Archive for May, 2011

Augustine on Mary, Martha, work and joy

Posted in Theology with tags , , , , on May 24, 2011 by stephengardner

Our Lord Jesus Christ, then, will hand over the kingdom to God and the Father (1 Cor 15:24)–and that phrase excludes neither the Holy Spirit nor himself–insofar as he will bring believers to the direct contemplation of God, in which all good actions have their end, and there is everlasting rest and joy that shall not be taken away from us. He points this out himself when he says, I shall see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no one shall take away from you (Jn 16:22). A sort of picture of what this joy will be like was sketched by Mary sitting at the Lord’s feet, intent upon his words; at rest from all activity and intent upon the truth, in such measure as this life allows of, but thereby nonetheless foreshadowing that joy which is going to last forever. There was Martha her sister, busy doing what had to be done–activity which though good and useful is going to end one day and give place to rest. She, meanwhile, was already taking her rest in the word of the Lord. So when Martha complained that her sister was not helping her, the lord replied Mary has chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her (Lk 10:38). He did not call what Martha was doing a bad part, but this which shall not be taken away he called the best part. For the part which is played in ministering to need will be taken away when need comes to an end, and in fact the reward of good works that are going to come to an end is a rest that will endure. In that contemplation, then, God will be all in all (1 Cor 15:28), because nothing further will be desired of him; to be illumined and rejoiced by him will be enough. (Saint Augustine, De Trinitate, I.20)

I love Augustine’s perspective on this story. A life of inactivity and rest is not what Jesus advocates, rather, a life spent longing for and anticipating the fullness of our joy and desire in the Lord, when he will be all in all. As long as we wait for that day there will be needs to meet and work to be done and keeping busy with those things is a good thing, but let it never be that we forget the fullness of joy we anticipate when Jesus returns to be with us.


One size doesn’t fit all

Posted in Church with tags , , , , on May 16, 2011 by stephengardner

A few years ago, when I began to get involved in pastoral ministry I very quickly began to feel a kind of frustration. I had taken on an assumption that progress in the Christian life looked the same for everyone. Effectively I believed that because each believer has God’s Spirit dwelling in them, that progress for each believer should look the same. I say ‘effectively’ because if you had asked me ‘is this what you believe?’ of course I would have said, ‘no!’ But my expectations of the Spirit’s work in my own life and particularly the lives of those I ministered to, revealed that there was an enormous gulf between what I thought I believed and how I acted.

It didn’t take very long for very real furstrations to appear – I found that people’s messiness didn’t disappear. People, myself included, continued to struggle with the same behaviours; lack of generosity to those in need, pride that manifests itself in a lack of compassion toward others, lustful eyes; And people continued to struggle with the same emotions; doubt, guilt, depression, anger. I think what I believed was that progress looked like ‘tidiness.’ I had taken on two assumptions that turned out to be massive ministry mistakes.

1. An over-realised eschatology

I didn’t take into account that during this life sin and brokenness will always be. Rather, what I was looking for in people, and in my own life, was something that only Jesus will bring, removal of sin and brokenness.

2. The Spirit manifests himself differently to each believer

I didn’t take into account the reality of the ‘body language’ the New Testament uses to describe the nature of the Church. There is on the one hand a real ‘oneness’ to the Church that Paul speaks of unashamedly in Ephesians 4:

4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope at your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith,  one baptism, 6 one God  and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

But at the same time, this same Spirit brings a diversity to the Christian community, expressed by Paul in the outpouring of gifts:

7 Now grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of the Messiah’s gift. 8 For it says: When He ascended on high, He took prisoners into captivity; He gave gifts to people. 9 But what does “He ascended” mean except that He  descended to the lower parts of the earth? 10 The One who descended is the same as the One who ascended far above all the heavens,  that He might fill  all things.  11 And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ,  13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, [growing] into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.

Growth and progress in the Christian life is not a ‘one size fits all.’ We are each thoroughly sinful and broken people who will continue to struggle with these things in our own particular way. Of course, being complacent with this state of brokenness is a horrible mistake, but so too is having a universal approach to what growth and progress will look like in each person.

Just a thought.

