Pastoral Address

Pastoral Address, Conference 2017: 

FLOURISHING AS CHRISTIAN DISCIPLES AND CHURCHES

“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”       John 10:10

“The glory of God is a human person fully alive.” St. Irenaeus

INTRODUCTION

“Do we wake up every morning amazed that we are loved by God, aware that this is the ultimate in delight, dignity and self-worth? Do we allow our day to be shaped by God’s desire to relate to us? Are we ready to be stretched in our hearts, minds, imaginations, actions and sufferings in order to do justice to this glorious God? Do we habitually see ourselves, other people and creation in the light of God’s desire for us all to flourish? Do we simply long to enjoy God?

David F Ford, The Shape of Living Spiritual Directions for Everyday Life, (Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2012, first published 1997) p. 28.

The gulf between the flourishing Christian life as suggested by ‘yes’ answers to the questions posed by Professor David Ford and the dismal reality of the lives of so many church-goers is wide indeed. Why do all Christian disciples not answer ‘yes’ as an everyday experience?  Our goal as the Church of Jesus Christ is surely that each person’s encounter with the Living Lord Jesus would be so transformative as to lead to flourishing Christian living and to churches reflective of flourishing Christian communities.

This Pastoral Address seeks to indicate steps and pathways that might assist us individually and as churches to recover and sustain flourishing Christian living centred upon the overwhelming love of God as shown in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“When we are drowned in the overwhelming seas of the love of God we find ourselves in a new and particular relation to a few of our fellows. The relation is so surprising and so rich that we despair of finding a word glorious enough and weighty enough to name it. The word Fellowship is discovered, but the word is pale and thin in comparison with the rich volume and luminous bulk and warmth of the experience which it would designate. For a new kind of life-sharing and of love has arisen of which we had had only dim hints before. Are these the bonds of love which knit together the early Christians, the very warp and woof of the Kingdom of God? In glad amazement and wonder we enter upon a relationship which we had not known the world contained…”

Thomas R Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, (Harper San Francisco, 1996, first published 1941) p. 51.

 

THE BIBLICAL VISION OF HUMAN FLOURISHING

There are profound differences between secular or humanist visions of human flourishing and the Christian vision of human flourishing. Much, however, may be learned about human development from the human sciences such as psychology. For example, Maureen Gaffney’s Flourishing How to achieve a deeper sense of well-being, meaning and purpose- even when facing adversity, (Penguin Life, 2015, first published in 2011) provides useful secular approaches or strategies from the accumulating psychological research including the message that “overcoming challenge of one kind or another is at the heart of flourishing.” However, the ‘expressive individualism’ which is a defining feature of modern culture, understood as the free expression of one’s natural desires and inclinations – the freedom to ‘be yourself’ – contrasts with the Christian understanding of freedom. Christian freedom – and hence our flourishing- involves living under the Lordship of Jesus Christ in service to God and others. Finding what the poet Wallace Stevens calls “our spiritual height and depth” is what enables us to flourish. This quote used by Maureen Gaffney provides a link from secular approaches to a Biblical vision of human flourishing.

Human flourishing as seen in the New Testament is indeed counter-cultural to self-development or self-help steps to more freedom and autonomy - the secular concepts of how human beings flourish. Christians embrace a paradoxical vision:

The need to die to self, lose your life to find true life; we reject accepted cultural patterns of striving, seeking and possessing and embrace a poverty of spirit placing the interests of others above our own; we turn ‘the other cheek’, become peacemakers, wash one another’s feet, and have a priority for the poor, the lost and the marginalised and despised ‘losers’ as perceived by the world.

This is a revolutionary vision of human flourishing – loving God and one’s neighbour as oneself. This is the foundation for Christ’s promise of the abundant life. Living by this vision yields the fruits of the Holy Spirit – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22).

The challenge for the Church of Jesus Christ is to focus upon this radical Biblical vision of human flourishing and therewith have Good News to proclaim to a secular society craving grace and meaning amidst the debris and wreckage of so many human lives.

Andy Crouch is his recent highly commended book, Strong and Weak Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing, (IVP Books, 2016) speaks of the “paradox of flourishing” as true Christian flourishing comes from being both strong and weak and we are required to embrace both authority (defined as the capacity for meaningful action) and vulnerability (defined as the exposure to meaningful risk). As Christians we are called to live fully, our transitory lives on this earth, in such a way that we somehow participate in the glory of God – that is flourishing. Our model of a life of authority and vulnerability is found in Jesus of Nazareth who leads us to “the life that is truly life.” (1 Timothy 6:19). This Jesus assumed ‘the very nature of a servant.’ (Philippians 2:7).

