Wednesday, November 23, 2016

lyrics for living 11 (change be blest)

In these troubled times, my mind and heart have travelled, yet again, to a hymn.

It comes from my bulging 'hymns I've sung only when I have chosen them' file. The most recent selection of this hymn was almost 30 years ago - and even then I probably chose it only 2-3 times.

'This post really is going places, Paul. That is a great start.'

Well, it keeps going downhill from here. The customary tune, Chilton Foliat, is hardly a keeper. And unlike every other hymn in this 'lyrics for living' series, I could not find a single recording of this one on You Tube. I guess that says something.

It gets worse. Look at this little graph that I discovered (yes, sorry, it is very little). The horizontal axis is a time line (1750-2000). The vertical axis is the percentage of hymnals in which the hymn can be found. Allow me to interpret the graph for you. This hymn was born into the hymnal world in about 1900, but its life has always been endangered, peaking at a presence in a whopping 20% of hymnals, before suddenly becoming extinct in about 1975. Where is David Attenborough when you need him for a little hushed commentary to set the mood...?

Sit tight. This marketing exercise has further downhill to go. Some may see a likeness between Henry Twills, the hymnwriter, and the likes of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan (I certainly do) - but I suspect there won't be too many who join me...
Henry Twells
So here I am with an extinct hymn that I've only sung 2-3 times more than 30 years ago, written by a singularly good-looking guy ... and about to commend it to you. And yet... And yet... A bit like a recent lyrics for living post, this is a hymn for this troubled year of 2016 - with phrases I may have rarely sung, but which I have never been able to shake.

Awake, O Lord, as in the time of old.
Come down, O Spirit, in thy power and might.
For lack of Thee our hearts are strangely cold,
Our minds but blindly grope toward the light.

What?! A little theological incorrectness to get started? The Lord is the last one who needs to be woken. The Spirit hardly needs to 'come down', as he is already fully here. But to write it as he has intensifies the pleading in this prayer. I love it. Then to speak of cold hearts and blind minds... Is this not the very combination that annoys me in Christians here and there? And might this combo not be a bit obvious when I take a selfie of my own soul?

Doubts are abroad: make Thou these doubts to cease.
Fears are within: set Thou these fears at rest.
Strife is among us: melt that strife to peace.
Change marches onward: may all change be blest.

What a Fab Four these are?! Doubts. Fears. Strife. Change. It doesn't matter where I seem to look, I see them. Politics plays with them. The media lubricates them. They are there in the sweeping global trends that overwhelm us ... they trouble far too many of those dear to me - and they invade my own private world. Be it deep, deep inside - or wide, wide outside ... what on earth could be better than experiencing doubts to cease, fears to rest, strife to melt - and change be blest?

It is not knowledge that we chiefly need,
Though knowledge sanctified by Thee is dear:
It is the will and power to love indeed;
It is the constant thought that God is near.

Most versions of the hymn omit this verse. No! No! Don't do that. When he goes looking for an answer, he does not fall into the head versus heart trap. The cognitive and the affective both need to be switched on. Knowledge may not be the chief need, but when touched by God, it is still precious. It is still to be sought ... alongside the chief need: an outpouring of love and compassion ('love indeed', and love in deed), refreshed as we are, as Advent approaches, by the conviction that God draws near in Christ.

Make us to be what we profess to be;
Let prayer be prayer, and praise be heartfelt praise;
From unreality set us free,
And let our words be echoed by our ways.

I can hear the accompanying instruments go quieter, gentler. Most hymns have a verse like this one. The prayer goes intimate. The prayer pulls back the curtains to discover life backstage, far from the public persona. The concern? Hypocrisy. Give this a tweak, says Twells. The world hates our hypocrisy. Jesus hates our hypocrisy. Not only must we love what Jesus loves, we must hate what Jesus hates. In this post-truth world, with lying as the new normal, we find a fresh truthfulness, a fresh authenticity, a fresh liberating reality ... and transforming echoes resound throughout a troubled world.

Turn us, good Lord, and so shall we be turned:
Let every passion grieving Thee be stilled:
Then shall our race be won, our rewards earned,
Our Master looked on, and our joy fulfilled.

It is more than a tweak that we chiefly need, it is a turn. A return for most of us. In a handful of phrases, the hymnwriter calls us back to the Lord and, at the same time, draws us forward to the Master. Repentance, mixed with hope. The hymn concludes as we need to commence. May it be so.

nice chatting


PS: I discovered this hymn, as a young pastor, in the (NZ) Baptist Hymn Book (#222), published in 1962.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

the four chairs

It is not quite 'In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord', but still, in the year that Rush Hour was released, I played with chairs. I was with some Baptist youth pastors on the Kapiti Coast in New Zealand. After the training day was over, we headed for the movies. 1998. I've been playing with chairs ever since.

