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Archive for December, 2011

“You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding” — Francis Church, in Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus

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About fifteen years ago when I was in primary school, a mate joyously revealed to me the secret ‘fact’ that Father Christmas was not real. This was about two weeks before Christmas. These last fifteen years have been a battle, but after much perseverance in research and truth I have come to these shocking conclusions. Here I present to you the real facts. This is my story.

I want to start with some commonly asked questions by skeptics. Firstly, how does Santa Claus get around everyone in the world in one night? It’s simple. What you’ve got to realise, guys, is that not everyone in the world celebrates Christmas. It’s mainly just the West, and even then it isn’t as widespread as you’d think. What is more, in a country such as Germany, they don’t celebrate Christmas on the 25th, but on the 24th instead so Santa has some time to go back and forth between continents. You’ll also find that the timezone differences add to the ease of this so that, for example, Santa has a twelve hour gap between Auckland and London. That’s a lot of time for a man in a red suit.

http://i337.photobucket.com/albums/n380/Dame-Bird/Santa_Cat.jpg

Now you ask how he gets presents down the chimney? This appears to be especially difficult concerning the man’s weight. But Father Christmas never used to be so fat. You could say that in his prime he had the build of a ninja/cat burglar, which was ideal for sneaking down people’s chimneys. But due to a plethora of milk, cookies and expensive spirits, Santa thinking it only right and polite to partake in, our gift provider has had to accomodate for an increasing belly. Thanks to modern technology though, this has meant little trouble for our bearded friend, further helped by the fact that most modern developments in science do not come from say NASA, China or eccentric German scientists, but the North Pole itself, where the elves are hard at work 24/7. If you have ever seen those movies where some CIA dude has a gun with a camera that can point round corners, you might be interested to know that the CIA embezzled the technology from elves hard at work developing technology to deposit presents down chimneys, allowing Santa to see inside the house and drop off the giftboxes where best suitable, all on the end of a remote control.

How, then, does a reindeer, a blatantly terrestrial creature, fly? Likewise with advances in technology, reindeers use a similar contraption to hover boots, which allows them to get off the ground with a good run up. When they are in the air, an amazing miracle of nature occurs, as if reindeers were always meant to fly in the first place. Their antlers creates a complex aerodynamic system that catches wind and air and then propels it along the backs of the reindeer like a jet engine. This not only allows for amazing speed and acceleration, but also means that the reindeer can stay in the air without relying on the boots to hold them there. You may not know this, but before the elves came up with hover boots, Old Nick used to ride a Pegasus named Blizzard, who could fly naturally. But when the North Pole went through a financial crisis with the rise of communism in the early 20th Century, Santa sold Blizzard on the black market for her meat.

http://www.thatcutesite.com/uploads/2010/12/cats_dressed_as_santa_elf_02-600x399.jpg

Many people have mentioned the fact to me that no great explorer or citizen of the North Pole has ever given any reference to a Claus residence big enough to accommodate all the Christmas gifts in the world. To them I answer this: How do you think a compass works? If you listened in class, you would know that a compass works because it is magnetically drawn to the North Pole. And why is that? Because there is so much metal up there! This is clearly used for the construction of toys. But how come there is no visible evidence of elvely activity? Then, I ask you, how come you never see Santa drop off the presents? He’s just that good, my friend; he’s just that good.

I understand that the reader may have many more questions for which the scope of this post is unable to attend. Why not try writing to the man himself? Received letters and phone calls to the North Pole are an often overlooked proof for Father Christmas. Before closing I must make one note on the etymology of ‘Christmas’. A quick check on Wikipedia will tell you that it literally mean’s ‘Christ’s mass’, as a mass to celebrate the the birth of Christ. But that’s actually a separate celebration. The word ‘Christmas’ comes from an expression that people used when in days of old they met the man who gave them their presents. When Kris Kringle started operating centuries ago, he had so little people to get around that he actually came in for some tea before leaving a present (this is the origin of leaving milk and cookies for Santa). But as his influence spread, he had more people to get around and the children, remembering him from last year would say, “Kris must come this year; Kris must!” When they woke up in the morning to find that they had not gotten to see him, they were nonetheless delighted to find evidence of his earlier presence: presents. It became then embedded in folk culture to refer to these visits as “Kris must come!”, later shortened to “Kris must”, in hope that Santa would arrive that night. The modern spelling and misplacement of the ‘t’ is due to confusion with the Christian celebration, and an entirely different hero.

