A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post on a pretty popular emergent church blog. The essay was quite well-received despite being rather clunkily written IMHO (told you I was new to writing about faith) and resulted in some meaty and very constructive (to me anyway) discussion which helped me refine a few of my thoughts. I have intended to write a follow-up post for some time now, but it looks like that might have to wait until another day. For now, I just wanted to pick up on some thoughts triggered by a comment one of the main commenters made:
In my journey i have found prayer to be a difficult thing. i was always taught it is a conversation with G-D. Yet, i have increasingly found it difficult to have a conversation with something i cannot tangibly see/feel/converse with. i do agree G-D through the Holy Spirit does do the changing, but i kinda see our lives as an act of prayer…
This seems to be a frequent insight made by people in the emerging church (I heard a similar sentiment expressed by Peter Rollins in a Greenbelt talk recently, can’t remember which one though). I think it’s very perceptive, and something I’ve been thinking about a lot this summer (I’ve been reading a lot about environmental and economic justice for example). Here’s an example I gave:
I could walk around the supermarket listening to worship music on my iPod and feel all loved-up and close to God, but meanwhile I could be loading my basket with products like Coca-Cola, Nescafe, battery eggs and cheap factory-farmed meat. In my head, I could think I’m worshipping, but in my shopping basket I am doing the opposite, I’m living as though my life revolves around my own interests.
I also appreciate the necessity of self-critique (both individually and institutionally – I have been doing a lot of the former recently, in very constructive ways…more on that later). However, there are a few things I find kinda problematic.
Firstly, I worry that all these new insights gained from deconstructing conventional wisdom (which is necessary to a certain extent) might lead to our abandonment of former important insights. As an example, let’s take the shift in thinking the other commenter had been discussing (actually she goes on to express a more nuanced view than I’m doing here, I’m only using her comment as an example because I couldn’t find any others!):
POSITION A – Prayer as conversation/relationship/intimacy with God. Some people I have come across find relating to a being as transcendent and unrelatable as God very difficult and so move to…
POSITION B – Prayer as lifestyle, wherein we remain mindful of our actions, what we buy, how we relate to people and that becomes our prayer/offering to God, rather than just talking.
The latter, I think, is a fantastic way to pray, and one I can see as bearing much fruit. However, I think it is inherently problematic to completely abandon A in favour of B without seeking a healthy ‘both/and’ tension between the two, and for several reasons. While I take seriously the postmodern critique of modernism’s ‘conceptual idolatry’, I think that becoming so aware of God’s transcendence that we lost all intimacy with him is risky business. Jesus’ incarnation itself hints at God’s approachability – not to mention the cross tearing down any remainder of a barrier between us and God. Moreover, Jesus prayed and taught others to address God as ‘Abba’ (equivalent of ‘daddy’), which would have been absolutely scandalous to Hebrew ears. Again – big scary God is actually receptive to intimacy with us.
I think that first and foremost – before actions, deeds, words or any other fruit we might bear, God desires relationship with us. I mean, come on – why else would be allow us to partner with him in his plans?
My pastor illustrated this point in the most spot-on way possible in a sermon he did about a year ago when he related how during the previous summer he had let his young sons help him build them a playhouse as a kind of father-son bonding exercise. Of course, their actual contribution to the carpentry itself was minimal, if not downright hindrous, but he enjoyed spending time with the kids more than the actual building work itself. When recounting this story later, my pastor’s friend had a profound insight: “That’s kind of like the church”. Think about it. God does NOT need our help to unleash the church. The very fact that he chooses to release it in and through us humans is preposterous – we fuck everything up. We limit what God can do, we misrepresent the Jesus movement, we tame it, and – most tragically – when we get it badly wrong we do irreparable damage to others’ faith, turning many Christians away from God and many non-Christians off the concept of God in the first place. We besmirch God’s reputation. Our very involvement is counterproductive. There must be a spectacularly good reason why God even lets us in on the action in the first place. And I think it’s the same reason why my pastor wanted his sons to help him build the playhouse – God just wants us around! Whether we do a good job or not is a secondary concern (though not at all unimportant).
This is the main insight I get from Matthew 7:21-23:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
The whole ‘away from me, I never knew you’ thing suggests to me that we can do loads of things for God, but our primary task is to make ourselves known. Yes, God is very big and very scary and to be overwhelmed is a very apt response. But since God so desires relationship with us, we must endeavour to get past this barrier after a while.
The other main point I wanted to make is that malpractise does not negate biblical truth. In the aformentioned emergent-blog-post, I talked a lot about intercessory prayer and kingdom authority, and a few commented that they had seen this type of prayer used as a kind of power tool by charismatic communities. However, just because in practise some people misinterpret certain concepts does not mean that we should abandon these practises!
To take another example from Peter Rollins, in this podcast (which is well worth a listen) he talks about how the real miracle of Christianity is personal transformation rather than physical healing miracles and manifestations of the Holy Spirit (starts about 1/3 of the way in). I couldn’t agree more! However, my concern is that in embracing this important insight, we would walk away from things like physical healing etc. Healing prayer, intercessory prayer – all these things need to be critiqued at times to ensure we are still thinking critically and to prevent malpractise. However, if their critique or deconstruction leads to walking away from them altogether, then we have a problem. We are losing some of the tools God gave us to bring about the Kingdom of God – tools that Jesus clearly thought mattered and are all over the Bible. Yes, personal transformation and its outworkings are perhaps the most important factors in the Jesus movement. However, let’s not ignore the other resources that we have at our disposal – we need everything God has given us!