Friday, May 27, 2016

the psalms

A gracious little conspiracy has drawn me back to the Psalms...

It started with a comment in an email from a friend battling cancer. She testified to the way a line from Peterson's The Message was strengthening her: 'I've pitched my tent in the land of hope'. Isn't that beautiful? I tracked it down. It is not in the Psalms itself - but in a quotation from the Psalms used in Acts 2.

Then it was the conversation between Eugene Peterson and Bono on the Psalms. Arriving through social media one morning, it couldn't be more anti-social media. A slowness. A softness. A stillness. A sadness. A seriousness. It warranted multiple viewings and that is exactly what it has received.

In replenishing my copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together, I soon realised that I had received two books for the price of one. Included in the single cover was his Prayerbook of the Bible in which Bonhoeffer 'desired to retrieve the Psalms as the prayerbook of Jesus ... like children learning to speak the language of their parents, the Psalms are God's way of enabling people to speak in the language of Jesus' (144-145). This sliver of a book has the makings of a sermon series in his classification of the Psalms: creation, law, the history of salvation, the Messiah, the church, life, suffering, guilt, enemies, and the end.

But the sermon series can wait, as I headed back to The Message myself. I decided to read through the Psalms, slowly and prayerfully, collecting phrases and verses for specific friends and putting them on bookmarks for them (with Barby, the laminator, to assist me).

This is not my first foray into the writings of Eugene PetersonThe Message, or the Psalms (and Bono, for that matter) - but here I want simply to gather my favourite phrases from this exercise (in no particular order):

Blessed are the people who know the passwords of praise (Psalm 89).

His love is the wonder of the world (Psalm 31).

We're watching and waiting, holding our breath, awaiting your word of mercy (Psalm 123).

His love never runs out (Psalm 107).

How blessed are those whose lives become roads you travel (Psalm 84).

I'm striding in the presence of God, alive in the land of the living (Psalm 116).

Your blessing clothes your people (Psalm 3).

God puts the fallen on their feet again (Psalm 147).

In his largeness, nothing gets lost (Psalm 36).

You wisely and tenderly lead me, and then you bless me (Psalm 73).

And now, God, do it again - bring rain to our drought-stricken lives (Psalm 126).

nice chatting


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

one church in izmir

The first essay I ever wrote at theological college was on Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (now Izmir).

Do you know the story?

Born in 69 AD, Polycarp is understood to have been a disciple of the Apostle John himself. It was this same John who ordained him as Bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp is famous for being an early Christian martyr, committed to burn at the stake in a Roman amphitheatre.
As the flames were lit, he lifted his eyes to heaven and uttering a sublime prayer confessed his faith in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. 
(But) flames, bending like the sails of a ship, swelled by winds wrapped up the body of the martyr without doing him harm and when the pagans saw it, they ordered an executioner to get near him and to sink a dagger into his heart.
Imagine my excitement when I discovered that our hotel in Smyrna/Izmir (a city of 3 million people) was just a 10 minute walk from the church set aside to remember Polycarp's life and death. We showed up at 3.30pm to find that it was only open from 3.00-5.00pm each day. Thank-you, Lord. AS with churches in Turkey today, it is a bit of a fortress with high walls surrounding the property and careful security checks on entrance.

Upon entering St Polycarp Church, it did not take long to find a fresco on the ceiling commemorating Polycarp's martyrdom (NB: see how both flames and dagger are at work) - with the words mentioned above as part of the description of the event.

But what stopped me in my tracks was something else inside the lavishly decorated church. It was the pulpit, with this rather odd structure coming out the side of it (see below). I am not sure what it means - but my immediate thought was of a companion to Paul's phrase to the Philippians - 'holding forth the word of life' ... but here, more something like 'holding forth Christ crucified', recalling 1 Corinthians 2.2. How true is that for the preacher, even today?! It becomes a variation on the theme of the words inscribed in some pulpits today, advising the preacher: 'we wish to see Jesus'.

My journey with St Polycarp Church did not stop there. Our flight the next morning was a 50 minute 'hop' to Istanbul and so I asked for a window seat, in order to be able to take some photos. They gave me the row just behind the wing and so it was not a great view. But I did my best to recognise places with my limited knowledge of the city. Thinking this was roughly the area where we stayed, I clicked this shot:

On zooming in ...

... and zooming in again - to my utter amazement it was where we stayed. In the photo above, the Hilton Hotel forms a backdrop to the church - and here it is, with St Polycarp Church being the collection of oddly-shaped orange roofs directly below the sharp corner of the Hilton.

nice chatting


PS: Don't forget that there have been more martyrs for Christ in the most recent century than in all the other twenty centuries (since Polycarp) combined

Sunday, May 22, 2016

seven churches in revelation

Looking at endless photos of other peoples' rocks and ruins trends towards total boredom for me. They put me to sleep as quickly as the arrival of the evening hour following a nap-less afternoon.

