Saturday, February 6, 2016

Crashing and Burning in Pastoral Ministry: sifting through the wreckage of what went wrong.

I’d like to tell you a piece of my story.

I’m a feely person, high on whatever scale would measure empathy. I’m also called by God to serve His people. For the time being this calling finds expression in pastoral ministry.
Recently things have gone wrong. They didn’t really go wrong recently, they had been going wrong for quite some time. It was more a case of recently the wheels finally fell off in a more severe way than they had before.

I had worked myself into an energy-deprived mess. I couldn’t work without coffee. I couldn’t sleep because of coffee. I didn’t have enough hours in the day to speak with everyone I needed to. I wasn’t getting many of my other tasks done. I even forgot I was supposed to be preparing a wedding… or two. And then one day I couldn't get out of bed. For a month. I stopped the coffee and discovered the extraordinary range of panic attacks and fight/flight moments which coursed through my day when the phone would ring or someone would knock at the door. I then learned about ectopic heartbeats, fatty infiltration of my liver and adrenal fatigue.

So.
Being a pastor is not who I am. I assure you the me who currently finds himself pastoring is more colourful, strange, exhaustive and intricate than your (or my) prevailing definition or boundaries of a pastor. I also suspect this of every pastor.

All that to say that I am driven by a ludicrously strong desire to connect with people. Connect is the word I have found myself using because it means conversation, tears, prayer, worship, study, coffee, monster trucks, 12 gauge shotguns, poetry and more. I cannot put into words the fulfilment of self and purpose which comes from connecting with people.

Stay with me for a moment because I need to talk about the dysfunction here. Remember, the wheels fell off.

If I am not continually abiding in the intimate, personal, invasive, comforting love of Jesus, then my passion to connect with people is where I run for validation, security, identity, grounding and reference.

My drive to connect then subverts what He might do through me. Pastoral ministry becomes shaped by my insecurity (because I’m not secure in Him) rather than His Spirit. Maybe this is striking a chord with you. It might, it might not. Me not abiding in Him then goes from this main root of dysfunction into two kinds of other medicating. Primary medicating and secondary medicating.

Primary medicating is where I pour more and more energy into those connectings which I am using to prop myself up. Rather than trying to equip others so that they might be enabled to move towards Jesus and Him transforming them into His likeness (from glory to glory), I try to rescue them – or worse, transform them myself. I allow their problems to become my problems because it does actually push this button inside of feeling needed and thereby valuable.

Preaching and teaching becomes less about Jesus and more about my emotional security. I don’t say what He needs me to say, instead I mainly want to be liked and affirmed. Instead of bringing rebuke I bring a craving for validation. Instead of leading the way I’m supposed to – towards Jesus’ engagement with the world He died to save – I am functionally feathering my emotional nest, introspectively spiralling and feeling like a fraud. I really hope that all of this is foreign to you, if it's not, then I'm hoping that this might help with some clarity.

It gets worse.

Secondary medicating is where I turn to coffee (stimulants) or junk food (gluttony) or retail therapy (greed) or other sin to try and prop up my energy levels or to try and assuage the disquiet of my soul and to propel me forward in my misadventure.

Secondary medicating is also where I get angry or frustrated with people who get in the way of me trying to medicate. People like my wife who tells me I’m working too hard and not spending enough time with her or the kids or actually with The Lord. People like the deacons, elders or pastoral team when they chat to me about actually taking a day off. People who own the coffee shop who start expressing genuine concern for how much of their child's education I'm sponsoring through my addiction.

Can’t they see I’m doing ministry (whatever that is).

My Dad said something strange, as often happens when I ask for his insight in ministry: ‘don’t just do something, sit there.’

Almost immediately I was reminded of something an octogenarian mentor of mine from my younger years said when I shared my (then) conclusion of needing to simply ‘do more’ to fix this reoccurring problem: ‘sit by the oasis’ he said.

You see, a really unfortunate facet of this issue is that I talk to people about spending time with God all the time – and then I don’t do it. And the same dysfunction which I continually see in the lives of the people I journey with is my dysfunction too. When we do not actually let the simple, raw truth – that Jesus loves us – sink in, continually, daily – when we do not soak in it, when we do not breathe it in continually, when we do not just abide, when we allow ourselves to do things rather than to just sit there – we fall apart. Pastor's fall apart because we don't abide and we end up living lives which function identically to a 'salvation by works' theology, even though we know better and have theologised differently. 

