Review: Water to Wine

10 November 2020

I’ve been a fan of Brian Zahnd for some time. I often listen to his online sermons from Word of Life Church, St Joseph, Missouri, USA, and have reviewed several of his books. I first read this one a couple of years ago. It is

Water To Wine: Some Of My Story by Brian Zahnd (Spello Press, 2016).

wtwAt the time, I chose not to review it. Maybe that’s because, as I discovered long ago, there is a ‘right time’ to read a book, and that clearly wasn’t it for me. But I have just read it again, and found it immensely helpful and reassuring as I pursue the adventure of my own pilgrimage of faith.

Zahnd describes how, as a successful American pastor with a large charismatic church, he became increasingly dissatisfied with the bland style of Christianity he was practising—the ‘water’. Events in 2004 led him to a crisis-point that set him off in a new direction—one he has been on ever since: the discovery of the ‘wine’.

His new direction took him to some new emphases. He found a new appreciation of the cross of Christ. And he began to revel in ‘mystery’ in his walk with God, where crisp answers have little place. He learned to appreciate the Christians he encountered in other traditions, such as the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches. He saw a way out of harmful dualistic thinking. And he began to question the individualism that dominates evangelical culture as he rediscovered the importance of community.

He came to believe that the ‘politics’ of Jesus, which is the kingdom of Godoutstandingbook and is rooted in love, cannot be associated with any human political system. At the same time, he began to value the use of some old liturgical forms as he explored dimensions of prayer that were new to him. This included an embracing of silence and the ’contemplative’ approach favoured by the mystics. And among all this, he found a new appreciation of Holy Communion and the sacramental aspect of the faith.

Zahnd is an accomplished author. His writing is meaty and substantial, but it also has poetry and heart. Indeed, he includes several poems that he wrote at key moments in his life.

The book comes out of the American religious scene, which is different in many ways from that in my home-country of the UK. But the bulk of what the author has to say remains fully applicable. If you are dissatisfied with your current Christianity, you will find some helpful pointers here.

Here are some quotations, with page numbers.

I was wrestling with the uneasy feeling that the faith I had built my life around was somehow deficient. Not wrong, but lacking. It seemed watery, weak. In my most honest moments I couldn’t help but notice that the faith I knew seemed to lack the kind of robust authenticity that made Jesus so fascinating. (2)

Grape juice Christianity is what is produced by the purveyors of the motivational-seminar, you-can-have-it-all, success-in-life, pop-psychology Christianity. It’s a children’s drink. It comes with a straw and is served in a little cardboard box. I don’t want to drink that anymore. I don’t want to serve that anymore. I want the vintage wine. (7)

God does not traffic in the empirically verifiable. God refuses to prove himself and perform circus tricks at our behest in order to obliterate doubt. (17)

I began to see the cross in a much deeper way—not as a mere factor in an atonement theory equation, but as the moment in time and space where God reclaimed creation. I saw the cross as the place where Jesus refounded the world. (24)

If we insist on explaining the mysteries of faith—mysteries like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the return of Christ, the new birth, baptism, the Eucharist—we inevitably reduce rich mysteries to cheap certitudes. (30)

Fundamentalism is to Christianity what paint-by-numbers is to art. (30)

Christianity is a confession, not an explanation. We will attempt to explain what we legitimately can, but we will always confess more than we can explain. (31)

The revivalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries sought to “industrialize” evangelism. While Henry Ford was mass-producing cars, Billy Sunday was mass-producing converts. (32)

Salvation is not a private, autonomous, individual, unmediated experience—salvation is being personally gathered by Christ into his salvation community. The individualistic view of salvation leads to the distinctly Protestant anxiety of having to convince yourself that you are saved. (40)

The Apostles don’t call us to “accept Jesus into our heart”—they call us to belong to the body of Christ. (44)

The politics of Jesus is without coercion. The kingdom of God persuades by love, witness, Spirit, reason, rhetoric, and if need be, martyrdom—but never by force. (47)

