Postcards from Austria

theological scribbles from David Bunce, Baptist pastor and theologian

Category: Theology (page 1 of 5)

Paper Theology Live 2019: The theological virtue of patience in church life

On 10th January 2019, I was pleased to be able to give a paper at the Theology Live conference in Bloomsbury Baptist Church 2019. My paper focused on the theological virtue of patience in church life and drew on experiences from the Austrian Baptist Union.

The conference is a showcase for Baptists involved in postgraduate level research to share what they are learning, and was an excellent day with some fascinating papers. You can listen to the full line-up of papers here: http://www.bloomsbury.org.uk/single-post/2019/01/16/Theology-Live-2019

Particular highlights from me are Dan Pratt’s paper on contextual trauma theologies and Beth Allison-Glenny’s fun and stimulating paper looking at Judith Butler and baptism.

Distracted Love – post on Pilgrims’ Process

…Even good things in the church – good theology, good ethics, good worship service, ministry time – can become distractions which prevent us attending to God and each other.

Anyone who serves in the church – on whatever level – knows the ever-present danger of this kind of distraction. We begin to think that we are doing something cool. That we are important – game-changing, even. More than the dangers of moral failure in sex or finance, I think, is the danger of getting distracted by our own self-written press releases…

Read the full post here

Reflections on the EBF Mission Conference “Welcoming the Stranger”

Last week a party of us went up to Berlin for the EBF Mission Conference 2016, “Welcoming the Stranger”. This conference, the theme of which was planned before the events of last summer, looked at Baptist responses to the refugee crisis across Europe. There have been several reports already about the conference, and I thought I would just add in a few reflections of my own.

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One of the most important pastoral questions I’ve been asked

At the end of my first year at University in Scotland, I did a two month summer internship with my church. I would help with Sunday services, get experience of what church administration looks like, help out with a children’s activity week, and other similar tasks.

As part of the internship, we used to have team meetings and regular contact with the pastors of the church. It was during one of these sessions, over a cooked breakfast and a cup of coffee, that the question came up: “David: do you tithe (give 10% of your income) to the church”

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Suffering: scribbles from a sermon

We are currently going through a preaching series on seven verbs for Lent in Projekt:Gemeinde. I drew the short straw of preaching on suffering. This is fraught with difficulty: it is a subject which is very personal and real to many people, and one which touches our deepest hopes, dreams, fears and pains. Unfortunately, it is also a subject which is too easy to either preach glibly about, thus minimising the real experience of suffering, or to be too academic and dry, and thus miss the pastoral mark in terms of ministering the gospel. Finally, I’ve had a tedious couple of weeks and was also feeling exhausted and in need of the gospel myself.

Therefore, I decided to structure the sermon a little differently. We broke it up into five small meditations, divided by the repeated reading of Psalm 13:1-4 (“how long, O Lord, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me…”).

A lot of people found the sermon helpful, so I decided to give a scribbled spark-notes version here translated into English, in case it helps other people. This is obviously a highly condensed summary of a spoken event, so comes will all the limitations thereof!

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Unexpected sermons: a church which is hurting and dirty

On my way to preach on Sunday evening, a half remembered quote from Pope Francis sprung to mind. When I got to church, I tracked down the quote from Evangelii gaudium and incorporated it into my sermon, and the whole message ended up being very different to what I had been planning to preach (this, by the way, is rather nerve-wracking when preaching in a foreign language!).

In his exhortation, the Pope reminds the church of the joy of proclaiming the gospel. The part that particularly sprung to my mind comes from the last paragraph of Chapter 1:

Let us go forth, then, let us go forth to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ. Here I repeat for the entire Church what I have often said to the priests and laity of Buenos Aires: I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.

I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life.

More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37).1Evangelii gaudium, 1.48. Read online

I found the Pope’s vision for the church captivating and challenging. There is a lot for me as a Baptist to affirm here – and yet there is also the question: does this reflect the reality of our personal and corporate lives together?