If I do not sit by the oasis with Him and let His love for me sink in, I very quickly end up living like a man who is trying to earn it – who can’t earn it – so who tries harder – then falls down exhausted, suffering from self medication… for some strange reason. If you are theologically minded then there's every chance that the most difficult journey for understanding to make is the six inches between your brain and your heart. Being analytical is a tremendous blessing except for when stuff like this happens and I scream 'But I know this already!' and then the Spirit asks 'So why are you living like a man who is trying to earn my love?'

So. Put your analysis down. Accept that all the pieces of falling apart may not make sense. Please accept this simple kernel of truth: that Jesus is a thou and not an it. He loves us. Don't just do something - sit there. 


P.S. I’ll include this here as more of a corollary note because it could quite easily become the main thing here, when it’s not, it’s the main thing elsewhere. Our cultural expectations of pastors are damaging. The western church seems to want people with 1950’s time on their hands who are 21st Century technological pioneers. We infer our expectations on them to be entertainers, gurus, rock stars, CEO’s, psychologists, public figures, private monastics and church politicians. Crashing and burning as a pastor is too easy. Much easier than a church community understanding that their expectations can kill a pastor and destroy their family. Even if a pastor stops being a normal human being on their own walk of transformation with Jesus – even if they have all their smeg together – the weight of the church community’s expectations can crush them.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Five Percent

The 5%.
In your church there is a 5%. It might even be you. It might even be me. This 5% are especially gifted by God to be able to see the shortcomings and flaws in other people, programs, music, structures etc. They are almost always ‘concerned’. They don’t gossip but they do share their ‘concerns’ amongst themselves. They continually see the slippery slope which the their local church is about to descend into relaxed attitudes, fun, humour, social engagement or (dare i say it) generosity.
Their gifting often includes the ability to find the seat at the back at the room, to not be accountable to anyone in the life of the church, to not be in submission to any form of leadership, and to get someone else to shoot their bullets for them. Because after all, sniping at Christians is what makes the 5% feel in control (or safe or secure or stable or lots of other words which can substituted on occasion for control).

Wait… did I say this gifting was from God? Oops. That’s not right.

Although that’s how things look when you’re on the inside of the 5%, when you feel righteous indignation to stand up and defend everyone else who’s not actually perturbed, this gifting is not to be found in scripture.

There is certainly a warning the Holy Ghost gives when His people are leaving Him for other gods or are mixing other gods together with Him. But this cutting prophetic edge almost always addresses the misrepresentation of God by His people through exploitation of the needy instead of social injustice or blatant outright apostasy.

We do not find in scripture the gift of song-lyric-analysis, fashion police, church politics player, or financial hoarding.
The truth is, I think, quite simple: the devil has to use someone.

The opposite of faith in God is pride/control. It is the original sin: that we might become as gods ourselves rather than to be in our right relationship beneath God. Control is at its apex an expression of non-faith or anti-faith. I believe that this manifests in the church as the 5%. And any one of us is at risk of being part of that 5%. When we are fear driven we stop expressing faith and living faith and worshipping in faith and fellowshipping in faith and we reach out hand out to steady the Ark of God’s glory because ‘if I don’t take control everything will fall apart’. 

We let fear in so easily. Fear for our comfort. Fear for our regular nice meetings together. Fear for our financial security (which is really just fear for comfort). Fear that God won't provide. Fear that God won't ‘turn up’ in our worship. Fear that we will not be seen as respectable. Fear that we will ultimately end up like our Master, Jesus Himself.

Faith does not mind if we live like Jesus and are treated like Jesus and end up like Jesus. But if we are driven by the goal of being gods ourselves then we mind a lot. Fear expresses itself through our false divinity. We are not prepared to become as nothing, like He did. We are not prepared to be humiliated and disrespected. We are not prepared to be uncomfortable. We are, quite simply, fractured broken finite vessels playing at being the Goldsmith Himself. This is the spirit of the 5%.

The original lie, that God is not good, still burns inside of us and if we let it flare up, if we let the enemy’s lie start to resound in us we ourselves become the voice of the accuser: ‘I’ll take control, just in case God doesn’t come through’ or ‘This is making me feel uncomfortable, I shouldn’t have to feel uncomfortable’ or ‘This person is not the kind I want, I’ll make them into my image’. These are all facets of our broken drive toward self-exaltation.

