Thursday, September 24, 2009


Spiritual Intelligence: A New Way of Being, Brian Draper, Lion, 2009.

We know about rational intelligence (remember those IQ tests at school?). And emotional intelligence (you’ve read Daniel Goleman’s best-seller Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ). So if our cognitive and affective behaviors can be measured in terms of performance, someone had to come up with an equivalent for the dimension of the spirit. And this happened quite recently, apparently, when in the year 2000 Oxford academic, philosopher and spiritual writer Danah Zohar coined the phrase ‘spiritual intelligence’. ‘She suggested that it forms the central part of our intelligence, the part in which our values and beliefs are nurtured and in which we can work towards our full potential as created beings’ (p. 12).

Brian Draper, British freelance writer, seminar-leader, contributor to BBC Radio 4’s thought for the day etc. says spiritual intelligence is figuring out who we were created to be in the first place – the ‘unique you’. (Parker Palmer teaches similarly in the United States). It’s about listening to the child’s voice within us, and to the riches buried in our traditions – ‘riches that help us to make those soulful reconnections that many of us, deep down, yearn to make – with the world around us, with each other, with our selves, and with the higher power often called God’. It’s really all about common (or uncommon?) sense. Or a ‘spiritual’ person’s equivalent of ‘smelling the roses’.

The standard contemplative wisdom is here: listening to our breathing, eliminating invasive noise (eg. by trying a week without TV), and being still. One of Draper’s favorite questions is the Gen X writer Douglas Coupland’s: What do we do when the power fails? It’s not about conquests but connecting with our reality. As Marcel Proust wrote, ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes’. It’s about ‘seeing the world from up here’ as Robin Williams’ character Mr. Keating tells the boys when he climbs on to his desk in Dead Poets Society.

Spirituality is about the tension between contemplation (being) and action (doing). It’s about what you’re not (a consumer of this world) versus what you are (in communication with the world). Take some time to write your obituary. Our ego attaches itself to things around us, or the desired perceptions of others. So in this uncertain world, as Eckhart Tolle reminds us (Draper probably quotes Tolle more than any other wise person) ‘you can assume that virtually everyone you meet or know lives in a state of fear. .. Most become conscious of it only when it takes on one of its most acute forms’.

You get the idea… This is the book to read before Tolle’s The Power of Now. It connects us with ancient wisdom (though I reckon Draper could have used more biblical material: conservatives might accuse him – and they’d be wrong - of being ‘New Age-ish’). And he could have tapped more into the traditional wisdom of the church, which has been wrestling with all this for 2000 years under the rubric of ‘Spiritual Theology’ (he quotes Augustine, but I don’t think Meister Eckhart gets a mention, though, surprisingly for a Brit, American Franciscan Richard Rohr does, fairly frequently).

Near the end is a quote from D H Lawrence: ‘I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections./ And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly that I am ill, / I am ill because of wounds to the soul’. Yes!

Get it for your family-member or friend who’s not yet had their mid-life crisis and is still moving too fast across the face of the earth trying to prove their worth by out-performing others. (You know the best description of a mid-life crisis? It’s realizing you’ve reached the top of the ladder, but it’s leaning against the wrong wall). And read it slowly – digest a couple of pages a day for a couple of months. Write ‘ouch!’ occasionally in the margins (as I did), and it could even be life-changing.

Rowland Croucher

August 2009

Shalom/Salaam/Pax! Rowland Croucher

Justice for Dawn Rowan -

Tuesday, September 01, 2009


Review: 'Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical
Introduction' (Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger, 2009).

Here's a good textbook for a basic course in 'Ecclesiology 101' (or what
used to be called 'Church, Ministry and Sacraments' back in my seminary
days). Though written 'densely' in text-book fashion (a few good
stories, lots of Bible texts, with some useful quotes and endnotes) it
would also comprise an excellent study-guide for church leaders.

The Recommended Reading List features authors like Donald Bloesch, Tony
Campolo, Mark Noll, D. Elton Trueblood, and Robert Webber: for those in
the know, they're more (progressive) evangelical than 'mainline' (eg.
the Alban Institute isn't, I think, mentioned) or ecumenical (eg.
published statements from 20th century Conciliar conferences don't
feature either). But there's a good balance between history ('the church
did not begin with us') and postmodern concepts (eg. the way many/most
churches are imprisoned within their secular cultures).

It strongly critiques conservative evangelical churches' addictions to
individualism (individual persons, families, churches - and note the
words of their 'praise choruses') and consumerism (there's more movement
of 'consumers' between churches and even across denominations than ever
before). And since the 'Scopes Monkey Trial' in the U.S. conservative
Christians have had a tendency to operate outside of the public square -
except for the two 'Focus on the Family' issues of abortion and gay
marriage - and marry their eschatology with 'left behind' Dispensationalism.

A summary of the authors' theological approach: the church is a
trinitarian community, constituted through its communion with the Triune
God: and the likeness between God and humanity is fundamentally
relational; eschatologically understood: the church is 'the instrument
of the coming kingdom' which involves the redemption not only of the
church but of the whole creation; missionally driven: not simply having
'missions' as one emphasis-among-many; varied in terms of ecclesial/
authority models; and ideally 'community' in Henri Nouwen's sense:
'community is the place where the person you least want to live with
always lives'.

