So, I recently became acquainted with David Bazan. David’s a singer-songwriter from somewhere in the US, for some reason I think he’s from the Pacific-Northwest and while I could look it up, I’m feeling kind of lazy so I’m not gonna. He was pretty well known in his early days as the frontman for Pedro The Lion, a band fairly well known on the Christian Indie Music scene I guess. I’ve read several critics who say that Pedro and Bazan paved the way for successful “crossover” artists like Sufjan Stevens. I don’t know if that’s fair though, because when you look at their wikipedia pages it looks like Sufjan’s six months older than David.

Anyway, that doesn’t matter, it’s just a bit of background and a chance to drop a few names for you. Pedro the Lion sort of established Bazan’s reputation for awesome storytelling and blending spiritual ideas with the complexities of real life. Then sometime around 2005 or so, Bazan kind of went through a change.

I don’t know the man and I don’t mean to sound glib. Quite the opposite, I’m actually keeping my comments about this brief because I don’t know much and it’s not my story to tell, the man can tell it himself if he wants to. The short version is he started drinking and developed some pretty hefty doubts. That sort of thing happens.

Anyway, in the process of dealing with life we’re all fortunate that Bazan didn’t give up on music. David’s latest album is titled “Curse Your Branches” and it’s quite honestly one of the best and most thoughtful albums I’ve ever heard. Lyrically it’s beautiful and Bazan doesn’t shy away from the big, ugly and awkward questions – even though he doesn’t have the answers. In that spirit I think it’s fantastic. Musically it’s very accomplished, even though it was recorded very modestly.

All in all this is an album of pain, suffering, rejection, questioning, doubt and disbelief. It’s everything I believe an examination of faith should be. It’s fire and ashes, loss and gain, confusion and clarity. It’s paradox and it’s art. I thoroughly recommend the album to you, but beware – you need to be a little bit brave to be able to hear it clearly.

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I know that on one level that kind sound like an exceptionally arrogant question. What’s so special about you, or me, and our faith? But that’s actually the heart of the question.

What IS so special about your faith, or my faith? Is there anything to distinguish it from any other philosophy or lifestyle? Is there something about it that differentiates it from people who just try to be good?

And if there is a differentiating factor, is it a positive one? Is your faith recognised as a force for good in your life and in the way that your life impacts others? Or is it simply there, nobody able to notice it unless they’re specifically looking for it?

Even worse, is it recognised for its negativity? Is the difference of your faith defined by the things that its AGAINST? That would truly be terrible – if all you were known for was hating things, what a tragic expression of faith.

So I ask again, when did your faith rock somebody’s world? And did it rock their world well? I hope so. Faith should rock things, it should rock them really well. Just sayin’.

Sorry it’s been a little while between thoughts and ideas lately. I’ve had some pretty important personal stuff going on in recent weeks. I don’t think that it’s really appropriate to talk about the details or specifics here as it doesn’t just involve me, but I would like to share some of the observations and realisations I’ve had in the last couple of weeks.

First of all, it’s been really nice to experience the love, care and support of people around me as I’ve needed. Especially when I’ve received such blessings often without saying anything at all, let alone asking for something. I’ve had old friends get in touch and say “I’ve been thinking about you lately” and so on. It’s been very humbling to let myself be loved and cared for – and it’s been a beautifully reassuring thing to be reminded so convincingly that I am loved and cared for.

I’ve been impressed with the resilience of the human spirit and the ability that we all have to not only endure, but to turn adverse experiences into positive lessons and opportunities. It’s very empowering to realise that I am able to bear the burden I have to bear, and even more so to realise that I can also set that burden down and instead grow as a result of the lightened load.

Finally I have realised that I am a person with an enormous capacity for love – and it has been a true blessing to realise how peaceful I am and how loving I can be when I am centred in a place of peace.

Even though I have been through and am continuing to go through trying times, I have realised that I am doing well in trying to behave with as much dignity, grace and humility as I can muster.

I love you all.

Well according to the old joke, turning the other cheek gets you slapped on both cheeks. But there’s a serious principle to consider here and one that is often mentioned within Christian circles – the idea of giving up more, sacrificing more than we might reasonably be expected to.

Jesus is known for exhortations to turn the other cheek, or to give more than we are asked for, to make donations or gifts to those in need rather than to make loans. In a time when a person could be forced by a Roman soldier to carry his pack for a mile, Jesus said “Go two”.