After meetings in Antalya (Turkey), Barby and I were blessed to be able to visit the Seven Churches of Revelation with our friends, Pieter and Elria. I will limit myself to two photos from each site/city...

Ephesus (near Selcuk)
Enjoying the Roman ruins of Ephesus involves a wandering walk of almost 2 kilometres. Impressive. The Library of Celsus will remain with me (and with the bride having her photos taken), as will the roadside glimpse of the goddess Nike among the poppies.

Laodecia (near Denizli)
The white stone against the blue sky, with a few clouds fluffing around, made for photos to remember - as did the hilltop views, looking past the unrestored amphitheatre across the verdant Lycus Valley to the Roman ruins of Hierapolis and the limestone cliffs of Pamukkale. I could retire in this area...

Philadelphia (near Alasehir)
This is one of the ruins without much to see. But the testimony of a cross is something always to savour in this country, as was the fine work of the baker across the road.

Sardis (near Salihli)
Sardis is spectacular. The size and scope and setting of the ruins. Wow. Then there is the little Byzantine church snuggled next to the grand Temple of Artemis (the worship of whom was subverted and undone by communities like this one). The gospel in the public world for all to see. And what about a wash basin with a couple of crosses on it, reminding all who pass by that Jesus is Lord of all?

Thyatira (near Akhisar)
Well, actually in Akhisar. The map was vague. We spent more than an hour wandering through the hills looking for the ruins - only to find them, eventually, in the heart of this city. Again, not very impressive - but special to me. There were seven in my family. My father assigned to each of us one of the churches in Revelation (as you do!). I was 'the church in Thyatira' - and so a special memory of my Dad with this visit.

Pergamum (now, Bergama)
Each of these sites is so different. With this one, the focus shifts to a Roman acropolis on a hill with sweeping 360 degree views. Again, the white on blue is so beautiful - and the steepness of the incline in the amphitheatre brought back memories of the upper decks of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. We enjoyed the faltering visibility of the elderly in the comings and goings of public life.

Smyrna (Izmir)
It was a single church that caught my eye in Izmir - but that will be the subject of my next post :).

nice chatting


BTW - we enjoyed other places along the way...
The traditional site for the writing of the fourth gospel - and of the Apostle John's death.

The site of Phillip's martyrdom above the Roman ruins of Hierapolis, looking back across the Lycus Valley to Laodecia.

The limestone cliffs of Pamukkale, below Hierapolis. How are these are not a 'wonder of the world'?!

What about Turkey's 'green and pleasant land'?

Saturday, May 07, 2016

purple patches with the pastor-theologian

"It wouldn't take much to draw me back into being a pastor again".

As a student, I heard Dr DA Carson make this comment. I've heard him say it a few more times in the subsequent decades. It impacts me. Still does. Why would an academic of this quality make such a statement? I daren't speak for him (!) - but I suspect the answer lies somewhere in his love for the local church, his recognition of the centrality of the local church, and his determination that the 'academy' be a servant of the local church.

I feel these things deeply as well. When I was involved in making faculty appointments in the 'academy', finding people who kept feeling this pull to the pastorate was high on the list of criteria. And now, twenty-six years since I left pastoral ministry, reading Vanhoozer & Strachan's The Pastor as Public Theologian has played its part in keeping that gravitational force alive in me. It is likely to be one of the books of 2016 for me...

The authors wade into the contemporary confusion surrounding the imagery used to describe the pastor - 'the pictures that hold us captive' (7) - looking to 'reclaim a lost vision' as they do so. You know them as well as I do. CEO. Therapist. Manager. Coach. Etc. Pastor and church and seminary must all bear some of the blame for the confusion. 'The way forward is for pastors and theologians to bear one another's burdens, responding together both to the ecclesial amnesia of the academy and to the theological anemia in the church' (7).

Chapter One places the pastor-theologian within a biblical framework. Chapter Two is historical in its focus, while Chapter Three and Four capture the perspectives of systematic theology and practical theology. After each chapter, people offer short 'pastoral perspectives'. Then, after all the chapters, there are fifty five 'summary theses' (183-188) which capture the essence of the book.

So, for me, where are the purple patches in the book?

