Aliens and strangers

Over Lent I’ve been working through a collection of readings, prayers, reflection etc for each day of the season. As I’ve been going through I’ve recognised many of the names and sources, but several times I’d seen quite profound comments from someone I’d never heard of, Prosper Guéranger. He was a French priest and Benedictine monk of the 19th century, someone of apparently formidable energy, firm faith, and also a commitment to papal supremacy (that sits uneasily with any Protestant, but was partly a push back against the dominant role the French state had too often asserted for itself). He seems to have been a considerable controversialist, but also

In 1841 he began to publish a mystical work by which he hoped to arouse the faithful from their spiritual torpor and to supplant what he deemed the lifeless or erroneous literature that had been produced by the French spiritual writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. “L’Année liturgique”, of which the author was not to finish the long series of fifteen volumes, is probably the one of all Dom Guéranger’s works that best fulfilled the purpose he had in view. Accommodating himself to the development of the liturgical periods of the year, the author laboured to familiarize the faithful with the official prayer of the Church by lavishly introducing fragments of the Eastern and Western liturgies, with interpretations and commentaries.

In the readings for last Sunday there was this extract from Guéranger

We are sojourners upon this earth; we are exiles and captives in Babylon, that city which plots our ruin.  If we must love our country, if we long to return to it, we ourselves must be proof against the lying allurements of this strange land and refuse the cup she proffers us, and with which she maddens so many of our fellow captives.  She invites us to join in her feasts and her songs; but we must unstring our harps and hang them on the willows that grow on her river’s bank, till the signal be given for our return to Jerusalem,  She will ask us to sing to her the melodies of our dear Sion: But how shall we, who are far from home, have heart to “sing the song of the Lord in a strange land”? No, there must be no sign that we are content to be in bondage, or we shall deserve to be slaves for ever.

The immediate reference is, of course, to Psalm 137

Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy.

But he could as easily have picked up Peter’s reference to Christians as “aliens and strangers” (“exiles” or “temporary residents” in other translations) or that in the closing verses of Hebrews:

Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Now, of course there are other verses. Jeremiah, after all, encourages the exiles in Babylon to “pray for the peace of the city” to which they have been exiled. Throughout the New Testament epistles believers are enjoined to pray for kings and rulers, and to obey them (presumably – though the point is never extensively developed – in inessentials given the number of Christians who were to die as martyrs, when authorities mostly sought “only” outward compliance). But that is pretty much what you expect from “temporary residents”. I’ve lived in other countries on three separate occasions, twice working for the governments of the respective countries. When I did, I obeyed the laws of those countries (had I not been willing to I would not have gone, or stayed), I joined in Sunday prayers for the rulers and authorities of those countries, and when I worked for other governments I sought the best outcomes for the peoples of those countries (in all three, I wished their people only the best). And yet I was always a New Zealander, and if occasionally idle thoughts flitted across my mind suggesting that it might be nice to stay in, for example, PNG, it was never going to be my home, or my ultimate earthly loyalty.

But that was easy in a way. I had term-limited jobs, term-limited visas, and part of my job was to work myself out of a job.

How easy is for us as Christians to live as if we are but aliens and strangers here? Not easy at all, for most of us (and I include myself there). Perhaps it is all the harder since we – at least those like me from European backgrounds – come now off a heritage of 1000 years or more in which societies were, in significant respects, substantially Christian. One can argue about terms there, and no one pretends every government or citizen was consumed with zeal for the things of God. But….the majority would have described themselves as Christian (if nothing else, that meant “and not some other faith, theistic or secular), public discourse was heavily influenced by Christianity and the Scriptures, and much of our laws reflected that heritage. One can read books – I’m reading one at present – from the 1950s lamenting the decline of Christianity in the West etc but even in my childhood (60s and 70s) there was still a visible deference to the church and its teaching, in our laws and practices, private and government. Perhaps it meant churches missed what was happening in the wider world, and missed the need to prepare for a more full-throated experience of “alien and stranger”. But it was visibly less common to see sin championed and celebrated. Whatever the case, it is disorienting how much things have changed in just a few decades.

And how little so much of the church seems to have done to equip itself and its people to live, and witness, in this new era as “aliens and strangers”. To build strong communities that help nurture our children in the faith, and what it means to be different – to be God’s. To teach the word. To call us to holiness. So little, at least in so many churches and congregations. Too many seem content to minimise differences and to acculturate to a hostile and fundamentally corrosive culture, to be in practice little more than a social club, that will provide no basis for resilience as the gap between the gospel and God’s teaching on the one hand and the standards and values of the world widen further. What do most congregations teach, or practice, that is distinctive, that marks as out as citizens of another kingdom, not full-fledged members of increasingly godless New Zealand (or Australia, or.. or….or)?

It isn’t the place today for an extended essay, so I’ll stop here simply repeating the final sentence from that Gueranger quote I’m glad to have found:

No, there must be no sign that we are content to be in bondage, or we shall deserve to be slaves for ever.

If his words were true for the people he wrote to in 19th century France, how much truer should they be today.

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Overseas missions: a glimpse from the past

I hadn’t intended writing another post here today, but after writing yesterday’s post I was digging around the internet and came across (on the invaluable Papers Past website) an article from the Otago Daily Times from Thursday 25 September 1896 reporting on a meeting held in Dunedin the previous evening to farewell five missionaries being sent out (one returning to the field) by the New Zealand Baptist Missionary Society to missions work in Bengal. Since it is such a substantial report – my printout of it runs to eight pages of A4 – I thought it might be worth reproducing some key extracts here (permitted under the Creative Commons licence)..

The article begins

article 1

An impressive attendance, on a week night at the time Dunedin had a population of about 47000.

article 2a

I don’t know whether the chairman’s description (“unique in the history of the colonial churches”) was accurate – he didn’t sound 100 per cent sure either – but whether it was or not, recall that NZBMS had been founded only 11 years early by the small Baptist denomination and, as is noted later in the article, they had already lost to death two of their first missionaries.

Mr Bertram than briefly addresses the meeting

article 3a

A reminder of that great age of optimism and commitment, summed up in that famous aspirational phrase “the evangelisation of the world in this generation”. I had not previously been aware that there had been such an institutionalised connection between the SVM and the NZBMS. And if “the world” was not brought to Christ, so many did go, the good news was told in many lands, so many foundations of today’s churches were laid. As to Melbourne, at the time it had a population about ten times that of Dunedin.

Then a Baptist missionary recently commissioned by the New South Wales Baptist churches spoke of something of his call.

article 4a

And then the article moves on to reproduce the text of the remarks delivered on behalf of the Secretary of the NZBMS, the Revd H H Driver. The denominational hierarchy today appears to be a bit embarrassed by Driver, but whatever grounds they may (or may not) have for that – he too being human – I found the remarks recorded here both interesting and somewhat inspiring. He begins with the foundation of the mission, only 11 years earlier.

article 5

We might not today use the term “idolator” – perhaps especially not in reference to adherents to Islam, the dominant religion in East Bengal – but the core point remains: the knowledge of a mission and mandate (the Great Commission) and a drive and commitment to be part of that, even with the limited resources available to the denomination (although it is worth noting that at the time New Zealand – while much poorer than it is now – was one of the richest countries on earth).

He continues outlining the scope of the work and the opportunities.

article 6

And in language, and faith, that perhaps catches the breath

article 7

Driver then turns to introducing the missionaries being farewelled at that meeting. First up is Annie Bacon, returning to the field after a year’s furlough. Then he introduces Letitia Ings

article 8

And then moving on to first three male missionaries to be sent out by NZMBS from New Zealand (many missions had more female than male missionaries). They had been trained by Rev Alfred North, then minister at the largest (Hanover St) Baptist church in Dunedin.

article 9

Of their future work Driver notes

article 10

(The economist in me was fascinated by the reference to the potential transport link into China.)

Each of the outgoing missionaries then addressed the meeting although the content of their remarks was not recorded by the ODT. Then Revd Alfred North took the stage

article 11

North notes, almost in passing, that the (British) authorities in India had often previously been hostile to misisonary work (notably the British East India Company), but that attitudes had now changed markedly, but his interest isn’t the government but the people and the false religion they adhered to.

article 12


article 13

Ending his address this way

article 14

The final brief remarks appear to be from a minister of another denomination

article 15

Churches have changed, mission has changed, the willingness to turn out to large public meetings has changed, and the willingness of media to report such events has changed (perhaps meaning that there might be no permanent record even if such events were held now) but I found it a fascinating insight on an age easily described as “bygone” and yet in the scheme of things not that long ago really – the year of my birth is only a little closer to today than to 1896.

Perhaps not all readers will see it the same way but I found it inspiring, encouraging, and a not a little humbling. Do we – do I – share the practical commitment these people articulated and lived, whether to mission abroad, or the increasingly challenging and difficult post-Christian New Zealand?

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The gospel is supposed to change lives, and cultures

The church newsletter now comes out by email. In this week’s the office highlighted a link to a new website for the denominational missions agency, the New Zealand Baptist Missionary Society. Foreign missions – and NZBMS in particular – have been a big part of my life and faith (three relatives have been presidents of NZBMS, my mother and mother-in-law were both presidents of the Baptist Women’s Missionary Union (for support and prayer for missions), the first foreigner I really recall meeting was a leader from the Tripura Baptist Christian Union who stayed in our home on a visit here for the annual Baptist Assembly back when I was 5 or 6, and so on). I grew up with the work of the St Paul’s School in Argatala, we’ve had NZBMS missionaries from our own congregation, and every Baptist church I’ve been part of has had a strong commitment to mission, and to NZBMS in particular.

