Category Archives: Transformation

Stop Spiritualizing the Bible when it comes to Social Justice

Christopher Wright on the evangelical tendency to spiritualize the Bible when it comes social justice and economic exploitation.

“This spiritualizing way of interpreting the Bible, and the missiological implications that go with it, requires us to imagine that century after century, the God of the Bible was passionately concerned about social issues – political arrogance and abuse, economic exploitation, judicial corruption, the suffering of the poor and oppressed, the evils of brutality and bloodshed. So passionate indeed, that the laws he gave and the prophets he sent give more space to these matters than any other issue except idolatry, while the psalmists cry out in protest to the God they know cares deeply about such things. Somewhere, however between Malachi and Matthew, all that changed. Such matters no longer claim God’s attention or spark his anger.”

The Mission of God p280

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I’ll fight to the very end

With the South African elections coming up tomorrow we are inundated with talk of this party fighting for this right or that right or this cause or another. Even Christians seem to be primarily concerned with standing up for and defending our rights or protecting our religious freedoms.  At best case Christians will stand up for one or two personal morality issues. As commendable as this is and as necessary as it is for Christian men and women, in all the various parties, to go to parliament and to conduct themselves with honour and integrity; what I really want to know is what we middle-class Christians will be doing to change the context in which many of our great injustices are given born. Or put another way, what will we do in order to fight for the rights of those who are not like us

Let me use the contentious issue of abortion as an example.  It is easy for me as a white middle class male to be anti-abortion (and in principle I am) but far harder for me to be about changing the context in which most abortions in this country occur.  It is easy to point fingers at the people getting abortions as lacking morality, and whilst not discounting the reality of our own sinful hearts, I think the truth is more nuanced than that.

There is a reality that in many communities life is cheap, sex is disposable and your worth is measured by your sexuality.  Rape is an ever-present shadow of possibility.  Sex can be used as a powerful tool to get out of poverty or abusive situations.  Young girls barely able to care for themselves get pregnant.  Get abandoned.  Possibly even ostracised by their family. Alone and desperate they face what seems to them to be the only option open to them.

But what if we as Christians spent less time protesting at abortion clinics or picketing parliament to change the laws but instead went to the source and got our hands dirty changing the context in which the need for most abortions in this country take place.   Abortion is not a problem, it is an inadequate solution to a far bigger problem.  What if we as Christians were more concerned with creating the kinds of communities where abortions were not necessary rather than kicking against what is, in some cases, the inevitable outcome of a broken society.

What if some of us moved into these communities bereft of role models and lived our lives there as signs of hope?  What if we intentionally chose to open our lives to young people, modelling family, worth, integrity and love?  What if we were more concerned with showing young women they had value and honour and did not have to use their sexuality to prove their worth? What if we taught the young men on our street to be men who stand up to their responsibilities?  What if we stood with them, when it was easier to run away?  What if we showed them that real men use their power not to dominate or possess but to love and serve the weak and the vulnerable?

What if we opened our homes to rape victims?  What if we took in young moms or soon to be moms who had nowhere to go except the abortion clinic?  What if we were prepared to adopt these “unwanted children”, to include them in our family, our homes?  To spend our finances and give up our plans so we could love the most vulnerable of society?  What if their problems became our problems?  What if their community became our community?  What if their brokenness became our brokenness?  What do you think Jesus said when he meant we are the light of the world?

Some Christians have a problem with me voting for a party that is pro-abortion and say that I am complicit in that act.  I say no, I would rather vote for a party that promotes dealing with the issues that underline the context out of which most abortions in this country occur.  I choose to fight not for my rights but for the rights and value of those who are forgotten or marginalized.

In the words of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army:  “While women weep, as they do now, I’ll fight; while children go hungry, as they do now, I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in an out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight; while there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight – I’ll fight to the very end.”