1. My default setting with the biblical imagery of the pastor has always settled with 5xSs (shepherd, servant, steward, seer, sage) and 1xP (parent). In addition to this, there are deep convictions about good governance being about prophet-priest-king. Here, in this 'biblical theology of the pastorate' (OS, 37-60), we are called again to the 'prophet-priest-king' triumvirate - first in the OT, then in Jesus, and finally in the pastor: 'ministering grace (priest), ministering wisdom (king), ministering truth (prophet)'.
To a people besieged by Satan and pulled away from God by sinful temptation, the pastor acts as priest, calling them to freshly partake of God's grace, which overcomes sin and creates a new way of life, salvation life. To a people who desperately need wisdom in a world order built on powerful lies, the pastor acts as king, training the people's eyes on the humility and meekness of Jesus Christ, who by his death overcame the enemy and destroyed the forces of darkness, a victory veiled from the natural man but gloriously visible to the eyes of faith. To a people who crave reliable words in a culture of unstable images, the pastor acts as prophet, delving into all the Scripture to exposit Christ and call the people to fresh repentance and reinvigorated faith ... Today, as in ancient times, pastors act as theologians of the church, shining into yearning hearts 'the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ' (2 Cor 4.6). (OS, 59-60, emphasis mine).
2. I've never thought before about the 'many moods of theology' (KV, 104). Society has its moods, be it an anxiety, a despair, or an acedia, 'a kind of existential listlessness, torpor, or stupor' (106). But theology also has its moods, which the pastor-theologian needs to embody. Vanhoozer mentions three, in particular:
+ Interrogative: 'is the window open?' - expressing 'a lack of certainty about a state of affairs' (108).
+ Imperative: 'shut the window' - expressing 'a desire to have the world conform to one's language' (108).
+ Indicative: 'the window is open' - expressing 'one's belief that the world is a certain way' (108).

'The gospel is in the indicative' (108) ... and the pastor-theologian is 'a minister of this reality ... (in order) to indicate what is in Christ' (109). But this 'gospel indicative contains a tacit imperative, a demand actively to conform to what is and joyfully participate in what is.' (KV, 120)
What are theologians for? What is the distinct service of the pastor-theologian? ... The real work of theology is public: growing persons, cultivating a people. It is about helping individuals and communities to grow into the fullness of Christ. In sum: the real work of theology is the work of getting real - conforming people's speech, thoughts, and actions to the mind and heart of Jesus Christ, the source and standard of all truth, goodness and beauty (KV, 125).
3. It is fascinating to consider Stottian 'double listening' from a different perspective: biblical literacy and cultural literacy (KV, 112-120). 'A theologian is a minister of understanding ... (helping) people make connections' (112) between these two 'literacies'. In terms of biblical literacy, (noting that the same base Greek word is behind Acts 6.2 and Acts 6.4),

it is surely significant that Luke uses the same term for serving tables as he does for serving God's word. Theologians wait tables, serving the Word to others so that they can more easily digest it (KV, 113).

With cultural literacy, we are recognising culture to be 'a society's software, a program for cultivating humanity and shaping its freedom' (116). It 'refers to what Christians need to know about their everyday culture in order to be effective cultural agents for Christ's kingdom' (117).
The most important task of the pastor-theologian is to ensure that the congregation wakes up and stays awake, becoming aware of culture and what it is trying to cultivate in our hearts and minds (KV, 117).
He uses the example of moralistic therapeutic deism (the MTD virus, or what Vanhoozer refers to as a 'socially-transmitted disease' (116)). Vanhoozer also adds the importance of 'human literacy' by which he means growing in knowledge and understanding of people, by being among them - but he also makes a case for achieving this by reading the best fiction.

4. Another 'purple patch' for me is where Vanhoozer asks, 'What are seminaries for?' (KV, 125-129). He writes about the need to transcend the 'theological apartheid' that separates biblical studies, systematic theology, and practical theology.

All those years ago, I graduated from TEDS (Deerfield, Ill) with a compartmentalised mind. I was grateful to God for eight years teaching at the Bible College of New Zealand (now, Laidlaw College) during which I taught in every department and at every level (diploma, degree, masters). This helped break down the 'theological apartheid' and helped make me a generalist. Then when I went across to Carey Baptist College, we developed a Thematic Integrative Seminar as the capstone of the degree - specifically designed to subvert this 'apartheid' (following a similar approach to Vanhoozer's Everyday Theology - but, I might add - developed before he published his book!), as we sought to enable students to think in an integrative, generalised and missional manner.

The seminary needs to feel this pressure. Finding what it is that 'integrates the seminary or, more pointedly, what (it is that) gives the seminary integrity' (128) is critical. It needs to produce 'the kind of generalist who thinks about everything in life in relation to its summation in Christ (Eph 1.9-10)' (128).
The point of seminary curricular integration should therefore be pastoral wisdom, which demands literacy, competency, and excellence alike. By literacy, I mean everything pastors need to know in order to carry out their vocation of becoming a shepherd like Christ. By competence, I mean capacities a pastor must acquire in order to do ministry effectively and put literacy to good use; pastor-theologians must be generalists not only as pertains to knowledge but also to skills. By excellence, I mean all the personal qualities a pastor needs to have in order to be one who rightly ministers Christ - the way, the truth, the life - to others. (KV, 129).

5. I am always keen for some new imagery of the church that captures a fresh perspective on biblical truth. How about 'an eschatological embassy' (KV, 141)? Love it. Afterall, an embassy is 'an institution that represents one nation [ie the kingdom of God] inside another nation' (141, quoting Leeman).

