The Development of a Friendship

Dave and I have been in conversation for over a year now, and are looking forward to sharing some of our thoughts and encouraging others to join the conversation.  We have been on very different journeys. In the comments that follow I have tried to draw out just a little of the depth of that friendship, and the way the conversation developed.

Dave had described the role of the teacher as the one to explain and assimilate (to take in and incorporate as one’s own).  I found this interesting but only subsequently.  It is surely the role of the student to assimilate.  I wonder if there is any significance in that. How often do young leaders explain what they have been taught before they have assimilated the real lessons that still need to be learned from the realities of life? How often are these leaders giving the sort of explanations that their hearers want to hear – the security of being told what to believe?

Some of us have been led to question what we have been taught – that’s tough on teachers – it undermines their ‘authority’. I see myself as something of a hermit who is aware that in many cases there is no one right answer. That fact alone makes it almost impossible for the hermit to teach others. But when the teacher becomes aware of the need for a few retrofits, the hermit can be there to offer suggestions. The teacher can go on teaching – but will be more open minded about those things that are being reconsidered.

Many in ministry do seem to understand the dilemma of whether or not to continue to minister to the majority of older people who will remain in the conformist stage, while fewer and fewer younger people accept much of the old ways.

It was while I was considering my own position again that the work I did on safe havens some 15 years ago really came back into focus – the idea that we should be concentrating not on what we believe, but how what we believe affects our understanding of the purpose of life.  This seems to be a perfect example of cognitive dissonance – that uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. Something that is almost impossible for some of those in leadership positions who need to have all the answers – who want to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s! These are people (often because of their theological knowledge) who are unable to cope with the possibilities of myth and symbolism. Everything for them needs a logical and rational explanation – but is there anything rational or logical in the death and resurrection of Jesus?

Dave knows how I have been influenced for over 60 years by the teachings of the trinity. That’s where my questioning started and I suppose that’s why I’ve always taken everything with at least a pinch of salt. It was around 1967 that in a men’s discussion group that I asked the question, “What is the purpose of life?” and was told immediately by the Vicar, “Peter, you can’t ask that, it is the 64,000 dollar question” (a lot of money in those days). Maybe an equally significant question that ‘religion’ seems to have no answer to is, “why suffering?

One result of all my questioning is that I had been led to question the traditional teachings based on the Genesis story in particular. For me I had accepted that God existed and that a plan and purpose were being worked out here on earth (to quote Winston Churchill). But I had recognised that something wasn’t right. Then I was introduced to the concept of retrofits – replacing some of the foundations without destroying the structure. This was in the context of saving the edifice that was the Worldwide Church of God. All of this seemed to come together when I discovered the writings of Richard Holloway and broken myths.

More recently I have come to understand that there are many former leaders who have come to understand certain aspects of the Christian FAITH such as the significance of grace, who have created followings. These are people who are supporting some of those who are being drawn away from traditional teachings – and there are many including N T Wright and Wayne Jacobsen (two people who have had a big influence on my journey).

Then at the end of December I got ‘carried away’ again in what I entitled, ‘Another Meander’:
How often have you read something that really attracts your attention – something that has a profound effect on your thinking? How often when you look at it again later do you see that something now doesn’t quite ring true? How often have you been able to move beyond the understanding of the writer of the original material? I find myself thinking of some of the material I have read – including a few books. The authors had something to say – they get a bit of a following and are urged to write more. How often might this impede their own growth because they are building on all that has gone before, instead of being still and listening to what others might have learned from their original material? All of this is prompted by a picture I have now of my own position – looking at the world from outside the goldfish bowl! The explanation will become more obvious as I continue – it’s a more profound picture than the one I had about six years ago that I never really made sense of at the time.

What follows was prompted by Wolfgang Simson’s attempted definitions (in ‘Houses that Change the World’) of pastors, prophets and teachers, bearing in mind that I wasn’t really happy with the suggestion that I was a bit of a prophet

The pastor is by nature a shepherd – he stands in the middle of the flock. Everything swirls around him – a very loving person who can create a family atmosphere. To him relationships are the most important, simply because he is interested in the flock’s long-term spiritual well-being. But a pastor tends to lose sight of the big picture because he is lost in relationships.

The prophet is often away from the flock – few really understand him. He is interested not so much in people and what they think of him, but in God’s voice for the situation. Added to that, he often has a complicated and disorganised personality. Can you imagine spending a relaxed half hour drinking coffee with Jeremiah?

A prophet’s perspective is radically different from that of the pastor. He hears from God and quite mercilessly questions everything, including the pastor, from God’s perspective (his healthy and God-given duty). For that reason, there is also a historical tension between the pastor and the prophet: one is a defender of the status quo, who wants to maintain the community; the other questions everything and is seen (rightly) by many others as a threat, because he disrupts things and wants ‘movement now’.

