college travels

Friday, December 11, 2009

God's Reflection in Pet Affection

We started up the car to take our cat to the vet. By accident or by providence the USB-drive was still connected to the car audio system. The next track played:

How great the father’s love for us

We were on our way to have Timmy put down. He’d suffered a catastrophic kidney failure and was being poisoned by his own body.

How vast beyond all measure

My mind went back to Graham’s 2007 Theology of Children’s Ministry Conference talk “Will my dog go to heaven?” I remembered too something that C.S. Lewis once wrote. In The Four Loves he wondered if the affection we feel for our pets is a reflection of one of the dimensions of God’s love for us.

That he should send his only son

Having a pet does give you opportunity to learn what it means to be responsible, considerate and accommodating. We knew not to leave meat or corn cobs out on the kitchen bench, for this would have been a temptation more than Tim could bear (1Cor .10:13). If ever anything was knocked over or tipped out, if Tim was sick or coughed up a fur ball, we knew that we had to clear up after him, for he was not able to do it for himself (Eph. 2:5). He would trust us to feed him every morning and every evening of his life and to provide him a home to feel safe in and a place to belong (Matt. 6:33).

The Bible tells the story of God’s love for and commitment to the human race. Within the story we are made aware that this is just one part of a much bigger story in which God is reconciling the whole of the created order to himself. We see glimpses of this from time to time (Gen. 6:19; Ps. 148:7-13; Mk. 16:15; Col. 1:20). But few details are provided.

As we look back over Tim’s life we recognise and appreciate the part that he’s played in our family. He slept on James’s bed to keep him company through the night when James was anxious. He had a knack of sensing who was feeling down and sitting with them, or on them. He would sit down and listen as we read bed-time stories to the children. He would join us on walks from the house and wait for us at the boundary of his ‘territory’ to welcome us back. He was always available to play and you could tell him absolutely anything and know for certain that he wasn’t going to gossip to others.

Within that bigger story we do not know what part a goldfish called Dorothy or a dog called Lassie or a kangaroo called Skippy might have been called to play. But Tim has not only given us an opportunity to see in our care for him a pale reflection of God’s love for us. He has also reminded us again and again what friendship entails.

Even if you have no time for hermit crabs, guinea pigs or dogs, perhaps when you next talk to a child who has lost a pet, it might be worthwhile finding out how God has been at work in them, through their involvement with their friend.

To make this wretch his treasure.

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

Some thoughts on Culture in conversation with Walt Mueller

I've just finished reading Walt Mueller's book on youth culture (Engaging the Soul of Youth Culture: Bridging Teen Worldviews and Christian Truth. IVP, 2006) and have found it a stimulating and engaging read.

My favourite quote is on p.20, which isn't actually from Mueller but from Tyler Durden:
Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. We're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.

For those who missed the sub-cultural reference you probably ought to read Mueller's book… and you ought to go out and hire the DVD of Fight Club before you read any further!

My other favourite quote seems to sum up Mueller's thesis:
If the church doesn't listen, the church can't understand. When young people realize they aren't understood, church becomes a place where they don't belong. Then, as they try other places in their efforts to satisfy the spiritual hunger, the unmet groans for redemption (Rom 8:22) grow louder and more intense with the passing of time. As part of the creation subjected to "frustration" because of sin, the lost and unredeemed suffer "emptiness, futility, purposelessness, and transitoriness." (p.25).

There are three sections to the book – I'd suggest a quick skim over section one where he gives an outline of postmodernism. It's strange to say this about a book that's only three years old, but the discussion is noticeably dated. But that's just what this world is like these days – the culture moves so quickly that rather than waiting for an expert to publish a snapshot of what the culture looks like, far more useful is to learn the skills to read and discern culture for ourselves. And that's what sections two and three are about.

There are lots of helpful ideas in this book – I'll pick out a few of the most helpful ones here, raise a big question about ministry that seems to arise from this, and then give a longer summary below.