6. One final 'purple patch' with insights into the ministry of preaching (KV, 156-161).
What sets Christian preaching apart from every other form of human communication is its participation in what is ultimately a triune activity: preaching is distinguished by its authoritative source (Scripture, the Word of God), unique content (gospel, what is Christ), and unique persuasive power (illumination, the work of the Spirit) (157).
Vanhoozer gives four reasons why 'the sermon is the cutting edge of public theology'.
a. 'Preaching fosters biblical literacy, biblical-theological competence, and canon sense' (157).
b. 'Preaching fosters theological literacy, the ability to read and critique our world - our history, our culture - in the light of God's presence and activity' (157).
Here is where we are warned, yet again, of becoming too obsessive about wanting to appear to be relevant as we preach, lest we bend over so far that we fall in.
In expositing God's word, pastor-theologians give their congregations a powerful means to discern, and then cast down, the idols of our time ... pastors are never more prophetic than when they call people to stop pursuing false idols (e.g., fame, wealth, physical beauty, social status, popularity, career, self-actualization, etc.) and return to serving the living God (158).
c. 'Preaching wakes up the local church, here and now, to the bracing reality of Jesus Christ, who is always and everywhere at hand and yet beyond our grasp' (159).
The sermon is thus a word full of grace and truth that takes subevangelical thought captive, exposing the emptiness of other narratives and false gospels that seek to colonize our imaginations ... the sermon is the gospel's Western Front, as it were, the cutting edge of the word's forward progress as it conquers new territory, one heart at a time (159).
d. 'Preaching draws the local church, here and now, into relationship with the bracing reality of Jesus Christ, directing disciples to adopt beliefs, values, and practices that correspond to what is in Christ in order to get real' (160).
Preaching inscribes the gospel on listening hearts and inserts listeners into the story ... through preaching God's Word, (preachers) minister reality to people, helping people to act in ways that correspond to what is in Christ, and hence to get real (160, 161).
"Well, when you describe it like this, Drs Vanhooser & Strachan, it wouldn't take much for me to join Dr Carson and feel that sense of being drawn back into pastoral ministry."

nice chatting


Monday, May 02, 2016

mission statements

I love the local church but I do not often love the local church's mission statement.

Lots of reasons. Here are two.

The mission statement seems to owe more to the corporate world, than the biblical world. It is part of the response to this chronic fear that the local church might be slipping out-of-date and needs help to market itself for the one who does not yet believe. Really?! Do we really think that a good mission statement will usher them into the kingdom? C'mon! If the local church really lives according to biblical principles, the last thing it needs to worry about is its relevance.

The mission statement seems to lead to shrunken truth, a kind of reductionism. Take the classic one from a nice, safe generation ago. From a large church in the USA which countless churches merely cut and pasted into their own life. '...becoming fully devoted followers of Jesus...' That is so true in all that it affirms. But what all about the truth it leaves out? For example, while on the subject of Jesus, what about the union with Christ that energises the lifelong following of Jesus? That is just one glaring omission. All on its own, this mission statement makes Jesus sound like a guru and that's it. Why would we want to do that? I live in India and the last thing I want to do in that setting is describe Jesus as just another guru.

However sometimes there are exceptions. Yesterday I was in a church that is not exactly in my comfort zone. An Anglican Cathedral (in Singapore) where people get dressed up to lead worship (which I don't really understand) and where a tight liturgy is followed (which I can understand). My eyes scanned the newsletter and saw this logo and mission statement:

I like it. I really like it. I'm not sure I understand the image - but then the words they've chosen are image-rich and so I am not too concerned. And yes, the wordsmithing side of me did wonder why the word 'down' needed to be repeated. Why not, for example, ROOTS DEEP, WALLS DOWN, BRIDGES OUT? Let's go with that change, for the sake of the argument here.

Look what these six words manage to convey...

Roots Deep? It captures discipleship, Christlikeness, maturity. I love to see this emphasised, because it is often overlooked. I get nervous when local churches speak of their purpose in terms of mission alone - and leave out maturity. Mission without maturity often leads to a mess.

[My mind wanders across to my favourite story about John Stott. His last visit to Australia. I fly across from New Zealand for the weekend. He preaches at Sydney Missionary & Bible College. There is a Q&A. Some smart student asks the impossible question. "Dr Stott, how would you sum up the state of the church around the world?" I shake my head and look at the floor. What kind of question is that? While I am shaking my head and looking at the floor, John Stott turns on his heels and walks to the whiteboard. He writes three words: 'growth without depth'. He is so right...]

Bridges Out? Here is where mission is captured and so appropriately tied to the image of the bridge. It suggests that the chief strategy in mission is building bridges and walking across them to listen and engage with others - as opposed, possibly, to building soap boxes (literally, or figuratively) and standing on them to shout at others.

