Friends, Romans, Countrymen: lend me your ears.

Earlier today I was watching a video by Tim Keller, a man I highly respect despite certain disagreements, and about 37 minutes in he gives this beautiful and rather spot-on  working definition of grace that I absolutely had to transcribe here.

Dear reader, particularly those of you that know me in person; please read this. I cannot stress how important this is. It is the axis upon which my entire life is based. If you think you know me and only know my personality, taste in music, homeland, family, circle of friends, politics, sexuality, sense of humour, school grades, fashion sense, what church I go to or even all of the above, but do not know the following, you do NOT know me. This is the hill on which I die. It is the narrative that has done and continues to transform my attitudes, words and deeds in humility and love. It implicates me in an ongoing process of stripping away my pride and judgementalness, and replacing them with selflessness. And if you read it and think “But Aideen’s a decent human being, she’s not a bad person or a sinner”, then you certainly do not know me.

There are two basic ways of thinking about your self-image. One is what I’m going to call a moral-performance narrative. A moral performance narrative is one which says “I’m okay, I’m a good person, I feel significant and I have worth because I’m achieving something.” So if you are a liberal person and you feel like “I’m a good person because I’m working for the poor and I’m working for human rights and I’m open-minded”, you can’t help – in a moral-performance narrative – you can’t help but look down your nose at bigots. You can’t help but feel superior.

On the other hand, what if you’re a traditional religious person and you go to church and read your Bible or you go to synagogue and read your Bible or you go to Mosque and read the Koran. And you’re working really hard to serve and love God etc. Now in that case you HAVE to look down your nose at people who don’t believe your religion and are not being as good as you are.

And maybe you’re just a secular person and you’re a hard-working, decent chap. You can’t help – if your self-image is based on the idea that you’re a hard-working, decent chap – but look down your nose at people you consider lazy.

But the Gospel is something different. The Gospel says: Jesus Christ comes and saves you. The Gospel says you’re a sinner. The Gospel says you don’t live up to your own standards. There’s no way you’re going to be able to live up to your own standards. The Gospel says that you have failed, that you are a moral failure and that salvation only belongs to those who admit their moral failings. And Jesus came in weakness and died on the cross and says “my salvation is only for weak people. It’s only for people who admit that they’re NOT better than anyone else and they just need mercy.”

If you have a grace narrative  – if you say the reason I can look myself in the mirror, the reason I know I have significance is Jesus died for me – you can’t feel superior to anybody. I’ve got a Hindu neighbour in my apartment building, and I think he’s wrong about the trinity, I think he’s wrong about a lot of things…but he’s probably a better father than me. He could be a much better man, why? “But aren’t you a Christian, he’s a Hindu, don’t you think he has the truth?” Yes but here’s the TRUTH! The truth is I’m a sinner, I’m saved by grace, so why in the world…? I’m not saved because I’m a better man, I’m saved because I’m a worse man, really!

And so what happens is the grace narrative takes away the superiority and removes that slippery slope that leads from superiority to separation to caricature to passive and then active oppression. It just takes it away.

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Quote time! Tim Keller edition

The Christian Gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me. This leads to a deep humility and deep confidence at the same time…I cannot feel superior to anyone, and yet I have nothing to prove to anyone. I do not think more of myself or less of myself. Instead, I think of myself less.

– Timothy Keller

“The Gospel is always bad news before it is Good News”

I read that in a description of Ikon‘s Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani service, and it really struck me. I’ve been thinking about this a little lately as I have been falling more and more in love with Jesus and finally realising that the Gospel really is ‘good news’, almost to the point of forgetting that it was ever ‘bad news’ in the first place. I’m kind nearing the stage where I just can’t shut my big fat gob about Jesus (although I will shy away from the topic in certain social situations). So, when I’m talking about Jesus to people who don’t know him (or even know much about him), and I’m spouting off about how wonderful he is, I’m concerned about giving the wrong impression – that it’s an easy ride, that it’s all really wonderful, all of the time. I’ve been struggling to be able to explain what exactly the ‘bad news’ is as well as  I can articulate what I love about Jesus. But I think I’ve found a good delineation:

You have to give up your idols.