As I said, it's more 'Evangelical' than 'Ecumenical'. Only
Fundamentalist/Evangelical 'scholars' use the Bible as a 'flat text'.
For example, it's mostly poor scholarship to quote ecclesial concepts
from Paul's early letters and 'the pastoral epistles' in the same
sentence without noting the progression in thinking between these
contexts. And only conservatives keenly anticipate 'the marriage supper
of the Lamb' (mentioned probably a dozen times).

But on the other hand there's a fairly strong social concern/justice
message throughout the book. Item: Archbishop Oscar Romero got into
trouble with the rich and powerful because he refused to baptize their
babies in segregated services - away from the poor - or separate rich
and poor at communion. A nearby comment: A church in the U.S. decided to
focus on outreach to the wealthy, 'cos you get more 'bang for your buck'
that way.

And there's both praise and criticism of the Emerging Church movement:
hanging out at Starbucks is not the same as kneeling together at the
communion rail; a latte is not an adequate substitute for bread and wine.

I wrote 'Yes!' to these statements:

* [Modern] Churches [mostly] focus on being vendors of religious goods
and service providers to expectant consumers... doing what it takes to
make sure their fellowships survive in the religious free market, where
only the fittest survive (p. 43)

* It is typical among Evangelicals... for worship... to be a 'warm-up'
for the main event, which is the preaching of the scriptures (p.106)
[which, I noted, is a very limited understanding of the concept of

* The one category of prayer that has not been as widely retained,
especially among American evangelical churches, is that of confession
(p. 109)

That's enough. This book emphasises corporate as well as individual
faith. It has a more 'holistic' approach than most books in its genre.
Although the authors are evangelicals they've done their best - with
mixed success - to incorporate insights from Roman Catholic, Orthodox,
and progressive Protestant traditions and thinking.

Rowland Croucher

September 2009

Saturday, August 29, 2009


29 August 2009

I attended a seminar today where Professor Camilleri (Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia) spoke on Religion and Violence. Here are some of the notes I took (I hope they represent what he said: they certainly are what I heard; he speaks very quietly, and was without a microphone).

* There have been 138-145 wars in the post-war period (ie. since 1945)

* There were over 1m deaths in the Korean and Vietnam wars, 800,000 in Rwanda, hundreds of thousands in Algeria

* The two 'world wars' were mainly between 'Christian' nations (main exception - Japan)

* In the last 10 years there were very few 'civil wars' unrelated to external influences

* Religion has increased its presence on the world stage. Note, for example the Vatican's key role in the demise of the Iron Curtain, the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church, the conflict in Northern Ireland (hopefully now behind us), the resurgence of Hinduism in India, and of course, the rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism

* Islam is back with a vengeance in Europe: More people in Europe worship on Fridays than on Sundays. Remember that the centre of Islam, population-wise, is not in the Middle East, but in S E Asia (Indonesia with the highest Muslim population in the world, followed by India)

* The sacred texts of all of the major religious traditions emphasize the sacredness of life, the dignity of human beings, the importance of 'the sacred', treating others as you wish to be treated, strong notions of justice etc.

* At their core all the conflicts with a 'religious' flavour actually have socio-cultural-political causes (including Northern Ireland)

* So the key questions are:

1. Is there anything about a particular religious faith-tradition which *leads* to violence?

2. Are there 'believers' acting contrary to their tradition?

3. Most important: what have the leaders of any particular religion done to *promote peace*? How many have said 'We have done a grievous wrong here'? What have they done to address the structural issues behind the war/s? For example: In Sri Lanka 80,000 lives have been lost in the 30-year war with the Tamils. What have Buddhists, Christians, Hindus done to end the conflict? (It is 'in pause' militarily at the moment, certainly not over yet). It is unusual for religious communities around the world to hold political leaders to account. The Pope opposed the Iraq war, but American Catholic bishops were mostly silent...

* Unfortunately the tendency is for religions to adopt a 'bunker' mentality, instinctively reinforcing the solidarity of their group

* We now have two means (nuclear weapons and climate change) to destroy our planet: just 10% of the world's nuclear bombs would destroy the earth 20 times over, and the mathematical probability of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weapons in the 11 (?) countries which currently possess them is very much greater (actually probably inevitable) than if only 2 or 3 countries possessed them. That would spell the end of the 'just war' doctrine. We must collectively sort this out or collectively perish

* In general, for the first three centuries of its existence the Christian Church opposed force under any/all circumstances

* The Americans pre-emptively invaded Iraq for the same reason Japan bombed Pearl Harbour - *because they could*

* Those in power making political decisions generally don't take kindly to others (like religious leaders or ethicists) telling them what ought to happen.

Note: see an article here on the last point:

Shalom/Salaam/Pax! Rowland Croucher
Justice for Dawn Rowan -

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


A few brief notes on BEYOND STEREOTYPES: CHRISTIANS & HOMOSEXUALITY (The Evangelical Alliance Working Group on Human Sexuality), Australian Evangelical Alliance, 2009, 108 pages.

My thesis: Evangelicals who believe in ‘the supreme authority of the Scriptures’ have come a long way in terms of freedom for slaves, equality for women, and grace for the divorced, and are now on a similar journey as they relate to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people…

Interviewer (to Evangelical Church Leader): Remember when, just a couple of generations ago, we used to fight about Christians not dancing, not drinking alcohol, not remarrying after divorce, not working on Sabbath/Sunday, not giving leadership roles to women etc.? What’s the current situation?