If someone (even you, even me) wants to live in fear, you can’t stop them. If someone wants to continually express non-faith in Jesus’ goodness, then that’s actually up to them to decide. If someone wants to sit in church and nitpick at everything which does not appeal to their own tastes or opinions, then you cannot stop them and if you try then you can easily burn yourself out. The blessing is that it’s not 50% it’s only 5% (though they will tell you that they represent 75%+). 

Expect a fight though. If you decide to walk more closely with Jesus in faith, not fear, the 5% (even you, even me) will always always feel left behind or spiritually inferior and the enemy will use that to fuel their antagonism and negativity. If the enemy wants to attack the church he has to use someone. Don’t be part of the 5%. If you’re a pastor, don’t allow the non-faith of the 5% to become your focus. Actually be prepared to leave them behind without pandering to their pride. Seek Jesus. He is worthy of all Honour. He is worthy of all praise and glory and adoration. He is more beautiful and more wonderful and more magnificent than any and all of creation. He is bigger than the 5%.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Werewolves and other people that go to your church.





Many years ago my mother mentioned that my then girlfriend's father would go a bit psycho when there was a full moon. I could not deny the apparent correlation in behaviour. She mentioned that this was in her opinion where the legend of the werewolf originated. Interesting thought.

Fast forward some years and in ministry I certainly verify that there are times and seasons and even particular months when people seem to mutate and explode into crisis. It is also more peculiar for this to happen to singular individuals at a time than for it to happen in clumps.

My theory has a little less mythos than that of my mother's. I think that no one is actually okay. No on is alright, no one is coping, no one is doing well. We are all continually managing crises. For those who have less effective coping mechanisms or are less able to distinguish their own crises from that of others - they are more prone to explode. It simply takes less to push them beyond breaking.

So how are our mechanisms? If we run to substances, sex, relationships, food, adrenaline, escapism, shopping or other things in such a way as they themselves accentuate and multiply the chaos or crisis, then our coping mechanisms become our downfall. Additionally, when we see werewolves (or ourselves) mutating in the middle of a crisis and we seem to be able to identify the unhealthy coping mechanism which is multiplying  the problem, removing the coping mechanism does not remove the crisis.

This is where the 1950's flavour of behaviour modification in Christian theory and practice is most clearly insufficient. When someone is dealing with grief and starts smoking pot, smoking pot is a symptom not a cause. Smoking pot may progress from being a coping mechanism to being a crisis-multiplier to being a cause of its own crisis, but it is not originally the cause itself - it is a symptom. Removing the pot does not solve the grief which is crying out to be addressed.

Let's add some more complications from the western Christian model. Historically it has not been culturally easy to admit that you're not coping. Some flavours of Christianity severely (very severely) emphasize the victorious facets of the work of Christ such that for a person to not cope with a crisis or situation or dilemma or decision etc is for that person to 'deny Christ' or 'lack faith' or be exercising 'non-faith'.

People are created limited not limitless. Some people are strong swimmers some people can barely swim. Every person has a point at which they are utterly, utterly overwhelmed and that's okay. If you are not coping that's okay. If someone you know is not coping that's okay. If someone you love is not coping it's alright. They are human. If they have turned to a substance or behaviour to try and medicate the feeling of not coping, to try to sleep or forget or feel good, do not forget that there is a difference between symptom and cause. Healing, conviction of sin, transformation, freedom are not just about behaviour modification. They are about the person who is hurting in the middle of a hurting world.

They are not just werewolves who are howling because of a full moon. Even if it looks that way. Even if they have a crisis every week. Even if brain chemistry is affected by tidal changes and the gravity of the moon - a person not coping with life is still a person.

If you are not coping that's okay. The temptation to medicate what you are feeling is very, very powerful. If you are not coping it means that something is wrong. It's not about modifying behaviour, it's about being released and healed and transformed to become who Jesus has created you to be. It's about being honest with yourself about what's going on inside.

If you don't find a way to speak about it sensibly then be aware that to others you may simply look like a weirdo howling at the moon.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Pastor's note on funerals.

I like funerals as much as the next guy. Probably. I think Solomon was right when he said that attending funerals is better than parties - and it's not just for the free food. It's about perspective.

The local church used to be the place of life and death. You would literally walk past your dead relatives to go worship God. There's a now-foreign shunting that happens when you have the uncomfortable truth of death in your face. We like to ignore mortality. Moreover we think that it's undeserved. 

I deserve to live forever. At least that's what half of me thinks. The other half is so, so looking forward to being present with Christ and out of this busted and broken sphere. As to which half is the dominant... it depends on if it's before or after morning coffee.