Faith, serious thought, and prayer are not easily cultivated in the transient and trivial atmosphere of modern mass culture. Everything is a bit too fast, too loud, too superficial. (54)

Without a primary orientation of the soul toward God, life gets reduced to the pursuit of power and the acquisition of things. (56)

To belittle the work of the theologian is to advocate a spiritual poverty. We need more than Christian folk religion—we need a Christianity that is serious and substantive in its thought. (60)

One of the sad things about spiritual poverty is that the impoverished hardly ever know they’re suffering from it. (61)

I’m not just spiritual, I’m religious. Anyone can be spiritual. Atheists are spiritual these days! So of course I’m spiritual—we all are!—but I am also intentionally religious. I accept the rigors and disciplines of a religious tradition. (68)

We are formed as Christian people as we learn the regular rhythms of praying well-crafted, theologically-sound, time-tested prayers. (69)

The primary purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what we think God ought to do, but to be properly formed. (74)

The objection I often hear to the use of liturgy—a formal track of worship—is that it’s dead. But this is a category mistake. Liturgy is neither alive nor dead. Liturgy is either true or false. What is alive or dead is the worshiper. So what we need is a true liturgy and a living worshiper. (78)

Peter’s ethnocentric perspective began to change when he had a contemplative breakthrough while praying on Simon the Tanner’s rooftop. In a trance he was shown non-kosher food and told by God to break the law of Moses and eat it! Peter was being instructed to transgress the Torah! Talk about cognitive dissonance! (96)

Everything about God tends toward love. God is love. The highest form of knowing is not empiricism or rational thought—as the Enlightenment told us—but love. (99)

What is called “revival” today is mostly spectacle and religious entertainment playing upon the emotions of guilt, desire, and anger. (108)

I was beginning to understand how important it is to maintain an ongoing conversation with the Christians who have lived before us. We must resist the tyranny of the present. If we ignore the echoes of the past, we doom ourselves to an unrecognized ignorance. (112)

Without some intentional silence the weary soul is a prisoner being slowly worked to death in a merciless gulag of endless noise. (116)

Looking back on those days I realize that our eschatology wasn’t based in any sound reading of Scripture, but in childish impatience. Everything had to happen in our lifetime. We could not be content to be faithful in our generation and hand the task over to the next generation. (120)

I’m trying to learn how to mature like a dusty bottle of wine patiently resting in God’s cellar. If nothing particularly notable happens in church history during my lifetime, I’m fine with that. It’s not my church. It’s not my world. It’s God’s church and God’s world, and God has time on his side. I can afford to be patient. (122)

As the church has become a powerful institution, a consort with kings and queens, a confidante of presidents and prime ministers, our dispensing of grace has become distorted. We show grace to the institutions of systemic sin while condemning the individual sinner. It should be the other way around. (125)

For the secularist the sacred is mere symbol. But to this idea the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation offers a resounding, “No!” If we believe that “the Word became flesh and lived among us,” (John 1:14) then we believe in a sacred ontology, a sacredness of being. (129)

Looking through a eucharistic lens we discover that we live, not in a secular world, but a sacred world, a world where every tree can become a burning bush aflame with the presence of God. (131)

It is only our false hopes that are being disappointed in the death of Christendom. Jesus never intended to change the world through battlefields or voting booths. Jesus has always intended to transform the world one life at a time at a shared table. (134)

Jesus reversed the concept of kosher. When the unclean touched Jesus, Jesus was not made unclean, rather the unclean were made whole. (140)

The Lord’s Table bears witness to the new covenant truth that the holy land is the whole earth and the chosen people are the human race. (140)

Jesus was constantly teaching people not to worry about scarcity, but to trust in God. (144)

The oceans, deserts, forests, and mountains are medicinal; they are a tonic to the mind, a palliative to the soul. (152)

Any understanding of salvation that doesn’t lead us to love God’s creation is far more Gnostic than Christian. (158)

