Monthly Archives: December 2011

Disorientated at Christmas

I am feeling a little disorientated this Christmas – and it is great.

For the first time in 24 Christmases since we got married Jane is working (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day & then New Years Eve, New Years Day and the Bank Holiday Monday). Over the previous 10 Christmases we have got used to me working (if you can call helping out at the Whitechapel Mission or leading Worship working).

This is a bit different as Jane is working 7am til about noon each day, which means today we will only pass when she comes to the Christingle and Midnight services, well we will eat together between them as well :-)

So our family rituals for Christmas are going to change a bit, biggest one was that we had our family Christmas Dinner yesterday when we both had days off. Very relaxed it was too.

In some ways the disorientation is all good.

One side effect is that we have not connected with Christmas TV (our set-top box won't record and we haven't watched a TV program in weeks – the boys are happy enough with iPlayer & youtube in the bedrooms) – being a bit of of sync means we won't be watching TV in the next few days either. What a huge time gain!

Another is that I have found it giving new perspectives on the Christmas Events and how often our safe & comfortable habits & rituals hide us from the amazing ways in which God acts. This has been a real gift for me this Christmas and one I will treasure long after the Chocolate has all been eaten.

 

Two things I love about Christmas: the way and the end

I love what the story of Christmas tells us about both the way God does things and the ends that God is working towards.

Sadly, it seems to me that in much of Christendom we focus on the ends (the Kingdom of God, the return of Jesus, …) that we forget how central to these ends are the ways God acts.

One of the saddest things is where we get sidetracked from looking at the way God acts into worrying about how God does them. For me one classic Christmas sidetrack is the Virgin Birth. A concern for getting doctrine, understanding and teaching "right" on that issue inevitably derails us from reflection on the way God works in the Christmas event through ordinary, faithful, obedient people like Elizabeth and Mary.

I do not want to miss the ends, that God came into the world as a human being in Jesus who went on to die for us be raised from the dead leading to the joys of a relationship, new life, salvation and eternal life.

However, the means is absolutely vital. Too often we act as if the ends can be reached through ways that are incompatible with the way God shows us through the Christmas event.

The ways God works excite me, energise me and fill me with enthusiasm for being a disciple. You can see some of the ways that I find important from Christmas in what I write about

  • No religious hierarchy

The way that God went about sending his son as well as the way Jesus went about his ministry and the way the Holy Spirit worked in the early Church all indicate to me that far too much of Religious Hierarchy comes not from God but from humans. 

I am delighted to be part of the British Methodist Church which is generally pretty non hierarchical and find it frustrating when there appears to be a human tendency to create hierarchy.

I struggle a great deal with the way a number of other Churches create hierarchies such as (at two extremes( the Catholic Church and US mega Churches (some of which appear to function on an entrepreneurial profit motivated hierarchy).

I find it particularly problematical when Churches give the clergy a hierarchical role over lay people which can result in tremendous abuse of power where clergy interfere in the details of people's lives. 

  • All people

The account of the birth of Jesus in Luke's gospel demonstrates in many ways a beautiful inclusion of people who were typically excluded (women, shepherds, foreigners). Sadly we so often see this inclusion lost and forgotten in Churches – even activelty campaigned against by many (consider gender, sexualty and ethnicity).

  • peace/powerlessness

Again the way that God acts through sending a helpless baby to an occupied country to parents with no power or authority is wonderful and stunningly counter cultural.

I despair when Churches reject the ways of non violence and powerlessnes that we see in the birth, life, death & resurrection of Jesus. The birth narratives stand in stark contrast to our own striving for power and willingness to accept violence.

So I love the end results of Christmas and celebrate them. However, I am equally in love with the way God acts through the birth of his son and am inspired to stand for God's way of doing things that is non hierarchical for all people and uses non violence and powerlessness.

Of course the challenge for me as for everyone else is how to move from being in love with the way God does things to being in tune with them and onto living them out in my life – a worthy challenge for us all!

