Friday, December 19, 2008

Summer Break

Well I know after only four weeks of blogging it seems a little soon to be having a holiday but I am going to be without internet access for the next two weeks so posting would be problematic. Please come back in January when things will start up again.

Hopefully by then some more contributors will have things to say (hint hint). Take care of yourselves and feel free to comment on old posts and try and get a conversation going or contribute to one that has already started.

Have a blessed Christmas :)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sarah B. on Matt 25

[It is my pleasure to introduce the first of our guest posters. Sarah is a Kiwi, raised in the Philipines, who lives most of the time in East Germany. She is mum to two girls and she and her husband are currently involved with YWAM. I have invited a few different people to contribute and Sarah is the first to respond with something. She would appreciate your feedback, she is writing here to help here refine her thoughts and understanding. Do you agree with what she has written? Do you disagree? Most importantly, why? What arguments to you find convincing/problematic? What evidence has been missed or interpreted in a way you are unsure of? Let us know what you think - Jonathan :)]

Matt 25 is a really hard one to interpret because it really needs to be read and understood in the context of Matt 24. It does not really stand alone as it is a continuation of Jesus speaking about events that will soon take place and giving more pictures to explain this. It starts by likening the Kingdom of heaven to five wise virgins who took extra oil with them, waited and did not share with others because they might need it themselves and were then invited into the wedding feast. So... the kingdom of Heaven is an imminent event that is coming but will take a bit longer than everyone anticipates! (If Jesus were communicating a more than 2000 year wait instead of just 30 years then I think he would have used a different illustration but it is not clear what time frame from these verses.)

The next part of the chapter compares the kingdom of heaven to wise servants who use their talents and multiply them so that those that have will receive more and those that don’t have will be tossed out. So we need to do the best with what we have and keep on working until the master returns.

Then Jesus talks about the nations (ethnos) being gathered and judging them, separating the sheep from the goats. First of all, I believe Jesus is talking about the same "nations" (ethnos) as he just mentioned in Matt 24. Mat 24:14 and this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations (ethnos), and then the end will come. And it must be the same "nations" that is mentioned in Acts 2:5. "Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation (ethnos) under heaven." If there were people from every nation under heaven in Jerusalem does that mean there were Maoris’ there? Germans? A lot of people groups and nations didn’t even exist then as we know them today. So "Nations" either meant the Roman Empire or perhaps more precise, all the Jews that were living in all the nations that were known in that time. The meaning has to stay the same for all of these passages to remain consistent so with that in mind it follows that the gospel has to be preached in all nations in the Roman Empire before the end will come. In the end and when the kingdom of heaven begins all (Jews in the) nations in the Roman Empire will be gathered and judged. Then finally in Acts it is recorded that people from all the nations were gathered in Jerusalem and heard the gospel. Also in Col 1:5, "because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing" and even in Romans 16:26- 27, “but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith-- ) So if all the nations did hear the gospel and the end (the beginning of the kingdom of Heaven) was imminent and actually did come in AD70 during the colossal destruction of Jerusalem when it is estimated that almost 1 million Jews were killed and the Jewish nation ended. Then I believe they must have also been judged and the sheep separated from the goats. What was this end that is talked about? I believe that the end that is talked about is in fact the end of the Jewish (Mosaic) covenant and system of temple worship and “righteousness”. A process that Jesus began with his birth and then death on the cross and it was completed when the Jewish race was "judged" and destroyed by the roman armies in AD70.

So the separating of the sheep and the goats refers to the judgement of the Jews that died from the beginning of the Jewish covenant untill that point. Those who were the true sheep went into eternal life and the goats were sent away to eternal punishment. Notice that Jesus talks specifically about what they did and didn’t do in relation to Jesus and his family (the least of these...) on earth... "I was hungry and you gave me nothing to drink". It was a judgement specifically for the Jewish nation in their time and context. Jesus spoke of this coming judgement in the parable of the vineyard owner in Matt 21:33. This judgement concluded the Jewish (Mosaic) age (time or covenant) and the Kingdom of heaven was established and began to grow here on earth as it is in Heaven.

We are now Abraham's offspring by faith in Jesus and no longer by blood and circumcision and his everlasting covenant applies to all of us. Rom 4:13 "for the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith." Rom 4:14 "for if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void." Gal 3:28 "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Gal 3:29 "And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise." How does this change the way we live today? We have focussed on a very small part of Jesus’s teaching about the end times that was not even intended for us but was for the Jews pre AD70. Because of this we have missed the major message that Jesus spoke to us about! The Kingdom of Heaven! What is it and how do we live it and bring it here on earth as it is in heaven. That is what we are here for, what Jesus died to set us free to do and is all we need to focus on! Bringing God’s kingdom on earth is our job with his and the Holy Spirit’s help and the more we do it the more we will see it come. It is up to us and we need to start living it and doing it!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

God, Worship, and Love: thoughts on 1 John 4:7-12

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No-one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:7-12)
I must confess, I am becoming more and more frustrated with the songs we sing in church and the songs I hear on Christian radio. Far too many of them focus on our love for God. There is nothing wrong with telling God we love God, or expressing our feelings of gratitude, or even expressing how we want to feel towards God (despite the reality of our cold hearts). But it is depressing all the same. My love for God is pathetic, of mixed motives, and constantly wavering. God's love for me is unlimited, pure, and never failing. Which would you rather focus on? Instead of singing to God "I love you" it is much more amazing to sing "you love me!"

