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I have watched A Fiddler on the Roof at least 30 times. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favour and buy or borrow a copy. It’s a story about how a simple, poor, and profoundly spiritual Jewish man must struggle to choose between his daughters’ happiness and his religious traditions. It’s sometimes halarious and sometimes heartbreaking. Like life.

Right at the start of the story, the lead character (played by the man known in the credits, rather mysteriously, only as ‘Topol’ in the days before Madonna, Cher, Prince and Puff Daddy/Puffy/PDiddy) somes up the meaning of the story beautifully:

“Because of our traditions, everyone here knows exactly who he is, and what God expects him to do”. And later, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shakey as a fiddler on the roof”.

The rest of the movie involves Tevya (Topol) deconstructing this previously unshakable conviction as he attempts to hold onto his faith in God and his love for his daughters (who each fall in love with and marry increasingly scandelous men).

It’s a film that speaks strongly towards a conversation that is gaining momentum in the Church (and religion in general). People want to move away from traditions/religion and towards relationship (both vertical and horizontal). People scoff at conservatives who speak against gay marriage for having a religion based on propositional truths instead of relational truth (the jury is still out regarding how one can have any kind of religion without propositional doctrines). Most of the people I know fit neatly into one of two camps: those who desperately want to hold onto our traditions because they fear the effects of letting it slide. They talk about ‘the erosion of family values’ and ‘the humanistic trend in evangelical theology’. The other camp want desperately to be more than society’s moral watchdogs. They want to abandon dogma and unhelpful arguments and move into the communities where a difference can be made. They talk about ‘the irrelevance of another meeting’ and ‘the need for dialogue; not evangelism’.

Every one of us lives in tension between these two camps, and like Tevye, we must struggle with God and ourselves as we attempt to scratch out our simple, pleasant tune without falling off the roof and breaking our necks. We are all fiddlers on the roof. Topol argues back and forth with himself between numerous ‘on the other hands’, allowing his religion and tradition to be eroded as far as his conscience will allow him to because of his love for his daughters and his very personal relationship with God. Finally though, when his third daughter announces that she is running away with a Russian peasant, he has to admit ‘there is no other hand’. We all have our limits. To have any kind of authenticity, the Church must have limits too… but where are they?

What are the essentials of your faith? Can you write them down in five simple statements? Better yet, can you write down five things that Church practice or policy portrays as an essential, but that you don’t believe is an essential at all? (Comments anyone 🙂 )

My favourite moment in the movie is when, at his eldest daughter’s wedding, Tevye is accused of allowing scandal to enter his house because a young Communist from Kiev whom he is housing crosses the barrier and dances with a girl. Tevye asks the Rabbi if it is a sin, and the Rabbi has to admit that ‘it’s not exactly a sin, but…’ before he is cut off. Tevye dances with his wife! Soon everyone is dancing. The freedom is beautiful.

“From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, spare us, O Lord” – Teresa of Avila

As a teenager growing up in an evangelical church, I used to look foreward with great excitement to youth camps. They were the hilites of my year. I loved the worship. I loved the time with friends. I even loved the big religious lie that well-meaning speakers repeatedly fed their enthusiastic audience: “You can be happy, and sin-free if you can just make a stand today and then work at it”. It was a beautiful lie… one that gave me a warm, fuzzy hope for a few weeks. Like the promise of Santa Claus excites a 10-year old. You don’t have to believe it to love it.

But loving that lie for so long was one of the biggest mistakes of my young life. For a few weeks every year it gave me a dreamy hope. For the rest of the year it filled me with guilt. Unrelenting, life-draining guilt. Because I was not free of sin, and I was not free from depression. And I was certain that God was angry at me for it.

I came to believe that joy, instead of being a gift from God to undeserving sinners, was a challenge and a test from God to Christians. I knew that I should be full of joy and so I substituted the gift of God for a religious grin and a shrug of the shoulders. My depression depressed me but I felt too guilty to admit my struggle to anyone.

By the grace of God, my story has a happy ending: God miraculously delivered me from my depression. He fixed all the chemical imbalances in my brain and allowed me to experience a freedom I had not experienced in years. It was a miracle.

Miracles are not normal.

Many “sour-faced saints” have spent hours on their knees asking God for this miracle. They have lacked no faith. They have harboured no unconfessed sin or unforgiveness. Still, they remain unhealed and the irrational guilt and shame and confussion that they burden themselves with remains.

It is not God’s will for us to suffer from depression. But neither is it God’s perfect will for us to catch a cold, or lose a child through miscarriage, or suffer neglect or poverty. It is not even God’s perfect will for us to die. Yet we do.

Imperfections in this fallen world speak neither of God’s disinterest, nor of our lack of faith. They are a sign that the world is broken. For Christians, they are a reminder that we will someday be made whole. John writes of that Day in Revelation 22:1-5

    “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve Him. They will see His face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever”.

Until that day, there is no need for guilt. So take your meds and enjoy yourself and your family and your future. God bless!

The Kingdom of God…
What is it?
Where is it?
When is it?

In evangelical seminary they taught us to think of the Kingdom as “here now” and “still coming” at the same time. This paradox is said to be evident in the teachings of Jesus in the gospels, and has been the source of much confusion and frustration for generations of Christians. In fact the idea of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth is not a uniquely Christian concept, but a religious concept. It is a well documented fact that wherever faith in God is strong, our human disposition for using violence to enforce what we believe will increase. This is as true today in the Church as it was for the Medieval crusaders or the zealous reformers. The forms of violence are not always as obvious, but the result is the same: a strong sense of self-righteousness in ‘believers’ and a strong sense of distrust in those outside the bounds of the Church.

All of this stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of the Kingdom of God.

“The Kingdom of God is advancing violently and the violent take it by force”. To Richard the Lionhearted this meant that the Islamic hold on Jerusalem was an assult on the Kingdom Jesus came to establish. To many charismatic worship leaders this means that aggressive ‘spiritual warfare’ through prophetic song and marching around our cities seven times is the key to ‘taking back our neighborhoods for God’. To many evangelicals who flirt with emergent ideas (a little knowledge is a dangerous thing), it means that aggressive political lobbying for social justice is the key to ‘bringing in’ the rule of God in our nations. But is this really faithful to the teachings of Jesus?

There can be no denying that in most of the Church over the last one hundred years there has been an overemphasis on the “Still to Come” aspect of the Kingdom. Bruxy Cavey writes,

“The religious fixation on salvation as an otherworldly destination allows for frustrating disconnects between this life and the next. For instance, Hindus can ignore the basic needs of the hurting lower castes while they look forward to eventually entering a state in which everyone’s needs and desires are met. Muslims teach marital fidelity and abstinence from alcohol in this life while they anticipate the heavenly rewards of multiple virginal sex partners and rivers flowing with wine in the next life. Christians fight wars in order to spread peace and may ignore the environmental issues of our planet because heaven is all that matters. But Jesus invites us to live one coherent life, starting now… Jesus raises the question: Are you living now the way you want to live forever?”

The Kingdom of God is not like earthly Kingdoms, where at least the threat of force (police) is necessary to maintain the Kingdom. The Kingdom is established in the hearts of those who follow Christ. The Kingdom has no boundaries. And violence and religious “effort” destroys the Kingdom rather than building it up. There is thus no possiblility for the seperation of means and ends in the Kingdom. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “Peace is not merely a distant goal we seek [or await], but a means by which we arrive at that goal”.

Thus, Jesus doesn’t require us to lobby for, or wage war for, or sing-in the Kingdom. On the contrary, it is simply by our BEING the expression of God’s rule through the way we live that we express the “now” aspect of the Kingdom, and it is simply in the way we trust God to establish His Kingdom in us ‘with ever-increasing glory’ that we express the “still coming” aspect of the Kingdom.

Let’s consider a contemporary application of this thesis: homosexual marriage rights.

A “Kingdom coming” mindset has people frantically trying to barricade their congregations and homes and televisions against this question. They are waiting for an escape, as they watch the world slowly but surely transform into Sodom and Gomorrah part 2.

As already mentioned, this isolation and escape theology is in stark contrast to the teachings of Jesus.

A “Kingdom now” ala charismatic Church sees people singing songs about God’s eternal law and prophesying God’s judgement of the Church and the nation’s sin in this regard and praying in tongues for the deliverance of those who wish to renounce their homosexuality.

A “Kingdom now” ala confused social gospel sees the Church lobbying for equal rights for homosexual couples and shaking their fists at conservative theology that values laws more than love.

None of these approaches is adequate because they see the Kingdom of God as something that we can establish in our cultures and nations and constitutions instead of something that God is establishing in the hearts of His people continuously. When we see the Kingdom this way, we focus, not on external issues of policy towards gay marriage, but on internal issues of the way that Jesus requires us to treat all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or sin inclination.

Another illustration:

Years ago, my father was conscripted into the army during the Rhodesian border wars. As was the case with many Christian men in South Africa at the time, Dad had to deal with the moral questions surrounding war. Aren’t we supposed to love our enemies, not shoot them? While there are no easy answers about “What Would Jesus Do” in the situation, and many better men than me who lived through wars disagree with my pacifist views (including C.S. Lewis), I can’t help but admire my father’s choice: he sat on the border doing guard duty… with no gun. He did not escape the war. He simply fought it according to the rules of a Higher Kingdom, in which Jesus challenges us to be the salt of the earth and a city on a hill.

This is the kind of Kingdom that Christ came to establish on earth. One in which we enter a whole new way of living where we submit to and partner with God’s loving ways at work in this fallen world, no matter what earthly Kingdom we might also belong to.

The world is fallen. Whose job is it to pick it up?

A year or two ago, my inbox was bombarded with messages about “protecting the sanctity of marriage”. In church meetings clipboards were passed around to collect signatures for a petition. The Church in South Africa was preoccupied with protecting a definition. And I wondered then what people outside the Church thought of us.

“Oh, that’s just the fear of man talking”, says my inner tv evangelist. “We shouldn’t care about what people think about the Church”.

True. But it’s not really the Church’s ‘image’ I’m worried about. It’s the Church’s mission. Are we meant to be a bunch of nimby’s? Let me explain with this poem by Chris Addison:

Gerald Quimby, Who Protested Everything

Have you heard of Gerald Quimby?
Quite the most appalling NIMBY,
PhD in demonstrating,
Cavilling and remonstrating.
In re: any proposition
Gerald was in opposition;
Staring at you long and hard
He’d bellow, ‘Not in my backyard!’

Gerry’s shed was full of banners,
Placards, paints and twelve-month planners
(Blank, so when the breakfast news
Reported things which in his view
Could not be borne, a morning’s work
Amidst the grow-bags and the murk
And he, by lunch, could from thin air
Stage demos in the village square).

Before too long, where once had been
A village round a charming green,
Stood nothing but a silly man,
Stacking placards in a van;
No shops, no phones, no food, no roads,
No nothing but his own abode.
Cut off, alone and ill-supplied,
To no one’s great surprise, he died.

Thus the fate of Gerald Quimby;
Here’s the moral: Be a NIMBY
If you like, but all you’ll save
Your backyard just to be your grave.

The question is not whether the traditional definition of marriage is good, or whether Harry Potter is bad, or whatever our current Church bugbear is. The question is whether or not that’s the point. I’m pretty sure the good news that Jesus taught and lived and died for had more to do with love and salvation than hate and sanction.

If, when the Church is mentioned outside our (un)holy huddle, people say,”Oh, you mean those homophobic, Harry Potter haters” (and I believe that sadly this is often the case), one can hardly help but see the Lord in your mind’s-eye, enthroned in majesty, with His head in His hands and tears in His eyes.

And no, I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic.

About Me

Ecstatically married to Leane. Studying Theology and Teaching. Working as a worship leader, teacher, coach, guitar teacher. Living in the Mighty City of Mkondo in the sunny province of Mpumalanga, in the blessed country of South Africa.

Favourite Thoughts – Outbox

Religion is to be defended - not by putting to death - but by dying. Not by cruelty, but by patient endurance. - Lactantius (c.304-313).
What is essential Christianity? From first to last it is scandal, the divine scandal. Every time someone risks scandal of high order there is joy in heaven. - Soren Keirkegaard.
Where there are two Christians, there are three opinions... [Actually a Jewish saying, but at least as true for Christians]

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