The best things in blogs often happen in the comments and in a recent post we got some great comments. In particular, the questions was asked – what do I think of the idea of turning the other cheek in the real world? Does it work? How? What do we have to give up and what do we gain by doing that?

To be fair, this may not be the actual intended question, but it is how I’ve understood it and I’ve found it a very interesting thing to consider.

I’ve thought about this for a couple of days and the truth is that I’m not sure of an absolute answer. The specific example mentioned in the question was if a Christian nation was bombed into non-existence, would this act of turning the other cheek have a significant impact?

It all stemmed from asking what the disconnect may be between what is best for the nation and what is desirable for the person of faith? Fundementally (as almost always), I think this all depends on how we understand such things.

For example, I personally tend to find faith to be an intensely private and intimate thing. I may share conversations of faith, thoughts of faith and the practise of faith with others, but ultimately my faith is very much personal and indeed the only way I can understand faith as having any intrinsic meaning is in that intimacy. Which isn’t to say that faith doesn’t have value in other expressions or arenas, but that (to my way of thinking at least) the meaning, that deeper layer of richness, is personal.

But the nation (any nation, it doesn’t matter which one) is by its very nature a large, robust and rambunctious thing full of competing ideas, ideals and personal convictions. Different faiths and no faiths at all, can all co-exist within a nation. So can a nation ever really turn its cheek? I think it’s possible, but highly unlikely. I think that the pacifistic Indian protests against British colonial occupation, as led by Gandhi, are probably the closest we’ve seen to a nation turning the other cheek and even then I don’t think it was an entire nation.

See a nation is bound, required to look for an upside to turning the other cheek. In order to best represent (or attempt to represent) the needs of the people a nation must first ask what are the needs of the people. This is why nations exist. So before a nation can begin to seriously consider whether or not to turn the other cheek it must identify the possibility of gaining something of suitable value in return for such a sacrifice.

I believe that Jesus was asking his followers to do a far more difficult, radical and dangerous thing. I think he was asking his followers to not think of the next mile or the other cheek or the money given away. I think he was asking his followers to think of the other people with whom they interacted. I believe that Jesus was asking his followers to live out a deeply personal and meaningful faith in deeply personal and meaningful ways.

The notion of sacrifice is a powerful and (if we’re honest) terrifying one. The thing is that in order for a sacrifice to be real and meaningful, it has to hurt. It has to cost. Otherwise it’s not really a sacrifice. So maybe you need to sacrifice a little bit of pride and turn the other cheek. Maybe you need to sacrifice some wealth and just give a week’s pay to someone in need. Maybe you need to sacrifice some time and energy to lift someone else’s burden and carry it a couple of miles for them. The truth is that it’s HARD to willingly give up our comforts and ease, but that’s what makes those sacrificial gifts so important.

There are some really interesting ideas that come up when you start to talk about sacrificial living. Traditionally all sacrifices are offered up (quite literally made into offerings) to God. So when Jesus asks us to sacrifice for his sake, to turn the other cheek, to give to those in need, to help the sick, to visit those in prison, then isn’t he asking us to offer these sacrificial acts up to God? Isn’t then, the true and pure motivation to make the best offering we can to God?

In Romans 12, we’re exhorted to offering ourselves up as living sacrifices. Does this mean that we’re to do our best to make as many of our actions as we can sacrificial? Did Jesus make it even more clear in the parable of the sheep and the goats (truly the most terrifying passage in the Bible)? “As much as you have done it to the least of these, my brethren, you have done it to me.”

So for me, the simple fact is that I don’t believe that I can live in a Christian nation, unless I can first live as a Christian. Not with a set of rules to follow and a checklist of things to do. But with a pure and giving heart, willing to sacrifice whenever I need to, in order to honour God. If I can ever muster the courage and strength to do that properly, well then that would really be something.

Turning the other cheek may never get me anything more than slapped on both cheeks, but I want to be brave enough and strong enough to be able to turn it anyway.

I hope we see each other in the second mile.

I guess the theory is pretty simple, you find a set of beliefs or principles that you feel comfortable with and can be guided by. Sure, some of them are challenging but they’re all coming from a good place and the general idea is for you to be a better person, right? So yeah, who would argue that it’s a bad idea to not steal, not lie, not commit murder and so on? It’s a good thing to treat others as you’d like to be treated and there’s real nobility in the idea of turning the other cheek, isn’t there?

So the idea is that if you hold to these beliefs, this faith, that your life will then be transformed in such an amazing and captivating way that everyone around you will immediately notice the difference in you. Not only will they notice, they will be astounded and better yet, they’ll want to be like that too. They’ll ask you how it happened, they’ll beg to know your secret, won’t they?