This God of love is manifested as we love each other. Another confession, I would feel awkward to sing songs of love to the rest of my church family. But that is no reason not to do it. This passage of scripture asks us to respond to God's love, not with an introverted spiritual activity where we experience an intimate and loving moment with God "I love you, you love me", but by loving each other "you (God) love me, so I love your people". It is this outward loving (towards each other) rather than the 'upward' love (towards God only) that actually sees the transcendent God living among us completely. We love God as we live through Christ by loving each other. Experiences of Spiritual intimacy are not wrong, in fact they can be wonderful, but neither are they complete experiences of God's love.

Anyone know any songs that combine "God loves me" with "we love each other"?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Preaching the Gospel

Over the summer I hope to revisit on the blog some talks I did earlier this year on 'how to read the Bible' and 'why preaching?' But till then, and continuing the theme of 'what is the Gospel?', there are some insightful thoughts from Paul Windsor's blog about lessons from Acts for preaching here. Enjoy :)

[updated 16/12/08] And here is a second post on a series Paul did on whole books of the Old Testament and linking them in different ways to Jesus of Nazareth.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

God Doesn't Need Your Help: 1 Samuel 4:1-6:18

So, back in the day, when Israel was still a new kid on the block, a loose alliance of tribes with the same religion and ancestors, the Philistines, a rather more sophsticated group, go out to war to ensure the Israelites know their place (4:9). On the first day of fighting the Israelites get wooped (4:2) so they decide to bring in the artilery, i.e. God. The Israelites are confused, they think God lives in a box, so they get this (very special box called the Ark of the Covenant) and take it with them to the battle the next day. The Philistines hear about this and are terrified, but decide to man-up and try their luck anyway. The Israelites get wooped (again) and the Philistines get the box (4:10-11) and take it home as a souvenir and put in in the temple of their god Dagon. So much for the Israelites having God on their side.

Now God doesn't live in the box, but it represents the covenant God has with the Israelites, so, if you like, it's a bit like a wedding ring represents a marriage between two folks. So God feels pretty strongly about this box and the way people treat it, because God feels strongly about God's relationship to Israel. The next day the Philistines get out of bed, go to the temple of Dagon and find the statue of Dagon on his face before the box (5:3). Now this can't be right because they beat the Israelites, so their god must be stronger. So they pick Dagon up and go about their business. The next morning Dagon is eating dust again, but this time his head and hands have fallen off (5:4). As if to prove the point there is then an outbreak of tumors in the town and surrounding area. The locals are pretty fed up with this so pass the 'victory spoils' on to the next town, who are similarly aflicted (5:8-9). So it goes on (5:10). Eventually they realise that, although they wooped Israel, Israel's God has got them wooped. They are going to have to give the box back (5:11). So they do, complete with a special 'sorry' note in the form of 5 golden tumors and 5 golden mice (representing the rulers of the Philistines, 6:2-6).

Now I love this story because it is very funny. But also because it is loaded with theological content. First, the Israelites try to use God's ark like a magic charm to force God to help them when their own relationship with God is in tatters. They treat God like a slot machine: 'if we carry the Ark, we will win.' God doesn't turn up to help because to do so would only compound the problem. The Israelites think their great need is to win in battle, God thinks their great need is to sort out their relationship with God. Remember this, God is not to be manipulated by religious formulas, God demands a real relationship from God's people. Sort that out first and then let God worry about your circumstances.

Second, the Philistines think that because they have defeated Israel they have defeated God. But God and God's people are not the same thing. The Israelites are defeated, not because God is weak, but because they were being unfaithful to God. God shows God's-self to be so overwhelmingly great that even the statues of the Philistine god has to bow down to the Ark of the Covenant. Remember this, a crappy church, or crappy Christians do not mean a crappy god. Even when God's people are way off course God is still great, and God is still good. Don't use the behaviour of others to justify your unbelief, look at God to make that decision, not people.

Third, it is the pagan Philistines who are the first to start behaving respectfully towards the box. They soon realise that God was not wooped along with his people, and presumably also that if God had been on the Israelite's side they would never have won (see 7:10). After the box is returned to Israel it takes decades for God's own people to learn the same lesson (see 2 Sam 6). Remember this, those who are outside of the church are often showing those of us in it the way to go when it comes to justice and righteousness and honouring God. Don't refuse to learn lessons from people just because they have a different creed to you (or no creed at all).

Fourth, despite the unfaithfulness of Israel, God still cares about the covenant God has with them, and shows it, not by disguising the fact that the relationship is dysfunctional but by demonstrating the supreme holiness (special-to-God-ness) of the box that represented that relationship. Israel is unfaithful, but God remains faithful and works to bring Israel back into right relationship with God. Remember this, when you fail or fall away, God is not defeated, when you make mistakes or are stymied, God is still greater. The answer is not to question whether you followed the right formula or not but to seek to show (in grateful response) the same faithfulness towards God that God continues to show to you.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Piper on God's God-centredness

A nice concise 7 point argument, by John Piper, on:

Why God is not a megalomaniac in demanding to be worshipped

Let me know what you think :)