Light in the Asphalt Jungle

I
I had a dream.
And I saw a city,
A city that rose up out of the crust of the earth.
And it’s streets were paved with asphalt,
And a river of dirty water ran down along it’s curbs.
It was a city
And its people knew no hope.
They were chased and herded from place to place by the churning jaws of bulldozers.
They were closed up in the anonymous cubicles of great brick prisons called housing projects.
They were forced out of work by the fearsome machines and computers,
And by the sparseness of their learning.
They were torn into many pieces by the hostile angers of racial fears and guilt and prejudice.
Their workers were exploited.
Their children and teenagers had no parks to play in.
No pools to swim in,
No space in crowded rooms to learn in,
No hopes to dream in,
And the people knew no hope.
Their bosses underpaid them.
Their landlords overcharged them.
Their churches deserted them.
And all of life in the city seemed dark and wild, like a jungle,
A jungle lined with asphalt.
And the people sat in darkness

II
I had a dream,
And I saw a city,
A city clothed in neon-lighted darkness.
And I heard people talking.
And I looked at them.
Across their chests in large, golden letters-written by their own hands
Across their chests were written the words:
“I am a Christian.”
And the Christians looked at the city and said;
“How terrible…How terrible…How terrible.”
And the Christians looked at the city and said:
“That is no place to live,
But some of our people have wandered there,
And we must go and rescue them.
And we must go and gather them, like huddled sheep into a fold;
And we will call it a City Church.”
So they built their church.
And the people came,
And they walked past all the weary, broken, exploited, dying men who lined the city’s streets.
Year after year they walked past,
Wearing their signs: “I am a Christian.”
Then one day the people in the church said:
“This neighborhood is too bad for good Christians.
Let us go to the suburbs where God dwells, and build a church there.
And one by one they walked away, past all the weary, broken, exploited, dying people.
They walked fast.
And did not hear a voice that said:
“…the least of these…the least of these…”
And they walked by, and they went out, and they built a church.
The church was high and lifted up, and it even had a cross.
But the church was hollow,
And the people were hollow,
And their hearts were hard as the asphalt streets of the jungle.

III
I had a dream.
And I saw a city,
A city clothed in bright and gaudy darkness.
And I saw more people with signs across their chest.
And they were Christians too.
And I heard them say:
“How terrible…how terrible…how terrible.
The city is filled with sinners:
To save sinners,
To save sinners.
But they are so unlike us,
So bad,
So dark,
So poor,
So strange,
But we are supposed to save them…
To save them,
To save them.”
And one person said:
“Can’t we save them without going where they are?”
And they worked to find a way to save and be safe at the same time.
Meanwhile, I saw them build a church,
And they called it a Mission,
A City Mission:
And all the children came by to see what this was.
And the city missionaries who had been sent to save them gathered them in.
So easy to work with children, they said,
And they are so safe, so safe.
And week after week they saved the children
(Saved them from getting in their parent’s way on Sunday morning).
And in the dream the City Missionaries looked like Pied Pipers, with their long row of children stretched out behind them,
And the parents wondered in Christianity was only for children.
And when the missionaries finally came to see them, and refused to sit in their broken chair, and kept looking at the plaster falling, and used a thousand words that had no meaning, and talked about rescuing them from hell while they were freezing in the apartment, and asked them if they were saved, and walked out into their shiny care, and drove off to their nice, safe neighborhood-
When that happened, the parents knew;
This version of Christianity had no light for their jungle.
Then, soon, the children saw too; it was all a children’s game;
And when they became old enough they got horns of their own,
And blew them high and loud,
And marched off sneering, swearing, into the darkness.

IV
I had a dream,
And I saw the Christians in the dark city,
And I heard them say:
“We need a revival to save these kinds of people.”
And they rented the auditorium,
And they called in the expert revivalist,
And every night all the Christians came, and heard all the old, unintelligible, comfortable words, and sang all the old assuring songs, and went through all the old motions when the call was made.
Meanwhile, on the outside,
All the other people waited impatiently in the darkness for the Christians to come out, and let the basketball game begin.