Which is hard, otherwise they wouldn’t be idols in the first place. And perhaps you’ve spent your entire life holding them tighter and tighter without realising that this was a problem or that you were even doing it.

I think Tim Keller, basing his thinking on Kirkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death, has the best definition of idolatry – the idea that everyone bases their identity on something(s) and if it’s not Jesus it will eventually fail you. So, while this can be the usual suspects such as money, fame, power and how easily you can get laid, this also means  that you can idolize your moral performance, family, social popularity, self-image, career, intelligence, etc. It’s turning good things into ultimate things. When you’ve spent years relying on these things they have to be pried from your cold dead hands before you’ll give them up, or at least that’s what it feels like at the time.

God is the only thing you can base your identity on that won’t let you down and that will actually lead to growth and the fullness of life. But giving those idols up can be haaaaaaaaaard!

Everything feels more painful at first – take, for instance, accepting that you are a sinner. Ouch! Blow to the ego, much? But it’s actually freeing and healing, and that ego was toxic anyway. Letting go is excruciating, but it has to be done – we do, after all, follow a guy who came “not to bring peace, but a sword”, and we owe him no less.

You have to give Jesus everything. He can’t just be a hobby or periphery interest that you dabble in (although he can certainly be this at the earlier stages of your faith journey). It’s hard to explain that to people who are near the threshold of the Kingdom of God without feeling like you’re pushing them away.

This made me cry at work…

…and you’d best believe I *never* cry at books, particularly not theological ones! From Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God (page 18-20), an indepth look at the ‘Prodigal Son’ story from Luke 15:

…the younger son asks for his inheritance now, which was a sign of deep disrespect. To ask him while the father still lived was the same as to wish him dead. His relationship to the father has been a means to the end of enjoying his wealth, and not he is weary of that relationship. He wants out. Now. “Give me what is mine,” he says.

The father’s response is even more startling than the request. This was an intensely patriarchal society in which lavish displays of deference and respect for elders and particularly for one’s parents were of supreme importance. A traditional Middle Eastern father would be expected to respond to such a request by driving the son out of the family with nothing except physical blows. The father doesn’t do anything like that. He simply “divided the inheritance between them”. To understand the significance of this, we should notice that the Greek word translated as ‘property’ here is bios which means ‘life’. A more concrete word to denote capital could have been used but was not. Why not?

The wealth of this father would have been primarily in real estate and to get one third of his net worth he would have had to sell a great deal of his land holding. In our mobile, urbanised culture we don’t understand the relationship of people in former generations to their land…To lose part of it was to lose part of yourself and a major share of your standing in the community. We had all heard stories of powerful and successful CEOs, both men and women, chucking their whole careers in order to care for a hurting, needy child. While not an exact parallel, this is what the father does.

The younger brother, then, is asking the father to tear his life apart. And the father does so, for the love of his son. Most of Jesus’ listeners would have never seen a Middle Eastern patriarch respond like this. The father patiently endures a tremendous loss of honour as well as the pain of rejected love. Ordinarily when our love is rejected we get angry, retaliate and do what we can in order to diminish our affection for the rejecting person, so we won’t hurt so much. But this father maintains his affection for his son and bears the agony.

That last paragraph is where I choked up. I think I finally really love Jesus.

It reminds me a little of this bit from Rob Bell’s Sex God:

[The cross] speaks to us of God’s suffering, God’s pain, God’s broken heart. It’s God making the first move and then waiting for our response.

If you have ever given yourself to someone and had your heart broken, you know how God feels.

If you have ever given yourself to someone and found yourself waiting for their response, exposed and vulnerable, left hanging in the balance, you know how God feels.

If you have ever given yourself to someone and they responded, they reciprocated with love of their own, you know how God feels.

The cross is God’s way of saying, “I know what it’s like”…This is the God who holds out his hands and asks, “Would you like to see the holes where the nails went? Would that help?”