My sermon was about fasting and giving up our power. Drawing again on Philippians 2, I pointed out that in Jesus we have a demonstration of what reality looks like, and encouragement that the same mind that should be in each of us. And indeed this reality is our reality: we enter in this new reality by the power of the Spirit.

I had a wonderfully detailed series of applications about what that might look like in various situations. In the end, I stayed on the one level, our identity as a church. And my point was simple: an encounter with Jesus is something so completely precious, so reality-changingly beautiful, that it breaks our hearts.

In Jesus, we see the God who is for human beings completely and without reservation. We see God’s ‘yes’ to humanity, despite humanity’s frailty and disobedience. And when we encounter this Jesus, as individuals and as a church, we cannot help but be drawn to the kinds of places Jesus was drawn to, and to learn to live and love as Him.

May this encounter with Jesus in the gospel shape our lives and our imaginations of what church is more and more. May we be known as a people who are addicted to grace, who try and embody God’s ‘yes’ to human beings in the middle of a society which so quickly dehumanises and demonises.

May God keep us from the security of our own internal structures and debates, of church politics and becoming ‘harsh judges’, and instead keep us captivated by his gospel. And may we long to see God’s Kingdom coming in our churches, as we get remade by the power of the gospel.

Sunday wasn’t the sermon I planned to preach. But maybe, despite all the homiletical inadequacy, there was a vision to live and die for: a church bruised and broken, because it is made up of people who have seen the risen Lord.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Evangelii gaudium, 1.48. Read online

Gender balance at UK Christian conferences 2015

I’d like to draw your attention to the report released by UK based Project 3:28 this week looking at the balance between male-female speakers in UK Christian conferences. The project, kickstarted by a small group of superstar activists, exists question the imbalance between male and female speakers at Christian conference, and to advocate for visible gender justice.

You can read the whole report for yourself to see a breakdown of the number of speakers, some comments on research methodology, and improvements from 2013-2014. Though I am pleased to note that the (BUGB) Baptist Assembly came top of the list, having a moreorless equal line-up (52% men, 48% women). Also, two conferences (Church and Media Conference, and Youthwork Summit) are notable for having a higher proportion of women than men.

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Power: look not to your own interests

I was preaching on Philippians 2 in our Farsi service on Sunday, and was particularly captured in the inspiration by the idea of power in the church community. Paul is concerned in the beginning of Philippians 2 to talk about what should characterise Christians in church: they should be of one mind, sharing the same love, being in full accord with each other.

Then he moves on to talk about how Christians relate to each other: they should do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility they should regard others as better than themselves. We shouldn’t look to our own interests, but to the interests of others (it’s interesting to notice the way this is often softened in some translations to be “not just to your own interests”). To illustrate this point, of course, Paul points to the example of Christ (Phil 2:5-11).

This all got me thinking about the power dynamics in our relationships with each other in the church. I think that most churches are characterised by a mixture of the kind of love that Paul is pointing to, and a mixture of unbaptised conceptions of power and what power looks like (as is so often the case in human relationships).

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In defence of the theological virtue of grumpiness.

I have slight tendencies towards grumpiness. Or at least seeming grumpy. This will come as no surprise to those who know me.

Indeed, when I lived in Scotland, my friend helpfully made the following image comparing me to a grumpy cat (for those who are confused, I am the one on the left):

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I put it down to being born in the North of England before spending too many years in the rainy plains of Scotland. It’s not that I have a particularly cloudy outlook on life: by and large, I am a positive – even optimistic! – person. Yet, grumpiness tends persist.

In a flight of fancy this evening, I begun pondering about grumpiness and whether it could be classed as a theological virtue. There is a health warning on what follows: it is to be taken with a large pinch of salt and very little earnestness. Possibly. Maybe.