V
I had a dream.
And I saw Christians with guilty consciences,
And I heard them say:
“What shall we do?
What shall we do?
What shall we do?
These people want to come to OUR church,
To OUR church.”
And someone said:
“Let’s build a church for THEM,
For THEM,
They like to be with each other anyway.”
And they started the church,
And the people walked in.
And for a while, as heads were bowed in prayer, they did not know.
But then, the prayers ended,
And they people looked up, and looked around,
And saw that every face was THEIR face,
THEIR face,
And every color was THEIR color,
THEIR color.
And they stood up, and shouted loudly within themselves:
“Let me out of this ghetto, this pious, guilt-built ghetto.”
And they walked out into the darkness,
And the darkness seemed darker than ever before,
And the good Christians looked, and said,
“These people just don’t appreciate what WE do for THEM.”

VI
And just as the night seemed darkest, I had another dream.
I dreamed that I saw young people walking,
Walking into the heart of the city, into the depths of the darkness.
They had no signs, except their lives.
And they walked into the heart of the darkness and said:
“Let us live here, and work for light.”
They said, “Let us live here and help the rootless find a root for their lives.
Let us live here, and help the nameless find their names.”
They said, “Let us live here and walk with the jobless until they find work.
Let us live here, and sit in the landlord’s office until he gives more heat and charges less rent.”
They said, “Let us live here, and throw open the doors of this deserted church to all the people of every race and class;
Let us work with them to find the reconciliation God has brought.”
And they said, “Let us walk the asphalt streets with the young people, sharing their lives, learning their language, playing their sidewalk, backyard games, knowing the agonies of their isolation.”
And they said, “Let us live here, and minister to as many men as God gives us grace,
Let us live here,
And die here, with out brothers of the jungle,
Sharing their apartments and their plans.”
And the people saw them,
And someone asked who they were,
A few really knew
They had no signs
But someone said he thought they might be Christians,
And this was hard to believe, but the people smiled;
And a little light began to shine in the heart of the asphalt jungle.

VII
Then in my dream I saw young people,
And I saw the young men and women
Those who worked in the city called Chicago,
Cleveland [Johannesburg],
Washington [Bangkok],
Atlanta [Nairobi],
And they were weary,
And the job was more than they could bear alone,
And I saw them turn, turn and look for help,
And I heard them call:
“Come and help us,
Come and share this joyful agony, joyful agony,
Come as brothers in the task,
Come and live and work with us,
Teachers for the crowded schools,
Doctors for the overflowing clinics,
Social workers for the fragmented families,
Nurses for the bulging wards,
Pastors for the yearning flocks,
Workers for the fighting gangs,
Christians.
Christians who will come and live here,
Here in the heart of the darkness,
Who will live here and love here that a light might shine for all.
Come.”
I heard them call,
And I saw the good Christians across the country,
And their answers tore out my heart.
Some said, “There isn’t enough money there.”
Some said, “It’s too bad there. I couldn’t raise children.”
Some said, “I’m going into foreign missions, where things don’t seem so dark.”
Some said, “The suburbs are so nice.”
Some said, “But I like it here on the farm.”
Some said,
Some said…
And one by one they turned their backs and began to walk away.
At this moment my dream was shattered by the sound of a great and mighty whisper, almost a pleading sound;
And a voice said:
“Come, help me, for I am hungry in the darkness.”
And a voice said:
“Come, help me, for I am thirsty in the darkness.”
And a voice said:
“Come, help me, for I am a stranger in this asphalt jungle.”
And a voice said, “Come, help me, for I have been stripped naked, naked of all legal rights and protection of the law, simply because I am black in the darkness.”
And a voice said:
“Come, help me, for my heart is sick with hopelessness and fear in the darkness.”
And a voice said:
“Come, live with me in the prison of my segregated community, and we will break down the walls together.”
And the voices were many,
And the voice was one,
And the Christians knew whose Voice it was.
And they turned,
And their faces were etched with the agonies of decisions.
And the dream ended.
But the voice remains,
And the choice remain,
And the city still yearns for light.
And the King who lives with the least of his brothers and sisters in the asphalt jungle…
Yearns for us

Vincent Harding

 HT to Nigel for posting this first.