But is that really how it works? I mean, the ideas, the principles, the beliefs well they’re still good and noble and pure and whatnot. I think. But there’s a huge difference between believing in these things and living according to them. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’d be ridiculously unfair to expect anybody to be perfect, but how often do we even live up to some of these ideals?

How often instead do we warp and twist the ideals to justify the way that we live? Isn’t it easier to say that we’re ‘working’ on the harder things and to claim that we’re forgiven for our weaknesses? Surely that’s easier than actually trying to live up to the things we say we believe in? And who’s to know the difference really? Nobody can judge us, can they? So why not just pick some things that are easy to do and even easier to identify so that we know who’s on board, who really gets it and then we don’t have to hassle each other with troublesome ideas like giving all our riches to the poor.

For example, what if we mixed faith with politics and then made all sorts of things ‘moral’ issues? That’d be a good way to tell who was in which camp yeah? We could politicise things and then crusade against them, that way nobody would have time to figure out if we were helping the sick or visiting the prisoners, clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.

See, if we really worked at it, we could make our faith be transformed to fit our lives. That’d be so much easier than letting our lives be radically transformed. After all, my place is pretty comfortable and I’m thinking about taking a holiday overseas this year. What about you?

Sometimes people walk away from the church. Sometimes in the course of walking away from the church, people walk away from God. Always there are specific reasons for these actions, but I still think it’s interesting (where possible) to find out about these specific reasons and to try to see if there are general themes or ideas at play.

I invite you to read this post and see if you can identify any interesting ideas, themes or reasons that strike a chord with where you’re at, where you’ve been or what you’ve known someone else to go through.

I just kind of stood there, unsure of what to say.  None of my myriad theology classes had prepared me for this.  I mean, what do you say to the parents of a 15 year old with brain cancer?  What do they care about free will versus predestination?  What use is a discussion about God allowing evil to highlight good?

Often, we take theology to be about the answers.  When people ask questions about why children get cancer, or why God allows genocide, we want to tell them the exact reason, complete with supporting evidence both from the Bible and from life.  We want to have the latest psychological information to pass along, often so they will be in awe of our intellect and knowledge.

I think theology is about the questions.  The answers will always be unsatisfying if taken out of the context of the through-the-night wrestling match on the shores of the Jabbok.  Its so easy (and advocated by our culture) to skip the process and get right to the finish.  But, its also the way to take a beautiful thing like an experience of the character of God, and make it just so much data.  

We want the easy answer, so that when we are next to the hospital bed, we know what to say.  But, that’s not what theology is about.  Its about the process leading us to a different place.  Its about our lifestyle matching up with our belief.  One without the other will make us unstable.  Faith without action is dead, says James, and our knowledge of God is only as valuable as our experience of life through Him.

This didn’t make my visit to the hospital any easier, as all I could do was just stand there and listen.  Learning, though, that God will never leave nor forsake me, no matter what questions I ask, what issues I raise, what problems I send His way…well, there’s no way to put a price on that.

And, perhaps, that is the end of theology.

That’ll happen sometimes. Life happens. You get busy, work things, family things, personal things. All of these and then random things – they all collide and take up little chunks of time. Often time that you’re happy and willing to give up. But unfortunately sometimes they all collide at once and then you run out of time to think of smart or interesting or irritating things to write about. Sometimes you forget to post anything for a while.

That’s a real shame.

So yeah, it’s no excuse, but obviously we’ve been a bit busy lately. Please bear with us, and always feel free to chime in with the comments and so on.

I saw Evan Almighty today – the sequel to Bruce Almighty. Starring Steve Carrell (from the Get Smart remake, the American version of The Office and other stuff), it wasn’t too bad a movie really. One of the things I really like about both of those movies is the way that they turn simple questions of faith on their side sometimes. Subvert things a little bit. I like that.

Two of my favourite instances in Evan Almighty were:

  1. when someone asks Evan how he really knew that God picked him (in a tone that made it clear the questioner didn’t think Evan was all that special), Evan replies “Because he chose all of us” – a great moment of turning the idea of being special to be chosen by God on its head.
  2. when Evan’s wife (played by Lauren Graham, probably best known as Lorelai Gilmore (the Mum) from the Gilmore Girls) is experiencing extreme doubt about Evan’s sanity and unknowingly has a conversation with God (Morgan Freeman again), God asks her “When someone prays for something what do you think God gives them? The something, or the opportunity for something? When someone prays for patience does God just give them patience or does He give them the opportunity to be patient?”