Ordinary life,mutual submission & decisions

 

In 42: Decision making, mutual submission and God's call I responded to a question that came in a comment on my post "How to do theology?" where "Priest" wrote:

 

I'm keen to know how you work 'mutual submission' out.

The particular challenge related to decision making in response to God's call.

I am concerned though that it might be seen as a cop out situation. After all major life decisions about responding to God's call don't tend to come around everyday.

So this post is more about how we work out decisions in ordinary life.

Again the same ground rules apply.

First, the framing of the question is important, so something like:

How does decision making work in general life for a married couple who see each other as equals without fixed roles defined by gender.

Second, I am certain that every couple will have their own way of doing this. The way that Jane and I do things won't be right for everyone, what works for us comes from our personalities, particular gifts & experiences, our family backgrounds, culture etc. So this is not a set of instructions for how others should make their decisions but instead reflections on what works for us.

Third, this is inevitably neither complete nor accurate. We don't have a fixed decision making process, things have evolved over time and circumstances vary. One of the beauties for us is the flexibility that equality gives – decisions don't have to wait for the "right" person, the one with authority.

Anyway given all the caveats, how do we make decisions?

Now we get to the hard part. I have spent a good part of the evening thinking about that and in one sense I am a bit stumped.

How we approach things is generally straightforward, we talk about them and we plan them. We involve our sons in many decisions (like obvious ones such as where we go on holiday, which appointments for ministers go on the short list, choosing a car).

But when it comes to the actual decision it just isn't very clear. I think that we just reach a point where one says to the other "Ok shall we decide to do X" and the other says "ok". It is definitely not always the same person and sometimes if things are tight for time or one of us is eager we just go ahead and decide for us both (again I can think of many examples when each of us has done this). We don't really have many areas where one of us always makes the decision. Certainly we always share decisions in major areas like finance, home, education, holidays etc.

I guess when it comes down to it the whole thing hinges on the related issues of mutual submission & mutual trust. I know that both Jane and I are comfortable with the other making decisions, I know that we both trust the other completely in both making decisions but also in discussing with us. We know that the other is always looking out for us so we don't need to worry about whether we have been "consulted" or not. Does that mean the other would always make the same decision as we would – of course not, but that just isn't important to us.

I look back over 23 years of marriage and I can't think of decisions that Jane has made that I am unhappy with, I can't think of things that I wished I had been consulted on. Maybe we discuss more things than I am always interested in (I would be quite happy to abdicate from all decisions about gardening for example) but on the other hand the bonus is that I enjoy Jane's company and enjoy talking with her.

When things have gone wrong (and of course they have) there has not once been a situation where one of us has blamed the other for a decision.

We had a major financial crisis after we had been married a few years that was caused by a combination of falling house prices leaving us with lots of negative equity (our flat with a 95% mortgage nearly halved in value), at the same time Jane was made redundant and the freeholder of the block of flats invented legal costs that gave us a bill of 10's of thousands of pounds. We had lots of sleepless nights and it took us over 10 years to get things sorted out (with several job changes each on the way to achieve that), yet at no time did we have a problem with how decisions had been made or what decisions needed to be made.

Another critical factor for us is the way that one of us can step in and help the other out when their decision making is impaired. That can happen in lots of ways from simple tiredness (with Jane a morning lark and me a night owl there are plenty of times when one of us is not very awake and it is better for the other to make decisions that might affect our safety such as when driving).

However, it also works in more significant ways. When my Mum had just died and Dad was terminally ill with cancer I was suffering from depression and so Jane took over all the things I could not cope with (basically anything that involved making a decision). That meant stepping in as Managing Director of our business, it meant running the family, our finances and home while I moved in with Dad to care for him. I never had any fear that she was taking over or anything like that, she acted as a kind of safety buffer for me and did it so well that many of the people around us never even knew that I had been unable to cope and had run away from everything.

