Friday, May 24, 2013

stocking the shed

'Don't focus on digging the garden of scripture for them. Give them the tools that can keep them digging the garden for themselves for the rest of their lives.'

This would be one of the first pieces of advice I'd give to theological educators today. Partly because it is what I appreciated so much in my training. Due to various factors, in the required subjects in the curriculum, I ended up having less than 3 hours in Romans. And this was at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School? Yes... Shock. Horror. But it didn't bother me because the focus was on learning the tools to enable me to study Romans for the rest of my life. Those who plan curriculum must not be seduced into stocking it only with survey courses. Give students the tools and set the assignments that enable them to become confident with those tools.

One of the tools I have grown to love is Colin Brown's The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (NIDNTT). It is a collection of word studies. Word studies done the right way, I might add. Currently I am marking essays in a Master's course where I designed an assignment with the hope of arranging a lifelong marriage between students and NIDNTT...

NIDNTT opens and closes with such a simple profundity.

1. The very first sentence in the Preface - before the beginning, as it were - is a quotation from Sir Edwyn Hoskins:
Bury yourself in a dictionary and come up in the presence of God.
YES! The disciplined reading of NIDNTT - researching two or three words as part of each sermon's preparation - was a primary means of growth for me as a young pastor. This serious study of theological words brought me into the presence of God, again and again. It just did.

2. Then in NIDNTT's Appendix - after the end, as it were - is contained Murray Harris' 'Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament'. Thrilling pages, recently expanded into a full book (and contrary to some facebook chatter, the book is at least three times the size of the Appendix). Murray Harris' Appendix opened my eyes to the wonder of the preposition. Maybe I could express it like this:
Hide yourself in a preposition and find yourself in the presence of Christ.
YES! Prepositions helped orient me to 'the little words that mean so much' in the text which have so enriched my preaching. John Stott's Focus on Christ: a theology of prepositions (how it remains out-of-print amazes me) opened my life to the presence of Christ. Stott attaches 'through' and 'on' and 'in' and 'under' and 'with' and 'for' to Jesus, bringing a more complete picture of what it means to be a Christian - beyond merely the paradigm of  'following Jesus'. As a result, with my facebook profile, I describe myself as a prepositional Christian.

Many years ago a student asked me, "as a preacher, if you could only take ten books with you to some foreign land, what would they be?"

"Hmm, not sure - but I do know that three of them would be my NIDNTT."

Thankfully, in the intervening years, NIDNTT has become available on CD-ROM. And yes, there is an Old Testament equivalent as well. I suppose some scholars may consider that these volumes have been superceded by the newer and the fancier - but, a bit like the garden shed, I am content to keep using the tried and true.

nice chatting


Saturday, May 18, 2013

religion and sport

I was looking over the shoulder of my son as he completed a questionnaire the other day. It was for a study on New Zealand attitudes and values. It came from the department of a reputable university.

A statement caught my eye. Admittedly, some of the statements have the spark of inflammatory about them - quite deliberately. I understand that. But still this one is a shocker.
"Atheists and others who have rebelled against established religions are no doubt every bit as good and virtuous as those who attend church regularly."
Did you see it? Read it again - slowly...

The opening phrase identifies 'established religions' (plural!), but when it comes time to put the dagger in, the focus is exclusively on Christianity with its 'churches'. If this was the sort of objective and fair-minded survey we'd expect from a university, then the sentence should finish with "... those who attend church, mosque, temple or synagogue regularly."

A slip of the tongue? Needing to keep the word count under 25 words? Sloppy proof-reading?

I think not.

It is an example of the way our mind-moulding institutions (university, media, politics, marketing etc) have a bias against Christianity. It is in-credible that this happens in a society that celebrates a pluralist ideal in which all faiths have an equal claim to a place in the marketplace of religions. But because, I suspect, it is perceived that Christianity has had an unfair home-field advantage for too long, Christianity is often either excluded from that marketplace or, more commonly, it is included and singled-out for special critique, as in this survey. Either way, the lofty pluralist ideal disintegrates. Tolerance of every faith does not happen. In fact tolerance can become intolerant when it chooses to do so.

