Monday, June 23, 2008

Formulas v Formulaic

“Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Exodus 20:12

I want to note a difference between formulas and a formulaic approach to life. The Bible is full of formulas. Proverbs chapters 10-29, for a start. And the verse from the 10 Commandments, above. A formula is a concise way of way of conveying truth. But a formulaic approach – a mechanistic application of a formula – is a way of mis-interpreting that truth.

A formulaic approach to Exodus 20:12 might run, “If I honour my father and my mother, I will live a long life.” But we know that this is not always true. In fact, we see the very opposite happening. We see children who do not honour their father and mother fatally stabbing children that do. Or, at least, we see children we assume do not honour their father and mother (and perhaps we are right, but it is nonetheless an assumption) fatally stabbing children who we are told (by grieving parents, who naturally and rightly choose to focus on the things about our children that make us proud to be their parents and not the things that drive us mad: we’d be shocked if at the press conference they came out with “He was a little **** and he had it coming.”) honoured their father and mother.

And so the formulaic approach is proved false; but that does not negate the truth conveyed in the formula. If I mix all the ingredients together correctly (factors I need to take responsibility for), but the heat is not distributed evenly by the oven (a factor which is out of my control), the cake will fail to rise, or will burn too quickly; but if I want a certain type of cake I need to follow the recipe.

When I try to think theologically by using a triangle to consider any aspect of life in terms of relationship with God, with my community, and with other communities living alongside me; or when I think in terms of indirect effort; I am seeking and advocating formulas, not a formulaic approach to life.

I do not want to be simplistic: life is too complex for such an approach. But I do want to be simple: life is complicated enough as it is, without my adding to that.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Two Triangles

I’m thinking about how I raise my children, and how that compares to how I want to raise my children. I live in a society that has chosen to ignore its children, and is now surprised when they turn out ‘bad’: gangs; Anti-Social Behaviour Orders; murdering each other with knives…And, shaped in part by my society as I am, I find myself habitually not giving my children my full attention when they look for it from me…

What do I want to pass on to my children? The unpacking of two big ideas: covenant, and kingdom.

Within the Covenant, we experience God as FATHER. This Father God gives us a new IDENTITY, as his children; which in turn enables us to OBEY his call to bring blessing to those living alongside us.

Within the Kingdom, we experience Jesus as KING. The King gives his followers AUTHORITY to be ambassadors of his kingdom; authority which is validated by POWER to bring blessing to those living alongside us.

As my friend and Senior Guardian of The Order of Mission, Mike Breen, points out, there is a correlation between Covenant and Kingdom. Employing the triangle model, we might articulate it by placing one on top of the other, so that AUTHORITY correlates with IDENTITY, and POWER correlates with OBEY.

The more you grow in your identity as a child of the Father, the greater the spiritual authority you are able to exercise. And as you grow in exercising spiritual authority, the more you grow into your identity as a child of God.

The more we grow in obedience to the Father, the less resistance there is in us to his power at work in and through us, and thus the greater the spiritual power we are able to exercise. And as we grow in exercising spiritual power, the more we grow into obedience.

This correlation means that we grow through indirect effort. If you want to complete a marathon, you don’t just start running and try to get further each day: you attend to your diet, do weights at the gym…that’s indirect effort. If you want to be happy, you don’t achieve it by trying to capture happiness: you find that you are happy in the midst of choosing to love other people…and that’s indirect effort too.

So, if you want to grow in authority, spend time discovering identity; if you want to grow in power, work on the discipline of obedience.

Likewise, if God pours out his power in your life, and you don’t want it to dissipate, don’t focus on the power: pay attention to obeying the covenant call to bring blessing to those living alongside us. If God pours out his power on your community, pay attention to nurturing the community identity, so that together you can obey: don’t just play with the power…

If identity isn’t the key battle ground for the children of our nation, then I don’t know what is. If they aren’t interested in exercising authority and power, I don’t know what the ‘bad news’ stories are about. I don’t just want to pass on to my children what I need to know about covenant and kingdom because I’m some sort of religious obsessive. I want to pass it on because I believe it will address things God has put in our collective children’s hearts, more fully than they will find these things fulfilled anywhere else…

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hand all the law and the prophets.”
Matthew 22:34-40

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbour as oneself,’ — this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
Mark 12:28-34

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
Luke 10:25-28

Three things. Attend to your relationship with God. Attend to your relationship with your community. Attend to your relationship with those other communities that live alongside your community.

Three things. God’s blueprint, Jesus’ priority-list, for living life well.

We can visualise these three connected relationships by drawing an equilateral triangle: the top representing God (UP), the left corner representing us (IN), and the right corner representing our neighbour (OUT). This gives us a framework to consider: are we attending to all three areas, or are we neglecting one, or more?

We might start with a very simple articulation of these three relationships – e.g. worship, fellowship, mission – and flesh-out what we understand these things to mean.

In fact we can lay this triangular framework on each of these initial articulations, to help flesh them out. Let’s take worship as our example:

UP: do we just talk (sing, etc.) to God, or take time to listen to God too?

IN: does our corporate worship include and involve the different gifts God has given to each one of us, or only those of a few? does our practice of worship build each other up, or are we seeking to exalt ourselves over each other?

OUT: does our practice of worship include bringing before God the needs of our neighbour? does our experience of worship result in our attitude towards our neighbour (including our enemy) becoming more like Christ’s; and send us out to love and serve and show mercy to our neighbour?

But we can lay this framework over any aspect of life, both individual and communal, as a blueprint for living well: how might it apply, in practice, to running a household; establishing a business; being an employee?