The idea was to equip them to see how the Bible story, spread over multiple centuries and written by dozens of human authors, is actually one single divine story of restoration and rescue. It all started, as it has often done, with a quotation from John Stott:

The Bible divides history into epochs, which are marked not by the rise and fall of empires, dynasties or civilizations, but by four major events - the Creation, the Fall, the Redemption and the End.
(JRWS, Issues Facing Christians, 34)

The imagination ticked away ... simpler words were chosen (as Stott does himself): Good, Bad, New, Perfect ... and the ideas have been evolving ever since (with help from friends like Geoff New). This week a class of 32 MTh students, here at SAIACS (Bangalore), engaged with the chairs...

The four chairs in a tribal area in Northern Thailand
Here is how it works:

Constructing the chairs: telling the story
Each chair is brought out, one at a time - and described.

The GOOD chair, with themes like creation, design, order, relationships constituted (God:humanity, humanity:humanity, God:creation, humanity:creation), community and image of God...

The BAD chair, with themes like sin (intense in Genesis 3-11; persistent ever since), guilt and shame, evil, judgement, suffering, death, each relationship broken and the image of God stained...

The NEW chair, with themes like 'redemption predicted (Gen 3.15), redemption initiated (Gen 12-Malachi - covenants & law & prophet-priest-king & wisdom), redemption completed (the Gospels), redemption celebrated (the rest)'; the kingdom of God, the cross of Christ, the resurrection, the age of the Spirit and the church...

The PERFECT chair, with themes like hope, destiny, eternity, second coming, final judgement, 'God is in control & Jesus wins' (Revelation), absence of tears & pain & death & 'groaning' & sin & brokenness, heaven...

Playing with the chairs: understanding the story
Here the fun begins, with lots of potential for interaction and discussion (and slipping quietly in the back door is a deeper understanding of the story).

How many chairs are needed to complete the gospel? Why?
How many chairs were in the gospel you accepted as a new believer? Come up and share your story.
What bad & false teaching slips in when a chair is removed, one at a time - leaving only three chairs?
What are the implications for God's people when teachers get stuck in just the one chair?
What truth can be depicted by stacking the middle chairs - and which way do you stack them?
etc etc etc
The bad chair, occupied by my friend and colleague, Dr Rennie - in a remote part of the Mainland.
Sitting in the chairs: indwelling the story
These chairs tell God's story of the world. They are his worldview and by sitting in them, one at a time, we can begin to live in that worldview as well. To use that great word from Michael Polanyi, we indwell the story. As we sit in the chairs, as we indwell the story, it becomes our way of looking at the world - or, better still, the lens through which we look at the world. Take a topic, any topic - hold it (with an actual object, symbolizing it) as you sit in each chair ... asking questions like these ... and allow a biblical worldview on the topic to take shape.

Sit in the GOOD chair and ask about God's original design and purpose, about the good thing that has been stained, about the image of God, and about how the topic engages with the four relationships.

Sit in the BAD chair and ask about where sin and evil have reached, about how the original design has been subverted/sabotaged, about the groaning and brokenness and suffering (and live in it and feel it a bit, too) ... and shed some tears over the sadness.

Sit in the NEW chair and ask about what the difference Christ can make (together with the cross & resurrection & kingdom & Spirit & church), about what healing and freedom and salvation is already possible, and about where the big words can become involved (redemption & reconciliation & justification & sanctification & forgiveness & compassion ... and truth).

Sit in the PERFECT chair and ask about what will happen at the end with this topic, about what healing and freedom and salvation (in all their fullness) look like, about how glory & hope & destiny & wholeness & justice transform this topic, about what 'God is in control & Jesus wins' means for this topic, and about what no more tears & no more pain & no more death & no more groaning & no more brokenness feels like.

My daughter, Alyssa, playing with sunflowers instead of chairs.
Moving the chairs (around the Table): responding to the story
This is Geoff New's main contribution - and it is beautiful. He notices how each of the four chairs can be 'overheard' in the words of Jesus at that Last Supper.

The GOOD: the divine desire for fellowship
And he said to them, 'I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.' (Lk 22.15)

The BAD: the human propensity for breaking fellowship
And while they were eating, he said, 'Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.' (Mt 26.21)

The NEW: the divine reconciliation with humanity
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, 'Take and eat; this is my body.' Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.' (Mt 26.26-28)

The PERFECT: the divine restoration in the new heavens and earth
I tell you, I will not drink from the fruit of this vine from now on until the day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom. (Mt 26.29)

Kinda makes you want to be Getting up out of the chairs (and be) worshipping because of the story!

nice chatting


Tuesday, November 08, 2016

a lament for america

It always used to be one of the wonders of the (democratic) world.