Why did God create? Why did God say, “Let there be”? The mystics have always given the same answer—because God is love, love seeking expression. (162)

The “wrath of God” is but one way of describing the shards of suffering we inevitably subject ourselves to when we go against the grain of God’s love. God is all love, but we have to go with the grain of love or suffer the pain of self-inflicted sorrow. (164)

In the parable of the sheep and goats, the goats are not condemned for wrong belief or for failing to pray a sinner’s prayer, but for failing to love the poor, the sick, the immigrant, and the imprisoned. If Jesus is to be trusted, it seems we will not be judged by how rightly we believed, but by how well we loved. The judgment seat of Christ is not a theology quiz, but an evaluation of love. (165)

Once I’d found the good stuff of substantive theology, the Great Tradition, and historic Christianity, there was no going back. (172)

As long as our churches are led by those who view being a Christian primarily as a kind of conferred status instead of a lifelong journey, and view faith as a form of static certitude instead of an ongoing orientation of the soul toward God, I see little hope that we can build the kind of churches that can produce mature believers in any significant numbers. (181)

The Christian life is a journey. It’s a road. We have to walk it. Jesus’ call to discipleship is always the same—“Follow me.” It’s presumed that we are going to be on the move. We’re going somewhere. The Christian life really is following in the ancient footsteps of Jesus through a modern world. (185)


The Bible teaches…

26 January 2018

‘The Bible teaches…’ Time was when I used that phrase a lot. Having spent over sixty years studying the Bible, I felt I had a pretty good grasp of its message. I could tell you with great conviction what ‘the Bible teaches’ on, say, the baptism in the Holy Spirit, or male headship, or divorce, or the kingdom of God, or homosexuality, or church government, or whatever.

bible-thumper.jpgThese days I’m far less dogmatic on these and a host of other issues. And that’s because I’ve come to the conclusion—better late than never—that the Bible as a whole doesn’t in fact ‘teach’ much at all very clearly.

I’d always been aware, of course, that my convictions about what it taught on this or that were not shared by all Christians. Some of them had reached conclusions very different from my own—and from the same Bible at that! But somehow I had failed to grasp the enormity of the problem highlighted by these differences. The problem is this: if, after two thousand years, Christians are still reaching hugely different conclusions about the Bible’s teaching, the only thing I can conclude with any certainty is that the Bible is not clear in its teaching at all.

For decades, I felt convinced that my own conclusions (and those of my spiritual clan) as to what the Bible teaches were the right ones, and that everyone else’s were wrong. Now, I’m deeply ashamed of the appalling pride that this attitude displays.

Proof-texting was dear to me in those bad old days. I was skilled at mustering verses from both Old Testament and New to back up the ‘right’ view that I was presenting. I wrote semi-learned papers on a host of topics, using my middle-of-the-road knowledge of Hebrew and Greek to bolster my case and quoting from my extensive library of Bible commentaries and reference works.

I don’t do that anymore. I’m convinced that, if you have a mind to, you can present a decent case from the Bible, with supporting proof-texts, for just about any theory you want. Indeed, this has been happening regularly for two millennia, and it’s happening still. I don’t want any part in that sort of behaviour now. So I’ve ditched my old views on the Bible’s inerrancy, even its infallibility, and certainly what the Puritans called its ‘perspicuity’. I take a far less tidy view of the whole thing these days.

‘Ah,’ you say, ‘it’s tragic that you’ve gone off the rails at this late stage in your life, Dave. So sad that you’ve kicked the Bible into touch like this.’

Hang on. I didn’t say that! The fact is, I love the Bible now more than I ever did. I read it more. I draw more strength and sustenance from it, and I honour it as God’s Word with a new-found vigour. And that’s because I’ve adopted an altogether different approach to it. ‘And what exactly is that? you have every right to ask.

