Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Day after day we go about our tasks on this sin-stained planet gathering one impurity after another, being forced to listen to blasphemies and language that is an offence both to God and all decent people. Because of this, how we need to breathe in the filtering freshness of the spiritual oxygen that comes to us through His Holy Spirit.
One of the great evidence of the Welsh Revival in 1904 when God’s breath blew over the Principality in a powerful way was the fact that people’s lives were cleaned up in the most amazing manner. Old debts were paid, bad language gave way to the praises of God and people would cross the valleys to each other’s homes in order to clear up any bad feeling that had been between them.
It is a well-known fact that miners who directed the pit ponies with swear words, after they were converted didn’t want to swear anymore, so they had to teach the pit ponies new and cleaner commands.
It was like this in the Hebrides Revival in 1959 too. A group of people were praying in church and some stood
up and read from Psalm 24: ‘Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false.’
One of the congregation followed the reading with a prayer that went something like this, ‘O God, forgive us if our hands are not clean and our hearts are not pure.’ A young man immediately stood up and startled the congregation by crying out: ‘It is so much humbug to talk about our hearts and hands not being clean. We need to drop the ‘our’ and replace it with ‘my’.’
Then he proceeded to pray, ‘Oh, God, my hands are not clean, my heart is not pure…forgive me,’ and falling to the ground in repentance provoked others to follow in the same vein. People made their praying very personal and cried out to God in such a way that the Holy Spirit fell on the island ushering in one of the great movements of the Spirit in the twentieth century.
From chapter 3 of Spoken from the Heart – sermons by the author, published by CWR 2005
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
I worked for three years as the chaplain at London South Bank University. South Bank was a large multi-campus site with around 18,000 students. I had one room and no immediate role in the life of the university. My initial task was to make people realise that there was a chaplain in place. I had to deal with the fact that there was no understanding in many people’s minds of what a chaplain might do – but could only do so after they had realised that there was someone there at all.
I had no publicity budget and I felt that I was never going to manage to communicate clearly to a large and transitory student population. There were some people who would always come along and there were others who were never going to come. If all I did was to communicate a clear and comprehensive picture of the services on offer in the chaplaincy, then it would have brought me to the attention of people who were potentially interested in any case and therefore would probably have found them anyway. It would probably also have confirmed in the minds of others why they would not choose to access the services of a chaplaincy. I wanted to connect with some of those ‘others’ and give them just enough awareness to make them think of making further enquiries. So I set out to present the work of chaplaincy creatively and ambiguously.
On one occasion, I performed a play-parable by setting myself up with all the equipment needed to clean people’s shoes. Formally dressed in black suit and clerical shirt, I presented myself as a caricature of a priest. People were intrigued, amused and confused. When asked why I was doing this, I would deliberately reply enigmatically. I would tell people that it was all ‘part of the service.’ My cleaning people’s shoes while dressed up in full clerical garb was an acted-out parable, the point of which was not to explain what I was doing but to leave people intrigued enough to wonder and to ask further questions.
Over the next three years, I used various other pieces of ambiguous communication. I took photographs of a biscuit and used it on a poster with the words ‘@ The Chaplaincy.’ I did email-shots of staff and students using words of poems such a Stevie Smith’s ‘Not waving but drowning.’ When the kettle was stolen from the chaplaincy, I put up 300 notices around the university saying, ‘God knows who has got the kettle.’ I created different designs for the writing paper I used. One design had an image of a priest-clown in a dog collar; another was with a spoof press release: SHOCK HORROR! VICAR FOUND DOING HIS JOB!
By providing the optimum level of information and insight, people can choose either to pursue an interest or else to walk away from what they have heard. David Attenborough said on Desert Island Discs (1999) that the best way to get someone interested in a subject is to show a great energy combined with a great ignorance. There is a lightness of touch assumed within this approach that does not leave people feeling disempowered or judged, but instead allows them to come back to ask about what they hear as being said. When the disciples of John the Baptist come to ask Jesus if he is ‘the one who was to come’ or whether they should expect another, Jesus does not give them a point-by-point explanation but tells them to look around and to draw conclusions from what they see.
From chapter 5 of Ambiguous Evangelism, published by SPCK 2004
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
March 26, 1997
Failed opera singer Marshall Herff Applewhite and his soul-mate, a spirit-channelling registered nurse named Bonnie Lu Nettles, hook up in the 1970s and start their own little saucer cult. Typical story: He’s a two-thousand-year-old alien, she’s no less than God Almighty and the mother ship is supposed to swing by to pick them up in the 1975. It….doesn’t. Bonnie ends up being mortal after all and dies of cancer in 1985. Applewhite (known to his followers as "Do," as in "Re Mi Fa So") continues to attract cult members, collecting them in a sprawling house in Rancho Santa Fe, California, under the pleasant moniker "Heaven’s Gate." Most of them are computer geeks. They build websites. They shave their heads. They wear colourful little jumpers and matching tennis shoes. And the guys get castrated.
They all live happy little productive robot-like lives until 1997, when amateur astronomer Chuck Schramek mistakes a star for a "Saturn-like object" following the Hale-Bopp comet. Schramek goes on the Art Bell radio show, and before you know it, his "object" has become a bona-fide UFO hiding in the comet’s wake. Which is good news for Do and his androids, because that’s exactly what they’ve been waiting for all this time. It’s Bonnie Lu! She’s swinging by to pick us up!
So the Gaters shoot a creepy video in which they each say bye-bye to family and friends. After dropping the tapes in the mail, they share a few spoonfuls of poisoned apple sauce. Police get a tip from a family member who gets nervous after watching the "I’m-leaving-on-a-spaceship" video. Next stop is the nightly news, complete with footage of each member stretched out dead on his or her cot – their shed "earthly vehicles" covered by a purple cloth.
October 1997, St Louis.
Pentecostal pastor Kenneth Hagin predicts Christ’s Second Coming and the Rapture of the saints, starting in St Louis, ‘The heart and centre of the nation." Of course. Never having personally been to St Louis, the Pocket Guide can’t give an accurate report. Did anything happen? Is anyone still there? Did Jesus become mayor or what?
From chapter 3 of Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse – the official field manual for the end of the word, published by RelevantBooks, 2005
Monday, December 05, 2005
Conformists often ‘get killed’ out in the world because they have no community of faith. Many conformists are independent wounded sheep who have been bitten by other sheep. The last thing they want to do is hang around with more sheep. Organised church scares them, and so they wander out on their own to face the big world.
I understand this tendency. I just don’t agree with it. If the only church available is a church filled with legalistic separatists, then by all means separate from the separatists! Nonetheless, every believer needs to be involved in a community of faith. These communities probably look a lot different than the traditional church many of us grew up attending. They don’t need to meet in a building or have an order of service.
The trend among many young adults is to just be floaters. They’re not sure why they attend a church, but they think it’s something they should do. So, for a time, they casually try out churches. They may even commit to attending a church. But, every church has its warts, and soon they become disillusioned and quit assembling.
At one point in my life, I became disillusioned with the Church. I saw its gossip, legalism, and petty rule-based religiosity. I attended out of duty for several months. Then I decided to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem. I decided to stop looking at my needs and how the Church was not meeting them. I saw a vast number of wounded believers who were just as tired and fed up as me. I decided I would try to serve them.
I quickly found there were needs all around. Sure, the Church has warts. After all, it’s filled with people like you and me. Regardless, there is no perfect church. I think God must have a sense of humour. He knew I had given on the Church so much, and ironically, He decided to have me work in one.
I’m not sure which church God wants you to be a part of. In fact, you may need to start your own. Why not? If the churches around you are so archaic and filled with separatism, then assemble your own gathering of believers. You might see how difficult it is to have a community of faith who are transformists.
From chapter 5 of The Journey Towards Relevance – simple steps for transforming your world, published by RelevantBooks, 2004
I believe God eventually showed me I had to let go of those years so as not be further embittered by them. It took a long time to do this and still I was left with gnawing question of how to frame my understanding. These were years of tears, grief, death, losses, extreme hardship, bitter disappointments, betrayals, sickness, insomnia, and confusion. How do you make sense of them? What do you do with that? At last, I think I am beginning to see.
Early in 2004, I was fulfilling a speaking engagement in a New Zealand city and true to form, visited a Christian book store. Once inside I am like a child in a toy store. My eyes morph into saucers; I salivate and relish each and every purchase. On this occasion, my eye caught the title: God at War, by an author I had never heard of before, Gregory Boyd. As I was doing some post graduate research in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who courageously stood up to Hitler even to the point of joining a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, I was interested in issues of pacifism and violence. Without even scanning the sub-title, contents page or the price, I impulsively bought this book.