The Unexamined Faith

Over at Paul Windsor's blog we've been discussing the pros and cons of Christian celebrities, in the sporting world in particular. Now we wont get into that here and now, but the discussion prompted me to look a little closer at the story of Jonathan Edwards the British Triple Jump World Record holder and Olympic Gold winner. Reading an article about it from last years Times I was hit by one detail in particular. It seems as though Edwards who was raised in a devout family, had a conversion experience, and was a deeply committed Christian until after his athletics career, only lost his faith the first time he seriously questioned it, at the age of 40. Edwards who had toured churches in Britain, preaching the gospel and exhorting others to faith, suddenly comes out with:
When you think about it rationally, it does seem incredibly improbable that there is a God.
The tragedy is not that someone should lose their faith, but that the first time they come across any reason for doubting, the faith that sustained them for so long it is immediately jettisoned as make-believe. he says:
I was so preoccupied with training and competing that I did not have the time or emotional inclination to question my beliefs. Sport is simple, with simple goals and a simple lifestyle. I was quite happy in a world populated by my family and close friends, people who shared my belief system.
It seems to me that Edwards faith must have been so rigid and so complete in its construction that the moment one part looks like its could be pulled loose he abandons the whole thing completely. Interestingly the new found scepticism towards his lifelong faith is not applied to his doubts. There is no sense in the Times interview that there is any other rational way to approach the subject, or that the assumptions of materialism should ever be doubted. Edwards states that
Once you start asking yourself questions like, ‘How do I really know there is a God?’ you are already on the path to unbelief.
But this is not true. A faith that acknowledges doubt, that is honest about difficult questions is not a faith that is heading for unbelief. On the contrary, a faith that never questions that cannot change, or admit it was wrong about something, that accepts everything without discussion, is only one step away from atheism because it has no way to grow or adjust. Its completeness and rigidity give the illusion of stability but are in fact just one good shake away from total collapse. This is why churches should be places for discussion and conversation not dogma and lines drawn in the sand. Making disciples is not about conforming people to a set of beliefs or theological system but about teaching them to ask questions and to develop their own real, growing, and meaningful relationship with the reality that transcends the universe, God. This is why when you choose your heroes, pick people not for the certainty they display, but for the way they have been able and willing to change. Not for their faith to a belief that has never been tested but for their willingness to be tested and listen to the questions that they can't answer straight away. Socrates famously said that 'the unexamined life is not worth living,' I quite agree, but would go further and say the unexamined faith is no faith at all, just a superstition awaiting destruction by the next unexpected turn life takes.

When I came to NZ my faith was at a crossroads. Working in pastoral ministry had given me lots of questions that i hadn't had the time or resources to explore. By taking the time out to study and probe these doubts and issues, I knew I was taking a risk, but I also knew that if God was worth believing in at all, God could handle both my doubting and answer my questions. This is why theological education is so important for those in Christian leadership, an enthusiastic but shallow faith wont last the long haul, I know because I was finished after five years. But a faith that is always learning and growing has no reason to ever crumble, because doubts are not there to destroy but are catalysts for greater honesty, depth and humility in your walk with God.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Mercy and Justice in Islam and Christianity

David Neff writes in December's Christianity Today (p42):

"One insight from the "Loving God and Neighbor [sic] Together" dialogue between Muslims and Christians held this July at Yale University was the difference between our understandings of love, compassion, and mercy.
"The Christian participants had been taught by Jesus that love should be indiscriminate - just as the mercy shown by the Good Samaritan was conditioned on nothing but the wounded mans need. That may not be the way we generally behave, but... it is the standard against which we measure ourselves.
"The Muslim participants startled us Christians by talking about the limits their religion brought to their compassion. Orphans, widows, and others in need through no fault of their own deserve compassion, they said. But in Islamic ethics, there was no obligation to help the person whose drunkenness or gambling or otherwise unwise behavior [sic] put them in difficulty.
"Reflecting on what I heard those Muslim leaders say, the tension was not between a generous God and a stingy God... but between mercy that was defined and conditioned by justice (the Muslim view) and justice that was conditioned and defined by mercy (the Christian view)."

Now, pardon the long quote, but isn't that seriously interesting? Our view of God radically affects the way we view ourselves and treat other people. Some questions for discussion:
  1. What advantages does the Muslim view hold?
  2. If you were/are a Muslim how would you differentiate between those who were deserving of mercy and those who were not (e.g. an alchoholic orphan)?
  3. If you (Mulsim/Christian/other) have ever received compassion what was it about you that brought compassion from others?
  4. On what grounds do we (anybody) expect God to have compassion on us?
  5. If you are a Christian how do you ensure that you love indiscriminately, like your God?

Let me know what you think :)

Monday, December 8, 2008

Getting in Tune


You will be forgiven if you don't know what that is. Before a practice or performance a guitarist will often spend minutes hunched over such a box, focussed intently on its flashing lights and arm moving on the screen. The box itself makes no music, but if the guitarist wants her music to sound 'right', even more if she wants to play along with other musicians, the guitar must first be brought into accordance with the box. It is a guitar tuner.

For the same reason, Christians need to spend time as often as possible in prayer and reading the Bible. These precious times allow us to tune our thoughts, desires, and feelings into harmony with God's. When our lives feel dischordant and out of tune our greatest need is to reorientate our inner world according to the music we find in scripture and the great composer we meet in prayer. Then we will know what it is to live in harmony, not with the world around us but the transcendent reality of God. The same God who will one day bring all things into his loving and glorious harmony.

Word Study: Preaching/Teaching in Titus

This word study is done at the request of a member of my homegroup. If you like this sort of stuff you should think about learning to read Greek. You don't have to go to Bible College to do it, reading a langauge is the easiest part of a language to learn (you will never have to write or speak Biblical Greek I promise!), and to do word studies like this one only requires a very basic level. Even if you are convinced learning Greek is not an option, comparing a number of translations will often give you an idea of a word's semantic range in that context.