Mueller gives a fairly familiar outline of the three steps of cultural engagement: listen, understand, and then give 'an explanation of the gospel that takes into account, understands and uses the familiar language, categories and concepts unique to their culture' (p.110).

I found useful the distinction from Patti Lane between subjective and objective culture. Objective culture refers to the observable parts of a culture (the artefacts, language, customs etc) that are on view to the world. Subjective culture refers to the hidden, internal parts of a culture that drive or motivates the visible, objective culture (p.116). Later on in the book Mueller gives a long list of questions to think about in order to get a handle on objective culture (p.218-219), and then some more questions to get a handle on what these cultural observations actually mean (p.221-224).

This of course is not an easy task – and I learnt a word for the biggest trap for 40 year old Bible college lecturers trying to interpret contemporary youth culture: misattribution (p.116… be careful that you read and pronounce it properly!).

Misattribution is 'the tendency to assume or assign our own meanings and motives to someone's behavior' (p.116-17). The classic, 'you listen to this song with some very depressing lyrics, you must therefore be depressed'; when instead the young person is thinking that the girl he likes likes this song and he will do anything to get her to notice him.

Mueller is good at lists. Which does make it easy to summarise. We get three ways that Christians interact with culture (accommodation, alientation, infiltration & transformation); three marks of a 21st century messenger: three motivations (gratitude, responsibility, concern); four core commitments (committed to be a student of the word, to be a person of prayer, to live and embody an integrated faith, and to be a student of culture); fourteen core characteristics (that I'll list below); and finally seven steps to implement the same ministry strategy that Paul used on his visit to Athens (Acts 17… again, wait till later).

My big question is this: Mueller names what he describes as 'incarnational ministry' (p.190), and he contrasts this with an approach to culture he names as 'accommodation' (p.136 'the church on a leash'). Now, for regular readers of my ravings you'll know that I'm not much of a fan of what's labelled 'incarnational ministry' and instead I've proposed an approach to cross-cultural mission (particularly with young people) under the label, 'accommodation' – So, is Mueller arguing the opposite?

Well no, actually I think he's saying just what I want to say, we're just using the same words in different ways.

When Mueller is describing the 'infiltrate and transform' approach to culture as 'incarnational' I don't hear him saying that we ought to 'become' a member of that culture we're trying to reach. I don't hear him saying we ought to be content with forming friendships with young people on their own terms. I don't hear him saying that we ought not have an intention of sharing the gospel with young people in the hope that they might come to life in Christ. In fact the stories he tells of his own interaction with teenagers show him still being very much the middle-aged man dressed in 'khaki pants, button-down shirt, tie and navy blue blazer' (p.111).

For me this isn't incarnational, at least not what I hear most people who use the word incarnational to mean. Walt Mueller doesn't 'become' a goth in order to enter into a deep and significant relationship with Bekah; Jesus becomes human, fully human, not just as a communication tool, but to be our substitute. God has always accommodated his voice to our weakness, putting aside his rights in order to be able to talk to us in words that we can understand and engage with. This for me is a ministry of accommodation – me engaging with you in a way that leaves at the door anything of me that will get in the way of a relationship with you; it is not a ministry of incarnation – where I become like you in all things, so that I'm able to stand in your place.

But will Mueller object to my use of 'accommodation'; well he doesn't need to, because we're using the word to mean different things. For Mueller, accommodation to the culture means to conform completely to the culture – which to me is what incarnation means; when I'm using accommodation I'm referring to adjusting our communication to remove any stumbling block of offence or communication barrier.

Is it just semantics? Not at all – we ought not call the cultural engagement that Mueller is advocating (and I'm supporting) 'incarnational' for two reasons. First, because this is not what Jesus did in the incarnation (he did more than just listen, understand and communicate, he became one of us); and second, because this is not what others mean when they use the term (incarnational ministry has come to mean a relational identification that replaces gospel communication with cultural identification).

At least that's my two cents.

And now for the extended summary… well perhaps in the next post…

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