Back home, settling into my bookish cave, I began to realise, to my absolute amazement that I had just bought a 413 page book on spiritual warfare. I set about devouring this tome and so began a journey of discovery and the path to the profound explanation I had been seeking. This book began to theologically frame my story. I found it incredibly refreshing, insightful liberating and theologically challenging. I have since bought just about everything Gregory Boyd has written and sifted through it with a theological toothpick.
From chapter 2 of Who Stands Fast – discipleship in difficult places, published by UNOH Publications, 2005 –
Friday, December 02, 2005
That month I had a bad report on the state of the [Mission] hall floor. It was very old, full of dry rot, and had to be replaced. It was most unsafe. Five hundred pounds our builder quoted. What could we do? We didn’t have that sort of money.
As I discussed the problem and the need for urgency with the builder, the Deaconess who opened the mail came to me with a cheque made out to the Kensal Medical Gospel Mission for five hundred pounds. I was bowled over and could hardly speak and the builder who knew I had heart trouble said, ‘Miss Howland, what’s happened? Is somebody there with you? Have you had a bad turn?’
"No,’ I replied, ‘but you just told me that the floor might cost five hundred pounds and I have just been sent five hundred pounds in the mail, but I don’t know who sent it to me.’
‘You know,’ he said, ‘that’s what I can’t understand about you. If I had nothing in the bank I’d feel really weak. But if I suddenly found I’d got five hundred pounds I’d feel mighty strong. With you it’s the other way round. Nothing in the bank and feel ok. Five hundred pounds in and feel all weak. I don’t know: the stories you girls can tell about God supplying everything you need.’
Where had this money come from? Early on I had an idea but couldn’t understand what had motivated the gift. It started with the relieving nurse who got caught in the rain and seemed to be as poor as a church mouse. One Saturday night after being out for the day and returning to our Mission she passed numbers of public houses still open. Children were playing the streets waiting for their parents to finish drinking and fighting at closing time. When she got home a voice said to her, ‘and you are prepared to take Dividends from those breweries that cause this sort of thing to happen.’ Immediately she got down on her knees and prayed, ‘Lord, if those shares that my aunt left me when she died are in a brewery I will give them all to you.’
It turned out they were brewery shares and she kept her promise. She gave our Mission five hundred pounds, which helped pay for the floor, and five hundred pounds also to Adeline Wallace of the Mission of Hope.
From chapter 7 of Walking by Faith, published by the author, 2005
Thursday, December 01, 2005
The thing that I’m worried about is the fact that the two big films of 2004 were The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11. And what were they? They were basically two very extreme films. They were both promoted within these incestual little Petrie dishes, whether it was to liberal Democrats or to conservative Christians. What both these films tapped is the point here. The Passion, in the long run, probably didn’t have that big of an effect because a lot of Christians were the ones who went to see it. Fahrenheit 9/11 didn’t have that big of an impact, at least not as big as the Republicans were all worried about, because it was a bunch of lean-hard liberals who went and saw it. It just proves one thing: that people will get really excited and spend a lot of money for ‘their thing.’
So I’m hoping that we move away from that and embrace broader films that help share the story. Why does it have to be a ‘Christian’ film? I don’t know if you saw it, but at the same exact time The Passion came out, a film called In America was playing. The Christian Science Monitor called me and asked me to go review The Passion . So I went and saw the film, and I said to the Monitor, ‘You know what? I saw In America the night before I saw The Passion. If I were to invite the people in my neighbourhood to talk about the issue of redemption, I would invite them to In America. I mean, it’s an amazing, powerful script.’
The problem is that you never hear a pastor or anyone anywhere say, ‘I challenge all of you right now to go out to our information booth. We have In America tickets available. In fact, we rented the entire theatre. We want you to bring your neighbourhoods to see this film.’
I think we need to start embracing films that might not be considered ‘Christian’ a little more. We live in a Christian ghetto that says, ‘If they’re not for us, they must be against us. Anybody who practices faith, meditation or prayer is evil if their focus isn’t Jesus.’ Then we embrace criminals and crooks from the business world, bring them in and pay them high dollars to train our pastor to run churches as if the pastors were CEOs. And now some of these business crooks are in jail.
From page 88 of Practitioners – voices within the emerging church, published by Regal 2005
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Many Christians feel empty and frustrated and go from Bible study to seminar to the latest Christian book, hoping to fill the ‘purpose void’ with more personal development or insight. It is more likely that until we discover our place of ministry, we will not feel the satisfaction of Ephesians 2: 10 – doing the good works God has prepared in advance for us to do. In a recent Bible study, after carefully studying the Ephesians 2:8-10 passage, one man blurted out, ‘If I’m his workmanship, and he’s prepared good works for me, well, that means that my good works don’t have to look like your good works!’
The church also is strengthened as its people engage in good works. The way to inwardly build a church is through outward service. God gives gifted leaders to the church ‘to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.’ There can be no ‘building up’ until people are engaged in works of service. God saved us to do good works; church leadership is there to prepare people for good works; the Word of God equips us ‘for every good work,’ and we are to ‘spur one another on towards love and good deeds.’ Now the question is: Will we follow through by actually engaging in good works?
There is a vast difference between bodybuilding and weight training. If you’ve ever been channel-surfing and caught a bodybuilding contest on ESPN, you’ll know that the purpose of bodybuilding is to maximally develop every muscle in the human body and then, with the help of a good tan, a small bathing suit, shiny skin and striking poses, to show it off. But to what end? For what purpose? There is no end; there is no purpose beyond building up the body! That’s it. Weight training is different. Athletic records are continually being shattered largely because the strength and capacity of athletes are increasing through weight training. For athletes, weight training is a means to a greater end. Strength, flexibility, and speed are their goal – not the size of their muscles. These athletes train for their event. Their training is not the event.
The purpose of the church should be more than ‘body’ building. The church should be more like a training facility designed to equip the saints for works of service.
From chapter 4 of The Externally Focused Church published by Group 2004
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
The man who translated for me that day [in Poland] was an extremely educated [Pole], a scientist, and I could tell he was having a hard time staying focused. Several times I looked over at him and saw tears in the corners of his eyes. He did his best to stay composed, but as I told the story of my mother’s [deathbed conversion], we had to stop. He bent over and began crying uncontrollably. It was an awkward moment, and I wasn’t sure what to do.
I took a step toward him and placed my hand on his shoulder. ‘Are you okay?’ I asked. He said to me, ‘I’ve never heard such a story of forgiveness before. I’m sorry, Nicky. I’ll be all right in a minute.’
The stadium grew deathly quiet. People were so moved by the interpreter’s response that many started crying. It was the first time I can remember having to stop a service so that the translator could compose himself. His response so touched my heart that I started crying with him. We stood on the stage in silence. After a few minutes I patted him on the back and whispered, ‘We need to finish. Will you be okay to go on?’ He wiped his eyes and nodded, then continued translating.
I invited people to come forward and accept Jesus, and no one was prepared for the response. Like a tidal wave, the Spirit of the Lord crashed upon the crowd, bringing people to conviction. The translator’s brokenness had resonated with the crowd.
I later went with him to the park to talk. I couldn’t believe what a sweet, genuine person he was, so gentle and warm. A godly man. He told me how much he loved the Lord and how hard it was to live in Poland under the persecution of the government. At one point he grew quiet and motioned toward the KGB agents following us. ‘That’s why I can’t talk to you much,’ he whispered. ‘I can never share what’s really on my heart.’
Before I left Poland, two of the KGB agents approached me to talk about the Lord. I was surprised that they
came to me in public, but they wanted to know more about Jesus, so I told them. Right in the open I prayed with them and led them to salvation. I’ll never forget how excited they were. ‘Thank you,’ they kept telling me.
From chapter 9 of Soul Obsession, published by Waterbrook Press 2005
Monday, November 28, 2005
Theologically Protestantism had moved some way since the 1940s. There is clearly little future for denominational theology. The prediction probably extends beyond the Protestant community into the Catholic, although the dynamics of Catholic theological development seem to be different. Liberation theology and humanisation had become central themes in the Christian community. Conservative forms of Christianity had also significantly strengthened, although this trend was not really considered by the founders of CCANZ. The goals of the movement included a theological statement, which proposed "to share together in mutual study and reflection the word of God as revealed in Scripture and Tradition and through the many voices of human experience." It also proposed "to facilitate and encourage a living theology among the people of Aotearoa" and "to make available to all the Gospel imperatives that underlie the Conference of Churches’ actions and reflections." In reality, however, the theological discussions around faith and order, which had been a characteristic of ecumenism worldwide went largely neglected in New Zealand after the 1960s.