Evangelical Church Leader: Wow, yes, times have changed haven’t they? Significant paradigm shifts have occurred in all these areas – and others. Now we allow divorced people to be leaders, even pastors; now many Christians drink alcohol – hopefully in moderation; these days we can cope with whatever people do on Sundays (they can even enjoy themselves!); and yes, we have women in leadership at every level in our denomination. (And once we could make an excellent case from the Bible against these positions).

I: OK let’s talk about sex. In your evangelical tradition, what’s prohibited?

ECL: That’s simple, really: no sex before marriage, no adultery after marriage, no sex between people of the same gender.

I: So fornication, adultery, homosexual sex are out. Which is worse of these three areas of sinfulness?

ECL: They’re all equally sinful.

I: Are they? Has your denomination had a task-force on homosexuality?

ECL: Yes, every denomination has.

I: On adultery?

ECL: No, we leave discipline in that area to local churches, unless pastors are involved, and they’re disciplined according to best-practice protocols…

I: Fornication?

ECL: Our pastors preach against it, and do pre-marriage counseling in this area, and that’s about it.

I: Do you know the incidence of church members (especially young people) who marry in your churches who’ve had sexual intercourse before their wedding-day?

ECL: No, but I guess it would be a majority…

I: Not only is it a majority, but according to surveys among pastors who really know their people, it’s somewhere between 70-90% in mainline evangelical churches in Western countries. Now, if all three areas of ‘sexual sinfulness’ are to attract attention/discipline, wouldn’t you think that area would too?

ECL: Sure, when you put it like that.

I: But it doesn’t eh? Why is that?

ECL: I frankly don’t know.

I: I’ll tell you. The rationale is not theological but personal – they’re our children! The problem is not what we believe, but what the Chinese call ‘face’!

I for one call that gross hypocrisy: no wonder thoughtful people despise churches for such ‘selective indignation’. [1]

In my work as a counselor-of-clergy (and others) over the past 25 years, theological and pastoral issues surrounding the complexities of this subject have come up hundreds of times. It’s currently the # 1 issue-of-contention in churches around the world. Here are just two very common cries-from-the-heart I hear regularly:

• ‘Rowland, I want to be faithful to the Scriptures, but when I counsel homosexuals pastorally my “proof-texting” approach isn’t working. When asked what my position is I’ve used the old mantra about ‘hating the sin and loving the sinner’ but the response is always ‘But then why don’t I *feel* loved by people who say that?’

• Or: ‘I’m nineteen, and have been sent to you by my pastor and parents. My father is an elder in the church I’ve attended all my life. Last month I finally ‘came out’ and told my family I’m gay. I think I’ve always been that way, I didn’t choose to be erotically attracted to other guys, but women just don’t turn me on at all. I’m a committed Christian and want to be faithful to God’s Word, but this whole thing is tearing me apart. I’ve recently heard of two young people like me who’ve committed suicide because they couldn’t cope with the negative responses they got when they came out… What am I to do?’

‘Sometimes I feel like the most liberal person among conservatives; and sometimes like the most conservative among liberals. How am I to fit together my religious past with my spiritual present?’ (Philip Yancey [2])

I can relate to that. Theologically, I’m evangelical in roughly the same way Bishop N T Wright is: ‘I believe in the authority of Scripture. I believe in the appropriate sub-authority of tradition – respecting the wisdom of the church as it has wrestled with issues. But I also believe passionately in the importance of reason… ‘ [3] .

(An important little digression. A woman parishioner was married to a diagnosed psychopath, who beat her and her children, sometimes to the point of their being hospitalized. I talked with them both, and he denied it all. Eventually, she said ‘I can’t stay: I can cope but I don’t want to bring up my children in this fearful violent home.’ I agreed with her, and eventually she divorced her husband. By the way, he had a gun, and threatened to shoot me. Question: on what grounds did I have the authority to encourage her? The Bible? Not on its own: there’s no ‘exception clause’ in terms of divorce for domestic violence, only for adultery. Tradition? No: the church has been predominantly patriarchal. Reason? Well, yes, but sanctified by grace. I did what I believe Jesus would have done. The majority of Christians – even conservative Christians these days – agree with that approach in this sort of situation. Keep this analogy in mind as we discuss this other great paradigm-shift).

Re homosexuality, Wright goes on to say: ‘The more I’ve been on the edge of the debates the more I’m aware of the complexity of the issues…’ which is why, he says, he hasn’t (yet) published anything substantive on the subject. [4] I’m also not ready to write a major piece on this topic, so my approach here will have a tentative flavour about it.

However, when I read the Australian Evangelical Alliance’s Beyond Stereotypes I realize that I’m on the progressive end of the evangelical spectrum. I was for some years a member of the Council of the Victorian Evangelical Alliance, and was invited in the 1980s to be Australian national director for the EA. I know most of the people on this working group - a couple are close/good friends. They have done a good job - over three years - to produce this 108-page study-guide which, as far as it goes, is thorough, readable and irenic.

