Category Archives: Culture
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.
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)
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.
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?
I have worked my cat out and I’m just trusting that he’s not reading this. Whenever I call Ossie he goes in the other direction as a matter of principle. This is a simple power struggle. The only exceptions to this firm rule are if I have been away for at least 3 days, or am visibly offering ham. He has been training me for nearly three years now in understanding my place.
If I seek him outside he will head down the street. Not over a fence, not under a car, but always just out of reach. He is taking me for a walk to give me some exercise. If I seek him inside there will be ten minutes of dashing from under the table to under the stairs and back.
But, fellow humans, the revolution is beginning! I have realised that if I simply sit down on a step (inside) or in the gutter (outside) and look in a different direction, he will come and rub against me within 30 seconds. It’s simple cat whispering. The only key elements are getting down to his level and looking in a different direction. The only surprise is that it’s taken me three years to work this out.
But I wonder whether we’ve worked it out as missionaries? In Australia, talking directly about religion is a cultural taboo. People tend to withdraw, and then if we follow them they withdraw some more. But this doesn’t mean that Australian’s aren’t interested in Christianity or drawn to Jesus. It is culturally acceptable to set up spaces within our culture where religion can be discussed. For example, in a church building on a Sunday morning, Australians would be surprised if it wasn’t.
And there are other, simpler such spaces that also can be set up. A Bible study in the lunch break at work. A Christianity Explored course at someone’s house. A youth (or ex-youth) camp. If it’s not done in complete secrecy – if gentle signals are sent that enquirers are welcome to join – then you may be surprised by how many get curious about this group that is right there at their level, but looking in a different direction.
Some things are very difficult. Ranking right up there with licking your elbow and contacting a government department is this: Trying to remember a tune while listening to a different one.
Sacred agents live with a similar difficulty 24/7. If the world into which we are sent was merely cacophonous, it wouldn’t be so hard. But it tends to play a particular song of its own, while we are called to march to a different beat. If that makes you feel and look a bit unco then you’re no Robinson Crusoe. So how do we do it?
I like to think of Daniel and his amigos. Somehow they sustained that art of living with one’s feet in Babylon and heart in Jerusalem – the double-life of a sacred agent. How did they cope? By hitting Pause and hitting Play.
None of us can claim to have more responsibilities or a busier life than Daniel, yet paused three times a day to physically open his windows to face Jerusalem and pray. It was a conscious act of reorientation which he needed 21 times a week. How many quiet times can I afford not to have? Or am I stronger than him? Daniel switched off the Babylonian lullaby that constantly sought to spiritually pacify him and tuned in to Radio Jerusalem.
And they pressed Play. If they weren’t the authors of Psalm 137 then it was someone with the same heart: By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion … How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? / If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill / May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. They never wanted to forget the heavenly tune of God’s kingdom. They needed to be able to whistle it even in (especially in) the direst of trouble.
What are your practices of pressing pause and play, of tuning out and tuning in?