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This is the concluding post in a series on theology of calling. Calling in the religious sense is pretty inseparable from following the Spirit, as I see it, which can also be expressed as following Jesus:

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23 NIV). Now, it’s not my intention to be divisive (haha), but what if there is something in calling that in comparison to following Jesus is greater still? It could only be the greatest commandment(s): Love God; love others. There is more poetic value in saying that love transcends and is greater than following the Holy Spirit, whereas in reality (the ideal reality/ideality), following the Spirit is the expression of love.

Maybe Jesus puts loving God as the greatest commandment before loving people as the first realistically encompasses or leads to the second, whereas loving people may not necessarily lead us to loving God, although it could. However, a certain idea around the second commandment that is important in its original designation can actually point away from God and others when too much emphasis is put onto it: I think it was C S Lewis who said so, although I cannot find the reference, that to love others you need to love yourself. He points out that the reference for loving others in the commandment is the individual’s self. If you hate yourself then how can you possibly love your neighbour as yourself? So at the core of Christian ethics, we find a model for self care, even so that it is necessary for fulfillment of the second greatest commandment (or the first, which encompasses the second). The problem is that this is also symptomatic of an extreme in Christianity where you can use your theology to serve yourself, an individualistic model of following Jesus.

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I apologise for any circumlocutory handling of the material here but let’s see if it works. Jesus goes further than just asking his followers to take up their cross and follow him. He gives an explanation for why this is important that gives us an idea of the nature of denying ourselves, taking up our crosses and following Christ: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it” (Luke 9:24 NIV). I am indebted to Peter Rollins for the following interpretation of this verse. We often read this as: If you want save your earthly life, you will lose it. Yet if lose your earthly life for Jesus, there will be heavenly life. Yet Jesus here makes no distinction between earthly life and heavenly life; they are both referred to as life, indicated by the pronoun ‘it’, because if you lose your life, you will save it. This leaves no room for denying yourself and taking up your cross to gain eternal life. If it does then you are among those who want to save their life, therefore losing it. The central point of following Jesus is Jesus, through denying yourself, etc. This is further indicated by Paul’s famous declaration: “To live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21 NIV), because living means to follow Christ and dying means to be with him. So to follow Christ means just that, to follow Christ.¹

The idea of calling, though, can be even less about Jesus, even less about eternal life, and more about our present needs and desires. No longer is Christ the centrepoint who will give you everything you need to follow him if you make that decision (Matthew 6:33; cf Psalm 37:4), but the needs of ourselves become primary so that calling is about what we want. A good example is in the Gandhi movie (in which the incident I am about to detail seems to be a representation of something mentioned in his autobiography) where Gandhi is talking to his wife about cleaning the latrine. She is offended by his asking her to do so because it is the work of the untouchables, whereas she is the wife of Gandhi, both of them members of a higher caste and involved in lawyer work. Why should the wife of a lawyer clean toilets when there are other important things she could be doing? Similarly, why should I play guitar in church if I’m called to be on the prayer team? (I will try to make these examples universal and not apply to any people I know so sorry if they do!). Why should I take the job with the troubled youths when my gifts are more in line with architectural design? Because the focus of calling is not our own desires and gifts, but whom we are following and working among. So you may not be very good at guitar, or you may not even enjoy it that much, but what if God is calling you to be a part of it for that time? You may be an amazing architect, but what if to follow Jesus means applying for that job with the troubled youth? And of course I need to pose these questions to myself also, considering the number of decisions I have made consulting my own needs before the Kingdom. To follow your calling means not to follow your needs and desires but to follow Jesus wherever he goes, as these will be met through that, even though that is not the goal.

