Category Archives: Culture

Eavesdropping

Sacred agents need to be alert and ready for action. This is the second in a series on having our senses heightened by God’s Spirit. Last month we discussed Peripheral Vision. Stay tuned for Iocane-Tasting, Rat-Smelling and Detonator-Touching…

My teenage daughter has a black belt in eavesdropping. She won’t come down for dinner when we yell for her, but lower our voices in the kitchen for an adult-to-adult conversation, and suddenly she’s hovering just nearby.

Our brains have a way of filtering out so much information, of excluding lots of sounds and voices. But it’s amazing what you can hear if you tune in rather than tune out. God, in his wisdom, seems often to speak in such a way that only those who really want to listen can hear. Sacred agents certainly need to practice this. Are we leaning in to God to the detriment of other voices, or is it the other way around?

But we also can learn – must learn – how to really lean in and listen to the people to whom God has sent us. What are they saying? And what are they really saying? People usually speak with more than one voice. There’s their clear, audible voice, of course. But sometimes they say something else with their body language, or with their actions – but do we hear it? Are we tuned in?

This is especially important because in our culture it is very difficult to speak directly about spiritual matters. You can talk about the weather, about sport, about TV, about politics even, but not about God. This doesn’t mean that if your friend or workmate or family member never mentions or asks about God, that He is the furthest thing from their mind. So often people are thirsting and all-but crying out for a God they do not know – but the cry comes in different forms and in other words. Even when a person says they don’t believe in God, what God don’t they believe in? If it’s an aloof or capricious or impersonal ‘force out there’, well, we don’t believe in that either.

This doesn’t mean we should twist or reinterpret people’s words in any way that suits us. But perhaps we can ask better questions and listen more carefully to understand the hearts and underlying stories of those we’re sent to. You hear me?

Peripheral Vision

Sacred agents need to be alert and ready for action. This is the first post in a series on having our senses heightened by God’s Spirit. Stay tuned for Eavesdropping, Iocane-Tasting, Rat-Smelling and Detonator-Touching…

Effective sacred agents need to have great vision, more than anyone else. Racing drivers? Meh. Heart surgeons? It’s right there under lights, the pumpy thing. Sports stars? Don Bradman had lousy eyesight. But sacred agents need constantly to know what’s going on around them. We need clarity of focus, and we especially need peripheral vision.

In the movies, an agent can be surrounded by eight thugs and yet win the fight because only one thug attacks at a time while the others usefully dance around looking aggressive. Real life isn’t like that. Agents have a lot going on all around them. And novices fall for the old look-over-here-while-I-attack-from-over-there trick.

We need peripheral vision to avoid such hits. We can get lured down the alley-way of debating what’s right and wrong, and suddenly realise we’ve been duped into Pharisaism. We can dive into serving the poor and only later realise we’ve unwittingly reinforced a cycle of dependence.

But we need peripheral vision in a positive way, too. Sometimes we wonder why God doesn’t seem to be doing much, but it’s just that he’s not moving where we’re looking (ahem TV & Facebook). God’s always up to something, but so often on the margins, among people we don’t even see and in ways we don’t even notice.

We need better peripheral vision to see and respond to opportunities and dangers all around us. Holy Spirit, heighten our senses! Prepare us for action!

Stop for a moment and think: Where are you looking? What are you focused on? What has taken up most of your attention this week? And then ask: Is there something else going on?

Flat Pax and Take-Away Nuggets

We have lived through an era of unusual peace, compared to the rest of human history. These patches of peace across history have usually occurred when a superpower looms so large that no-one dare rebel. We’ve had Pax Romana, Pax Britannica and more recently Pax Americana.

During Pax Mongolica a common saying was “A maiden carrying a nugget of gold on her head could safely wander throughout the realm.” Whilst a beanie may have been more practical, that short saying does reveal how the fruit of lasting peace are prosperity, security, trust, freedom of migration, freedom of women, and gap years.

But these empires come and go. Each seems invincible and permanent at their climax (before being undone by little things like germs and Facebook). It all reminds me of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a great statue (another fruit of empires) and Daniel’s interpretation. The statue represented a succession of empires (Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman) – and the prediction that none would last. A tiny rock “not cut out by human hands” would strike the feet (Romana), reduce those empires to dust and “become a huge mountain and fill the whole earth.” A very different superpower would emerge, and now has.

So amidst all the consternation that peace, security, justice, freedom and prosperity are all teetering, sacred agents have a role to remind people that these treasures have never been reliably built on the sand of military empires. It’s been a dream all along. Only when the lasting Pax Christi conquers our hearts and dissolves our violence will our daughters be truly safe to hitchhike in cash fascinators.

But it is happening. Still the mountain grows. It will outlast Americana and whatever faux pax comes next. And its borders are open now.

Whose Side Are You On?

We live in a barroom brawl. A time of big arguments. Old assumptions are being challenged, and some old challenges to even older assumptions are being re-challenged and basically there are a lot of strong opinions flying everywhere. Politics. Sexuality and gender. Immigration and refuge. We can find ourselves surrounded by a lot of clenched jaws and fists. How can we be sacred agents in the middle of all that?