The shepherd, in many pictures, not only has a stick in his hand to tend the sheep and keep away the wolves; he may be quick in using that stick to keep away prophets. And yet both views are valid, because both are serving God and the same flock – one with loving attention, the other with a prophetic view. Both are necessary!

Prophets often have a unique ability to see and hear what others do not see nor hear. These supernatural revelations need to go through a process of healthy interpretation.

The teacher using the picture of his relationship to the flock of sheep, lives at a critical distance from the flock, so that he can send out his dogs in time to deal with a sheep that is misbehaving or one that is unconsciously separating itself from the flock as it grazes. His motto is: “The truth, and nothing but the truth!” The teacher is interested in quality, in the details, which he finds even more fascinating than the big picture. He is often a ‘footnote’ person in the truest and best sense of the word, who likes details and needs to know everything exactly.

Wolfgang then goes on to suggest that the teacher has a passion for teaching itself, and his gift is to empower others to teach others how to teach. He is, like Jesus, his master Rabbi, leaving behind not primarily teaching notes but literally his spirit.

Wolfgang has an evangelical background which seems to be reflected in his definition of teacher – needing to know everything exactly. That in my mind contradicts his suggestion that teachers have a gift of empowering others to teach others how to teach. Sadly we have very few good teachers who really do know how to empower others to the point where the teachers learn from their pupils, as a result of which we all move forward.

I have this sense of looking at the goldfish bowl from the outside. The traditional view of a prophet is as Dave suggested, of one who stands on the watchtower and cries out. That’s not me! For as long as I can remember (probably 30+ years) I have frequently been reminded of the picture of Jesus (Isa 53) as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and found myself wondering where is that grief and sorrow in the church today?

I am convinced that I was drawn to the Worldwide Church of God for a purpose. There were many lessons. The church did not accept the teachings of the trinity and much of the emphasis of our prayer life was directed to ‘Father’.  Later “The Shack” was a real eye opener for me – it brought so much together. It subsequently helped me to understand why so much Christian RELIGION is based on fear and guilt and what I see as a misguided place of Jesus in the minds of many people (part of which Dave has highlighted in “The Church and the Genie in the Bottle”).

I see myself looking at the world from a distance – seeing in some small part, what God our Father is seeing of what is going on. Seeing from the outside I am like a fish out of water. Fish can only live for a limited time in such an environment. I’m guessing that I’ve been outside again for a season for a purpose. There are a few people, drawn by the Holy Spirit, who will understand something of what I am writing. Maybe they will draw me back into the bowl. If we are talking about meaningful relationships then realistically there will never be more than about 20 people with whom I could have deep and meaningful relationships. But if we all start ‘networking’ and sharing our thoughts who knows what might happen!

Dave responded:
You highlighted a very important point in your last email. When you read the writing of intelligent people it can often be the case that what they say sounds good because they are accomplished communicators, yet at the same time something in the back of your mind is trying to warn you about something not quite right about the message. This is the depth of the value of what you and I are trying to work out together. It is easy to write, to allow others to make their comments and judgments good or bad, and to leave it at that. I think one of the greatest failures of the church through the ages is they have found a great truth but left it at that without giving it the opportunity to have a life of its own. (Pete has a significantly different perspective – maybe there is the basis here for an interesting discussion).  I see a much greater value in conversation – the opportunity to express views that may change in the course of the conversation – or at least be refined in the process to better communicate truth. (This brings to mind some of the fundamental differences between introverts and extroverts).  I think we can produce a conversation that is influenced not only by the sharing of our own ideas with each other, but with the insights and comments of others we can produce a living dialogue on some very important issues. You have some very intelligent friends – I’ve read through their various comments on your blog as well as some of their outside material – and the value of initiating a living dialogue cannot be understated.

. . . I have personally considered myself closer to Barnabas than any of the Eph 4 “five-fold ministry” descriptions. In fact, I think in some ways I’m a Barnabas to your Paul – hopefully without the split – an advocate and a defender to your detractors in “Jerusalem”. There is great value in the things you write about, and I get frustrated when people dismiss you without careful consideration of what you’ve said. Perhaps I can describe it better by describing my view on the various institutions of the church.

From a Western point of view, authority lies in Scripture alone – thus the 1st question to be considered in any theological conversation must be who or what has authority to determine truth. To the Eastern viewpoint the question of authority is inappropriate because it understands Scripture and the entire history of the church as an expression of truth. Thus Protestantism locates authority within Scripture alone. Catholicism locates authority within the church hierarchy, ultimately the Pope. Eastern Orthodoxy locates authority not solely within Scripture, but within the Scriptures and the history of the church as a living entity which verifies truth not by council (Trent, etc), not by Scripture alone, but in the living expression of truth in the everyday life of each believer and the church as a whole. The Western viewpoint shuts down any conversation which does not begin in their seat of authority while the Eastern viewpoint provides much more opportunity for dialogue. I personally feel one of the most fascinating aspects of our friendship and our conversation is the fact that we both come from a Western view yet we express and live more of an Eastern view – how can that not be perhaps the best position of all to be in? It highlights what I think is the best part of our conversations.