Revenge and Justice

Posted in Reconciliation, World with tags , , , on May 5, 2011 by stephengardner

At first we were told that bin Laden – true to his tyrannical character – went down fighting; firing from an automatic weapon and hiding behind his youngest wife. The outrageous manner in which he left the world was met with euphoria in the streets across the United States. People were celebrating that justice had been done; a man of unmatched evil was met with an appropriate form of justice.

But now it has come to light that things didn’t play out that way. bin Laden didn’t go out firing at the US SEALS, in fact he was unarmed; bin Laden wasn’t using one of his wives as a shield, in fact, she had left him to make a charge at the SEALS. This begs the question, has justice actually been done? No, revenge has been done. And revenge must never be confused with justice.

Revenge doesn’t say, “An eye for an eye.” It says, “You take my eye, and I’ll blow out your brains.” It doesn’t say, “An insult for an insult.” It says, “You cross me once, you cross me twice, and I’ll destroy your character and your career.” It doesn’t say, “You organize an act of terror, and we’ll punish you.” It says, “You organize an act of terror, and we’ll use the overwhelming military force of a superpower to recast the political landscape of the entire region from which you came.” Revenge abandons the principle of “measure for measure” and, acting out of injured pride and untamed fear, gives itself to punitive excess. That’s why revenge is morally wrong. In its zeal to punish, it overindulgently takes from the offender more than is due (Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge, 159).

Some are saying, “Who cares?! The man was evil and the manner in which he died is insignificant.” Well, it does matter. Revenge is not justice. In seeking to bring evil to justice the good guys have effectively become the bad guys, they’ve become the very thing they were fighting. Revenge is not justice, it is itself an act of injustice and only serves to promote further acts of injustice. What will bin Laden’s death achieve? Had he died meeting justice and not revenge I would’ve said, ‘its made the world a slightly safer place.’ But because he died in an act of revenge the only answer can be; ‘evil.’ The ‘good guys’ have now become part of a vicious circle of revenge.

A reflection on punishment and justice

Posted in Reconciliation with tags , , , , , on May 2, 2011 by stephengardner

‘Justice has been done!’

With the death of Osama Bin Laden has come a whole lot of language which requires honest Christian reflection. His death is being heralded as ‘a great success’, and  as a ‘deeply satisfying’ moment for his surviving victims. I understand the just anger that many people feel toward Bin Laden, even though I cannot imagine the pain many of his surviving victims live with. But I do want to suggest that serious Christian reflection on punishment and justice must be done before we join in the chorus of those celebrating and rejoicing.

The punishment of one evil doer will never bring satisfaction for those who desire justice. I heard a victim of the 2002 Bali Bombings, today, speak with genuine relief, of the satisfaction he now experienced. His enemy, a man whose organisation had inspired the attacks that had killed the family and friends of so many, was now declared dead by the US president, ‘justice has been done.’ And this has brought satisfaction. But, it wont last. And the reason why this act of ‘justice’ won’t provide lasting satisfaction for those who have so longed for this moment is because of memory. Memory, the recalling to their minds of the pain they have experienced and will continue to experience. The punishment of this one man cannot take away the memory of thousands of lost loved ones.

Miroslav Volf writes:

What would be an adequate punishment for Joseph Stalin, Lenin’s evil and dictatorial successor in the old soviet Union between the two World Wars? He not only ruined his own country and invaded many neighbouring ones, but in the process exterminated some 20,000,000 people. If we are after justice, his crime will have outstripped by far any punishment we could devise for him. How many deaths would he have to die to compensate for all the lives he took? How many lives would he need to have to suffer all the pain he inflicted? Punishment alone falters before the enormity of such crime. (Free of Charge, 135)

If the punishment of the evil doer is the answer to a longing for justice and satisfaction, it will only ever leave people unsatisfied. What we need is an alternative story, we need a story that empowers us to be truly satisfied by getting to the heart of the issue, our memories. We need to learn to forget.

How can God forget the wrongdoings of human beings? Because at the centre of God’s all-embracing memory there is a paradoxical monument to forgetting. It is the cross of Christ. God forgets humanity’s sins in the same way God forgives humanity’s sins: by taking sins away from humanity and placing them upon God-self (sic). How will human beings be able to forget the horrors of history? Because at the centre of the new world that will emerge after “the first things have passed away” there will stand a throne, and on the throne there will sit the Lamb who has “taken away the sin of the world” and erased their memory (Revelation 22:1-4; John 1:29) Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 139-140.