Reconciliation

A gesture of reconciliation? (Source: sxc.hu)

A gesture of reconciliation? (Source: sxc.hu)

On a long flight recently, I watched three movies.  Although they were in different genres and from different studios, they all shared a common theme – healing broken relationships.  In fact, this could even said to be the real plot of all three films, though not necessarily the headline one.  And if you think about it, there have been so many films recently which address this issue, that it may even be a reflection of a deep need within society.  Art mirrors life, not the other way round.

In the UK, where only 25% of children are brought up by both their biological parents, and the number of single adult households outnumbers the couples, there is clearly a lot of relational damage.  Add to that the fact that during the 20th century many people consciously broke traditional ties to family, community and hometown to assert their individualism and independence, and we are left with a world which is desperately in need of healed relationships.  Many other cultures share these challenges, together with other deep fissures in their society resulting from race, class, tribal, religious and political divides.  Not surprisingly, the three films I watched featured three different generations looking for that reconciliation.  All of them, of course, were successful.  Only in Hollywood do they all live happily ever after!

Reconciliation is a key biblical theme.  It could even be described as the main one – God looking to restore the damaged relationship with humanity.  It starts with God’s first question ‘Where are you?’ (Genesis 3:9), via the mission of Jesus to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:9) and ends with the ultimate reconciliation – a wedding (Revelation 19:9).  As Paul writes, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

A careful study of Paul’s writing about what Jesus accomplished on the cross reveals that he uses the concept of reconciliation more frequently than other terms such as salvation, atonement, healing or redemption.  Restoring a damaged relationship is essential to God’s mission, and deep inside, even the lost crave reconciliation, a sense of oneness, of belonging.

Once reconciled with God, we have the ability to become reconciled to the rest of humanity.  We have been forgiven, so we can forgive.  We have been reached out to, so we can reach out.  We have received peace, so we can give it.  This is a message the world is crying out for, yet we are still timid to share it.

Not only do we hang onto this message for ourselves, but often we fail to apply it.  The church is riven with division, between denominations, differing styles of worship or methodology, and individuals who have fallen out with each other over issues of belief or practice.  We often cite our own ethics or convictions as reasons for maintaining a rift with an ‘unrepentant’ Christian – but does that mask an unwillingness to engage with someone who really just holds a different opinion?  Are we really so different from those believers of an earlier generation who burned each other at the stake?

True reconciliation means not that we overlook matters of faith or style, but that we recognise that what unites us in Christ is greater than what divides us in the flesh.  It requires grace, and generosity of spirit to acknowledge that Christians who have markedly different practices from us are also loved and forgiven by God.  Let us have the humility to walk barefoot across the gap between us and ask forgiveness for our judgementalism on those for whom Christ also died.

The wounded hands of Jesus have reached out to us in reconciliation.  Why do we find it so hard to reach out ours to others?

Contextualisation

Contextualisation? A 19th century church building in Malawi (Source: Wikipedia)

Contextualisation? A 19th century church building in Malawi (Source: Wikipedia)

Most of us have heard stories of how mission workers of the past often took their native culture with them in the well-meant but misguided view that it was ‘Christian’ to wear clothes, worship in a certain style or meet in a building whose architecture reflected the mission workers’ culture more than the local one.  Sadly today we often make similar mistakes, although there is generally a greater awareness of the need to contextualise.

Contextualisation is the word we give to how we adapt our presentation of the gospel so that it is culturally relevant to the people we are talking to.  It involves understanding their location and culture so that we don’t say things they won’t understand or even worse be put off by.  So there’s no point in using the verse “Though your sins are scarlet they will be white as snow” in the tropics, where people haven’t seen snow.  Better to replace snow with cotton.  And don’t tell a Buddhist she must be born again – that’s the very thing she’s fed up with doing!

The early apostles – particularly Paul – used contextualisation in preaching the gospel.  When addressing Jews, Paul quoted extensively from Jewish scripture and tradition (e.g. Acts 13:16-41), yet in his famous address to the ruling council in Athens (Acts 17:22-31) he made no mention of either, but argued with them out of their own culture and tradition.  Yet at the same time he was committed to the unadulterated truth of the gospel – “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

In recent years there has been an ongoing debate over what is optional and what is non-negotiable, as with the recent high-profile controversy about references to Father and Son when talking to people of a Moslem background.  Contextualisation affects our language, as in the case of one English church which has stopped using the word Father to describe God, since that word has such negative connotions in the minds of local non-christians.  It also affects cultural and self-identification issues: should a Moslem who comes to faith be called a Christian?  Or a Moslem-background believer?  A follower of Isa-al-Massi?  Should he be encouraged to leave the mosque and be part of a church?  Or continue being part of his community as a secret believer?