‘Evangelical’ clergy/pastors/scholars can *very roughly* be categorized four ways. Judgmental fundamentalists tell me ‘I preach the Word. I don’t compromise. It’s then up to individuals to respond or not: that’s their choice.’ (Crazies in this group – like the Westboro Baptist Church people – hold up placards at gays’ funerals proclaiming ‘God hates fags’). Conservative Evangelicals: ‘Scripture is clear: even though a homosexual’s orientation might not be *chosen*, their only life-choice is to be celibate.’ Progressive Evangelicals tend to identify with Tony Campolo’s well-known advice (paraphrased): ‘Even if our approach is to affirm the authority of Scripture, we must do more than simply exhort these people to be celibate.’ More radical Evangelicals: ‘The Bible has to be interpreted in its socio-cultural context. The same-sex liaisons behind the biblical prohibitions related either to exploitative sex or sexual rites in pagan religious contexts. A homosexual ‘orientation’ as such wasn’t known back then…’ [5]

Now that’s all dangerously simplistic of course. The nuances within each approach can’t be confined to one generalizing paragraph. And note I’m not talking about people like Bishop Spong who are certainly not ‘Evangelical’ in the sense I’m using the term.

Three of the ‘working-group’ which produced Beyond Stereotypes were clergy, three laypersons; five men, one woman. None were (of course?) practising homosexuals, though one of them – Debra Hirsch – confessed to having lived for a while as a lesbian.

On the first page of the Preface, the authors deplore ‘simply arguing about texts’ and express a ‘deep concern that the church was often handling the issue in a judgmental or unloving [way]’. But they also deplore a ‘cavalier’ approach to ‘the truth’ (p.v). This grace/truth tension pervades the whole book. Many times we come across something like this: ‘We acknowledge that homosexual people have been needlessly hurt and made to feel that God’s love is withheld from them. This is a great wrong…’ (p.5).

Their conclusions are standard ‘conservative evangelical’. Like:

• ‘Genetic determinism for sexual orientation is unlikely’ (p.29). (My note: yes, scientists haven’t found a ‘gay gene’ but they haven’t found a heterosexual gene either).

• ‘There is no research that proves that upbringing or early development is responsible for the direction of sexual orientation in adults’ (p.32). (Though I have found Elizabeth Moberly’s notion that homosexuality is a reparative drive, an attempt to repair a lack of affection from significant others of the same sex useful in some – but not all – counselling situations).

• Then we confront the explosive question ‘Can sexual orientation change?’ Spitzer’s 2003 study of ‘aversive therapy’ with 200 subjects leads our working-group to conclude that yes, ‘if there is a will for change, change is possible – though not necessarily easy and not necessarily complete.’ (One of the important questions we face here, of course, is the longer-term effectiveness of such ‘therapy’. I for one am pessimistic, having listened to stories of people who submitted to ‘aversive therapy’ in the 1980s and 90s. Spitzer is very critical of the way conservative groups use his research[6]).

• The section dealing with the biblical material begins, commendably, with an affirmation that all – whether gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans-gendered or straight - are made in God’s image and are deeply loved by God… But Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 cannot be simply dismissed as a matter of ‘pre-modern ignorance’ (p. 38). Although ceremonial, sacrificial, food, hygiene etc. laws have been superseded by ‘the coming of Jesus and the inauguration of a new age’ (p.38), what of the ‘moral law’ and behavior described as an ‘abomination’? Well, Jesus inaugurated ‘a time of grace… [to the adulterous woman] he offers both forgiveness and a call for repentance’ (p.40).

• Jesus ‘took people back to first principles and reaffirmed the divine plan of male-female complementarity…’ (pp.41,42). (It’s interesting that Jesus’ comment about eunuchs ‘born that way’ - Matthew 19:12 - isn’t, I think, mentioned).

• ‘Paul’ (1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10) ‘was not homophobic. Same-sex sexual activity is listed along with a range of [other sins] – adultery, theft, greed, drunkenness, slander… Christians have been wrong to single out homosexual sin for special condemnation’ (p.43). Romans 1:26-7 ‘refers to homosexuality… not pederasty (homosexual relationship to children)…’. Paul calls homosexual activity ‘unnatural’.

• In terms of the law of the land, our authors affirm that Christians of all people should encourage fairness – whatever our opinion of same-sex unions, divorce, the protection of children etc.

• ‘We affirm that monogamous heterosexual marriage is the only form of partnership approved by God for full sexual relations today… Erotic homosexual relationships are sinful’ (p.56). It may not be possible to determine with certainty the ‘causes’ of a person’s sexual orientation, so we should avoid condemning those with a homosexual orientation. On the other hand we face ‘the reality that many aspects of…human physical and social life need to be redeemed’. So we must avoid blanket ‘condemnation and also commendation’. (p.57).

The book concludes with two appendices: Deb Hirsch’s ‘conservative-to-progressive’ and Bill Lawton’s ‘radical’ approach to these key questions.

I commend the working group for doing the hard work of facing the tough issues, and providing excellent discussion questions.


Now for some of my main concerns (I’ll write more on these and other issues when I’ve done further research/reflection on them. Meanwhile see [7]):

1. Hermeneutics: 1-1. Suffering vs. Proof-texting. In the Gospels Jesus uses ‘the Bible’ to counter the temptations of the Devil and the criticisms of the ‘Bible people’ – the religious leaders. Jesus’ teaching about the poor and marginalized is done via example (partying with them) and parables. Why? Theologian Jurgen Moltmann has given us one of the best rationales for a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ about proof-texting on matters of social justice: ‘In Christian theology suffering must precede thinking… Christian theology becomes relevant when it accepts solidarity with present suffering.’ [8] Why? Because it’s possible (probable?) that one can know the Bible but miss the point. I hear a very different hermeneutic from those who work with AIDs patients than from over-educated, white, heterosexual predominantly male elites. (The authors of Beyond Stereotypes belong to this group. There is little indication – except for Deb Hirsch and the out-of-sync Bill Lawton – that they had immersed themselves in the ‘gay scene’ to hear the stories of these often marginalized people. I would have recommended also that a couple of GenX’ers with their ‘why the fuss about all this?’ approach should have been invited on to the panel).