The mission statement could easily have stopped there. That is pretty comprehensive. I could almost live with that one... But they've added something else:

Walls Down? Here is that central gospel theme of reconciliation, borrowing the image of Paul in Ephesians 2: 'destroying ... the dividing wall of hostility' (Eph 2.14). Love it. My spirit soars as I think of all the issues that create walls today - age, gender, income, race, education etc. I am lost in the excitement of a local church putting reconciliation at the heart of its mission statement. Wall-destroyers. Border-crossers. Obstacle-removers. I feel a sermon coming on about people with deepening roots who are building bridges, looking for walls to destroy by the power of the gospel.

Now at this point in this post a thought crosses my mind for the very first time:
"Is this statement unique to this church in Singapore or might it have come from somewhere else?" 
Off I go to google and enter in the six words. While I cannot be confident of my source criticism, it looks like these words originate from Ridley Hall (Cambridge, UK). That is kinda disappointing for me. The wind in my sails becomes a little zephyr. I had been so animated by the thought that it was original. Maybe I should delete this post? The energy has dissipated.

But I persist, carried along by the zephyr (which is what Wellingtonians call a howling gale).

Reconciliation bounded by Mission and Maturity. That covers a lot of theological ground in a few words. If I was a pastor of a church I'd try to strip back the activities of the church to this core and urge every member to be committed to one initiative in each of these three areas. It reminds me of the conclusion to the CapeTown Commitment in 2010. "After all this listening and talking, how do we sum up what God is saying to the global church?" Reconciliation and Discipleship.

nice chatting


PS: Meanwhile, across town in Singapore's Botanic Gardens I find myself sitting in a restaurant gazing at its wall. If you let me add an "i" into the word "savour", I reckon this restaurant's mission statement is better than the ones found in many local churches. And goodness deary me, there are even fans here, ensuring that the wind of the Spirit carries these truths into peoples' lives and then on into the worlds in which they live.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

letters to a young calvinist

'An emphasis in the teacher easily becomes an extreme in the student.'

This dictum comes to mind with the Reformed movement. While it is enjoying a global resurgence, there are a lot of 'students' running around out there, narrowing it all down to election and predestination with their 'full of truth, empty of grace' attitude. They are poor ambassadors for what they believe. The movement needs wise 'teachers' to demonstrate a wider vision and a more gracious tone.

In Jamie Smith's Letters to a Young Calvinist (Brazos, 2010) we find 'an invitation to the Reformed tradition' which accomplishes this very task. It is a small and short book, comprising 23 chatty letters to a young person drawn into some of these 'extremes' (a bit of an alias for the author's younger self, nurtured as it was in a Pentecostal church).

This genre in the hands of a witty writer makes it such fun to read. Keep reading until you reach the letter about his wife, in the late evening hour early in their marriage, 'draping' herself in all 3 volumes of WGT Shedd's Dogmatic Theology in order to secure the attention of her husband. He writes, 'I've never looked at those books the same way since'...

I am fully aware that the people who should read this book probably will not do so, but I write in the hope that there might be an exception or two...

Because I don't want to lose them myself, how about ten of the wise and/or witty comments which I've appreciated most?

1. On the the pride that often afflicts the younger Calvinist?
The reality is that 'battling other Christians should not be a very high priority ... polemical religious pride (is a) genetic defect in the Reformed tradition' (8).  While 'pride can swell in isolation' (12), good friends are like 'sacraments - means of grace given to us as indices of God's presence and conduits for our salvation' (13).
If Calvinism is just a system that gives us pride in denouncing the supposed simplicity and ignorance of our sisters and brothers in Christ, then you can keep it. I have no interest in flying under a banner that is just a cover for haughty theological speculation at the expense of charity (92).
2. On the Reformed tradition in a nutshell?
'Everything depends on God ... grace goes all the way down' (14-15). This grace commences with his initiative to create, at the very beginning - not just later on, in his response to the Fall. 'God didn't have to do it. It is a gift. God owes us nothing' (17).

3. On a reason why I keep being drawn back to the Reformed perspective?
'Contemporary evangelicalism, dominated by a kind of Arminian consensus, has become so thoroughly anthropocentric that it ends up making God into a servant responsible for taking care of our wants and needs' (24). This is so true! 'But Calvinism offers a radically different worldview and requires a paradigm shift in our thinking, from our wants and needs to a focus on God's glory' (24).

4. On one of the great enduring misconceptions?
'"Reformed theology" was not invented in the sixteenth century. It was a recovery and rearticulation of a basically Augustinian worldview, which was itself first and foremost an unpacking of Paul's vision of what it meant that Christ is risen' (39).

