Friday, September 25, 2015

unity is our weakness

A billboard caught my eye last week. The driver kindly stopped so that I could take a photo - although I could tell that he wondered what I was doing. He was insistent on stopping in front of the neighbouring billboard - but, no, this is the one I wanted:

It is the conflictual relationship between word and image that draws me into this billboard. The words proclaim (almost) that 'unity is a strength'. But the image suggests that unity is a weakness in the construction of this billboard - because they did not work together to get it right.

But as I've lingered with this disturbed image, it still teaches me a lot about unity.

There is absence
Some panels are missing. This happens in practice as well. Many think that unity is just a function of the love shared among us - but it isn't. It is also about truth (of the gospel) shared among us. This is one of the enduring lessons from the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), the biggest crisis ever to face the church. Unity was preserved, even deepened, because James worked to ensure that there was a victory for love and a victory for truth.

There is chaos
Some panels are in the wrong place. Some are even upside down. This happens in practice as well. Unity needs some order and clarity, some gentle structure and cohesion. Panels and paint, images and words ... these need to work together, each playing their role in maximising the message of the billboard. The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 comes to mind. The human body has a unity, but only as each part fulfills its role.

There is separation
The way the people are cut up is particularly troubling. This attitude lacks dignity. It ceases to treasure people. This happens in practice as well. The mind returns to Genesis 1 and the way human beings are image-bearers of the divine ('in our image') - but before that truth is even uttered, the divine as a unity and as a creative team is asserted ('Let us'). And so, as divine image-bearers, we are designed for the unity which defines the Trinity. The billboard needs to have people linking arms if word and image are to align their messages.

There is foolishness
The billboard proclaims a strong unity.  This happens in practice as well. It is a dumb thing to do. As soon as you wave this flag, it has a way of fluttering away from your grasp. It is not wise to draw attention to unity in such bold ways. Pray for it. Plead for it. Pursue it. But then let it slip in through the backdoor. Let its reality creep up and overwhelm you, as you get on with living the John 13 brand of servanthood, the 1 Corinthians 13 brand of love, and the Philippians 2 brand of humility.

There is deterioration
The billboard is crumbling. Paint is peeling. Nails are rusting. Dents are appearing. This happens in practice as well. Unity becomes weary and worn, as it succumbs to stress. Everywhere I go people speak to me of their context, as if it is unique. I listen as if for the first time, with empathy - but, in reality, it is often something I've heard before. Big Corruption - Poor Infrastructure - Bad Leadership - Crazy Traffic - etc etc ... these conspire together in the society (and sometimes even in the church) to undermine unity.

There is irony
This billboard sits in a context.

It is in a city (Kohima) where there is a tennis court, a few turns in the road from this billboard, that marks the very spot where the westward advance of the Japanese in World War 2 was halted. An easily forgotten story of sacrifice and heroism, punctuated by the unity of purpose that the fiercest battle engenders.

The site of the Battle of the Tennis Court, 'Britain's Thermopylae'
That city is in a state (Nagaland) which has the highest concentration of Baptists anywhere in the world. But as the arrival of the gospel recedes with the generations, the advance of nominalism and the arrival of Malachi-like challenges is everywhere to be seen ... and 'unity is our strength' becomes a quality which the church needs to embody. May it be so, Lord Jesus.

nice chatting


Friday, September 18, 2015

the hills are alive

Gazing out the window thinking about God. That is what I've been doing this week. Situated at Siloam, on the fringe of Barapani (literally, 'big water') near Shillong in Northeast India, Barby and I have had a room that looks out across the lake to some rolling hills. As the light and the weather changes, the hills tell a story - even a testimony, every believer's testimony of walking with God.

Sometimes the view is partial, as the light is just dawning and the fuzzy outline of the hills is barely visible.

Sometimes the view is bright, as the early sun splashes onto the hills, highlighting specific features with a singular enthusiasm.

Sometimes the view is imperfect, but reflected still in the lives of others with such beauty that we are drawn back to the original with thanksgiving.

Sometimes the view is obstructed, as the drizzle of doubts, the fog of fears, the cloud of confusions, or the wind of worries begin to get in the way.

Sometimes the view is gone, because the drizzle of doubts, the fog of fears, the cloud of confusions, or the wind of worries have fully got in the way and blotted it out.

Sometimes the view is tinted, as a certain light dances with a certain perspective to transform everything connected with the hills.

Sometimes the view is full, as colours and shades, ranges and ridges emerge with a detail and vibrancy that satisfies the deepest longings.

Sometimes the view disappears and all becomes dark ... but the hills are still there and they will be seen again.

nice chatting


Tuesday, September 01, 2015

no religion

Talking about religion can be a bit like talking about the traffic. Everywhere you go, people lament about how hard it is - and yet, in reality, it is all relative. While Bangaloreans and Aucklanders may both complain, driving in Bangalore is definitely more difficult than driving in Auckland.