Church history tells us that many theologians weren’t the life-and-soul of the party. Whilst it was true that Luther was often to be found in the bars of Wittenberg, others – Calvin, for example – were known for a rather more austere approach to life. Of course, the fact that Calvin spent a large part of his life chronically ill probably did little to lighten his mood.

Yet grumpiness isn’t just a certain grimness in the face of otherwise irresistible cheeriness (here I think of Leonard Cohen’s quip: “I’ve also studied deeply in the philosophies and religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through”).

Neither, I think is it unhealthy cynicism or sourness. Both of those are clearly sins in the theological discipline where we are called to worship God and study with joy. But I don’t think grumpiness is necessarily antithetical to joy. Grumpiness is something much more British, much more positive and much more related to irony than either of those two.

I think grumpiness can also mean a certain impatience with novelty for novelty’s sake. On this account, it tries to resist narratives of ever-increasing improvement (whilst also resisting narratives of ever-worsening situations) and suggests that received tradition and wisdom are not to be idly dismissed. Grumpiness can be a healthy impatience with things that are superficial or self-serving, or a suspicion at new trends that seem to reinforce existing power structures.

If we entertain this definition of grumpiness, then, it could indeed be a theological virtue in the church.

A healthy scepticism – a ‘grumpy’ scepticism, if you will – towards new ideas is rooted in a knowledge of and debt to 2000 years of Christian history, and a pastoral concern for God’s people, lest an incoming trend distract from the main and the plain of love for God and neighbour. Grumpiness can also be a resisting force against ideas that shrink the living God of the Bible down to a riddle we can work out, an ethical theory or something we can grasp. It accords priority to God’s speech and action.

Grumpiness is wary of the latest ideas or coalitions, of gospel-centred beer brewing and relevant conferences with the latest big name speakers. Not because God is unable to use these – of course he can and does – but because such movements often have the unintended side effect of crippling the local church. Or these movements and their well-known leaders too often keep silent – and try to silence discussion – when it comes to publicised issues of plagiarism, abuse or domestic violence so as not to destroy the perpetual motion machine of the Evangelical Industrial Complex. Here, a grumpiness that has very little invested in the glamorous hierarchies of Christian celebrity and the glitzy world of gospel-centred-capitalism can again be a pastoral positive. Grumpiness resists the temptation to be in the Inner Ring and thus become a scoundrel (the ghost of this C.S. Lewis script of course haunts this paragraph strongly…)

If this flight-of-fancy is true, then, we could define grumpiness as an impatience at things that offer less than God or encourage people to settle for something smaller than God. Only the speaking, table-turning, unsettling and comforting God will do. And grumpiness insists time and time again that we do business with this God, not the multiple idols that we are so good at constructing.

Of course, this could all be rubbish and it could just be I am a grumpy git. That’s far more likely than anything else I’ve written above. Yet, even here, grumpiness means it’s difficult even to take one’s own thoughts too seriously. As Jeremiah soberly reminds us, “the heart is deceitful above all things and there is no cure” (Jer 17:9). Nothing sounds better than self-justification. So even the grumpiest of grumpy cats must eventually dissolve in laughter at the futility of ourselves.

Here, it’s always wise to remember words from St Karl of Barth (himself rather a chipper Swiss person):

“The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. They laugh at the fact that volume follows volume and each is thicker than the previous one. As they laugh, they say to one another, “Look! Here he comes now with his little pushcart full of volumes of the Dogmatics!” And they laugh about the men who write so much about Karl Barth instead of writing about the things he is trying to write about. Truly, the angels laugh.”
Quoted in Robert McAfee Brown’s “Introduction” to Portrait of Karl Barth, by George Casalis, trns. Robert McAfee Brown. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1964, p xiii.

Maybe there’s something useful to grumpiness.

Probably, I’m just dour.

Either way, not taking myself or my work too seriously is a good way forward – God is just too lively, too beautiful, too glorious to spend too much time staring at my naval.