Why your Bible teaching is not enough

This past weekend I went to a conference that in all honesty I would never have gone to a few years back.  And if by some miracle of teleportation I had found myself there, I am sure I would have been incapable of learning from those whose stories are so different to my own.  At times I suspect radically different.  (I say suspect because that really was not the point of the conference and neither I nor they presumably felt the need to get into our differences)  Perhaps even different to the extent of the basic tenets of the gospel different.  But yet I must confess there was something vibrant, something alive about their faith and their spirituality, something deeply attractive.  Something I wanted…

For all my good Bible teaching and wrestling with exegesis I suspect my life, my spirituality, my faith is often as dull, as rational, as safe and as attractive as a three-day old sandwich. You could eat it but given the choice you would probably choose not to. How can it be that having given years of my life to studying the biblical text, fine tuning my doctrine and training other to go and do likewise I can now find myself deeply attracted to the spirituality of those who I have regarded as having a “lesser theology”?

The obvious first point of examination must be the possibility that my theological convictions are wrong? I have tossed that idea around a bit lately and while I can conclude that I have moved on a few issues, it is more the moving of nuance than of relocating to a different theological neighbourhood altogether.  Perhaps, I am being naive but I am not sure it is my theological convictions that need moving.  It is my heart!

Please don’t misunderstand me.  Doctrine matters!  Right doctrine leads to right living – breaking down the walls of exclusion, eating together, loving one another, joy, hope, freedom and life.  Bad doctrine leads to division, strife, confusion, bitterness and hatred, just read Galatians if you are not convinced.

If this is true, and I would stake my life on it being true, then how can it be that those whose of us who have spent most of our lives studying, teaching and contending for what I would regard as good doctrine have lives that are so profoundly mundane and unattractive?

I suspect that what we need is not more information but rather some deep contemplation, sustained meditation and some profound experiences of the Spirit as we seek to live the information that we already know.  We have become drunk with our quest for more knowledge.  Like giddy schoolgirls we flock to hear, download and read yet more and more information on our latest theological crush.  And somehow as we “just teach the Bible” we expect that transformation will just magically happen.

What makes these “lesser theological lights” (by my tribe’s standards anyway) so effective and vibrant and attractive?  Faith.  They actually believe in a God who wants to redeem and restore all of creation.  So much so that they actually act on it.  They base their lives around it. Make intentional choices to be downwardly mobile, committed to prayer, reaching the lost in the toughest neighbourhoods, speaking out against injustice, racism and exploitation. When God says that money enslaves and that he who seeks to save his life will lose it, they listen, they obey and they build lives on the words of Jesus.  Faith.

It is after all not Bible teaching that matters but Bible living.  It matters not how well you exegete the text but how deeply the text exegetes you!  Will you follow where the text leads you? Will you meditate deeply on the implications of the text for your life, your aspirations, your lifestyle, the lost and the broken or will it merely become another interesting sermon to be tucked away until next we meet?  Will you follow the text to where it leads to the end of you and your resources?  Will you follow the text where it leads to a deep dependence upon the Spirit to lead you, guide you and sustain you for mission and in fact for life?

Strangely, I remain committed to my tribe theologically. Some days I wish I was not so convinced. But yet I long for my tribe to do so much more than contend for, teach, exegete and understand the truth.  I long for the days when evangelicals will be known for their spiritual vitality, their love for the poor, their stand for justice, their care for the planet, their love for homosexuals, their lives of simplicity and sustainability, their radical generosity, their fight against consumerism and wastefulness.