1-2. More specifically, the two common contexts in the ancient world addressed by the same-sex prohibitions – cultic sex, and exploitative sex, for example with slaves – are, according to the majority of non-conservative commentators, the background to the prohibitions against same-sex liaisons. The life-long exclusive/faithful commitment of two persons of the same sex was extremely uncommon in the ancient world (except occasionally among aristocratic elites).

1-3. The radical re-orientation of the early Christians towards Levitical prohibitions – eg. the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts - surely addresses not only forbidden foods etc. , but everything else in the Holiness Code as well. See Keith Dyer’s article [5] for an excellent discussion of this important point.

2. Aetiology: (a) Most theological and social conservatives believe a homosexual orientation is somehow caused by one’s own choices or factors in the person’s environment; (b) most scientific researchers believe homosexuality has an ‘in-utero’ origin. Most of the twin studies seem to favour the latter view. See [9] for a useful summary of the pros and cons. I reckon the jury’s still out on this one (but the gays and lesbians I talk to overwhelmingly believe they were born that way).

3. Should churches discriminate against homosexuals in terms of ministry leadership etc.? Only if people who are guilty of ‘sins of the spirit’ – greed, hypocrisy, slander etc. - are treated the same way!

4. As a pastor/pastoral counsellor, whom should I 'bless'? Only one category of persons actually – those made in God’s image. I tend not to bless institutions (they’re inherently degenerative, as sociologist Robert Merton used to say). I hear all sorts of crazy confessions, every week. But I can’t think of anyone I’m not prepared to bless. I reckon Jesus today would still do that with people on the margins: and no one is more marginalized – indeed traumatized - than ‘GLBT’ people who have been rejected by their biological and/or church families.

5. How can I, a heterosexual (currently ‘coming out’ as an ex-Pharisee), who’s been very happily married for 50 years tell anyone they have to accept their lonely/celibate existence due mostly to factors utterly beyond their control? (The priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable would certainly have had their conservative theology all sorted out… but the wounded wayfarer is still bleeding on the Jericho Road… )

6. Finally, how should we behave towards one another during paradigm shifts? With great humility, love and tolerance.

Conclusion: The Lord has yet more light and truth – and grace – to be discovered in his holy Word. Let us be patient with our conservative friends as they catch up with ‘what the Spirit is saying to the churches’ about relating with grace to our GLBT brothers and sisters…


[1] Note: you’re wondering who did the research on that 70-90% figure? I did, with hundreds of pastors at dozens of pastors’ conferences.

[2] Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor, 2001, p.5

[3] YouTube video –
But I – Rowland - would add – ‘and also personal, empathetic experience – of God and others’… I reckon we won’t get anywhere in debates on this subject, without this dimension.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See this excellent article by evangelical New Testament scholar Dr. Keith Dyer -


[7] See these articles for the pros and cons of the issues: et. seq.

[8] See e.g. Hope and Planning (1971), A Theology of Hope (1964 )


Rowland Croucher

August 2009

Thursday, August 06, 2009

JOY IN DISGUISE: Meeting Jesus in the Dark Times

JOY IN DISGUISE: Meeting Jesus in the Dark Times by Edward S. Little (Morehouse Publishing, 2009).

‘I lived for a year on a street graced by the presence of three churches. The first, next door to my apartment complex, was the True Love Church. Just down the block stood the Greater True Love Church. A bit farther on was the Reformed Greater True Love Church. It didn’t take much imagination for me to conjure up the scenarios: church fight, division, another fight, another split, and on and on and on.’ Conflict, writes Bishop Little, ‘is always a complex reality that includes multiple elements and many layers. I have a theory that conflict issues from three sources: principle, personality and power’.

I enjoyed this book: it’s an easy read, down-to-earth, and full of pastoral wisdom. Indeed, Episcopal wisdom. I finished it in one day, secretly desiring that I had a pastor like Edward Little. The Bishop of Northern Indiana is humble (he doesn’t brag about pastoral successes, but writes honestly about his ministerial stuff-ups), irenic (he’s a ‘loving brother and friend’ of practising homosexual Bishop Gene Robinson even though he voted against him, and is an interesting raconteur (especially about movies).

I have only three small reservations… It’s difficult to write or preach with a paragraph-by-paragraph/expository approach and be interesting. Our bishop is conservative, and fellow-evangelicals in my experience want so much to ground their preaching-authority in the biblical text that they often commit the cardinal sin for preachers of being uninteresting. ‘People do not come to church wanting to know what happened to the Amalekites’ says the old quote, or the Greek word for this or that. Second, the title and sub-title were probably chosen to sell the book rather than faithfully describe its contents. Sure, we are helped by traveling with Paul during his hard times, but the title may promise more counseling/pastoral help ‘in the dark times’ than the book delivers. Paul, for many moderns, lived in another world – in all senses. And occasionally there’s a bit of editorial slackness (it’s koinonia not kononia).