The WCC made a major step towards unity in its Lima Text on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry in 1982. Then in 1984, after the agreement had been reached, Anglican theologian Janet Crawford joined these discussions. New Zealand responses to the Lima text were circulated as a background to the formation of the CCANZ. A sign that New Zealand Catholics were increasingly embracing ecumenical theology came in the form of their comment to the Vatican that "the movement of the Spirit of God among the churches and other ecclesial communities throughout the world is evident."
Yet ecumenism was bound to be overshadowed if the churches and their agencies made joint activities their dominant concern. This is one key reason why international ecumenical trends since the 1980s have been discouraging. The present era is viewed as an "ecumenical winter" in WCC circles. So the vision was lost. In New Zealand by 2001, the final General Secretary of the CCANZ lamented that "we prefer to hide in the security of our sectarian style of worshipping our God, quietly believing that we alone have God’s truth and denying the gifts the other Christian traditions can teach us in understanding more about the mysteries of God’s ways."
The irony is that today belief is no longer essentially shaped by denominational tradition, and forms of worship have increasingly homogenised. Yet the net result has not been ecumenism.
From chapter 4 of Where the Road Runs Out – research essays on the ecumenical journey, published by CCANZ 2005
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
As we turn our attention more specifically to computers and cyberspace, and even to cyborgs in the future, a number of features emerge as of central importance.
The first is that the use of computers is pervasive. They are now integral components of so much on which our lives depend. We are all touched by them, even when we are blissfully unaware of their presence. Our culture can no longer exist without them.
Second, computers transcend familiar physical limits. The old physical boundaries with which we are all familiar are ceasing to exist in cyberspace. As a result, computers are making a qualitative change to the way we live. Doing away with these boundaries affects our relationships with one another, and therefore our social fabric. This is the essence of what I have referred to as ‘the death of distance,’ since it makes possible new relationships and communities, ones which wouldn’t exist in the absence of computers.
Third, computers affect the way in which we think of ourselves, and even what we regard as real. As we create an increasing array of virtual-reality worlds, the effect is to blur the boundary between people and machines. This is what cyborgs are meant to do, but this is already happening. As computers become increasingly minute and ever faster, this trend will almost inevitably intensify. In other words, we are fast entering the sphere of cyborgs, and we are dimly beginning to realise that cyborgs are actually ordinary people like us. They are not a select group of entities brought into being by technocrats as experimental models of some future race; they are you and me, who appear to be craving for a cyborgian (to create a new term) world.
Developments are gradual and decisions to adopt new procedures are generally taken by the population at large. True, the developments themselves are brought about by scientists and technocrats, but once available are seized upon by ordinary people. They appear to meet some felt need.
From chapter 6 of Designers of the Future – who should make the decisions?, published by Monarch 2005
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
The gospel spells out in detail Jesus ‘speaking’ salvation into being : rebuking the chaos of demons, separating men and women from damnation by calling them by name into lives of discipleship, defeating the tempter with citations of Scripture, commanding healings, using words of blessing to feed and help. The ‘word’ is foundational in the work of salvation as it is in the work of creation. Just as everything outside us originates in the word of God, so does everything inside us. We can’t get behind the word of God. There is no human insight, no human desire, no human cry anterior to this word of God. There is no great abstraction, no great truth behind or previous to this word. Everywhere we look, everywhere we probe, everywhere we listen we come upon ‘word’ – and it is God’s word, not ours.
This massive, overwhelming previousness of God’s speech to our prayers, however obvious it is in Scripture, is not immediately obvious to us simply because we are so much more aware of ourselves than we are of God. We are far more self-conscious than God-conscious and so when we pray, what we are ordinarily conscious of is that we are getting in the first word with God. But our consciousness lies.
So it requires effort – repeated, imaginative, biblically shaped effort – to acquire and maintain our awareness of this unqualified, thoroughgoing previousness of God’s speech to anything and everything that comes out of our mouths.
At some point [in learning language] we find ourselves answering God; the usual way to describe this use of language is with the word ‘prayer.’ Prayer is language used to respond to the most that has been said to us, with the potential for saying all that is in us. Prayer is the development of speech into maturity, language in process of being adequate to answer the one who has spoken most comprehensively to us, namely, God. Put this way, it is clear that prayer is not a narrow use of language for special occasions but the broadest use of language into which everything that is truly human in us - all the parts of our creation and salvation – comes to mature expression. But we live in a culture that has little interest in this language. We live in a society in which language is constantly being eroded and reduced.
Where can we go to learn our language as it develops into maturity, as it answers God?
From chapter 2 of Working the Angles – the shape of pastoral integrity, published by Eerdmans 1987
Monday, November 21, 2005
So often as Christians we focus on the ‘wedding day’ of our salvation – the day a person begins a relationship with Christ. And yes, that is an exciting day. Salvation comes to the person, and the spirit takes up residence in the centre of that person’s being. But what about the next day and the day after that?
When Calvin comments on Ephesians 5, he doesn’t give a sermon on ‘submission’ or family relationships; he instead spends the entire passage talking about the intimacy of how Christ weds himself to us and how we are to be cleaved. The language comes right out of Genesis – that when we become believers, we are cleaved to Christ. And that literally we’re one flesh with Christ. And that we’re transformed through living with Christ. Believers and Jesus are to become like an old married couple who have stared at each other every morning over oatmeal for so long that they begin to look alike.
He offers an important description (and let me clarify with comments along the way):
That joining together of head and members [Christ is the head, we’re the members], that indwelling of Christ in our hearts. In short, that mystical union, [this is wedding language – technically, this is wedding night language] are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed.
Do you now recognise what Calvin is teaching here? He’s saying that everything that Christ has becomes yours, and everything that is yours becomes Christ’s. The way the bank account becomes one in a marriage. The way the property becomes joint. The way in which at that moment when I officiate a wedding I tell couples that their lives are joined together in such a way that it will take an act of God and the state of California to separate them – and I also tell them, God will be more disappointed and the state will be more annoying if you do.
From chapter 3 of It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian – how the community of God transforms lives, published by Brazos Press 2004
Friday, November 18, 2005
In 2002, Oprah travelled to South Africa to produce a ‘Christmas Kindness’ show that aired in 2003 and was followed up in 2004. The 2003 Christmas show focused on AIDS orphans in South Africa and bluntly asked for assistance. ‘What I wanted for you to see is the extreme need for us, for everybody who hears this today, to do what you can to help,’ Oprah told viewers. The 2004 show followed up some of the stories presented in 2003, covering South African schools and social programs, and showed where $7 million, collected by Oprah’s Angel Network in response to the earlier show, had gone. Singer Alicia Keys and Brad Pitt appeared in 2004 to talk about AIDS and access to medication. Pitt was on tape but Keys appeared live to talk with Oprah, who gave the singer a cheque for $250,000 to support Keep a Child Alive, a program that provides AIDS medicine to African families. Keys said that having an impact on the lives of those she met seemed easy despite the size of the need. ‘I couldn’t believe how simple it was,’ Keys said, sounding a you-can-do-it-too note.
The efforts of much less well-known individuals were also shown. A California film producer related her story of going to Africa, as did a photographer who went to Africa to shoot school portraits for children. ‘I see inspiration,’ the photographer said in describing his experience.
Oprah concluded the show by facing the camera and thanking her viewers for their contributions. ‘It’s our human family that is suffering across the ocean,’ she said. The last word went to children, with film clips of South African schoolchildren saying, ‘Thank you.’
The South Africa shows exemplify Oprah at work informing and moving viewers about suffering. For her, suffering is not a general philosophical question; it is a particular condition being experienced by individuals, in this case children in South Africa who have been orphaned by AIDS. The remoteness and magnitude of the issue – South Africa has 12 million AIDS orphans – is scaled down and humanised into the faces and stories of individuals. Oprah’s shows selected a half-dozen educational and social-aid programs reaching a vast group of children. They showed a variety of solutions to the problem and people who have take action. Also included was an interview with South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who provided a moral framework for this action. Hence, Oprah doesn’t need to preach because she’s got a preacher on hand.
From chapter 2 of The Gospel According to Oprah, published by WJKP 2005
Thursday, November 17, 2005
Miracles, if they occur, challenge the naturalistic idea that the scientific domain of explanation is all-embracing. But even if we think of science and religion as separate domains, each legitimate, miracles seem to force a point of contact between the two. For this reason, the topic of miracle has always been one of the focal points in discussion of the relation between science and religion. The most penetrating analysis of miracles and their significance for religion [is] that of Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776)
In Chapter 10 of his Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding, Hume sets out the empiricist challenge to the idea that miracles provide a rational underpinning of religion or some rational basis for belief in God. In particular, Hume has in mind events such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a basis or rational underpinning for Christian faith.