The focus of the ministry of Jesus was the world as it should be: the ‘kingdom of God’ both at the start (Luke 4: 16-21) and as Risen Lord when He appeared to the disciples over a period of forty days “and spoke about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:3). He spoke to them about what is the centre of His mission and the reason He had come into the world. As disciples we are called to live authentically in the ‘here and now’ Kingdom of God:

“… you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”  (1 Peter 2:9)

Living in Christ we pursue a roadmap for the way God would have things in this world – a world of wholeness for all people and creation – shalom. The Kingdom of God may be understood as the range of God’s effective will – where what God wants done gets done and this requires our consecrated living to so that God’s will “is done on earth as it is in heaven.”

One way to convey the Biblical vision of shalom as God’s vision for human living is through stories of those who led flourishing lives even in the midst of suffering or the awfulness of human sin and evil. Those who chose to be wholly obedient to the Lordship of Jesus Christ are examples of lives filled with radiant joy. We too, may know that Jesus has rescued us from “the powers of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of Love” (Col.1:13). To experience the forgiveness of God is the most powerful therapeutic experience in this world: we have a Living Eternally Present Lord to set our hearts on fire- to love and be loved by for evermore. In Charles Wesley’s words:

“Thou, O Christ, art all I want: more than all in Thee I find”.  (“Jesus, Lover of my Soul”)

The stories we might tell to convey this Christian abundant life are many indeed and might include St. Paul, St. Francis, George Fox, John Woolman, John Wesley, Etty Hillesum, Desmond Tutu, Sophie Scholl, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Quaker Thomas R Kelly author of the modern classic A Testament of Devotion, published in 1941. The lives of these and so many others who might be mentioned witness to the possibilities of our lives being transformed by the invading Love of Christ:

“For the Eternal is urgently, actively breaking into time, working with those who are willing to be laid hold upon, to surrender self-confidence and self-centered effort, that is, self-originated effort, and let the Eternal be the dynamic guide in recreating through us our time-world.”  (Thomas R Kelly, The Testament of Devotion p.74)

The point of these stories of lives in which we perceive Christian human flourishing is that there were very often lives which issued in burden-bearing, cross-carrying, Calvary re-enacting lives. Lives which are integrated – lives of integrity- are lives which are centred upon Jesus: lives which exude an aura of infinite peace and power and joy. Lives with the ‘singleness of eye’ described by Jesus are flourishing lives. From this Divine Centre come the commissions of our lives as we cannot keep God’s love to ourselves but it spills over into the love of all people. A quote from Thomas Kelly seeks to capture such lives:

“Life from the Centre is a life of unhurried peace and power. It is simple. It is serene. It is amazing. It is radiant. It takes no time, but it occupies all our time. And it makes our life programmes new and overcoming. We need not get frantic. He is at the helm. And when our little day is done we lie down quietly in peace, for all is well.”   (A Testament of Devotion, p.100.)

Christian human flourishing is focussed upon the vital insight that the primary need of each person is a holy life, transformed and radiant in the glory of God and it is vital that we see our mission to address this primary need by seeking for each to have a life-changing and life-enhancing encounter with the Master of Human Flourishing – Our Lord and Saviour Jesus the Anointed One of God.

CHRISTIAN FLOURISHING IS RELATIONAL: PATHWAYS TO THE WAY

Christian human flourishing is not the property of an individual.  Much of secular approaches to human flourishing suggest it is about self-help and development. True flourishing depends upon the quality of human relationships and a commitment to put the flourishing of others before one’s own interests especially the most vulnerable people in our communities. This is where we embrace what Crouch has called to journey to hidden vulnerability – the willingness to bear burdens and expose ourselves to risks that others may not see or understand. It is Etty Hillesum, for example, choosing to stay and minister to Jews being transported to death camps until she herself is transported from Westerbork to Auschwitz where she is murdered. “We left the camp singing” she told her friend is a postcard she threw out of the moving train. (For her story see Patrick Woodhouse, Etty Hillesum A Life Transformed, Bloomsbury, London, 2013, first published in 2009). The last words that Etty wrote in her amazing diaries are “We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.”