But the book is an excellent resource for preachers, if you aren’t bound too tightly to the lectionary and want to earth a month’s sermons in Philippians. And good for a month’s devotions too.

Rowland Croucher

August 2009

Thursday, July 30, 2009


Ed. Adam Harbinson, The Columba Press, 2009

Here’s an interesting pot-pourri of ‘testimonies’ written by a disparate group of people – a few Catholic priests, three or four ManUnited fans, well-known raconteur Adrian Plass, a singer/songwriter who sources the story of the woman taken in adultery in Matthew’s gospel (instead of John’s), a couple of journalists and CEO’s, a victim of sexual abuse, a troubadour, someone who was grateful Jesus heard her soundless screams in the night, a follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (believed by his followers to be the Messiah), one or two professional theologians, etc. But all, I think, English, Welsh or Irish.

The chapter by Adrian Plass is a classic. As a boy he heard a preacher talk about Jesus on the cross: ‘In the eyes of the man beside him [the dying thief] saw an invitation to be loved and wanted… Jesus’ eyes were saying “I don’t care what you’ve done. I don’t care what you are. I don’t care what others say about you. I don’t even care what you think of yourself. You’re coming with me. Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be all right…” The preacher’s words seemed to be meant especially for me… a puzzled little boy who had wanted so much to stop his mummy and daddy arguing so that they would be happy…’

Another wrote: ‘The Jesus I know… caught Martin Luther King in his arms on a balcony in Memphis and sat behind Rosa Parks on a bus in Montgomery Alabama… [he] somehow manages to laugh, cry and dance and joke with every expression of human emotion.’

These people come from all walks of life, and they’re honest. One laments his undisciplined praying; another wants just ten minutes with Jesus to ask him about death, suffering, injustice and natural disasters. Another is profoundly challenged by the anonymous poem ‘Risk’: ‘To live is to risk rejection/ To live is to risk dying/ To hope is to risk despair/ To try is to risk failure/ One of the greatest dangers in life is to risk nothing.’

An anonymous writer attacks a large church for spending a million pounds on its building: ‘One million pounds would pay the salaries of 2000 pastors in South Sudan for ten years! One million pounds would feed, clothe and educate 1000 children in Uganda, Ethiopia or Zimbabwe for five years!’

A ‘freelance theologian’ tells us that ‘If God has set eternity in the hearts of human beings, then Jesus Christ sets humanity in eternity’.

The Jesus many of these people know is not a cardboard Christ or a pale Galilean, but someone who causes trouble, but, as one reminds us, ‘we in the West have designed our lives to avoid trouble at all costs.’ For everyone here Jesus is real, but he’s not static. ‘He is not a proposition to be mastered, but a person to be known,’ writes one of them. ‘He is to be related to rather than reasoned about… He prefers to be found in a community rather than a creed.’

J B Phillips wrote about ‘Christ our contemporary.’ Here’s a good montage of how that actually works in various people’s lives. He is many things to many different people. You won’t relate to everyone’s experience here. And you might quibble about this and that (for example, I don’t think it was C S Lewis who coined the saying about ‘simplicity on the other side of complexity’). And if you want to get to know these contributors better, half of them have set up personal websites.

Rowland Croucher
July 2009

Friday, June 05, 2009


Parker J Palmer, Let Your Life Speak (2000).

Here's a very readable short book, written with an elegant simplicity, and transparent honesty, about 'being who you are' rather than 'being what others want you to be'. It's a modern commentary on the adage 'To thine own self be true... And it must follow as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any[one].'

At the beginning (p2) Parker states his purpose: 'Seeking a path more purposeful than accumulating wealth, holding power, winning at competition, or securing a career, I had started to understand that it is indeed possible to live a life other than one's own'. From our first days in school, we are taught to listen to everything and everyone but ourselves, to take all our clues about living from the people and powers around us.

How is it possible to listen to your 'self' without being selfish? Parker notes that the deepest vocational question is not 'What ought I to do with my life?' It is more elemental and demanding: 'Who am I? What is my nature?' He quotes Frederick Buechner, who defines vocation as 'the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need.'

Here's something I said an audible 'Yes!' to (he was telling my story as well as his own!): 'Teaching, I [came] to understand, is my native way of being in the world. I am white, middle-class and male - not exactly a leading candidate for communal life. People like me are raised to live autonomously, not interdependently. I had been trained to compete and win, and I had developed a taste for the prizes.'

Parker (and I, too) serve education from outside institutions - 'where [he writes] my pathology is less likely to be triggered - rather than from the inside, where I waste energy on anger instead of investing it in hope... ' Parker says he has a 'tendency to get so conflicted with the way people use power in institutions... I spend more time being angry at them than I spend on my real work.' He writes about pathological bosses or corporate culture getting rid of people whose propensity for truth-telling threatens the status quo. (I uttered an audible 'Yes!' again).

Another quotable quote: 'The social systems in which people try to survive often try to force them to live in a way untrue to who they are. If you are poor, you are supposed to accept, with gratitude, half a loaf or less; if you are black, you are supposed to suffer racism without protest; if you are gay, you are supposed to pretend that you are not. It is tempting to mask one's truth in situations of this sort - because the system threatens punishment if one does not.' No punishment anyone might inflict on us, says Palmer, could possibly be worse than the punishment we inflict upon ourselves by conspiring in our own diminishment.