Hume’s discussion comes in two steps. The first step involves the probability of the occurrence of a miracle. Hume’s ‘first argument’ leads to the conclusion that it is never rational to believe, on the strength of the testimony of others, that a miracle has occurred. The second step of Hume’s argument addresses whether the occurrence of a miracle, if it could be established, could be evidence for the existence of God. Hume argues that it would not be, because such ‘miracles’ should rather be taken as as-yet unexplained natural events.
In a typical and delightfully ironic tone Hume ends his chapter with the following comment:
‘Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of [a miracle’s] veracity. And whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.’
Hume means that given that we cannot ever rationally believe that a miracle has occurred on the basis of testimony, any person who does so actually witnesses a ‘miracle’ within themselves – that of being able to believe against the evidence!
From chapter 4 of Galileo, Darwin, and Hawking – the interplay of science, reason and religion, published by 2005
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
For Reed, collecting rare manuscripts and books was not an act of personal avarice and possession. In 1925 he divided his Bible collection between the theological colleges of the Methodist and Presbyterian churches: Trinity Methodist Theological College in Auckland and Knox Theological College in Dunedin.
With the disposal of his Bibles collection in 1925, Reed decided to build up a new collection with the idea that it would eventually go to the Dunedin Public Library. The library had opened in 1908 in a superb building in Moray Place, courtesy of United States millionaire Andrew Carnegie, but with few books. The first city librarian, William McEwan appreciated Reed’s intention of donating his collection to the financially strapped library one day, but suggested that in the meantime some of the material might be put on display. Reed did not want any publicity but began to anonymously exhibit autograph letters in the library. The album he had put together containing 60 letters was placed in the library’s entrance hall, and a new page turned each week.
The dogged librarian pressured Reed to make further material available for display. I July 1926, having already agreed to display autograph letters in the library, Reed wrote to McEwan:
‘Now, with regard to the Bibles, MSS and ‘Association’ books. I have been turning this over, and have come to the conclusion that your suggestion ought to be complied with, or at any rate given a trial, and Mrs Reed agreed with me that it might be a bit selfish to keep these things in our hands until our executors hand them over in due time, instead of making them available now to a wider circle. Whatever is done, I think for the meantime we would like it to be anonymous. But I would like all exhibits to be kept together, or ‘earmarked,’ as there is provision in our wills for providing all necessary casing and making it a named collection.’
During the 1920s, Reed mellowed in his attitude towards publicity. In 1926, he declared that he was putting together a collection of ‘association’ books that would eventually go to the Dunedin Public Library. In 1929, he made it known that the autograph letters housed in the library were his and would eventually become the property of the citizens of Dunedin. He also wrote regular articles for the Otago Witness, regarding autograph letters he had purchased, and a series of ‘chats’ on original letters and books associated with ‘great men and women,’ which were illustrated in the newspaper and then exhibited in the public library.
In 1929, Reed began discussing with McEwan the mechanics of gifting his entire collection to the library.
From chapter 6 of Books and Boots – the story of New Zealand publisher, writer and long distance walker, Alfred Hamish Reed, published by the University of Otago Press, 2005
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
Whatever thoughts [Newton] had about the legitimacy of the slave trade, he kept them to himself during his years at Olney, possibly erring on the side of caution because he knew that any public pronouncement would go on record and he would have be sufficiently convinced to be able to defend it. It would be against his interests to sermonize on provisional judgements.
He must have been aware of the debate about slavery, particularly as some of the trade’s most vociferous opponents were Christians. In 1757, the Member of Parliament for Hull, David Hartley, introduced a debate in the House of Commons as to whether the slave trade was ‘contrary to the laws of God and the rights of men.’ In 1769, Granville Sharp, who was to become one of the most prominent abolitionists, published ‘A Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery in England.’ In 1774, John Wesley, who had read Newton’s autobiography several times, produced his polemic, ‘Thoughts on Slavery.’
Newton was also aware of Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, an evangelical aristocrat devoted to spiritual and moral reformation. She had become a Christian after hearing Whitefield and was then herself responsible for the conversion of Lord Dartmouth. Well bred and wealthy, she was passionate about using her influence and money to spread the gospel, educate Christian ministers, and relieve suffering and injustice.
Inspired by her Christian faith, Countess Huntingdon was more concerned about individual dignity and national justice than the dangers of crossing barriers of class and race. In 1765 when it was common for an educated English person to describe Native Americans as ‘savages,’ she sponsored a tour of Britain by Samson Occum, a converted Mohegan from Connecticut involved in land rights issues and raising money for charity schools. He came to Olney and preached at St Peter’s and St Paul’s.
Newton was impressed with Occum, and what particularly struck him was that despite their racial and cultural differences their experience of conversion was identical. ‘In describing to me the state of his heart when he was a blind idolater [he] gave me, in general, a striking picture of what my own heart was, in the early part of my life.’
From chapter 6 of Amazing Grace – John Newton, slavery, and the world’s most enduring song, published by 2002
Monday, November 14, 2005
It was obvious to us that we needed to either bury or cremate Aster on the Friday, as she had been dead for a couple of days already. We chose to cremate her and made contact with the Karori Cemetery directly. It has a small chapel that is often used for stillborn and newborn funerals and it seemed the natural choice for us as well. We organised the funeral for Friday afternoon. Our good friends took on the task of ringing other friends to let them know about Aster’s death and to invite them to the funeral.
On Thursday evening I was allowed to leave the hospital and take Aster home with us. It had been touch-and-go for a little while as my post-natal health was causing some concern, but finally we were given the all-clear. I vividly remember leaving the hospital in the dark with Aster all wrapped up in blankets and hopping into the car with no car seat. My younger brother had arrived in Wellington by this time and drove us home and we joked about being pulled over by the police for not having the baby safely in a car seat. This is one of many memories of us sharing some laughter during a bleak and distressing time. Maybe it is a survival or coping mechanism –whatever it is called – I am pleased that my memories of Aster’s farewell are couched in some laughter.
Things seemed to fall into place beautifully, which made things easier for us and also cemented in my mind the notion of the ‘ripple effect’ of little Aster’s life. So many people spoke of being affected by her death, either to me, to my mother, friends, or other members of my family. I felt heartened by the fact that Aster’s little life had meaning beyond my realm and I continue to feel heartened six years later by people’s recognition of her as our daughter and not a baby that never lived.
From Vicki’s story in Sasha’s Legacy, a guide to funerals for babies, published by Steele Roberts, 2005
Friday, November 11, 2005
I grew up in a Christian denomination that tends to downplay the role of the supernatural in God’s dealing with humankind. I often heard the maxim, ‘Prayer doesn’t things; it changes us.’ And who can argue with the conviction that prayer can and should transform us? But these words were often said as though personal transformation is all prayer accomplishes. It was almost the idea, as one popular spirituality book suggest, that prayer is ‘just talking to’ yourself and ‘reprogramming’ your internal computer.
When I enrolled in a hospital chaplaincy apprenticeship program during seminary, the subject of praying for patients came up in our training group. ‘I pray out loud with a patient when he or she asks for it,’ my chaplaincy supervisor told us. ‘The patient often finds it emotionally therapeutic.’ For him, that was about it. It made patients feel better. But for him it seemed to do nothing to influence God or shape the outcome of events. It would never fall on responsive ears.
But we can say more than that prayer reassures us when we are needy. Much more. God stands in relation to the world and its events not as an autocrat but as an artist whose work of art shows in every stroke or chip the contribution of an apprentice. ‘The strongest one in Christ’s kingdom,’ wrote E M Bounds, ‘is he who can knock the best.’
God listens attentively to our asking, not because he is cowed by us or our demands, but because he chooses to do so. Prayer changes things not because it is a magical formula but because behind it is nothing less than the Creator’s power. Prayer moves the hand that holds the universe. There is more to our asking than we can ever imagine because there is more to God than we can ever fathom. And there is in him a generosity that exceeds our imaginations.
From chapter 7 of The Art of Prayer (revised and expanded edition), published by Waterbrook Press, 2005
Tuesday, November 08, 2005
What if: every day, for thirty days, I pray and ask God to surprise me? ‘Surprise Me,. God.’ Nothing more, nothing less. Three words. Not asking for something in particular. Not giving him my list. Not presenting my agenda. Just inviting him to barge into my life in any old way he pleases – to crash into the busyness of my schedule and mess with it.
Then, what if: every day I record my thoughts and activities? All the twists and turns that give shape to the month. I’ll look for when, where, and how God steps into my world in a practical, everyman sort of way, and then I’ll transfer it all onto my hard drive. I suspect this won’t be a collection of ‘highlight’ stories (TV tales of only the positively answered prayers that seem out of context and too good to be believed), but rather a measure of ‘reality spirituality.’ I suspect it will include stories of seemingly unanswered prayers as well. Maybe the surprise will be that on many days no sugarcoated coincidences aligned at all – the day headed south and just kept going. Maybe the surprise will be in how I handle that, or don’t handle it. Maybe the surprises will be more internal than external. Maybe the sea will part, the rod will bud, and the sky will rain biscuits. Maybe not.