All that aside.

Funerals are great because there's a room full of people who have to be fundamentally honest. There's no ruse of materialism present, though it has often turned back up again at the wake. It is like a moment of pure unadulterated reality. We. Are. Broken. And there's nothing in all of our power to do anything about it. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot undo the curse of mortality. We can't run. We can't hide. We are all already dying. And it is just beautiful.

The raw simplicity of death is a sharp facet of the revelation of God's sovereignty. He is the God of death. It is our 'just' reward for being what we naturally are. And this foul, painful, horrifying thing called death is His doing because ultimately it's what most adequately shows us the extent of our own brokenness. Death is revelatory. And that this 'last enemy' will ultimately be put under Christ's feet is therefore even more-so.

Yes I have a funeral on tomorrow and this is all in my head right now. Yes this is kind of scratching the surface of a bunch of other things. Yes I need sleep right now.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The body of Christ

Amongst some decrepit tables in a theological college near you, two young and bristling thinkers sip hot drinks and attempt to ward off the cold by roasting one side of themselves in front of a friendly brown gas heater, while their other side slowly freezes. The coffee tastes both instant and stale, the carpet stained, the walls threatening to sigh and give up and the room is illuminated by a rather stoic if lonely vending machine and some naked and harsh fluorescent bulbs. Within this room a peculiar and rare phenomenon is taking place, something which defies physics, logic, causality and chance.

Christians from different traditions are disagreeing with each other in love.

Let us leave temporarily the questionable carpet stains of our postmodern semi-monastic surroundings and think about why we understand the above point to be somewhat ironic.

All of humanity displays observable trends. The study of sociology and anthropology, culture, psychology, behavioural science etc is made possible because of reoccurring patterns. Human beings are in many ways predictable. We have biases, we have personalities, tastes, proclivities, favourites, comfort zones, routines, customisable play-lists for our music etc. It is therefore somewhat obvious that the core personality of the person (their ontology), whether conservative or avant-garde, filters into and affects everything about the person. My particularly conservative streak affects the way I vote, the music I listen to, the clothes I wear, the media I choose to interact with etc. Alternately my avant-garde nature also influences the way I structure my life, my budgeting, the contents of my house, the way I engage with the world etc. Who I am in terms of ‘content of character’ (to accidentally borrow from Martin Luther King) exhibits its flow-on effect in every facet of my daily life. In short, who I am influences ‘how I do’.

Including Church life. My preferred size for a congregation. The style of liturgy or worship. The dress code. Gender roles. Decor. Candles or no candles. Pews or beanbags. Raise hands or no raising hands. Wine or grape juice. One chalice or many tiny cups. Kneeling or no kneeling. Calling out amen or nodding thoughtfully in silence whilst rubbing the chin... and the list goes on.

Again I suggest that this is the first and obvious step. The second is more difficult.

The second step is trying to get along with the people who aren’t like me... perhaps it would be more accurate to say – the people who are radically different to me.

This is where congregational marketing sort of dies.

No one wants to use the slogan “Our Church is full of people who will frustrate you”, or perhaps the more subtle “discomfort in Jesus every Sunday”. People want to feel accepted, a sense of belonging, as though they fit in etc. This is certainly easier to arrange if a congregation is geared towards a specific demographic. Maybe it’s a particularly conservative demographic, maybe it’s a particularly avant-garde one, but church becomes easier in a way because the corporate personality of the congregation operates with less tension. There are fewer fights over ecclesiological structure, there are fewer disputes about what things should take priority and there are common values. The ‘doing’ of Church is easier because unity is only natural when you have a certain degree of voluntary conformity.

This type of congregation is easy to advertise and easy to please. You know who and what you are dealing with and it is easy to speak on behalf of the general opinion. If they’re swimming at the conservative end of the pool or if they are particularly avant-garde it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know many of the things which will score high on the values and priorities list and what will score low. This sort of simple analysis is at work every time you see an ad on a webpage suggesting things which might also appeal to you – it’s a numbers game, it is statistically simple. Most people who clicked on this link also clicked on this one, or read this book, or liked this article, or voted in this way, or found this funny. This is what market research is based on – how can things be geared to appeal in a more global sense to our target demographic.

Church marketing dies here because the target demographic of the Kingdom of God is the whole spectrum of humanity, not just my comfort zone. God does not call all people to become like me. God does not call all people to become like you. God does not call all people to become conservative. God does not call all people to become avant-garde. God calls all people to become who He made them to be.