Format will be a verse reference in Titus where the word is found, followed by the Greek lemma (root word), a transliteration, English rendering in two translations (NIV, then NRSV), and my own comment.

(NB. about halfway through, I realised the word study was going to be WAY too long, but I started so i'll finish. But pleased be assured, future word studies will be much shorter. :))

1:3, κήρυγμα, kḗrygma, preaching/proclamation, this word was used to describe an official announcement by a herald. The suggestion is then that the message does not belong to Paul but is given to him to proclaim. hence when Paul talks about 'my gospel' in 2 Tim 8 he is not claiming ownership of the message, but the message's ownership of him.

1:9 uses four different words related to preaching/teaching,
διδαχὴν, didachḗ, taught/teaching,
παρακαλέω, parakaléō, encourage/preach,
διδασκαλία, didaskalía, doctrine/doctrine,
ἐλέγχω, elénchō, refute/refute,
These words relate to the task of an elder/bishop/overseer/steward. What strikes me about these words is that the role of the teacher is not presented as a passionless task but both
parakaléō and elénchō carry tones of urgency and the desire to convince others, either positively of the truth, or negatively by exposing falsehood.

1:11, διδάσκω, didáskō, teaching/teaching, here the verb 'to teach' is used of the false teachers who are damaging the church in Crete. All teaching is therefore not equal and must be judged to some extent on whether it edifies (builds up) or upsets/ruins the church.

1:13,
ἐλέγχω, elénchō, rebuke/rebuke, this word from 1:9 reappears but here this term is rendered by both NIV and NRSV as rebuke rather than refute. Perhaps a nuance that is lost in translation is that elénchō carries with a a connotation of effective conviction, not merely empty rhetoric but actually bringing about a new realisation in the one being rebuked. This is born out by the context here where Paul's desire is for the false teachers to become 'sound in the faith' as a result of the rebuke.

2:1,

λαλέω,
laléō, teach/teach, while the word simply means 'speak', in context Paul is clearly detailing for Titus the content of his teaching hence the translation here by the NIV and NRSV. (NB. In 2:2 and 2:3 there is no Greek word where the NIV/NRSV use teach/tell but that is the sense implied.)
διδασκαλία, didaskalía, doctrine/doctrine, makes a second appearance again coupled with ὑγιαίνω, hygiaínō, translated by both NIV and NRSV as 'sound', giving us 'sound doctrine.' 'Sound', as in incorrupted, is is a figurative rendering, literally the two words together mean 'healthy teaching.' Although the word was used as a technical term in philosophical discourse of the day, I still think the idea of 'healthy teaching' has currency in our (health obsessed) culture today. 'Sound doctrine' on the other hand sounds awefully stuffy and boring!

2:4,
σωφρονίζω, sōphronízō, train/encourage, is a fascinating word that specifies instruction or encouragement towards sensible or right behaviour. This is reinforced in 2:5 by the use of the adjective σώφρων, sṓphrōn, self-controlled/self-controlled.

2:6,
παρακαλέω, parakaléō, encourage/urge, as in 1:9 but translated differently by the NRSV. The sense is still of a strong urgent appeal.

2:7,
τύπος, týpos, example/model, shows that Titus is not just to teach with his words but also with his whole life, he is to be the Christian on which the young men can model themselves.

2:12, παιδεύω, paideúō, teaches/training, this word is used to refer to the act of educating or disiplining a child. Here it reminds us that before God's grace we are all children equally in need of being taught constantly how to live rightly. Paul and Titus may be teaching others, but they themselves depend on God's teaching.

2:15 sees another cluster of words related to our subject,

λαλέω, laléō, teach/declare,

παρακαλέω, parakaléō, encourage/exhort,

ἐλέγχω, elénchō, rebuke/reprove,

ἐπιταγή, epitagḗ, authority/authority, this word, which essentially means 'command' and hence implies authority, shows that Titus needs to be willing to take authority in situations and lay down the law in respect to those things which are being falsely taught. Now I am a big fan of conversation and discussion and giving people space to come to their own conclusions but some things cannot be tolerated and must be named for what they are. In particular when destructive views are being pushed on to other vulnerable members of the community. Drawing this line sensitively continues to be one of the hardest jobs a church pastor does.

3:1, ὑπομιμνῄσκω, hupomimḗskō, remind/remind, so here Titus is merely going over old ground, this is not new teachig for the Cretan's but it is important and so needs to be repeated. Teacher's mustn't be afraid to go over the 'basics' time and again. After all doesn't matter how much time you spend on the cutting edge if you dont have the foundation in place you are on a hiding into nothing.

3:8 διαβεβαιόομαι, diabebaióomai, stress/insist, this final word in oour study means to 'maintain strongly' or 'speak confidently' or 'insist', in this case the insistence is on the life of good works that comes in response to the transformation that God gives through Jesus by the Spirit. Paul is leaving no doubt that 'good works' could be some kind of optional extra, they are of vital importance.

If you made it to the end, well done! Any thoughts?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

How cool is this?