So, of course, I clicked the link. On the home page there was a prominently displayed section “We answer your big questions”. There were six questions. It wasn’t entirely clear quite how “big” some of them questions really were (“Do I have to be Baptist to be involved with NZBMS?” – are any church agencies really reluctant to receive donations or prayer from other Christians?) but the one that caught my eye was this one:

mission colony

To which the response was this.

colony missions 2

And that was it. One of the “big questions” people are thought to be asking, at least according to the NZBMS. And remember, these “people” are visitors to the denominational missions agency website, which might be presumed to be a fairly small minority, mostly (I’m guessing) people already with some commitment to cross-border mission. No attempt to define terms. No links to more substantive treatment of the thoughts of those responsible for this statement. Just a generalised slur – for it is quite clear that that is the intent of the first sentence, this “reality” they wish to “lament”.

Now, of course, every movement that involves human beings is going to fall short of perfection, and to be tainted – as all of us are – by sin. But that doesn’t seem to be the point NZBMS wishes to make. The question isn’t “is mission tainted by sin?” to which the only possible answer would be “Yes, of course. As all human endeavour is. That is why we need God’s grace and redemption, and why we work, witness, and spread the good news everywhere, all men and women, all nations, all lands”.

But there seems to be some particular bogeyman in view here – particular, but very ill-defined. Interestingly, they focus on “modern mission” which, at a guess, probably covers the period since the late 18th century (but not, we presume, Charlemagne and the forced conversion of the Saxons), if only because Baptist foreign mission – beginning with William Carey – dates from then. And whatever specifically they mean by “colonialist”, as the period since shortly after World War Two has been great age of independence from Western empires, it seems unlikely they mean anything very recent. Most likely, to the extent they have anything specific in mind, I’m guessing they mean primarily the period from the late 18th century to the early 20th century (for good or ill, the British Empire was at its greatest physical expanse in the years just after World War One).

And that, of course, includes the evangelisation of the Maori, the coming of the gospel to these islands. The first sermon was preached on these shores on Christmas Day 1814, at Oihi in the Bay of Islands, by Samuel Marsden. The first CMS mission was established there, under the protection of the chief Ruatara. And the gospel began to be taught, and spread, in New Zealand. Initially by English missionaries, but increasingly by Maori converts and evangelists. It is an inspiring story of courage, sacrifice, and transformation. There was no British (or other European) political presence in New Zealand at the time, but there were other European influences – sealers, whalers, and of course, musketry. It was 26 years later, and not with a great deal of enthusiasm on the part of the British government, that the islands of New Zealand became a British possession (through some mix – emphasis contested – of agreement with tribal chiefs (the Treaty of Waitangi) and annexation. No one claims that the history of CMS – or the other Protestant and Catholic missions that began the evangelisation work – was perfect (repeat, all human activity is tainted by sin). But is this what today’s NZBMS is embarrassed by, or wishing to disown? It wasn’t as if missionaries opened up New Zealand – technology, opportunity, and enterprise were going to do that anyway. Disease – that drove down Maori numbers further – was going to arrive anyway. It wasn’t as if missionaries led to the large scale settlement of New Zealand by (mostly) British migrants over subsequent decades. That would have happened anyway (or perhaps not if the British government had taken a different approach). So one is left wondering what NZBMS laments? Surely not evangelisation? Presumably not the introduction of literacy (evangelicals in particular emphasising Scripture)? Or the ending of slavery, or cannibalism, or of the Musket Wars themselves?

Of course, perhaps it is the history of the NZBMS itself they have in mind. But it isn’t obvious they have any real grounds for whipping themselves on that score either. NZBMS was founded in 1885 by a Baptist denomination that at the time had only about 2500 members in its congregations scattered around the country. That in itself is a story that deserves to be retold – a reflection no doubt of the times, the great age of the evangelical missionary movement. People like Rosalie MacGeorge – the first NZBMS missionary, probably the first female missionary sent from New Zealand – and the (gloriously named) Hopestill Pillow should be heroes of the denomination, people to inspire us to pray, to give, and to be willing to go. These women went, and never came back – one is buried in Calcutta, one in Sri Lanka. I went back and read yesterday some of Towards the Sunrise, the 1985 centennial history of the NZBMS, particularly on the founding of the mission and the early years of the mission in Bengal. And there was, of course, not a hint of some “colonialist” agenda – there is, instead, a passion for the extension of God’s kingdom, and liberating and transforming power of the gospel. The local newspaper reported Hopestill Pillow’s farewell: we read of the plan to witness especially to women (zenana missions were a significant missions priority at the time), and not a hint of empire, colonial settlement, or even turning Bengal into some larger-scale Christchurch.

Again, I’m not suggesting that all NZBMS has ever done was perfect – sin, and all that, pervades – but it seems like a society that we (Baptists in the pews, those who support and pray) should be perhaps a little proud of, and grateful for the privilege of, being part of, not something to whip ourselves for. And yet the apologetic tone of the website seems more interested in the non-specific whipping, than in lives touched and changed, schooling provided, churches built, and the increasingly self-sustaining work and witness of those congregations. Mission – here and abroad – is the call and lifeblood of the church. And it is about upending lives, opening them to God’s grace and the transformation that the Holy Spirit prompts and empowers in lives, and in communities. Cultures transformed by Christ.

And often that is the sort of thing that too many people today – including some Christians – seem quite uncomfortable with. The Jews were shaped by God’s call and God’s law – distinctively different to the peoples around them or their Roman occupiers. Rome itself was transformed by the Christianisation process, England was, the Saxons were, 19th century Maori were, and so on. Is there stuff lost in the process? Of course, but in a sense that is the point. It will be the challenge if/when/as the West (or New Zealand) is ever re-won for Christ, to slew off what isn’t of Christ, and to embrace, and form, something new, distinctive, and more Christlike.

Of course, every missionary brings with them their own pre-suppositions and experiences. Those coming from cultures that had long been influenced and shaped by Christianity will bring their presuppositions too. And – as all of us are but flawed vessels – some of what they passed on then (and might pass on now) may be a reflection more of the specifics of their own background than of the gospel. But what of it? That is true of every human interaction, and every encounter any Christian has with another person. And yet the gospel challenge remains one of making disciples, and that those new disciples might, in time, be formed and transformed more into the likeness of Christ- in actions, behaviours, and thought forms. And how shall they hear unless someone tells them – whether at home or abroad.

If we step back to the era in which NZBMS was founded, the great age of evangelical mission coincided by the peak of the modern age of imperial expansion. But even within Britain and the colonies of settlement (like New Zealand), imperial expansion was not universally regarded as good or desirable, whether the motives of individuals involved were highminded and laudable or not. Perhaps we might assume that members of Baptist churches, active supporters of the NZBMS, and even their missionaries reflect some of that range of sentiments. But it wasn’t as if Baptist missionaries (from the larger British society) went only to work in British territories – the small New Zealand society was exclusively in Bengal – and a recent book on the history of Protestant missions from New Zealand up to World War Two records that 10 per cent of New Zealand Protestant missionaries worked in Latin America, where the British Empire barely reached. And it shouldn’t perhaps surprise us that the first great age of globalisation – movement of people, goods, and capital – also involved fresh energy behind the transmission of ideas and belief (in this case the gospel). The church would have been remiss if it had not been reaching out that way.

In the current enfeebled state of the church in New Zealand, we might pray and long for a fresh reviving wind of the Spirit, and perhaps that might be accomplished in part through an influx of foreign missionaries to New Zealand (the New Zealand CMS until recently had a Kenyan director, who is now the Anglican Bishop of Nelson). When they come and witness sometimes they will bring ideas and practices that are purely of their home culture too. But we might long and pray for a transformation of this country’s culture too, as more and more men and women were confirmed – by witness, formation, and discipleship – into Christlikeness. A New Zealand sold out for Christ would be a very different place than New Zealand today. And that would be a good thing, something to celebrate, not something for Christians to regret or be ashamed of.

If anyone is interested in reading further on the question, a good book on the wider issue by Andrew Porter, a professor of imperial history at King’s College London, is Religion vs empire? British Protestant missionaries and overseas expansion, 1700-1914, and a recent New Zealand book by Hugh Morrison, Pushing Boundaries: New Zealand Protestants and overseas mission 1827-1939 also has quite a bit of relevant material.

UPDATE (22 March)

A comment on this post prompted me to check the relevant NZBMS website page. The answer to the question now reads as follows:

In short, God’s mission is never colonialist. However, this is a question that all mission agencies must address. Sadly, we know that much modern mission has been colonialist. We lament this reality and with a humble posture know we are transformed in our engagement with Christians cross-culturally. What we seek is mutual transformation in the life of the Kingdom. We also know that Christ has done incredible and invaluable things through those with missional hearts, and that there is certainly much to celebrate from the past.

It is a step in the right direction, although of course now there are tensions between the first and third sentences, and the third sentence is still not justified.