I have no idea what those ‘maybes’ will look like – except that I expect they won’t be what I expect. Today there is no story. But come Monday, the experiment begins. Thirty days from now I’ll be done. The book of stories will have been written, assisted by the Surprise-Meister. All the ‘aha’ moments will be in the bag; the good, the bad and probably the odd as well.
I’m hoping it will be a tapestry that blends my physical , emotional and spiritual worlds. I’m hoping it will feel real and honest. I’m hoping it won’t feel like on of those happily-ever-after dimple-grinned Christian tomes that smack of well-intentioned inauthenticity. I’m hoping it will look like thirty days in the life of a regular guy who embarked on a terribly irregular experiment.
I’m not sure exactly why I’m doing this, except that I feel the need to stir the pot of my personal suburban faith.
From the Introduction to Surprise Me – a 30-day faith experiment, published by Navpress, 2005
Monday, November 07, 2005
What happens [in our Anchorhold] when we hear sounds not just with our ears, but with hearts and minds informed by knowledge of the deeper significance of these things – that they are all part of God’s creation? Heart-habitat.
Learning to keep our ear to the ground. That is, learning to hear- in silence, reverence, respect, awe, wonder – what there is to hear, what mother earth, the creation, would teach us, her wisdom. And here let me emphasize that silence, reverence, respect, awe, wonder – often referred to as the ‘egoless virtues’ – are ways of knowing and seeing where we get our busy self-centred selves out of the way and get in touch with what’s ‘out there’ and beyond us – to our great delight!
In that way, the wisdom of creation might have to do with discerning the difference between what’s dying around us and what’s struggling to be born. The incoming tide wipes the beach clean. Gales roar over the landscape destroying what is rotten or rootless – just as rain and sun enable and nurture new growth of every kind. These earthy images of judgement and grace are the stepping stones that allow the prophet Jeremiah to be in touch with God’s calling: ‘to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.’
In the same way, once we begin to hear the powerful and unsentimental wisdom of creation, of mother earth, both tough and tender, we can explore searching questions about ourselves and our world: What’s rotten and rootless in us? What counts as genuine, as new growth? Can we tell the difference? What are the things – good and bad – that we feel strongly about?
The poet Cilla McQueen, now living in Bluff, speaks of years of being formed at heart level by the hills, rain, wind, sea, inlets, light of that particular place: habitat-habits of the heart.
She might be part of the granite cliff she leans on,
her face seamed with shadow like a rock.
From chapter 3 of Anchorhold – the prayer of the heart in daily life, published by st Peter’s Publications, 2005
from Poet, in Markings, Poems and Drawings, by Cilla McQueen, University of Otago Press 2000.
Friday, November 04, 2005
It is you and I that God continues to ask to unwrap [the needy]. Unwrap those whom I have written off. Those whom I consider lost causes. Unwrap those whom I have had a hand in tying up as well as those whom I haven’t. Be willing to bite so hard that the bandages break.
But I would rather chew the soft food and let the hard cases stay in the tombs [like Lazarus] because I assume they will both smell and taste horrible. This is why my efforts have resulted in moments of spectacular flashes – without truly changing anything.
Because I cannot pick and choose the way I will be used.
It is an issue of real authentic love for each and every person. It should take a sacrifice on many levels to accomplish God’s task because this task is supposed to change me, and change does not occur where circumstances are predictable and comfortable.
Consider for a moment the people, relationships, and situations that you have considered dead. God would dare say that they are merely sleeping. But, they are in need of a swift, deep bite. The sort that leaves a permanent indentation.
Are you willing to bare your teeth and be that person? Because it is the first step toward the answer. The answer to why our plan has not been working and how it, perhaps, could. The clue that leads away from hollow fireworks and into healing that is truly remembered. Remembered enough to bring change.
That is, indeed, a volatile place to be. A daring world where not one soul is safe from our attack of love. Where no one can cower in the shadows and bide their time until mummification. Because there are followers of Christ who are not waiting to be asked for help. We, instead, root out the dying and grab their hand before it is even fully outstretched.
And, in that process, do not even realise that we have just been rescued ourselves.
From chapter 5 of FlashBang – how I got over myself, published by RelevantBooks 2005
Thursday, November 03, 2005
One issue often overlooked today when character is discussed is contentment. The omission is major. There is perhaps no greater need in the North American church today than to hear contentment preached and see it modelled by its pastors. Much sin and suffering among God’s people (including pastors) sprout from the root of discontent. Foolish financial decisions and enslaving debt are often the fruit of refusing to be content with God’s provision. That divorce in our church which catches us by surprise is frequently only the end of a long, family-destroying process birthed by discontent in the heart of a husband or a wife.
Contentment, or lack of it, provides an important window into the state of a preacher’s spiritual life. The presence of contentment expresses heart obedience to the tenth commandment, ‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbour’s house or land, his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’ In other words, ‘You shall be content with what the Lord your God has provided you!’
Failure to be content in the place God puts you or with the material provision he provides is sin. But more, it is a sin that, if not quickly dealt with, will metastasise and become terminal to spiritual life. According to Romans 1:21, it is the refusal to give thanks (a mark of discontent) that leads to outright rebellion against God. Speaking of wicked men and women who suppress the truth about their Creator, Paul writes, ‘For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their foolish hearts were darkened.’ In light of this truth, it is no surprise that the first step towards the fall was the sowing of discontent in Eve’s heart. In Genesis 2, God graciously gave the man and the woman the fruit of every tree but one in Eden’s garden. Adam and eve moved well down the road of rebellion the moment they permitted Satan to distract them from all God had given and caused them instead ot fixate on the one thing he had not. It is the same for us.
From chapter 6 of Nobody’s Perfect but you have to be – the power of personal integrity in effective preaching, published by Baker Books 2005
Wednesday, November 02, 2005
A current theological debate concerns the so-called openness of God. Much of that debate centres of whether God controls future events, whether there are possible future events of which God has no knowledge, and even whether God himself is open to change. A focus of that discussion invariably turns to some of the Old testament passages where God changes his mind.
I am not interested in asking whether God can or cannot change his mind as some abstract discussion. The issue I am addressing is how the Old Testament describes God. To ask in the abstract what God can or cannot do is interesting - sort of like ‘Can God make a rock so big that even he can’t lift it?’ – but beyond the scope of this book and maybe even beyond the scope of the Bible. It is not the God behind the scenes that I want to look at, but the God of the scenes, the God of the Bible, how he is portrayed there.
I realise this raises some questions. Does not God, as he is portrayed in the Bible, correspond to ‘God behind the scenes?’ In other words, does not the Bible, because it is the word of God, give us an accurate presentation of what God is really like? After all, if you drive a wedge between what the Old Testament says about God and what God is really like, how can we speak meaningfully of the Bible as God’s authoritative word?
This is a very good cluster of questions. I am not trying to drive a wedge between the Bible and God. Actually, and somewhat ironically, this is what I see others doing. I feel bound to talk about God in the way(s) the Bible does, even if I am not comfortable with it. The Bible really does have authority if we let it speak, and not when we – intentionally or unintentionally – suspend what the Bible says about God in some places while we work out our speculations about what God is ‘really’ like, perhaps by accenting other portions of the Bible that are more amenable to our thinking. God gave us the Bible so we could read it, not so we can ferret our way behind it to see how things really are.
God reveals himself throughout the Old Testament. There is no part that gets it ‘more right’ than others. Rather, they get at different sides of God. Or, to use the well-worn analogy, the different descriptions of God in the Old Testament are like the different colours and textures that combine to make a portrait.
There are diverse portrayals of God in the Old Testament. He is, on the one hand, powerful, one who knows things before they happen and who causes things to happen, one who is in complete control. On the other hand, he finds things out, he can feel grieved about things that happen, he changes his mind. If we allow either of these dimensions to override the other, we set aside part of God’s word in an effort to defined him, which is somewhat of a self-contradiction. But as we think about God, as we learn of him more and more, as we enter deeper into relationship with him through Christ, we will see that there is much in the full-orbed biblical portrait of God that we need to know. And of course, this is no surprise. ‘All scripture is profitable’ – even parts that don’t fit easily into our molds.
From chapter 3 of Inspiration and Incarnation – evangelicals and the problem of the Old Testament, published by Baker Academic 2005
Tuesday, November 01, 2005
In the hospital environment, the physical body in crisis is given the most attention. The medical field, perhaps as a result of societal acceptance, is gradually acknowledging the ramifications of the emotions in the healing and getting sick process. But the spiritual dimensions and implications are, for the most part, being neglected. It is in this area that the visitor can play a vital role in the total healing process.