5. On the way Pentecostal, Baptist and Brethren traditions are given to 'leapfrogging'?
'... leaping over the gifts of teachers like Augustine and Ambrose, as if we are somehow better equipped to read the Scriptures on our own' (47). It is another variant on the CS Lewis 'chronological snobbery' theme and a contributor to the way these traditions, sadly, tend to be anti-creedal and anti-confessional.
I have to confess that when I discovered the Heidelberg Catechism, it was like discovering a nourishing oasis compared to the arid desert (of the Westminster Catechism) ... the God of the Heidelberg Catechism is not just Sovereign Lord of the Universe, not merely the impartial Judge ... the God of the Heidelberg Catechism keeps showing up as Father. For example, when expounding the first article of the Apostles' Creed ("I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth"), the Heidelberg Catechism discusses all the ways that God upholds the universe by his hand, but also affirms that this sovereign Creator attends to me, a speck in that universe. And it concludes the answer to question 26 by summarizing: "He is able to do this because he is almighty God; he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father". (55, emphasis mine)
6. On the implications of the 'you' in Scripture being so often plural?
'God - who, as Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit, is already a kind of community of love - doesn't create the world in order to produce a collection of solitary individuals that are self-enclosed, utterly distinct, and thus 'privately' related to God in vertical silos. Right from creation, God creates a people ... I think there is an entire theology packed into the the pronouns of Scripture ... It is not me, but we. So it's not primarily that I am a chosen individual. Instead the gospel announces that we are a chosen people ... the merciful grace of God condescends to save a people, and thus God binds himself to an "us"' (66, 68, 72). This where the Reformed focus on covenants originates.

7. On 'wide-angle Calvinism'?
This is the bit I really, really like. 'It's less a foundational doctrine and more a comprehensive vision ... a "world- and life- view"' (97). He mentions the classic quote of Abraham Kuyper: 'There is not a single square inch of creation concerning which Christ does not say, 'Mine!'' (quoted on p99).
This is just another way of saying that Christ is not only Lord of our souls, but Lord of bodies, Lord of our families, Lord of our commerce and recreation and education. He is the Lord of science and art, dance and dipthongs, eating and drinking. There's no corner of creation that is immune from his lordship, no 'secular' sphere of life that is neutral with respect to the Creator's sovereignty (99).
If you find yourself saying 'Amen' to this, you owe more to the Reformed tradition than you might realise.

8. On the 'rampant gnosticism' in the church today, elevating soul over body, eternal above temporal?
'The scope of God's redemptive work is bigger and wider than the rescue of individual souls. Christ's redemption is cosmic ... God's salvation is as big as his creation ... (quoting Kuyper) 'cosmic life has regained its worth not at the expense of things eternal, but by virtue of its capacity as God's handiwork and as a revelation of God's attributes' ... In my own pilgrimage, this has been the signal prophetic contribution of the Reformed tradition in the contemporary American church: to remind us that God himself announced that creation is "very good"' (emphasis mine, 102, 103).

9. On the purpose of our salvation?
'God places us in creation ... as his co-labourers, entrusting to us the task of unfolding all the potential that is packed into creation ... (and that) is going to take work - and that work is the labour of "culture", of cultivation, of unpacking ... So when God creates the world, he doesn't imagine its end to be a people just devoted to singing praise songs eternally. God's glory is most multiplied and expanded when all of the rich potential of his creation is unfolded and unpacked into the life-giving institutions that contribute to its flourishing. In a way, you could say that God has commissioned us to be his image bearers in order to help him show off his glory in what he has made. The creational work of culture - unpacking the stores of potential latent in creation 'to the praise of his glory' - is what we're made for. And since redemption is precisely the renewal and restoration of creation, then good culture-making is also what we're saved for' (108-109).

10. On 'we are what we love' (the title of his latest book, by the way)?
'For Augustine, we are what we love. In fact, we can't stop loving: even fallen, sinful humanity is still propelled to love; but as sinners, we love the wrong things in the wrong way. We end up, in the words of a great old Waylon Jennings song, "lookin' for love in all the wrong places." (In fact, if you look at the lyrics of that song, it almost reads like an Augustinian praise chorus). We can't stop looking for love (U2's entire discography is a meditation on this Augustinian point). But only by God's grace can that impulsion to love be rightly ordered, rightly directed to God himself. By the grace of God, our love can find the end point it was created for: God himself' (122).
And for Augustine, what I love and what I "enjoy" are synonymous. In fact, if I want to know what you ultimately love, I just have to look at what you ultimately enjoy - and makes you happy (122).
'Take up and read' (Augustine).

nice chatting


Sunday, April 24, 2016

leaving it lonely for a little longer

I travel a lot in my work. On those occasions when there is time to be a tourist for a day here and there, usually when Barby is with me, an odd pattern has developed. I find that books like Lonely Planet are more meaningful after I have visited a place, rather than before the visit. I don't think it is meant to be that way...

