Category Archives: Culture
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?
One of the thrills of being a sacred agent is knowing that any moment may be an opportunity to represent Jesus. For me, some speaking engagements are booked well in advance and I have the luxury of careful preparation, trying to get the message ‘just so’. But other speaking opportunities arrive out of the blue, with barely any notice, and I need to be ready for them too.
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” 1Pe3
Indeed, I want to not just be passively ready in case it happens, but actively looking!
“Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Col4
Which has got me thinking. There are many relationships where we look for ‘just the right opening’ for a conversation about God’s kingdom. And I’ve realised that what I’ve been looking out for are moments when someone seems particularly sympathetic to, or approving of my Christianity. I’ve been imagining moments when people say, “Andrew, what is it about you that makes you just so terrific?” As you can see, I have a very good imagination!
But Jesus paints a different picture of the perfect opportunity to represent God’s kingdom.
“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” Mt5
In fact, both Peter and Paul’s quotes above are written in the context of suffering and opposition.
So what if the ‘perfect witnessing opportunity’ is not when the people around me love me and my faith. What if it’s when they despise me and scorn it? That’s when Christ’s grace, gentleness, respect and love can really shine. But are we ready for that?
Suburbs can be tricky places for mission. Neighbours barely know neighbours. Families are securely locked up behind high fences and no one sits on their front porch to interact with passers-by. But in my suburb, all that changes on one evening each year. Families and gangs of partying kids roam the streets and dare to actually knock on doors – it’s Halloween. Ten years ago it was something we only saw on American TV, but its Australian apparition is undeniable.
For many Christians, including me, this has been an unwelcome and uncomfortable development. Do we really need more American culture? And any more celebration of death? What is a sacred agent to make of it?
On the one hand, there is the outright rejection. When the neighbourhood kids knock on the door you could refuse to open and simply yell out “I’m a Christian, I don’t do Halloween!” On the other hand, you could dress up as the Grim Reaper and join right in. I don’t think either makes for good mission. Is there a better option?
What if we were well prepared for this terrific opportunity to interact with our neighbours? What if we had plenty of the best sorts of lollies? And to go with them, what if we printed up small ‘collectable’ cards that on the one side carried our church logo and details and said:
Did you know? Halloween began as a Christian festival – when we remember heroes who have gone before us and set great examples. This year our church Smithville Baptist is remembering Francis of Assisi – a real legend. We’ll be telling his story this Sunday.
On the other side could be a picture of St Frank himself and a brief kid-readable biography. A good quote to cap it all off might be John 10:10 “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
On Halloween, there’s no need to join the dark side, but nor is there any excuse for being dull. There’s a long Halloween tradition of using humour and ridicule to confront the power of death. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? … Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”