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Preachers Dare

That’s the title of a new book – Preachers Dare: Speaking for God – by Will Willimon, the highly-regarded American Methodist preacher (and professor at Duke University Divinity School). It is a short book, based on a series of lectures at Yale, and if it is probably primarily aimed at Willimon’s fellow preachers, it deserves to be more widely read. My copy arrived in November and I’ve just read it – with lots of underlinings – for a second time.

I don’t preach these days, but from about age 18 or 19 until I was 40 I did a fair amount of lay-preaching in a variety of congregations. I often drive past the building – now converted to a house – where I preached my first sermon to the small congregation that still gathered each week, on the Benedictus, the prayer of Zechariah from Luke 1. And my wife occasionally reminds me of her first awareness of me: newly arrived at our local church, to hear an overly-long sermon from me on the resurrection of the body, drawing from I Corinthians 15 (not helped by having expected that she might be hearing from the provocative former Baptist minister with a very similar name to mine). Preachers should not, of course, preach primarily for themselves, and yet in the hours of preparation, study, and prayer, I know I was often the person primarily confronted afresh with God’s word.

But sermons matter – or should do – to the hearers. To this point in my life, I’ve probably heard more than 3000 Sunday morning sermons, many evening sermons (easily another 1000), and some weekday ones too. Perhaps I will hear another 1000 or even 1500. Through the sermon – although, of course, not only through the sermon – we should be expecting to hear God speak. There can be tendency to downplay sermons, but Willimon argues that churches (and pastors) would be quite wrong to do so.

In our age of mass literacy we might take for granted the ability of almost everyone in a congregation to read for themselves – the Bible, commentaries, other Christian books, even literature – but (a) for most of human history (even most of the history of the Christian era) that option wasn’t widely available, (b) realistically, probably most don’t even now, and (c) much as God can and does speak to the unaided reader, there is no sign that is a (His) preferred model. Take, as an example, the early church. It was several centuries until the canon of Scripture was considered closed, and for a long time few congregations would have had a copy of most of the writings that we now know as the New Testament. Sermons? Acts is full of them. That way God spoke, that way God speaks. Through preachers, proclaiming a God who has acted, who acts now, known only as revealed (supremely in Christ)

Willimon has a high view of preaching, and if I read him rightly his challenge is to preachers to live up to that high calling – and perhaps for congregations to demand it, to demand better. I think I’ve previously quoted on Twitter this line from the book

While it’s fair for preaching sometimes to offer helpful hints for persons in pain, therapeutic advice for the wounded, a reason to get out of bed in the morning, a spiritual boost for the sad, or a call to arms for social activists, human helpfulness can never be preaching’s main intent because such concerns are of little concern to Jesus. Besides, why get up, get dressed, and come to church at an inconvenient hour of the week to hear what is otherwise readily available anywhere else. At least Rotary serves lunch.

When preachers preach (much of) that sort of stuff, they shortchange themselves (to preach God’s word is a high calling), but more importantly they shortchange both God and his people in the pews. As Willimon also notes

[Once, at a busy graduation time] I took the easy way out and preached Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son as a story about what sometimes happens when graduates at last leave home.  Jesus the helpful human relations expert.  The congregations received my conventional wisdom with a collective yawn.  If Paul’s claims for Christ are true, there’s no way Jesus would have told that parable for that purpose. Fretting over family life, what to do after graduation –  such small potatoes for One on his way to a new heaven and earth.

While it is hard to imagine anyone preaching the prodigal son quite that way, the general point holds. Willimon’s famous book, with Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens highlighted the profoundly scriptural teaching of the contrast between God’s purposes, his call to us as his disciples, and the interests, values, pressures etc of the world around us. We are aliens and strangers – or if we aren’t we’ve allowed the world to squeeze us into its mould. My reading this morning included James 4:4b “Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” – a verse I’m not sure I’ve ever heard preached,

And yet how much of the preaching we hear today rises even towards the standard Willimon calls preachers to? Between holiday times and combined services, I think I’ve listened to sermons in four different churches, from six different people, this year to date. At best, two sermons have even leaned in that high direction. In one case a pastor – called and chosen to lead, to preach – has lately reduced sermons to perhaps 7 to 10 minutes, not by relentlessly refining and honing his words so that each speaks deeply to us, but simply by doing little. But doing that little does almost nothing to speak God’s word, or to shape believers God’s way in an increasingly hostile age. Sometimes offering rather shoddy lines that seem to treat Scripture as some sort of pick and mix “promise box”, where context, the full passage, the narrative of God’s work through Israel and the early church seem to count for little.

Willimon draws heavily on Karl Barth – and not all his approach will be everyone’s cup of tea -but perhaps at least this quote will resonate

“Not every [preacher] can [speak the Word of God]….For not every [preacher] has heard it,” says Barth. Many contemporary pastors are only pastors – congregational caregivers, managers, organisational leaders – rather than preachers: those who, having heard, are compelled to preach.

When so much of the church is in such precipitous decline, we urgently need something more from those who accept the mantle of preacher.

As I read the book the first time a couple of months ago I jotted down a list of the congregations that existed when I first came to this part of Wellington in 1978 and have since closed down. It was a depressingly long list (including two churches in my own suburb, and the small outpost where I preached that first sermon). And perhaps as worrying, not many of the churches that are left – Catholic or Protestant – manage congregations as large as they had 40+ years ago, by when New Zealand Christianity was already well into its decline. The story has the odd brightspot, but they are few and far between. But how many preachers call their people back to the Scriptures, back to the works of God, the plans of God, and the call to live as distinctly different disciples of Christ? God has plans and purposes, But are our preachers proclaiming them, calling us to them. Or are they content to manage the social club, the social work, accommodating their people to the age, as one generation succeeds another and the decline of the gospel in New Zealand continues?

For anyone at all interested, I commend Willimon’s book to you. For evangelical readers, not everything he says in passing on specific points at issue in the church will be to your taste (or mine) but don’t let that detract from the challenge of this bishop, writer, and professor who seeks to live the conviction that God speaks, and that He wills to speak through faithful preachers today too.

UPDATE: Somewhat to my surprise (given that this blog does not have a vast readership), Willimon himself has noticed this post, in a brief post of his own.


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Telling our stories, telling the stories of God’s work

I’ve been reading a couple of books recently on reading and interpreting the Bible. In both there was an emphasis on the idea that one powerful way of seeing the Bible is as the narrative of God’s creative and redeeming work in this world, through the patriarchs, through Israel, supremely through Christ, and – at a nascent stage – the church. It is, I think, a good way of looking at things. It must have been particularly so for the early Christians, perhaps even down to the point where the canon of Scripture was declared closed (bearing in mind the differences in the canon between Protestants, Catholics, and the Orthodox).

And yet the Lord tarries. It is now coming up to 2000 years since Jesus death, resurrection, and ascension. And the good news of God’s plans and purposes, of the redemption accomplished in Christ, has – as the disciples were commanded to do – gone out to the very ends of the earth, New Zealand among the last of them. And the good news has crossed all geographic boundaries and borders, the world is also a very different place than it was 2000 years ago. Not, of course, that man’s propensity to sin differs. Human nature has not changed. The line between good and evil still runs, in Solzhenitsyn’s phrase, through the heart of every man (and woman). The Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes still speak, or act as stumbling blocks (as Paul notes that cross itself did), as ever they did.

But our world is recognisably different – and becoming increasingly so – to first century Judaea, first century Rome, or even a few centuries prior to that when the prophets spoke, the Law was given, when God first called Abram our from Ur of the Chaldees. Not only do those in the “developed countries” live in societies with increasingly little resemblance to those of the first century, but even the erstwhile under-developed countries are fast-urbanising and taking up the technologies and lifestyles pioneered, for good and ill, in the West. I recall reading Kenneth Bailey’s Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes collection, in which the author powerfully illuminated many of the biblical parables, by reference to actual practice in communities in mid 20th century Egypt, Lebanon and so on. For many centuries life did not change that much (nor, for example, material living standards, life expectancies, and other reference points). But 100 years hence how many of those reference points will be left (and who will begrudge those who live in the Middle East the economic development that existing advanced economies how have?) And if sheep analogies were never intuitive for Christians in, say, the Solomons, how much resonance now do they have for those born and raised in, say, New York or Paris (even, perhaps, Wellington)?

Not only did life, technologies, community structures change more slowly in earlier centuries, but less time passed as well. From the fall of Jerusalem in 587BC to Simeon’s prophecy of the coming of a redeemer fulfilled in the baby Jesus wasn’t much more time than since the Tudors took the throne in England or Christopher Columbus set out on the voyages that would take him to the Americas. There was roughly 1000 years from the death of King David to the death of Jesus. Less than 100 years from the exodus to the Babylonian exile. And now we are entering the third millennium of the church. What will the world – backdrop against which the church lives and witnesses – look like 500 years hence.

None of this is to minimise the importance – the centrality, the authority – of the Bible. Which could be much better preached and explicated than it (mostly) is. Perhaps especially the Old Testament which seems to be little read (perhaps outside liturgical churches with set required readings) and, at least in any sustained way, less preached from. We need preachers will be tell the story of God’s work in and through Israel, of sin, and failure, hope and redemption. Of flawed rulers, persecuted prophets, tempted (and sinning) people of God, and so on. Doing so isn’t necessarily easy – even with all the resources (commentaries etc) now available – but it is no less important for that.