The mission of making disciples is, therefore, to be conducted in such a way as it both trains and equips people to be wholly themselves in light of who God made and is making them to be - as well as calling people to repent of their self-centredness and to forsake themselves to and for the glory and grace of Christ, through the Spirit. The process of discipleship is not aimed at moving people through a sausage machine in order to encourage conformity to anything other than the likeness and mind of Christ.

The Kingdom of God is filled with personalities from every strange and obscure corner. The earthing of the divine triune life in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit – made possible by the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ – further emphasises the nature of God’s love of diversity. To every person who receives Christ, the Spirit is given as the parakletos. The Spirit is the comforter, the one who comes alongside, the one who guides into all truth, the one who makes known the Father and draws all further unto Christ. And this Spirit, this interpersonal seal of our salvation, is not just given to the avant-garde. This Spirit is not just given to the conservative. This Spirit is given freely, regardless of personality.

I am convinced that so often our defining of that maturity to which we are being encouraged by the Spirit is a definition which stresses conformity not diversity. Our definition of what it is to be a mature follower of Christ is so often limited and inhibited by the bias of the general congregational personality where we fellowship. To be mature is to conform to the likeness of the group, and sometimes at the expense of who we are released to be by the Spirit.

Imagine a spectrum. At one end let us place the archetypal conservative personality and at the other the avant-garde. We know that people feel comfortable congregating with others who are similarly positioned on the spectrum to themselves. It is not an extraordinarily odd thing to associate with like minded people. Sociologists are surely not surprised to find churches which are largely conservative or avant-garde in composition. The conservative finds comfort with the conservatives, the avant-garde with the avant-garde.

But we cannot move from an 'is' to an 'ought'.

Here is the point. For any congregation to gear its sociologically normal tendancy and use it to deliberately limit either actively or passively the fellowship of the saints on the basis of discomfort with a particular facet of the Holy Spirit’s expression and activity is to place the Spirit of God’s presence, activity and expression below and subject to their own comfort. Therefore the Spirit of God stands before the judgement seat of man and humbly asks permission to invite people to fellowship who have personalities, gifts, graces or expressions other than the social norm. The maintenance of the status quo overbears the fellowship of the saints, the very courtship of humanity by the Spirit and the Father and the Son.

For example, I grew up in a congregation which was particularly avant-garde. There were many interesting terms which were used to describe that church and most were used in a derogatory way. Hype. Emotional. Fundamentalist. Anti-intellectual. Disorganised. Childish. Ecstatic. Frenzied etc. That congregation would on occasion use equally loaded words to refer to those residing at the other end of the spectrum. Dead. Anti-Holy Spirit. Stagnant. Intellectualist. Hollow. Trapped etc.

The difficulty which I was faced with the most was that I was increasingly aware of the Spirit of God being present in ‘dead’ things. Like a prayer which was written down and read out rather than spontaneous. Like the words of a preacher or theologian long gone which would move from the page through my mind to pierce my heart with the glory and majesty of God. I was increasingly aware that my personality - if I was to be true to who God made me to be and was calling me to mature into – was very much geared for the conservative end of the spectrum and I was in a congregation which was at the other, though I could hardly articulate it at the time.

By the same token I have stood in more recent years and sung praises to God alongside others who have openly detracted such activities as that little church’s as ‘hype’. I have had more than one conversation with people suggesting that ecumenism will take a significant step forward when avant-garde congregations grow up or mature or settle down or ‘get over themselves’. Just as the tendency from one end of the spectrum questions the supposed validity of any activity of the Holy Spirit so removed from their own – so does the other.

At its extreme, each supposes on the basis of the corporate ‘norm’ of expression that the other is operating in an absence of the Spirit.

The conservative points the finger and says ‘hype’, the avant-garde points the finger and says ‘dead’. The Spirit of God points and says ‘diversity’, ‘creativity’, ‘genuine-ness’.

"1Co 12:18-27 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honourable we bestow the greater honour, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honour to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it."

The body of Christ needs people to be way out there at the avant-garde end of the spectrum because not only Has God created them that way and released them to be there, but there are people in this world that God desires as His own who can only be ministered to by the avant-garde of the Kingdom of God. The body of Christ also needs people who are equally conservative – people whose personalities are equally formed and released by the Spirit into being operating in the most conservative of social spheres.