Because the changes that are occurring are rapid and many, it is easy to understand why patients feel powerless. As a visitor, you have the ability to give them back a measure of control. By simply asking such questions as ‘Do you feel like visiting?’ or ‘May I sit down?’ or ‘Is this a good time to talk?’ you are letting them direct the visiting situation. Rather than being just another person telling them what they must do, you are, by asking, allowing them to take control as they see fit.
Visitors let the patient know they are not alone. They can relieve the great sense of isolation that surrounds the patient.
Visitors who have an especially close relationship with the patient can act as patient advocates, making sure questions get answers and basic needs are met. Interceding for patients when they are too intimidated or too debilitated to fight their own battles is advocacy at its finest.
From chapter 2 of Bedside Manners – a practical guide to visiting the ill, published by Baker Books 2005
Monday, October 31, 2005
John records the title [Son of God] most extensively. Only once is the title thrown out in accusation by the crowds, but John the Baptizer, Nathaniel, and Martha all use it with praise. Only in writings associated with John does Jesus use the title for Himself.
Why does all this matter? Why is the title important?
Two contemporary corruptions plague this phrase. Some (besides Jehovah witnesses) suggest that the use of the title does not equate in meaning with the word God, but corresponds instead with the way that all of us are children of God (as Luke uses the title in his genealogy). The other problem arises from those who separate the title from the historical person Jesus of Nazareth as a much later usage by the Church.
In responses to the first, I point to the diversity of voices that utter the title in the entire New Testament. The devil is recorded as using the designation in his attempts to dissuade Jesus from God’s way of working in the world. Unclean spirits and demoniacs shriek it in alarm, one would think, because they recognize that they are up against the power of God Himself. If Luke actually interviewed Mary as some scholars suggest, then she heard the title from an angel of heaven (and that angel didn’t address her in the same way!) Most important, the ones who use the title in praise are responding to acts of God in miracles, at conversion, or in fulfilment of inspiration.
The opinion that the title was a much later addition to the Christian faith is made suspect by the fact that the title appears in books from the entire period of the New Testament writing, and because the accusation that Jesus named Himself God’s Son is hurled at Him at His crucifixion. These Gospels and letters were not written to prove or even develop the idea that Jesus was God; rather, Jesus’ followers already believed Him to be God, and that is the reason that these texts were written and preserved in the first place.
A high percentage of theologians these days approach biblical texts with what is called a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion,’ suggesting that interpretation should be characterised more by scepticism than by easy acceptance. Who do we think God is? Is it not possible that God would want us to have truthful testimony to triune involvement with our world and would watch over the process of its recording?
From Part 2 of Talking the Walk, letting Christian language live again, published by Brazos Press 2005
Friday, October 28, 2005
Sexism, therefore, is heresy, is pathological pride, is hubris raised to high art. The truth is that science has rediscovered theology for us – and calls it ecology. Science knows now that everything is interrelated; that humanity is only one aspect of the fabric of life; that our connectedness is infinitely complex , and that, having poisoned the earth and polluted the air, we are now on the verge of extreme natural degradation and irreversible natural changes. If we do not see our sin and call it that, the anthropocentric – human-centred – worldview has failed us, has left us spiritual orphans. The androcentric – male-centred – worldview has destroyed us, has left us spiritual amnesiacs, has put us in contention with ourselves, with the universe, and with God the creator.
The world does not exist for us alone. On the contrary. Diversity is necessary. It is diversity we degrade and it is diversity we destroy. But it is specialization that is entropic. It is specialization that kills. If we farm only one product, the land dies; if we insist on only one social system, creativity dies; if we honour only one culture, peoples die; if we elevate only one sex, the fullness of humanity dies.
That is why feminism confronts androcentrism, this simplification of life to a one-gendered viewpoint only. Because simplification isn’t good for anyone. It’s not good for women. It’s not good for the planet. It’s not even good for men – it isolates them emotionally, it distorts them socially, it overdrives them physically and makes impossible demands on them psychologically.
Androcentrism is unspiritual because it ignores the spiritual value of the other half of the human race; it is immoral because it exploits the rest of creation. And it is un-Christian because it fails to find God incarnate in everything. That is why feminism denies the universalization of the experience of male experience. Women know that they see differently too, and they want that vision honoured for the sake of the human race. Women know that they think and feel differently about many things, and they want those thoughts and feelings factored into decisions – for the sake of the human race. Women know that they are different physically and they want their bodies valued, honoured, and listened to in all the questions that affect life (not simply the biological ones) for the sake of the human race.
Feminism rejects hierarchy and domination, not for itself alone, but for the sake of the rest of the human race. In fact, ecofeminism – a feminism that integrates Genesis 2, science and ecology and the fullness of humanity – reconceives feminism itself. An equal rights feminism that simply wants what men have already is not enough. A radical feminism that seeks separatism and divides the human race on the pretext of bettering it is not enough. A socialist feminism that concentrates on what is good for humans but takes no account of nature is not enough.
Feminism – real feminism – is a new worldview that transcends male chauvinism, rejects female chauvinism, is not just anthropocentric, but embraces creation and rejoices in nature and sees the ‘image of God’ in equal grandeur in both female and male, in the cosmos and the totality of creation.
From Chapter 9 of In the Heart of the Temple – my spiritual vision for today’s world, published by Bluebridge/Benetvision 2004
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
The questions of the status of the embryo were raised very eloquently in a cartoon published in the Melbourne Age newspaper in 1984 when the issue of what should be done with the Rios twins was before the court. In this cartoon [Peter] Nicholson depicted a group of men-medicos, legal eagles, clergymen, academics standing around a test tube which bears a tag saying ‘orphan embryos’ and one of the men is saying, ‘We must find a solution to this problem.’ Not a single person depicted is capable of being a mother. It reminds one of Solomon’s decision about the baby brought before him; he thought that the person who would decide in the best interests of the infant was the mother.
The ‘problem’ was what should be done with the embryos of an Argentinean couple called Rios, and left behind in a freezer in Melbourne. Mrs Rios had become pregnant through IVF conducted in a Melbourne clinic and returned to Argentina to await the birth of her babe. Tragically, the couple were killed in a plane crash. The issue before the court was how the very considerable Rios estate should be divided.
If it could be established that the embryos were the children of the Rios couple they may be the rightful inheritors of a fortune; if that were not the case, then the embryos would constitute part of the estate to be divided. The outcome depended on whether the embryos are regarded as persons and subjects, or seen as mere cells and property or objects.
Nicholson, though, saw more problems than the dilemma over the status of the embryos. In the other half of his cartoon he drew a number of vaguely Asiatic figures, poorly clad and standing beneath a sign which said ‘Third World.’ He posed the question, do we have the right to invest in technology to reproduce ourselves while there are so many members of the human community condemned to starvation?
It seems to me that while the Rios predicament raised countless questions these two are really central to the way in which we think about technology and ourselves as human beings.
From section 2 of Stem Cell Research and Cloning: contemporary challenges to our humanity, published as volume 7 number 2 of the Interface series by the Australian Theological Foundation, 2004
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
Praying for those in authority is one of the church’s responsibilities, so it wasn’t difficult for us to agree on this as a theme for one of our evenings. We invited local councillors and MPs, and surprised them as they took to the stage by thanking them publicly for serving with diligence and enthusiasm. We told them that their hard work was appreciated not only by us and others in their constituencies but also by the Lord himself.
Aside from our personal views or persuasions, we all recognised that each of our guests that evening deserved the loud and sustained round of applause that happened spontaneously as Debra finished her introductions and opening comments. One by one, they recounted similar tales of long hours and demanding workloads. A common thread was the lack of appreciation each person felt, although none was complaining, simply accepting that this was par for the course.
There were tears in the eyes of most of them as they received our words of gratitude and praise. One former MP told us later that this was the first time in his long history of public service that he’d attended a meeting where nobody wanted something from him! He was certain that the same applied to our other guests as well.
Despite the fact that few, if any, of those who’d accepted our invitation were Christians, they were all happy to be prayed for publicly. We prayed for their families and personal lives and were surprised at how open some were. The human side of their public persona consistently showed as they opened up about challenges and pressures they were experiencing.
The most remarkable aspect of these [sorts of] gatherings is the atmosphere of openness and honesty that permeates them. You get the impression that the MP feels really safe, and even that this may be the only time they ever get the chance to share such personal and sensitive details about their lives.