And yet, and yet. If God acted, as we affirm, once for all in Christ in first century Judaea, for us and for all salvation, yet he still acts today and has acted through the centuries since the canon of Scripture was closed. And yet how much of the story of God’s work in the church, and sometimes despite the church, do Christians today know? How much of the blindspots of the church, the courage of the church, the effective mission of the church, the failure and decline of the church? And in societies – with pressures, institutions, opportunities, failures – more similar to our own, and yet not with the precise same blindspots (whatever they are) of our particular situation? How many in New Zealand now know much of the astonishing success of missionary efforts here among Maori in the 19th century?

Perhaps these are just the hankerings of a history buff – although my own grounding in Scripture and in church history is much less than I would like? But I don’t think so. If we don’t teach the history of God’s church we dishonour our birthright, but we also risk the gospel coming across as something for Israel and first century converts, but not as something that speaks and has spoken through all ages since, all societies, under all sorts of rulers, all sorts of technologies, and so on. It is after an incarnate – God become fully human in Christ, God’s church existing through the ages here on Earth – real people, real failures, real successes.

What this means in practice I don’t really know. It certainly isn’t learning lists of Popes, Archbishops of Canterbury, let alone Presidents of the Baptist Union. But it might mean clergy whose education and formation soaks them in the story of God’s church, who can tell some of those stories – and point congregants to resources that take them further and deeper into those stories. Of course, in parts the lives of saints have played this sort of role in more-traditional churches (perhaps especially among the Catholics, where saint-making continues, in ways that perhaps make many Protestants uncomfortable, and yet respond to the sort of need I point to in this post) but I wonder how much teaching centred around those lives still goes on. I wonder how many in our congregations even know much about God’s work in the history of their own congregations – whether those churches are decades old (most in New Zealand) or a thousand years old (perhaps many in Europe)? And – as the Scriptures are – we need to be open in teaching of failures and blindspots, as well as the success stories. How and where did serious believers nonetheless stumble? How, sometimes, did church leaders guide them astray. And how did God still work, redeeming and restoring.

Shouldn’t we encourage more reading and reflection on – to take just the last couple of centuries – the churches in apartheid South Africa, the churches in Nazi Germany, the churches in the US South in the Jim Crow and civil rights era, the churches in the Soviet Union, the evangelisation of Africa and the Pacific, the church in modern-day China, perhaps the US churches and the approach to abortion, the church in the Middle East today? What do we learn. whose examples inspire us, whose warn us? Where do we see God at work? How might we prepare our fellow believers to resist the temptations – visible and insidious – we face today, or might face before long?

I suppose one counter to this is that surely we can and should learn from other congregations in our time and culture. And I’m sure we should and can. And yet we can be almost too close to those examples, and need some distance (as a personal example, I find reading about the church in Nazi Germany worthwhile both because one can see with hindsight how evil was the regime, and how comprehensive the eventual threat, and yet can see too the compromises and blindspots so many lived with, as the threats slowly grew more real – in a sophisticated, educated, technologically-advanced society. It confronts me constantly with the question of how confident I would be of having behaved differently (honestly, not very).

There aren’t cookie-cutter answers here, just a strong sense that faithful discipleship, faithful witness, today needs much more of the story of God’s continuing work in the world, building on the unchangeable truths revealed in Scripture, in Christ.

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Six days shalt thou labour

I’ve been reflecting a bit recently on this item in the list we know as the Ten Commandments.

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

That is the Exodus version. The Deuteronomy version is a little different

“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

The only material difference appears to lie in the explanation: in Exodus from the Genesis 1 framing of the creation story (God rests), and in Deuteronomy the framing – perhaps mainly about the explicit inclusion of slaves/servants? – is in God’s redeeming work in liberating Israel from slavery in Egypt.

The most recent prompt to think about this commandment and its place in our world and/or the church today was a couple of sermons I heard recently on Matthew 11 and 12 (mostly the last verses of chapter 11 – “Come to me all you who are heavy and burdened, and I will give your rest) – and the first 13 verses of chapter 12 on Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath). I gather there was an earlier sermon on the commandments themselves, but I missed that. The preacher’s inclination appeared to be to play down this commandment and to emphasise the idea of it being easy – not that demanding – to follow Christ (“my yoke is easy and my burden light”). And if the argument is that under Christ’s dispensation we need no longer worry about precise delineations of, for example, how many metres we might travel on the day of rest, who can disagree, And as Jesus instructs the Pharisees, as it had always been lawful to water your animals of the Sabbath or help one that had fallen into a pit, so “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath”.

Beyond that I wasn’t really convinced. I’ve been working through a number of the epistles recently and have been a little surprised to realise how frequent are the exhortations to lives of holiness, how common are challenges calling out and condemning specific deviations from God’s way, whether among leaders or congregations. Grace may be God’s free gift, but serious discipleship never seems to be presented as something easy, costly, or undemanding. The famous line – not from Scripture but not I think out of step with it – is “costing not less than everything”.

But I couldn’t think of any Sabbath references in the epistles, and when I got home and checked an exhaustive concordance I found that there was a good reason for that: there are none. It is often dangerous to argue from silence, but I still found this a little surprising, especially as while some are primarily addressed to congregations of converts from Judaism, there were many Gentile converts to, and the issue of quite how the demands of the Mosaic law reconcile with the gospel of Christ Jesus is hardly unknown in the epistles. And it isn’t as if the notion and practice of the Sabbath was well-established in the wider Greco-Roman world: indeed, as I understand there was no distinctive “day off” (and perhaps certainly not for slaves).

Of course, there is a great deal that isn’t dealt with explicitly in the epistles. Scriptures just aren’t simply a manual of FAQs, or even a textbook in moral theology. But it still left me a little surprised. As I’ve dug around over the last couple of weeks, between books on my shelves and online material, I’ve come to realise something I don’t think I had previously (or perhaps long ago) that in the early centuries of the Christian church not much weight at all was placed on this commandment. If anything, there was a great deal of concern to wean Christians away from Jewish practices and laws – including as regards being clear that Sunday would be the Christian day of worship. And that still leaves me puzzled.

I can think of two, perhaps three, possible reasons why there might have been such an emphasis (or lack of it).

  • perhaps the Sabbath commandment (even in a Sunday form) was simply no longer relevant for Christians, that presumably then having been the intent of Christ’s teaching,
  • perhaps in the specific circumstances of weaning the Christian church into something that wasn’t Judaism this was just one of the hard issues.  Many weren’t –  both Christianity and Judaism were monotheistic, both taught against murder, adultery, theft, and covetousness, and deplored the bearing of false witness, or idolatry.   And dietary laws can’t have been an issue for too long –  the vision God granted to Peter cleared up the general point – nor the sacrificial system.   But what of the Sabbath, around which thousands of minutely-detailed rules had sprung up, around a principle that –  whether in the Exodus or Deuteronomy versions – rested on deep foundations of God’s work in creation and redemption.
  • perhaps in the witness to the Gentile world –  in an age when living standards were mostly low, when slavery was common, and when new Christians had to live in a world never shaped by Judaism, let alone Christian teaching, it was all but impossible to make the Sabbath rest something mandated for believers (perhaps there is some parallel re slavery?)? 

Perhaps there are other explanations. I hope so, because none of these ones seems particularly compelling to me (though perhaps more in-depth resources than I have at hand might resolve some of this).

Of course, there is always the first option: the Sabbath was once a thing, binding once, but not for Christians.

But that makes no real sense either. It isn’t as if Jesus scorned the practice of the Sabbath – declaring after that the Sabbath was made for man, that he was Lord of the Sabbath, and given hint that taught that the rough and tumble of normal commercial life was henceforth to be normal for his followers. And it doesn’t seem likely that in inspiring the writers and editors of Genesis 1, God’s own rest was thought of as some incidental, for Him, perhaps even for Jews under the law, but not the bulk of all those who seek to follow him (modern day Christians of course far outnumbering ancient Jews). And there is little or no hint in the Old Testament of the Sabbath as something “merely ceremonial”. In Isaiah 58 we are presented with these words

13 “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
    and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
    and the Lord’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
    and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
14 then you will find your joy in the Lord,
    and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land
    and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

The Sabbath here is not presented as some heavy burden or a picky compliance test (check boxes and all that), but as something in which God’s people might take delight.

And wouldn’t it seem more than a little odd, and frankly unlikely, if the just one of Ten Commandments was to be superseded (no serious believers supposes that any of the others have been)? Had God’s intention been something in place just until Christ came, it would have been easy enough to have positioned the Sabbath provisions with other more “ceremonial” provisions.

I come from English and Scottish Protestant stock. The church congregations I’ve been part over my life all developed out of those some cultures. And, of course, they were among the traditions (north European Protestantism) that took the Sabbath requirements (observed on Sunday) most seriously. For centuries much of civil law reflected and reinforced those practices. Few people worked on Sundays, little was open on Sundays, and in many cases even general recreational activities were discouraged on Sundays. Many of those civic restrictions were unwound only slowly and in some places have not fully disappeared even today.

New Zealand was formed mostly as heirs to that Anglo-Scottish heritage. In his book Sunday Best historian Peter Lineham records quite a bit of that Protestant Sunday culture here too, although also records a fascinating snippet that in some Maori tribes even before anyone was baptised Sunday observance, of a fairly strict variety had taken hold.