Christian maturity cannot therefore be measured by either the effervescence or the quiescence of a personality. Treading out the narrow path is not so parochial.

So...

Think with me for a minute about the Christian you know who frustrates you the most.
(you know who they are)

If you were to sit and drink stale instant coffee with them, having stained carpet and a friendly gas heater for company – and to disagree about what expression of congregational gathering would be ‘nicest’ or ‘best’ or ‘most effective’, would you love them?

Would you love them in Christ’s name?

Would you love the ecstatic, gushing, emotional, seemingly spiritually bipolar servant of Christ?

Would you love the one who never seems to sing, or move, or pray in public? The one who only carries a KJV, dislikes loud music and wears a cardigan? Would you love them because Christ loves them?

Would you welcome them with open arms the way He does?

Would you thank God that these people have received the same grace and forgiveness that you have?

Would you thank God that they are not like you?

Will I thank God that they are not like me? Will I rejoice with them when they rejoice – no matter how ecstatic or boring their expression is?

Will we begin to act like the body of Christ.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

From the Ground up. Part III. Coffee is a symbol.

Apart from viewing coffee as an object, and as an experience metered by intention, coffee also exists albeit perhaps more poetically, as a social icon, a construct of meaning, a contextual symbol. That is to say that when I ask someone to catch up for a coffee (given my historical-social-economic context), the concept of what it means to have or get or share coffee doesn’t really hinge on coffee as a product or as a theophanic exercise. Its meaning is altogether more ethereal.

Coffee as a concept is foremost about communing with one another. Coffee is often more about the experience of being with the other person than it is about experiencing the coffee. Therefore the cultural contextual conceptual properties of coffee, infers a meaning which overflows that of the actual physical properties.

To intend to have coffee with a person is to intend to engage with them on an interpersonal level which is somehow outside of or different than the norm – it is an event. To intend to have coffee is to anticipate the interpersonal being-with-ness of the activity. To ask you to join with me in the activity of drinking coffee, either at church or home or lunch or a date is to invite human communing - to invite fellowship together. The anticipation or the event-ness is not culturally centred on seeking God or on sucking the marrow out of life with each glorious sip, but is simply on this moment which happens, this very earthy and tactile experience of being more with than normal.

It is interesting, then, that somehow this watery brown substance has gone from being the ‘end goal’ to being the means to the end – that I don’t really want the coffee, I want to be with you. (isn't that nice)

Maybe coffee is an easier way of ‘being’ with people and not be caught up in the fineries of the activity itself, not really having to do anything. A facet, then, of the beauty of coffee lies not in its grandiose nature, but in its apparent lack of significance and complexity – that coffee become an empty vessel which I fill with intentional fellowship. I can take a room which is otherwise empty and add coffee, but I’m not really adding coffee, I’m adding communion. Coffee carves out a space and a time for me to be with someone. If I want to have a coffee with you, then I’m making time for you, I’m making a space for you, I’m demonstrating a desire to give of my self into the vacuum of noise and sight and sound in order to enjoy you and who you are. Perhaps this is the basis for the social acceptance, reliance, occurrence, occasion, incidence of taking a space and putting the activity of ‘coffee’ into that space - it makes the space more interpersonal, warm, engaging, inviting, and accepting than it would be otherwise.

Coffee is, therefore, a considerably significant bearer of cultural meaning and impetus. But are there other objects or substances which could be put into a space, or around which a space is created which would have the communal-fellowship imbuing properties of coffee? Additionally, when someone comes into what is culturally a ‘coffee space’ is there a social implication of not desiring a coffee? Or of turning down an invite to coffee? Or of feeling either a negative external pressure or the inner positive desire to replace coffee with another substance which still allows for this rather specific form of social engagement? Perhaps it is significant in that as far reaching and broad a base of people as coffee engages with, it remains limited - coffee doesn’t actually fit everyone.

Coffee as a cultural icon still only carries the meaning which is socially attributed to it. Coffee is therefore, not the universal be-all and end-all of communal beverages. In terms of cultural implication and significance, then perhaps this too can serve communion and fellowship but as more of a safeguard. That is to say that if coffee becomes more than simply a culturally contextually specific means by which to aid communion and fellowship – if coffee becomes the primary and/or necessary basis on which communion and fellowship rest, let alone the measure by which a person’s fellowship and being are measured, then a safeguard for defending against such a legalistic enforcement of coffee oriented interaction is surely the constant recognition that it is a preference not crucial to all. I preserve fellowship by not forcing coffee upon you. I recognise the limits of coffee as an icon, by offering you a tea or hot chocolate instead.

