The Church is a Mystery

Whilst I was digging around in some church history today, I came across this nugget of Eusebian observation:
“As the third century drew to a close, the tensions within the church were becoming more explosive.  Eusebius looking back on the situation as he had seen it as a young man could write,

maxresdefault‘But when as the result of greater freedom a change to pride and sloth came over our affairs, we fell to envy and fierce railing one against the other, warring upon ourselves so to speak as occasion offered with weapons and spears formed of words, and ruler attacked ruler and laity formed factions against laity, while unspeakable hypocrisy and pretense pursued their evil course to the furthest end.’ 

It was a grim picture of ecclesiastic strife at the moment of Christianity’s triumph.  Paganism had indeed been defeated.  The world was ripe for religious change, but not for religious peace.”
The Early Church by W. H. C. Frend, Page 114
And this made me think!  The church had faced all sorts of external pressures and problems, persecutions and heresies.  When peace came, they turned on each other!  This is shocking!
Nietzsche made a similar point when he observed a church that was brazenly hypocritical; living, as it were, with a great gulf between what she said she believed, and what she actually did.  I suppose this applies to both corporate and individual.  He said,
“They would have to sing better songs to make me believe in the Redeemer:  his disciples would have to look more redeemed!”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke ZarathustraSICK-nietzsche
I get what he means about the songs on some Sundays, but I don’t know what he means that those who follow Jesus should look “more redeemed”, I’ve tried to look more redeemed, and my wife asks me if I’m ill, or in pain!
I suspect Nietzsche meant act more redeemed, although, acting righteously brings its own set of unholy problems;  all manner of good-deeds can mask insidious sin and self-serving righteousness.  Basically, the church has always struggled.  Struggled with what it claims and what it does; or what it believes and what it practices.  Sin could be most seductively and demonically at work under the guise of doing good.  Many a good intention is shipwrecked upon the rocks of slightly off-centre zeal!
While Nietzsche is appalled at the church he observes (probably a limited observation anyway unless he really was Superman); Eusebius, on the other (and much earlier historically) hand, is quite shocked!  “OMG, they’re turning on…. themselves!”

Continue reading “The Church is a Mystery”

It’s a Mystery!


A few years ago I was actually on a mission trip (somewhere in the Middle East), with actual third year ministers-in-training.  I walked in to the coffee room and joined a conversation about the Trinity.  It was all very exciting.

No sooner had I sat down and reached for a biscuit, when I heard that phrase that just sucks all life out of a conversation, pops balloons, bursts bubbles, and leaves you thinking “WTF!”*

A group of third year ministers-in-training (did I say that already?), on an exciting mission trip, discussing the Trinity!  Can it get better that that?  And the moment someone (not me – I was making a coffee and reaching for the biscuits remember) mentioned Trinitarian perichoresis, that unusual word that tries to capture the indwelling of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit with each other, someone actually said, “We can’t know anything about the Trinity…” to which most in the room feigned humility by agreeing, “…it’s a mystery!”

Ah!  The sage has spoken.  His followers, supping coffee, all agreeing. POP.  What was that?  Oh, that was the balloon that’s just been popped.  I was so appalled (think ‘Yes, Prime Minister’) by the comment and murmuring afterwards, that the biscuit I was dipping in my coffee broke off and sank to the bottom.  Another metaphor for my disgust!

Did I mention these were third year ministers-in-training?  What Bible were they reading?  What theology were they learning?  What lectures were they attending?  To what churches will they be going?  OMG!**  What is going on?

Ministers, preachers, theologians are called to say the Name of God accurately.  Yes there is a great deal of mystery in the Christian faith, in God, but to pull the mystery card as the first and last thing we say about God is akin to abandoning posts, desertion, dereliction of duty, unthinking idolatry of the worst kind because it’s done by people who have been trained to say the Name of God accurately, carefully, fully.  This is a form of Christian-Atheism.

But theology gives us words.  Theos (GOD); Logos (WORD).  Words about God.  Theology.  There is something to say.  We have a language; we have a message; we have a tradition; we have a context; we have each other; we have hungry people all around us who want this ‘Word about God’ offered thoughtfully, prayerfully, with meaning, with precision, and yes, with mystery too!

The flow-chart comes from a blog post by an atheist HoorayReality.  With thanks to him for this because in this regard I agree entirely that many Christians, too many, mumble the mystery card too cheaply, too easily.  There is more to be said, and there is certainly more to the Christian faith than unthinking religious mumbo-jumbo.


*WTF = What The Flip

**OMG = Oh My Gosh

Listen to your life


“If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this:  Listen to your life.  See it for the fathomless mystery it is.  In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

Frederick Buechner in Now and Then

God has raised us up and seated us with Christ so that……so that…..he might show us the astounding, the glorious, the immeasurable, the stunning riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.   Ephesians 2:6

Apocalyptic Imagination

The apocalyptic imagination Eugene Peterson talks of gives us a sense of ‘deep time’ – a sense of ‘ages’ that transcends the compulsion of time-management experts.  But the working environment of pastors erodes patience and rewards impatience.  People are uncomfortable with mystery (God) and mess (themselves).  They avoid both mystery and mess by devising programs and hiring pastors to manage them.  A program provides a defined structure with an achievable goal.  Mystery and mess are eliminated at a stroke.  This is appealing.  In the midst of the mysteries of grace and the complexities of human sin, it is nice to have something that you can evaluate every month or so and find out where you stand.  We don’t have to deal with ourselves or with God, but can use the vocabulary of religion and work in an environment that acknowledges God, and so be assured we are doing something significant…

…The secular mind is terrorized by mysteries.  Thus it makes lists, labels people, assigns roles, and solves problems.  But a solved life is a reduced life.  These tightly buttoned-up people never take great faith risks or make convincing love talk.  They deny or ignore the mysteries and diminish human existence to what can be managed, controlled and fixed.  We live in a cult of experts who explain and solve.  The vast technological apparatus around us gives us the impression that there is a tool for everything if only we can afford it.  Pastors cast in the role of spiritual technologists are hard put to keep that role from absorbing everything else, since there are so many things that need to be and can, in fact, be fixed.

Eugene Peterson in The Contemplative Pastor

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