I’m 58 now so too young to remember the strictest forms of Sunday observance in New Zealand. But raised in a Baptist household, Sunday wasn’t a day for work, for school work, or even for mowing the lawns. But for some years Dad ministered in a church in a small town where the largest employer was a paper mill that ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: some congregants worked at the mill. We weren’t much of a family for sport anyway – although when I heard about Vic Pollard and Bruce Murray’s refusal to play test cricket on Sunday (just a few years before I was aware of cricket) I was inspired by that stance (and by the later similar refusal by All Black Michael Jones) – but board games, Meccano, or a swim at the beach weren’t looked askance on. Mum didn’t bake on Sunday, but she cooked our roast dinner – I recall my surprise reading Sir John Marshall’s memoirs of growing up in a Presbyterian household in the Wairarapa where Sunday meals were prepared on Saturday. In our household, going to church twice on Sunday was the norm, and my mother told stories of how in her day they’d also had afternoon Sunday school (a tram ride back into central Christchurch. Few shops were open on Sunday in 1960s or 1970s New Zealand (not sure about movie theatres) and almost all sport was played mainly on Saturdays. Trying to work theses things out for myself, I went through a (brief) phase where I wouldn’t read Monday’s newspaper, because it had been produced on Sunday (we didn’t get Sunday papers), or walk to the dairy to buy a bottle of cream for Sunday lunch.

It was relatively easy. Pretty much the whole community did it – at very least the church community, but to a considerable extent (by law and practice) the wider community. I don’t remember any hard choices around Sunday when I was growing up. Many of my friends had some church attachments, but even those that didn’t had few options – there weren’t many jobs, many sports events or so on. In my 7th form year I did pull out of the school drama production, partly because rehearsals were scheduled on Sunday afternoon, but I don’t even think that was the only consideration.

For the church I’d argue it was a good model. It was easy to take the Sabbath day fairly seriously, and to raise one’s family to follow in that way. And that was an era when if church attendance was higher than it is now, it was never a very large share of the New Zealand population.

Today it is hard. As someone who is a semi-retired homemaker it is still easier than for most, at least as an individual. I probably do as much and as little around the house on Sunday now as my mother did 50 years ago. I turn down media interviews on Sundays (although not pre-records for things that play on Sunday, something that now leaves me a little uneasy), and don’t write blog posts or engage on Twitter on Sunday. When I was in paid employment, at times I had fairly senior responsible jobs, but I think there were only 4 Sundays in 32 years when I worked – two occasions I count as genuine crisis (“it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath”), and one when – to my shame looking back – going to be particular senior overseas meeting on a Sunday was then more important to me than keeping the Sabbath. But in the middle of the Covid episode last year my wife worked every Sunday for weeks in a row, and probably could not have held onto her job if she had not been willing to do so.

But there are whole industries where Sunday worked in both normal and expected. A family member gave up being a real estate agent partly because he could see open homes all gravitating to Sundays. Are serious Christians not to be real estate agents? Most retail outlets are now open on Sundays, many entertainment venues, most cafes and restaurants. And even if established staff can negotiate not to work Sundays, the options are much fewer for people starting out, for kids looking for part-time jobs. A large share of children’s sport now takes place on Sunday, as do wider community events such a fun-runs and festivals (the congregation I’m a part of is not having a service this Sunday, so that people can attend the local community festival – a weird witness to the community, should they notice, as to the priorities of that congregation’s leadership). The Wellington fun-run a couple of weeks hence seems set to badly deplete that day’s congregation. And most churches now no longer have evening services either – decades ago, we kept ours going partly to enable people who had to work on Sunday (notably nurses) to join in congregational worship.

Sometimes it seem that congregational worship – just one element of a Christian Sabbath day surely – has become an optional thing when there is nothing else better to do. And that that is an approach that church leaderships endorse, whether actively or passively. It is a long time since, in any church, I’ve heard a sermon calling us to live faithfully and sacrificially (where necessary) all the Commandments?

Why does it matter? It does seem to be a command. Isaiah envisages the people of God “delighting” in God’s holy day, constrained choices and all. One might argue that societies and individuals need rest and there is some good in a common agreed day (ANZAC Day morning perhaps now the only example in New Zealand) – but that is an argument that hasn’t much relevance to how the church, and its people, choose to live (individuals can taken Wednesday off, or Friday, or a different day each week). It seems to me it is partly about trusting in that vision of the “delight”, but also about the formation and shaping of Christian communities, and about our witness to the world. How do we best build, shape, and sustain Christian communities when Sunday isn’t primarily for God, finding us together with fellow believers – week after week – in worship? First century slave believers may not have had the option, but most of us do. And when this, that, or other community or commercial activity takes precedence over gathered worship and a day of Sabbath rest, what witness is that to our increasingly secular (often outrightly hostile to Christian faith) about where our priorities lie.

There often are not easy choices. Do we deprive children of the opportunity to participate in sports – or part-time jobs – that play on Sunday, even outside church service times? If not, what are we prioritising, what values are we living/teaching. If so, is there some risk of poisoning relationships (but isn’t that a risk with everything a parent says no to, and no decent parent says no to nothing). Do we pass up opportunities to perhaps be a Christian voice in secular culture if we say no to things that take Sunday time? Perhaps, but what do we say about priorities if we nonetheless take those opportunities? And for new believers in particular, perhaps they are in career role that really does involve Sunday work. How do we, as congregations, support these people, to grow as disciples, and even perhaps to look to take the risk of saying no to Sunday work. Collective care is part of what Christians are supposed to do. Both giving and receiving help us grow in Christ.

If this post is a criticism of anyone it isn’t of individual congregants – I struggle with some of these choices too, and my life choices are generally easier than those of most – but of wider church leadership. Whatever latter day observance of the Sabbath command means it almost certainly isn’t a formal rule book with hard clear lines that mean this leisure activity is fine, and that is not, for everyone and always. But how often is there a clear call and challenge from pastors and bishops (and equivalents) calling today’s believers, in a hostile age, to faithful discipleship as regards that command – and promise – of the Sabbath rest. Too often church leaders seem more inclined, consciously or not, to act as chaplain for the interests of wider society, keeping to a bare minimum the demands of the gospel or the call to transformed lives, keeping up with changing ethos of the age more than proclaiming the unchanging call of the gospel. The gospel call is counter-cultural. From Hebrews

13So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. 14For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.

But I’m still puzzled about this commandment and the early church. If any readers have some really insightful references I’d be keen to have them.


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All one in Christ Jesus

This blog hasn’t had much of my time and attention in the last couple of years. I intend things to be different this year, hand in hand with reducing the amount of material I will be posting on my economics blog. In part that will depend on whether I finally get back towards more normal health and energy. We’ll see.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve read two books on aspects of modern church history, both quite readable but adapted from the respective authors’ PhD theses.

The first book was Mississippi Praying, with the subtitle “Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975, by Carolyn Dupont a US academic. The focus is on Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, the former two denominations being the two largest in the state of Mississippi, with only occasional references to other denominations (and I was left wondering whether another study might useful compare and – where appropriate – contrast the experience in these largely-decentralised Protestant denominations to that of the Catholics). Missisippi was, of course, one of the southern states most resistant to ending racial segregation, and the book’s title is presumably intended as an allusion to “Mississippi Burning”, the 1988 movie treatment of the murder of three civil rights activists. Mississippi was also, and remains, one of the states with the highest rates of church attendance anywhere in the United States.

The book was full of fascinating material (focused most heavily, as the PhD thesis had, on the 1954-66 period) on how denominations, congregations, and individuals (mostly ministers, mostly – but not entirely – white) reacted and responded to the changing social and legal imperatives. Sadly, ‘responded’ is the right word there, as there was distressingly little sign of churches providing any sort of leadership towards integration and equality. In all too many cases – as perhaps happens all too commonly whatever the era – churches served as chaplains to the wider surrounding culture, buttressing the legitimacy of an approach – on this occasion to racial issues – with its origins elsewhere. Dupont documents the pressure put on churches and ministers to stay in line, and resist even the mildest openings towards racial integration. And the resistance in Mississippi when the wider denominations to which these congregations belonged began to take steps to encourage the path towards integration.

Perhaps one of the things that struck me most about the book was the depth and reality/sincerity of the faith of so many of the Mississippi congregations and denominational groupings. Why do I say that? Well, church attendance was increasing – as it did in so much of the West in the 1950s – but it was more than that. The missionary giving and going was impressive, to say the least, as – and this surprised me more – was the scale of the resources put into evangelistic etc work among the local black population. Perhaps there were elements of a defensive ploy about that – fending off some external pressures to integrate by reference – by reference to this work, but these were substantial real resources being commited to the work, raised from individuals and decentralised congregations. I see no reason to doubt the reality of the faith, or the sense of urgency about evangelisation, even as we lament that rather severe blindspot that left most of these same people and congregations resistant to the idea of worshipping together, in the same congregation as, their black brothers and sisters in Christ. Aren’t such blindspots so frequently part of the Christian church’s experience – or indeed that of each of us as individuals? And which are typically much clearer in hindsight.