As much social meaning as coffee may have, if I go beyond using its socially iconographic status as a means by which to enter into healthy communing with you, and move in the direction of demanding its presence or involvement, then at some point I have surely departed from a Christlike, person oriented, utilisation of coffee as a culturally and contextually relevant means to have relationship. I have turned the tool into an unhealthy and legalistic tradition which no longer serves the ministering of the Grace of Christ, but now overrides it. If I fail to remember that coffee is limited, that it is a context specific means, then I run the risk of plucking coffee (and all that it means) out of its context and enforcing it on others for whom it may well be meaningless and actually work against the goal of real communing and fellowship. To commune appropriately is impingent upon my cultural interpretation of it. Coffee, like any well loved activity of cultural significance should surely, then, be as subject to the sharp analysis and critique as the most apparently nonsensical and far-removed activities which we come into contact with from every culture and subculture. Culture is subject to Christ and His intention, rather than forcing Christ’s intention to be subject to culture.

Coffee is by Him and for Him.

All because coffee means something to me, and is useful and purposeful and wonderful and works in this context, does not mean that someone else can be expected to operate within this cultural paradigm. In a more Christianity specific sense, if there is recognition of the cultural impetus and limitations of a practice or tradition, then surely the practice, like coffee should be viewed as a culturally contextually relevant tool, and be utilised accordingly. Therefore, as a tool for encouraging unity in the body, for encouraging fellowship and communing, let the principle which the activity serves be held to and not simply a singular contextually embedded appropriation of it.

So...

God made coffee. God is redeeming coffee. I think that's worth remembering.

Drink coffee if your intention is good. Ask and trust God to increasingly sanctify the way you resource and implement coffee in this world. Seek to find the natural revelation of God in the very existence of coffee. Ask God to meet with you in the experience of coffee – for His glory and your edification. Use coffee wisely and appropriately. And above all, pray for the soon coming complete and eschatological redemption of coffee… and everything else. :j

A Prayer:
Lord, I want to buy you a coffee
Maybe sometime Friday after work
I understand that my week has probably not been as full-on as yours.
But I'de love to catch up. For us to just have a few minutes to chat in the back of some cafe somewhere. I'll even go you halves in a caramel slice.
It seems like so long since we just hung out.
I'll make sure I try not to talk the whole time.
Let me know when's good for you. You know I'm not great with planning ahead.
And i can't recall if you've ever told me what you drink...
Amen.

From the Ground up. Part II: Coffee is an experience.

It is nothing new to suggest that a Christian understanding of self hinges on the person being a synthesis of things physical (cognitive, chemical, corporeal) and spiritual (ethereal, conceptual). Jean Luc Marion, (with thanks to translator Shane Mackinlay) puts forward a form of examining this union in light of a person being comprised of two distinctly different forms of information: signification and intuition.

Every thing which has phyical presence may be said to contain information in the form of signification - i.e. it has significance as an event in space and time. We can weight it, measure its dimensions, send it to a lab and have it cut up and tested etc. Every person, therefore, bears information which outlines their measurable significance as an event in space and time (signification).

Apart from information existing in the form of signification, there is information which exists in the form of intuition. This is likely what the theologian Bruce Lee meant when he referred to 'emotional content' (Enter the Dragon). Into this category we might place such things as memory, intuition, imagination, want and will. Marion uses these categories to differentiate between an inanimate object as a limited phenomenon ( - it has limited intuitive information), and a person / person-event as a saturated phenomenon (- it has a saturated amount of intuitive information). It is therefore primarily on the basis of what one person chooses (and is able) to give of themselves in intuitive way that an interpersonal interaction can take place, because only through the person’s givenness can the saturated intuitive information be navigated at a healthy rate.

Simply put, if i want to know you, i cannot simply send you to a lab where they record as much of your signification as possible. To actually know another person in the real sense of the word is to have an interaction with that person on the basis of intuitive information.

More importantly, is the understanding that no person has complete or perfect access to their intuitive information, and of the access that each person does have, interaction takes place through what they themselves choose to 'give' of that information - interaction takes place through 'givenness'.