I have read many claims of the need for a final decision maker from those who believe in Male Headship, but I just don't get it. I look back on our marriage (and also my parents) and I cannot see a single instance where Male Headship would have been a better way to make decisions. However, I can see countless occasions when Male Headship would have resulted in worse decisions.

Why would I choose to have a system that would reduce the ability of my best friend, my partner and the person I love above all others to contribute all her gifts, skills and commitment to our lives?

Even more to the point why would the God who loves me so much want me to do that?

Decision making, mutual submission and God’s call

In a comment on my post "How to do theology?" "Priest" wrote:

I'm keen to know how you work 'mutual submission' out.

This is a common question for people who only have experience of Male Headship (commonly marketed at Complementarianism). 

For those of us who have grown up in "egalitarian" homes and/or whose relationships are not based on hierarcrhy or headship the question can easily apppear odd. We can struggle to understand why this would be considered a problem. Our confusion is often increased by the scenarios that are suggested as examples of situations where equality and mutual submission won't work.

One of the common challenges I have heard is without a single person to make decisions how do you quickly decide how to tackle an armed burgular who had broken into your home? One of the key problems with the scenario being the assumption that tackling an armed burgular is the best option whereas getting the family out of the house (something that can be done better by two of you working together) and calling the police is likely to be a much better option.

"Priest" asked a different question and one that is more interesting:

When I got married, my wife felt God had given her a desire to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, more specifically to unreached people groups. I, on the other hand, felt God had placed the local church we were part of, on my heart. What would you advise me to do in such a way that my wife feels honoured and respected?

I think this is worth answering in some detail in the hope that others will find it useful.

First, the language of the actual question is based in a view of Male Headship that does not match my understanding of the goals of a Christian egalitarian marriage. So instead of:

What would you advise me to do in such a way that my wife feels honoured and respected?

I feel it would be better to word this differently such as:

How might we decide what God is calling us to as a married couple so that together we casn respond to God's call and grow in our faith, discipleship and relationship.

In other words I am not following a path of mutual submission so that my wife "feels honoured and respected" but we both do this so that God may be honoured and our relationship strengthened as part of our journey into life in all it's fullness.

Next, I am certain that every couple will have their own way of doing this. The way that Jane and I do things won't be right for everyone, what works for us comes from our personalities, particular gifts & experiences, our family backgrounds, culture etc.

So how do we work out what God is calling you to do? Especially when you have different understandings or are "hearing" different things?

One factor in the equation is that compared to most Complementarians we are rather more Postmodern in our understanding. That means we are less likely to frame choices as discrete, mututally exclusive options. We are also less likely to see any revelation/understanding of calling as being complete and crystall clear.

This means that we are open to taking a while to making a decsion. If you like Myers Briggs then this emphasises P rather than J on the Judging element of personality (but don't worry if you think Myres Brggs is a load of rubbish that is not a core belief or a requirement). Not all decisions can be made slowly, but where a decision affects the whole of life it seems sensible to us to take as much time as is available to make as good a decision as possible.

So with the difference in understanding of God's call that "Priest" gives we would be considering together and with family, Church & friends lots of things. For example are these callings really incompatible? Might we be called to support/challenge our local church in world mission? Might we be called to support a local church in a place where there are many unreached people? Might the unreached people actually be in our wider community? Might the timing be sequential for example to work within the local Church while undergoing missiological training before going elsewhere? Might we be called to stay in this country and Church while funding ourselves for extended mission trips each year? Who else might God be calling us to work with (Churches already doing mission around the world, other churches where we live, parachurch organisations).

We would be praying and looking for doors opening/closing. We would be talking & praying together about the possibilities, about our developing understanding of God's calling for us both. We would be doing all this in the knowledge that both of us are willing to put aside our own preferences for the growth, happiness and discipleship of the other.

We would be doing all this in the belief that when we are seeking God's will and being willing to submit to the Holy Spirit then God will take our choices and work for good in them. We will recognise that we might get things wrong and miss some of what God asks but through that God will still work for good and will honour our intentions while forgiving our mistakes.

In otherwords we understand that the decision making process is almost as important as the decision. If we model love for God and love for our neighbours in the process then the decision will allow us to love God and our neighbours. If we honour the Holy Spirit in the process then the Holy Spirit will bless the outcome.

We also operate under assumptions that God is not going to call us to break up our marriage or hurt each other. That all of us are equally loved and called by God

All of this is called Christian Discernment. Decision making about God's call on our lives is a big big issue. It is not to be taken lightly or without using all the resources that God gives. You might find it helpful to think of these in terms of the Wesleyan Quadritaleral (Scripture, Tradition, Reason & Experience) being worked out in Christian Community (at the levels of marriage, family, local Church Community & wider Church).

For us the decision about whether I was being called to leave IT and our own business to become an itinerant Methodist Minister had the biggest potential for radical change for us and in many ways was the biggest decision of our marriage. Previous decisions about job changes while difficult were easy by comparison:

  • In the first few years of our marriage Jane changed jobs a couple of times for better prospects, related to training as a Civil Engineer.
  • I left the United Bible Societies to work in the City of London because the work was changing, because the amount of travel I did was upsettling our children and because we were struggling with negative equity.
  • We started our own business because we were approached with a wonderful opportunity of a two year contract to get us started with some security and because we wanted to work together & have more time as a family. It provided a way for Jane to return to work in a way that worked with a young family.

Training for and then becoming a Methodist Minister was much bigger with lots of questions:

  • had we understood God's call correctly?
  • what about all the employees in our company (over 15 at this point)? What did it mean for their futures?
  • what about our children? It would mean part-time studying for 6 years for me which would take a lot of time away from the family. It would mean moving around to places we didn't choose with potential disruption to their education.
  • what about my parents who were moving into retirement and had handed over their business to us? What did it mean for their dreams and relationships with people who had worked in the business for many years?
  • what about Jane's parents, particularly as her Dad was being treated for cancer? What would it mean for our support for them?
  • what about money? It would mean a huge pay cut (for us both) and we had a large mortgage on our home. Jane would have to start a whole new career as well.
  • what would it mean personally? Jane had chosen to marry a computer programmer not a minister. I liked working with technology more than people.

In the end it meant that it took 10 years from my first call to ministry to being stationed for the first time (admittedly for the first few years we thought the call was a joke and didn't take it seriously). When we started to take it seriously (due to a sleepless week for each of us as God repeated the call time and time again) we put lots of effort in to testing it and exploring it together and with others. For us it was also important that this call was not just about us but that the Church also tested it and so the recognition of the wider Church was important not just because the call was to be a minister but because we felt that the Church needed to be part of the decision.

For me this fits with Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 especially verse 8. When it comes to responding to the radical calls that God makes on our lives things are different when you are married. When it comes to God's call for people who are married then the call has to be discerned in the light that you have become "one flesh" committed to each other for the rest of your lives. Fortunately, God honours our marriages and so respects the process by which we discern and respond to the call.

Our process may seem long and complicated compared to the view proposed by male headship supporters (God called me and I made the decision for our family because God appointed me as the head of the family) there is one other critical factor.

When we respond to God's call things will not always be easy. We will be attacked for the decision and we will struggle at times. However, when things are difficult the process by which you came to the decision makes a huge difference. If this is a decision you have made together as equals then our experience is that you will be far more able to support and encourage each other at these difficult than if one of you made the decision on behalf of all. Inevitably the level of commitment you each have to the decision is greater when you have been fully involved in that decision.

Simplistically, I know that the decisions that we make together are better decisions than I would make alone. Of course that is not a surprise given that I married someone far more intelligent than me :-)