Not at the expense of the gospel proclaimed. But precisely because we have believed the gospel proclaimed we are no longer conformed to the standards (comforts, securities, importances) of this world but rather our minds are being renewed by that gospel.  Precisely because we have believed the gospel we will give our lives away in service of the last, the least and the lost just as Jesus gave his life away for us.  We intentionally join our small story with God’s Great Big Beautiful story of redemption, resurrection, restoration, hope and beauty.

Some times the news is still good

It does not happen often… ok it has never happened to me before… that we can “fix’ a problem so easily. We have a little girl ho is a part of our gospel community. Her mom used to be a part of our community until we had to confront her with a few hard truths. Now A. comes along with her older half-brother. A’s home situation is not good. She lives with her unemployed father, and a bunch of other people, in an illegal squat with no electricity or running water. Her dad gets a child grant of about R300 a month to clothe, feed and educate her.

Due to a mixture of apathy and ignorance A’s parents failed to get her into a government school for this year. At a government school she could have applied for a government education subsidy through the school. But now all the school were full. And although she could do Grade R at a pre-school these do not qualify for government funding and can turn away kids whose parents cannot pay.

First things first I thought let’s find A a place at a scholl and then worry about the cash. Yeah I know, but that’s just how I roll people. I easily found her a place at the small pre-school my boys attended. The principal offered a generous discount but still an amount that was out of reach for A’s parents.

Working late that night I sent out an email to some friends before going for a quick shower and turning in for the night.  Just before turning the light out I noticed a mail. I checked it. Someone had responded almost immediately saying they would cover A’s fees for the year.

The very next day we went down to the school, filled in the papers, sorted out all the logistics and A could start school the very next day. A good news story? I hope so. I really do pray God blesses these efforts to love in his name.

Let’s Go Down the Hill

The other night a few of us in our gospel community got together to listen to this talk by Steve Timmis entitled Being Neighbours: A Gospel Strategy.

What was apparent to us as a community was that we need each other to help us intentionally “go down the hill.”  The hub for our community at the moment appears to be our house.  Our house’ it seems, is rather strategically situated at a confluence of at least two vastly different worlds.  If you go up the hill, broadly speaking, you encounter the cool, funky, hip (hipster actually) community.  The food is good, the beer is crafty, the people are nice (which is to say remarkably like us).  The vibe is creative, quirky and just a little bit grungy.  This is the fun and exciting part of our community.  All of us enjoy hanging out there.  We don’t need help going “up the hill.”  It’s going to happen.  Whenever we feel like grabbing a pizza or watching some sport, it’s natural and easy to take a walk up the hill.  This is also, perhaps it goes without saying, a community that deeply needs Jesus.

But down the hill a simple five-minute walk away from the hip side of town’ life is completely different.  Poor, drug ravaged, high unemployment, little or few role-models.  Kids wander the streets, sometimes till late at night.  Family breakdown, crime, drug addiction and jail sentences are fairly common aspects of many families lives “down the hill”.  These are not “our people” (and our community is fairly mixed racially).  It is not comfortable, fun or safe by our usual standards.  This is the kind of place we have to intentionally choose to be.  It will not just happen, naturally or organically.  It will take sacrifice, effort and a grab me by the neck kind of reminder these are exactly the kind of places where the light must shine brightest in the midst of the greater darkness.  And sadly these are also the places where traditionally churches have been at their least effective.

I don’t need my community to help me go up the hill.  I like them when we go up the hill.  But I need to get me to go down the hill.  Perhaps we don’t fully understand the mutual necessity that Jesus builds into the church as body image simply because we simply do not go down the hill enough.  We like each other when we go up the hill but we need each other when we go down the hill.

What if more of us were downwardly mobile?

I loved reading this story recently. And apparently according to my Facebook timeline so did a whole lot of other Christians. It really is a good showing for the team. Particularly our team that seems to take more than it’s fair share of hits. Some of them unfair but honestly many of them thoroughly deserving. So then, here it is, a Christian feel-good story. Here is the evidence that we are making a difference. We do care about the poor, social justice and racial reconciliation. A mortal wound to the myth that we are represent essential middle-class, politically conservative values.  We can call this one a victory and sleep sweetly tonight.