Not any more.

As Election Day dawns here in India, my mind goes back thirty-five years to when I was a student in Chicago (yes - go, those Cubbies!). In those days I marveled at the way politics worked in the USA. Two things stood out for me. One was the respect for the office of the president. Once the president was elected, people tended to shut-up and be supportive because they honoured the office. The other was the spirit of bipartisanship in the Congress and the Senate. People 'crossed the aisle' regularly to make deals and create good policies on the way to effective government.

Not any more.

Respect for the office seemed to end in 2008, with the election of Barack Obama. You'll have to work hard to convince me that the colour of his skin had nothing to do with it. In addition to this, bipartisanship has given way to polarisation. The government has even shut-down on occasion because of the determination to be obstructive with the Obama administration. The outcome? No longer do we have one of the wonders of the (democratic) world.

The media has played its part. On the hint of a left-wing bias in the mainstream media, Fox TV (which I had a moan about six years ago) decided to occupy a trenchant position on the 'right' - which only served to push the mainstream out of the main stream, and even further to the left. And so now the media both leads and reflects the polarisation in politics and in people. If it wasn't so sad, it would be laughable - as we watch show after show dominated by so-called commentators who are but thinly disguised self-promoting, glossed and flossed, champions of the right, or the left.

It is sad. Earlier in the year I felt so angry with this Trump phenomenon. But now it is more a sadness that I feel. I've listened carefully and understand better now the anxieties hovering around Hillary. She seems incapable of functioning in a way that builds trust - and when you don't have trust, you don't have much. The hatred of Hillary must be immense, even irrational, for people to even consider a character like Trump. It is immense.

And so the questions multiply... How can a nation with so many good people produce such bad candidates? How can millions of self-proclaimed evangelicals, so wary of Romney's mere mormonism four years ago, now be found running into the embrace of a man like Trump? Is there not truth, lots of it, in Jimmy Carter's claim that America has become an oligarchy? How has lying become acceptable as the new normal - so much so that every debate has been accompanied by a 'fact-check' service? It takes me back to the opening salvo of the Psalms of Ascent: 'Save me, O Lord, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues' (120.2). This is one of the salvations needed because something is badly broken.

So, on the morning of Election Day, it is a time to lament. As I lament, I pray...

If Trump wins, my prayers will focus on the global church. I don't think American Christians realise just how much so many people around the world still identify Christianity with the USA. It is an instinct. It is a default setting. It is the Christian country in the world. And 'the USA' which they see most often tends to be shaped by Hollywood and the President. This image of Christianity ain't great - and it is about to get a whole lot worse ... and true believers around the world are going to feel some added heat. These believers are our brothers and sisters. This is the tie that should bind far closer than any nationalistic one. This 'added heat' must be of greater concern than 'Make America Great Again'. Such a slogan is an utter irrelevance in the mission of God around the world and genuine evangelicals have no business signing-up to it.

Yep, if Trump wins, I'll be renewing my persevering prayers for the global church.

If Clinton wins, my prayers will focus on the local church. Many Christians are open to voting for the despicable Trump on the basis of one single issue. They don't want Hillary anywhere near the appointment of Chief Justices to the Supreme Court. This is because the only ethics that matters to them is personal ethics, with abortion heading the list. How come social ethics - with racism heading the list - is less of a concern? I don't understand that and I don't think Amos or Micah would either. Furthermore, why this pre-occupation on having influence in the judiciary, with so much hope placed in securing its power? Haven't people been reading Revelation lately? Haven't people learned from the Christendom error? Haven't people been watching the progress of the church in countries with far worse judiciaries? This is not the power that matters. Hope for transformation lies far more with the power of a multitude of local churches in America shaking free from their blind idolatries and then moulding counter-cultural contrast communities, as salt and light, right where they work and worship.

Yep, if Clinton wins, I'll be renewing my persevering prayers for local churches.

nice chatting


Sunday, November 06, 2016

blessed be egypt my people

It jolted me. It shouldn't have, but it did.

Waking up in Egypt on the first day of our first training seminar in the region and my Bible reading greets me with these words, the very first words I read: Woe to those who go down to Egypt (Isaiah 31.1a). Already a bit burdened with apprehension, I was looking for an encouraging word from the Lord. Not here! In that eerie pre-dawn space, when I can struggle to contain both racing mind and rushing emotion, I was jolted. Yes, I was.