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Now I return to the second greatest commandment. The problem with having yourself as the measure for loving others is that if there are times when you do not love yourself then your measure for loving others is reduced. Not that self-care is unimportant. But maybe the type of self we should measure by is not so much the real self but the ideal self. This is reflected in a similar verse, where Jesus cites the Golden Rule, “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12 NIV). The self is not the real self (do to others what they do to you) but the ideal self, an ideal representation of how you would like to be treated. So in the same way, when Jesus asks us to love [our] neighbour as [our]sel[ves], why can it not be the ideal self, love your neigbour as you would love yourself? I cannot provide any evidence that the ideal self is implied in the second greatest commandment but I can only point to the Golden Rule, and I cannot say that this supersedes the second greatest commandment either, nor can I even say that there is no difference between the two. All I can say is that the reading of the Golden Rule should remind us of the real focus of the commandments, which is God and others, through love. The individual self is just a measuring stick.

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¹Of course there is also room in Christianity for following Christ for eternal life. This is why Jesus came (eg. John 10:10) and Paul also endorses this (eg. Romans 2:7). But there is also the is prophetic value in calling God’s people back to the center of things, even if it is somewhat beyond us. The main point I am making here is not so much whether you want to be with Christ or go to heaven, but whether your wordly priorities are more important to you than following Christ.

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“God once had Bach and Michelangelo on his side. He had Mozart. And now who does he have? People with ginger whiskers and tinted spectacles who reduce the glories of theology to a kind of [?]. That’s what religion has become: a feeble and anemic nonsense,” Stephen Fry. Listen to the recording here.

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This follows on from last week’s blog looking at some theology we might have around calling and some alternative ways of thinking about it. In conversations with various Christians and reading books and random articles, etc on the internet sooner or later you will come across the (almost uniquely Pentecostal) rejection of higher learning in favour of more practical or useful pursuits. How many times have I been discussing some theological issue with a group of people when one or more dismisses the discussion with something along the lines of, “Oh who cares; it’s not that important anyway”? Who cares? Obviously the people who having been discussing this for the hour, few days, year, etc. But I can’t now dismiss this question by saying, “Who cares about the ‘who cares’ question; it’s not that important anyway.” The question is important for the fact that it points to an attitude that should underlie these discussions. In a sense, what we are talking about does not matter (eg. the authorship of Hebrews); there will probably be more pressing social and spiritual issues (practical/useful pursuits). But in the same way that the fighter of the good fight needs to stop to sleep and eat and toilet, and etc, and including even some recreation and rest on the side, is not also theology important? If Paul didn’t write Hebrews then doesn’t this affect the way you read the book? ‘Who cares’ then, is valuable for bringing God and our priorities back into focus, but it should never be an excuse to stop thinking.

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Some time in the 3rd Century, Pope Dionysius of Alexandria converted from paganism to Christianity and with that was called by God to study the writings of the heretics so that he could refute them. He was warned by a priest of the danger in doing so, which is indicative of the general view at the time, an almost fear that reading the heretics would lead you away from Christ. And so it happens that today what we know of the heretics is only through reference to them in other writings of the early church, bar a few exceptions. The story of Dionysius is valuable because not only did he claim the Spirit led him to do something contrary to church norms, but this leading is confirmed by the fact that he was an influential bishop who did not later apostatise, as would be expected of a reader of the heretics, and was also the first pope to be called ‘the Great’, by Eusebius, the father of church history. If I may continue the example of higher learning, even ostensibly useless theological issues, can I say that it is not whether a bible college prepares you for ministry or overcrowds your mind with an intellectualised conception of God, but whether the Wind blows in that direction, whether it is in the will of God?

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There is a popular passage in Ephesians that is often used as a theological base for ministry, known as the five-fold ministry: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (4:11-13). The hermeneutical strength of this passage is akin to the aforementioned ‘who cares’ question. Paul not only lists a group of roles in the early church, but explicitly states their purpose, the purpose that should realistically underlie Christ-centered ministry. There is however a danger, the danger that people take Paul’s description of early church ministry as exhaustive. Is ministry today limited to apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers? Clearly the writer of Song of Songs was a teacher. Give me a break, Kit Kat. Or maybe the erotic poem is intended to describe God’s love in human terms. Sure, after a rather forced reading you can come to this conclusion. Perhaps it is a little easier to fit the writers of Job and Ecclesiastes into the office of teacher, bearing in mind that the best (uplifting) teaching in Ecclesiastes is the hasty conclusion, and that Job and his friends’ discussions on the nature of God and suffering are altogether dismissed by their Lord in the end. This is a short argument, I know, but I would argue that the respective writers do not fit easily into the five-fold ministry, but rather the ministry of poet, expressing aspects of the human condition (love, doubt/meaninglessness, suffering, etc), which a healthy Church needs to acknowledge, in line with Paul’s measuring stick for good ministry (vv.12-13).