Perhaps the thing I found least persuasive about the book was Dupont’s attempt to argue that an evangelical version of the Christian faith, emphasising the individual and his/her need for salvation, goes a long way towards explaining how resistant to change, and integration, these Mississippi Christians were. It has some plausibility when thinking about public policy – what rules and laws should governments make? – where the old line that politics isn’t the church’s business seems to have been part of the story. Perhaps voting rights or even integration of public schools just didn’t, to many, seem like an issue for these churches. But that doesn’t explain – and the author doesn’t really make a distinct effort to do so – the resistance of churches themselves to integrating their own congregations. That was, first and foremost, a matter for Christian people, doing church. It was also about individuals being, or not being (in this area), conformed to Christlikeness, in their interactions with others, notably other Christians.

(And although the author – largely rightly it seems to me – commends those from the less individualistic denominations for their work in those decades championing civil rights and integration, it is sobering to reflect today that most of those denominations have been in near-catastrophic numerical decline in the US, while not only is Mississippi still one of the states with the highest rates of churchgoing, but that the Baptists – in many ways the most problematic of her denominations, perhaps because most decentralised (no bishop or synod tells a Baptist what to do, for good and ill) – are apparently by far the strongest of the denominations today in that state. Perhaps every tradition has a time when its perspective is uniquely needed?)

I read the book largely unsympathetic to the congregations and individual Christians who resisted integration – the more so to those congregations that ousted ministers who attempted even moderate calls towards putting some sort of integration into practice. (Although as I read I also wondered about how I’d have reacted behaved in those times, when the costs to pushing back became large for many – always a good reason to read about tough episodes in the church’s past, including 1930s Germany). How can it not be a scandal when a church bars its door to those who would worship solely because of the skin colour of those potential worshippers? Are we not as Christians, Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, one in Christ Jesus?

But it also got me thinking about other trends we’ve seen in the church in recent decades. In almost any city in countries like New Zealand, we find a wide range of ethnic minority congregations. There is a Chinese Baptist church quite near where I currently live, and as kid I mowed the lawns for the Auckland Chinese Baptist church, just across the road from our own Baptist congregation. There was no particular tension between the two congregations – the Chinese one had bought a building we no longer needed, my father (minister of our congregation) was often invited to Chinese Baptist events (I remember some superb – Chinese – church lunches). They could easily be seen as separate but equal (in that phrase of somewhat infamous memory). Sometimes the justification for these ethnic churches is linguistic – enough new immigrants with limited English that services in that other language are really needed. But sometimes it seems to be rather more cultural than that, and I’m left wondering about the similarities and differences with those white congregations in Mississippi. There are (important) differences: I’m sure no congregation in New Zealand formally bars the door to those of other races, but is it a difference of degree more than kind? Perhaps also there is a difference in that most of the explicitly-ethnic congregations serve minority communities. But that probably wouldn’t have washed – to the rest of the world – if white communities in South Africa today wanted such congregations.

And it brought to mind the ideas of Peter McGavran and the church growth movement of a few decades ago, who argued that evangelisation was more likely to be successful if focused on “homogenous units” – groups of similar class, ethnic or whatever background. It was contentious in its day – personally I was always uneasy (to say the least) about it. Because even if it “works” – builds numbers – can it really be right? I don’t know whether the evangelicals in Mississippi in the 60s had had much exposure then to McGavran’s ideas, but – in bastardised form at least – they surely have been useful in their cause: the church will prosper best when people are free to worship with those “most like them”, or lines to that effect.

Oh, and then there was the threefold – three tikanga – governance model of the Anglican church in this part of the world.

For Christmas I’d received the gift of a copy of Hirini Kaa’s book, Te Mahi Mihinare: The Maori Anglican Church. Kaa is both an academic and an ordained Anglican priest, and his book was a really interesting read. The evangelisation of the Maori population in the 19th century, initially by CMS missionaries and increasingly by Maori Christians themselves is an inspiring story, full of individual tales of heroism, humility, and faith. (Sadly, the decline of Christianity – including Anglicanism – in New Zealand whether among Maori or non-Maori populations is the dominant story now). And the interest in Kaa’s historical material continues well through the 20th century (he stops at about 1990 just before he himself became a member of the General Synod), including the development of Maori bishoprics.

But it is hard not to read Kaa’s book as also that of a man with a mission, that mission being the construction and maintenance of separate Maori entities and structures within the Anglican church in New Zealand. And I’m left wondering – as I have been for some decades since the move to the three tikanga governance model brought the issue to my attention – quite how consistent with the gospel this move is. The risk is that the church serves as chaplain to certain strands in the wider political Maori community. (For clarity, I’m not an Anglican, but worshipped in Anglican churches for more than a decade, and our three kids were all baptised in Anglican churches, one here in New Zealand. For a year or so – ended only when my term in the country ended – I was part of a Anglican congregation that was 99 per cent African.)

Kaa’s model seems to be one in which Christianty – and Anglicanism specifically –  is a Western thing.  It isn’t of course, even if the first missionaries (and later settlers) were themselves mostly from Britain, itself converted to Christianity by missionary movements centuries earlier.  And he seems strangely content with the idea that Christians of British descent (and those of Asian, or other European, or African?) descent should have one form of Christianity, and Maori another.

To be honest, I’m not fully sure how the Anglican system works in New Zealand.  There don’t seem to be distinctly Maori parishes at least in the parts of cities I’ve lived in, and yet there are clearly places in New Zealand –  we drove round East Cape on our recent holidays – where the population, and presumably the churches, are largely comprised of Maori people.  Quite how the governance works –  what powers the Bishop of Waiapu has, what powers the relevant Maori-stream bishop has etc – isn’t clear, and isn’t actually developed in the book.    But I’m left uneasy.    Hark back to the possible reasons for separate congregations etc.  There are very few people in New Zealand who are monolingual in Maori only, and probably not many more Maori who can’t also function in English.  But perhaps it makes sense, in some areas, to have Maori-language services, for those more comfortable worshipping in that language (as, say, the small number of English language churches in Paris). But the theology is –  or should be –  the same: one Lord, one faith, one baptism.  And it isn’t obvious that Kaa is fully convinced of that –  almost 200 years on, he seems to keep wanting to hark back to pre-contact, pre-Christian, ways of thinking.   And separate streams of governance, separate institutions? 

To some it could sound like the US south of the 1950s.  That might be mostly unfair.  After all, Maori in modern New Zealand are a minority, whereas the white churches of the US South were (mostly) majority populations.  And language is an issue for some.  Is there a difference that Maori were in New Zealand before Europeans (and others arrived)?  Perhaps it is in a wider political sense, but it isn’t obvious what it has to do with the gospel or the church. I hope I don’t go to church to celebrate, protect or defend, some particular English, European, or even Anglo-New Zealand heritage or identity, but to worship the one living God, who –  in Jesus –  sent his disciples out to make followers of people in every nation under heaven –  initially in the near-east, then in Europe and North Africa, then…then…and in these much later days even to the islands of New Zealand.  And to be, little by painful little, conformed into his likeness, alongside sisters and brothers of every nation.

Having read the two books in quick succession –  that more by good fortune than anything else, they turning up in the house just a couple of weeks apart –  I was still left with more puzzles than answers, but a distinct discomfort when race-based structures seep into God’s church. 


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Choices, values

It has been a while since I wrote here.  Shortly after getting back from holiday, the coronavirus issues started to come to the fore, first as an issue primarily in the People’s Republic of China, but increasingly as threat and then reality almost everywhere.  Including now here in New Zealand.  A great deal of my time and energy in the last couple of months has been taking up with those issues, including lots of writing on my economics and public policy blog (links here).

And now New Zealand itself is passing into a “lockdown”,  I deliberately use the inverted commas, since it is hard to envisage that less than perhaps 10 per cent of employees will not still be at work.   The government appears to have put a great deal of priority on the material aspects of life, and almost none on the more human and religious dimensions.


  • gatherings for public worship are prohibited, even outdoors, even with appropriate social distancing.  Xi Jinping must be proud of western governments doing this sort of thing,
  • in particular, any gatherings to mark Holy Week, to celebrate the great feast of Easter are simply prohibited, under threat of who knows quite what penalty (and perhaps the standing army deployed against civilians to enforce these prohibitions)
  • Parliament has been suspended for the duration, apparently with the acquiesence of the main Opposition party,
  • it appears that clergy will no longer be able to offer comfort and care to those in distress, those who are dying (not necessarily of Covid-19, other life and death goes on).  In a Catholic context, I presume this means a prohibition on administering the last rites,
  • funerals are either prohibited, or no material number of people are able to attend (again, even in the open air)
  • any public demonstrations against any actions of the government during this period as also illegal,
  • individuals are unable to care for friends and family (other than those sharing a household) by sitting with them, giving a hug, and so on.

It is an entirely materialist mindset, an entirely individualistic one as well.  It is runs fundamentally counter to almost all that our society and faith have traditional nurtured, valued, and protected.  In various posts over the last few weeks, I’ve asked the government to identify what they regard as more important than public health.  By their actions, we see their views on that matter.

And if you want some specific illustration of the choices, tradeoffs, and values that our political masters choose to live by, and to attempt to force us to live by, consider that

  • the Cookie Time biscuit company will remain open,
  • vineyards and wineries will continue in operation,
  • the aluminium smelter will remain operating,
  • the purveyor of prepared meal ingredients to the affluent middle classes, My Food Bag, will continue to operate.