And here's a good word for pastors and other people-helpers: 'One of the "oughts" I had absorbed: "Of course you need to be loved. Everyone does. And I love you." It took me a long time to understand that although everyone needs to be loved, I cannot be the source of that gift to everyone who asks me for it... If we are to live our lives fully and well, we must learn to embrace the opposites, to live in a creative tension between our limits and our potentials.'

Back to the question about 'self': Thomas Merton makes an important distinction between the 'true self', and the 'ego self' that wants to inflate us (or deflate us, another form of self-distortion). The true self has been 'planted in us by the God who made us in God's image - the self that wants nothing more, or less, than for us to be who we were created to be.'

Parker Palmer's journey towards truth-telling was enhanced by two other journeys - through failure/rejection (when he lost a job, not because he was bad at it, but, as he discovered later, his heart would never be in it) - and, later, dark clinical depression.

His writing style reminds me of my key-mentor-preacher's - John Claypool - who also had a gift of uttering profound truths in simple, direct language.

One of the highlights in this book is Parker Palmer's description of the discernment exercise he did with some wise Quaker friends at a crucial juncture in his life. I can think of a couple of intersections in my vocational history where I might have chosen another route if I'd had access to this sort of group-wisdom. (Would I have left a terrific church in Melbourne, Victoria, and gone to Canada? Probably not: though God was in that painful time across the Pacific [1]).

One question gives me pause: how many human beings throughout history have the privilege of submitting their lives to so many options/choices?

Some of the thoughts I've highlighted include:

* Burnout is a state of emptiness - trying to give what I do not possess.

* We are led to truth by our weaknesses as well as our strengths.

* The distortion of the true self comes from living from the outside in, rather than from the inside out.


Rowland Croucher

June 5, 2009

Tuesday, May 19, 2009



Making Life Decisions: (Journey in Discernment) by Geoff Pound (2009).

Good books about discernment - or 'guidance' as our forefathers preferred to call it - are not common. Parker Palmer's Let Your Life Speak has a beautiful illustration of the Quaker model of group discernment, and Marva Dawn's Joy in Divine Wisdom is a collection of 'group wisdom' from many cultures on this important topic.

Geoff Pound's approach is to combine the personal and group quests for discernment, spread over forty days plus perhaps seven group sessions.

Each day's discipline begins with an 'Approach' where we centre down and 'focus our lives before God.' Then there's a Scripture, a time for silence (that's a challenge for mind-busy Evangelicals and noisy charismatics!), a Reflection, suggestion for journaling, selecting a 'souvenir' (something to keep in mind for further reflection), a time for prayer, and finally a commission: something practical to take away on our journey.

In terms of the group meetings, the excellent suggestion of making this exercise a church-wide one is good. (I found when a practising pastor this sort of coordinated activity gives folks something other than a sporting event to talk about 'after church'!).

People like me make judgments about whether an author is worth reading by looking at her/his endnotes. Geoff combines the best of a broad range of Christian traditions, though his approach is predominantly what I would call 'progressive evangelical.' Someone who finds John Claypool, Thomas Merton, Sam Keen, the Book of Common Prayer, Richard Foster, Richard Rohr, Karl Barth, and Frederick Buechner - among many others - worth quoting, plus a lot of Bible, is my kind of mentor!

Geoff now lives not far from a middle eastern desert. He's lucky. All the biblical leaders spent significant chunks of their lives in deserts. Finding a desert in cities and suburbs (i.e. where you can't hear a phone or door-bell) is a great challenge.

I would highly commend this book to individuals and church-groups who want to 'go deeper' into the quest for discernment. I've begun a forty day journey-with-coffee each morning with the help of this manual.

Google or AbeBooks to locate a copy.

Rowland Croucher

Friday, May 08, 2009

'They Told Me I Had To Write This' (Kim Miller)

Parker Palmer, in his brilliant little book Let Your Life Speak, bemoans the fact that many/most of us live lives 'other than one's own'. We allow what happens to us - especially the wounds inflicted deliberately or unintentionally by others or by circumstance - to rob us of our true/free self. As a result, no punishment anyone might inflict on us can be worse than what we inflict upon ourselves: we thus 'conspire in our own diminishment'.

Kim Miller's latest book, 'They Told Me I Had to Write This' (Ford Street Publishing, 2009) is a brilliant narrative-commentary on Parker Palmer's wisdom, written as a teenage boy's conversations with himself via letters to his grandmother - about school, friends, fights, teenage romance, sexual abuse, relating uncomfortably to a single-parent father (whose wife, the boy's mother, died as she was giving birth to him: that's a key to just-about-everything-else...).

And how does one deal with all these painful loose ends? Tim Miller's wise suggestion: through the help of skilled and caring significant others who help us face our demons, do a thorough job of 'reality-checking', and facilitate reconciliation with the important people in our lives.

This is a book I planned to skim, but I got hooked, and read every word. It's a terrific read. But for whom? I'd give it to intelligent teenagers and their parents/teachers - indeed anyone who wants a glimpse into the lives and vocabularies (heard of ODB - 'oppositional deficit behaviour'?) of contemporary adolescents. There's a couple of counselling verbatims between teenagers and a school-teacher and priest that are worth the price of the whole book. Thanks Kim!

Rowland Croucher
May 2009

Monday, February 23, 2009


1. Is This the End? Drama and Puppet Plays for the Easter Season by Paul Clark (The Hive, 2008).

Making children's time in church services interesting/funny can be a challenge. (Back in seminary, theologs irreverently called it the 'Brats' Chat').