Thoughts on evangelism part 1

My whole life I have been an avid reader; from the fantasy books of my childhood, to the feminist writers of my late teens, through a brief blogs-only phase, right up the the present day and my theology-book addiction. I’ve devoured Christian book after Christian book in the past year – so much so that I have learned to love the Faith Mission bookstores I used to scorn, and I could probably single-handedly keep Amazon in business. I mostly pick my reads based on topics of interest (such as postmodernism, sexuality or church leadership) or friends’ recommendations, but every so often I’ll be strolling around a bookstore and something will just catch my eye. Normally, I’ll pick it up, peruse it, then put it down again and go on my merry way. A few hours or days later I’ll remember the book and think ‘hey, I wish I was reading that right now, it looked interesting’. Then the next time I see the book I’ll feel an urge to pick it up again, think ‘naw, girl, spend that cash on groceries or something’, flip through it again, think ‘oh hell, why not’, and buy the stupid book.

Now, there could be some sort of divine whisper guiding me through the process, or it could be that I’d put a bit too much cheddar on my pasta the previous evening, but pretty much every time this has happened, the book has been exactly what I needed at that time. The most recent book I purchased in this way is Brian McLaren’s ‘More Ready Than You Realise: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix’.

There are two things I love about this book. Firstly, it’s drawn together a lot of disparate thoughts I’d been wrestling with over the past few months on the subject, and given a lot of shape to my otherwise disorganised hypotheses. Secondly, it has not only given voice to a few of my intuitions, but it’s provided me with challenge, encouragement, ideas and plenty of ‘woah, why have I never thought of it like that?’ moments.

From the first chapter –

Evangelism in the postmodern world has to be less like an argument. This is not to say it will not be logical, but rather that it will not be about winning or losing, which is why I think the image of dance works so well. Dance is not about winning and losing. When the music ends, you do not sneer at your partner and say, “Gotcha! I won that dance, 7 to 3!” And if you try to pull someone into a dance against her will, the term we use to describe that behaviour is not “bold dancing” but rather “assault”.

…Kirkegaard also uses the metaphor of being a midwife, a metaphor borrowed from Socrates. The evangelist is never coercive, pushy, combative; rather, she is patient and gentle like a midwife, knowing that the giving of life takes time and cannot be rushed without potentially lethal damage.

The whole book is worth a read, but I wanted to highlight a few points that really stood out to me.

1) In chapter 18 (some chapters are quite short), McLaren talks about ‘the communal factor’ – how conversion and discipleship normally happen in the context of a community acting as a portal into the Kingdom of God:

You are part of something bigger, something Paul called “the body of Christ”…So one of the best things you can do for your friends who don’t yet know and love Jesus is to introduce them to your other friends who do…In the context of imperfect but vibrant Christian community (even just two or three of you!), the message of Christ will come alive in a way that a disembodied book or lecture never could convey.

This is one of the aforementioned ‘why have I never thought of that before?’ moments. Of course! Any friends I have who don’t know and love Jesus, I’ve been expecting them to get curious just by witnessing his work in my life. But why would they? I’m just one little (lousy) example. If I really want the Kingdom of God to become vibrant and 3D and attractive to others, they need to see a few more pieces of the puzzle.

2) One big thing I’d been struggling with this year is having to have answers, or to ‘win the argument’, which is something this book addresses. On one hand, I think it’s important to know why you believe, on the other hand, it’s just not my thing. The reason why I’ve been thinking about it is that a big reason why I believe is Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God (which is spectacular, by the way) – it’s a well-written book on apologetics that helped me enormously at a time when I was confused about what *exactly* Christianity was. But in the book Keller shares stories of times he’s challenged someone’s belief system in a very pithy way, and indeed that’s exactly what the book did for me, so I’ve been feeling some pressure to be able to ‘defend’ Christianity in much the same way…which is something Keller does extremely well, but is really not my style. This book helped me realise what I’d kind of been intuiting – that keeping the conversation going and being a safe person to talk to is much more important than being able to make a sales pitch.

3) This is definitely a topic for another post, but somne stuff he said helped me flesh out some ideas I’ve been wrestling with on apologetics…again, topic for another post…

All in all, the book has inspired me in many many ways, and made me want to start new discussions on ‘do-able evangelism’ with my peers…

I’ll post  more thoughts at a later date on why I am interested in evangelism – something I used to consider a four-letter word.