isolated even in the middle of the crowd, even as the centre of attention.  He went on to say “some people I belong to socially are in my personal space.”  I wonder if you know what that feels like.  It’s actually quite common for manse families, especially the lay people who live with the Rev.  I don’t think I’m telling you anything new in saying that lots more people know me than I know, and these people know more about me (or think they do) than I know about them.

However, as a local congregation it is not true to say that those who belong publically are on the fringe, and need to be encouraged to move in to a personal (or intimate) belongingness.  As mature Christians we must validate the belongingness of people because if we did we would find countless people prepared to engage within their space and who would actively commit to it us at their level.  These are people who have been marginalised or excluded in the past, but who now feel comfortable to belong six feet away rather than being forced to stand two feet away and then feeling uncomfortable enough to leave.  True community can be experienced in public space; public space is not togetherness but is connectedness.  At the same time those of you who are married will understand that intimacy between couples goes beyond the physical level: to belong to your spouse intimately is to share information, which can only be shared with someone who won’t think you are weird or crazy.  We must remember that when we try to involve new members of the Church in the activities and fellowship groups of this congregation.   If I am new then you can be sure that I am not ready to share my deepest psychoses with you, or to have you share yours with me.

We are not in control of who belongs to us.   We are also not in control of who belongs to God.  Who has belonging to the Kingdom is God’s decision: and Jesus warns his followers on several occasions not to make kingdom decisions.  In Matthew 25 both the sheep and the goats ask Jesus the same “when, Lord, did we see you…” question.  Neither group knows who belongs to the kingdom and who doesn’t.  In a similar way even when he was in “the Far Country” the prodigal knew he could come back: he knew he could enjoy the family connection even if only as a house-servant.  The older son never knew that, yet both sons belonged to the father.  The lesson is that the prodigal son knew the prodigious father, so we need to be ready to welcome and accept all who come to God through us on the terms by which they came.  The Father will only trust us with the sacred lost if we can be trusted to act towards them as the Father acts toward us: with unconditional acceptance and the endless patience and favour of grace.  If we can be this to them, then we will have earned their trust and the privilege of speaking God’s wisdom into their situation.