So yeah, feel free to discuss this or anything else that strikes your fancy.

Why is it that when we talk about Mothers, we don’t really talk about God? A lot of attention around Mothers’ Day tends to go on Mary or Ruth or some other significant matron from biblical history, and that’s fine, I’m sure but I can’t help wondering why we don’t focus on the concept of God as Mother?

I know it’s easy from a Trinitarian perspective to let the language dictate gender stereotypes – The Father, The Son, The Holy Spirit. Two clearly and distinctly male roles and one incorporeal spirit figure… but that can’t be it, surely? I refuse to accept that this history is inherently sexist.

Clearly biblical history has to be informed and influenced by cultural and social standards that were in place throughout the various parts of the world and times in which it was collated. But that’s not enough alone. Why do we ignore the inherently feminine aspect of God?

If we were made in God’s image, man and woman – then the feminine is as equal a reflection of the divine as is the masculine. In Isaiah 66 God refers to herself as a Mother who comforts. So where’s the feminine side of God in our teaching and theology?

I’m sure it’s there, but where is it and how does it work for you? How do you relate to the idea of God as Mother? God as equally female? How does it all fit?

I think in the church today it’s really easy to be tricked by the era of professional ministries into thinking that theology is just another professional religious pursuit. Now I have nothing against professionalism or specialisation, but I think it’s really important to remember that neither of these things absolve the rest of us in (or out of) the pews from engaging ourselves in the direction of theological thinking – and even more importantly, in the direction of theological practice.

After all, while in the strictest sense, the academic aspects of theology may be conducted outside of the day-to-day life of respective believers and the organisations they belong to, it’s naive to think that this means the two worlds never interact. That would be like suggesting that physics has no relationship to engineering and that neither impact upon how you drive your car.

Sadly, it seems to me that little thought or attention is paid to the application of theology within our organisations and lives. It would seem that in the era of professional ministry we have outsourced our engagement with this fundamental part of faith.

Do you agree? Or is your experience different? How do you think theology fits into your day-to-day life? Does it fit readily into your organisation’s structure and life? Is it a prominent part of your faith?

Do you even think it’s important?

Clearly I do. After all, this blog really wouldn’t exist if I didn’t. But indulge me for a moment as I outline some of the reasons I believe it is so important.

  1. Action follows thought – This is fundamentally true in most parts of life. There is very little we do without first having thought about it at some level. This is even more true in collective endeavours or within organisational structures. In other words, our thinking about God, about spiritual matters, about others in the world, and so on, will all contribute to the kinds of actions we choose to take. To put it another way, being Christ-like may often require us to first think like Christ. To value the things that Christ values. But what are those things? What does Christ think like? How do we know? Welcome to theology…
  2. While it’s possible that God doesn’t change, people and societies do – Sometimes we forget that societies, communities and individuals are almost always in a state of flux, of transition from one type of existence to another. Often these changes are related to ideological points of view and shifting values. The 60s provide a classic example of a time when society went through a significant process of questioning values, morals, ethics and power structures. In a world full of so much change it’s foolish to think that we can sit on our alleged laurels and not bother to update our thinking about God and how an unchanging deity can still connect to a changing society. It’s downright negligent to ignore the world around us and to ignore the dual opportunity and responsibility that all of this brings to us theologically. How do you explain the value of a relationship with God to a person who is spiritually ostracised by a theological obsession with their sexual orientation? The world’s bigger than we often think it is, and we’re accountable for relating the gospel to that world….
  3. How can you possibly claim to have real faith if you’ve never really interrogated it? – Interrogation’s a bit of a tricky word. It has nasty connotations of torture and ugly stuff like that, but that’s exactly the imagery I want to bring to mind here. Personally I’m suspicious of easy faith. The faith I read in the Bible tends to be particularly hard. It seems to be counter-intuitive, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. It looks hard and complicated and challenging and often very painful. Hell, according to the Bible, Jacob literally wrestled with God and got a broken hip for it. So, I don’t really buy into the notion of easy faith. Interrogated faith, tortured faith, troubled and troubling faith. That sort of thing is more up my alley. The kind of thing that you agonise over, have a lot of doubts about and are extremely cautious with. The kind of thing that you simply have to think about a lot, because you’re never entirely sure you’re right. To me that sounds like it’s hard enough to be real.

These are just some of my reasons for thinking that theology is and should be a fundamental part of every faith journy and experience.

Tell me what you think.