Christian human flourishing turns the world upside down. This is never more the case than in relation to the last enemy to be conquered: death. Fear of death prevents real life. When we fear to die we dare not live. Those who have flourished in Christ have often given their lives and known like Dietrich Bonhoeffer that their earthly end was “the beginning of life.” For most of us, who may not be facing death for our faith, it means being prepared to yield all and life itself if necessary to confront evil in the name of Jesus Christ. As Crouch observes:

“Dying, relinquishing power, confessing sin, receiving and offering forgiveness- these are all indispensable ways that we can descend to the dead. In doing so we not only break the grip of idols; we restore the kinds of relationships, especially with the most vulnerable, that the idols have destroyed.”

We flourish when we are willing to expose ourselves to meaningful loss as we take up the life of love of God and of our neighbour.

CONCLUSION

The Christian understanding of human flourishing radically contrasts with the messages about human flourishing presented so powerfully in our culture. Dallas Willard defined metanoia – repentance- as “reconsidering our considerations and rethinking our thinking.” (D Willard, Renewing The Christian Mind Essays, Interviews, and Talks, edited by Gary Black, (HarperOne, 2016) p. x-xi.) This is why God’s Mission Our Mission – Methodist Conference Statement approved in 2014- emphasises that our Church is a discipleship movement shaped for mission. As disciples we have to learn to ‘re-think’ what is meaningful action – and we have to learn how to expose ourselves to meaningful risk and loss – and we learn this as together we follow the way of Jesus – Our Teacher and Lord. This learning is lifelong and requires every disciple to be supported by small groups of disciples as we learn to seek growth, to use the means of grace, share fellowship and engage in mission to transform the world. As God’s Mission Our Mission states “the flourishing of human beings and their societies depends upon the Church of Jesus Christ seeking to fulfil The Great Commission. (Matthew 28:16-20).

Christian human flourishing depends upon transformation through the grace of God acting in our lives to bring about what we do not deserve and cannot accomplish on our own: we ‘put off the old person’ and put on the new Christ-shaped character. (Col.3:9-10; Eph. 4:22-24). We flourish as we “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” (2 Pet.3:18). Authentic transformation involves arranging our lives around the kinds of emancipatory practices in which Jesus engaged and the life He led on earth. Spiritual disciplines – the means of grace- are training exercises –which place us in God’s presence- to give us the power to live in the Kingdom of God. The disciple – the disciplined person – is someone who is able to do what needs to be done for God when it needs to be done. As we mature we aspire to  effortlessly do what Jesus would do in our place. As Dallas Willard observes living in the Kingdom is “just one moment of grace after another.”

The practice of Christian spiritual disciplines is fundamental to the character transformation which leads to flourishing living and flourishing churches. Full participation is the life of God’s Kingdom and in the vivid companionship of Christ comes to disciples only through the appropriate and regular exercise of the spiritual disciplines of our life in the Holy Spirit. We must grow from justification to sanctification in perfect love if we are to be faithful to Christ’s call on our lives. If we are not so growing, our lives remain stunted and weakened and deformed. This is the genius of Wesleyan Methodism that it created flexible structures to facilitate this growth through classes and bands– the challenge for each local society is to recover these in a way that ensures that every member is in an accountable relationship with other disciples so that no one is left outside authentic living in the Kingdom of Love. The Body of Christ in the world is a New Testament definition of the Church: salt and light of the world.

As we mark the 500 years since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation it may be timely to become alert to the apathy and neglect that has come to characterise many Protestant denominations and to honour the Reformation heritage by resolving to address them. The late Dallas Willard whose body of writings supplements those of John and Charles Wesley in seminal ways has alerted us to a critical problem:

“In Protestantism a ‘head trip’ of mental assent to doctrine and the enjoyment of pleasant imagery and imagination is quietly substituted for a rigorous practice of discipleship that would bring a true transformation of character.”  (The Spirit of the Disciplines, p.113.)

John describes for us the character of love we ought to be seeking:

“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4: 16a -18.).

Yes! We may “wake up every morning amazed that we are loved by God and aware that this is the ultimate in delight, dignity and self-worth” Yes! We may “allow our day to be shaped by God’s desire to relate to us” Yes! We may be “ready to be stretched in our hearts, minds, imaginations, actions and sufferings in order to do justice to this glorious God” Yes! We may “habitually see ourselves, other people and creation in the light of God’s desire for us all to flourish.”  We are new creations in Christ and our great ‘Yes’ is our response and glad acceptance of being Christ’s ambassadors in His ministry of reconciling the world to God. (2 Cor.5: 17-20)