This is also a basis on which art carries meaning. I come to the art (static or interactive) bringing my signification and intuition, and when I interact with the art it speaks on the basis of what I avail of myself to be spoken to. It connects with what I give of myself as connect-able. It requests and reflects upon my givenness, both in what I have access to at the time (i.e. what I know and remember of my self) and what I choose / am able to admit and release about myself.

Therefore, to some extent, the meaning of the art is found through my givenness upon the basis of my intention – an intention residing within a cultural / historical / social / economic context. That is to say that I intend, from within my context, to perceive things in the art and to allow the art to inform my intuitive information in particular areas but not others. Some areas of my intuitive content are off limits to be commented on. The meaning of the art is, therefore, limited to my understanding by my intention. Also, as I give of my self (my intuition) to interact with the art on certain levels, it reveals something about myself in what I choose to give. That is to say, the playing out of my intention is self revelatory.

If i view a sculpture, or painting or installation and it means 'nothing' to me, that says something about the relationship between myself and the art - and a little depper than that, about the relationship between my intuitive information and the intent of the artist.

It is here that coffee become peculiarly interesting as an experience, because it is a form of self-revelation of the artisan - a corporealisation of the intuitive content of the artist themselves. Like any artwork it serves as a means by which to know the way in which the artist desires to communicate – perhaps hinting at the values of the artist. Its meaning is, therefore, inherent in both the intention of the artist in their self-revelation, and in the participant’s intuitive interaction. It’s inherent meaning is therefore not static, but subjective depending on what a person brings to it and in what context.

So...

Here the Christian understanding of the nature of God as self revealing and of being a person (a ‘thou’ and not an ‘it’) is of central importance. when I remove the flimsy plastic lid, inhale the aroma and begin to sip - I am interacting with an artwork that has a purpose. This expression from the mind of God is something which has been designed, ordered, structured, assembled, orchestrated – specifically crafted to be 'that which it is' and nothing else.

It is an impartation of the givenness of God.

It is a container for latent information which points to the whom at its genesis. It is for this reason that the created realm is referred to as 'natural revelation'. Those things which have significance in time, matter or energy began as the artwork of the one from whom time, matter and energy have come forth.

(Pause)

It is of some importance at this point to ascertain whether or not the art is being interacted with as the artist intended, or whether some moronic spoiled brat kids are running amok in the gallery, screwing things up.

Scripture is very clear that the world in which we live is not the world which was created perfect. This universe decays and is in need of redemption. The curses of God upon humanity and the rest of creation are not yet to be dismissed. Toiling the ground is not yet turned to tending the garden, and childbearing pain, thorns, thistles and the human proclivity to rule over each other are still the norm. In Christ, redemption is initiated but not yet consummated. Therefore, to suggest that coffee somehow remains intrinsically perfect and untainted is - though optimistic, encouraging and very positive - false.

(sorry) - and yet this is cause for much rejoicing.

Coffee, like all created things, has God’s fingerprints on it. Coffee, like all created things, is broken and in need of redemption (as is my motorcycle). However, it is because of Christ that there has been the initiation of redemption for all humanity and all creation – so too the possibility remains for humanity to partake in Christ’s redemption of coffee. Coffee is not presently perfect because both the form and the content are in need of redemption, but – as the Spirit of God conforms my will to His own, as I am increasingly transformed into the likeness of Christ, as God is working through for my salvation and His glory – precisely because God has made a way through Christ to indwell humanity with His Spirit, my intention towards coffee can be an increasingly sanctified and transformed intention.

By the Spirit through Christ I am freed from approaching coffee in a purely hedonistic way and therefore, coffee touches redemtion when I touch it because the Spirit is redeeming me and my intention. I am not bound to use a substance simply for my own pleasure but to seek to use it in the way that God intended. Coffee is not, therefore, inherently good or evil in a moralistic sense (though subject to decay and therefore not 'perfect') but is subject to my intention.

How, then, I interact with coffee on the basis of my intention in light of my relationship with God becomes the measure of my experience with coffee.

By the Spirit, then, I can interact with the givenness of God that He has put there to be enjoyed. The Spirit who will 'guide us into all truth' is able to increasingly reveal the facets of God’s goodness and beauty which remain in coffee – given that the form of coffee itself is awaiting the day when all things are made new.

Redemption for creation was initiated in my redemption, and continues as the redemption of humanity continues. My experience of the substance in my hand is subject to my intention – which is hopefully an increasingly sanctified one. One day the redemption of creation will be complete, coffee will be redeemed fully in both content and form.

And on that day, (Lord, please) i will order the finest latte the universe has ever known.