When in my car (or to create noise-equalisation when I nap), I tend to listen to Radio Sport. It is a talkback format, that great lubricant of the pluralist ideal in sports. The hosts preach their message of 'every opinion matters, especially yours.' We are urged to ring, to text and to facebook a message and express our viewpoint. But there is always one opinion that gets shut down quietly and quickly. If your opinion includes it, your opinion will be excluded. Try saying something critical about another talkback host on Radio Sport. In the face of such persecution of a colleague, the pluralist ideal dismantles. Tolerance of every viewpoint does not happen. In fact the tolerance can become decidedly intolerant when it chooses to do so.

Now we need to be careful with our words. I prefer plurality over pluralism. A space should be created for different faiths and viewpoints so that their truth claims can be weighed (plurality), without asserting that each faith and viewpoint has an equal claim to being true (pluralism). Follow that latter trail to its philosophical destination and you find yourself keeping the company of nonsense. A consistently-argued pluralism has no defense against nonsense. It can't. All roads do not lead to the top of the mountain.

My commitment to plurality would have me march down Queen St to protect the rights of a Muslim community to build its own mosque in New Zealand - but my rejection of pluralism is seen in the way that I don't believe that their road leads to the top of the mountain. My commitment to plurality means that I respect the importance of not creating caricatures of Mohammed - but my rejection of pluralism is linked to the way that in this society the name of my Saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ, can be so often taken in vain and it bothers nobody. My commitment to plurality has me long for heaven when people 'from every nation, tribe, people and language' gather in worship of Jesus on the throne - but my rejection of pluralism means that I acknowledge that every religion will not be represented there. It is sad that some people will not be present.

That is a sadness that gets me out of bed every morning. That is a sadness that has me longing 'to serve others in the name of Jesus' (my dad) - praying that as I do so, I might be gradually filled with the grace and truth that so filled Jesus. Bearing witness to that truth will upset the talkback hosts of this world, but if I can do it graciously and warmly, with love in my eyes and my heart, then the Spirit of God will choose to 'wing my words into the hidden depths of many a heart' for his glory. Of that reality, I am convinced.

When all is said and done, it is good to remember that this bias against Christianity is but a taste of the suffering which so many of God's people endure around the world. For them the bias blossoms into something far more bold and broad and blunt.

nice chatting


Friday, May 10, 2013

being odd

I am a bit odd.
I know it.

I don't complain about Auckland traffic
(because compared with much of the world, it is pretty good).

I'd welcome a day when an old song is prized above a new song, particularly on Sundays
(because the lyrics so often voice a well-worn trail deep into the human heart).

I don't moan about NZ weather
(because so many people would love to have our rainfall and mild climate).

I'd welcome a day when alcohol is viewed in the same way as smoking
(because, in the face of the impact of its abuse, someone has to start saying, 'enough').

I don't worry about being in fashion
(because it costs too much money).

I'd welcome a day when patriotism is scrubbed clean from the planet
(because it causes so much damage to the mission of God in the world).

I don't linger in, or even visit, shopping malls
(because it just feeds my greed and discontent).

I'd welcome a day when Christians break free from their addiction to caffeine
(because the added revenue for mission would be enormous!).

I don't swear, choosing not to litter my speech with f-bombs and s-grenades
(because trashy talk is childish and lacks imagination).

I'd welcome a day when reality TV ceased to fascinate so much
(because it encapsulates the triviality that can keep people shallow).

WOW - reading all that and I see that I am even odder than I thought. And to think I could keep going still further?!

And yes, I know.
When all is said and done, most of these oddities are unimportant and irrelevant - well, almost...

Because I find that being willing to embrace a little oddity helps orient me to living life against-the-flow. A bit of contrariness is useful. It strengthens my resolve to be different. It provides me with practice on feeling myself to be alien. It helps me grow accustomed to the face of being a bit strange.

