Monthly Archives: March 2012

Close Encounters

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind we are told the story of Aliens finally making contact with the human race. While the establishment prepares for this meeting, they’re keen to keep it secret and shut out ordinary people.  However, there are ordinary people who had alien encounters on lonely roads, in their back gardens and during abductions of loved ones. Through visions, compulsions and mania that act like a “calling” they begin making their way to Devil’s Tower,  Wyoming to await the big moment.

We  follow Roy Neary and Jillian Guiler. He was buzzed by strange light bearing craft on a lonely road and  became obsessed by images of a mountain; he sculpts it out of mashed potato and sketches it with the kids’ crayons  causing his family to abandon him as a madman. It all makes sense when he sees finally sees the mountain on TV.  Jillian too is haunted by this image following the abduction of her son Barry by unseen beings hidden by hot bright lights. Her house is full of paintings of this mountain she has never seen.

As they get closer to the mountain and the military cordon they are caught and detained.   They manage to escape and as they do the director of the project announces his verdict on their presence and why they shouldn’t be stopped:

“They were invited!”

In the gospels, it is very rare to find people coming to Jesus and telling him they are a sinner and they want him to enter their life. They come to ask for healing, to find out if he is the messiah, but forgiveness is rarely the first piece of business. Jesus invites the disciples to follow him.  When Peter faces the resurrected Jesus with shame at betraying him, Jesus invites him to resume his discipleship.  The apostle Paul is invited to be an apostle on the road to Damascus. Jesus invites Zaccheus to come down out of his tree and then invites himself to dinner.

Jesus rarely approached people as sinners but rather as people who sin had disabled. He called them to leave sin as their master or cast out the spirits who wanted to keep them from living. He invited them to pick up his cross and follow him. He invited them to come closer and tell him what they wanted.  He invited them to give him a cup of water. When his disciples try to keep  blind men from bothering Jesus and Pharisees point out that he should be careful about who he keeps company with, Jesus says, “they were invited!”

Yet we are prone to tell the story the other way around.

In a recent interview Rob Bell put his finger on the problem with this approach:

The problem goes back to how you read the Bible. A lot of Christians have been taught a story that begins in chapter 3 of Genesis, instead of chapter 1. If your story doesn’t begin in the beginning, but begins in chapter 3, then it starts with sin, and so the story becomes about dealing with the sin problem. So Jesus is seen as primarily dealing with our sins. Which is all true, but it isn’t the whole story and it can lead people into all kinds of despair when it comes to understanding just why we’re here.

The Bible begins in Genesis 1 not with sin but with blessing, not with toil and despair but with life, and creativity, and vibrant participation with God in the ongoing creation of the world–which involves art, and law, and medicine, and education, and parenting, and justice, and learning, and thousands of other pursuits; callings that are holy and sacred in and of themselves. It’s all part of flourishing in God’s good world, which is our home. Here, on earth, is where the story begins and where it ends, and so our work here, in whatever way we co-create with God, is our vocation.

Bell’s words on vocation are important here.  Do we invite God to come and cure us or do we accept God’s invitation, extended by Jesus  to leave sin behind, to embrace our vocation and begin living the life of the kingdom now?  Humanity didn’t begin as sinners but as stewards of God’ s good and purposeful creation. Sin  interrupts our work, distracting us, disabling us, but it doesn’t stop the work.  Salvation means healing of the whole person rather than a magic moment where we are handed the keys of heaven. It is a life’s work.

The offer of salvation is an offer to come back to work after sick leave because being at work will be part of our healing. When we live in our vocation we find it heals and energises while at the same time leading us away from destructive and debilitating lives.

Jesus invites us to a life, that from the very beginning, we are invited to live and enjoy.

It’s a round table, but I’m not sure about the knights

 “My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you”. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”

Sorry to interrupt your day by quoting scripture at you like one of those shouty man evangelists but I thought you might appreciate some context about my  need to rant about this  video which disturbs me as a church leader.

The passage above is from the first chapter of  the first letter to the Corinthians. In it, Paul confronts the causes of deep division in a church always willing to argue with each other and to declare one another to be in the wrong. It came to mind almost immediately after watching this.

One reason I love this passage is that it provides a great name for a band (Chloe’s Household).  The other reason is that Paul is humble about the purpose and value of his leadership:  “ I’m not here to tell you about Paul or how to grow in a relationship with him; I’m here to tell you about Jesus.”

I know God has a sense of humour.  It tends to rely heavily on irony and slapstick.  So when Christians who lead very heavily from the bible have what they believe to be deeply biblical conversations, yet act like the divisive people Paul wrote about,  I chuckle first and weep second. They are usually the same people who preach on the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14) and finish by saying, “Thank  God we aren’t like that Pharisee”.

They bring scripture to life by showing how realistic the situation Paul wrote to confront was. Here we see the emphasis of the messenger over the message itself:

“But Francis, if you go, who will they follow?”

“that executive pastor guy doing your job, is he any good?”

“So few people cut the mustard with us,  if you stop, how will we be able to associate with you without having our ministries questioned?”