But like most fans of major sports teams who love to use the rather generous pronoun “we” when referring to the achievements of our sporting teams, many of us are off the mark in our celebrations.  I well remember the sharp quip I witnessed last year when Steve Timmis was having a friendly go at Gavin Peacock concerning Steve’s beloved Manchester United’s drubbing of a Chelsea team containing Gavin Peacock in the 1994 FA Cup Final, Just as Steve was at his most smug, someone piped up from the floor, “Yes but which one of you was actually on the field that day?”  Point – Gavin.  Silenced – Steve.

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On the right of the picture you can see me helping out Gavin with his understanding of the 3-5-3 system!

Thanks for cheering on the team today.  But are you actually on the field?  Or do you prefer to cheer on your heroes from the stands with your warm jacket, dry seat and a flask of coffee.”  You might be allowed to get away with that rhetoric at the pub with your favourite players name emblazoned on your replica shirt but in the kingdom there are no supporters clubs, no comfy seats and no replica shirts.  You are either on the field or out the game altogether.

Not everyone is a superstar but everyone is called to get their boots muddy.  I played football.  I still have my team socks, team jacket and the dodgy knee to prove it.  I did the hard yards in the mud, in the rain and even in the blazing sun.  I chased back in plenty of lost causes.  I even stuck in a few goals for the cause.  I was not a great player, I was not even a very good player but I was on the field.  I played for some terrible teams with some terrible score-lines.  Once we even had the distinction of finishing bottom of the very bottom league in the whole division. They could not even relegate us because there was simply nowhere else to go.  But every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday we showed up to play football.  We laughed, we fought, we blamed the ref, we blamed each other, we backed each other, we cheered and jeered our own players and somehow in the midst of all that we got to play some football, respect each other and create some good memories as the goals flew past us.

You don’t have to be a superstar but you do have to lace up your boots.  You have to get on the field.

Do you have space in your life for messy, broken lives?  For people who are not like you?  People who do not hold the same values or convictions as you?  Do you know, by name that is, people who are struggling with addictions, mental illnesses or eating disorders?  Have you ever stopped to actually talk to the guy who scratches in your bins or knocks on your door asking for money?  Or are you too busy getting ready to go to the next church event?

Perhaps this story has to force us to consider even where we live.  What are the values that drive where you choose to live?  Many of us live in nice, neat, sanitized suburbs with the beautiful veneer of comfort, respectability and safety (the holy trinity of evangelical property purchases?), far away from the messiness and discomfort of poverty.  And just in case we put up nice big walls, and gates with an intercom system to make sure that we don’t even have to look at the “bergie” asking for money in the eye?  Most middle-class South African would not even have flinched at the derogatory term in the previous sentence!

More of us need to consider ways in which we might be downwardly mobile.  I strongly believe this is a key issue to a rightly lived out gospel story here in South Africa.   To remain in our comfortable, secure, middle-class church culture is antithetical to the gospel of the one who gave up all the glory, security, comfort and riches of heaven to come eat with outcasts, misfits, sinners, prostitutes, traitors, thieves, political revolutionaries and the unclean. More than that to die for them.  To die for us.  To lay down his life for our sins.  To follow Jesus is follow him who laid down his life for the undeserving, the unlovely and the ungrateful.  To follow Jesus is to live among the broken, the sick and the lost.  To eat with the outcasts, the sinners and the cynics.  To give up your small ambitions and believe the gospel words that he who wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for Jesus and for the gospel will save it.

Disclaimer: I am middle-class.  I have nothing against being middle-class and I am certainly not suggesting that middle-class is evil, wrong or less Christian.  Nor am I suggesting that we all need to give up all our possessions and become poor.  That is surely just bizarre.  But we do need to move towards life together with the poor, the outcast, the sick, the broken and the sinners.  How that looks?  There are no magic answers but the questions remain, and demand our attention.