Challenges such as these affect mission to people of other beliefs, particularly in Asia where we come into contact with people of radically different worldviews, and in post-Christian Europe where many are ignorant of even the most basic Christian terminology like ‘sin’ and ‘redemption’.  Which is why many evangelists now use terms like ‘Do you want God to help you?’ in preference to the less accessible ‘You must repent!’

The European Evangelical Mission Association is holding a conference in September (in Majorca!) to discuss these issues.  Representatives of denominations and mission agencies will be there to debate the limits of contextualisation, the future of the insider movement and the relevance of the C1-C6 model.  The speakers will be renowned exponents on these topics: Rose Dowsett, Beat Jost, and John Travis.  To find out more go to http://www.europeanema.org/conference-2013/.  It promises to be a challenging debate!

The Significance of Sacred Space

Sacred?

Sacred space is something that many western Christians are not particularly aware of, yet it has an important place in our history and culture, and overlooking it can be to ignore a key tool in our missional toolkit.

Sacred space is where the divine intersects with our experience, where the transcendent becomes numinous, typically but not necessarily in a sanctuary or shrine of some sort.  It can also be in an unspoilt natural feature, such a hilltop, spring or seashore, but many sacred sites were ‘validated’ centuries ago by the construction of a religious building on them.

Our experience of God in such places is the reason why many of them have become a place of pilgrimage, and the value we place on these sites contributes to the ongoing spiritual power they have.  So for example, once one person was healed at Lourdes, others went there in the anticipating of meeting with the power of God which was already at work in that place, and this faith fuelled their anticipation even more.

Evangelical Christians have tended to play down the significance of such locations, partly as a reaction to what they have perceived as a superstitious belief in the power of holy sites or relics rather than a living faith in God, and partly because the significance they place on meeting God personally in our day to day lives, which can render a specific location redundant.  Yet in a simple way, any location can aid our faith.  My mother felt that praying in her local Anglican church was more effective than praying at home, since she felt that the cumulative weight of the prayers that have been said in that building for the last 800 years was added to hers.  That’s the significance of a sacred space for her.

A biblical example of a sacred space might be Bethel.  We don’t know why Abraham built an altar there (Genesis 12:8), but just a couple of generations later Jacob was sleeping rough there after he had fled from his home, and had a powerful encounter with God in a dream.  His verdict was “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it… This is none other than the house of God” (Genesis 28:16-17).  The place continued to have spiritual significance throughout the period of the judges and became a centre of idolatry in Israel when Jeroboam placed a golden calf there for cultic reasons (1 Kings 12:28-29).

Another example would be Zion, the place where God said His ‘Name’ would dwell.  This builds on the significance of the Tabernacle, which God commanded the Israelites to build so that He could dwell among them (Exodus 25:8).  That was God’s initiative, expressing a desire to live not set apart in heaven, but among humanity.  This, accompanied by the visual manifestations of God’s presence, led to sense of God literally dwelling in the temple, and subsequently in the church building – the house of God – and which will be eventually fulfilled when there is no temple at all because the Lord and the Lamb dwell among humanity (Revelation 21:3, 22).

So how does this understanding of sacred space help us with our missional endeavours?  Firstly, we can learn that we don’t need to be afraid of buildings, but can use them creatively to draw people into an encounter with God.  They don’t even need to be ‘religious’ buildings.  My own church is responsible for running the community centre in which we meet, and by our constant prayer, worship and incarnational service to the community in every part of the building we have invaded what might otherwise be considered ‘secular’ space to such an extent that people who come into the building remark “There’s a lovely sense of peace here”.  They may not recognise it, but it’s a sense of the presence of God.  The building has become a sacred space.

The other way in which we can use sacred space is to think about the messages we send with our buildings to those who are not yet Christians.  In many cultures, you can see the vestiges of a European definition of spirituality in pictures of a blue-eyed Jesus in India or church buildings with steeples in Indonesia.  Do the architecture, décor and furnishings in church premises speak of something that local people do not identify with sacred?  What can be imported from their culture which they would find familiar and would speak of sacred to them?  Would it be inappropriate, for example, to build a minaret on a church in a muslim country, or to have pictures in which Jesus looks like the people we’re working among?  Does the music we use for worship reflect our own cultural tradition when it might be more appropriate to use that of the local people group?

In my own city, one group is grappling with these issues as it seeks to create a culturally appropriate sacred space for a minority people group to engage with Jesus.  It uses furnishings, religious symbolism and music that would be found in their home culture.  They engage with the religious festivals of that community and embrace their culture.  In consequence, these people have found a safe and sensitive place to worship.  They do not have to cross a cultural divide in order to cross a religious one.