From chapter 4 of City Changing Prayer – insights from Manchester’s impacting city-wide prayer movement, published by Kingsway/Survivor 2005
Friday, October 21, 2005
In prison] there are his writings too. It is not only Ethics which he is still working on, but that unwritten book on the future of the Church and its relation to people of the present day. He tries out ideas in these letters, but not casually. Much thinking and prayer and study of the Bible has preceded the remarks apparently thrown off in a personal letter. [Eberhard] Bethge is the only one to whom he can write about these things, because for ten years they have shared the changing theology of a Christian in Nazi Germany, and they have discussed matters endlessly. Bonhoeffer is aware that he is going beyond Bethge, and expects him to be surprised, even worried. Yet, he must go on, because he knows that the time is past when people can be told everything in theological or pious words. The monstrous evil that had beset his country and the poison which it had injected into the Church had made ‘inwardness and conscience’ obsolete. These are the ‘rusty swords’ of which he writes eloquently in Ethics, and with appreciation for the role they have played in the past.
Perhaps religion too is obsolete. He detects that they are moving towards a ‘completely religionless time’ and that people as they now are, ‘cannot be religious any more.’ This he deduces from observation of those who call themselves ‘religious’ – the German Christians, the Confessing Church, the monks at Ettal, for all their differences, come under this heading of ‘calling themselves religious.’ But they do not act up to what they call religious, they live by other means. He can only conclude that they must mean something quite different from what an earlier generation meant by ‘religious.’ There are echoes of the boldness of his very first sermon in this letter.
He observes that the war is not calling forth any ‘religious’ reaction, as other wars have done. He questions whether Christianity is right to assume that humanity is basically religious. For nearly two thousand years, we have made the claim that Christianity represents the highest form of religion and Bonhoeffer does not doubt that. He question whether religion itself is essential to modern man. In sweeping terms that have more than a ring of truth in our day, he outlines the way people have left the Church:
‘The foundation has been taken away from all that has up to now been our ‘Christianity,’ and there remain only a few ‘last survivors of the age of chivalry,’ or a few intellectually dishonest people, on whom we can descend as religious. Are they to be the chosen few? Is it to be on this dubious group of people that we are to pounce in fervour, pique or indignation, in order to sell them our goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them?’
These are rhetorical questions. He is really trying to find what is left, ‘now that the preliminary stage of Christian civilisation is over and we are entering a new era with a complete absence of religion – as we have known it.’
From chapter 14 of The Persistent Voice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – the shame and the sacrifice and after, published by Eagle 2005
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
In the early twentieth century, Nicholas Notovich published his work, The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ: From Buddhistic Records. In that book, the author claims that on his trip to Tibet he found numerous sermons by Jesus. Supposedly, Jesus had delivered these sermons in India while a teenager. News of Notovich’s claim attracted much attention in the 1920s.
Notovich’s work is but one of a number of twentieth-century books that want to demonstrate that Jesus’ teaching ultimately is not Judeo-Christian in orientation but rather is permeated by Asian thinking, even New Age-like teaching. As such, the movement’s motive is polemical in nature: that the orthodox, established church has until recently managed to suppress the ‘authentic’ sources of the life and work of Jesus. For Notovich, the authentic source is clear: Jesus was Buddhist.
[Elaine] Pagels, in The Gnostic Gospels, accepts the supposed connection between Jesus and Buddha, basing it in the Gospel of Thomas. Pagels writes, ‘One need only listen to the words of the Gospel of Thomas to hear how it resonates with the Buddhist tradition…these ancient gospels tend to point beyond faith toward a path of solitary searching to find understanding, or gnosis.’ She asks, ‘Does not such teaching – the identity of the divine and human, the concern with illusion and enlightenment, the founder who is presented not as Lord but as spiritual guide – sound more Eastern than Western?’ She suggests that we might see an explicitly Indian influence in Thomas, perhaps via the Christian communities in southern India, the so-called Thomas Christians.
Never mind that Notovich’s work was exposed as a forgery; the seed had been planted and the twenty-first century is experiencing its harvest of ideas.
From Chapter 3 of Crucified in the Media – finding the real Jesus amidst today’s headlines, published by BakerBooks 2005
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
The Vladimir Theotokos, which represents the Hodigitria type of icon, was painted in Byzantium – probably in Constantinople- at the end of the eleventh century. It has spent, however, most of its thousand years of existence in Russia. It is currently housed in the Tretiakov National Art Gallery in Moscow. A few words about images of the Theotokos in Byzantium and medieval Russia will help place this particular icon in its historical context.
The Vladimir Theotokos is an excellent example of painting from the golden age of Byzantium, whose art is characterised by ‘dignity and graciousness, restraint and balance, an undisturbed refinement and harmony with religious emotion,’ according to Byzantologist A A Vasiliev. This particular icon is the product of the last full-fledged flowering of a civilisation that was precariously balanced on its pinnacle of artistic and political power. By the end of the eleventh century, the fortunes of the Byzantines were on the wane. The devastating defeat of the Byzantine army by the Seljuk Turks in 1076 at Manzikert, compounded by the rape of Constantinople in 1204 by Western crusaders, fatally weakened the empire. Its final fall in 1453 to the forces of the Ottoman Sultan Muhammed II was something of an anticlimax, long expected by all.
The particular compositional type upon which the Vladimir Theotokos icon is based is known as the icon of Lovingkindness (in Russian Umileniie), a translation of the Greek Eleousa, which carries connotations of mercy, compassion, pity and tenderness. In the words of St Isaac of Syria, these emotions flow ‘when a man’s heart burns for all creation - men, birds, demons and all creatures. At their memory and sight his eyes shed tears. This is why he prays hourly, for dumb creation, for the enemies of truth, for those who harm him, [that] they should be preserved and shown mercy; he prays also for the reptiles with a great compassion which wells up in his heart without measure until he becomes likened in this to God.’
The Vladimir Theotokos is the physical image of motherhood transformed into compassion for all creation. In her we see a woman transfigured and magnified into her full spiritual potential. And this, of course, is the task of all true icons: to reveal human beings in their full eschatological meaning through contact with divine grace.
From Chapter 3 of Windows to Heaven – introducing icons to Protestants and Catholics, published by SaltRiver (Tyndale House) 2005
Monday, October 17, 2005
We become disappointed with God when His behaviour doesn’t fit the paradigms and patterns we’ve established for Him in our own minds, just as Caspian and Cornelius became disheartened when Queen Susan’s horn failed to produce the kind of assistance they were expecting to receive. Not that the horn didn’t work; in actuality, it couldn’t have been more effective. But the help it brought was strange – almost too strange to be recognised.
This strangeness surfaces again and again in the story of Prince Caspian. The children run up against it the moment they arrive in Narnia. Who would have guessed that the dilapidated ruin in the midst of the overgrown island would turn out to be Cair Paravel, the grand castle where once they had ruled as kings and queens? Who would have surmised that the Lion would send a group of English schoolchildren to rescue the Old Narnians from King Miraz and his powerful army? Who, indeed, would have supposed that Aslan himself could behave in such an odd, unpredictable manner? ‘Why should Aslan be invisible to us?’ complained Peter at a crucial point in the story. ‘He never used to be. It’s not like him.’
The blackest moment, of course, came during Caspian’s eleventh-hour council meeting at Aslan’s How. The horn had been blown, apparently without effect. Time appeared to be running out. Under the circumstances, one could hardly blame Nikabrik for proposing an alternate plan, however dark and sinister. But it was precisely at this juncture that the long-awaited help – strange, unexpected help – stepped out of the otherworld and into the darkened chamber in the form of Peter and Edmund Pevensie. As Trufflehunter had so rightly predicted, it was waiting at the door all the time.
It’s not like Him. The turnaround always comes when the prospects look bleakest. In the words of novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky:
‘But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting farther from your goal instead of nearer to it – at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you.’
From Chapter 11 of Finding God in the Land of Narnia, published by SaltRiver (Tyndale House) 2005
Friday, October 14, 2005
When we reach those sticky parts of the New Testament where Jesus lost his cool and called people names, we still portray him as having a gleam in his eye or as suppressing a kind smile, because Jesus would never be that rude. He wasn’t really mad, says the underlying message. He just raised his voice a little to get everyone’s attention, like a tour guide on a busy street.
I once treated exclamation points that followed expressions such as ‘hypocrites!’ and ‘brood of vipers fit for hell!’ as if they were merely biblical italics. Jesus was emphasising a point – he didn’t actually yell at anyone….Talk about spin. I did a lot of damage for my Saviour.
I created my own sanitised, unauthorised translation, The Nice Guy Bible (NGB), which I continue to see a lot of other guys carrying around. I rewrote some parts and took others out of context to hide from God and from what he really wanted of me. I kept this distortion of Jesus neatly in my mind, the way a Nice Guy feels he should, until it was destroyed by an unusual and unexpected epiphany: Christ’s humour. His blessed sarcasm helped me begin to see how he actually lived and talked, as opposed to how I’d thought. A mental fog lifted. At last my life received a long-needed clarity. I neared the red-hot bonfire of truth, which warmed and saved me. A greater taste for life awakened.