Who will they follow? I would hope that Chan’s answer would be “I suspect they will follow Jesus as I hope they have been always doing.”

But that isn’t really the answer Chan’s questioners are looking for. The  tone of the conversation implies our way is the way, the church has needed us for so long and now here we are. We can’t let them down. We can’t abandon the structures that makes our followers sound. Our absence might tempt the sheep to go to false teachers.  We are the great teachers of our time, we have obligations.

Were you baptised in the name of Francis or Mark or Joel or Bill or Rob or Shane or Brian? Or Dave or Eric or Martin or Ian or Taffy or Vivian or Jane or Veronica?  No, you were baptised in the name of Jesus who lets replaceable and sometimes wrong and sometimes sinful and sometimes doubting servants be part of his exciting movement in the world.

I’ve learned that my ministry is only effective when I do not stand shoulder to shoulder with Jesus but rather follow him with the rest of the church. When I act like I have just come in from a strategy session with Jesus I become a stumbling block and I make the flock dependent on me rather than the Lord. I’ve looked, that’s not in my ordination vows.

My job is to live in their midst, always pointing towards Jesus and encouraging them to come to him and making sure that the obstacles and threats that might stop them are cleared away.

I wish that video had been full of excitement and encouragement. “Go for it Francis. We’re excited about this big scary step and we’ll be behind you. Follow the Spirit Francis and thank God you’ve been part of leading a church that can look after itself when you are gone”. But, it wasn’t and that is to the detriment of us all.

Having ranted and got it out my system, my hope is that I can meet with my fellow leaders and offer them my love and support rather than my questions and prejudices (and you all know I have plenty of both) about the ministry God has given them.  I hope you can do that with your fellow believers too.

Now, who wants to play Bass in Chloe’s Household?


A better blog on this meeting can be found at:

My God, they’re all Lizards

Greg Smith’s online resignation letter in the New York Times  tells a story most science fiction fans would recognise.

A man works in a place that seems normal until  gradually he perceives a change in his work mates and the nature of what they are doing.  The reality of the situation is revealed when someone forgets to put on their human mask or takes it off to reveal who they really are: usually scary lizard people.

Smith’s story is a bit like that. He tells a tale of Goldman Sachs changing from the  “if you work hard enough and honestly enough the rewards will come to you” bank to one of darkness and ripoffs. He describes his experience was one of being overcome by a tide wrongdoing,  but what we register is his naivety in believing that aggressive international capitalism is an ethical, fair and integrity filled enterprise. Didn’t he read Bonfire of the Vanities? Or did he willingly close his eyes to the reality until it became too diffficult to do so any longer?

As a farewell his letter is a sad one and unfortunately, it is a letter he posts on his way out rather than a memo sent from his desk. That makes it easier to forget as our attention turns to Syria, coach crashes, high petrol prices and the next Konyish “act now” campaign.

What intrigues me is what would have happened if he had written that letter as an employee who wasn’t planning on leaving.  He would discover how pressing the need would be to have him silenced. In silencing him, Goldman Sachs would reveal themselves for who they really were rather than us having to take his word for it.

It’s a story that comes straight out of the gospels.

Jesus came  to unseat the usurping rebellious powers who sought to enslave humans and a good creation through sin and death.  Jesus  declared that God is in charge and through symbolic acts and miracles and stories revealed  the targets of his campaign: the corrupt rich and the corrupt religious establishment, the corrupt empires whose kings declared themselves to be God.  He declared liberation to the captive slaves: the poor, the marginalised, the disabled, those who are actively shut out of the  kingdom of God by the stewards who are supposed to hold the door open for them.

Jesus was confronted by those with power, those who collaborated profitably with the enslaving powers and principalities; the ones who had more to lose by the coming kingdom of God than they had to gain.  They decided to silence Jesus in the interest of “national and spiritual security”.   The cross was the perfect tool because it was a powerful projection of who is in charge. Criminals and rebels would be hung along roads and crossroads as reminders that Rome had power everywhere.  Everywhere except an obscure tomb in Jerusalem.

The joy of Easter is that the powers and principalities don’t have authority over the grave or eternity or over the present apart from the power we give them.  Jesus rises from the dead, the first born of a new age and a new race. He is a resurrected person whose life is no longer up for grabs.

Jesus knew a kingdom of darkness surrounded humanity;  those living in it did not.  His mission was to open the eyes of those who would see what the reality was and join his insurgency of love.  Jesus wakes us up to who we were created to be and hopefully awakens us so fully that we refuse to be slaves to a lie.

I like the theology that God has called us to be insurgents in our enslaved occupied society. But rather than being car bombers and kidnappers we are lovers. We love in the middle of the crowded market. We love the isolated easily picked off person. We gather forces of love to confront the massed forces of hate and corruption.

Most of all we stop being surprised that the way of the world has a tendency to enslave rather than to liberate.  Goldman Sachs and their ilk have plenty of slaves willing to serve them. Those of us who are free should not be counted among them.