It didn't get any better. I moved on to my notes for the first session on learning how to observe the text carefully, only to discover that my practice passage included the phrase, You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt (Exodus 19.4). Oh dear, how did I miss that in my preparation?

Gee - the Old Testament is pretty tough on Egypt, isn't it?! The context in which I sat was forcing me to hear the text in a fresh way. A good lesson to learn. Slowly, I pulled myself together. I did go and read the beautiful Isaiah 19.25 passage again - 'blessed be Egypt my people. Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance'. I did start to engage the 'scripture interprets scripture' principle. I did begin to think along 'history of salvation' trajectories and free Isaiah to be interpreted in light of Acts - and beyond. I did restart, belatedly, the biblical-theology engine in my mind and heart...

But it didn't stop me seeking out time over lunch with one of the most respected pastors in the country and asking him, 'When Egyptians come to faith in your church, how do you help them process all the negative stuff about Egypt in the Old Testament?' His response - in a nutshell? All those judgements - and that blessing from Isaiah - find their fulfillment, even closure, in the Christ-event of the Gospels.

It helped me to hear him say that, but what helped even more was to travel around Egypt a bit...

We climbed Mt Sinai, stepping up (literally) into the reality of the 2000 years before the Christ-event. Abraham. Moses. Burning Bush. Ten Commandments. Golden Calf. The words of Chris Wright rang again in my ears - from The Mission of God:

the ingathering of the nations was the very thing Israel existed for in the purpose of God (194).
Genesis 12.3 is the first Great Commission: God so loved the world that He chose Israel (329).

Isaiah 19.25, one of the most breath-taking pronouncements of any prophet [is] Exodus reloaded with the characters reversed (491) ... The identity of Israel will be merged with that of Egypt and Assyria, such that the Abrahamic promise is not only fulfilled in them but through them (236).

In the Old Testament, the mission of God is that the distinction would ultimately be dissolved as the nations flowed into unity and identity with Israel (500) - but we only find out how in the New Testament.

And what did we see atop Sinai? The sunrise was amazing. Walking where Moses walked was so cool. I even saw some clefts in the rock ... but none of this matched these two sights of 'the nations flowing in unity and identity':

Spanish-speaking Latin Americans praising and pleading with the Light, as they wait for the light (and once it did dawn, a bunch of  Malayali-speaking people from Kerala, in India, couldn't suppress their 'hallelujahs' any longer).

Once the light came, we were reminded again of how far the Light has reached since those wanderings in Sinai,
with Chinese peoples just around the corner from Arab peoples.

We visited Coptic Cairo, stepping down (literally, because one civilization builds on the rubble of the previous one and so the ancient past drops lower and lower below the surface) into the reality of the 2000 years since the Christ-event. This was the undisputed highlight for me, moving among (possibly) the longest unbroken Christian testimony in the world. The words of Philip Jenkins rang again in my ears (together with Andrew Walls and Tom Oden) - from The Lost History of Christianity (LHC) and The Next Christendom (NC):

Christianity has never been synonymous with either Europe or the West (NC, 18).

[on comparing the Coptic church, which survived, with the church in North Africa, which died] 
Survival was about how deep a church planted its roots in a particular community and how far the religion became part of the air that ordinary people breathed (LH, 35) ... Despite all its fine theologians and its identity as a centre of early Christianity, the church in North Africa failed in not carrying Christianity beyond the Romanized inhabitants of its coastal cities and not sinking roots deep into the world of its native peoples (LH, 229) - exactly what the Coptic church was prepared to do.

Protestants are in such a hurry to jump from Augustine to Luther. But it is actually our Asian and African brothers and sisters who can fill that gap best (Walls).

Athanasius, Augustine and Cyprian are African, not Europeans in disguise (Oden, 62). It is wrong to consider Alexandria as a non-African extension of the European intellect (Oden, 58).

This is the most surprising step of our investigation: how Africa influenced Ireland 
and how the Irish monks then shaped the formation of medieval Europe (Oden, 73).

Coptic Cairo is the oldest part of Cairo, with 6-7 little churches (and a synagogue) crammed within the old Roman fortress known as Babylon (built about 30BCE). Tradition states that Mark brought the gospel to this area in the early decades of the 1st century and some of the churches we entered could be as early as the 3rd and 4th century...

This image will never let me go.
In the company of saints and apostles, I imagine this man pleading with God
for the progress of the gospel and for peace in the Middle East.

Exquisite work with wood and brick.
The wooden screen at the front - iconostasis - is a distinctive of Coptic churches.
The baptistry

Church History courses tend to avoid most of the Christian world and the world of most Christians (Walls).

nice chatting