So it is with the religious landscape. When I go to Australia, I hear how hard it is to be a believer in that setting. I believe them. When I go to the USA and to the UK, the same thing happens. I believe them too. I felt this same difficulty when living and working in New Zealand. Every now and then, there is even a hint of a competition about who has it worse...

For years the 'no religion' statistics in census results has been of interest - partly because they were a major focus in my doctoral research. This statistic captures the presence of atheists, agnostics, rationalists, humanists - and the full range of religious cynics and skeptics present in a society. It is (just) one indicator of how difficult it is for (Christian) belief in a country.

Incidently, I've always said to people that 'it is harder in NZ than it is in the US, the UK, or Australia. It is much more like continental Europe'. Recent census figures on 'no religion' suggest some support for this view (although I realise that each country asks questions a little differently from the other).

In New Zealand in 2013 'no religion' was 41.9%, up from 29.6% in 2001.
In England & Wales in 2011 it was 25%, up from 14.8% in 2001.
In the USA in 2014 it was 22.8%, up from 16.1% in 2007.
In Australia in 2011 it was 22.3%, up from 16.6% in 1996.
[NB: The 'religion' question on the census is voluntary in Australia - but even if you add ALL the 'not stated/inadequately described' results, which is probably inappropriate, the total figure reaches 31.7%]
In France in 2010 it was 42%, up from 35% in 2007.

Intriguingly, India produced its 2011 census figures last week. Look at this little headline on their 'no religion' statistics. Read carefully. Note the location of the decimal point. It is not a misprint.

.24%      or, 2.87 million out of a total of 1.21 billion people!
[NB: the '1L in K'taka' means that there are 1 lakh - or 100,000 - people with 'no religion' in the state of Karnataka where we live. It has a population of 61 million, so that is only .16% of the total].

It is staggering, isn't it?!  Let's play with the numbers for a moment.
(a) While India is just less than 300 times the size of New Zealand, it's total number of 'no religion' people is just less than 2 times what it is in New Zealand.
(b) If New Zealand had the same proportion of 'no religion' people as Karnataka, then all the 'no religion' people in the entire country of NZ could be housed in Kawerau.

In reality, I am not that surprised. If I could take photos of the shock on Indian faces when I give NZ's 'no religion' stats, you would not be that surprised either. They just don't get it. How can religious belief have such a low profile in a country? How can such belief not be an integral part of a person's identity? They are stunned by it. They really are.

But just because religious belief is more common does not mean that it is easier for people with such beliefs. Christians make up 2.3% of India and it is not at all easy for many of them. But it doesn't stop people turning to Christ in significant numbers. Is it like a boat being blown along by the winds of belief? Maybe it is easier to turn around a boat whose sails are already filled with some belief than it is to turn around a boat that is becalmed by no belief at all?

Two stories. One admiration. One observation.

In 1989, the MV Doulos visited New Zealand. They did what they do all around the world. Visiting ports down the east coasts of both islands, they opened their ship to the public and split into teams for evangelistic forays into local communities. Barby and I were living in Southland at the time and when the ship reached Dunedin for its final stop, I was asked to organise the team's week-long visit to Southland. Very little was said, or done, during that week. The team was too shattered by their Kiwi experience. Exhausted. 'Never have we encountered a people so resistant to the gospel'.

In 2008, the US and NZ general elections coincided. On one evening - I kid you not - we watched a political debate between Barack Obama and John McCain and then, immediately afterwards, on another channel, John Key and Helen Clark were also going head-to-head in a debate. In both debates the focus shifted to Christian faith. With Obama and McCain, they tried to outdo each other with their claims to being authentic Christians because they knew this would win votes. With Key and Clark, they tried to outdo each other with their claims to being authentic agnostics because they knew this would win votes.

To all my friends at the interface of mission and culture in New Zealand, in particular, I admire you. I really do. I salute you. Be truth-full. Be grace-full. Be intriguing. Hold your nerve and, for God's sake, be patient.  Push the urge to be relevant to the periphery. Discern the deep, hidden tap roots of your culture and determine to live an attractive, appealing life of resistance at those very points - and then be prepared to suffer the consequences for Jesus' sake.

It is interesting to observe that the politicians, lawyers, economists, celebrities, and diplomats leading the charge to resolve the world's problems seem to be represented disproportionately by people from the ranks of 'no religion', with little affinity or empathy for religious belief. That's a worry. The world's problems will only be resolved by taking religious belief more seriously, not less seriously. They may think they are trendy, but I suspect that atheists and agnostics have far less to contribute than they think. Across the global terrain their beliefs, for that is what they still are, will be seen to be an irrelevance.
In 1900 well over 99% of the world's population was religiously affiliated. By 2015 the figure had fallen below 89%, but this 115-year trend hides the fact that the high point for the nonreligious was around 1970, when almost 20% of the world's population was either agnostic or atheist ... (but) the future of the world is likely to be a religious one (emphasis mine).    [Todd Johnson & Cindy Wu, Our Global Families (IVP, 2015) 22]
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