Later Dave wrote:
Preachers are very good at drawing out the key points of a particular passage which best illustrate a point they desire to make. Sometimes that results in a less than full picture of what a particular passage intends to convey. In our case, I highlight the aspect of Barnabas defending Paul, which I find myself occasionally doing for you, but that only illustrates one small aspect of the whole relationship, and it would be a tragedy to confine the relationship to one small action. The Bible reveals enough about the two relationships to understand that whatever particular actions are related are a small part of the whole relationship, which clearly is one of mutual love, respect, and dear friendship – the same is true of my words. I certainly do consider you a dear friend for whom I have a great deal of love and respect for. I hope this clarifies my meaning.

Your Anglican background, and your entire faith journey, combined with my own journey into faith provides a perfect breeding ground for discovery. I have been told that my own beliefs more closely resemble a marriage of East and West than anything Protestant denominationalism can define, at least here in the US. Given the historical framework of East and West in the formation of the church and the impact each side had on theology and practice, I can see how that conclusion is made about my own views. Philosophically I can explore the subject with great interest; experientially I can only say it makes me an outcast in any conversation with a staunch fundamentalist from either side. But, give me an open mind and I can demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of each side in a way that illustrates the need of the church today to return to its historical beginnings, when both sides were in complete agreement and fellowship, relying on the unique aspects of each to constitute the whole.

Later Dave wrote:
I read the sentence again – “I think one of the greatest failures of the church through the ages…” – and I realize I didn’t accurately convey my meaning. I would change it to more accurately express my view to this: “I think one of the greatest failures of the church through the ages is that when they have discovered a great truth they built a religion around it rather than allowing that truth to become a part of the greater whole of revealed truth in the church.” The entire history of the Protestant church is the greatest example of this, for every denomination has evolved this way. Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal – the pattern is the same: a truth is uncovered, and rather than becoming a part of the whole of revealed truth it is isolated to become a religion in itself. That being said, I am very interested in your perspective – this is an excellent topic for one of the conversations that would undoubtedly benefit from as many viewpoints as possible.

The most important point that is revealed in what you have written is the differences between us that have drawn us together and encouraged our conversation, which is opposite the normal reaction between people of differing views – this is a valuable insight that I think will encourage readers to be comfortable joining in the conversation. The introduction reveals a commonality of motive and intent that unites rather divides us in light of our differences, and it reveals the respect and the friendship which exists between us, the value of which can not be understated. This is absolutely essential to encouraging the reader to contribute to the conversation. I feel no need to add to your words.

At the end of January I wrote:
There have been times when I have described life as a series of climbs that end on a new and higher plateau where there has then been time to rest and share the experience with others. I guess I’ve just finished the steepest climb so far – with just one obvious companion – my friend Dave!

I then found myself thinking that I have been even more isolated from people over the last few months while creating a community web site and redeveloping my own blogs. I have wondered many times over recent years why it was that I was given this understanding that the Christian faith is all about relationships with Father – and not being able to share that with others. There are two thoughts that often come to mind – a hermit – and a man of sorrows acquainted with grief (seeing something of the world from Father’s perspective) – and wondering how much longer? As a result of my own journey I have been able to watch much of what is going on as a bit of an outsider – this is true of the world in general as well as watching the apparently disastrous impact that religion has had within our own extended family – and that has often been a very uncomfortable position to be in!

***

After this I was caught up for a few days exploring the world of the pastors turned atheists who still preach because they are dependent on their incomes, while they plan their ‘exit strategies’.  Some really don’t want to upset their congregations!  A few of the leavers are becoming militant atheists – as a result of intense reasoning and the use of logic.  I’ve been involved with the emerging / emergent / house church scene for almost ten years, and my understanding leads me to believe that the great majority of these people gradually become more and more agnostic – sometimes over a period of many years.  I’ve seen it suggested that at least 18,000 are leaving the ministry every year.  But for all those leaving, how many are ‘hanging on’, trying to change things from the inside, and waiting until they can draw their pension?  I have considerable empathy with some of these people, especially having shared so much with a few leaders as they came to terms within the Worldwide Church of God with the changes that occurred in 1995.  We have to bear in mind that these decisions have not been dealt with lightly.  And we must not forget that one of the responsibilities of leaders is to have ‘answers’ that many in the congregations are always looking for.  What do these leaders do when they begin to doubt the answers that they are still giving?  Not only have I been outside the goldfish bowl of ‘traditional’ Christianity for some 40 years, I have never had a leadership position.  I have never accepted all that I was taught – there was always the chance to just put a few thoughts ‘on the shelf’.

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