Liberties shredded, fundamental elements of humanity and society outlawed, all without even a credible hint of a sure strategy.  Without any credible hint as to when, by their grace and favour, our liberties might be restored.  Can they assure us we will be free to gather –  as families and as churches – to celebrate the Incarnation?  Will they assure us? I doubt it.  Instead, all the political energy went into (probably unsustainable) assurances that the supermarkets would remain fully stocked, and lectures against preparing ourselves (including in ways that might limit the need for visits to food outlets during the –  hoped for –  peak of this crisis).

Now don’t get me wrong.   To the extent there is a short-term goal to this partial lockdown, I understand it at the big picture level.    The fewer person to person contacts in aggregate, the fewer the opportunities for the virus to spread.    That should, for a time away, reduce the incidence of cases in New Zealand.    So my quarrel isn’t with that basic point, but with the “which contacts, and with whom”.

There was, for example, no forward planning by the government to (a) encourage households to fill their pantries, and (b) supermarkets to arrange to focus on production and sale/delivery of a narrow range of basic products (rice, potatoes, rolled oats, flour, milk, bread, supplemented by whatever is in the pantry would actually be something people could live on for a few weeks).  People could bake; they don’t need Cookie Time factory workers gathering and dispersing each day.  And we certainly don’t need –  for the essentials of life – an aluminium smelter open.

Now, of course there are arguments for each of these exceptions, but they too reveal the values of the decisionmakers.  The aluminium smelter is kept open solely because it would be very expensive to close.  That is a value. But so is the choice to allow, or not, freedom to gather, outdoors, to worship, to celebrate Easter and the resurrection hope God offers in it.  Keeping up the usual diet is certainly a nice to have, but the ability to grieve with those who grieve, mourn with those who mourn might be thought, by some at least, rather more important –  perhaps especially as the prospect of any unexpectedly early death may loom for many.  Sure, individuals can pray alone, and yet the Christian faith has always been more tangible, collective and gathered than that.

Of course, the clergy are largely no use on these issues. Many rushed to cancel services even before the government forced them to, as if gathered congregational worship were no more than another inessential entertainment –  perhaps on a par with a movie theatre.   I’ve not heard a word from any church leaders standing against this materialist, unhuman, set of choices our government has made.  But then why be surprised, when so much of the mainline church has been conforming itself to the world for so long, more interested often in mantras about (say) climate change than about sin, death, grace and judgement.

I’ve been asked on Twitter whether I would be happy with other exceptions/carveouts. I can’t really answer that without specifics, but as you’ll see above my concerns are not just with the prohibitions on the free exercise of religion, but range more widely.

And, of course, the standard mantra is response in always something about “every unnecessary contact risks more lives”, but (a) as I noted above there are many authorised contacts, simply about material comfort or money, which could be clamped down on instead, and (b) the fundamental point of almost any society ever has been that there are, at times, things more important than this life.   Our Christian hope is the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, first fruits of the resurrection promise in which all Christians share.   But it isn’t just a Christian thing: all serious societies are willing to run risks and pay prices for things, and people, they hold dear.  Our own nation, for example, chose that path on 3 September 1939, at great cost and great risk.

Our leaders act as if they believe that this life is all there is, and that material aspects of life are almost all that matter.  Worse, they insist that the rest of us live, at least for now, by their values.   These, of course, the same leaders –  particularly on the left or libertarian parts of the New Zealand spectrum –  who celebrate liberalising abortion law and seek this year to authorise assisted suicide.  So add incoherence to their materialist unhuman values, revealed in this present crisis.


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Refusing Hitler, following Christ

Last weekend I noticed a few references from the US to the release of a new Terence Malick move,  A Hidden Lifewhich had opened last Friday.  It is based on the life, and death, of the Austrian farmer Franz Jagerstatter, a Catholic Christian who concluded that his faith and his obedience to Christ did not allow him to serve in the German army during World War Two and, in particular, refused the mandatory oath of unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler.  He made the choice, that act of (higher) obedience, knowing that the mandatory penalty for such refusal was death.  He was beheaded in Berlin in August 1943, leaving behind a wife and three young children.

I first stumbled across the Jagerstatter story more than 10 years ago.  I’d been intrigued enough to find, and purchase, a book about him, written in the 1960s and drawing on many interviews with people who’d known Jagerstatter, including his widow.  But I’d never gotten round to reading it.  On Sunday, prompted by the new movie, I pulled the book down from the shelf and have read it over the last few days.   It is a challenging and inspiring story.  As it happens, the critics seem to like the movie too, but I haven’t seen it and my interest is in his life, and choice.  But if a good director’s portrayal of it brings the story to a wider audience, so much the better.

Of course, there were plenty of conscientious objectors in western countries.  But the cost of such objection was generally fairly mild and relatively shortlived.  That isn’t to take anything away from those who made such a conscientious choice, but any choice that matters almost inevitably comes with some cost.

And Jagerstatter was not a conscientious objector to fighting –  or serving –  in a war.  His objection was much more specific; it was to the nature and character of the Nazi regime and the war it had initiated.  It was an evil regime, and Jagerstatter would take no part in its war.

It wasn’t as if he rushed towards death.   Although he was one of a small number who hadn’t voted for the Anschluss in 1938 he doesn’t seem to have courted controversy.  It was only when his various deferments (presumably being a farmer, when the country needs lot of food) ended and he was called up in early 1943 that he faced the inescapable choice: serve (as most other German Christians of military age did) and bend the knee to evil, or refuse and face death.  He wasn’t part of any resistance groups,  in fact he wasn’t part of any groups at all.  It was a personal stance arrived at through a great deal of thought and prayer.

He was, of course, a devout Catholic –  and sexton at his local parish church.  He hadn’t always been that devout, but his marriage in 1936 seemed to be a catalyst to a move deeper into the things of God.  But he found little or no support among his fellow Austrian Christians.   He wrote to and talked to various clergy, even the diocesan bishop, and all seem to have encouraged him to “go along” –  not on any particular moral grounds, not articulating a defence of the regime, but for the sake of his wife and family.  But the people Gordon Zahn talked to in putting together his book made it clear that although it was an individual choice, there is no sense of Jagerstatter as mentally disordered, obsessive, or the like.   Those who knew him and home, and those who encountered him in the six months he spent in German prisons, speak of a calm, clear-headed, thoughtful and prayerful Christian.  They couldn’t but respect him, even if some were clearly left uncomfortable by the courage of his choice (one they themselves presumably would not have made).

Of course, there are other Christians – in other times and other places –  who have knowingly made choices that would lead to their execution.  The martyrologies of the early church are full of such courageous Christians, refusing to worship the imperial gods, refusing the path of (apparent) compromise (outward compliance, inward faith).  In another recent film based on Endo’s novel Silence we saw the same sort of courageous obedience in the great persecutions of Japan.  But perhaps what gives Jagerstatter’s story special salience –  with me, but I’m sure I’n not the only one –  is that his was a choice made in a highly advanced western/central European society not that long ago (my parents were alive then), but also that it was a choice ultimately made alone –  that much harder than if, say, an entire community of Christians were choosing a path of refusing to bend the knee.

But there are two other dimensions that strike home, and hard.  The first –  perhaps just sociological – is that Jagerstatter wasn’t particularly highly educated: he was a farmer in a remote Austrian village, with relatively little personal exposure to the wider world, little direct access to books and scholarly writings.  And yet he had the Scriptures, and the rituals and teaching of the church, that by God’s grace had formed his faith and made him willing to take, and stand by to the end, a choice that would mean certain death.  And it wasn’t some highly some highly publicised death that might galvanise wider discontent.  Jagerstatter had no particular reason to suppose that his choice would ever be known by any much outside his small village.

The other, which strikes deeper, is how few German Christians were willing to make anything like similar choices, whether early in the Nazi regime or towards its end.  Most went along, more or less willimgly, not necessarily embracing Nazism, but nonetheless bending the knee –  serving in the armed forces, waging aggressive war, serving in the institutions of government, saying or doing little or nothing, running no risks.

Jagerstatter himself wasn’t critical of others.  He spoke of others perhaps not being given the grace he had been.  And all of us –  facing few such challenges, now or in prospect –  should be wary of judging individuals.  And yet evil regimes survive when people won’t pay a price for a higher loyalty, won’t say “thus far and no further”.  It is easy to run arguments about the priority of family –  although as Jagerstatter noted it was Jesus who spoke of how disciples need to be willing to leave father and mother for his sake –  about the ability to do more good inside than outside, and so on.  And, of course, the true character of an evil regime is rarely apparent on day one, and often by the time the character is apparent, it is if not too late, at least harder to make a stand on the next compromise given all those already made.

And yet Jagerstatter did, simply, clearly, firmly resolved, and courageously.  He knew that his true home was in Heaven, not in the Austrian village, much as he appears to have loved home and farm and family.

And so the question confronts each of us, at least if we are Christians desiring to follow Christ.  Could, would, we do as Jagerstatter did?   Without facing the specific challenge, we cannot know. And yet one of the reasons why stories like his should be widely taught and known is that as we reflect prayerfully and humbly on the life and faith of martyrs like Jagerstatter it can help us form one another in the capacity to choose God, and not the path of rationalisation and compromise.  I give thanks for the life and witness of Franz Jagerstatter, and those few like him in Nazi Germany.   They speak of the difference our faith in God should make, of what it can mean to go to him outside the gate knowing that here we have no abiding city, and they challenge and confront us –  individually and collectively – about how we can, too often, take the path of least resistance, supported by all manner of rationalisation.