Here we have some very creative ideas to get the Easter message across to young people. They include a 'Shrek' donkey telling the Palm Sunday story. It's rated 'comedy' and it's very funny - 7 minutes of it, if your congregation can cope with some humour. Palm Sunday is the setting for a political rally - with placards etc. The 'sideways look' at communion will be also challenging for people who don't smile much (with its party food - a packet of chips, bottle of coke, basketball etc.).

The Easter weekend has four more serious offerings - 'Is this the End?', 'The Body Snatchers', 'Inspector Clueless Investigates Easter', and 'Emmaus'.

Brings back memories of skits we used to do at Beach Missions. Very entertaining.


2. Not a Tame Lion: A Lent course based on the writings of C. S. Lewis, by Hilary Brand (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2008).

C. S. Lewis has done more than almost any other writer to make Christianity believable for better-than-averagely-educated moderns. But what of those for whom he's just too complicated or dense?

Here'a book of very thoughtful group studies for anyone, well-read or not. It has everything: scriptures, getting to know you ideas, film clips, 'brainstorming' prompts, quotes from the great man, discussion and reflection material, meditations and prayers, etc. etc. (It's so practical, that in the Leaders' Notes section there's a tip about how to manage DVDs: if there are two clips, 'the best time to change over to the second clip is during the first "reflect and share" session')!

Hilary Brand uses excerpts from three films: The Chronicles of Narnia's The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, and Shadowlands (the Attenborough cinema version). C. S. Lewis's Aslan was not a tame lion; and the Christ of the Gospels 'is not always a comfortable Saviour', so this Lenten course is sometimes confrontational, especially in the discussions of Lewis's hard views on suffering and hell (which softened after his wife died).

Excellent for groups. But also - and this is not the primary purpose of this book - it's the best introduction to C. S. Lewis for folks who've never read him that I've ever seen.

Here are some of the famous quotes Hilary gets us mulling over:

'Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home'. 'There are two equal and opposite errors... One is to disbelieve in [devils'] existence. The other is to believe and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them'. 'The Christian faith is what it is and was what it was long before I was born and whether I like it or not'. 'All the great religions were first preached and long practised in a world without chloroform.' 'Pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world.' 'Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible'.

Those of us who've had a fairly thorough theological education can easily be handicapped by all that when reading a 'layperson' like C. S. Lewis. Yes, we can argue with some of his 'complicated simplicities'. But if we allow the child in us to be astonished at his insights and wordsmithing we too can still be 'surprised by joy' as he was.

I wish I'd had a resource like Hilary's when I was pastor of a congregation.

Rowland Croucher

February 2009.

See here for more on C. S. Lewis

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Review: The Gospel of Grace: Tools for Building a Positive Understanding of the Bible (Mark Wickstrom, 2008)

How about this (a humorist writing to a Fundamentalist Christian): 'I've heard you say you take the whole Bible at its word. Please help me understand the following: Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own a Canadian?'

Most modern Christians would not take this text literally. But why does one verse demand a literal interpretation and another verse does not?

Dr Wickstrom, a progressive Lutheran, helps address these problems by using the analogy of a building:

[1] 'The gospel of grace is the inerrant and divinely inspired framework that holds the Bible together' [p. 14]. And God's mercy is shown to people throughout the whole biblical drama.

[2] 'Timeless truths' are the internal walls: here 'literalists' and 'selectivists' mostly agree: All are sinners, God invites us to pray, God wants us to love our neighbour etc. However, they may also disagree: literalists might hold a particular view of baptism, or the role of women in leadership, or even the value of snake-handling to increase their faith. Selectivists would rather emphasize timeless truths (eg. 'in Christ there is neither male nor female') rather than apply literally ancient ideas to modern church-life.

[3] Then there are 'cultural norms' (the analogy being the colors of paint with which we decorate our house): like all decorations, these 'cultural norms' are changeable. For example, the Roman Catholic church in medieval times believed in 'limbo' (where unbaptized infants go after death) but this was revised in 2006. Strict Pentecostals believe everyone should speak in tongues (even real foreign languages as in Acts 2); most Christians are flexible on that one.

[4] The fourth category: personal opinions - like those of Job's comforters or the philosopher in Ecclesiastes, or Paul's opinions about marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. Most Christians believe these opinions might be valued, but are not authoritative for us today.

[5] Then there are 'random, unusual texts' about whose meaning no-one can be certain. Who are the 'Nephilim' in Genesis 6 who married the daughters of human beings? Then, in Acts 5, the sudden death of Ananias and Sapphira: 'Is there any message about grace to be gleaned from this story? I don't see it' writes Wickstrom. (See for my attempt to understand this dramatic event). Later, Paul was 'caught up to the third heaven'. Meaning what? No one can be sure.

Summary: Which texts will we categorize as a timeless truth or a non-binding cultural norm or personal opinion? We must each decide, but on the basis of some wise hermeneutical principles which Wickstrom unpacks in the last half of this little volume. His discussion of homosexuality (pp. 87 ff.) is particularly helpful.

Here's a book, with exercises for individual and group study, written by a pastor for his thoughtful parishioners. I'd recommend it for that purpose, rather than as a textbook for scholars (there's no reference I could find to household names like Crossan or Marcus Borg, for example).

Rowland Croucher
January 2009


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