And that is important.

One of the great mistakes in mission today is to speak of it being about incarnation - and that's it. It is not enough to be incarnate. It is not enough to mix in and fit in and feel you are relevant to the world. It is not enough to multiply community-bridging ministries. The vocation of the people of God has always included a variation on the theme of being 'a light to the nations' (Old Testament), or 'the light of the world' (New Testament). Surely part of the consequence of these phrases is that the nations and the world are dark places - and that the people of God must fashion a life that is as different from the world as the light is from the dark. And so, yes, being 'strangers in the world' is apt (1 Peter 1.1; 2.11; the same vocabulary used of Abraham in Genesis 23).

Now I may be odd, but I am not silly.
The oddities listed above are not the ones that really matter.

What about loving my enemies? What about leading through serving? What about trading-in tolerance for personal humility? What about recognising that tithing is an outdated means of keeping 90% for myself? What about believing Jesus really is the truth and the only way to God? What about making those ridiculous beattitudes the habit of my life (Matthew 5.1-12)? What about suffering well for Jesus' sake? I'd love to be able to do that. What about repenting of the idolatry of family? What about moving next time into a cheaper, smaller house? What about being willing to be downwardly mobile with my career, if Jesus requires it of me? What about hating what Jesus hates, and not just loving what Jesus loves? On and on it goes... This is the brand of strange that I'd love to have in my life.

Yes, this second list of oddities is the important one. But then, on second thoughts, maybe I really am a bit silly. Because I do find that the first list can help build my fitness and ready me for the second list.

nice chatting


Thursday, May 02, 2013


Good preaching engages both the Word and the world. It is about being faithful to a content, but also to a context. In our Langham training I like to develop this in an interactive way. Participants reflect on the big issues in personal/family life, local church life - and then life in their wider society. When we reach that last one, without exception - throughout Asia, in every single country - the C-word will be on the tip of tongues, waiting to be expressed...

Again I say, corruption.
Again and again I say it, corruption.

Transparency International is at the forefront of the fight against corruption around the world. While it is a fun website to navigate, the message is sobering. Their annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) attracts increasing amounts of global attention. It is a 'perceptions' index, ranking countries 'based on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be'. It does throw up some anomalies. For example, people I know would be aghast at how 'clean' countries like Rwanda (score-53; 50th), Malaysia (score-49; 54th) and Sri Lanka (score-40; 79th) are perceived to be. I guess it suggests the ability of leaders to deceive onlookers (which only deepens the corruption)!

With the CPI 176 countries are given a score out of 100 - where 0 is 'highly corrupt' and 100 is 'very clean'. 123 countries (two-thirds of the nations listed) have a score lower than 50 which translates into them having a 'serious corruption problem'. I visit regularly the countries ranked 79, 80, 88, 94, 105, 118, 139, 157, and 172 - each one having a 'serious corruption problem'. But here is the sting in the tale. I live in New Zealand which over the last five years has been ranked:
1st= (2012)
1st (2011)
1st= (2010)
1st (2009)
1st= (2008)
This does not mean that NZ is corruption-free, but just that its public sector is consistently perceived to be the least corrupt in the world.

For the sake of the people struggling within highly corrupt societies, please take time to browse the site. Start with the 2-minute introductory video (below). Check out the Index for 2012. There is a helpful glossary on the key words. There is a facebook page to 'like'. It is possible to sign-up for a 'daily corruption news'. There is a collection of true stories. The 6 minute message from the chairperson, given at the release of the 2012 Corruptions Perception Index, is interesting.

In a previous post, I reflected on some implications of living in NZ, but working in Asia - and the conversation it sets off in my head and heart. This topic of corruption is so similar. Here are some of the realities and ironies of what I see and hear...

five realities
Corruption thrives in settings where there is 'conflict and poverty'. This is why those living in settings of relative peace and greater wealth struggle to understand corruption - but struggle we must.