When Christoph Römhild, a Lutheran pastor in Hamburg, Germany, sent Carnegie Mellon Ph.D. student Chris Harrison a list of 63,779 cross-references between the Bible's 1,189 chapters, the two became enthralled with elegantly showing the interconnected nature of Scripture. Each bar along the horizontal axis represents a chapter, with the length determined by the number of verses. (Books alternate in color between white and light gray.) Colors represent the distance between references. The graph won an honourable mention in the 2008 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and Science journal.
Source Christianity Today

My only question is... can you spot Psalm 119??!! Frequently being the tallest person in the room myself I feel have a new connection with Psalm 119 :) Just as well because it's coming up shortly in my Bible reading schedule.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Potters, Parents and Idolatry: Isaiah 45:9-11

Woe to you who strive with your maker,
earthen vessels with the potter!
Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, 'what are you making'? or 'your work has no handles'?
Woe to anyone who says to their father, 'what are you begetting?' or to their mother, 'with what are you in labour?'
Thus says the Lord, the holy one of Israel and its maker:
Will you question me about my children, or command me concerning the work of my hands?
(Isaiah 45:9-11)
The image of a pot speaking to the potter as he turns it on the wheel is hilarious. Apart from the the misshapen clay actually talking in the first place, there is also the audacity of the clay to be saying 'excuse me, but you've missed a bit!' A kindly potter might say 'I'm not quite finished yet and please hold still while I work.' Even worse is the picture of a child challenging their parents over the event of their conception or birth. My two year old daughter frequently questions my judgement when it comes to biscuit distribution, sun block, or bed time. But to question your parents at the point at which you enter existence or begin to breathe seems absurd in the extreme. In its context in Isaiah this passage is a rebuke to the people of God who are unwillingly to accept God's plan to rescue them with Cyrus, a Persian (and very pagan) king. The idea that God would use an outsider does not fit in with their theology. The irony is that their complaint against Cyrus is presumably that he is a pagan idolator and yet, by insisting that God is unable or unwilling to do something that God is in fact doing, they themselves have committed idolatry. When the clay questions the potter, or the baby her parents, they place themselves above the ones to whom they owe their existence and identity. The ones who are engaged in the very act of forming them. The people of God were not just refusing to let God shape them, they were telling God how to be God.

This is why this blog is not about expanding 'my theology' or 'a theology'. Any theology that looks like a system or complete method for understanding/knowing God is idolatry. It is making God with our own hands/minds instead of letting God be God. That's why I prefer to talk about 'doing theology'. Theology should not be static, a problem solved, a puzzle completed, instead it should be fluid and dynamic, a response to God's reality as it is encountered day by day in personal experience, the community of faith, and in the Bible. This is why it is necessary to read the Bible as a stranger, not assuming that you know what you will find there, because only then can we be allowing the potter's words to shape the clay of our lives. If we read the Bible as a book that we already know what it says and means then all we do is shape the potter into our own idea of what they should look like. I dont want to worship a God I have made. I want to worship the God of transcendant reality, not a figment of my imagination.

Such an approach also breeds humility. Like the half formed clay or the child being born, God hasn't finished with me yet. Of course I dont understand everything about God, or what God is doing with me or the world, but that is OK, because we're a work in progress. Aren't you looking forward to seeing what the master potter and father of the universe has in store?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Emerging Church Bashing

Roger Oakland of Understanding the Times International is presently touring NZ in order to expose the evils of the emerging church. Steve Taylor, a prominent Kiwi proponent of the emerging church, responds in an exemplary manner here.

It saddens me when people pour their time and energy into fighting imaginary foes within the church instead of concentrating their energies on God's mission. The emerging church is not really a thing that can be attacked but a broad label that describes a number of different attempts to do church in a way that connects more effectively with our society for the sake of the gospel. I disagree with a lot of 'emerging' stuff, but find some of it very helpful, and I am wholly sympathetic to their project. I have yet to find one who isn't willing to listen to other points of view. I have no sympathy for petulant hate mongers who generate division in the church and attack those who are trying to constructively engage with a lost and broken world (see Titus 3:9-11).

Jazz, Art, and Theology: Some links for a rainy day

If you have things to do today, don't do it. But if you are bored and want to read some really imaginative but practical theology try these, from www.opensourcetheology.net .

Jazz and the Mode of Hopeful Transgression

The art of being church

If anyone wanted to write a response to one of those articles i would love to put it up on the blog.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Transcendence, Poverty and Loneliness: Psalm 113

Who is like the Lord our God,
who is seated on high,
who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust,
and lifts up the needy from the ash heap,
To make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.
He gives the barren woman a home,
Making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the Lord! (Psalm 113:5-9)

One of the connections often missing in our theology is the link between worship and social justice, a link that is strongly made throughout the Bible (e.g. Isaiah 58; James 1:27). At first reading I thought that was what was going on here in Psalm 113. But then I realised this psalm isn't directly addressing human justice but God's. God's transcendant otherness is described analogically here as being 'on high,' above both the 'heavens and the earth.' This might suggest that God is not concerned with such earthly and material issues as poverty and social exclusion.* But that is not the case. Instead, from God's transcendant perspective ('who looks far down') that which is important is the poor and needy and those without the structures of support that enable human living. God's agenda is to elevate the lowly and to place the lonely in loving families.

There is a tendency among the religious that the more otherworldly, 'spiritual,' and 'holy,' our beliefs are, the less concerned we are with the material and human. Psalm 113 shows how far this misses the mark. Who is like the Lord our God? Those who are most like God are the ones whose transcendant perspective (Spirituality) causes them to love and serve the poor, needy and excluded. And this is what the God we worship is like. Praise the Lord!

* In the historical context of this psalm childlessness implied both social stigma and economic insecurity.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

What is the Gospel?

Just a quick thought relating to Phil's comment on the Titus 3 sermon. Is the good news (Gospel) just the transformation itself or is it the life to be lived afterwards as well? Is the good news the passport with my new citizenship in it, or is it actually living in the new country? Is the good news the Cross or is it the life of discipleship? Is the good news the Resurrection, or the resurrected life it brings? Have we really preached the gospel if we don't mention both? I have always felt that evangelism that doesn't also point out the cost and consequences of accepting Jesus as saviour is dangerous and dishonest (see Luke 14:27-33). Let me know what you think :)

How to pray when you have the attention span of a puppy in a field of bunnies

OK, every once in a while I decide to Sort-My-Prayer-Life-Out. I'm sure many of you can relate, even if you dont pray, it is just like any other kind of resolution. I normally last about a week of doing 15/30/60 minutes (whatever I decided to do that time) before I miss a few sessions and then feel too guilty to pray at all. Kind of misses the point of having a relationship with God through prayer if I just use it to generate periodic bursts of guilt, n'est pas? This is what I do now, maybe it will help you. Or maybe you need to tell me i need to get back to being on my knees for an hour a day and try harder to focus. Let me know what you think :)

When I eat I say a prayer.
When I walk I say a prayer.
When I start a car journey, I say a prayer.
When I put my daughter to bed, I pray with her.
When I go to bed I pray with my wife (if she is awake).
When I read a prayer request on email I say a prayer.
When I see some bad news I say a prayer.
When someone prays at church or elsewhere I pray with them.
When I start a difficult task I pray.
When I have to make a big decision I pray.
When I feel anger, or despair, or joy, or love, I pray.

Not everytime, but if I miss one or two, then it is not such a big deal, and over a day I have ended up doing lots of praying. And I have spent time with God, the transcendant one, throughout my day.

Jos, Nigeria: Local Election Sparks Religious Rioting which Kills Hundreds

Hundreds of people were killed and an estimated 7,000 – 10,000 fled their homes in two days of rioting last week between mainly Muslim Hausa people and mainly Christian Berom people in Jos, the capital of Plateau State, Nigeria. Senior Christian leaders in the state believe that the riots were coordinated and planned, and that the political events were used as a pretext for anti-Christian violence.

The rioting began at 2.00 a.m. on Friday, 28th November, following local elections on Thursday 27th. A police spokesman said that the clashes were triggered by a rumour that the All Nigerian People’s Party (ANPP) had lost the election to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). In the midst of the violence, the election results were announced, confirming that the PDP had won all 17 local government areas, including the Jos North local government area where the violence was centred. In Jos the ANPP is considered to be a predominantly Muslim party, whereas the PDP is perceived to be mainly Christian.

A curfew was enforced and troops deployed with orders to shoot curfew-breakers on sight. By Sunday calm had been restored. Most estimates of the death toll suggest that 200 to 400 people were killed. Both churches and mosques have been burnt.

[Please pray. For the rest of the article click here. Source: Barnabas Fund]

Monday, December 1, 2008

Subversive Management Theories for the Church?

Just had a really interesting chat this morning. A friend of mine who is a business analyst at a large company was telling me about some of the management theories that were currently being implemented/discussed in his company. I was struck straight away by how powerful these ideas could be if we applied them to church. Let me know what you think :)

Blue Ocean Strategy.

In a nutshell: It's a big ocean, don't waste your energy competing with everyone else find a niche that is all your own.

For the church: how many towns have four or five churches singing the same songs, preaching the same messages and running the same programs. Evangelicals are the worst at this. We tend to 'fish in the same pond' when there is an ocean of need out there. Let's have some diversity. Get all the local churches together and all agree to do something different. That way we will stop using our time and resources doing exactly what the next guys down the road are doing just as well!

Communities of Interest

In a nutshell: Instead of having all the different people in all the different departments solving all the same problems on their own. People with similar skills and responsibilities network and share information, ideas and strategies. These networks can grow throughout the company and to include other stake holders.

For the church: In a town where 5 churches are all running childrens/youth/homeless/elderly minstry why dont they all team up, share resources, and work together? More than this, if your church doesn't run a particular ministry but someone in your church has a particular passion connect them to a group in another church who share that passion that they can get involved with. Shouldn't we see the other churches in our locality as 'stakeholders' in the same gospel mission as us and form a 'community of interest' around bringing God's restoration and renewal to our neighbourhoods?

No Job Titles

In a nutshell: By taking away titles you empower the whole team. When a stranger comes in to make a sales pitch they have to make it to everyone. Instead of the leader being the one responsible for seeing things through, it becomes everyone's responsibility.

For the church: Could we really do this? Have a community without job titles and management structures? Where we're not all accountable to a 'minister' but to each other? Where no one has a 'position' but can only get others to follow them by virtue of their proven character and abilities?

Now obviously these would all need some serious Biblical reflection, and we definately shouldn't be just implementing the latest management theories into the church just for the sake of it. But these secular management theories seem to offer a good critique of some of the secular management theories we already use in the church, but take for granted.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Reading Titus 3 with reality TV

[Here is a shortened version of a sermon/talk I did at my church this morning. Let me know what you think. Or if you were there let me know what you thought. Positive and negative comments are all appreciated, otherwise how can I get better? Just click on the word 'comments' below, thanks :)]



The Big Stuff, Downsize Me, Extreme Home Makeover, What Not To Wear, and Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares are a selection of TV shows shown in NZ that all follow a similar story line. The plot goes like this: once there was a messy house/overweight person/needy family/unfashionable woman/failing restaurant; but then Sian and Gez/Damian and Lee-Anne/ Ty and team/ Trinny and Suzzana/ Gordon Ramsey appear and bring about a miraculous transformation; so that now the transformed house/body/family/fashion victim/restaurant live a transformed life totally and wonderfully different to what went before.

This desire for and interest in transformation is not a new thing. It's not only the reponse of disgruntled post-moderns who are never satisfied. On Roman Crete (the stated destination of the letter to Titus) they were into transformation too.


Archeology shows that the Egyptian Goddess Isis was worshipped in Roman Crete at the time when the letter to Titus would have been written. Her followers had water 'poured out' onto them to bring them into a mystical rebirth. (There are a number of linguistic clues that suggest Paul may have had this ceremony in mind when he wrote Titus 3. I will deal with those and the implications of that in another post.)


So for those of us who have been exposed either to reality TV or the cult of Isis we can spot a similar plot taking place in Titus 3.

Titus 3:3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another.


Here is the mess we are in. Here is the dysfunction. Now the common complaint about this verse is that while it may describe some people it certainly doesn't describe everyone. Dont we all know people, who despite their atheism are moral and content and peace loving, often more so that some Christians we know? I know I do. But here is the thing. What is the difference between your average upstanding Kiwi and a genocidal African? What is the difference between the secretary of the Lions club and a member of the Taliban? Is it one of kind or is it one of circumstance? We as a human race need to admit that we are better doing evil than good. Even if certain individuals are examples of good moral lives they do not outweigh the genocide, injustice, torture, war, child abuse, rape, oppression, degradation and misery humanity is continually practising. Watch the news, Titus 3:3 is what we are.


Titus 3:4-7 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is sure.
Being transformed by someone else is humbling. You can see it in the resistance people put up to their television saviours, they argue with Gordon Ramsey, they refuse to follow Damien's diet, and they wont let Sian throw out that sofa even though it doesn't fit 'the vision.' Why do you think Extreme Home Makeover ships people off to disney land before they destroy the house? But when you are in a real mess, you need intervention. When you are stuck in the bog you can't pull yourself out by your bootstraps, you need to be connected to something or someone who isn't stuck in the same bog. And so at our moment of need, not because of anything we had done, Jesus appears and makes possible our transformation by baptism and the Holy Spirit. We are justified (made right) by grace (God's free giving), have the empowering Spirit of God richly poured out on us, and are made heirs of eternal life (part of God's family with an everlasting hope). This is all done for us, not by us.


But no reality TV show is complete without a final visit months later to see how people are doing after the transformation. To witness their new life. Have they stuck to the diet, have they kept their house tidy, have they followed Gordon's menu advice? The point of the transformation was not just for a different experience for a week or so but to initiate an entirely new way of living.

Titus 3:8 I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone.

Titus 3:1-2 Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.

For the Christians on ancient Crete this meant a lifestyle of obedience, peace and politeness. Doesn't sound very radical does it? But the Cretans were a warlike people with a reputation for deceit. Thier national passtimes were piracy and inter-village warfare. These Cretan Christians were being expected to live in way way that was radically counter to the culture in which they lived. We are not saved/rescued from the human tradgedy by doing 'good works.' We are saved so that we can then live a life filled with 'good works.' These good works necessarily run counter to the culture we live in because our nation's culture is dysfunctional, though perhaps not in entirety. As those who have been transformed we need to take advantage of our transformation to live lives that are different. In order to 'be careful to devote' ourselves to good works we must observe our culture and notice those parts of it which which are not compatible with our new life. Here are some suggestions, I'd love to hear yours...

  • Instead of consumerism, let's do stewardship
  • Instead of avoiding suffering, let's spend time with those who suffer
  • Instead of watching the news and doing nothing, let's act on the information we have
  • Instead of thoughtless reactions and sound-bites, let's think more about the things we do and say
  • Instead of obsessing over our leisure, let's obsess over worshipping God and serving others
  • Instead of seeking punishment and retribution, let's seek forgiveness and restoration
  • Instead of individualism, let's exist in community

And remember, this isn't about you trying harder. This is about living in the reality of the transformation that Jesus has accomplished. The empowering Spirit of God has been given richly to us who have been transformed. So let's stop mucking about and live in the new life.

Questions:

  1. Can you think of other places in our culture where transformation is a significant theme?
  2. Do you think Titus 3:3 offers a good description of the human race?
  3. How would you describe the transformation that Jesus brings (Titus 3:4-7) in language that today's 'person on the street' might relate to?
  4. If you have been transformed by Jesus, what do you think is the most important 'so that' for you? Could you choose something from my list to put into place this week?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Blog manifesto

The blog's manifesto has now been completed! The next task will be to start doing what we have been talking about. If you are new to the blog, you might find it helpful to read these to see what we are about.

1: Reading the Bible in a strange land

2: Doing theology like it matters

3: Living life in the diaspora

Living life in the diaspora

A diaspora is a scattered people. The word has been commonly used of the Jewish people who for centuries have been a minority group in nations around the world. In most European countries, the USA, Australia and even New Zealand, Jews live and work, often participating as full citizens of their host nations. The explosion over the last century of global migration has meant that Jews are no longer unique in being a diaspora. Now Europeans, Africans, Asians, Indians, and Pacific Islanders are found throughout world in nations in which they are resident aliens. However much a first generation migrant to a new country tries to assimilate and adapt, she will always be aware of difference. There will be cultural and social norms in their new country that just dont come naturally; stories, beliefs and attitudes that are integral to the host nation but that are foreign to her, and vice versa.

But with each generation those distinctives must be held tightly or the host culture will eventually absorb its immigrants. Many migrant communities hold tightly to their identity and often get criticised for failing to adjust to their new country. In cities throughout the world you will find communities of ethnic minorities that are attempting to maintain their ethnic identity without any change at all. Who can blame them? If they dont they will be completely absorbed in a couple of generations and they will have lost their identity. The middle ground between absorbtion and stuborn refusal to change is a hard place to live. Identity is easy to maintain when you refuse to accommodate yourself to your new country. As soon as you start to make accommodations for your host's culture you are constantly having to draw lines around which parts of your ethnic identity need to be maintained and which can be adjusted to context.

Living in this middle ground, as a distinctive minority who yet engage their host culture, is the task of the church. When we fail to draw those lines well we end up with the crusades, or the inquisition, or George Bush jnr. These failures are the result of absorbtion, a failure to maintain our distinctive identity. But where accommodation is not made at all the church becomes an exclusive ghetto unable to fulfill her mission to bring God's peace, reconciliation, and love to the world.

The task of the church is to maintain our identity and connect with the country in which we are resident aliens. The task of theology is to draw lines in some places and enable accommodation in others. This is done by reading the Bible carefully and respectfully, aware that it, and we, are in a strange land.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Doing theology like it matters

In the modern western world Christianity is declining fast. Although some churches are growing they are not growing fast enough to offset all the shrinking that is going on. What is the point of doing theology? How can theology matter when most our world believes belief is a private and personal matter, 'up to the individual,' isn't theology just a matter of trying to enforce your opinions on others?

Someone, who wasn't a Christian, once asked me what I was studying. When I told him 'theology,' he was impressed. I was surprised, I expected it to be a conversation stopper. But he was interested, he told me 'everything comes back to theology in the end, who we are, what we do, good and bad, the meaning of life, I would love to study theology... but I have to make a living.' I thought, 'wow, and this guy isn't even a believer and yet he understands why theology matters better than most Christians I know.'

You see, whever we make statement about something that we consider to be true, or good, or beautiful, we are really making a theological statement. We are refering to something which is outside of the physical material world, some quality that is transcendent (beyond).

Whenever we choose to accept a fact (scientific or otherwise) as reality we are making an assumption about reality and our own ability to accurately perceive it. This is a theological assumption because only by their being some objective truth beyond the material universe (i.e God) and us being somehow related to this truth (e.g. 'made in God's image,' see Genesis 1:27) can we expect our perception of the material world to actually connect us to reality in any meaningful way. The same goes for statements of good and evil, whenever we (rightly) state that child abuse, or genocide, or rape, are evil and wrong we are comparing them to an objective good which cannot be measured by the natural sciences, but which none of us doubt exists, because we all intuitively know somethings are just plain wrong (evil) and some are just plain right (good). Likewise, when we find beauty in a face, or sunset, or work of art, or event, we are recognising in that coincidence of physical properties and happenstance that there is a resonance in this beautiful thing with something other, with something that is capable of bringing purpose, meaning, wholeness, and peace to the world which otherwise appears to be random, meaningless, incomplete, and disrupted.

So my point is this: we all do theology all the time. The problem is we often dont know we are doing it and we end up doing it badly. Theology isn't about me imposing my opinions on you, but about us all learning how to do theology better; to do theology as best we can, because it really matters.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Reading the Bible in a strange land

I thought I would start by explicating (or unfolding) the subtitle of this blog a phrase at a time. This will create the 'mission statement' for the blog, so that anyone interested in what might follow will know roughly what to expect.

I live in New Zealand. It is a strange land to read the Bible in for two reasons.

First it is strange for me because I was born and raised in Britain, and New Zealand is a long way away. I still feel new here, although I have now adjusted to the different flavoured Marmite.

But more importantly it is strange for the Bible. The Bible was written in the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek of thousands of years ago and in lands thousands of miles away. New Zealand has two official languages Te Reo Māori and English. New Zealand is also a 'developed' democratic nation with the technology, infrastructure, welfare state, and police services that go along with that. When the Bible talks about thirst, poverty, injustice, politics, or even worship, we have difficulty understanding what it could mean because our experiences are so different from those who wrote it. The Bible didn't make it to New Zealand until the 19th century, by which time it was already old, old, old.

When we read the Bible as if someone like us had written it, we are being careless and disrespectful. The Bible is an ancient and strange text, we need to treat it with respect, as an honoured guest. The other day I invited a Malaysian-Chinese family to our home for dinner. I had only recently met them. I knew I did not fully understand their culture, I had to work hard to see if they were comfortable or merely being polite. I had to constantly ask questions out loud and to myself. As host my concern was not that they would fit into my idea of a pleasant meal and conversation, but that I would fit into theirs.

The Bible is not 'my Bible' and it's not 'your Bible' either. If it really is God's word, then it is God's Bible and God is not much like you or me at all (Isaiah 55:8-9). When I read the Bible I must read it as a stranger, eager and careful to please my guest, not to conform the Bible to my idea of what it should be, but to be transformed by it (Romans 12:2).