It was Bonhoeffer –  who was also executed, in 1945, but who had not made as bold a call re service to the regime as Jagerstatter – who wrote “when Christ calls a man he bids him come and die”.  Jagerstatter lived that, in very concrete terms, right to the executioner’s block, resisting all the blandishments – including of German army officers – who urged him to take an easier path. It isn’t a specific choice many of us are likely to face in New Zealand or the US.  But even in our countries, the way becomes harder for faithful Christians, and too much of the church seems as interested in getting along with the forces of the world.

But in the People’s Republic of China the choices facing our Christian brethren this year, this Christmas are almost as stark.  Perhaps the regime doesn’t execute (many) Christians, but in its determination to assert the supremacy of the Party and to squash any competing loyalties, the choices –  loss of job, loss of freedom, perhaps loss of family – begin to approach what the faithful face in Nazi Germany.  It is always easier, in the short term, to just go along, to compromise, but it is also the way that leads to the death we should fear much more.  And as Jagerstatter found, a determination to follow Christ, in refusing to bend the knee to evil, isn’t exactly the path to popularity even among fellow believers.  When Zahn wrote his book in the 1960s it was clear that many of the people in Jagerstatter’s own village were still ambivalent – at one level respecting him, at another perhaps uneasy that his courage was one they might admire but knew hadn’t been theirs, and perhaps still wouldn’t.  And the leadership of the Catholic church in Germany during the war hadn’t exactly covered itself in glory, by its demonstration of humble courage.

And yet the power of the examples won out.  Jagerstatter was beatified by the Catholic church –  the step before sainthood –  in 2007, in the presence of his widow who died only this decade aged 100.

I hope to be able to see the movie.  Whether or not you can, I encourage you to read and reflect prayerfully on the life, death and discipleship of Franz Jagerstatter.  Perhaps especially as we approach Christmas.  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, to put down the mighty from their seats, and no worthy goal is won without cost.  Christ himself willingly chose the path that led to death.  For us.

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I’ve been trying to work out how best to think about feasting, gift-giving and celebration more generally, especially at Christmas.

There were a few prompts: a Newsroom column by someone from the (Anglican) Auckland City Mission, which ran under a title suggesting that Christmas was about “food and family”.   That seemed more than a little odd.   And various comments from personal finance advisers counselling against heavy spending at Christmas (and even a suggestion from the government’s own financial capability/literacy body that we might exercise restraint “for the sake of planet”  –  all that wrapping paper, Christmas crackers, and food waste).   And there was a conversation over lunch at a meeting I was at the other day with various late middle-aged (mostly) Christians, where the tone seemed to be mostly in favour of a fairly minimalist Christmas, as least as far as gift-giving goes.

Part of me is puzzled why non-Christians celebrate Christmas at all in any form.  I suppose there must be elements of memories of childhood, but that only takes one so far: even when I was growing up (60s and 70s) most people in New Zealand didn’t go to Sunday School, let alone church.  I can’t think of any festivals or celebrations I participate in that I don’t believe in. I can’t even begin to imagine doing so, and so I struggle to see why people would spend money –  any significant amounts of money – on marking a festival that had no personal meaning to them.   Perhaps you might look a litle odd to some of your friends –  given the prevalence of Christmas in secular New Zealand –  but surely you’d want to live consistent with your beliefs and worldview?   (And yes I know some people will tell you they are really marking the solstice or some such, but we all know that for 99 per cent of them it is just a rationalisation.)

Of course, Christmas isn’t primarily about any of the stuff that costs money.  It is a celebration –  a wondrous, exuberant celebration –  of the Incarnation: of God’s initiative towards salvation and redemption, sending Jesus (truly God, truly man).  It is stunning truth, good news for all who will receive the message.

I’ve spent a couple of Christmases living overseas, single at the time, in which the church services  –   midnight and the following morning was pretty much all the Christmas there was.   There probably were a handful of presents in the post, and perhaps Mum and Dad back in New Zealand rang during the day.  But that was it.  I wasn’t constrained by money, but it certainly wasn’t the glossy magazine Christmas celebrations.  And did it matter?   Not really.

Now I’m not recommending it as a model, in fact rather the contrary.  But if circumstances mean you –  as a Christian, taking Christmas seriously – have little or no spare money, the inability to spend to celebrate isn’t the end of the world.  You don’t have to.  Go to church (perhaps twice, preferably to a service where the organisers aren’t promising it will all over in 30 minutes so that people can get on with the “real business” of the day), go the beach, walk in the park, pick up a book, put on some music (Christmas or otherwise), watch a Christmas movie, and celebrate –  individually or as family or with friends –  the gift God gives us in Christ.

The same goes for many of the other big events of life.  I find it bizarre that people postpone marriage until they can afford the big and expensive event.  21st birthdays, graduations, or whatever don’t need to be (financially) extravagant events.

But……which is really the point of the post ….. festivals, celebration, gift-giving –  make a lot of special occasions –  seems pretty deeply embedded in human culture and civilisation.  Poor peasants plan carefully for periodic celebrations.  And the world of the Bible seems no different in that regard.  The supreme Christmas gift of course is Jesus –  God himself given freely for us.  And Luke records for us the visit of the wise men, bearing gifts –  not cheap ones either, but gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Gift-giving –   generous gift-giving –  seems a fitting element of our celebration of the Feast of the Incarnation.

Feasts and festivals aren’t some Christian innovation.   Recall the Old Testament provisions in  Deuteronomy regarding the tithe –  two years out of three the proceeds were to be used to celebrate, exuberantly by the sound of it.

spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household.

Even for Israelite peasants, 10 per cent of annual income would make for quite some party.

We could think of Christ at the wedding feast at Cana –  providing the best wine –  or the costly devotion of the women in Luke 7 who break the alabaster jar of perfume and washed Jesus’ feet with some mix of tears and perfume.  We can bring to mind the extravagant material celebration the father puts on when the Prodigal Son returns.  And we look forward to the bridal feast of the Lamb, when scarcity and poverty are no more.

Eating and drinking in celebration, gift-giving too, are a part of human life and community, part of the way we acknowledge the significant milestones of life and faith.  I’m an economist by training, and economists tend to have a problem with mutual gift-giving –  talk of inefficiencies, deadweight losses etc –  but few other humans do.   It is one of the joys of life to be able to choose gifts for those one loves.  One of the parts of being human to learn to receive such gifts graciously –  grace, after all,  is supremely at work in Jesus.   And special foods, or drink, for celebration meals with family and/or friends, even with strangers speaks of all sorts of things: of community, of our recognition (more than just cerebrally) of special occasions.  It was so in centuries past when wealth was much less abundant, and is so today  Could we have cheese-on-toast for the main meal on Christmas Day?  Sure, if that really is all you have.  But if you choose to do nothing special when you have the ability to do otherwise, don’t you dishonour the Supreme Giver, God?  Our faith and practice isn’t just a cerebral thing, it is about worship, discipleship, and celebration with all that we have and are –  material, spiritual, whatever.

Can these things go wrong?  Well, of course.  We all know, or have heard or read of, people or families where  gift-giving, or feasting, becomes a competitive act of one upmanship, or where instead of a generous gift signifying love, the gift-giving becomes a desperate attempt to prove the love by the size of the gift.  All human actions, or inaction, is marred by sin –  the line between good and evil runs through each human heart –  but that knowledge shouldn’t be allowed to paralyse us, sacrificing the good because we can’t have the perfect.

Are there simple and unambiguous answers to these issues?  Often not.  Ideally I suspect we are called to celebrate as church communities at least as much as in nuclear families, and yet in a place like New Zealand –  where Christmas often kicks off the summer holidays and dispersal to the beach – congregations are often scattered to the four winds.   And when we do celebrate in families there is a need for sensitivity, as between families in the same congregation who have much and those who have little.  But I’m not sure that is so different for festivals and celebrations than for the rest of life.

I’m somewhat lately reformed on this issue.  I always enjoyed Christmas when I was growing up, even when my parents didn’t have much money: it was a real celebration, sometimes shared with those in congregation or community who didn’t have much, or have other people around.  That, it seems looking back, modelled something of Christ.  But between Puritan sympathies and an economics training, for a long time I tended to look slightly askance at extravagant celebration.  I’d still counsel a young couple, committed to each other, to marry and have a simple, but joyous, ceremony and celebration, than to postpone indefinitely to have a fancy party.   But if you can abundantly celebrate –  church festivals or whatever –  then do so.  My old somewhat Gradgrindian attitudes diminish both a sense of human community  –  celebrations draw us together, bonding over (inter alia) shared memories, and diminish our ability to recognise wholeheartedly a God of abundance, a God who acts –  has acted, will act –  generously, without limit.

So for Christians in particular, I say embrace the Christmas celebrations next week –  not just services, but the physical and material elements too.  Eat and drink and give gifts, recalling as we do how God so abundantly gave, and the promise to which he calls us.   Are (some) presents ill-chosen or wasted?  Is the brother-in-law you never see hard to buy for?  No doubt, but don’t let things like that be the enemy of giving generously, as God in Christ gives to us.  Lets show the wider secular world quite how much the Incarnation means to us –  not just in how we try to live day by day, but in how we celebrate.

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