Jude: building yourself up and standing in glory

The letter of Jude is a fascinating document. At only 25 verses long and nestled just between the letters of John and Revelation, it’s very easy to overlook. Even when it does get read, the myriad of illusions to other texts make it hard going for modern readers to access Jude’s argument. Yet there is some interesting stuff going on here, especially with regards to Christian living, both in its individual and corporate forms.

The letter is written to various churches, probably to encourage the early believers to ‘contend for the faith’ (v. 3) in the face of ‘certain intruders’ who had come into their congregations and had started teaching ‘licentiousness’ (v. 4). The issue seems to be one of antinomianism – because we are saved by grace alone, goes the argument, then the moral demands of the gospel and invitation into holiness are unimportant. Jude sees this as an teaching that ‘denies our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ’ (v. 4).

I don’t want to dwell too much on this particular controversy, or its relationship to other questions in the church. That’s a question for another day. Instead, I find Jude’s advice (v. 20-23) to the believers in the churches fascinating and helpful to us in the 21st Century.

The call

First, he advises them, as those who are ‘beloved’ by the Father, to build themselves up in your most holy faith. I think this is a useful reminder. All too often in controversy, our first instinct is fight or flight – either to become big to intimidate our opponents, or to run away from someone else who is making themselves big. Jude reminds us to look first to ourselves and our standing before the Lord – neither rushing into a fight, nor rushing away in despair.

This is an act of the Spirit – pray in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God – not something that comes from ourselves or our own super spiritual muscles, but through the gracious work of the Spirit, taking our own prayers and making them complete and perfect.

This is a work of hope. We are to always look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. In the midst of difficult situations, especially in the church, hopelessness can seem to be the operating outlook on life. Emotions are running high, angry emails and texts sometimes get exchanged, people are stressed and tend to react. Jude encourages us all to look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus, to keep our eyes fixed on the King and his promise.

One of the things that I find really encouraging about the book of Acts is the way in which it shows the early church being built out of normal people, with normal problems and conflicts. It reminds us that the church has always been imperfect – we’re not to look with hope to our own perfection, nor with hopelessness at the all to obvious signs of our imperfection, but we are to look with hope at Jesus, who loves the church and makes it holy and perfect.

Finally, verse 22-23 has a helpful warning to those in the church (often elders and pastors) who have the challenge of responding to conflict. It reminds us that different people come from different places and need to be treated as individuals. The disturbed need to be comforted, the weak need to be shown grace and love and friendship – and the comforted need sometimes to be disturbed. Pastoral care is a work of wisdom that needs to see individuals and react to them as people – woe betide the church that tries to extract this into a one-size fits all model. That way very quickly ends up in the realm of spiritual abuse.

The hope

Finally, having presented the call to gracious but determined obedience, Jude presents the hope. Verses 24-5 are a prayer and a blessing. It is ultimately God who is ‘able to keep you from falling’ – another reason why in v. 21 we are called to look to the mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our security isn’t found in our obedience, in our faith, in our prayers or even in our hope. It is found in our Lord, in his obedience and in his ability to keep us from falling.

Not just that, but it is he who will make us stand without blemish in the presence of his glory, who will make us rejoice. Spotless, perfect, pure and forgiven – and rejoicing. The image here is one of a wedding feast, coming into the presence of God’s very being – Bauckham notes the Old Testament background of ‘the jubilation of God’s people in the attainment of his purpose’. 1Richard Bauckham, Jude-2 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: 1983), 122-3

Troubles and conflicts come and go. Sometimes they belong to deliberate mischief making, sometimes they belong to the nature of being a community of human beings trying together to be faithful. Jude tells us to keep the main thing the main thing, to keep focussed on Jesus, to react with kindness and grace to the individuals before us, and to look forward to the hope of all things made new. In the midst of our problems, we remember that it is not our job to fix everything – there is one who has already done that, and one day we will celebrate that!

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Richard Bauckham, Jude-2 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: 1983), 122-3
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