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 about all 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 (even though it would make him very relevant).

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.