Now, I see the Bible as ‘God’s Word’ in only a secondary sense. The ultimate ‘Word of God’ is Jesus Christ. The Bible is the story—a God-breathed one, I believe—of a people struggling, through their changing times and cultures, to understand God better, and often getting it only half-right, or sometimes even wrong. But the whole story was leading to its brilliant climax: Emmanuel, God with us in the person of the God-man, Jesus the Messiah. He alone is the end to which the Bible is merely the means.

Jesus, and Jesus only, is ‘the exact representation of God’s being’, the full and final revelation of what God is truly like. Everything else is shadowy, vague, temporary, unclear. But in him the shadows have cleared and the sun has come out. The Bible gave enough light to guide the previous generations along, but it will always be secondary to him. I’m now trying to take my views and convictions, my lifestyle-model, my attitudes, my standards, my everything from him, and from nowhere else.

As for the Bible, I feel wonderfully liberated by my new way of looking at it. I love to read it for the insights it gives into the life of pilgrimage that I’ve embarked upon. I am gripped as I read about the ups and downs, the frustrations and joys, of previous generations of God-seekers, and learn much from them. I tap into the Bible’s psalms of praise and its accounts of the moments of life-changing revelation enjoyed by the pilgrims of old. And I quietly skip (as Jesus did when quoting Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue) the bits now shown, in the light of his revelation, to be wide of the mark.

So that’s where I’m at. If what I’ve written makes you hopping mad, I’m not going to let that faze me. After all, not so long ago, I would have reacted the same way myself, so I can understand where you’re coming from. I sincerely hope, though, that you will pause to think about what I’ve written, and maybe even become open to a few changes yourself. Jesus, I think, would smile at the prospect…

[You can read more about my changed attitude to the Bible in my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith, which you can download here.]

 


Christian, Journeyman: the life of pilgrimage

11 January 2018

I regularly help a friend by doing online genealogical research. That means I’m used to scrutinising Victorian census returns, where an interesting term keeps showing up in the ‘Occupation’ column. The term is ‘journeyman’.

pilgrimIt’s usually attached to another job like ‘wheelwright’ or ‘mason’. It indicates that the man in question, rather than working from a fixed workshop in his home town, had taken his trade on the road. He would travel around offering his skill to do jobs wherever he could find them, and could be away from home a lot.

If ever I have a tombstone, I think I’d like inscribed on it: ‘Christian, Journeyman’. That’s because, in recent years, I have left the safety and comfort of a settled going-on, as far as my faith is concerned, for a spiritually-itinerant lifestyle. That doesn’t mean I’ve become a church-hopper, doing my own spiritual thing but dropping in at different churches here and there like a salesman popping into whichever branch of Costa happens to be nearby. No, I believe in the importance of commitment to a local church where one can be stirred, encouraged and challenged by fellow-believers—and I’m very blessed to be part of the one I belong to.

Nor does ‘a spiritually-itinerant lifestyle’ mean I’ve forsaken the tools of my evangelical trade to become a spiritual bodger who’ll have a go at anything, from liberalism to zen buddhism. No, I consider myself still to be soundly evangelical. But I’ve taken to the road, exploring some out-of-the-way tracks and reading more widely. And being on the road means travelling light; I’ve left certain traditional tools, like biblical inerrancy, original sin and ‘turn or burn’, behind.

Being a journeyman just means that I’ve become more open to new insights into the purpose and meaning of Scripture, with the freedom to follow where they lead. I’m less tied now to the strongly-interconnected toolkit of Christian doctrines that my clan considered ‘right’ and am enjoying looking at new biblical perceptions, new angles on old beliefs, and new ways of discovering God’s will for me. It’s great and I feel strangely liberated.

One fascinating result of all this is that, wherever I look, I find other people experiencing the same thing. One Facebook friend, himself a journeyman, wrote in a post, ‘I’ve learnt as much from my short time on the journey than I did from a long time in the fortress.’ That’s an interesting choice of words. A fortress is a defensive position. From the roof its occupants drop rocks and boiling oil onto those outside whom they consider a threat to their security. I’ve had a few missiles dropped in my direction recently, but fortunately they have all missed.

Journeying seems to have been the experience of God’s people in every generation. Maybe it’s because of my present experience that I see it now wherever I look, but I was surprised to find it even in the Bible, right through to the New Testament. I’m thinking of how God’s will unfolded in stages, and how hard it proved for some of God’s people to accept new things when he introduced them. It was especially hard for the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day to cope with the ‘journeyman’ aspects of his own ministry. Let me explain.

The Jewish religious establishment were never comfortable around Jesus. He didn’t conform to their views and ways. That rocked their boat, and they wanted him out of the way. One thing they didn’t like was how he hob-nobbed with the riff-raff of society, who loved his company and found him warm and accepting. So, when crowds of ordinary folk, including a typical sprinkling of prostitutes, tax-collectors and other low-life, flocked to hear him speak, ‘The Pharisees and teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them”’ (Luke 15:1-2).

They weren’t thinking, ‘Good for him! He’s a fine example of friendliness to all and we can sure learn a lot from him about that!’ No, the word ‘muttered’ gives away their attitude: they didn’t like either Jesus himself or what he was doing.

‘Welcoming sinners’ was not for the Pharisees and teachers of the law. They avoided them like the plague. They were even a bit cagey about ordinary Jewish folk who hadn’t sunk low enough to join the ‘tax-collectors and sinners’. Why? Because everyday Jews weren’t professional students of the Old Testament like the Pharisees themselves; they were too busy earning a living, raising a family and coping with life’s setbacks for that. So they would always be second-rate at religion.

The ‘tax-collectors and sinners’, however, didn’t even make third-rate. To Pharisaic eyes they were an abomination, a stain on the name of God and Judaism, ritually unclean as a result of their lifestyle and their contact with Gentiles, and thus barred from the Temple worship. If one of them walked past you in the street, you would pull your arms in and gather in your robe tightly so as not to defile yourself by a whisker of contact.

Jesus was the very opposite. He hung around with ‘tax-collectors and sinners’ all the time. He openly touched the ritually unclean, like lepers and menstruating women. He treated prostitutes with dignity and respect. He went to dinner at the home of tax-collectors like Levi and Zacchaeus.

This latter step really was the limit, in the Pharisees’ view. Today we eat with all and sundry, sharing a table with them at the local Pizza Hut or Macdonalds without turning a hair. But in Bible times, to eat with somebody was loaded with meaning. It meant you accepted that person, you approved of them and you were happy to be associated with them. That’s why the Pharisees griped so much: it was bad enough that Jesus ‘welcomed sinners’ at his talks, but to actually eat with them…well, that really was beyond the pale.
So why did Jesus do it? For the very reasons stated: he accepted them, he approved of them—without necessarily approving of all their behaviour—and he was happy to be associated with them.

Where Jesus (the journeyman) and the religious leaders (the workshop men) parted company was over the Law of Moses. The Pharisees were experts in it. Studying it, and living by every detail of their interpretation of it, was what made them tick. It was the same for ‘the teachers of the law’: you can’t teach others what you haven’t mastered yourself. And both groups felt certain that their understanding of the Law, and their way of observing it, was correct; it was what God wanted. They could pull out a proof-text for everything they did. The Law, after all, was God’s Word, so obedience to that Word was obedience to God—dead simple, really.

Then Jesus appeared on the scene with what can only be called a cavalier attitude to the Law. I’m amazed that some Christians make much of Jesus as the one who perfectly kept the Law of God. That hardly tallies with the New Testament evidence. He disregarded and broke the Law right, left and centre, doing his doctor-work and harvesting grain on the holy Sabbath, hob-nobbing with the riff-raff and the down-and-outs, and accepting dinner invitations at the homes of tax-collectors and sinners. It was because of his very breaking of the Law that the Jewish leaders disliked him so much.

It wasn’t that Jesus was against the Law in principle. But he was interpreting the Law very differently from the Pharisees. In fact, the kind of actions they disliked in him were the kind that Jesus saw as truly fulfilling the Law. In reaching out to the broken, the sick, the outcasts and the needy, and helping them get their lives restored, he was doing what the Law had always been intended to achieve. People were more important to him than rules.

Some, however, clearly considered Jesus to be opposed to the Law. That’s probably why he felt the need to say plainly, on one occasion, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets…’ And what he said next sheds light on that: ‘…but to fulfil them’ (Matt 5:17). In other words, the way he was acting was the real way to keep the Law of God. He was ‘fulfilling’ it in the sense of perfecting it by living out in his daily life the purpose for which the Law had been given.

That was new: it was journeyman stuff, and the workshop-bound Pharisees had problems with it. Their focus was the letter of the Law; his was the spirit of it. Jesus’ life and practice made them feel that their nit-picking devotion to the Old Testament text was in fact missing the mark. Nobody likes to be shown up like that. The normal reaction is to dig your heels in, shout louder in support of your well-established point of view, and rubbish the challenger. Which is exactly what the Pharisees did.

As far as we can see, Jesus and the Pharisaic challengers never got to sit down together and discuss their differences in friendly debate. He would have loved it, I’m sure, but they weren’t up for it. Had they managed it, how would it have gone? Here we need to use our imagination a bit. A Pharisee, hot under the collar, pokes his finger at Jesus and demands, ‘Are you telling me, then, that I’ve been up a gum-tree all my life? That my interpretation of the Law and how to observe it has been wrong? That I’ve been wasting my time—wasting my life?’

Jesus, for sure, would have replied, ‘No.’

He would, I think, have pointed out instead that there are times and seasons in God’s dealings with his people, who are called only to live as best they can in light of the understanding they have at the time. Insofar as they do that, God accepts them. But when he causes new light to appear, they are responsible for responding to it, which may well require some major adjustments.

Such a change of season had occurred just a few years earlier with the arrival on the scene of John the Baptist. He had been God’s messenger to bring new light on how the divine purpose was working out among the Jews. Many had recognised this and been quick to respond, making their way to the Jordan and submitting to John’s baptism—with ‘tax-collectors and sinners’ among them.

Luke, looking back on this as he compiled his Gospel, made a fascinating observation about the response of those who listened to Jesus’ teaching. He said:

‘All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptised by John. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptised by John’ (Luke 7:29-30).

What does Luke mean? He is saying that, in the ministry of John the Baptist, God had caused new light to shine on the Jewish situation. Many ordinary people, including ‘even the tax collectors’, had responded to that light and let John baptise them. Their wise response had given them a shot of spiritual life that had prepared their hearts to respond to further light down the line. That light had soon appeared in Jesus, and now they were hearing him with delight and responding to his teaching.

Then Luke draws a comparison between this and the attitude of ‘the Pharisees and the experts in the law’. These, over-confident in their own correctness, had turned up their noses at John the Baptist, refusing to believe that anything could ever supersede their own way of understanding things. In doing that, they had ‘rejected God’s purpose for themselves’—sobering words. Having turned their backs on one new revelation, they were doubly opposed to the second, and thus spurned Jesus and his message.

Jesus, I think, would have adopted this angle in our imaginary debate. I hear him replying to the Pharisee’s question something like this: ‘Well, my friend, you’ve lived your life according to the light you’ve had and your understanding so far of God’s Word. Well done for that! But when John the Baptist came along, let’s face it, you had no time for him. You refused to let him baptise you. And that was a mistake, because John was “a lamp that burned and gave light” (John 5:35), sent from God, as the prophet Malachi predicted. So, refusing John set you back, I’m afraid. Your refusal to accept him has made it well-nigh impossible now for you to accept me, because I’ve come to reveal an even bigger step forward in God’s purpose. But it’s never too late, my friend! See your life as a Pharisee, not as wasted, but as a valid stage in your pilgrimage with God, because that’s what it has been. But now it’s time to move on. The past is the past, and the future beckons—and I’m the future.’

Jesus’ message, however, fell largely on deaf ears. The Pharisees were wedded to the workshop. They knew its layout like the back of their hand: where every tool was kept, what each cupboard contained. All their proof-texts were kept well-honed and ready for use. They could lay their hands on the right argument without delay. They were at home in the workshop, and the travelling Nazarene urging them out of it, and into the life of a journeyman, was best shut outside.

Today, an element in the evangelical wing of the church shares much in common with these ancient Jewish leaders. I know, because for years I was part of it myself. They have their systems of belief all tidied up, the attributes of God all neatly boxed, the nature of the atonement all sewn up and their view of Scripture and the Christian life set in stone. Nothing will lure them outside, because everything inside is, in their view, right, correct, sound, unchanging and unchangeable.

They are for the most part lovely people. They are sincere believers in God, followers of Jesus and listeners to the Holy Spirit. They are warm and kind, helpful and caring, often to the point of self-sacrifice. And God is with them, blessing them and their efforts on his behalf, because he loves his people and is wonderfully gracious to them all.

But when a journeyman calls at their workshop they are rattled. He does unsettling things like suggest that there’s been some new light on eschatology, or the work of Christ, or justification, or a new angle on the nature of Scripture, and that they might want to trade in some of their old tools for newer ones. It annoys and upsets them. ‘What!’ they exclaim. ‘Are you telling me that I’ve been up a gum-tree all my life? That my interpretation of the Bible and what it means has been wrong? That I’ve been wasting my time?’

And once again the answer is ‘No!’ I would say, as I believe the Lord himself would say, ‘You’ve been doing fine, living according to the light you have, and doing a good job of it. God is pleased with you.’

But I would want to add, ‘God is causing new light to break forth from his holy Word.[5] Venture outside the workshop for a few moments to check it out, just as those Jews in Bible times left their towns and synagogues to check out the message of the man in the camel-hair coat at the Jordan.

I would want to remind them that the likes of Martin Luther and John Calvin were bold enough to leave the cobweb-ridden Roman Catholic workshop and take to the road in the sixteenth century. Were they wrong to do so? And I would gently remind them that, much more recently, some evangelical Pharisee-types poured scorn on the Pentecostal Revival and, more recently still, the Charismatic Renewal—and died in their workshops, still loved by God, but missing out.

Becoming a journeyman is not an easy decision. It’s not as secure a lifestyle as that of the workshop, and you’re never quite sure where your next port of call will be. But it’s worth it for the adventure of travelling, the thrill of seeing new spiritual places and a satisfying sense of progress. It’s pilgrimage of the very best kind! But I still value the contribution of those in the workshop, whose guardianship of the old tools sometimes comes in useful. Out on the road you can follow a light which, far from being divine, turns out to be like the waving lamp of wreckers luring ships onto the rocks to plunder them. That’s why I keep popping back into the workshop myself. I check the standard systematic theologies and revered works of evangelical doctrine. But then I start to miss the fresh air, and I’m off on the road again.

I long for workshoppers and journeymen to remain open to each other, instead of viewing each other as a threat. Surely Christians, of all people, should be able to sit down together and debate in a frank yet charitable manner some of the new ideas out there?
Sadly, the tendency is to become, instead, reductionist and bitter, declaring ‘All journeymen are sinister heretics!’ or ‘All workshoppers are stuck in a rut so broad that it’s a grave!’ when neither is remotely true. We end up too often like the British and German troops in the First World War, crouching in our trenches, from where we lob grenades at each other. These days the grenades travel via YouTube or Facebook, and they serve only to hurt and kill, which is not the Spirit of Jesus.

Some, I suppose, would see this article as another such missile. It’s certainly not intended to be. See it, if you can, as an invitation to truce-talks.


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