Depending on the intentions of the artist, other areas in art can be labelled as ministry as well, which is what Stephen Fry notes in the beginning quote and points out how the secular world has largely overtaken a predominantly Christian art world (in Europe). Another example is ministry that focusses on social issues. Perhaps in a sense they are prophets, denouncing the practices of a church and secular world who ignore the needs of the least of these. Or maybe they can be called pastors and their flock is the poor (although, there’s some homework — I’m not sure how closely the modern pastor fits with Paul’s conception of the 1st Century pastor, so help me out here!). Yet if you head up a Christian organisation with social foci, you are likely to label it a ministry. The qualifier for ministry is not therefore how much you can align the ministry with one of five of Paul’s examples, but how well does it “equip [Christ’s] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”¹

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Image from http://stdionysius.sca.org.nz/stuff/Dionysius.jpg

¹First footnote, yay! You may realise there is a flaw in my argument where I define social ministry as ministry in line with Paul’s qualifier because ministry is that it would equip the body of Christ, whereas social ministry is often among non-Christians. This is refuted when you see that Paul includes the office of evangelist in the five fold ministry, one that does not necessarily work among God’s people.

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After being away from home for three months I’m just settling into Auss with the intention of re-establishing some important routines like blogging. This series is an attempt to evaluate some ideas we have around calling (vision, scope and focus) and present alternative ways of looking at them:

Vision can be defined as the individual or shared intended outcome for a particular ministry. For example, part of a church’s vision may be to provide shelter for every homeless person in the city, or it may be more qualitative like to love those who have themselves not experienced much love. The assumption behind good vision, I assume, is to set the bar high enough to inspire good practice towards the attainment of the vision, even if, in a worldly sense, the vision is practically unattainable. The members of this church will faithfully love the unloved, despite the fact that, short of a divine restructuring of existence, not all those that are unloved will be reached. In good faith, however, this reality must not be conceded by adherents to the vision, and with that I agree.

Vision is a factor that empowers good ministry. In saying that, it can also be limiting. With vision comes commitment. It is in a sense binding on those who are under it. Not that commitment is a bad thing, as the fulfillment of vision depends on commitment. Furthermore, how could something like marriage be possible without commitment (although, as an unmarried man, I do in an ideal theological sense accept exceptions to the rule, for example)? Commitment to vision limits when it obstructs commitment to the Lord. Marital commitment is an expression of commitment to the Lord, in the same way that commitment to godly vision is commitment to the Lord. Yet in the same way that marital commitment limits a higher form of practical commitment to Christ (eg. 1Corinthians 7:32-33), commitment to vision does also.

Up until now I have used the example of the a church’s vision. But an individual may also have vision, for example to establish a school in an area with limited access to education. Throughout her commitment to this outcome, the Spirit of God may pull her heart in other directions. I am not advocating for religiously justified caprice, but rather the primacy of following the Spirit, against following the vision. Of course it is likely that the Lord asks her to see the end of something she has started, but his call is not limited by this. What if the call of God means not so much the endpoint intended, the vision, but the daily reliance on the Holy Spirit to provide the next step? Compare the woman who is called to say a three year project of establishing the school, with the woman who is one day called to start teaching in the area until, by grace of God and obedience to his daily call, she after three years finds herself running a school in the area as a result of the work. I think our theology of calling allows for both options.

An important passage for me is James 4:13-15:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (NIV)

This does not necessarily discount vision but determines the way we should approach it. You cannot claim something yet to be fulfilled as if has already been, unless of course you are given the faith to do so. When you are given vision, all you can do is acknowledge your reliance on the Lord to see its completion. In the same way, if you have not been given vision, you faithfully accept what God has given to you to do each day and trust that he will bring something out of it.

Thanks for reading. Please leave a comment (you can do so with Facebook) if you would like to offer feedback, further thoughts or any misgivings you have regarding the theology.

Image of Cyclops, a man of good vision, from http://iphonetoolbox.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/x-men-cyclops-f.jpg

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