We each have our own opinions on all these issues. We tell ourselves that we got them from Jesus, but so often it’s more to do with where and how we were brought up. So the first snare to avoid is recruiting Jesus to your side of an argument without really discerning what He is saying.

But perhaps the biggest snare is in only being able to see two polar positions (us and them), or just a two-dimensional spectrum (black, white and shades of grey). What about colour?! Is there something else, something different, something bigger that God is doing that we’re not seeing?

When Joshua (all set for battle) encounters an angel, his reflex question is “Are you for us or for our enemies?” The answer was surprising “Neither, but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” That sure must have messed with Joshua’s assumption that he was the commander and Israel the LORD’s army!

When Jesus is brought a woman caught in adultery, it’s him they’re really trying to catch. They want him to define his position on Roman law and Moses’s law. Come on Jesus, are you Liberal or Conservative?! But Jesus bends down and writes in the sand. When asked by a man to “tell my brother to split the inheritance with me,” Jesus doesn’t bite.

Jesus does have opinions on sexuality, economics and justice, don’t get me wrong! But he sees that so often the wrestles we tie ourselves up in are more about game-playing and posturing than helping anyone or solving anything. And importantly, they blind us to what heaven is doing. No, Jesus doesn’t always side with the poor. Sometimes he goes to Zacchaeus’ house for lunch … and a lot of the local poor benefit.

As sacred agents let’s practise our sand-writing, lunch-going and listening-to-angels. Let’s step back from the swinging barroom fists enough to call “Drinks are on Jesus!” (John 7:37-38)

How Not to Change the World

In a boat, on a lake, Jesus leans over to his disciples and tells them to be very careful. It’s a captain’s safety warning, but it’s not about life vests, and it’s not, as the disciples first thought, about the supplies. ‘Be careful,’ Jesus warned them. ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.’ It’s a warning for all who would set sail with Jesus on his mission. But what does it mean?

In a nutshell, the ‘yeast’ is a simple, little idea. But it spreads through a group and forms a culture it changes everything. The yeast of these groups were two different kinds, but both concerned with how to rule the world. Well, how to get everyone to behave.

The little idea of the Pharisees seems to be that ‘You can get people into line by shaming them.’ Point out people’s mistakes, make a public example of a few, and people will be too mortified to step out of line. This idea hasn’t run out of steam, we see plenty of it today. It’s the major weapon of our comedian-prophets who try to reinforce a particular framework of values by lampooning those who don’t share them. People who don’t fully support same-sex marriage are constantly shamed, for example. And does it work? Does shaming transform a society? No. It’s a powerful weapon, but at the end of the day, not an effective one.

The Herodians had a different little idea: ‘You can get people into line by coercing them.’ If you have the political power, you can set the rules and police them, and so just make people behave, punishing those who don’t line up. This is another familiar idea. Many people today seem to think you can shape society by getting the numbers in parliament to pass certain laws – say to legalise or illegalise abortion. But when you get the laws you really want, do you then get the society you really want? No. Coercion is another tool that so many clamber for, but in the end it doesn’t build what you want to build.

Jesus is setting out with his disciples to change the world, but it didn’t – and doesn’t – happen through shaming or coercion. Both of them breed elitism, hypocrisy and resentment. Watch out for those little ideas! As sacred agents, we’re not to use them on others or stress when they’re used against us.

And it all raises the big question: What is Jesus’ yeast? Discuss.

Just Common Scents

Jesus sure asked some tough questions. But he also asked some really easy ones, like “Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” Of course not. Even kids know that you get grapes and figs from the IGA.

When occasionally I’m tempted to despair as a sacred agent, I find myself repeating this over and over: “They don’t pick grapes from thornbushes. They don’t pick grapes from thornbushes.” When the media increasingly derides Christianity and lauds secular humanism, what hope do we have of reaching people? Well, plenty. Jesus was pointing out that the difference between good and bad philosophy comes to light through the kind of communities they produce.

Over the last decade, during which Christianity has faced very hostile press, parents have been falling over themselves to enrol their kids in Christian schools in unprecedented numbers. Why? Because when it comes to the crunch, when it really matters – such as your own kids’ future – people have a good nose for good fruit.

It happens very locally. Many Australians hate the idea of Christian chaplains in public schools, but love the actual chaplain in their own local school. My kids’ first school firmly resisted chaplaincy and any whiff of Christian input. The result? Parents were constantly asking us whether their kids could attend our kids club at the church next door to the school. Those parents had a nose for what’s stale and what’s fresh. It’s just common scents.

Which hints to me a tangible way forward for mission in Australian culture. If we don’t despair, but live fresh, distinct, communal lives invigorated by God’s Spirit, and simply be visible to and smellable by others, the ‘aroma of Christ’ will do its thing and many prodigals will come to – and follow – their senses.

“Everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another,” said Jesus. Is your church that kind of community? And do you have ways for the neighbourhood to get a whiff of it?

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