We've been living in India for almost three years and made multiple visits to places like Fort Kochi (Kerala) and Ooty in the Nilgiri Hills. Love them, more and more. But when I knew nothing about these places, Lonely Planet was kinda boring and full of detail that I could neither understand nor imagine. But after that first visit, I raced back to the travel books, to wikipedia and its footnote trail - in order to align my fresh experiences and observations with their deepening facts and background.

In recent months there have been first visits to Istanbul, Accra and Cairo.  Same thing every time. Just yesterday it was the Pyramids of Giza and the King Tutankhamun exhibition in Cairo.

It was a day for the ages. Once it was over, where do I go? I couldn't get online quickly enough - poring through wikipedia. Later today, passing through the airport, I'll be in a bookshop lost in the Lonely Planet guide to Egypt. Adding context to my observation, knowledge to my experience. Complicated names, obscure dates, and ancient events have suddenly come alive.

Goodness deary me, that King Tut exhibition is 'the greatest discovery in the history of archaeology'. I am standing there staring at his glove, his sandals, his fan and his camping bed ... from 3500 years ago and in pretty good nick, as well. It is scarcely believable. I find myself becoming fascinated by this guy's life (who lived for 19 years, 3500 years ago. Go figure).

I go back to my hotel. With Boltian speed I am on wikipedia and youtube, adding knowledge to my experience - and finding that knowledge to be so exhilarating, even though 24hrs earlier it might have put me to sleep.

How I wish people, particularly preachers, followed this pattern with the Bible.

Read it aloud. Read it in large chunks. Read it again. Learn simple principles of observation and use them. Let the imagination go. Get inside the text. Rub shoulders with the first readers. Make it a trans-sensory experience. Use legit methods of meditation. Enjoy The Message for what it is.
I stop, drop and stare. I stop thinking about what preachers usually think about first. I drop to my knees and pray for God’s help. I stare at the text. I look. I look again. The more we stop, drop and stare, the more we will see.  (O’Donnell, Beginning and End of Wisdom, 145).

Then go to the Lonely Planets and the wikipedias, otherwise known as (the best) commentaries. Don't rush to them too soon. Leave them lonely for a little longer! Let them fill the mind once the heart is aglow - 'adding context to observation, knowledge to experience' - oftentimes finding both to be surprisingly exhilarating.

nice chatting


Sunday, April 17, 2016

lyrics for living 8 (not what these hands)

There are a host of hymns that I have only ever sung in public worship when I have selected them. And that was mostly when I was a young pastor all those years ago.

Horatius Bonar (1808 - 1889)
When I found my heart growing cold - or even drifting a bit - I had a couple of default spiritual practices which coaxed confession from me. One was to read the book of Hebrews aloud, all in one go. The other was to head for my hymnbook and sing #434 and #450, one after the other, to myself. Same author (Horatius Bonar). Same meter, with a simple tune, and so even a non-musician like me could manage it. Then, every now and then I'd slip one of these hymns into public worship. The two of them became like precious friends.

I have sung neither of these hymns publically in the intervening twenty-seven years. Baptists in New Zealand aren't great at public confession and so it is not that surprising. Nor are we that flash at singing anything before our own time (NB: CS Lewis called this chronological snobbery, by the way - it sounds bad and it is bad) and so the chances of either of them appearing in public worship were somewhere between nil and zero.

So imagine my surprise and joy when I walked into St Andrews Presbyterian Church in Hollywood (Florida) last Sunday - and saw the first hymn?! Yes, for sookie me the eyes moistened as I lapped up every phrase (sung to a newer Aaron Keyes 2009 arrangement). It was like embracing an ol' friend after a long absence.

Barby and I found a simple version on youtube this morning, with only 12 views (!) when we watched and listened. Here it is:

The simple honesty in the lyrics gives me the words I need. The simple theology reminds me of the load I carry with my sin, while also reassuring me of the capacity Christ has to lift that load and 'set my spirit free' from the 'dark unrest'. The chorus, added by Keyes, picks up the Pauline clothing imagery of taking off our sin, 'filthy rags' in the song - and putting on, or 'wearing Your righteousness' in the song. Then there is that line he adds: 'we are broken and we are yours'. It is beautiful.

Truth be told, last Sunday we sang a variant of this version on youtube. This is because there is a surplus of verses in #434 and #450 (and if I went scurrying around google I could probably find even more verses). But can I conclude with the original words from the hymnbook that I have loved for so long? That is a rhetorical question because I am going to include them anyway, regardless of how you might respond :).

Baptist Hymnbook 434
I bless the Christ of God; I rest on love divine;
And with unfaltering lip and heart, I call the Saviour mine.

His cross dispels each doubt; I bury in His tomb
Each thought of unbelief and fear, each lingering shade of gloom.

I praise the God of grace; I trust His truth and might;
He calls me His, I call Him mine, My God, my Joy, my Light.

In Him is only good, in me is only ill;
My ill but draws His goodness forth, and me He loveth still.