I began to ask questions like: How come when we ask, WWJD?, we almost always assume some form of quiet, mellow response, when he often spoke and behaved in undeniably rugged ways? If Jesus said we are to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, why have I heard countless sermons admonishing me to live in innocence – a more gentle virtue – but precious few on how to apply wisdom, a more rough-and-tumble virtue that sometimes requires conflict?
Looking back, I once believed this caricature of ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ because it was what I internalised during well-orchestrated church services designed to make God palatable to contemporary taste buds. I was told, though not in so many words, that the safe and pleasant route is really the best.
The popular fiction that Jesus is the Supreme Nice Guy no longer holds any water for me. Have you seen the bumper sticker that reads ‘Jesus Is My Best Friend?’ Puh-leese. I don’t ask my best friends to forgive me for my sins. I don’t pray to my best friends. I don’t worship my best friends. The Lamb of God is also the Lion of Judah. He is good, but I can’t say he is nice.
From Chapter 1 of No More Christian Nice Guy – when being nice – instead of good – hurts men, women and children, published by Bethany House 2005
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
In 1996, while serving as pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama, I became acquainted with a dynamic pastor named John Ed Mathison, who serves as senior minister of the Frazer Memorial United Methodist Church. While Frazer memorial started from humble beginnings, under Mathison’s leadership it quickly grew to the largest average worship attendance of any congregation in the United Methodist Church.
I had the opportunity one day to sit in John Ed’s office and talk to him about Frazer Memorial. I asked him, ‘What do you think is the most significant reason for the growth here at your church?’ John Ed replied, ‘Scott, I get asked that question several times a month. The answer is simple: it is the overwhelming involvement of our laity in every area of our church.’ He went on to say, ‘Our church continues to grow because people invite people to visit and become a part of our church. The bottom line for church growth is that God uses people to reach people. In our case, church members who find deep satisfaction in their ministry experience here at Frazer Memorial are excited and invite their friends and loved ones to worship here. As a result, people are experiencing the joy of seeing God work through them to meet the needs of others around them. It’s contagious!’
I have found this to be true throughout my entire ministry. The secret of growth is the personal involvement of the church membership in meaningful ministry. Church members actively involved in a worthwhile ministry in the church are more interested in sharing what God is doing through them than finding fault and criticising others. I’ve discovered that people who are busy rowing don’t have the time or energy to rock the boat! People who are absorbed in serving and witnessing create a contagious atmosphere for inviting people and encouraging others to serve.
A major problem in many churches today is that many members have the mind-set that ministry is to be done by the professional clergy or ministerial staff of the church, and that laypersons are the recipients of that ministry. This attitude is killing the effectiveness of the church. In fact, I fear that if this misconception is not corrected in our churches, the results will be devastating. Even now we are dangerously close to echoing the words from the book of Judges where it declares, ‘After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel.’
From Chapter 9 of Reach – a team approach to evangelism and assimilation, published by BakerBooks 2005
Monday, October 10, 2005
The perspective of all the biblical writers is a factor that limits their usefulness in another regard. It is no exaggeration to say that all the biblical literature – especially the historical and prophetic works – constitutes what is essentially ‘propaganda.’ The writers make no pretence to objectivity. They are openly partisan, championing the cause of extreme nationalism and orthodox Yahwism, that is, the Truth as they see it. They have no tolerance for divergent views, not even when they are held by kings, all of whom they despise except for the ‘good’ reformist kings Hezekiah and Josiah. These extremists were, of course, minority parties given the historical reality in 8th-7th century Israel. But it is they who wrote the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible, as one of my theological friends (I have a few) likes to say, is a ‘minority report.’ As we would put it today, the writers were ‘spin doctors.’ Thus the Bible is ancient ‘revisionist history,’ on a grand scale.
That observation leads me to the point, of critical importance in looking to the Hebrew Bible for a picture of Israelite religions. The Bible’s portrait throughout is an ‘idealistic’ one – not a picture of Israelite religion as it was at all, but a picture of what it should have been, and would have been if these zealots had actually been in charge. Ironically, the very condemnation of ‘folk religion’ by the editors is what reveals many of the very characteristics that I shall document here. In trying to suppress popular cults, they inadvertently confirm their existence.
In sum, the degree to which the biblical texts can be taken as reliable historical evidence is crucial to our inquiry. The ‘historicity’ of the Bible is perhaps the most hotly debated topic in biblical studies today, with ‘minimalists’ and ‘maximalists’ battling it out in the literature.
I reject absolutely the assertion of some ‘revisionists’ that the Bible is not about history at all, and only recently has anyone ever wanted it to be. The first statement is mindless: it all depends upon what one means by ‘history.’ And the second is simply not true. Until the recent fad of creeping scepticism, most people, even more liberal biblical scholars, assumed that the Bible was history in some sense. On the other hand, the Hebrew Bible is obviously not history in the modern sense, that is, ‘disinterested,’ objective, balanced, academic history. In keeping with most mainstream biblical scholarship today, I shall often (though not always) regard the Hebrew Bible as ‘historicized fiction’- stories that are based on some genuine historical events, but always told in such a way as to advance the ideological agenda of the writers and editors.
In the end, this is not ‘history,’ but ‘his story.’ The story is all about God – about religion in that sense – but embodying the writers’ idiosyncratic version of Israelite religion. We have already seen, and will see again, why nearly all ancient and even modern commentators have bought into the Bible’s propaganda. But, of course, we must remember that ‘propaganda’ has its positive uses, too, and the best of it is based at least on some facts.
From Chapter 3 of Did God Have a Wife – archaeology and folk religion in ancient Israel, published by Eerdmans 2005
Friday, October 07, 2005
Pasternak wrote only one novel in his life, but he considered it his masterpiece and the summation of his life’s work. Doctor Zhivago is an ‘inner history’ of twentieth-century Russia that contrasts the private experiences of its finest citizens against the tumultuous changes in world history. The critic Nicola Chiaromonte describes the work as a ‘mediation on the infinite distance which separates the human conscience from the violence of history and permits a man to remain a man, to rediscover the track of truth that the whole whirlwind of events continually cancels and confuses.’ The key to rediscovering the track of truth lies in the capacity of love to seek that which exists beyond itself and in the process transform all things into signs and symbols of the transcendent.
The work is often misread, because it is a poet’s novel, a symbolic work, not a realist fiction in the tradition of Turgenev or Tolstoy, and because it was published in the West during the Cold War after it had already been rejected by Soviet publishers. When Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in 1958, the Soviets saw the award as a propaganda attempt by the west to elevate a second-rate anti-Soviet novelist to the front ranks of world literature, and so forbade him from accepting the prize. Soviet critics blasted Zhivago as a species of failed socialist realism, misreading its form, undervaluing its lyricism, and totally ignoring its symbolic character; while many Western readers misappropriated the work as an anti-communist tract, oversimplifying its complex message, undervaluing its artistic integrity, and missing its ascetic spirituality. ‘What Pasternak opposes to Communism,’ the Trappist monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton wrote, ‘is not a defence of Western Democracy, not an alternative political platform, not a formal religion, but life itself, and leaves us to ponder the consequences.’
The novel (also terribly misrepresented by David Lean’s movie, which captures all its images and none of its ideas) illustrates how easy it is to succumb to amorality in the name of historical necessity, and how easy it is for people to fall into playing parts in a social drama they misconceive, abandoning their integrity for the greater drama of an artificial existence. Yuri and Lara, like many other educated men and women of their generation, welcomed the Revolution and yet, despite its betrayal, continued to make sacrifices for Russia. They understood their place in history much differently than those who ruled them, and so their lives witnessed to a deeper, spiritual vision still living in internal exile within the Soviet system.
Dr Zhivago is a great mandala of psychological and philosophical responses to the Russian Revolution and its aftermath – with Yuri and Lara at its moral/intellectual centre – unconvinced by Soviet ideology – remaining true to the lost promise of Russian high modernist culture.
It was left to Solzhenitsyn to turn this inner resolve into outward rebellion, and by so doing expose the limitations of Pasternak’s literary ‘no’ to power by adding his own brave ‘yes’ to active noncooperation with evil. Pasternak’s contribution to Russian history was to excise Russian Orthodoxy’s unconscious collaboration with Marx, and though he may have gone too far in his advocacy of a necessary, almost monastic, isolation form the powers that be, his tragic Christian vision helped pave the way for Solzhenitsyn’s dissident faith.
From Chapter 2 of Subversive Orthodoxy – outlaws, revolutionaries, and other Christians in disguise, published by Brazos Press 2005