'Tis He who saveth me, and freely pardon gives;
I love because He loveth me, I live because He lives.

My life with Him is hid, my death has passed away,
My clouds have melted into light, my midnight into day.

Baptist Hymnbook  450
Not what these hands have done can save this guilty soul;
Not what this toiling flesh has borne can make my spirit whole.

Not what I feel or do can give me peace with God;
Not all my prayers, and sighs, and tears can bear my heavy load.

Thy work alone, O Christ, can ease this weight of sin;
Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God, can give me peace within.

Thy love to me, O God, not mine, O Lord, to Thee,
Can rid me of this dark unrest, and set my spirit free.

Thy grace alone, O God, to me can pardon speak;
Thy power alone, O Son of God, can this sore bondage break.

I bless the Christ of God, I rest on life divine
And with unfaltering lip and heart, I call this Saviour mine.

(Notice how the first verse of the first hymn and the last verse of the second hymn are exactly the same. Kinda like an inclusio, or a frame ... which is why I think I liked to keep them together].

nice chatting


Saturday, April 16, 2016

fire and sword

Sometimes a page is difficult to turn. Like this one. It lists most of the names of those who died in a massacre of 159 missionaries over a few weeks in the summer of 1900 in 'Shansi'. The right hand side contains the names of those who died from the China Inland Mission, known today as OMF.

Barby had discovered the book on the shelves of the SAIACS library here in Bangalore where we live. I had just awoken from my first sleep after a lengthy trip away when she showed it to me. I couldn't put it down, skimming through the entire book over a couple of hours that same afternoon.

My eye was drawn to the brief 'Introductory Note' by Alexander MacLaren, a name I knew. MacLaren was a famous Baptist minister whose biography and commentaries I read as a young pastor. He was a peer of CH Spurgeon, based in the Union Baptist Chapel in Manchester for 45 years. 'The prince of expository preachers'.

[Of MacLaren, one biographer wrote: 'a man who reads one of MacLaren's sermons must either take his outline or take another text'. In other words, his stuff was so good it was impossible not to steal it. He goes on to say, 'MacLaren touched every text with a silver hammer and it broke into three natural and memorable divisions.'  I do hope that those divisions did not each start with 'P'...!]

I digress. Back to Fire and Sword in Shansi and MacLaren's Introductory Note:
The page which these martyrdoms has added to the Book of Martyrs is of a piece with all the preceding pages - the same Christ-sustained heroism displayed by tender women, mothers, maidens and children; the same meek forgiveness, the same unalterable constancy. Stephen need not be ashamed of his last successors. Nor were the Chinese converts a whit behind in their devotion.
The cynical belittlers of Missions, both of the missionaries and the 'rice Christians', as they call the converts, would be silenced, if they have any fairness or sense of shame, by the unshrinking fidelity of these dimly-seeing but deeply-loving Chinese Christians. They could not argue for Him, but they could and did die for Him ... 
The Church at home has not sufficiently realised the sad, glorious story told in the succeeding pages, and some of us have wondered and sorrowed that so little impression has been produced by it ... These English men and women, these Chinese converts, gladly died for their Lord. Surely their example will point the sharp arrow of questioning to some of us, whether we really believe that a Christian life is a daily dying, and that, whether martyrs or not, we are scarcely Christians, unless we continually yield life, self, and all to Jesus Christ.
Ahh, 'the church at home'...

There is some recalibrating which 'the church at home' needs to do if it wishes to be a force for the kingdom of God. Three areas immediately come to mind. One is to replace relevance with resistance as the primary mode of engagement with the surrounding culture. Two is to shed this compulsive anthropocentrism in matters of spirituality, embracing a radical theocentrism in its place. Three is to repent of the fascination with successful celebrities, Christian or otherwise, in order to become fixed on true heroes - with martyrs like these ones heading the list. There have been more Christian martyrs since this massacre than there were in all those centuries before this massacre - and so we are without excuse. Let them be the inspiration. Even more than that, let them be the aspiration.
They triumphed (over him) by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death (Rev 12.11).
nice chatting


PS: I have Alexander McLaren's personal Bible. Seriously. He gave it to a missionary from his church who went to work in India. When that missionary retired he gave it to his pastor in India, my father-in-law ... who then gave it to me. Every second page is blank so that he could write his own notes. Here are the twin pages from the start of Ephesians.

Skeptical?! Don't believe me?!  I can prove it. In The Company of Preachers, David Larsen (the man who taught me preaching, by the way) mentions one of MacLaren's most loved sermons. From Genesis 32, entitled 'Mahanaim: Two Camps'. Here is the outline:
1. The angels of God meet us on the dusty road of common life
2. The angels of God meet us punctually at the hour of need
3. The angels of God come in the shape we need

You can guess what I did next, can't you?
I went to Genesis 32 in MacLaren's Bible and I found this - the outline above in his own hand-writing: