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Practicing the presence of God

A few years ago (2011), we had the pleasure of hosting C. René Padilla in our home. I had been at the 10 year review of the Micah Declaration.  René was there, as were other important majority world mission leaders such as Melba Maggay, C.B. Samuel, and Vinoth Ramachandra. On the Sunday René  was to preach in our home church. We had a BBQ on the Sunday afternoon and invited various students to come and chat.As is his wont, René spoke a great deal about the church. One of the students asked, “but René what is the church?” He replied “simple, ‘where two or three are gathered in my name'” (Matthew 18:20).

I tell that story because, in my conversations and reading, I am increasingly getting the feeling that we really don’t know what the Church is. This simple, almost reductionist answer reveals a great deal.

I spoke last Sunday at that same church on Matthew 1-2; a Nativity play not for the children and one thing I emphasised was from Matthew 1:23, which quotes from Isaiah 7:14, ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).‘ God with us is the presence of the living God among humanity. At the end of Matthew the Great Commission ends with a promise, “And I will be with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Returning to René’s quote of 18:20

These three verses–Matthew 1:23; 18:20 and 28:20-point us to the essence of Church.

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Mission and King Louie

No not Louie XVI or the Rapper but the one from the Jungle Book. This King Louie famously sang, “I want to be like you oo oo!” It seems to me that often in the West, and mission (not only from the West) turns that around and says, “I want you to be like me ee ee!”

Christians are often accused of imposing their views on other people, missionaries doubly so. This is sometimes a justified accusation but sometimes it is simply an aggressive reaction to a simple sharing of the Gospel. Much of mission training is to convince students that mission and planting churches is not about reproducing our own culturally appropriate (or inappropriate) models of church in other places.

Because the modern mission movement emerged from the Western European church it shared much of the West’s expansionist elements. This can be illustrated by seeing how Western politicians and song-writers see the establishment of peace. As much as I love and respect US President Barack Obama, his response to the Paris atrocities demonstrates this. He said,

“This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”

John Lennon expresses the the same attitude perfectly in his anthem “Imagine,’

You may say I’m a dreamer, But I’m not the only one, Maybe some day you’ll join us, I the world will be as one.

The simply way that the world can be as one, is by you joining us. You need to become like us for the world to be as one.

This attitude divides the world into “them and us” categories, much loved by media all over the world. This is an attack on “all of humanity and the universal values we share”. There are bad people; i.e. those who carry out these attacks and there are good people; i.e. those who share our “universal values”. Whose values? What values? Well the answer is simple; my values.

I believe there are very many people in the world who do not share my values. Many of them are good people as well.

Mission is not people becoming like me but they, and I becoming more like Jesus Christ.

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Refugees, migrants or neighbours?

I am attending the INFEMIT conference on “The Migrant Crisis” at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies (OCMS). There are some great speakers and massive themes. We have had Old Testament scholars as well as people working on the ground: there is an OT theologian from Greece and a worker on the ground from Lebenon. There are a couple of things that have struck me.

Firstly, both the speakers from Greece and Lebenon, both shared how the church has been revived by engagement with the people arriving in their countries. They said that there was fear at the beginning but the churches, when they started to help, house, and share their lives with the people then they found their true meaning.

The second thing that really struck me has been the dehumanising nature of the system that the people are coming to. They immediately get labeled “migrant” or “refugee” when they used to be human beings. The speaker from Lebenon said that people change their identity in the process of moving.

Too many organisations have programmes to care for people but not enough who incorperate people into their communities. This is what the local church can truly be. Can we see people arriving on European shores or UK shores as neighbours rather than migrants or refugees?

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Exceptional Europe

No, I’m not going to argue that the UK should remain in the EU, although I would hold that position. Let’s not get diverted with those arguments. I am referring to an excellent book by the British sociologist, Grace Davie, Europe: The Exceptional Case where she argues, rather convincingly, that the only continent that is rejecting religion wholesale is Europe.

In light light of last week’s posts, what is the role of the mission agency in this context. In the light of the fact that European churches seem incapable of reaching the non-Christian, especially secular, atheistic, liberal non-believers with the gospel, is there a role for mission agencies? This is the area where I think the agency comes into its own; with its experience facilitating mission elsewhere in the world, the role of the agency is to show the local church how to do mission here.

Lesslie Newbigin was a great example of a missionary bringing his experience from India back to Birmingham and sharing this experience with the UK for its benefit. (If you have never read Gospel in a Pluralist Society for do so without delay.)

There are missionaries from all over the world coming to the UK. They need people who have worked with the church in their home nations to come along side them to help orientate them to become more effective cross-cultural christian workers here.

See here for a Latin Perspective

 

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Do Mission Agencies want to be First?

We were talking yesterday of the sometimes over inflated self-image of mission societies. Reflecting on this, Mark 10:44 came to mind. If anyone wants to be first then they must be slave (δοῦλος·) of all. If mission agencies wish to remain important to the world mission enterprise, service is the way.

So how does a mission agency serve the world church? It is all very well for a theologian to pontificate from the luxury of his or her study but, if mission agencies can only prove their validity by serviing the world church rather than simply facilitate mission from the West to the rest, or even from one continent to another, how is this done in practice?

The worldwide church is a fact that Christians have been slow to recognise. The  myth that the Western church is at the centre of what God is doing in the world is frustratingly persistent. We are, in a real sense a victim of the success of world mission. Not our success but God’s.

The Modern Missionary Movement was brought to birth by the so-called Father of Modern Mission, William Carey (BTW who was the mother?). By 1910 the world mission movement saw itself as being within reach of the goal, “the evangelisation of the world in our generation”. Archbishop William Temple said in the early twentieth century that the “great new fact of our time” is that there was a church in every nation. Henry Venn, the former director of CMS pointed out that the “goal” of 19th Century missions was the “euthanasia of mission structures”.

So returning to the question, how do mission agencies serve that worldwide church. If we assume that the role of the local church in the world to reach out to that world, then the agency must be serving those local churches in their mission. What do those agencies bring to the local church? I guess it could be any number of things, mobilisation, resources (personel and practical), experience, expertise or encouragement.

For agencies who work with a regional emphasis this may mean transferring the main office, or at least the office that directs strategy to the place where they work. This would give the executives leading these agencies far more knowledge, information and feel for the church that the agenciy is aiming to serve. Great examples are OMF, SIM and WEC.

What do we think?

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Let’s get rid of mission agencies!

I’ve got an idea. Let’s get rid of mission agencies! Where did this idea that mission agencies were essential for mission come from? Mission agencies, i suspect. Are mission agencies needed today. Sorry to be blunt but as a missional theologian, that’s my job. I hope this will make us think.

We may have got rid of the titles such as The Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Amongst the Heathen and The Regions Beyond Missionary Union and replaced them with pithy names such as BMS and Latin Link but have we actually changed our way of working? If not then, frankly are mission agencies redundant?

My answer to this is question is yes…and no. Traditionally mission agencies facilitated Western Christians to preach the gospel in ‘foreign climes’; mostly where the gospel had never been preached and where there was no church. Today, where there is a church in every nation, what is the agencies’ role? If agencies are still working in the traditional way, sending mission partners from a shrinking European Church then, I would say, “mene, mene, tekel, parsin“. The agencies’ days are numbered, we have been weighed and found wanting, and our role will be divided between those who can do a more useful job.

The answer to the question as to whether mission agencies are redundant must also be a resounding “no” but they need to be reformed or even re-formed. Traditionally they have served the Western church and its members, but today, to be at all useful or valid, the mission agency must serve the world church. In my own agency, we must be serving the Latin American church as much as, if not more than, the European church. Or we serve the European church by sending non-Western missionaries to serve in it.

This will mean structural changes need to take place. Can a mission agency that serves the growing world church, be based in a continent where the church is shrinking and is possibly sick unto dealth? These are few random thoughts that i hope will promote reflection.

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Contemporary religion

I am rereading a fascinating book by the philosopher, John Gray (not the one who wrote Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus). He is a atheist–are real atheist–he calls Richard Dawkins “too Christian”! Here is a quote that I hope you find interesting. It is from a book called Heresies: Against Progress and other Illusions Granta Publications, 2004.

Of all modern delusions, the idea that we live in a secular age is the furthest from reality. Throughout much of the world, religion is thriving with undiminished vitality. Where believers are in the majority, as they are in Britain today, traditional faiths are being replaced by liberal humanism, which is now established as the  unthinking creed of thinking people. Yet liberal humanism its self very obviously a religion – but a shoddy replica of Christian faith markedly more irrational than the original article, and in recent times more harmful. If this is not recognised, it is because religion has been repressed from consciousness in the way that sexuality was repressed in Victorian times. Now as then, the result is not that the need disappears, but rather that it. returns in Bazaar and perverse forms. (pg 41).
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Salus e mundo or Salus mundi?

I was giving a class to the All Nations MA students yesterday on salvation and mission. We had some interesting discussions. David Bosch said,

“The scope of salvation—however we define salvation—determines the scope of the missionary enterprise.” (Bosch, Transforming Mission, 1991: 393)

This is so true. If salvation is simply going to heaven when we die, then mission will be confined to evangelism. However, if we see salvation as incorporating the physical, social and political, mission becomes far wider. It is not so much Salus e mundo (salvation from the world) as Salus mundi (salvation of the world). This creates a certain number tensions is salvation horizontal or vertical; is it future or present and is it individual or social

In my dissertation I describe Miguez Bonino’s view;

Christ’s death and resurrection are not viewed as the salvation of individuals from individual sin for an a-historical future but rather the re-launching of the original divine project for humanity. (Paul Davies, Faith Seeking Effectiveness (Zoetemeer: Boekencentrum, 2006) p. 139.)

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What is the Church?

Yesterday, the MA group were treating the issue of “ecclesiology”: the doctrine of the church. We noted that the church is sometimes seen as a hospital, a family and even a country club! In one sense it can act in these ways for good or ill, but it is not any of these things in itself. Theologically we could say it is the main instrument in the hands of the Holy Spirit to witness to, embody and work towards the establishment of the kingdom of God.  That would be more accurate but a bit theoretical.

Yes it is there to heal broken lives but that’s not its main role, yes it is there to “contain” people like a family [contener is wonderful Spanish word meaning to contain as in a jar but also people within communities] and it is also a place for people to meet but it has a role beyond itself: God’s just rule upon this earth.

In all it is and does the church [local and universal] should be to see God’s rule announced; given a concrete form and worked towards. The church is God’s revolutionary group.

 

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Hoarding is idolatry!

I was amused more than annoyed when the Church of England’s film was turned down for showing at UK cinemas. People asked what was so offensive. This got me thinking. That God’s name is honoured rather than blasphemed, that his kingdom should come on earth and his will be done could two good starters for ten.

Then the next line hit me, “give us today our daily bread”. Not bread for the week, or month or year but today and daily. Reflecting upon what Bonhoeffer says about this verse from Matthew is truly shocking and would most certainly be offensive our consumerist society.

Earthly goods are given to be used, not to be collected. In the wilderness God gave Israel the manna every day, and they had no need to worry about food and drink. Indeed, if they kept any of the manna over until the next day, it went bad. In the same way, the disciple must receive his portion from God every day. If he stores it up as a permanent possession, he spoils not only the gift, but himself as well, for he sets his heart on accumulated wealth, and makes it a barrier between himself and God. Where our treasure is, there is our trust, our security, our consolation and our God. Hoarding is idolatry.

George Osbourne would not approve!

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The Cost of Being a Missionary

Yesterday I blogged about the need for missionaries to “work their way out of a job”. I think this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer sums up the internal attitude we need for that task.

“costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” “

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Where did the idea that the role of a missionary was “to work your way out of a job” disappear to? Agh!!!!

I know I have blogged on this subject before but this issue keeps popping up. This post was prompted by a prayer request on one of our many prayer diaries that we follow. It basically asked that we pray for a certain missionary to settle in and be able to evangelize and disciple young people.

Now, I may be over-reacting but my first thought was, “it is the job of the local church, not the missionary or the agency, to evangelize and disciple”.  Clearly the missionary should be a member of the local church and thereby be part of a group who do evangelism, however, the missionary should at least be attempting to train others to do the job.

One of the first slogans of mission I ever heard [and as the son of a mission trainer of 50 years that was a long time ago!] was the role of the missionary was to “work your way out of a job”. Good old Roland Allen in his Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours said this 104 years ago! You would have thought, even in this dull-witted age, that we may have caught on by now.

What’s the answer? Is it a moratorium on foreign missions? The answer is certainly not me whining on my blog! Answers on a postcard.

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The future of mission agencies?

This past Wednesday at All Nations we had our annual missions fair. Almost 30 mission agencies were present. The students were able to get a lot of information from the literature and by asking questions of the representatives. This is always an interesting time for them although they often feel overwhelmed.

It always interests me how mission reps view the role of their agency and agencies in general. I also, in conversation try and provoke discussion on the role of agencies in mission today.

An interesting piece of data I picked up is that agencies are getting smaller. They have fewer missionaries and some are attempting merge with other agencies. The reasons given were also interesting. Most blamed both fewer people going into mission, more short-term mission and direct sending from churches. We will come back to this.

Because was representing Latin Link a few people mentioned that they had seen fast growth in Latin Americans in mission. Somebody told me that in a missionary kids classroom over half the kids were Brazilian.

O what is the future of the mission agency? Since the end of the eighteenth century and the beginnings of the so-called “Modern Mission Movement” with the BMS, CMS and LMS, et, it was assumed that sending through an missio agency, as a middle-man between the church and the missionary overseas was the best way forward. This has been questioned in the past twenty to thirty years.

Large churches send their missionaries directly. Other models are being tried such as the Latin American mission agency that is a receiving body rather than a sending one. They receive, orientate and care for the “field” side of things and the church deals with sending of money and home-leave issues. This is not perfect but s questioning whether the traditional mission agency should be changing.

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The Humanity of God

I taught a class yesterday on the En Route programme at All Nations and we were reflecting on the incredible nature of God who we know in Jesus Christ. When we read about him in the Gospels, we cannot help but be bowled over by the incredible person we are confronted by.

This is not simply an incredible man like Martin Luther King, or Gandhi, Christ is the humanity of God. Not simply God in a body, but God as human. This is the miracle of the incarnation. In Jesus Christ we see God as He is: born into as a tiny baby, in a country oppressed by a foreign power, pursued by a despot, working with his hands to make a living, associating himself with the poor, lame, immoral, and needy, walking dusty roads, being treated unjustly, being abandoned, and ultimately tried in a kangaroo court and executed as an innocent man.

That’s God for you!

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Of towers and false unities

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’ But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’ So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel– because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Genesis 11 is a classic passage that we were taught in Sunday School. Humanity was getting way too big for its boots in building a tower and God decides to slap them down.

Jose Miguez Bonino, however, has a rather different and, in my opinion more coherent interpretation. Instead of the one language being the original human language, he proposes that this was an imposed language of Shinar, the forerunner of Babylon. The Incas and the Spanish used this policy of social control in Latin America. There was only one language allowed to be used and so people and things can be monitored.

The tower itself was a symbol of the power of the empire to dominate the peoples around. So when God comes down, first to look and then to mix up the languages, this is an act of liberation from the dominance of empire.

The language and the tower are false symbols of unity, which God destroys.

There are so many false unities in the world today. These false unities are things like capitalism, democracy or even the fight against “terror”. In the church their are false unities such as denominations, traditions, styles of worship and conferences.

All true unity should be unity around that which liberates not that which enslaves. The true unity is Jesus Christ.

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Born in Blood and Fire

This is the title of a concise history of Latin America.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of teaching a class on Latin American History to the Latin Link Stride orientation group. They are an incredibly engaged and intelligent group having already had experience and deep sense of God’s hand on their lives.

After I had explained the Conquistadores motivation and activity in coming to Latin America, one of the group asked “how do we share the Gospel with indigenous people who have been so oppressed by Christians. This led to a discussion on attitudes and activities of missionaries in Latin America which didn’t come to many conclusions but which was sobering in its content and context.

This led me to further reflect on the certainty and uncertainty of our witness. We are sure of the Gospel which has saved us and which engages us in the establishment of God’s kingdom upon the earth but the uncertainty of what it means for other people.

Latin America was ravaged by people on a mission. Christopher Columbus or Cristobal Colon believed he was claiming land for God (and Spain). He said that he was traveling in the name of the Holy Trinity. Fransisco Pizarro took priests on his conquering mission to subjugate the Inca and by subterfuge and just down-right lies he captured and executed the Inca himself. He was convinced he was doing the right thing.

We may not use any of these under-hand methods but we need to be very aware of how our missionary motivation is always contaminated by sinfulness. This is a message as much for missionaries as it is for politicians who claim to want to make peace and protect their citizens.

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R-Rated Nativity Play

It is often said that Christmas is for the Children. Christmas is geared around warm, cosy feelings of warmth and safety. Well, Matthew didn’t seem to get
the email; Matthew’s nativity would have to be shown after the 9 O’clock watershed. The “Original British Drama” type of programme.

In Mt 1 and 2 we have suspected adultery; leading to possible divorce; astrology; a despotic king plotting the death of a potential rival—something
like the princes in the tower of King Richard fame—we have the massacre of
innocent children—perhaps not on the scale of ISIS but something akin—we
have a middle eastern family fleeing this murderous situation and the
internal displacement of a vulnerable family. Not exactly what the traditional
Nativity play includes. You can almost here the shrill, outraged voice of the Daily Mail, “Children Traumatised by ‘realistic’ Nativity Play.”

In the first two chapters of Matthew we get a lot of information about the
identity of this child. I want to focus in on the Immanuel (God with us) title.
The presence of God is like bookends at the beginning and end of Matthew’s
Gospel. ‘And they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’) (Mt
1:23) and ‘I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Mt 28:20).
Biblical scholars tell us that when you get such an “inclusio” the rest of the
book should be read through that concept.

It is amazing when we consider the way God chose to be with us. God has
intervened in human history not by sending a prophet with a message (as in
the Old Testament), not by writing a book and giving it to us (as Muslims
believe about the Koran), but he has intervened in human history by coming
bodily to earth and by becoming one of us.

Bethlehem was 5.5ml from Jerusalem and Herod’s soldiers. He truly did put
Jesus in harm’s way. God chose to be put into dangerous and vulnerable
position. He came into a poor and vulnerable refugee family who actually
end up as an internally displaced people. Joseph was from Bethlehem but
they are forced to live, probably near Mary’s family in Nazareth. As we know
from Nathaniel’s comment in John 1:46, Nazareth was not well respected.

So here we have Matthew’s rather gritty narrative. Not one for the children.

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Being a world Christian

Bored with a BBC article and discussion on the dangers of obesity, I did what I always do and switch over to Al Jazeera. I was immediately stunned by the news that the Syrian opposition groups are in talks to unite against Assad; that there were talk in the demilitarised zone in Korea between North and South Korea and that Zanu PF have their conference and there is speculation about Mugabe’s successor.

This got me thinking about my responsibilities as a Christian. Firstly to pray for the world in its difficulties and problems. Secondly, to be informed of world events. Thirdly to prompt others to be interested.

The problem of the parochial is that we think the world revolves around us. We don’t actually consciously think this but we act as if it were so. The BBC tends only to give the news as it affects the UK. So the growth of IS is reported as it affects the UK. If we are to develop a mind in tune with God, I think we must move beyond this introspective way of thinking.

So being a Christian is being a world Christian.

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Attitudes towards Islam and Muslims

It is alarming the polarisation of attitudes towards Islam, and possibly more alarming towards Muslims that we are seeing in the media: both mainstream and social.Donald Trump’s statement and his support from Franklin Graham is appalling. We seem to be forgetting our basic Christian values. In stead of preaching I want to quote from an old Lausanne Document on Evangelism of Muslims.

The important thing is realise that this was planning the evangelisation of the Muslim world, but catch the ethos of the statements here.

During mid-October 1978, a week-long consultation was convened at Glen Eyrie, Colorado, to explore the responsibilities of North American Christians toward the Muslim World.

We Christians have loved so little, and have put forth such little effort to regard Muslims as people like ourselves. They too bear the image and likeness of God. They, too, deserve the love and respect God would have his people accord all men. Although we know their inmost needs—like ours—can only be satisfied by Christ, we somehow draw back from sharing him with them.

And we North American Christians also tend to be critical of Islamic culture. In our pride and ethnocentrism we have forgotten that our own culture is terribly flawed. True, it reflects the creativity of a pluralistic society, but it also expresses our fallenness. Since Christ judges all cultures and is seeking through the Gospel to infuse and transform them with his Presence, he would have us discern and appreciate the redeemable in Islamic culture.

It was inevitable that whenever the subject of conflict and suffering was broached, there were those who quickly reminded us—and did so correctly—that for much of this Christians had only themselves to blame. Not all missionaries have been wise and holy, noble and loving. Some have tended to misrepresent and belittle the moral and religious stature of Muhammad and the Quran. All too many have been uncritically defensive of Christian missions in the Muslim world during the long years of Western political dominance. As a result, they have been largely indifferent to the task of reducing the mistrust and misunderstanding that accentuated past tensions and rivalries. And they have given the impression that they lack concern for the deterioration of Christian values in the Christian world while openly encouraging the process of secularization in the Muslim world.

It was humbling for us to be confronted by this evidence of cultural imperialism coupled with aggressive and insensitive proselytism. We were agreed that much within the modern missionary movement needs rectification. And yet, we were also reminded that this was not the whole story.

What is notable here, is what I see to be absent today in Western dealing with Muslims: humility and repentance. May God forgive us.

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Of dimensions and intentions

I am returning to the issue of the missionary nature of the Church and Stephen Neill’s assertion that if we say that everything the church does is mission then  “mission” becomes and meaningless term and we need to find another name for the Church’s “going out” from itself into the world. If everything is mission then nothing is mission.

I like to use Lesslie Newbigin’s idea of dividing the missionary nature of the Church into it missionary dimension and its missionary intention. The missionary dimension, as Bosch points out, is its worship and fellowship and its intention is its preaching and service to the world.

This means that worship of God has a “reaching out” dimension to it. The Psalmist called upon the nations to worship the LORD (Psalms 47: 67: 117). Fellowship is not mission but it is by the love that Christians have for one another that the world know that we are disciples of Jesus Christ (John 13:35).

I have often said that too much time and money are spent on the internal workings of the church and not enough on the external mission. I hold to this but when the internal dimensions to the church are seen in missionary perspective then they should feed the missionary intention of the church.

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We Have Hope

Yesterday I preached at my home church on Matthew’s nativity. It is not for children or even the fainthearted! This got me thinking about song we used to sing in Latin America by a Methodist Bishop. The music is Tango and expresses that because of the Incarnation and subsequent words and actions of Jesus is that we have hope.

The original Spanish is below my translation.

We have Hope

By Federico Pagura

Because he entered the world and history;

because he broke the silence and agony;

because he filled the earth with his glory;

because he was light in our cold night.

Because he was born in a dark manger;

because he lived sowing love and life;

because broke hard hearts and

raised the downcast souls.

For this reason we have hope;

For this reason we fight with vigor;

For this reason we look with confidence to the future (in this my land).

Because he attacked ambitious merchants

and denounced wickedness and hypocrisy;

because he exalted children and women

and rejected those that burned with pride.

Because he carried the cross of our griefs

and savored the gall of our wrongs;

because he accepted to suffer our condemnation,

and so die for all mortals.

For this reason we have hope;

For this reason we fight with vigor;

For this reason we look with confidence to the future (in this my land).

Because a bright dawn saw his great victory

over death, fear and lies;

now nothing can stop his story,

nor his eternal Kingdom nor his return.

For this reason we have hope;

For this reason we fight with vigor;

For this reason we look with confidence to the future (in this my land).


Tenemos Esperanza

By Federico Pagura

Porque El entró en el mundo y en la historia;

porque El quebró el silencio y la agonía;

porque llenó la tierra de su gloria;

porque fue luz en nuestra noche fría.

Porque nació en un pesebre oscuro;
porque vivió sembrando amor y vida;
porque partió los corazones duros
y levantó las almas abatidas.

Por eso es que hoy tenemos esperanza;

por eso es que hoy luchamos con porfía;

por eso es que hoy miramos con confianza,

el porvenir en esta tierra mía.

 

Porque atacó a ambiciosos mercaderes
y denunció maldad e hipocresía;
porque exaltó a los niños, las mujeres
y rechazó a los que de orgullo ardían.

Porque El cargó la cruz de nuestras penas
y saboreó la hiel de nuestros males;
porque aceptó sufrir nuestra condena,
y así morir por todos los mortales.

Por eso es que hoy tenemos esperanza;

por eso es que hoy luchamos con porfía;

por eso es que hoy miramos con confianza,

el porvenir en esta tierra mía.

Porque una aurora vio su gran victoria
sobre la muerte, el miedo, las mentiras;
ya nada puede detener su historia,
ni de su Reino eterno la venida

Por eso es que hoy tenemos esperanza;

por eso es que hoy luchamos con porfía;

por eso es que hoy miramos con confianza,

el porvenir en esta tierra mía.

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Nonsense remains nonsense, even when talked by world-famous scientists.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Christianity’s engagement with Western culture recently.There are many points of engagement, but one particular one in public conscience is Christianity’s engagement with science. I read Stephen Hawking’s book, Grand Designs when it came out. The publicist certainly earned his money. What an incredible furore. The debate seems to be stuck.

The book, co-authored with US physicist Leonard Mlodinow, states “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.’ He also says, “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.” Therefore, “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” All that Hawking seems to be saying is as Simon Pierre marquis de Laplace; “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là” (I have no need for such a hypothesis).

The Headlines are even more astounding, “God did not create the universe”, blares the BBC website. But the question is, “can human science disprove the existence of God. What Stephen Hawking is saying, that according to the science, God does not need to be there. He does not deny the existence of God-Hawking has already dismissed the idea of a personal god.

In popular consciousness, science and religion are at war. At the level of scholarship this is clearly not the case. Popular science and I am afraid this is where professor Hawking has descended to is claiming to be the source of ALL true knowledge.

Earlier in the 20th Century, Logical Positivism claimed that, only verifiable statements can be affirmed as true. A.J. Ayer, the British philosopher, adjusted a popularized logical positivism. Externally this statement seems to be a strong argument, until we point out that the statement that “only verifiable statements can be taken to be true” is not a verifiable statement. Ayer sawed off the very branch he was seated on.

What sorts of questions can scientists, using the scientific method, gathering evidence, collating data, validly be asked to answer? All Hawking has said in this book, for example is that within the parameters of his theory, there is no need for God to be there; which is fine and coherent within the worldview professor Hawking operates. This does not however, disprove the existence of God.

As John Lennox said, “Nonsense remains nonsense, even when talked by world-famous scientists.”

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Evangelism According to David Bosch

Tranforming MissionIn his magisterial book, Transforming Mission, David Bosch makes 18 thesis on the subject of evangelism. I thought I’d share them with you.

  1. Mission is more than evangelism.
  2. Therefore, evangelism should not be equated with mission.
  3. Evangelism is an essential element of all the church does.
  4. Evangelism testifies to what God has done, is doing and will do.
  5. Evangelism seeks for a response.
  6. Evangelism is always an invitation.
  7. The evangelist is witness not judge.
  8. Evangelism is an indispensable ministry.
  9. Evangelism is only possible when the evangelising community is a radiant manifestation of the Christian Faith and exhibits an attractive lifestyle.
  10. Evangelism offers present and future salvation.
  11. Evangelism is not proselytism.
  12. Evangelism is not the same as church extension.
  13. Evangelism and church extension are related.
  14. Evangelism can only be directed at people.
  15. Authentic evangelism is always contextual.
  16. Therefore, evangelism cannot be separated from the proclamation and practice of justice.
  17. Evangelism is not a mechanism to force the return of Christ.
  18. Evangelism in not only verbal proclamation

 pp. 411-420.

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Does God love Jihadis?

Does God love Jihadis? This is a theological or even theoretical question but it also has vitally important missiological consequences.

This is the problem, if God loves a person, and we love God, does this mean that we must love that person? Well, I am so sorry to say, yes. Evil people, people who consider themselves your enemy, should be the object of your love. This, of course, does not mean that we do not oppose evil but we are not permit to hate.

“Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45). To be a child of our Father in heaven we must love and pray for enemies and persecutors. But there is worse to come. The most important moment in history, God’s intervention in history, Jesus tells us the most awful thing. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Who are the “they”? The soldiers who did the crucifixion? These were some of the most hardened and cruel soldiers in the Roman army. But Jesus forgives them. Or is it all those involved in Jesus’ death? Soldiers, Sanhedrin, Judas? Whatever, Jesus does not hold them to account. But isn’t this the missiological point. This is forgiveness of the most evil.

Don’t you think that God’s demands are just a bit too much? Isn’t ISIS beyond God’s love? Can’t we just hate them? Unfortunately, no. Darn!

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Christianity, politics and climate change

COP 21 in Paris has ambitious hopes. COP 21 stands for the 21st Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It hopes not only to make a statement and have an agreement on limiting carbon emissions but, in a very real sense, change the way business is carried out in the world, which is having such a devastating effect on the planet. We as Christian must be in favour of this. We need to pray for the Paris meetings; write to our MP speak in our churches about this. We are sleep walking towards destroying what was by and for the Lord Jesus Christ.

Dr. Andrew Leake has written an excellent article on this. Please scroll down for the English version. Please take time to read it.

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The longest word in English

It is often said that the longest word in English is antidisistablishmentarianism. Actually , antidisestablishmentariam is the longest, non-technical word. The longest technical word is 189819 letters long, which the longest chemical protein, titin. Also it is the longest non-coined words such Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

All this is to introduce an interesting debate, piggybacking an article from Wednesday’s Guardian–what do they think they are guarding? Truth? Good spelling? The article basically proposes disestablishment of the Church of England. Antidisestablishmentarianism opposes this.

The basic thrust of the article is that because the CofE is so estranged from the everyday life of the UK–a disputed claim in itself–the church should be disestablished to survive and serve the nation.

The C of E needs to let go of its constitutional power, drop its assumptions and end this charade that it’s still somehow the default setting for English spirituality. In its current form, it serves neither the nation nor the faith it proclaims: it needs to disestablish and de-institutionalise, to change its name and its face. It may soon begin its own programme of reform, but what it needs is a revolution. Because here’s another strange thing: we might need a reborn Church of England more than ever.

The question I want ask, however, is does the link between the church and state benefit or damage the mission of the Church of England? In one sense, as a non-Anglican, I do not have a right to opine about this. In another sense, with the media’s tendency to see the Anglican Church as the expression of all British Christianity, I do.

As with most disputed issues, there are strong arguments on both sides. On the positive side it does express the important missionary assertion that faith and politics are inextricably linked. On the other hand it does locate that political theology in the centre of society rather than from the margins. Or to put it another way, it is political theology at home rather than in exile.

Practically, it does give vicars entrance into people’s lives that a non-Conformist pastor may not get. It also gives more of a unified voice into society as the Archbishop of Canterbury attempts to do. It does put the Church of England into an extremely difficult position as the 7th largest landowner in the UK.

I am not convinced that even the new and wonderfully creative ways that the Church is trying in its mission, such as Fresh Expressions will truly resolve this problem. Mission from the margins, or the idea that we do mission from a position of exile are difficult to manage if you are in the centre.

These are ramblings rather than a coherent argument. Feel free to ruminate with me.

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Without evangelisation there is no integral mission

I have mentioned this subject a couple of times but I decided to translate a blog post by C. Rene Padilla, which is so clear.
The gospel is the most precious thing that we can offer because it’s the best thing that we have. All the help that we can offer to all the needs is good but it’s not comparable to the possibility of appropriating to ourselves the resources that God wants to give us for a dignified life, full of meaning–Life in abundance.
To evangelise is to announce the good news that Jesus Christ in words and actions, to those who do not know them, with the intention that they, through the work of God are converted to Jesus Christ, and to follow him as disciples, to become part of his church and collaborate with God in the working-out of his purposes to restore relation with Him, with their neighbour and with creation. In this way, conversion is the beginning of a transformation that embraces every aspect of life.
For this reason, evangelisation requires the participation of human agents available to collaborate with the holy spirit. Bryant Myers calls to our attention a pattern, a model of evangelisation in the book of Acts, and demonstrates that the announcement of the gospel is often second act in the. It is the answer to questions that have been asked because something has happened, e.g. the sermon at Pentecost, sermon at the beautiful gate in Jerusalem comes after the healing of a crippled man. Stephen’s sermon is a response to the accusation provoked by the miracles. In Myers’ words, “in each case the gospel is proclaimed not because of an intention or a previous plan to evangelise but rather it is a response to a question provoked by the activity of God in the life of the community”. There is an action that requires explanation and the gospel is that explanation.
We’ve got to ask ourselves therefore at what point do our actions provoke questions?
To conclude, the reaction is understandable against what we could call “the zealous Christian”, the wish to convert people, without respecting wishes of the other. We must reaffirm that there is no place for proselytism, or manipulation. However, without evangelisation there is no integral mission.
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Nike theology and mission

I have observed two tendencies in the relationship between mission and theology. On one hand, there is an unhealthy pragmatism in mission—a sort of ‘Nike Missiology’–don’t think, ‘Just Do It.’ However, mission without theological reflection tends to repeat the mistakes of the past or becomes a pragmatic attempt to find the cheapest and quickest way to fulfil an already decided course of action. On the other hand, there is a tendency in theology to reflect, often upon abstract themes, uniformed by and with little relevance to, mission practice. This sort of theological reflection is doomed to suffocate in the rarefied atmosphere of abstract debate.

Theology needs to navigate a pathway between these two errors and create a space where people can think and discuss openly and honestly about the concrete issues being faced in mission today. It needs to start with specific contexts and reflect theologically and practically upon those contexts, in the light of the gospel.

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Love the city

There is a line in Lord of the Rings–I don’t think it’s in the film, only the book–where one of the soldiers in Minas Tirith says that sometimes Mordor feels closer and sometimes further away. From the football field at All Nations you can, on a clear day, see the Shard, the Gherkin and Canary Wharf.  I think sometimes it seems further away and sometimes closer; well it can stay where it is!

Cities can be scary places, places of violence and evil but the Bible’s view of the city is generally not negative. The Bible may begin in a garden but ends in a city. Jesus weeks over the city of Jerusalem.

Yesterday we had a visit from an former pastor of Hertford Baptist, Phil Barnard. Apart from it being wonderful to see him again, he preached a very challenging sermon from Jeremiah 29: Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles. He didn’t preach from the verse that is most quoted out of context, “I know the plans I have for you…” but from verses 4-7.

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’

The Israelites had sinned against God and the done evil both in following other gods and doing evil to the poor and vulnerable and it was God who had sent them into exile. The people of Israel had to live out their lives and do their mission in a strange land.

We often feel that we are having to live out our lives and fulfil our mission in a strange land. I still find I feel culture-shock in my own country. We are sent into this world to carry out our mission.

As an aside, I would recommend Chris Wright’s book on the first six chapters of the book of Daniel called Tested by Fire. It shows how Daniel and his three friends worked out their mission in Babylon.

Returning to Sunday’s sermon, Phil emphasised that we are to develop the physical good of the city; i.e. to build houses and plant gardens; to develop an alternative community; i.e. to marry and have sons and daughters; and to seek the spiritual good of the city; i.e. to seek peace, prosperity and pray for the city.

Jesus also challenges us to be salt in the earth to preserve the good and light of the world to show the way and highlight evil.

This made me reflect upon how sometimes in our churches–not referring to HBC– we have so many structures to maintain in our church that we have no resources, human or financial to carry out our mission. Do we need a radical rethink about who the church serves, itself or God and His world?

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The Universality of the Gospel

FOR ALL PEOPLES

THE UNIVERSALITY OF MISSION: God fulfilled his promise to provide a redeemer for the whole world. The  purpose of God is that all human beings be saved through faith in Jesus Christ. The sufficiency and the universality of Jesus Christ are of the essence of the gospel. The universal character of the Christian faith and the confession of the sovereignty of Christ confer on the church its missionary nature. Consequently, the church is sent into the world to live and to be the messenger of the universality of the gospel.

The divine purpose and the universality of the gospel do not mean that all
pathways and options are valid in order to obtain God’s salvation. The sacramentalistic and ritualistic practices which express the intention to achieve justification by works are foreign to the purpose revealed by God in the Scriptures. The unique truth of the gospel and its resultant ethic oppose all universalism and relativism that consider every religious experience as equally valid.

THE WHOLE CHURCH IS MISSIONARY: The whole church is responsible for the evangelization of all peoples, races, and tongues. A faith that considers itself universal but which is not missionary becomes sterile rhetoric lacking authority. The affirmation that the whole church is missionary is based upon the priesthood of all believers. For the fulfillment of this mission, Jesus Christ has provided his church with the gifts and the power of the Holy Spirit.

INTEGRAL MISSION: The vision, action, and missionary reflection of the Church should be based upon the gospel which, when it is comprehended in all its fullness, is proclaimed in word and deed and is directed to the entire human person. We must do our missiology on the basis of the Word, from our Latin American reality, and in dialogue with other missiologies, seeking to overcome the deformations or
dichotomies that may have affected the gospel we received. This also demands a
comprehension of the new challenges posed by the world today, such as globalization, postmodernity, the resurgence of racism, esoteric religions, and growing ecological deterioration.

THE NEW MISSIONARY CONSCIOUSNESS IN LATIN AMERICA: The Holy Spirit has brought to life in Latin America a new missionary consciousness. To the missionary practice of the past is added a growing willingness to assume the responsibility of the church, in obedience to the Word, from within Latin America. Opportunities for the preparation and sending of missionaries to other continents and contexts have increased during these last years. However, the new possibilities provided by this missionary activity should lead us to a continuous evaluation and correction of models and experiences in the light of the Word of God.

THE INCARNATIONAL PATTERN FOR MISSION: The incarnation is the model for the mission of the church. In his incarnation Jesus identified himself with sinful people, shared their aspirations, anguish, and weaknesses, and dignified them as creatures made in the image of God. The church is called to approach its mission in Jesus’ way. To accomplish this demands the crossing of geographical, cultural, social, linguistic, and spiritual frontiers, with all that this entails. In all the world, the growth of great cities and their impoverished masses constitutes an especially urgent challenge. To respond to all of these needs it is necessary to reconsider the New Testament model, adequately use the social and human sciences, and reflect on this practice. Also indispensable is the spiritual discipline that equips the missionary with the holiness and the humility that make possible a real respect for and appreciation of other languages and cultures and faithfulness to the gospel. ,

THE URGENCY OF THE MISSION: The church in Latin America must fully and without delay assume its responsibility in world evangelization. It should create and promote training centers in every country, with adequate programs of preparation for local and transcultural missions. The structure of all theological education should be revised in light of the missionary imperative. Missionary advance has always arisen from the spiritual vitality during periods of renewal. To be a missionary church, the church in Latin America must renew its dependence upon the Spirit and give itself to prayer. In this way it can respond to the challenge to proclaim the whole gospel from Latin America to all peoples of the earth.

CONCLUSION: We praise God for the privilege he has given us to attend the Third Latin American Congress on Evangelism at this critical moment in the history of our
peoples. Such a privilege moves us to renew our commitment to our Lord Jesus
Christ and to his church as the bearer of the Good News of the kingdom of 10ve
and justice he came to establish. With humility we commend ourselves to God so
that he, through his Holy Spirit, may instill in us the determination to please him
in everything according to his good will. “Now to the King eternal, immortal,
invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”

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Latin American reality

When thinking about a missional theology, we must analyse the context. This is an excellent analysis of the context of the mission of the Latin American Evangelical Church. I think the only missing element would the its mission in the context of the Roman Catholic Church.

From Latin America

THE EVANGELICAL CHURCH IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: In the Latin American evangelical community a missionary concern for other continents has been awakened. New generations of evangelicals, however, generally do not know their own historical roots and Protestant heritage. The knowledge of our own history is essential in order to avoid the errors of the past, to recuperate distinctive characteristics of our heritage, and to fulfil our missionary mandate. In Latin America and in the Caribbean, Protestantism has historical roots that
date from the 16th century. It is an integral part of the history of Latin America,
not simply an alienating foreign element at the service of the advance of present-day imperialism. This affirmation does not excuse the evangelical church for its historical errors and for the deformations of the gospel as it was introduced and established on this continent. It is essential, therefore, to examine the positive and negative contributions of European and North American missiology as well as those of Latin American missiology.

GOSPEL AND CULTURE: The gospel is relevant to all of human reality, including culture through which humankind transforms creation. The capacity for cultural creation is a gift granted by God, in whose image human beings were created. Thus, it is important that culture occupy the place it deserves in our logical reflection and practice. During these 500 years, our continent has witnessed contempt for the autochthonous cultures and their systematic destruction in the name of evangelization. The subjection and the abuse which the indigenous peoples suffered must be condemned. Thus it is absolutely essential to seek reconciliation between our peoples. At the same time we must recognize that every culture can be an adequate vehicle for the faithful communication of the gospel. From this perspective every culture should be understood, respected and promoted without presupposing the superiority of one culture over others. It should be pointed out as well that every culture is affected by sin, which introduced corruption, conflicts, egotism, and the breaking of relations between God and all of creation. Therefore, all cultures are under the judgment of the Word. The Creator may not be identified with his creation nor with any particular culture. The revelation of God in Christ transcends both and at the same time enters into a relationship with both creation and culture to redeem them.

Evangelical missiology should function in two ways. First, it should recognize,
respect and dignify peoples and their cultures; second, it should evaluate them in the light of the judgment of the Word, offering the hope of the gospel for their
transformation. The faithfulness of the church to the purposes of God demands a contextual hermeneutic which permits the faithful communication of the gospel in open dialogue with culture. The church should fulfill its mission of announcing integral salvation to the whole human being in the reality in which he or she is rooted.

EVANGELICAL IDENTITY: As evangelicals, we need to reevaluate our indigenous, African, mestizo, European, Asian, and creole roots, and consider the plurality of cultures and races that have contributed to our enrichment. As the Latin American church, we confess that we have identified more with foreign cultural values than with those authentically our own. By God’s grace, because of our cultural identity and our evangelical identity we can face the world without a sense of inferiority or shame.

The aflirmation of our evangelical identity involves reaffirming our commitment to our Reformation heritage. It does not mean assuming a noncritical position
with respect to our tradition, doctrines, or missiology. As a church we are called to consistent reformation in the light of the Scriptures as our final authority.

We must evaluate the models of mission we inherited from the past or import
in the present, and seek new models. This requires forging a missiology from Latin America that takes into account the experiences and contributions of the churches from the different ethnic and cultural groups of the continent. Nevertheless, the search for new models must not lead us to make concessions with respect to the truth of Jesus Christ.

We thank God for progress in the unity of the evangelical church in Latin
America and for the new forms of cooperation which have arisen in the fulfillment of its mission. However, we must recognize that individualism and denominationalism have created divisions in the Latin American church. To confess the unity of the church in Christ means to overcome ideological, cultural, social, economic, and denominational barriers. We need to open ourselves to constructive dialogue, to value each contribution, to strengthen communion, and to cooperate in mission. It is not honest on our part to proclaim a gospel that reconciles the world if we still have not become reconciled among ourselves.

SOCIO-POLITICAL CONTEXT: Latin America at present can be characterized as a continent in crisis. Various countries have suffered under repressive military regimes which committed grave violations of human rights. In others, many years of civil war have caused enormous human and economic loss. The persistence of male dominance in our culture has made women the victims of different kinds of discrimination which limit their full participation in social and civil roles. Profound social and racial divisions in the country and in the city place millions of men, women, youth, and children in conditions of extreme poverty, denying them the employment, adequate food, housing, health, and education that make possible equality of life that is truly human.

Purely formal democracy, corruption of state institutions, and inadequate neo-
liberal economic measures show that power does not serve the whole of society,
least of all the impoverished majority. The problems of corruption, the external
debt, drug trafficking, terrorism, moral degradation in its different forms, and the disintegration of the family also lacerate our peoples.

THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE CHURCH: In the face of this situation, our Christian conscience cannot close its eyes. The gospel of the kingdom of God exhorts us to practice justice, which is the essential consequence of forgiveness and reconciliation in Jesus Christ. Our faithfulness to the call of the gospel demands that we assume Christian responsibility in the conflictive situations of our continent. The church must affirm and promise the life denied by all sin, by unjust structures, and by avaricious interest groups. Within its community, the different forms of discrimination predominant in society on the basis of sex, educational level, age, nationality, and race must be ended. The church
fulfills its mission as it follows Jesus’ example and takes seriously God’s question
to Cain, “Where is your brother?”

We recognize that the Latin American evangelical church generally has not
assumed this responsibility faithfully. It has confused the world, into which it was sent to serve, with worldliness and sin and has isolated itself from social and political processes. In some cases, it even justified violent dictatorial regimes. This explains why some evangelicals who have participated in the public arena have achieved little or nothing in favor of the majority of the people; on the contrary, they have limited their political participation to satisfying personal interests and to obtaining certain privileges for the evangelical church.

At the same time, we celebrate the growing awareness of the evangelical church
with respect to its social and political responsibility and its increasing participation in society. Different evangelical entities, churches, and individual believers participate in development projects, in public administration, and in institutions that defend human rights.

THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE CHRISTIAN: The proclamation of the whole gospel commits us to the creative work of developing more and better ways of participation in society. The certainty of the final triumph of Jesus Christ, guaranteed by his resurrection, impels us to make constructive contributions, even though they may not achieve definite results. Our commitment to Jesus Christ as the only mediator of the peace of God provides the foundation for the conviction that his redemptive work is relevant for every conflict and for all human suffering.

Responsible participation in civil life requires the preparation of leaders motivated by the Christian call to service. The church should affirm that every aspect of national life is an area of legitimate action for Christian service. It must provide formative help and pastoral accompaniment for those who have a political calling.At the same time it is necessary that the church assume its prophetic function to denounce, among other matters, the abuse of sex, the manipulation of the communications media, and the deification of the state, money, and violence, whatever its origin. It does so legitimately when it manifests in its own existence the life of love, justice, and peace which is possible through obedience to the Word and the power of the Spirit of God. The exercise of leadership in the life of the local churches should be marked by the model of the suffering servant and show a contrast with the political demagoguery and other deformations caused by the abuse of power.

Practice is demonstrating that local churches can respond to the needs of their
communities according to the extent of their resources. They are developing
projects that show the possibility of transformation, beginning with local initiatives and resources that promote appreciation for the dignity of persons and of peoples; we see here a challenge that should be taken seriously by the entire evangelical community. The power of the gospel and consistent action on the part of evangelical churches can permeate and transform the conditions of injustice and inequality that prevail today in Latin America.

 

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What is the Whole Gospel?

As many of you will know, my passions include Mission, theology and Latin America. So I thought I’d bring these three things together an use some insights from Latin America on mission and theology. This except is from CLADE III (CLADE stands for Latin American Congress on Evangelization) which took place in 1992, 500 years after Latin America encounter Europeans for the first time. It is one of the most coherent and complete declarations on mission I have encountered.


 

The Whole Gospel

The gospel and God’s Word: the Whole of the counsel of God and the manifestation of his Kingdom have been announced us by means of the gospel. The Scriptures recount God’s revelation in history through concrete acts. They come together in Jesus Christ, the full and definitive expression of the God’s revelation. Therefore, God’s Word is the foundation and starting point for the life, theology and mission of the Church.

The gospel of the creation: God is the Creator of everything and what he created is good. He created humanity, man and woman, in his image, as beings called to live in a harmonic relation with, its neighbor and with nature. God placed them as stewards, responsible for the whole creation, for benefit of the whole of humanity. But the human beings fell into sin and the whole creation suffered the effects of this fall, remaining a captive of sin and death. Nevertheless, God in his sovereignty has taken the initiative to establish a covenant to reconcile humanity with himself and the whole of creation in the person and work of Jesus Christ. In Christ, God is restoring human dignity, transforming cultures and leading his creation towards the final redemption.

The gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation: Jesus Christ is the Word incarnate, gift of God and the only way to Him. By means of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, forgiveness is offered to humanity, and reconciliation and redemption for all creation. Repentance and faith are essential, to receive the salvation, as expression of total dependency of God. Those who receive forgiveness become children of God; and this new filial relationship enables them to obey him. New life requires that humanity maintains and develops this relation with its Creator. It produces a new relationship with its peers and with the whole creation mediated by the commitment to the Lord and based on the practice of love, truth and justice. God in Christ creates a forgiven and reconciled community called to be an agent of forgiveness and reconciliation in a context of hatred and discrimination.

The gospel and the community of the Spirit: The person of the Holy Spirit acts in power in the world. He does so primarily by means of the Church granting it life, power and gifts for its development, maturity and mission. The Church, the community of the reconciled with God, is sent into the world by Jesus Christ. A radical transformation occurs in the Church that demonstrates the divine purpose of eliminating all injustice, oppression and signs of death. As the community of the Spirit, the Church must proclaim freedom to all those oppressed by the devil and to stimulate a pastoral practice of restoration that brings comfort to those who suffer discrimination, marginalization and dehumanization.

The gospel and the God’s Kingdom: With the coming of Jesus Christ, God’s Kingdom became present among us, filled of grace and truth. The Kingdom is in constant conflict with the powers of darkness; the struggle takes place in the heavenly realms and is expressed in creation at the personal, collective and structural levels. Nevertheless, the community of the Kingdom lives in the confidence of the victory that has been already won and that the God’s Kingdom will be revealed fully at the end of time. With the power and authority delegated by God, it assumes its mission in this conflict, to be an agent in the redemption of creation. Jesus Christ the King was incarnated and calls to his community to do the same thing in the world. To follow him as his disciples means to assume his life and mission.

 The gospel of justice and power: The gospel reveals a holy, just and powerful God in his character and in his actions. For this reason, the Church is called to live according to the justice of the Kingdom, in the power of the Spirit. In a world characterized by the abuse of the power and the mastery of the injustice, the testimony of the Church confronts the power that dominates in the present. That is why the proclamation of the Kingdom announces Jesus Christ and denounces the forces of evil.

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Where was Jesus?

In a world of heinous crimes and awful violence, where the God of love? The events of Friday night have rocked the world. Of course, this is a daily reality for many who live in the Middle East or many other of the black-spots of world events such as Somalia, Pakistan or Nigeria. But as a Christian, I have my faith shaken. Where was Jesus in all this? It seems that the all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful God didn’t want to, didn’t know how to, or couldn’t stop these awful events.

Where was he? I feel sick asking the question.

The Western World has realised that their governments cannot supply 100% security which they have come to expect. When there is an attack like the Paris attack, who among the authorities is to blame? Well, nobody.

It is interesting when we turn to the Bible, God is not portrayed as the ultimate government official guaranteeing our safety. He doesn’t seem to be in the business of protecting his people, or anyone from the actions of evil people. From Job through to the Apostle Paul all suffered. I know from my own circumstances that God does not protect us from the unjust actions of others. So where is He? Where is Jesus?

He is there. He is along side. He knows what it is to suffer injustice and the evil actions of others. There, on the cross, he suffered and died. When He cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsakened me”, he was identifying himself with the innocent sufferer of Psalm 22 and struggling with the same sentiments we are feeling here. The next couple of phrases clarify it well.

[why are you] so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.

Jesus knows and has been in that darkest place. This is no answer to Paris, Beirut or Baghdad but it does tell is that God is not a high-up aloof God who does not care. He’s been there.

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Missio ad Rationem Creationis

Many Christians who I speak with give the impression that they believe that care for creation is a recent interest in mission thinking. It can therefore be ignored as a fad. It is true that in the past ten years the issue has been more main stream within Evangelical mission circles but its root good further back.

 

When I was a student at All Nations (1991-1994), I remember Chris Wright taught a module called “Wholistic Mission” and we dealt with the issue of creation care.

I also want to share a quote from the 1983 document “Transformation: The Church in Response to Human Need”. Under the subtitle “Stewardship of Creation,” it says:

“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Ps. 24:1); “The land is mine” (Lev. 25:23). All human beings are God’s creatures. As made in His image they are His representatives, given the responsibility of caring wisely for His creation. We have to confess, however, that God’s people have been slow to recognize the full implication of their responsibility. As His stewards, we do not own the earth but we manage and enhance it in anticipation of Christ’s return. Too often, however, we have assumed a right to use His natural resources indiscriminately. We have frequently been indifferent, or even hostile, to those committed to the conservation of non-renewable sources of energy and minerals, of animal life in danger of extinction, and of the precarious ecological balance of many natural habitats. The earth is God’s gift to all generations. An African proverb says that parents have borrowed the present from their children. Both our present life and our children’s future depend upon our wise and peaceful treatment of the whole earth.

I hope this indifference does not persist.

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Gringo Go Home!

Gringo, Go Home! The term ‘Gringo’ probably originates in the Mexican/American wars of the nineteenth century. The North American armies, who invaded Mexican territory, wore green uniforms. With their remedial English, the Mexicans would shout out, ‘Green, Go!’ They were calling for the Anglo-Saxon invaders to leave Latin American territory: ‘gringo’. This is a call that has been repeated many times historically.

In Edinburgh (1910) most missionary organisations working in Latin America were excluded from the World Missionary Conference because it was considered that, as a Roman Catholic continent, Latin America, was already evangelised. A large number felt that this was not correct and so formed a group who met in Panama (1916). For them, Latin America still needed missionaries; Protestant missionaries. The Roman Catholic Church was angry and the call ‘Gringo, Go Home!’ was heard again.

In the mid-nineteen seventies, this issue was discussed within the WCC. John Gatu, general secretary of the Presbyterian Church in East Africa, said that their continuing sense of dependence on and domination by foreign church groups inhibits many churches in Asia, Africa and Latin America from development in response to God’s mission.

Our present problems can only be solved if all missionaries can be withdrawn in order to allow a period of not less than five years for each side to rethink and formulate what is going to be their future relationship. . . . The churches of the Third World must be allowed to find their own identity, and the continuation of the present missionary movement is a hindrance to this selfhood of the church.

An Eastern Orthodox priest from India added:

Today it is economic imperialism or neo-colonialism that is the pattern of missions. Relief agencies and mission boards control the younger churches through purse strings. Foreign finances, ideas and personnel still dominate the younger churches and stifle their spontaneous growth. . . . So now I say, The mission of the church is the greatest enemy of the gospel.

My hero, José Míguez Bonino from Argentina also added:

We in the younger churches have to learn the discipline of freedom to accept and to refuse, to place resources at the service of mission rather than to have mission patterned by resources. . . . We cannot for the love of our brethren or for the love of God let anybody or anything stand in the way of our taking on our own shoulders our responsibility. If, in order to do that, we must say to you, our friends, “Stay home,” we will do so because before God we have this grave responsibility of our integrity.

Today, the Protestant church is growing rapidly in Latin America. Some countries are talking of 5% evangelical Christians and others of up to 30%. In Argentina, the average is 7%, but among the poor, up to 22% of the population consider themselves to be ‘evangélicos!’ It is sometimes also felt that Latin America is an evangelised continent and therefore it is time for the Gringo missionaries to go home. The same could be said for Africa and parts of Asia.

The Evangelical church of Europe and North America—the USA and Canada—are suffering from church shrink, not church growth. The Majority World church is not only growing in numbers but also in maturity. The lively nature of World Christianity is a challenge to our, often, formal and dull expressions of the faith, to be found in the rich world. Should not the Gringo go home and sort his or her own house out first.

These are very emotive issues. This has to do, not only with strategy but also with our own self-identity and our call. But they are also important issues for us as Evangelical Christian missionaries in the first decade of the twenty-first century. So, what are the issues here?

  • Is there still a role for northern missionaries in contexts of church growth in the global south? If so what is it?
  • How does the increasing maturity of the church in the southern hemisphere affect the relationship?
  • What strategies are now inappropriate to this context?
  • What strategies/attitudes/understandings are now appropriate to the new context?
  • Is there a point when intercultural missionaries are no longer needed?

I hope this gives food for thought.

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Why is evangelism so bad?

There is a joke going around Facebook right now that runs like this.

A Muslim, a Jew, a Christian and an Atheist walk into a coffee shop. They talk, laugh, drink coffee and become good friends. That’s what happens when you’re not an asshole.

Excuse the proctological reference but I think that the point of the joke is that nobody discusses their belief system and tries to persuade the others to believe. This reminds me of the saying that it is considered “bad form” in Britain to discuss sex, politics or religion. This is generally because the British hate conflict and to avoid embarrassment avoid the subject. This makes the whole subject of evangelism to be bad form.

I would like to make some comments about this assumption. First, this joke assumes that you cannot discuss conflicting belief systems and remain friends. This is plainly false. I am friends with my neighbour, we do talk about our beliefs and we disagree. We do not fight about it, although we both believe that these are life and death issues. We are friends.

Secondly, the joke assumes that we can discuss things that have nothing to do with our belief systems and our beliefs do not affect the way we think about a subject. The way I think about what has been named as the “migrant crisis” is deeply affected by the way I believe God would have a us treat those fleeing oppression. See my blog post on this. We do not simply hold beliefs we embody those beliefs.

Thirdly, the joke assumes religion is a private matter; something akin to a hobby. I am pretty sure that those five friends do not believe their beliefs are private. For the Muslim, religion is very public. The Jewish Law affects every part of life, the Christian declare Jesus to be Lord of all, etc.

Lastly, the joke also assumes sharing your beliefs is being an “asshole”. If this is true, then I would like to tell the creator of the joke, “you’re an asshole”. This is because they are imposing their belief system on the rest of us. It tells us what is acceptable to discuss and what is not.

Conclusion, sharing your faith is acceptable and a loving thing to do. The way you do that sharing is the more important thing.

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Minimalist Evangelism

I have been discussing the cultural nature of the 4 Spiritual Laws and I have criticized them for being a North American understanding of the Gospel. So can there ever be a non-cultural Gospel? In other posts I have asserted that there is no such thing as an uncontextualised theology but is there a uncontextualised understanding of the Gospel.

Strictly speaking, being that we are reading the Gospel as human beings, and have all the same difficulties that reading any text brings–the author not being present to clarify being just one–the answer would have to be “no”. We cannot be sure that we are reading the text correctly and without a doubt we do bring our culture to the text.

However, I do think that it possible to say that what God did in Jesus Christ is the Gospel.

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. I Corinthians 15 gives us the heads up:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

This is the communicated Gospel: God acted to save us in Jesus Christ. This not ideology, philosophy or even, in some sense, theology. This is the historical actions of God, in Christ for the sake of humanity.

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Evangelism and the American Dream

Following my post on Friday I have been asked what is so culture bound about the 4 Spiritual Laws. The first and last phrases give away this North American emphasis. The main aim in Evangelism seems to be to realise the “wonderful plan that God has for your life”.

Now, let me make very clear, I am not criticising America, American Christianity or the American Dream, but what I am saying is the “one-size-fits-all” evangelism of the 4 Spiritual Laws is a “Contextualised/Syncretistic” message. It may have been a perfect contextualisation for 1950s US campuses–I have no way of evaluating that–but for China, Africa, Europe, Latin America or Asia in the 21st Century, it is not appropriate.

Jesus did say, that he has come that “they [the sheep] may have life and life in all its fullness” (John 10:10). Jesus is contrasting the thief with the shepherd and all through that passage he is talking in the plural not the singular. The good shepherd is facilitating the life of the flock of sheep. There is not one time through that passage where Jesus speaks about the individual sheep; it is always the flock.

The removal of the barrier of sin does not mean the person will have a wonderful life but rather that they will be freed to serve Jesus Christ. This, for many, will mean suffering and death rather than life, as many of our sisters and brothers in the Middle East have discovered.

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Evangelism and Cultures

God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life; Humanity is tainted by sin and is therefore separated from God. As a result, we cannot know God’s wonderful plan for our lives; Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for our sin. Through Jesus Christ, we can have our sins forgiven and restore a right relationship with God and we must place our faith in Jesus Christ as Savior in order to receive the gift of salvation and know God’s wonderful plan for our lives.

This is of course from the Four Spiritual Laws, which was a popular evangelistic tool developed in an evangelistic tract by Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ in the early 1950s. This tract has been translated into numerous languages and used in a variety of contexts. The question for mission thinkers is, is this the pure Gospel or a mid-Twentieth Century, North American understanding of the Gospel?

The contextualisation of the Gospel is a missionary task. Does this one size fits all approach truly get to the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? The document that I have been reading and blogging about over the past few days would disagree.

Jesus calls us out of the narrow concerns of our own kingdom, our own liberation, and our own independence (Acts 1:6) by unveiling to us a larger vision and empowering us by the Holy Spirit to go “to the ends of the earth” as witnesses in each context of time and space to God’s justice, freedom, and peace. Our calling is to point all to Jesus, rather than to ourselves or our institutions, looking out for the interests of others rather than our own (see Phil. 2:3-4). We cannot capture the complexities of the scriptures through one dominant cultural perspective. A plurality of cultures is a gift of the Spirit to deepen our understanding of our faith and one another. As such, intercultural communities of faith, where diverse cultural communities worship together, is one way in which cultures can engage one another authentically and where culture can enrich gospel. At the same time, the gospel critiques notions of cultural superiority. Therefore, “the gospel, to be fruitful, needs to be both true to itself and incarnated or rooted in the culture of a people … We need constantly to seek the insight of the Holy Spirit in helping us to better discern where the gospel challenges, endorses or transforms a particular culture” for the sake of life.
 Up until the Phil 2:3-4 bit I am pretty certain Bill Bright would agree. Disagreement would arise when we start talking about the “plurality of cultures;” “cultures engage one another…can enrich the gospel” and that the gospel is “incarnated and rooted in the culture of a people.”
Many Evangelicals get nervous when we start to express the fact that we may not have a perfect understanding of the Gospel. I think it is important to continue to engage with believers from other cultures and Christian traditions to refine how we view Gospel and Culture.
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Ecumenical insights on Evangelism

I never thought I would write that the Ecumenical Movement can give insights on Evangelism! We Evangelicals are the experts on Evangelism; in fact we are defined by it. But this document, Together Towards Life, I am finding a gold mine of insights that challenge and inform me.

In my teaching I am constantly trying to show that Church and Mission go together. This means also that theology and mission go together. The Church in it thinking (theology), if it does not have mission as its starting point and aim, is an academic exercise.The church without mission does not make sense.

Below is a couple of points from that document

The church in history has not always existed but, both theologically and empirically, came into being for the sake of mission. It is not possible to separate church and mission in terms of their origin or purpose. To fulfill God’s missionary purpose is the church’s aim. The relationship between church and mission is very intimate because the same Spirit of Christ who empowers the church in mission is also the life of the church. At the same time as he sent the church into the world, Jesus Christ breathed the Holy Spirit into the church (John 20:19-23). Therefore, the church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning. If it does not engage in mission, it ceases to be church.

Starting with God’s mission leads to an ecclesiological approach “from below.” In this perspective it is not the church that has a mission but rather the mission that has a church. Mission is not a project of expanding churches but of the church embodying God’s salvation in this world. Out of this follows a dynamic understanding of the apostolicity of the church: apostolicity is not only safeguarding the faith of the church through the ages but also participating in the apostolate. Thus the churches mainly and foremost need to be missionary churches. (para 57-58)

How do our churches match up?

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Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes

Yesterday I made the assertion that to be Evangelical, we should be actively Ecumenical. The World Council of Churches (WCC) is a body who attempts to foster such Ecumenical unity. Unfortunately, many Evangelicals and Evangelical organisations have shunned the WCC, regarding it as liberal and heretical. However, many changes have happened over past 10 years and it is instructive to read some of their documents. One such document was published by the Commission on World Mission and Evangelisation in 2013.

I spent yesterday reading this. I strongly advise anyone interested in mission and evangelism to read Together Towards Life. It is the first document on this subject from the CWME.

Here is paragraph 2

Mission begins in the heart of the Triune God and the love which
binds together the Holy Trinity overflows to all humanity and creation.
The missionary God who sent the Son to the world calls all
God’s people (John 20:21), and empowers them to be a community
of hope. The church is commissioned to celebrate life, and to resist
and transform all life-destroying forces, in the power of the Holy
Spirit. How important it is to “receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22)
to become living witnesses to the coming reign of God!

 

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Can an Evangelical be Ecumenical?

This post is prompted by an interesting post from my friend and fellow mission thinker, Eddie Arthur. When I teach mission theology, I often say that this is a land of three streams: Roman Catholic, Ecumenical and Evangelical. Apart from the glaringly obvious fault that the Eastern Orthodox, with their rich theology, is missed (I put them in with the Ecumenical Movement), the division between Evangelical and Ecumenical is being increasingly blurred–and so it should be.

Firstly, this is not so much because Evangelical Churches and leaders have always been involved in the Ecumenical movement (John Stott, Kirsteen Kim and Rob Hay to mention just three) but because I think it is difficult, or should be difficult to be Evangelical without being Ecumenical. The word “Evangelical” has its roots in the Greek word “euangelion” which means “good news” or “gospel”. The word “Ecumenical” has its roots in the “oikoumene” which means “inhabited”. The Greeks and Romans used it to describe the Greco-Roman civilization. The Early Church used it to speak of their unity in the gospel. In the light of John 13:35 and the evangelistic nature of unity then may be we should be ecumenical.

Secondly, I think, as Eddie expresses that we are rather good at ecumenism; we call it interdenominationalism. I go to many conferences and other gatherings organised by Evangelical groups and it never occurs to me to ask the denomination of the delegates. Recently at the Micah Conference, I talked to a man who I want an article written about. I forgot to ask of which he is a pastor. It didn’t seem relevant.

So to answer my question, yes as Evangelicals we can be Ecumenical; in fact we should be.

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Conversion or transformation

One of the questions that mission theology and missionaries have asked more than any other question is one which you may think is daft, what is mission? Andrew Kirk even wrote a book with that title. Surely as a missionary, a missionary trainer and a missional theologian, that’s a question I should have been able to answer years ago; but it keeps on coming up.

This is, perhaps a question that Evangelicals have come to later than their ecumenical or Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. We were concerned not to lose sight of the gospel, which I would suggest the ecumenical movement did in the 1960s to 1980s. The gospel transforms individual lives in the form of a conversion, a metanoia, a change of mind. The idea that the gospel transforms society, apart from sounding dangerously close to Communism, lost the individual aspect of transformation. So there we stayed for years.

The recapture of an eschatological approach to mission by Evangelical Theologians like George Eldon Ladd and C. Rene Padilla have revived the idea of Inaugurated Eschatology. The life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ inaugurated the kingdom of God and in his second coming he will fulfill it. In the mean time the Church, with the living presence of God in the Holy Spirit, lives out the values of the kingdom of God now.

Now those “values of the kingdom of God” were demonstrated primarily in every aspect of the birth, life and teaching of Jesus as well as the manner of His death and resurrection. Clearly the rest of the New Testament also bear witness to this as well as the Hebrew Bible.

So the answer to the question I posed in the title is, both. Individual conversion is important as well as societal transformation. The call to repentance and faith (discipleship), the planting of living communities of faith (Churches), the care of the poor, the confrontation with the powers of evil (human and demonic) and the care of creation are all parts of the values of this kingdom inaugurated by Jesus, announced, lived out and worked towards by the Church and to be fulfilled in Jesus’ second coming.

 

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Wholistic worship

What does worship look like from the perspective of a wholistic understanding of the Gospel? If mission is not only to do with the “spiritual” but also the physical, social and environmental, then what would worship look like?

At its most simple level, worship is declaring the worth of God and praising him for it. Now the God we worship and his actions in history go far beyond the salvation of individuals to the reconciliation of all creation (Eph 1:10).  Our worship should reflect that.

Psalm 67 is a good place to start. This Psalm has the double virtue of being both missionary and wholistic. It is written in a concentric form with verses 1-2 and 6-7 linking the blessing of God on Israel to the knowledge of God in rest of the earth. Verses 3 and 5 expresses the wish that all the peoples should praise the Lord. Verse 4 explains the reason that the nations should praise the Lord as Israel does; because He rules with justice and guides the nations.

The blessing of God on Israel was not ultimately for Israel’s benefit it was for the benefit of knowledge of God among the nations. This leads to the glory of God and the possible salvation of the nations. Israel are not the only ones called upon to praise the Lord the nations are as well. This is declaring his deeds in history and on the earth. He is the God who does justice for the peoples and guides nations in righteousness and justice.

 

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Evangelistic disciple-making

I am reading a very interesting book right now, recommended by a friend (Thanks Carol Kingston-Smith). Salvation means creation healed: the ecology of sin and Grace, overcoming the divorce between earth and heaven by Howard Snyder and Joel Scandrett. It is a theological investigation into a wholistic understanding of salvation. Salvation is not simply “souls saved” but creation restored; salvation is understood as cosmic rather than individual.

It looks at how Evangelical Christianity divorced heaven and earth and ended with a “religious” worldview rather than a spiritual one. Then they move onto a theological basis for salvation and the gospel, followed by reflections on mission and finally the church as a healed and healing community.

The Goal of disciple making is to form a community that looks and acts like Jesus, that shows forth the character of Christ and the power of the spirit in its social context. The church does this by being a reconciled and reconciling community. It does this most effectively when it visibly embodies reconciliation between rich and poor, men and women, and the people of different racial and ethnic identities. Discipline evangelism thus includes what is sometimes called lifestyle evangelism–the persuasive influence of Christians’ lives as persons and community. Jesus stressed “By this by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another (John 13:35) .

page 143.

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Can’t do justice to Micah 6:8

Regular readers of this blog will know I was recently at the Micah Global Conference in Lima, Peru. The theme that ran through the meetings was shalom. The word goes beyond “peace” to include salvation and well-being. One important point to make is that without justice there can be no peace.

Micah Global takes its name, of course, from Micah 6:8

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

Acting justly or doing justice is a fundamental Christian responsibility. As a disciple of Jesus Christ we cannot avoid the idea of doing justice. Doing justice has many aspects to it such as advocating for those who cannot speak for themselves (Proverbs 31:5), protesting injustice etc. I would suggest that living the Lordship of Jesus Christ sums up well what doing justice is.

The earliest Christian statement of faith was simply “Jesus is Lord” begs the question Lord of what? This put the first Christians on a collision course with the Roman Empire. Romans said that “Caesar is Lord”. The Christians were saying, “No, Jesus is”. This is why the Christians were persecuted.

Jesus taught us to pray “may your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This very much sums up the ideas of justice. Justice is not being fair it is siding with the victims as Jesus did, ultimately upon the cross.

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What do I care about?

What do I really care about? Christians are supposed to care, right? But do we? If being a disciple of Jesus Christ is only about me and my relationship with God. Loving God does not mean loving my neighbour. But if love of God and love of neighbour are intimately linked then…

Being part of a loving community, gathered around Jesus Christ is a privilege, however, that privilege can never be put above the love we should have for those outside the church and especially those who are suffering.  There is a chorus in Spanish, Somos un pequeño pueblo muy feliz. We are a happy little people. It almost seems to encapsulate much of our Evangelical Christianity today. We may love one another in Church but this is where it stays.

In that nefarious little rag, the Daily Mail yesterday ran a story telling all who wanted to hear that each refugee that the UK took was going to cost us £24,000. Images of drowned children and lost Syrian refugees sleeping rough in Calais or walking along railway lines in Slovakia do not seem to melt the hard hearts of the writers of such hatred.

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means our hearts should not be melting but breaking when we see such scenes. Being an integral Christian hurts but we still should be doing something about suffering.

 

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Community disciples do Integral Mission

Yesterday we looked at the, so-called, Great Commission and its injunction to teach other disciples to obey everything Jesus had commanded as Integral Mission. Today it will be good to return to the same passage and recognise the role of the community in Integral Mission.

Baptism is the key here. I have been members of various Baptist Churches in my life and have witnessed various baptisms. I also have witnessed Christenings in both Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. I seems to me that Baptist Churches tend to miss out on an important aspect of baptism.

Now I am not saying that we get it wrong. Witness to new faith, dying to the old life and rising to the new and of course the big splash are all great. However, for the early Christian and in the Jewish world, baptism was the sign of you associating with, and committing yourself to, a new community. John the Baptist was baptising those who wanted to associate themselves with the community preparing themselves for the coming of Messiah.

The Disciples are commissioned in Matthew 28 to baptise into the Triune name.

baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Christian baptism is associating ourselves with the divine community of love and purpose that is, what we call, the Trinity. By extension we are being baptised into the community of that divine community, the Church.

In Eastern Orthodox theology the Church is referred to as the “Icon of the Trinity”. It is the image of God on earth. Or at least it should be. What we could refer to the intratrinitarian of the persons of the Trinity should be a mark of the Church. And as with the Trinity, that love overflows to the world.

This love can only be worked out in a local church which meets, care and loves one another. The commission to disciple is to form local communities that will love one another and love the world; through witness and service.

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Being a disciple is doing Integral Mission

The Great Commission, every student of mission should know it by heart. There are various problems with thinking of the Great Commission. Firstly, people think that Matthew 28: 18-20 is the only commission: there are commissions in Mark, Luke, John and Acts. Secondly, and specific to the Matthew commission, they think that discipleship is a course one does at the beginning of your Christian life. Often a 10 week course teaching people the “spiritual disciplines” of Bible reading, prayer, confession, etc. Discipleship is a whole life exercise. The biggest problem–which I guess stems from the previous problem is that discipleship is a religious concept. When I “googled” an image for this blogpost, I encountered loads of pictures of Bible studies, church services, baptismal services, hands praying. This illustrates the problem. Let’s quickly look at what Matthew 28:18-20 actually says.

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’

We are told to go and make disciples” or learners of Jesus Christ, he who gives us the authority to do this. This is the commission: make disciples. We are further told to baptise them, which is bringing them into a community and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded.

When we first arrived in Argentina, I led a devotional time on this at the Kairos Centre in Buenos Aires and Cathy Padilla, Rene Padilla first wife corrected me because I had said “teach them everything I have commanded”. Her point was, quite rightly, that to teach to obey presupposes the person doing the discipling is also obeying!

As a exegete (person interpreting the Bible) the first thing we should do is find out what Jesus taught the disciples to obey in the book of Matthew. And then we would broaden it out to the other Gospels, then the rest of the New Testament and eventually, if you had time and inclination to do so, to the whole Bible.

There is a lot of teaching that Jesus does in Matthew. It is generally accepted that there are 5 blocks of teaching in Matthew.

My father came up with an interesting outline of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew

  1. The kingdom in the present (Matthew 5-7: Sermon on the Mount). It belongs to the poor in spirit and those persecuted for the cause of justice (5.3 and 10)
  2. The mission of the disciples (10). To preach the nearness of the kingdom (10:7)
  3. The nature of the kingdom (13:1-52) and the rejection of the prophet of the kingdom (13.53-58)
  4. The life of the community of the kingdom (18.1-21)
  5. The kingdom in the future (24-25). The sign of the preaching of the kingdom to the nations (24.14).

Even if we simply take the first block of teaching we can see how Integral the life of the kingdom of God is. Discipleship is not only teaching people to pray and fast (Matthew 6:1-18) but about the life of sacrifice, forgiveness and love; being salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16), and doing justice which better than religion (Matthew 12:28-34). Being a disciple is doing Integral mission.

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Evangelism and Integral Mission

I remember when I was about 13 I decided to take my parents faith seriously and get baptised. This was now my faith and I wanted to live it out. Part of that living out of my faith I wanted to witness to my school mates. So I started to talk about the Gospel. I had mentioned this term “Good News” various times in conversation when I was asked a serious question. I remember it clearly. We were in the metalwork department at John Warner School in Hoddesdon. “What is this ‘Good News’ you keep talking about?” I really should have been prepared but really I wasn’t. “Er,” I said. “If you believe in Jesus, you’ll go to heaven when you die.” My friend was not impressed. Now most 13 year old boys believe that they are immortal anyway and he would have a long time to decide whether my message was good news or not. I was probably not on very biblically safe ground with my explanation and now have a rather wider understanding of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

That story serves to illustrate that a great deal of our theology of mission is based upon what we understand to be the Good News or, in short, the Gospel.

The first words of the Micah Declaration on Integral Mission say

Integral mission or holistic transformation is the proclamation and demonstration of the Gospel. It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. Rather, in integral mission our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ.

This declaration is suggesting that the Gospel is transformative in every aspect of human life. Evangelism is not simply the invitation to enjoy the benefits of Christ’s work but to take on the responsibility of the transformation of the social reality in which we live.

The proclamation we take part in is not the sales department of heaven but the proclamation of the establishment of the kingdom of God on this earth. It is a proclamation of the whole council of God not the individualistic ticket to heaven that much of evangelical evangelism has been about.

As Christians our salvation is not simply from the consequences of sin but the power of sin as well. We are released from the slavery of sin to become slave of Christ. That is to live as he wants us to. True freedom is not freedom to myself but freedom to be Christ’s servant.

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God’s mission and ours

Mission theologians generally are in agreement that mission is not simply a task of the church but THE task of the church. This is not because we have been commanded or commissioned to do this task–although, of course, we have–but because God is a missionary God. God is the one who carries out the divine mandate. This is because God’s very character is also missionary. God reaches out to his creation constantly.

The missionary task of the church finds its meaning in the missionary nature of God. The God we encounter in the Bible is not on some sort of divine ego trip, demanding loyalty from a recalcitrant creation but one who draws humanity back to himself for humanity’s own good. This is the God we see in Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ demonstrates the nature of true divinity (Philippians 2:5-8) and by extension true humanity (Genesis 1:26-28). The task of the Church is to reflect that missionary character of God. God, in community reaching out to the world. The divine love overflowing the intratrinitarian nature to the world, as if the love the Trinity has for each other is too great to be contained within the Trinitarian life! That is a crazy statement to make–but true.

The missionary task of the church is to reflect that divine life, in fact that truly human life–that is made in that divine image. The love of the church for each other overflowing to the world in witness and service. This make integral mission not some much a task the church must do but a task that the church cannot not do.

So God’s mission is to be God. The church’s mission is to be the church.

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Do we really know God?

We often use the phrase for people becoming Christians as “coming to know the Lord”. I am not entirely convinced that as Christians we know the Lord at all. We speak of God as if the divine nature begins and ends with Jesus. I use his human name advisedly. He is not even Jesus Christ–Jesus the Messiah–he is just Jesus. This leads to our faith becoming an issue of me and Jesus. Not even as it should be Jesus and me. Our faith is in God–Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In short our faith, is in the triune God or as the Church has understood it, God in Trinity.

An individualistic understanding of our God has led to an individualistic understanding of the mission of the Church. The God we know from the New Testament is God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The so-called Great Commission commands that disciples are baptised into the Truine name. God is, therefore, a community.

This is the massive insight of, what became know as, the Cappadocian Fathers and later in the 8th Century John of Damascus referred to the interpenetration of the persons of the Trinity, recognizing that not only in being, but also in purpose and love, the Trinity is a community. It is in this image that human beings were created given the task of increasing, multiplying and filling the earth (Genesis 1:26-28). The very being of God makes sense of the being and task of humanity.

So what does this mean for mission, and especially that that mission should be integral? Well, simply that mission is the task of a community to form community and to be a community. Given that we live in a fractured and lonely world, mission cannot be simply saving individual souls from the raging sea of history to populate Jesus’ own personal Olympus, neither can it be relieving poverty, opposing injustice or preserving creation. I am not saying that evangelism, service to the poor, advocacy for people and the earth are not part of mission or are not valid expressions of God’s love but I am saying that the formation of community is the point from which all these take off.

We call the community have described…the church.

 

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On definitions and quandaries

On Monday I stated my belief that mission is either integral or it is not mission. When we are talking “Integral Mission” we are really talking “Mission”. So what is mission?

One of the most difficult things to do as a missional theologian is to define your subject. This may seem to be a daft statement. A biologist does not spend much time discussing the nature of biology nor does a computer scientist spend hours wondering what a computer may be! Mission theologians spend ages discussing the nature of their subject.

David J. Bosch, one of the most important theologians of the twentieth century said that ultimately it is not possible to define mission (Transforming Mission, 1991, 9). He contents himself with proposing 13 statements on mission as an “Interim Definition” (TM, 8-11) and, what he refers to as “approximations”.

Bosch says that “The missionary task is that coherent broad and deep as the need and exigencies of human life” (TM, 10). Mission includes evangelism but goes beyond the merely verbal communication of the Christian message.

The Micah Declaration (2001) says,

Integral mission or holistic transformation is the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel. It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. Rather, in integral mission our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ.

“The proclamation and demonstration of the gospel”. There should be no doubt that evangelism is part of integral mission but that evangelism has social consequences. This begs the huge and deeply theological question as to the nature of the gospel. If, as many Evangelicals would say, the gospel is an individual, eschatological and vertical salvation then the social consequences are likely to be seen as individual moral improvement. However, if salvation has cosmic consequences then the whole of human life in its relationship with creation will also be affected.

This has a more profound foundation in God’s mission and even deeper in God’s character. Tomorrow, we will return to that subject.

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You gotta have faith

Quite what George Michael had faith in is not clear from the lyric of the song. My point is that being part of God’s mission and his salvation requires faith, not as a an adherence to a set of propositional truths but as a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord.

When I was a youth pastor in Mississippi in the late 1980s, there was a controversy in the Evangelical world between John Macarthur and Zane Hodges over what became known as the “Lordship Salvation/Easy believism debate.” In this, although not much in other things, I side with Macarthur. Hodges was trying to avoid any hint of “works salvation” in his faith. He argued that if faith is anything else than belief in a set of propositions then it became works. Macarthur said that believing in and making Jesus Lord of your life was salvation but not works. This is a particlar debate for a particular set of theological beliefs that were present in the US and remain to this day.

The debate would have been foreign to Jesus and the Apostle Paul. Faith can never simply be a box ticking exercise to a set of propositional statements. This is what the Old Testament prophets railed against; believe in the LORD and live as you like. Commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord, not only as your lord, but the Lord of all is foundational to Christian mission. Christ is my Lord, so I live like it is so.

Mission that is truly integral can only be carried out by those who live their lives as subject to the Lordship of Christ. Luther is said to have said “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” The faith that saves is always accompanied by a transformed life. This does not mean that the person becomes more religious but will have the heart and concerns of God.

God’s concerns are very clear in the Bible. God is concerned for those who have no one to be concerned for them: the widow, the orphan and the foreigner. This is what Paul means when he talked about being transformed by having our minds renewed (Romans 12:2). A student of mine had a T-Shirt that had the words “Changed People, Change the World.” We could paraphrase it with “Transformed People Transform the World”.

I would like to add something to this by saying that “Transformed Communities of People Transform the World”. Yes, each transformed individual contributes to the transformation of the world but actually it is the formation and maintenance of communities of people who live for the widow, the orphans and the foreigner who really transform the world. This is one, but not the only reason why integral mission can only be truly carried out by local fellowships of believers and not be organisations operating as NGOs.

That little discussion is for another day!

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Buy Jesus! Buy Jesus! He’s the best saviour on the market!

Following my posts on integral mission and the local church, I have had some interesting conversations. Therefore, I decided to continue blogging on this subject.

When we were in Argentina we were members of the same church as Rene Padilla. (Theological name dropping is one of the most pointless activities around!) I remember saying to Rene one Sunday morning that we should not need to qualify the term “mission” in regard to the church’s mission. We talk about “integral mission” or “wholistic mission” but really unless the mission of the church is integral or wholistic it is not mission.

Mission that does not deal with the whole person as a soul-body-in community is simply selling Jesus as the best ticket to heaven you can buy! The church becomes the marketing department of God. If mission is, as I understand it to be, subject to the mission of God (the missio Dei) then it must deal with more than a set of beliefs (given that the devil know that Jesus is the saviour of the world).

Mission cannot be signing as many people up to a set of beliefs, however true those beliefs may be. This is for a great number of very good theological reasons which we will explore in the next few days.

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Mission is integral or it not mission

Following my posts on integral mission and the local church, I have had some interesting conversations. Therefore, I decided to continue blogging on this subject.

When we were in Argentina we were members of the same church as Rene Padilla. (Theological name dropping is one of the most pointless activities around!) I remember saying to Rene one Sunday morning that we should not need to qualify the term “mission” in regard to the church’s mission. We talk about “integral mission” or “wholistic mission” but really unless the mission of the church is integral or wholistic it is not mission.

Mission that does not deal with the whole person as a soul, body in community is simply selling Jesus as the best ticket to heaven you can buy! The church becomes the marketing department of God. If mission is, as I understand it to be, subject to the mission of God (the missio Dei) then it must deal with more than a set of beliefs (given that the devil know that Jesus is the saviour of the world).

Mission cannot be signing as many people up to a set of beliefs, however true those beliefs may be. This is for a great number of very good theological reasons which we will explore in the next few days.

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How justly are we acting, how much do we love mercy, and are walking humbly with our God?

This week has been something of a roller coaster experience for me. Some bad news at the beginning of the week rocked me to the core but also the joy of spending time with sisters and brothers committed to the communication, living out and establishment of the kingdom of God on this earth was overwhelming.

The conference itself was quite large with over 340 participants from over 63 counties participating in 6 intense days of study, lectures, workshops and discussion groups. Among the speakers, as I mentioned earlier in the week, there was still a disparity between men and women but the balance is getting better. There was a very good balance between Western and non-Western speakers. This morning when we stood up to say where we were all from the vast majority of participants were from the majority world. The content of the plenary sessions and workshops was very rich although probably too much speaking from the front. One of the themes absent from our deliberations was the global refugee crisis. This is strange as this is not a new phenomenon.

Some issues about the conference itself that I noted was that, firstly, it was not a consultation. For me a consultation is often limited to a group of specialists dealing with one specific subject which is discussed and a statement is made afterwards. In a real sense it wasn’t even a conference; it was, for me, a triennial assembly. It was place where likeminded people of a certain organisation could share what they have been doing and what they are planning. This is a very valid and valuable exercise.

Given the real nature of this gathering I think that the programme was too full. From 08.00-2100 each day with little time to network or even chat, this was too much. The amount of information was amazing and will be so useful but most people skipped sessions to spend time chatting. An assembly needs to give the participants time to relax and chat.

Having made these criticisms, want to say what an incredible privilege it was to be in Lima.

I want to turn now to reflections on the Micah Global Triennial Consultation (assembly) as an expression of the state of the understanding of integral mission. Firstly, it must be said that the vast majority of the representatives were from NGOs. Almost every session was directed towards, and used the language of, NGOs. In one session a pastor of a local churches shared at when many people heard he was from a local church, they asked him why he was there! The idea that integral mission is done by NGOs and not by local churches is stubborn. It is true that many local churches are not interested in integral mission but if that is so, why was there no plenary session or workshop on “how to encourage your local church into mission”?

Although it is true, as Melba Maggay pointed out, that the MGO is part of the church, they participate not as local churches. this together with the fact that many contemporary NGOs employ many non-Christians makes the importance of the local church even more acute.

In addition to this we were often given the impression that the local church is a dangerous place of oppression. “This is the way people are treated in the church” was a phrase I heard more than once. The answer given to this oppression is of course the NGO. If the local church is, as I understand it to be, the primary means that God uses to carry out the divine purposes in the world, then surely a call to repentance to the church is more appropriate than a circumventing of her mission.

Given this dysfunctional relationship between the local church and NGOs interested in Integral Mission, perhaps it is the role of Micah to be a bridge between the two. This could be in the form of encouraging the local church to see its role in integral mission (perhaps through a Micah Course) and helping the NGOs navigate the minefield of ecclesial politics.

Rene Padilla made some interesting comments in the final panel session. The most interesting was that he highlighted the importance of theological reflection in the whole process of thinking about integral mission. As he points out, theology is not for theologians but for the people who want to live out their lives in an integral way and take part in God’s mission as part of their Christian communities. How can Micah and its partners help these people think through how they can do this. That would be certainly better rather than taking over and doing the integral mission for them?

So what can we say are the biggest issues in integral mission after this event? For me the biggest is still the role of the NGO in relation to the local church. Perhaps it should not be but the reluctance, ignorance and impotence of the local church and the “if you won’t, we will” attitudes of many NGOs holds the integral mission of the world church back.

I hope you have benefitted from these blogs this week and are able to engage with them on any level you find appropriate.

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Reading and obeying

I would like to share a highlight for me today. Although there were various highlight especially Dave Bookless’ presentation on Planetary Boundaries.

CB Samuel spoke on “Believing and Living”. From the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), he highlighted how people read and respond to the Bible. In response to the Lawyer’s question as to how does one inherit eternal life, Jesus asked the lawyer, “What is written in the law, how do you read it? (25). All the characters in this biblical account know what is written in the law, the important question is, how do they read it? Or maybe how they (and we) respond to it? Do we obey it or not? CB suggested 7 readings of the word of God based upon their responses to the injured man.

This is my take on CB’s talk.

Firstly, there is the blessing reading. The Priest knew all the passages in the Law that told him that he was special, he was important and so important that he shouldn’t touch the dead. This man looked dead. This was a blessing. The law gave him the opportunity not to get involved. The law blessed him. his reading was all about him.

CB mentioned that their are many Christians like the priest. There may be awful suffering in the world and people starving but God is in the business of making us feel good about ourselves. The bible tells me “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” Apart from the dodgy exegesis, taking over a promise to Israel for an individual Christian it focuses on me not the world.

Secondly. There is the job description reading. The Levite was a carer, his role was to serve in the temple and care for those there. If the man had been beaten up in the temple, he would have cared for him. But because this was outside the temple it wasn’t the Levite’s problem. He was absolved from helping.

CB related this to many NGOs and their workers. The NGO and its workers want to serve the poor, they want to involve themselves in the communities where the NGO is sent. However, It is only the poor in my project that is most important. This is a job description reading of the law. Compassion Is a job not a vocation. This is a challenge for NGOs and their workers.

Thirdly, he mentions a Ritualistic reading. The robbers were probably Jewish although there are those who say they were labourers building the temple but this is unlikely as the temple had been completed a long time before Christ. They knew the law but ignored it. Their reading of the law said, you can do your religion and live how you like. This is a ritualistic reading of the law.

Once again CB reflects on this reading, asking whether church members do this type of reading by living in contravention of the will of God but feel that God will still bless them because they do their religion; go to church, raise their arms in worship, etc. This is the ritualistic reading of the law.

Fourthly, there is the professional reading. The Innkeeper was man who received this injured man and cared for him but at the end of the story, he is reimbursed. He was compassionate, he did a good job, he was willing to accept this man into his inn even those he was not qualified but he was willing. But this was his profession, he charged for his services.

Both within the church and within the NGO there is this reading present quite often. There is a danger that we become professional Christians, our compassion is our job. Compassion should be part of our being not part of our job.

Fifthly, there is the Intellectual reading. Although the Lawyer was not part of the parable, his reading is quite obvious, it is for intellectual stimulation. He was interested in hearing the teachers’ perspective on the law. Jesus makes this clear when he asks, “what is written in the law”? If it is clear in the law, why is he asking Jesus. He loved studying and discussing the law, the reading of the law but was reluctant to put it in to practice.

This intellectual reading of the law is common among Bible college students and theologians. They are also in the Church. They are the people who love studying and discussing the word. This is not bad, however, it is negative when this reading does not lead to caring then this is intellectual and truncated.

Penultimately, there is the Obedience reading. The law is there to be obeyed. This is the reading of the Samaritan. The Samaritan, as did the Jewish people, knew the law. The Pentateuch was accepted by the Samaritans and so the Samaritan knew the injunction to care for the poor and vulnerable and he obeyed.

The final reading of the law is what we could call the incarnational reading of the law. Jesus not so much obeyed the law, but, in his own being and action, he fulfilled the law. In Luke 4:18 Jesus says that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him. This is the incarnational reading of scripture he lived out the meaning of Scripture in his own being and life.

So how do I, how do we, read scripture? Is it a blessing, job description, ritualistic, professional, intellectual, obedience or incarnational reading of Scripture?

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The Holy Spirit: the anchor of NGOs

I would like to give you a synopsis of one of today’s talks. Melba Maggay led a wonderful reflection on the Holy Spirit as the one who “centres”. The Holy Spirit keeps the Christian identity centred and keeps us from “mission drift”. She especially applied this to Christian NGOs.

According to Melba Christian NGOs are always in danger of losing their Christian identity. This is because much what is done Christian NGOs is also done by non-Christian NGOs. The question as to what defines the work as a Christian NGO is good one and one that is sometimes hard to answer. Some organisations’ websites do not give away at all the the organisation is Christian. So is this integral mission, establishing Shalom. Or is it good people doing good work? It is the Holy Spirit that centre that identity in Christ. Being constantly aware of the Spirit’ presence in discernment is essential to the maintenance of this identity.

The Holy Spirit also prevents “mission drift”; i.e. The drift away from the mission of establishing Shalom. In the task of raising funds for projects and administering funds for those projects the mission drift can occur. Some NGOs do know how many people are helped out of poverty. They may know how much how much they have raised, how many projects they have, how many people they employ etc. but their mission has drifted to another place.

The Spirit is discerned through the Word. She gave and example of an organisation working with street girls. They had 5 mins of bible study a day and soon they are getting live together and church grew up and started to work etc. illustrating the importance of the Spirit in integral mission.

Finally the Holy Spirit stops institutions becoming and end in themselves like in Jeremiah 7:4 where the Israelites chant “the Temple of the LORD, the Temple of the LORD, the Temple of the LORD”. The temple itself doesn’t save but the Lord of the Temple does. Institutions of agencies can become ends within themselves but discernment of the Holy Spirit can avoid this.

This talk was incredibly incisive and challenging.

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Justice: Truth and Love

The second day of the Micah Global Triennial Consultation had as its theme Justice: Truth and Love. Without the declaration of the truth and demonstration of love there can be no justice. And without justice there cannot be peace and wellbeing; i.e. Shalom.

Dario Lopez, a Peruvian Pentecostal pastor, Made the very strong point that it is not possible to do justice and therefore establish shalom if we do not have integrity in our own lives both private and public.

Rene August, a Pastor from South Africa, spoke not so much about equality as justice as the force that brings people dignity. She proposed that the fight for justice is a long and difficult struggle, so we need to work together and inspire young people to be part of the fight.

In an excellent and extremely personal paper Joseph Nyumutera spoke of reconciliation in the context of Rwanda and the 1994 genocide. As a Hutu, he spoke of his struggle with hate. He spoke of the essential role of church in its work at a much deeper level of conversion, forgiveness, healing and love which leads to reconciliation. Shalom cannot be established without reconciliation.

Using the narrative if Jesus’ arrest, Ruth Padilla de Borst gave us the difficult challenge of exposing the violence towards those who are suffering. We follow the suffering God who is counter-cultural. The Sovereign Slain Lamb is a contradiction to all human culture. The Christian Individual and the church are called to follow Jesus in establishing Shalom by exposing violence and healing lIves.

Highlights
Dario highlighted the importance of coherence in the private and private lives – this avoids schizophrenia. Rene called young people to front to say what their role is in the fight against injustice. Also her phrase “you are worth more than you produce.” Joseph explained that It is essential to find our own healing in order to be an agents of reconciliation. And also his idea that reconciliation is a prerequisite to shalom” was powerful. Ruth’s linking of Peter’s denial of Jesus and how Jesus had healed the High Priest’s Servant’s ear challenged us not to deny our relationship with those who are suffering the results of violence. She also gave 5 great practical Of what we do in the face of violence? Mourn, question and pray; put your sword away (Peter); make our bond public (I don’t know him); resist all justification and expression of violence and live as an alternative and prophetic community.

It was quite a challenging day!

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How in Integral are we?

One of the important tests of a conference, especially one which claims to want to establish justice and seek hope and peace is that the people who are asked to present are representative of the movement. The participants, unless invited, you can’t control. So I did a Study of the profile of the main speakers. On the negative side there were only 33% women and 67% men. Having said that, this is a higher percentage than would be found in many conferences. What was really notable was that only 46% were Western–that is from Europe, North America and Australasia–and 54% were non-Westerners. For an international mission conference this is outstanding and a massive step forward.

After various morning seminars the conference started in ernest with a time of corporate singing followed by an intense cultural experience. This was intense for the force of the message and the volume of the presentation. And it was cultural because it went on for 45 minutes longer than the programme. I do not say this as a criticism but because neither the participants nor the organisers were phased by this.

So in afternoon, there were two major sessions, one by a woman and the other by a man, but both from the Majority world.

In her paper on “Governance and integral mission”, Melba Magay sought to broaden our thinking biblically on Integral mission; going beyond the old dualism of evangelism and social action. Therefore she spoke of three Cs: The cultural mandate, The great commandment, The great commission. All of these give humanity and the church especially, a duty to be involved in Integral Mission. This was notable because she related this to the context of the Refugee crisis in the world.

In the main sessions there was translation into Russian, French, Portuguese and English as well as Spanish. Rene Padilla, because there was complaints from the Latin Americans that there was no translation in a couple of morning seminars he decided to give the paper in Spanish whilst it was written in English This caused some panic in the translation booths! I think this gave the Non-Spanish speakers, especially the English only speakers a new experience.

In his paper, Civil society, the common good and integral mission related many theological and biblical themes to the will of God for all human beings to have the opportunity for basic human dignity. In an international consumerist society this often denied to most. This is a call to the church to be involved in seeing the will of God done on the earth as it is in heaven.

Given the speakers’ reputation and ministry, both presentations were a great challenge and call to all the participants. Good first day!

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Ruminations in an Airport Departure Lounge

So I arrived in Bogota at 03.00. The first thing I noticed was what nice airport was and how many airline pass through Bogota. The second thing I noticed, well actually the second, third and fourth third thing I noticed was the difference in height between the service personnel–those cleaning or pushing wheelchairs– and the passengers and even the people serving in the shops were. In fact all the steward and stewardesses were far taller…and whiter!

Across the world visual indicators of wealth or poverty and common and I suspect a person with money is unlikely to wear a shell suit. Whereas Barbours are really seen council estates.

I have made these rather superficial remark to highlight, what I believe to be an important issue when thinking about what shalom means in different contexts. The causes and indicators of poverty are complex and very slippery; I.e. In one context poor can mean one thing and in another context another.

I once asked a young pastor from Northern Argentina if he felt poor. He was rather taken aback and suspect more than a little offended! He most certainly didn’t feel poor and produced a Bible bag. As I didn’t have one and only the very poor can’t afford Bible bags!

I think at global level our analysis of the context and what indicates and produces poverty must be accurate and more than superficial observation.

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Reflections before a Consultation

A few weeks ago Eddie Arthur commented on a Global Mission conference. He ended his own comments with the question A few weeks ago Eddie Arthur commented on a Global Mission conference. He ended his own comments with the question ‘so what?’ It was a good time had by all, but what was achieved?

I guess my own reflections before this conference in Lima, Peru is what will emerge from this consultation? We are looking at the concept of Shalom in  regard to justice, peace and joy. There will be some very important thinkers there who will bring their experience and perspective, but what will come out of it all?

I hope that there will be something that will impact for the Kingdom of God and the lives of the poor and have something to say to the powerbrokers who can alleviate the suffering those suffering the affects of war, conflict and injustice?

what this space.

 

 

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Justice not pity

You would have to have a heart of stone and a head full of hate not to have been moved by the plight of Syrian refugees in the news recently. Media and politicians are talking about taking pity on these people. The Bible does talk a lot about compassion, love and pity but it speaks more of practical action for justice. Deuteronomy 23 is quite specific about our actions.

15 If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master. 16 Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them.

This law is of course massively counter-cultural even for today. It was even more so in ancient times. The Law Code of Hammurabi (1792BC-1750BC) says,

16. If any one receive into his house a runaway male or female slave of the court, or of a freedman, and does not bring it out at the public proclamation of the major domus, the master of the house shall be put to death.

It runs completely in the opposite direction.

I am of course aware that we do not live in ancient Israel and we are no longer under the law of Moses but grace. However, if we are not simply going to dismiss it as no longer relevant then we need some way to translate the value of the law to contemporary society. To interpret Old Testament law correctly we need a key.Ladder of abstraction

This key is to be found in a concept called the ladder of abstraction. We can’t simply impose a 1-2-1 approach. The principle is important to draw out.

The principle seems to be here is that if somebody is fleeing oppression then the faithful Israelite is to give them refuge, protect them from the oppressor, give them freedom to live wherever they choose and to treat them with justice. This is not about pity or compassion but about justice. This is God giving his protection to the oppressed.

Now how that should be worked out by British Christians in the current context in which we find ourselves is up for discussion, however that we should be in the business of guaranteeing justice for those fleeing oppression is not.

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Theology away with the fairies or countercultural

The last two models of contextual theology that Bevans mentions are the transcendental and countercultural models.

The transcendental model focuses on one’s own experience as a person of faith. This models assumes that the human mind operates in identical ways in all cultures, it insists on the struggle for authenticity of a particular subject, conditioned by history, geography, and culture. It proposes the task of constructing a contextualized theology through a conscious consideration of the affective and cognitive operations in the subject. The importance is no longer on the theology produced, but on the person who has theologized and them becoming authentically them!

This model argues, obviously, that the best contextualizers are those who are members of the context themselves. The transcendental theologian is both highly aware of their own position as theologizing subject and that which one has been converted to and with (traditional Christian theology, liturgy, specific Christian thinkers). ‘The self’s wrestling with the new thoughts produces an authentically contextualized theology.’

This method seems to me to be rather vague and to some degree, pointless. It is in my opinion “theology away with the fairies”.

The countercultural model gives the warning that context needs to be treated with a good deal of suspicion. This model assumes the redemption, rather than the creation, approach to culture and claims that if the gospel is to truly take root within a people’s context, it needs to challenge and purify that context. This model also realizes that some contexts are simply antithetical to the gospel and need to be challenged by the gospel’s liberating and healing power. This is not to say that this model is anti-cultural but rather that culture always contains pagan elements. This model emerged and is most appropriate in cultures where Christianity has taken root and then lost its influence on that culture; i.e. Western Europe and North America.

Witness this quote from Lesslie Newbigin.

‘ Like others I had been accustomed, especially in the 1960’s, to speak of England as a secular society. I have now come to realise that I was the easy victim of an illusion from which my reading of the Gospels should have saved me. No room remains empty for long. If God is driven out, the gods come trooping in. England is a pagan society and the development of a truly missionary encounter with this very tough form of paganism is the greatest intellectual and practical task facing the Church.’ (Lesslie Newbigin, Unfinished Agenda: An Updated Autobiography 2nd ed., 1993, p.236.)

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Action in history or Nailing your colours firmly to the fence

This week we are looking at Stephen Bevan’s different models of contextual theology. Yesterday we looked at two models that start from different ends of the theological process. The translation model begins with the theologian’s understanding of the gospel and church tradition. The anthropological model begins with the cultural values of the location of theology. Today we will look at two other models.

The praxis model is, in one sense, where contextual theology gained its foundations—especially in epistemology (philosophy of knowledge) and hermeneutics (philosophy of interpretation). For theologians employing this model, God’s presence is manifested not only in the gospel or in the fabric of culture but in the fabric of history. God’s action in history especially in the history of oppressed peoples struggling for liberation is the starting point for this model.

Thus, theology must be done in the context of commitment to action, as a continual dialogue between the heritage of faith and experience in this struggle. It focuses on the identity of Christians as they confront the social realities of their context and presupposes that the highest level of knowing is in action.  It asserts that a theology that does not take praxis into consideration is an irrelevant, theoretical reflection. The Praxis model can be summarized quite succinctly as a process of “action-reflection on action- and re-action” (based on a new understanding of traditional authority and a trial-and-error approach toward social action). Bevans identifies Liberation theology as only one example of the Praxis approach.

The synthetic model preserves the importance of the gospel message and traditional doctrinal formulations while acknowledging the vital role of culture. It emphasises the importance of reflective action for change and the need to honour the resources of other cultures and theologies and strives to keep these elements in “dialectical tension”.

The word “synthetic” is not used in the sense artificial as in “synthetic leather” but rather in the sense of something constructed out of various sources as in a “synthetic fibre”. So in this sense, a synthetic model of contextual theology is a theology constructed out of all elements of the theological process.

In one way, the Synthetic Model is the moderation of all previous models. Bevans identifies this model as a “dialectic” or “dialogical” model, meaning that the intention is to converse with the target culture and allow for a give and take between the gospel message and local cultural forms. A good example of this model would be the work of Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, especially in his Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai.

To a certain extent I question whether this is a model at all as it seems to “nail its colours firmly to the fence!”

 

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Theology is theology is theology…isn’t it?

Most Christians are either afraid or don’t like the idea of theology. They think it either destroys people’s faith or is a dry, boring, intricate mind game that has little or no relation to life. This, of course, is rather distressing to somebody who loves theology. But sometimes they are correct.

When addressing the communication of the gospel, theology is vital. Add to that complex the communication of the gospel in another language than your own and into another culture theological issues fly around your head like demented mosquitoes!

An American Catholic mission theologian, Stephen Bevans has written a fascinating book called Models of Contextual TheologyHe proposes that all theology is contextual and that there are at least six ways in which theologians have done their theology.

We will look at two of these models over the next three days.

The translation model claims that the message of the gospel, expressed in supra-cultural, essential doctrines, is unchanging. There is a core, central truth that is identical forevery cultural context in the world. We need to identify this core and then express that core in the cultural categories that are relevant for that context.This model is most often employed by those doing pioneering work among those who have never heard the gospel before. In many ways, every mode of contextual theology is a model of translation, that is, of translating the truths of faith into symbols that are recognizable in culture.

However, this model struggles to liberate that message from captivity to Western categories of thought. The tendency is to believe that the Western understanding of the core gospel is the correct one. However, the emphasis on the eternal truths of faith is not a unanimously accepted concept. Bevans, therefore, classifies those reflections with an implicit presupposition of the eternal truths under this model of translation.

This form of contextualization has been the most common and most employed by evangelical missionaries, although Roman Catholic doctrine since the 1970s has also extensively employed this model. Although the work of David Hesselgrave and John Paul II are highlighted by Bevans, evangelicals such as Paul Hiebert, Bruce Nicholls and Bruce Fleming are important.

The anthropological model, starts from the opposite end from the translation model. Whereas the translation model emphasizes the gospel, the anthropological model emphasizes the importance of cultural identity of each Christian. It emphasizes that one is not so much a Christian who is Luo or any other culture but is a Christian Luo expressing his or her cultural values through being a Christian.

Theologians who employ this model, while taking the Bible and the Christian tradition seriously, also seek for God’s self revelation within the values, relational patterns, and concerns of particular cultures. Therefore, the belief is that the Gospel is already present in the culture and the job of the Christian missionary/church is to draw out that which already exists. It puts greater emphasis on culture rather than on the eternal truths.

The model’s primary concern is the establishment of cultural identity as a person articulates his or her Christian faith. Bevans describes this as to define the “human as the place of divine revelation […] equal to scripture and tradition”. Such articulation may disregard the presupposed eternal truths of the translation model.

This model is especially appropriate in contexts where there has been a colonial break with past culture. Even more so if that cultural break was imposed by a “Christian nation”. This regains cultural values through Christian engagement.

Tomorrow the praxis and synthetic models.

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Throwing out missional Procrustean beds

Milton Jones, one of my favourite comedians, after the world cup last year said “I didn’t like the world cup, Mr. Messy was nothing like in the books!” Of course, to understand the joke you need to know about the Argentinean footballer, Lional Messi.

Following on from yesterday’s post I want to reflect upon the whole idea of “messy mission” a bit more. Mark Barnard published his Messy Mission: Reflections on a Missional Spirituality (2011). His main thesis seems to be that we are all on a journey and we do not need to be sorted out as disciples of Jesus before serving him. He has an excellent section on the parable of the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30 noting how Jesus’ gardening methods seem rather unconventional. “Let’s leave the weeds and sort them out at the harvest” defies received wisdom on weed control!

I want to really apply the idea of “messy mission” more to strategy than spirituality. My main thesis is that within God’s mission the planning cannot happen from the top down but should happen bottom up. This concept holds within it various presuppositions. Firstly, that we cannot fully know what God’s mission is in detail. We know that “bringing all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:10; cf. Colossians 1:20) is what God’s ultimate aim is. However, this is not enough for project planning! If we take the Great Commission approach then, as we saw yesterday, we can (however inaccurately) make a stab at planning for the completion of the task.

A second presupposition is that the working out of God’s mission is overwhelmingly contextual. So bringing all thing under Christ is done “on the ground”. Top down planning cannot take all contexts into account and ends up with a “one size fits all” approach. This sort of Procrustean Bed cannot work. Bottom up planning can make a more accurate and ultimately more faithful attempt at discerning God’s mission in its own context.

A final presupposition is, harking back to last week’s blog, that the working out of the missio Dei is the work of the local church. There is no doubt that churches should work together, even across continents to fulfil its mission, however, planning cannot be imposed from the top but emerge from the context. This is a message not only for multinational mission agencies but also denominational agencies.

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Managerial or Messy Mission

Samuel Escobar, a few years ago commented that much of the missiology emerging from North America was an application of the Harvard Business School method. This was especially true of the Homogeneous Unit Principle missiology and the unreached people group missiology. The task according to Matthew 24:14 was to reach all the unreached people groups and so Christ would come again. So in the 1980s the definition of people group was established and people groups were identified and distributed among the continents and countries. What constituted “reached” was also defined so we would know when we’d done the job.

The idea that we can organise and complete the task keep raising its head in various forms. Eddie Arthur’s blog has been blogging about a recent manifestation of how agencies, especially multinational mission agencies are making decisions about local mission that they are ill-placed to do.

So what’s the alternative? Theologically we could and maybe should admit that the task of world mission does not belong to us. It is God’s mission, the missio Dei. Therefore, if mission belongs to God then perhaps God should be the one who plans the divine mission. And of we believe, as I do that God has entrusted his mission to the local church, perhaps it is the church who should be planning and not international and multinational mission agencies.

This however, seems to be a rather messy way of doing things. But perhaps this is God’s way. Perhaps God’s way of working is, in our eyes at least, messy. Perhaps as is the case with God’s foolishness and human wisdom (I Corinthians 1:25) so it is with God’s messiness and human organisation.

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Thinking politically about the Gospel or thinking ‘Christianly’ about politics

Jeremy Corbyn

As many of you already know, I am passionate about the Christian Gospel and its communication (mission) and also I am passionate about politics. You also probably know that I think these two issues are intimately linked. I think that the confession “Jesus is Lord” pushes the Christian into the realm of politics. The question is “of what is Jesus Lord?” Is it only my life, my church? Or is he Lord of my town, my country and the whole world?

Many of you, I know will disagree with me when I say that I believe Jeremy Corbyn to be promoting economic policies that are closer to a Biblical view of economic justice than that of the Cameron Government. The message of Easter is not to do with “hard work and responsiblity” as Cameron famously noted. The message of Easter is that God has saved the undeserving, unreservedly.

The Labour leadership race is an undignified affair with ugly accusations and criticisms which have no place in political debate. This has highlighted a wider problem within politics upon which I think the Gospel sheds clear light. The Theos Think Tank has produced a very good Labour needs to learn to love its enemies by David Barclay. The point is that there is too much hate in political debate and little or no tolerance. This article directs its criticism towards the Labour Party but all parties are guilty.

“Love” is central to the Christian message and should be one of the most important elements in politics. Jesus’ radical statements is directed towards Christian attitudes towards those who do not agree with us. Or even are our enemies and those who actually actively work against us.

43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:43-45a)

What would it do to political debate if we started to put into practice these verses?

 

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Living in Cloud Cuckoo Land

A couple of days ago, I saw an article on the BBC that said that the numbers of migrants trying to get through the Channel Tunnel had fallen from a peak of 2000 per night to just 200 per night. The UK government proudly put this down to the construction of more fences and the deployment of more guard dogs.

The construction of fences and the formation of “fortress Britain” seems to me, not only to be an admittance of abject failure to deal with the underlying problem but also utter rejection of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Ephesians 2:11-22 says that the Gospel of Christ, not only reconciles us with God but also with one another. Natural enemies [Jews and Gentiles] are made one by Christ.

remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called ‘uncircumcised’ by those who call themselves ‘the circumcision’ (which is done in the body by human hands) – 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. 19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

To divide people in order to protect one group from the other is attempting to oppose what God is doing in Christ.

Additionally, Peter Sutherland of the UN commission on international migration said any country that thought it could stop the “alleged floods” of people with fences was “living in cloud cuckoo land”. Apparently the UK should be renamed.

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Jesus the migrant

[T]he Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ (Matthew 2:13-15).

With all the awful references to “migrants” and the PM joining in the baying crowd of media voices, I think it is good to remember that Jesus and his family were also refugees and migrants. Jesus was probably less than 2 years old (given Herod’s homicidal order) when his father and mother snatch him up and hurry out of Bethlehem (8km from Herod), possibly at night. Both the parents would have clearly have been terrified and would have communicated that terror to the young child.

The child would probably not have known why he was going on this journey, he would have been confused, frightened and was having his world shaken and turned upside down. We know the story so we don’t share the terror; this is just a short end to Matthew’s account that rarely gets into the Nativity play–infanticide not being thought suitable for primary school audiences. We know the end is that Jesus does escape and then returns to live in Nazareth. Jesus, however, experienced first hand the terror and confusion of migrants driven from their home by terrible forces that, like Herod, have no compunction in killing children, however young. He knew this fear, he understands it because he felt it.

We don’t because we haven’t. Jesus lives in “the Jungle”.

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Migration

Church in “the Jungle”

We have just returned from 10 days in the Black Forest. I was speaking on an Oakhall holiday. Before we went away, everybody was concerned that we would never get through, or would be horribly delayed. Operation Stack was in force on the M20; desperate migrants were raiding the Channel Tunnel; French Ferry workers were blockading the port of Calais. It seemed likely that we’d be in for a long wait. As it turned out we took 1 hour 20 minutes to get from Victoria Coach station through to Parliament Square due to a bike race in London! There were no other hold-ups either way.

If the media is to be believed then Calais is a migrant camp ready to invade Britain. David Cameron called the migrants a “swarm”; Katie Hopkins called them “cockroaches”; the Sun and the Daily Mail, with the outrage that only these nefarious little rags can generate, accused the BBC of wasting license payers’ money on filming “Songs of Praise” in a church in the so-called “Jungle”.

Both politicians and the media are making political capital out of the plight of thousands of desperate people looking to escape oppression and make a better life for themselves and their families. They have escaped from terror, imprisonment, violence and fear only to be labeled as scroungers, thieves and those who are causing a “crisis” by politicians and media in a country that should frankly be welcoming these folk with open arms.

As Christians we must fight these monstrous  forces that seek to dehumanise people by labeling them in collective terms rather than seeing them as an opportunity to show Christ’s love.

Consider this from Deuteronomy 10 (please read to the end)

12 And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? 14 To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. 15 Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations – as it is today. 16 Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. 20 Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. 21 He is your praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes. 22 Your ancestors who went down into Egypt were seventy in all, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky.

Moses carefully links the God of creation and salvation and liberation to the people of Israel’s ethics.

19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. 20 Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name.

Obedience to the LORD is demonstrated in how we treat the foreigner. Let’s not let the government or the media to steer our attitude to others.

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Mission as Saying, Doing and Being

Traditionally, mission has been seen as “saying”; that is evangelism and communication of the Gospel. In the mid 1900s there was a change: mission became “doing”; that is action, more to the point social and political action. This was most obvious in the late sixties and early seventies in the ecumenical movement, in and around the World Council of Churches. At a similar time some mission thinkers, especially Max Warren propounded a missiology of “presence”. To be with the people with whom we are working is to “take off our shoes”, “recognise we walk on holy ground” and to be “present”.

The question should be asked as to whether all of these approaches alone are reductionist to a wholistic gospel. Even having all three in our mission engagement and emphasising one over the other two seems to me to perpetuate a reductionism. All three, integrated into the life of the local church is the church’s biggest challenge.

The local church, rightly understood as a viable expression of the universal church, is the only group that can say, do and be without over inflating one or reducing another. It must be in order to do and say. It must say in order to explain its being and doing and it must do to validate its saying and being.

 

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Local Churches and Integral Mission

RenePadilla-200For followers of the discussion started last week by Eddie Arthur​, here is a definition of “Integral Mission” from René Padilla, “More than a theology, integral mission is an approach to the Christian mission—a way to practice the mission of God in which local churches are viewed as communities that confess Jesus Christ as the Lord of all creation and of every aspect of life and seek to live on the basis of that confession through the power of the Holy Spirit.”

René is founder and president of the Kairos Foundation as organisation which “seeks to help the local churches to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ at a personal, social, and community level, not only by means of preaching, but also through all that the church is and all that it does.”

“This approach is presently fostered through a retreat center in Buenos Aires, the Center for Interdisciplinary Theological Studies (CETI, a theological training program with headquarters in San José, Costa Rica), and literature (which includes publication, in association with Certeza Unida, of a one-volume, exegetical and contextual Bible commentary in 2016).”

Please note in the first two quotes the highlighted words “local churches”. Also note that the Kairos Foundation does NOT itself do integral mission but rather fosters integral mission by supporting local churches.

So, if a Christian organisation proclaims that it is doing integral mission and all they do is do social work, challenge them to support local churches in their mission.

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Of mission, wives and football: William Carey, C.T. Studd and Louis Van Gaal

Care Studd Van GaalAn interesting article on the BBC news website caught my eye. Louis van Gaal said that he has promised that at the end of the season, he will leave Manchester United because he had promised his wife he would do so. On further reading it emerges that he has also promised her 9 years ago that he would leave football. Apart from the fact that footballers and managers tend to leave their wives for football rather than the other way round, this got me thinking about our family lives and integral mission.

William Carey’s wife, Dorothy, could not adjust to life in India and Carey was so taken up with his mission work he didn’t know what to do. As he was baptising the first Indian convert, Dorothy was confined to her room raging with madness. Carey could not cope and this led to the neglect of his sons who were not people Carey would have been proud of. He prioritised his work over his family.

After 25 years of marriage and mission work together, C.T. Studd left his wife in England whilst he went to Africa. For the last sixteen years of their marriage they spent apart. It is not reported that this harmed her in any way but certainly it is not the best modelling of the Gospel, to say the very least.

This is a further argument against the separation of words and deeds in mission. Eddie Arthur posted an excellent blog on this subject a few days ago. His argument was that most mission that claims to be integral is not because it lacks the evangelistic element of mission. I agree with Eddie; too much work that claims to be integral mission is nothing more than Christians doing social action. If you know Spanish you can read René Padilla’s excellent contribution to this debate.

However, I am also arguing that unless our lives, especially our family lives, don’t live up to our words, then, however much evangelising or social action we do, our missionary lives are not integral either.

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Divided church, divided world

We live in a divided world. Any cursory look at the news on the internet will demonstrate just how divided the world is. The religious divisions, divisions within the religions (sometimes murderous divisions), East-West, North-South, Ex-Soviet, ethnic divides, political divides, divisions within political parties. The list could go on.

These divisions cost money, lives, energy and time.

The idea of reconciliation is a political one. As Christians we often think of reconciliation as religious but it is not. Spiritual it may be, religious it is not. As the Lausanne Covenant says, “reconciliation with man [sic] is not reconciliation with God” (LC5). However, reconciliation with God has consequences for politics. John tells us that “if we say we love God and don’t love our brother or sister we are liars” I John 4:20).

However, there is a further issue. The problem of a divided church is not so much a domestic and internal problem for the church but is a disaster for the world. The church is the God’s community which exists as an example for the world. Or more accurately should be an example for the world. There is a connection between Christian unity and reconciliation of humanity.

How can we as a church do this is the $10,000,000 question.

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The evolution or revolution in Evangelical contextualisation

The term “Contextualisation” arose in the circles of the Theological Education Fund of the World Council of Churches in the early 1970s. Evangelicals were cautious as it looked like a “watering down of the Gospel”.

The Willowbank Report (1978) reflected on the subject of Gospel and Culture and remains and important text today in mission circles. Willowbank reflects Evangelical cautiousness emphasizing the unchanging nature of the Gospel.

There was a little known gathering in Haslev, Denmark (1997). Tom Houston of the Lausanne Movement wrote a superb observation. The Lausanne website is in process of refurbishment right now. I have posted an interesting table showing how Evangelicals have changed their views.  Haslev 1997

I’d be interested in any comments. Are we improving our understanding, or our practice?

 

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A guessing game!

I would like to challenge my readers to guess who said/wrote these words. Don’t Google it just take a guess. You may be surprised!

“The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.

I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”.[1] The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace”. How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards!”

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Where do you get your news?

I call myself “a mission theologian.” That basically means that I reflect theologically on the Church’s mission in the world. This being so, it is very important for me to be up to date, not only with the latest theological thinking but also what is going on in the world.

For that reason, I follow news events quite closely. And this brings the thorny issue of how do we get an accurate picture of world events? If we rely on one or two sources of news then we will get a distorted view. For instance if you only looked at the BBC news site you would be ignorant of the death of Egypt’s state prosecutor in a car bomb; the delay of Burundi’s elections because of attacks on polling stations; the thousands of displaced people around the town of Hasakah; or the shooting by South African police of unarmed miners protesting low pay and bad working conditions. By the time this blog is published the BBC may have picked up on some of these stories but I bet they will be buried in the website pretty deeply.

Now, you may feel you don’t need that sort of information but this does affect our perception of what is important in the world. If we only know about our own news then we are in danger of becoming parochial. The Egyptian church is carrying out its mission in a context of violent political protest by insurgents and equally violent state reaction; the Burundian church is trying to create unity while the country pulls itself apart; agencies and churches in the Middle East are considering how they can best aid the refugees and the South African church has to reflect on how to react to state violence.

The previous paragraph is, of course, very generalised and probably inaccurate but the fact remains that as Christians we are linked by a blood bond (the blood of Christ) to our sisters and brothers across the world.

A good alternative source of information can be found on the Al Jazeera’s English website. I’m not saying it’s more accurate simply that you will find stories there where you wont find them elsewhere.

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Terror and despair, hope and mission

Friday was a depressing day. A decapitation in France; a bomb in a Shia Mosque in Kuwait and the shootings in Tunisia. It was supposed to be a joyful day with the end of term at All Nations and the party that follows. As the day unfolded and the news related the awful events, I was tempted, as has happened many times before, to despair, to lose hope.

I say I was “tempted” because for the Christian, to despair is sinful. For the Christian we have a message of hope. God has intervened in this world to right wrong. The message of Jesus Christ is that God WILL bring His kingdom on earth. His righteous rule WILL ultimately be established. God has already begun that process in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He sent his Spirit in order that the church continues that mission. That is why it is a sin to despair. If the church loses hope, what chance does the world have.

A great example of how this is put into practice is how the victims’ families reacted after the shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. In the face of true evil, they found it in the hearts to forgive. Hate does not have the last word, love does. Because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those people–mainly women I may add–the Gospel was proclaimed in action.

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Think right, do right!

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Paul has said that the peace of God, that is cultivated by not being anxious and sharing our needs with God, which leads to rejoicing and therefore, standing firm in the Lord, will keep our hearts—source of our will and action—and our minds—the source of our thoughts, in Christ Jesus.

Paul now gets very concrete in his advice. Verse 8 talks about our thoughts and verse 9 talks about our action.

Verse 8 tells us that a healthy thought life is essential if we are to stand firm in the Lord. What goes on in your head will eventually become reality in your life. On a personal level, if we think badly we will end up feeling badly and doing badly. On a more theoretical level—bad doctrine leads to bad Christian life and work and mission practice and bad ideology leads to bad praxis.

We are told to ‘think’ or ‘consider’ – to ‘dwell upon’ whatever is True, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praise worthy. This is not ‘think happy thoughts’. The important element is whatever is ‘true’. If we didn’t have that we would be ‘away with the fairies’.

If we accept the ‘tapes’ in our head that tell us we’re useless and good for nothing, we will end up believing those lies. If we constantly repeat lies to ourselves about our past, we will end up believing them. Humility is about a correct self-image not self hatred or denunciation. If we want to be good servants of Jesus Christ, we must cultivate our thought life about whatever is true, etc.

This also leads me to talk about pornography. Our society is full of pornography; i.e. dirty images. The internet is crammed full of pornography. We need to be careful about how we ‘Google’ because of what is presented to us. Youtube is a minefield. Even if you never search for anything dodgy, you are still presented with images that we should avoid. These images pollute the thought life and lead to change in the way we look at the other person. Especially for men, women become objects of self-gratification, they are there in order to make me feel good or look good.

If we harbour impure thoughts we will end up carrying out those fantasies. Pornography leads to the use of prostitutes. Internet pornography has increased the demand for prostitution and also date rape. Get your thought in order.

How is this cultivated? Discipline of mind, confession of sins, forgiveness of sins, correct self-image, etc. are essential for this to be present.

In verse nine, Paul turns to action. And he sets himself up as the example. Whatever Paul had taught, whatever they had drawn from his life and teaching, whatever they had heard him say, whatever they had seen in his character and action, to follow that example.

Paul knew that talking theory was no good; they needed an example of how to live. He gave them that example. We need examples of Christians who have lead lives of service and love to God. That is to say, we need to be discipled.

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Don’t let you joy be so deep it don’t show!

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

A second element, essential to ‘standing firm in the Lord’ is rejoicing. Not only to rejoice but always to rejoice. Now Paul is probably in prison and the Philippians are probably suffering persecution and Paul is talking about joy. He must be nuts! Or he’s walking the talk.

Paul is not talking about a case of the Monty Pythonesque ‘always look on the bright side of life’. Nor is he referring to a joy so deep it doesn’t show on your face! He tells the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord. ‘In the Lord.’ To stand firm in the Lord we must rejoice in the Lord.

To rejoice in the Lord is to rejoice in who he is, what he has done. To stand firm is to get things into perspective; not to look at our circumstances but to who he is and what he has done. Our circumstances do not go away, they do note change but they are certainly made to look less problematic if we know God.

There are several phrases Paul adds to his ‘Rejoice in the Lord’ statement. Firstly, letting there ‘gentleness’ or ‘steadfastness’ be evident in their lives, will help them rejoice. Secondly, that God is near. This could be an eschatological nearness—Jesus will return soon—or that God is near to help. The second for me is more likely. Thirdly, they SHOULD NOT be anxious about anything but they SHOULD, talk to God about what they need. Finally, and this is the result, the Peace of God, will guard their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

The important thing to note here is the place of THE LORD. Rejoicing, therefore, is always ‘rejoicing in THE LORD’, THE LORD is near, make known your requests TO GOD, and it is the peace of GOD that keeps you in CHRIST JESUS.

How is this rejoicing cultivated that we may stand firm?—the closeness and presence of God. We must know God’s presence close to us to know his joy and his peace. Your relationship with God must always be a strong priority. Without that the turbulent seas of life will knock us off balance and make us fall. This is done via what used to be called the “spiritual disciplines” of Bible reading, prayer, confession, adoration, service.  Do not give up on your quiet times with God. If you do you will not stand firm.

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Have the same attitudes

I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Firstly, Paul encourages the Philippians to have unity in order to stand firm. Now in the context of Philippi, there were probably two important leaders—Euodia and Syntyche who had a disagreement. Euodia means ‘fragrant’ and Syntyche means ‘with fortune’ or ‘pleasant’. We don’t know if these were representative names or real ones.

Paul encourages them to ‘have the same mind in the Lord. He uses the same word that he uses in Phil 2:2 when appeals to them to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. This of course is a lot more profound than just agreeing about a certain issue; it is to do with having the same attitudes.  To stand firm in the Lord is not simply to shake hands on one issue but to really be united in thinking about the cause of Jesus Christ. In chapter 2 we see that Christ’s attitude was to look to his own good but to the good of others.

Paul even goes as far as to ask his ‘faithful yoke-fellow’ or ‘companion’. This could have been a person—Clement—or even the Church itself. It is felt by some that because no name is given that it is probably the church as a whole. If it is the church itself, then to ‘help these women’ will involve not taking sides in a dispute but to be a ‘peace-maker’; in the words of the beatitude, to be a child of God.

This is further emphasised with Paul’s use of ‘together language’. The prefix in Greek for ‘together’ is ‘sun’ or syn’. We have words in English such as ‘synergy’ (working together) or ‘synthetic’ (put together) or even ‘synoptic’ (looking at from the same perspective). Not only have these people ‘sunhylhsan – contended together’ with Paul but they are his ‘sunergwn – fellow workers’.

Standing firm in the Lord is not an individual exercise. It is not possible at all if we are in conflict and disagreement. This, of course can be applied on the individual level but also on the church level. We cannot stand on our own and we surely will not stand if are divided.

How is this cultivated? Unity is not a warm fuzzy feeling; it is a decision not to harbour ranker, or grudges. These must be brought out by honest speech in love. Confession to God. Ephesians 4:15, ‘speak the truth in love.’

If we are to stand firm as Christians together we need to make sure that we are standing firm in unity. How often to we say we forgive yet actually there is still something underneath that we are not willing to let go of. We need forgiveness and reconciliation.

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Standing Firm

I preached on Philippians 4:1-9 yesterday and was struck with its relevant message for today. So I thought I would blog on this subject this week.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

I don’t know if you have ever been walking in a gale. In Argentina, we went on holiday to a small resort called Santa Teresita. We went for a walk down the beach one day and as we walked we could see the clouds up ahead getting darker and darker. Eventually we decided that we should turn back as it looked like it was going to be quite a storm. The clouds, and more to the point, the wind was moving a lot faster than we were. By the time we had reached our resort Wilma was struggling to stand up and was actually running along, driven by the wind. I don’t think we could have walked into the wind at all!

Sometimes I feel that the Christian life is rather like that, we feel embattled and battered. Sometimes it is by circumstances; sometimes through people doing unkind things; sometimes it is just the secular society we live in.But we find it difficult to “stand firm”.

The Philippian Christians, I am sure, felt this way. Paul and Silas had planted that church and it was not a big group. Paul you will remember was arrested and beaten (Acts 16) and eventually escorted out of the city. I don’t suppose the persecution went away after Paul and Silas left. In this final part of his letter, Paul encourages the Philippians to “stand firm”.

This passage whole passage is to do with ‘standing firm’. Paul seems to be referring back to an earlier discussion when in 1:27 he says, ‘Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel.’ Chapter 4:1 speaks of ‘standing firm’ and verse 3 about ‘contending for the gospel’.

So, how do we stand firm as Christians? In the next few days we will look at the advice Paul give to the Philippian Christians and then see what we can learn. As a heads up Paul encourages them to stand firm in unity, joy and healthy patterns of thought and action.

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Is our worship, well, worship?

I have been interested in a couple of blog posts highlighted by an former All Nations student on his Facebook page asking whether what we call worship is actually pleasing to God or not. One speaks in terms of our worship being “heresy” and the other about it being “pagan“. Now these are strong words to use and, as a person who does not really find singing being my natural worship vehicle, although I don’t agree with everything expressed in the articles, I think it is good to start a debate on this.

The focus of both these articles is upon music rather than any other element of worship and this reflects part of the problem. Many times I hear people say, “what a great time of worship!” I think what they are really saying is, “the band played well and the singing was good and it made me feel good”. This demonstrates, at least, three errors that should be highlighted. Firstly, that worship is only about singing. Prayer, liturgy, creeds are not part of many people’s idea of worship. Secondly, it only emphasizes corporate worship in a “service” when we should emphasize whole life worship. And thirdly, it focuses upon my experience of worship or of God. Experience of God is, of course, vital for our Christian lives but is not perhaps the measure of the quality of our worship.

When we look at the Old Testament, the worship of Israel was criticized quite forcefully by the prophets. Isaiah tell Israel that fasting as worship is useless unless it is matched by their actions and attitudes (Isaiah 58:6-8). Amos tells Israel God hates their worship (sacrifices and songs) when it is not accompanied by justice (Amos 5:21-24). And Malachi, on the other hand, tells them to take the crippled animals to their governor as an offering to see what he would say about inferior offerings (Malachi 1:6-14). So, in the OT, God is interested in the lifestyle of the worshiper and the quality of the sacrifice.

In the New Testament, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that God requires worship in “spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24). Paul tells us that our worship is “presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2); that our corporate worship should be intellegible (I Corinthians 14:1-26) and that worship includes “petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving” (I Timothy 4:1). Finally,  James, reflecting the OT prophets considers true worship to be looking after the vulnerable and not being polluted by the world (James 1:27). Both OT and NT emphasize God’s acceptance of the worship depending on the quality of lives of the worshiper rather than style.

So how does our Church worship measure up?

 

 

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King John and Moses

Today the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta (the Great Charter of Liberties) is being celebrated. The media are going mad with declarations of how forward thinking it was and how it enshrines the freedoms we accept as normal today. Well, apart from the fact that the Pope annulled it two years later (do you think we will celebrate that in 2017?) and it only really applied to the Barons, Mosaic Law was far more “modern” than anything Magna Carta declared.

Deuteronomy was written, in conservative estimates, 2400 years ago and in radical ones, 3200 years ago. Moses tells the people, “And I charged your judges at that time, ‘Hear the disputes between your people and judge fairly, whether the case is between two Israelites or between an Israelite and a foreigner residing among you.  Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Do not be afraid of anyone, for judgment belongs to God.” Magna Carta forbade the king from imprisoning the Barons without charge; he could do what he like to the people.

The responsibility of the king is also enshrined in Deuteronomic Law. Deuteronomy 17:16-20 says,

The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, ‘You are not to go back that way again.’ He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.  When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests.  It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees  and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.

The king must not gain military power (horses), political power (wives) or economic power (silver and gold) but he must read and learn to keep the law under God. Wow!

I don’t think they would have gotten King John to sign that. So the next time somebody says how great Magna Carta is, point them to Deuteronomy!

 

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A Not-So Lonely God

I would like to finish this week’s reflections on the Trinity with a simple quote from Miroslav Volf, from his most excellent book, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity

“Because the Christian God is not a lonely God, but rather a communion of three persons, faith leads human beings into the divine communion. One cannot, however, have a self-enclosed communion with the Triune God- a “foursome,” as it were– for the Christian God is not a private deity. Communion with this God is at once also communion with those others who have entrusted themselves in faith to the same God. Hence one and the same act of faith places a person into a new relationship both with God and with all others who stand in communion with God.”

This communion then reaches out to the world in love of that Triune God.

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The Holy Spirit of mission

My dad once described a book by John V. Taylor about the Holy Spirit and mission as “Wayward but Brilliant”! The Go-Between God is certainly both those things. There are certain things that Taylor says in this book that have no basis in Scripture but he also demonstrates the Holy Spirit’s mediator’s role in a clear and concise way.

Most theologians would understand mission to be God’s mission (the missio Dei) and God is a missionary God. God reaches out to humanity to draw it into the perichoretic relationship. Being God, the Holy Spirit is also an agent of mission.

How can we understand this role in an integral or wholistic way? It maybe more obvious that the Holy Spirit witnesses to Christ in a kind of evangelistic way but how about social justice and care of the creation?

Firstly, I would say that the Spirit in the Old Testament is the same Spirit of the New. So the Spirit who inspired the Prophets to denounce injustice and unrighteousness is the same Spirit who leads the Church into all truth. This truth is the truth of the God of justice and the church as a reflection (icon) of the Trinity should reflect this concern for justice as well.

Secondly, I would also say that the Holy Spirit was present at creation, hovering of the waters, and the Spirit is the one who will renew the whole creation (Romans 8:25ff). So creation care and cooperation with the Spirit is also part of the Church’s mission.

 

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Selling Jesus?

Having been a salesman and also an evangelist, I have attended training for both those roles. I must say that the approaches were disturbingly similar. Evangelism seemed to me to look like some sort of sales pitch for Jesus as the best saviour. These reflections on the Trinity should deeply affect the way we act and think: our mission and theology. It should also throw light on our evangelism or evangelisation.

I finished yesterday’s post by speaking of an invitation to be part of the divine life. This raises the whole issue of the verbal communication of the Gospel and the trinitarian consequences for that communication. Again, my friend Míguez Bonino gives some ideas.

A truly trinitarian evangelisation—just as a truly trinitarian worship and action—is the invitation to participate in faith in the very life of the triune God and hence in totality of what God has done, is doing and will do to fulfil God’s purpose of “being all in all” (Faces of Latin American Protestantism, p. 144).

If Míguez Bonino is right then this should affect our evangelistic efforts. The packaged methodologies of many evangelistic theories are a travesty of God’s invitation to humanity. The reductionist “you’ll go to heaven when you die so come to Jesus and pray the sinners’ prayer” doesn’t come close to the magnificent offer of communion with the divine. Come and take part in divine being and purpose to fill all things is a far cry from many courses on evangelism I have attended.

This should also affect our understanding of the church: our ecclesiology.  In this sense the Eastern Orthodox, when they speak of the church as the “icon of the Trinity” are right. The word “icon” was used for the impression of Caesar’s head on Roman coins: the likeness.  The invitation to take part in the divine life is also an invitation to be part of this dusty, rusty old thing we call the church. With all its faults, the church is God’s likeness in the world.

Finally, this should affect the way we think of the end times: our eschatology. Evangelism is not the means by which Jesus Christ, emulating the Greek gods’, fills his personal Olympus with elevated souls. It is the means by which God will fulfil his end game, God’s purpose: to be All in All for humanity.

We can share in this, which is highly recommended if you don’t. It is also a challenge for those of us who are sharing in the divine experience, to live it out and share it with others.

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On funny words and being human

One of the difficult things about trinitarian theology is that it uses some funny words. Not funny haha but just weird. Some of these words however turn out to be quite important. I want to introduce you to just one today. Perichoresis meet readers, readers meet Perichoresis!

Perichoresis refers to the interpenetration of the persons of the Trinity. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are distinct yet one. They have a unity of love, purpose and outlook but are distinct. As I said yesterday, we are made in that trinitarian image.

A Latin American theologian, José Míguez Bonino,  who I studied said,

What we are shown here is the nature of ultimate reality: The life of God is communion; identity is not affirmed by closing in on oneself but by opening up to the other; unity is not singularity but rather full communication. It is in that image we are created, it is in participation in that constant divine “conversation” that we find the meaning of our existence, life abundant; it is on this model we should structure our human relations. Neither the all-embracing authority of one over another, nor an undifferentiated mass uniformity, nor the self-sufficiency of the “self-made man,” but the perichoresis of love is our beginning and destiny—‘as persons, as church, as society. (Faces of Latin American Protestantism, 1997, p. 116)

God is reality. Life is not about individual self-realisation but about communion and fellowship. Human identity is self-giving and not selfish possession. This what it means to “know God”; being included in that divine conversation. The church, in its mission in the world sometimes forgets this (often forgets this). Mission isn’t God’s recruitment drive but an invitation to become part of that divine life.

 

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Trinity and mission

As many of my students will know, I love teaching trinitarian theology. This is not because I like solving conundrums, because I don’t; it is because in the triune God we come face to face with reality; the Truth, with a capital T.

We cannot explain the Trinity. Many theologians have dismissed it as an irrelevance that cannot have any practical application to Christian life. In fact Emmanuel Kant said, ““Absolutely nothing worthwhile for the practical life can be made out of the doctrine of the Trinity taken literally.” I beg to differ! There are however, certain things we need to clarify.

Firstly, the Trinity is NOT a doctrine taught in the Bible; it is the work of the Church to try and understand the Triune God. God is revealed to us in the Bible as in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Trinity as a doctrine is the Church’s attempt at understanding that reality.

Secondly, the words used in Greek (and Latin) to understand the Trinity do not have a direct equivalence in English or any other modern language. Three Hypostasis in one Ousia or Three Personae in one Substancia cannot really be understood as Three persons in one being. Scripture clearly refers to God as Father and as Son and as Holy Spirit. The baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19 is obviously trinitarian. God’s actions God is reveals in plurality. “Let us make humanity in our image”, God says in Genesis 1.In We know God through Jesus Christ. We know the Father as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and we know the Spirit as the Spirit of Christ.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity emphasises God as a community or a communion of persons. This is often referred to a the social Trinity. God is a community of love and purpose and it is in THAT image we, as human beings, have been created. It is for that reason we have been created. We have been created for community and love. This is why in Christianity God can BE love. Islamic philosophers quite rightly recognised that in Islam Allah cannot BE love. This is because, before anything was made, Allah had nobody to love. He would have had to create somebody to love.

In Christian understanding God, before anything was created was already a living and loving being because there was an “intra-trinitarian” love; i.e. within the Trinity. The Trinity make sense of human life and love.

 

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Francis and creation

Rick Santorum, the American Republican Presidential told the Pope to “leave science to the scientists” due to the publication of Pope Francis’ call for action on man-made climate change in the forthcoming encyclical Laudato Sii. Little did Mr. Santorum know that the Pope holds a Masters in Chemistry!

This made me reflect upon the “marks of mission” established by the Anglican Church. The 5th mark is to “Strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth”. There are many people more competent than I who blog about this subject regularly, for instance Ruth Valerio, but I felt it was important to raise this in our mission thinking.

There is little disagreement within the scientific community–although there are deniers–that climate change is anthropogenic, that is, generated by human activity. If so then as Christians we should be acting on this issue. Here are a few theological reasons

  1. The earth does not belong to us but to God (Psalm 24), to ruin it is spoiling something that is not our.
  2. This earth is a gift from God, to destroy it is not showing God love.
  3. The earth displays God’s glory (Psalm 19), to ruin it blurs God’s glory.
  4. God tells us to develop the earth (Gen 1:27-28) and to care for it (Gen 2:15), not to do so is disobedience.
  5. God became part of the creation in the incarnation (John 1:14) and so values it.

Here are some practical reasons for caring for the earth.

  1. Mission is always in context and the planet is our most obvious context.
  2. The poorest people in the world are most affected by climate change.
  3. If we are to do the third and fourth marks of mission–to respond to human need by loving service and to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation–then caring for creation is a prerequisite.

You probably can think of others. Let’s start a dialogue.

 

 

 

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In Defense of FIFA

There seems to be an endless stream of accusations, scandals and denouncements of FIFA in the last few days. FIFA has, of course, been a byword for corruption. David Yallop wrote an expose as far back as 1999 (republished in 2011) called How They Stole the Game. However, Sepp Blatter has massive support among many poorer footballing countries. He argues, rightly in many cases, that he is attacked by the powerful nations because he is a friend of the smaller nations. I don’t want to argue one way or the other.

The question that emerges here is whether it is acceptable to pay bribes to do good? This may seem a crazy given the Old Testament teaching on bribery and corruption. (Ex.23:8, Deut. 16:19, Deut. 27:25, 1 Sam. 12:3, 1 Sam. 8:3, Ps. 15:5, Amos 5:12, 13, Micah 3:11, etc.).

Firstly, what is the difference between a bribe, a tip and a gift? Is there such a huge difference between a bribe and tip? A tip is often given to ensure good service the next time; is this not simply a bribe given a long time before the next service rendered?

Think about this case. Two Christian development agencies in a Majority world country both received new airplanes to support their work i.e. movement of national and expatriate workers and medical supplies. The new aircraft were presented, with all the correct documentation for registration by this country’s Aviation Authority. In both cases an additional fee was asked to enable the authorities to proceed. The additional fee was a none too well disguised bribe. (“Do you have a little gift?” is the usual way of putting it).

One agency paid this additional “fee” and its aircraft began operating within days, so it immediately began to fulfil the needy and heavy programme it was destined for.

The second agency  refused to pay this additional “fee”, because part of their policy was to give an example of how to function without bribery. The result was that it took 10 months of  requests that their plane was finally registered. Although this was achieved without paying the “fee” of about US$200. The aircraft had to be mended because it hadn’t been used: to the cost of US$10,000.

During those eight months that the plane was not used, sick people were denied transport, medical supplies were not distributed.

This is a case which I remember using in Argentina and at All Nations, where we called it “Greasing palms or Oiling Wheels.” What do you think?

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Reflecting on being…on being what?

On Wednesday afternoon, I attended a lecture at Cambridge University Faculty of Divinity under the auspices of The Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide. The lecture was trying to show how two influential Latin American theologians (C. René Padilla and José Míguez Bonino) broke free from the traditional Evangelical/Ecumenical definitions. The speaker showed how both of these men, although associated with one of these two camps, crossed over, both personally and organisationally, into the other.

this got me thinking about my own theological journey. I am, I emphasise, I am an Evangelical, I have been influenced by John Stott and other evangelicals. However, I find myself appreciating Ecumenical and Roman Catholic theologians such as Jose Miguez and Han Kung, reading Vatican Documents has been a surprising joy! Am I NOT an evangelical! What am I?

In 1980, a great hero of mine, José Míguez Bonino wrote

My wife—who is usually right—tells me that what I have consistently tried to do is simply to reread and explain the Bible: “Questions, issues and challenges have changed,” she says, “but at bottom you remain what you have always been: a preacher bound to his text.” I hope she is right this time!

Later in 1997, he wrote again, saying,

I have been variously tagged a conservative, a revolutionary, a Barthian, a liberal, a catholic, a “moderate,” and a liberationist. Probably there is truth in all of these. It is not for me to decide. However, when I do attempt to define myself in my inmost being, what “comes from within” is that I am an Evangélico

Is he, and am i, at  base a preacher? It is not for me to decide...

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Churches, para-church organisations and mission

This blog post was prompted by a conversation I had with a couple of former students working in student and youth work. This seems to me to be a recurring issue. Each generation needs to encounter  the conversation again.

In the so-called “Great Century of Missions” (the 19th for any in doubt) countless “mission societies” were begun in order to carry forward the work of “foreign missions”. So the Baptist Missionary Society, the Church Missionary Society, etc. were founded. These were denominational mission organisations which planted their particular species of church. The big question was when did the missionary society pull out and let the denomination run itself. Roland Allen dealt with such a problem.

Later “Faith Missions” emerged with people from different denominations coming together in order to avoid the transplantation of denominations from the “home field” to the “mission field”. So the Evangelical Union of South America (EUSA) was formed and planted churches all over South America. New denominations were formed such as the Evangelical Union of Argentina. The same problem existed with this model.

This is further exacerbated when we get into the realms of the specialist organisations; be they student missions, development organisations or children’s work missions. The tendency has been for the specialists to do the work of mission rather than work with the local church. So the specialist student mission organisation goes into the universities and works with local groups of students, encouraging them, pastoring them and training them. When the student groups do well, the local churches suffer.

The question is, what does the church do? What is the local church’s role? If the development organisation does the well-digging, water sourcing, etc. what is the role of the local church? The answer has been, do the “spiritual bit”! So the dichotomy between evangelism and social action is formed and widened.

The arguments were quite intense in Latin America with mission organisations being frustrated with local church leadership and the leadership mistrusting the mission organisations, suspecting them of robbing their young people.

Is their any answer? I think the answer does lie in recognising that the mission of the church is the mission of both the local and universal church. The local church is primary in this task and the universal church should be serving the local church in order to facilitate its mission.

Many development organisations claim that they do “integral mission”. I would argue that they do not. Unless they evangelise, make disciples and planted churches, then they are not doing integral mission. In the same way, if local churches are not caring for the poor, confronting injustice and maintaining creation, they are not doing integral mission.

I leave it to you to rain down the brimstone.

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Some of my favourite quotes on mission

‘The church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning’ E Brunner The Word and the World NY 1931:108

‘The pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature’ Ad Gentes 2 Vatican II 1965 cf. Lumen Gentium (1964)1-5 esp 5

‘Mission belongs to the nature of the church’ T F Torrance ‘The Mission of the Church’ Scottish Journal of Theology 19.2 (1966):141

‘The Church cannot be understood rightly except in a perspective which is at once missionary and eschatological’ J R W Stott One People Downers Grove 1971:17

‘Mission does not come from the church; it is from mission and in the light of mission that the church is to be understood’ J Moltmann The Church in the Power of the Spirit NY 1977:10

‘The irresistible expansion of Christian faith in the Mediterranean world during the first 150 years is the scarlet thread running through any history of primitive Christianity’ M Hengel Between Jesus and Paul London 1983:48

‘Christianity was never more itself than in the launching of the world mission’ B F Meyer The Early Christians: Their World Mission and Self-Discovery Wilmington 1986:18

‘The impetus to mission sprang from the very heart of early Christian conviction… This missionary activity was not an addendum to a faith that was basically ‘about’ something else (e.g. a new existential awareness)… World mission is..the first and most obvious feature of early Christian praxis’ N T Wright The New Testament and the People of God London & Minneapolis 1992:360-361

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Time is an illusion

“Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so”. So said Ford Prefect, one of the characters in the five-book trilogy, Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy.  I noted yesterday that asking what time we are leaving is unlikely to receive a helpful answer in Argentina. Unhelpful is possibly a misleading term, “accurate” maybe a better word to use.

Latin Americans are not punctual is almost a truism–a statement so obvious is doesn’t really need to be said. This hides, however, a value that, once known, makes sense of the Argentinian tendency towards “tardiness”. Time with people is more valued than punctuality. This is especially true in regard to food. So, its not so much lunchtime that is doubly illusory but foot time.

This can be illustrated by the final Saturday’s asado (or BBQ) with our friends the Shannons. “What time should we arrive?”, we asked. “About 12 midday”, replied Kike (pronounced Key Kay). So when leaving at 12.30pm for the 45 minute journey we knew we were within plenty of time! When we arrived the fire had been lit and the meat had just been put on. When I say meat, I’m not referring to a couple of burgers and a sausage but two large hunks of “tira de asado” (rib meat – about 15cm wide and high and about 50cm long!) and a large piece of “Vacio” (flank – about 15cm square and 5 cm think).

I don’t know what time we ate. It doesn’t actually matter but my point is time was not important: it is an illusion reality is spending time with friends, chatting, sharing, laughing, arguing, just being. This is a taste of heaven time doesn’t matter we have an eternity to enjoy it.

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¡Amo la Argentina!

It has been a full month since I last posted on the blog. I have taken this month off whilst we were in Argentina to rest and reflect. Rest was not achieved; those who follow me on Facebook will know how busy we were. Reflection was achieved in in bucket loads.

I had forgotten so much about life in Argentina. Firstly, how exhausting it is! Late nights are an exception for us in England, they are the norm in Argentina! Starting to light the BBQ at 8pm in order to eat at 10pm or after is common. But that is not what keeps you up late. The after meal chat or “sobremesa” is the real reason for late nights. These times are probably the most precious for Argentinians and for the gringos who love them. A second reason that life in Argentina is tiring is that I had forgotten was how tiring it was to exist in Spanish all the time. It is not that I felt stress speaking the language but that you end up tired from the experience. I found that I could speak all day, even lecture most of the day but when I laid down, the lights went out. I mean my lights went out. Anybody who hasn’t learned and existed in a second language as an adult really cannot appreciate this phenomenon.

Another thing I had forgotten was that Argentinians prioritize people over time. Of course, I knew this but that actual living out of such a priority is something that cannot be theorized it can only be lived. This affects every part of life and especially expectations. “When will we leave?” is not a question that has an easy answer. You may get a time given to you such as “5.30” but don’t expect to leave then! The accurate answer–notice I don’t say “honest”– would be “no idea”. We will only leave when we are ready. When we are ready is also rather a slippery (in the sense of not being fixed) answer. This can cause frustration but when you accept it you can enjoy the flexibility it gives.

The the final thing I forgot was accepting and generous nature of Argentinians. When you live in a place for so long, you come to accept the way people give to you as normal. The time, effort, kindness, generous nature was overwhelming again. Most wont know their names but Kike and Tati (India and Buda), Hector, Sandra, Pri and Andu, Aurora and Carlos, Adrian and Alejandra, Mike and Esther, Steve and Elisa as well as Keila, Micah, Abel and Maira and Guachita!

¡Hasta la próxima!

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Musing in Terminal 2

We left plenty of time and so when we got through bag drop, security and immigration in 30 minutes, we had 3 hours to wait! This is only the start.

The ebb and flow of humanity running through 2 out Heathrow’s 5 terminals, which is 1 out of london’s 6 airports, is frightening. I mean, where are all these people going?

People-watching at an airport is always fun, at Heathrow is triple the fun. Most people are not speaking a language i don’t understand, wearing clothes that are not Western,. Business women wearing killer heals. Who travels in such uncomfortable footwear?

Airports are like tine-warps. It could be any time of day or night and it seems to function the same. People could look tireder late but essentially it’s like A&E but fewer people in white coats! And fewer people with bandages come think of it. What is the same is that same resigned look of “I’d rather be elsewhere but can’t be!

Then there’s the flight staff who are also waiting. They paid for it though.  The cleaner, almost to a man and woman are of Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi origin. Most people treat them as invisible. When I thanked one woman she jumped as if I was going to shout at her. They may have been paid to be there but not enough to like it.

Franky, being at airport can be depressing. Most people were not going holiday or anywhere new or exciting. They just wanted the waiting to end. This is the start of 24 hour trip, so here’s to waiting and watching.

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Day of Memory for Truth and Justice

In 2002, the Argentine government established yesterday as the day to remember the somewhat 30,000 people who disappeared and were murdered by the military government who came to power on 24th March, 1976. Many more were arrested and tortured for no other reason that they opposed the government, or protested against it; or it could have been that your name appeared in the address book of a person the military suspected.

We must never forget those who have suffered for the freedom that we can experience now. The reason is the clarion call of the Argentine resistance to tyranny, NUNCA MAS, Never again.

I think it also means that, as Christians we must be involved in how our political system works, or doesn’t as the case may be. This means we should be examining the manifestos of the parties and using our Christian minds and to vote in the way we feel most reflects our values.

Let the Argentine people be an inspiration and impulse to us in our Christian political involvement.

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I don’t believe in the Supernatural!

I hear so many Christians talk about how they want a “supernatural experience” of God, or they pray that God will intervene “supernaturally”. Well, frankly, I don’t believe the categories of “natural” and “supernatural” are valid. That is, I don’t believe that they are biblical categories.

Let me explain. Natural and supernatural are categories established by Western philosophy and scientific thought. A “Natural” phenomenon is one that can be measured by empirical observation, either with the naked eye or by the use of some sort of machine or instrument such as an oscilloscope. A “supernatural” phenomenon is one that cannot be measured like that and therefore, for Western people, does not exist.

What I think my Christian friends mean is they want people to have a “Spiritual” experience. Or they want their non-believing friends to have an experience that cannot be explained by any other means and so will “prove” that God is at work. This leads to the idea that their are two “planes” of existence: the plane of humanity, driven and dominated by “natural forces” and a divine plane driven by “supernatural forces”. These natural forces are gravity, mass, etc. The supernatural forces are God, the Satan or other non-measurable actors.

The Bible, however, doesn’t speak in terms of “natural” and “supernatural” but in terms of the “physical” and the “spiritual”. Biblically speaking God works in both spheres, in fact we mostly hear of God working in the physical world; that is to say, in history. It is true that Jesus does things that are not explainable by scientific experiments, however, they have effects on the physical world. In the Bible, the physical and the spiritual interact constantly.

The effects of such a dualistic mentality for the non-believer is, as I say, that they dismiss anything they cannot measure as myth. The effect on the believer, especially the Christian believer is far more serious. What happens is that the Christian starts to equate the “supernatural” with the religious and not with the spiritual and the “natural” they equate with the secular. We then fall into a dualistic way of thinking. Science rules the natural world and God is confined to the supernatural world. This is what we call the “sacred-secular” divide.

This missiologically causes various problems. Christian mission gets divided into the evangelism, which given priority over everything else, and social action or justice or environment, which are relegated to a secondary or even non-existent role.

Also, religion becomes super-inflated in importance. In my opinion, the Bible is pretty anti-religion. A couple of quotes will illustrate this. Amos 5:21-24 says.

“I hate, I despise your feasts,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
    I will not look upon them.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

James 1:26 says,

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

Luke’s account of the Greatest Commandment also demonstrates Jesus’ attitude towards religion. After Jesus says that to love God and neighbour are the most important,

32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.

So what is being spiritual. Galatians 5:22-23 says,

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

All of these qualities pretty concrete and relational and certainly not religious.

What do you think?

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Don’t only read Evangelical writers

I used to joke with my students that I don’t buy books that I agree with! That is only partly true. I enjoy reading books that challenge my thinking and make me look at reality, the Faith, the Bible, theology and mission in a different way. This is why I say, don’t only read Evangelical writers.

In 1971, my dad went to the USA to research what mission training was going on. He visited Arthur [Art] Glasser at Fuller Seminary, California. As they chatted, Art asked whether my dad knew the Overseas Ministry Study Center (OMSC) in New Haven; an ecumenical centre. My dad didn’t know it. Art also asked whether he knew of the Maryknoll Fathers’ study centre in New York State; a Catholic organisation. Again, my dad didn’t know it. So a hastily arranged trip east was planned.

My dad was so impressed with both places that he started researching WCC and Vatican mission thinking. This began what became (and I hope continues) a widening of mission thinking and research at All Nations. We read documents from Vatican II and Papal encyclicals as well documents from the Commission on World Mission and Evangelisation (CWME) and Faith and Order (FO) alongside Lausanne Documents. I must say, although I appreciate Lausanne’s work and many documents such as the Willowbank Report are useful, I always found the Catholic and Ecumenical Documents to be theologically meatier.

So, have a go!

Here is one from the CWME

https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/commissions/mission-and-evangelism/together-towards-life-mission-and-evangelism-in-changing-landscapes

See what you think.

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The best way to win the war on terror

When George W. Bush declared “war on terror” on 20th September 2001, he made a fundamental error, one which the Christians in the Middle East are still suffering today. He thought that wars are won by bombs and weapons, guns and smart technology. Force is the only way to deal with such heinous crimes. Violence must be met with violence. This is what Paul Hiebert called the “indo-european myth”. This is a myth that is played out in Western society constantly, from the sports field to the political arena. The side using the greatest amount of force will win.

Spiritual Warfare theologians labour under the same illusion. The idea is the forces of evil attack human beings and Christians and we use the power of God to defeat them. God and the Satan (his title not his name) are seen as forces of similar but not equal force. So Satan is pitched against God, demons are pitched against angels (a la Frank Peretti), non-believers are pitched against Christians and this constitutes the armies in the spiritual battle.

The Bible does not concur with this view. The way God defeated the forces of evil was through weakness, brokenness and death. Jesus Christ, by dying on the cross, defeated evil. The Apostles in Acts did not defeat evil through power but through suffering.

The Christians of the Middle East can teach us a lot about defeating evil; in the shape of ISIS. Watch this video below and you will see what I mean.

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St. Patrick’s day and beyond

Being St. Patrick’s day, we should remember Celtic Christianity in all its aesthetic, spiritual and missionary brilliance. It was also tribal, syncretistic and violent but let us remember and celebrate its missionary endevours for the Isles West of the European Continent.

Patrick was not the first to bring Christianity to Ireland, but he is responsible for the majority of the evangelization and establishment of the church there. After Patrick, Christianity continued to flourish in Ireland for the next hundred years and more, with monastic leaders such as Finnian of Clonnard (died AD 549), Finnian of Moville (c. AD 495-579), Brendan of Birr and Brendan of Clonfert (died AD 578) exercising increasing control.

Women were also prominent; Ita of Kileedy (died AD 570) ran a school for boys at her nunnery; Brigit of Kildare (C AD 450-523 or 528) established the first of many “double monasteries”, where a monastery and a nunnery existed on the same site.

In Wales, as well as in Strathclyde and Cornwall, the Celtic Church continued to exist. Wales, in particular had a strong line of saintly and scholarly abbots who had great spiritual influence in the churches. Dewi (David c. AD 462-547), Gildas and Cadoc were among the most prominent.

However, no real efforts were made to evangelise the pagan Anglo-Saxons who now dominated the majority of territory in the old Britannia, nor the Picts and Scots in the north of the island.This work of evangelism did not really begin until a hundred years after Patrick’s death.

Mission to Scotland began with the journey of Colmcille or Columba to the remote island of Iona in AD 563. Born in AD 521 into the a ruling family, as a young man he entered the monastery of Finnian of Moville, and later joined that of Finnian of Clonnard. Subsequently, he himself founded a number of other monasteries, including that of Derry. He left Ireland in AD 561 “to become an exile for Christ”, but a much later document, which modern scholars now accept as giving the full story, speaks of Columba’s “soul-friend” and spiritual counsellor Molaise of Devenish imposing on him his departure from Ireland as a penance for a grave sin and its consequences. I.e. he had started a war in which hundreds of people were killed The action was widely condemned, and Columba accepted Molaise’s imposition as God’s will. He left Ireland determined to atone for his sin by converting as many heathen to Christ as had been killed in the battle.

He and his twelve companions wandered for two years before they settled on the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides. Here he established a monastery and a college to train young men for the evangelisation of the northern Picts, and from here he and others ventured forth to the mainland as well as to the islands of the Inner and Outer Hebrides. His first visit was to King Brude in Inverness, who was converted as a result. He established friendly relations with Kentigern (or Mungo), bishop of Glasgow, and through him achieved reconciliation between the kings of Argyle and Strathclyde. His biographer Adamnan records many miracles and visions of Columba, as well as widespread success in converting the northern Picts and the Hebridean islanders. He returned to Ireland in 574 for a convention at Drumceatt, and was received with veneration because of his sanctity, miracles and evangelistic success. He died in 597. Other monks, some from Whitehorn, took the gospel to the Outer Hebredes, as well as to the Orkney and Shetland Islands.

Let us give thanks for these Celtic brothers and sisters who brought the transforming gospel of Christ to our islands.

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Metavista: Bible Church and Mission in an Age of Imagination

I want to be rich and I want lots of money
I don’t care about clever I don’t care about funny
I want loads of clothes and f***loads of diamonds
I heard people die while they are trying to find them

I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore
I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore
When we think it will all become clear
`Cuz I’m being taken over by The Fear

 These words from Lily Allen’s 2009 single, The Fear brilliantly capture attitudes of the context which faces the church in its mission in the contemporary western World. Materialism and consumption; disregard for the consequences of our lifestyle coupled with a desire to understand and deep seated angst. Metavista: Bible, Church and Mission in an Age of Imagination is an attempt at reimagining the Bible and the church in what the authors call the world of the Metavista.

The book begins with an analysis of contemporary culture. It traces this culture through modernism, postmodernism and post-postmodernism. Modernism is viewed in both positive and negative terms. Positively, modernism brought emancipation to humanity in the areas of economics, politics and science. However, this is in dialectical tension with its tendency to totalitarian ideology, whether this be in its Communist or Capitalist expressions. Postmodernism is described with reference to the first Matrix film. It is seen to be the harbinger of a new aesthetic; the destroyer of simplistic conception of reality; the questioner of the basis of knowledge; the encourager of direct political action and the reinventer of religion. All of this leads to a discussion on ‘the rules of engagement’ for Christians in mission in the contemporary world. It makes several proposals as to how to engage with contemporary culture, such as solidarity with the marginalised, the retelling of stories, the undermining of ideologies, the redistribution of power, etc. This section comes to an end with an analysis of the ‘post-postmodern condition’. This is described as post-Christendom, post-secular, and post-colonial.

How can we understand the bible in this Metavista? The authors try to recapture the Bible as story, and the subsequent need of all stories to be told and retold. They divide the Biblical story into fours subplots of creation, Israel, Jesus and the church. The bible should be retold as our part in this narrative. Additionally, the bible’s story should also be understood as fundamentally political. Politics is part of the created order and so is important to God, human politics holds back human evil and violence and so is important as the Church carries out its mission in diaspora and among political entities to proclaim the gospel of reconciliation and shalom among the nations especially as the political legitimacy of Western governments is based upon the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The church is very much part of this story. Drawing extensively on the work of Grace Davie, the authors attempt to deconstruct the ‘secular imagination’ by demonstrating the contradictions in the whole notion. Emerging from this deconstruction is a projection of how the church, in a post-Christendom world, needs to be reconceived as a ‘missional community’. It attempts to move beyond the ‘Gospel and Our Culture’ and the ‘Emerging Church’ movements, by examining the intra-ecclesial relationships as well as the church-world relationship. It is re-imagines the missional church’s life as a counter-cultural life, living and retelling the gospel story in engagement with contemporary culture. This requires the formation of communities of faith committed to a creative missional way of life. One that imagines life as it truly could be.

The conclusion of the book seems more like a summary than a conclusion, bringing together many of the insights of previous chapters. It ends with the hope that their efforts ‘will awaken for a new generation of Christians to embrace’ (p. 234) a missional consciousness that engages the bible, Christian tradition and contemporary culture.

There are many features that commend this book to our attention. It gives a more differentiated analysis of reality than is common in books on mission in contemporary society. It avoids the temptation to reduce contemporary society to modern or postmodern. One gets the impression that the authors are willing to allow their readers to share the confusion and culture shock of today’s contemporary world. Having said this, we are often left with the impression that this problem is one of the whole contemporary world which, to a greater or lesser extent, is true. Nevertheless, there are significant differences between, even contemporary western cities and majority world cities. I would like to see the authors attempt a wider and deeper analysis of the Metavista without attempting to suggest any response.

Also, we are drawn to the brilliant and extensive use of film, T.V., books and music as an interpretive key to understand reality. The breadth and depth of knowledge of contemporary media, especially, Mark Greene’s sections, is truly impressive and very helpful for the reader to access. It also supports the authors’ appeal for creativity and imagination as an integral part of the missional community. Additionally the breadth of scholarship with which both authors engage is impressive. Sociologists, psychologists, cultural theorists and theologians are engaged with a confidence and depth of insight which many would covet—if it were not to be a sin!

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God should sue the Church

OK, rant time!

I spoke on the quality of the community lives of the first Christians last Sunday from Acts 2:42-47 and Acts 4:32-37. After doing the study of those passages I come to the conclusion that God should sue the church for defamation of Character. I’m not talking about my wonderful where I was preaching! It is more this sort of thing.

The church, in my opinion should live in such a way as to show the world what he is like. I was disappointed with myself that I am not willing to live a community life that reflects His character of concern for the needy and the good of all.

If the church is a true example of what God is like then I sometimes feel I don’t really want to know Him. Pickiness, fault-finding, unyielding, intolerant, unkind: and those are only the good points! I emphasize again I am disappointed in myself as well as the church.

On more positive note is an interesting comment I heard on the News Quiz on Radio Four. Jeremy Hardy and other were commenting on the Pope’s decision to allow a man living on the streets to be buried in the Vatican grounds and also him offering haircuts and baths to other sleeping rough. Jeremy suddenly interjects “you’d have thought he was some sort of Christian or something!” So through all my moaning and whingeing, the world still considers that Christians should at least be good and kind!

Lord, help me to live a radical life!

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Of maids and missionaries

Where is world mission going? This is a pertinent question but one that is not easy to answer. Well, actually it is easy to answer just not accurately! The certainties of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have evaporated–maybe they weren’t certainties at all, even then. Europe and then the United States of America dominated world missions back then. The theology, the strategy and the resources originated in those places. Missionaries raised support from their home churches, and set off, through the mediation of a, so-called, mission agency and worked, planting churches, evangelising, making disciples or doing development work in a place or in a church that was dependent upon Western ministries.

Today it is rather more complicated. God does not let missionaries and ministers dominate mission and ministry. The average missionary is not light skinned, Western and rich dark skinned, southern and poor. The nationality of the largest number of Christian missionaries to Saudi Arabia is Philippine. They are mostly maids to rich families and are very vulnerable but they are speaking about Jesus to non-Christians. African, Asian and Latin American in mission and ministry is growing fast. Jehu Hanciles, an American mission thinker, in his book, Mission in the 21st Century said,

‘Western missionary initiatives remain the most visible but are no longer the most dominant or consequential. Through migrant movements, Christian missionary activities are criss-crossing the globe in unprecedented fashion, mainly through trans-national networks. Among the swelling tide of quest workers, students, labour migrants, asylum seekers, political and economic refugees, and family members of previous migrants are innumerable Christians, each one a missionary in some sense.

This is a new mission force, which is not under the supervision or guidance of anyone. They are almost completely untrained and certainly not ordained (maybe by God!). This is messy mission at its messiest. Church Growth theory, unreached people group strategy, people movement methods are all left to do their own thing whilst God, it seems, is going AWOL and using these rather less organised ways to spread the Gospel! I say, most unorthodox!

This sort of thing, of course, has historical precedence. Exile, slavery and emigration have been ways in which God has used to spread the gospel for centuries. The Western mission movement, however, seems to have forgotten this, or it has arrogantly thought that the way mission has been done in the past 220 odd years is the norm and that is the way it will continue. Well, I think I have a disturbing message, IT IS NOT!

Church growth among the poor, the closing of borders to Westerners, the opening of borders to trade have all combined and conspired to a “new” and rather messy way of doing mission. How will the Western mission movement react to this? If this is a move of God, how can we “plug into” what God is doing?

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God’s love and God’s purpose

If we were to ask the Apostle Paul what was the most important concept in his theology, I don’t think we would get the answer “grace” or “mercy”. I think he would say “Love”. I am not saying that grace and mercy are not important to Paul’s theology, they are indeed but I think Paul would know that behind those two concepts I just mentioned is God’s love. God is gracious and merciful because he is love.

I want to reflect upon Paul’s most densely “loving” Epistle, Ephesians.  This is an interesting book for several reasons. Firstly, the fact that in most manuscripts “To the saints in Ephesus” do not appear, together with the lack of personal greetings at the end has made some scholars suggest that this is perhaps a “general letter” which would have been read in various cities; perhaps the seven churches in the area mentioned in Revelation. Also, Paul is not dealing with any are of church belief, as in Galatians or of church life, such as in the Corinthian correspondence but general themes. Finally, this seems to me to be Paul’s mature theology. It was probably written around about AD60 and the time of the Colossian Epistle and so by no means his final letter but the themes are the grand themes of salvation history, redemption, unity in Christ and how our individual lives are to be lived to fulfill those great plans.

The first three chapters speak of God’s love for us and the world. In love God predestined us for Sonship (1:4); he has made us alive because of his love (2:4-5); we can only know the unknowable riches of God’s love when we are rooted and established in love (3:17-18). God is calling out, choosing, redeeming and establishing a people for his purpose. Ephesians 1:10 tell us that this purpose is to “bring all things in heaven and earth under Christ”.

The last three chapters focus upon the love that we should have for others to bring those purposes about. We must bear one another in love (4:2); we should speak the truth in love (4:15); the body, the church builds itself up in love (4:16). In chapter 5 we are to follow Christ’s example (5:1) and live a life of love (5:2); the marriage relationship is to be marked by love (5:25-33). This may seem obvious but marriage was not always romantic! Finally, Paul greets the Ephesians with the love of God in love (6:23-24).

This gran purpose of God has its origin in God’s love for his creation; he chooses a people out of love; he saves them because of his love; he establishes them in love and unifies them in love. Then as they live out that unity in love and in all their loving relationships, God achieves his loving purposes.

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Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so

The story is told of how, on a lecture tour of the United States, Karl Barth was asked to sum up his entire theology in one sentence. Apparently Barth used the children’s song “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so”. There are those who think this story to be apocryphal, but, whether it is or not, I think it sums up Barth’s theology succinctly (ok, those parts of his theology I have read up to this point!).

There is no doubt that “love” is vitally important in Jesus’ teaching. The word, in its various forms, appears over 25 times in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and in various situations. Obviously some of these occurrences are the Evangelists recording the same story.

Jesus hears the encouraging words about the Father’s love for him at his baptism (Matt 3: 17, Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22) and at the transfiguration (Matt 17:5, Mark 9:7). He says that to be his disciple we must love him more than even family (Matt 10:37).

The most important other occurrences are two important injunctions about our love for others. The first comes in the sermon on the mount/plain (Matthew 5:43-46 and Luke 6:27-35). But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44) and Luke’s expansion on the theme, “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35).  I need to qualify that the enemy is the person who hates you not somebody you hate. Love of enemies and doing good for them is a radical reversal of human ways of acting. Jesus loves me so I must love my enemies.

The second injunction is the one to love the Lord and to love our neighbour (Matt 22:37-39, Mark 12:30-33 and Luke 10:27). I just want to comment on the Marcan version of this because in Mark we have the reply of the teacher of the Law making a remarkable statement. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:32-33). Jesus commends this unnamed teacher because he understood that “love” is much more important than religious observance.

The media often speak of “people of religion”. Jesus in the Bible gives scant weight to religion. He doesn’t seem to value its observance very much at all. He heals on the Sabbath and associates with some rather dodgy women! Jesus is less interested in what you do in your religion and more interest in how much do you love others. The teacher of the Law is not far from the kingdom because he understands this. The kingdom of God is more definitely NOT about religion. Love God…with everything, and love your enemies and your neighbour…however distasteful, as you love yourself.

These are two startling assertions by the Gospel writers. The true love of God is seen in the love of enemies and that love is above any religious observance. What a radical way to live!

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How can a xenophobic God be loving?

Racist chants and actions on the Paris Metro and at St. Pancras Station; the rise of UKIP; the strength of the religious right in the USA; boat loads of desperate people crossing the Med and the seemingly never ending tide of xenophobia in Europe. Richard Dawkins would blame these things on religious people and especially Christians as he sees the God of the Old Testament as “xenophobic”. This is the context in which we look at love in the Old Testament.

At 39 books and 1400 pages (at least in my NIV) and with over 400 mentions of the word “love” in English the Old Testament is long. For this reason a reflection upon love in the OT is necessarily selective. So today I want reflect upon one passage in Deuteronomy.

12 And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

14 To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. 15 Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today. 16 Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. 20 Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. 21 He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes. 22 Your ancestors who went down into Egypt were seventy in all, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky.

Here we have a wonderful passage. Verses 12-13 are an ethical appeal to Israel to fear the Lord, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees. In the literary centre of these five commands we have the call to “love him”. Love is demonstrated by fear, walking in obedience, service and observance.

Verses 14-22 are a potted theology of creation, election, ethics and salvation, with a demonstration of love for God and others central. God is the creator God of heaven and earth (vs. 14), he is the electing God for Israel (vs. 15), he therefore can command Israel to circumcise their hearts and be pliable to him (vs. 16).

He is the God of Gods and Lord of Lords who is righteous and is not “bribable” (vs, 17). What is more he shows that greatness by defending the orphan and widow (vs. 18a) and loving the foreigner (vs. 18b). These were the foreigners who lived within Israel’s gates. This orphan, widow and foreigner were a class of people who represented those with no advocate.  The orphan had no father to defend them, the widow had no husband to take care of her and the foreigner, simply had no one, so it is God who takes up their case.

In care of the vulnerable, the love for God of verse 12 becomes concrete in love for the foreigner (vs. 19). God provides food and clothing for the foreigner and Israel are to love the foreigner as well.

This love for the foreigner and love for God are linked. The foreigner would not be able to give back anything to the loving Israelite. This is God’s love, it is “disinterested love”. The foreigner was dependent upon others for their food and clothing so by loving the foreigner the obedient Israelite was loving God.

The reason that God gives is because of Israel’s salvation in the Exodus. “You were foreigners in Egypt and God saved you therefore you love the foreigner.” This is linked to “take oaths in his name” because the reason for this is that God prospered Israel in Egypt and fulfilled his promises to them in performing miracles on their behalf and, even in their time in Egypt, he made them into a “great nation” (Genesis 12:1-3).

Love in the Old Testament is based upon the character of God as creator, elector, lover of the weak, saviour and sustainer. So care for the orphan, the widow and the foreigner is the way Deuteronomy 10 defines how we love others.

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Its all about the Lurve!

A few years ago when I was teaching a module at All Nations on Christian Theology, About half way through the term, one of the students put her hand up and said, “Paul, in your theology it’s all about the the lurve”. This got me thinking and I came to the conclusion that she was right, it is all about love.

Love is such an all-encompassing concept in the Bible. In the NIV the word, in English, is mentioned 686 times. This translates a number of Hebrew and Greek words with different shades of meaning from romantic or erotic love to affection and even self-sacrificial love. Every New Testament book, except Acts, contains a word translated “love”.

Love, however, is a word that is used in so many ways in our culture–even wider than Greek meanings. We can love everything from our husband or wife, parents, children, etc. right down to ice-cream and summer days! I don’t think we are talking about the same quality of love in each case. I might fight to protect the person I love but am unlikely to utilize violence if you steal my walnut whip!

Today’s culture seems to limit love to sexual or erotic love. 50 Shades of Grey is portrayed as “a love story”. The film subtitle of the film Love Story is “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”. I don’t know about you but I think I apologize to my wife more than anybody! Romeo and Juliette is the classic “love story” where love of the lover surpasses familial loyalties and ends in tragedy where this “pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life”.

For Christian belief, love holds a very high place and could be seen as that which makes sense of our belief in Jesus the Messiah.

What is love? What does the Bible say about it? This week we will reflect on some of what the Old Testament says about love; what Jesus says about love in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke); what Paul says about love and finally what John says about it.

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Eyes and hands

When you think about theology, do you think more of the picture at the top or on the bottom? Most people will say the bottom one. Theology is seen as done by the professionals, informing the students of deep theological concepts.

This week I have tried to show that theology should be done by the church. The church is, what theologians call, “the hermeneutical community”: it is the community who interprets both the text of the gospel and the context. Theology should be done by church members not by elites.

When I speak like this, people will often say but there will be a multitude of theologies. I then often ask them would they prefer to have one given theology that is handed down by some ecclesiastical power? Clearly not!

But what is the alternative? Paul speaks of such an alternative in I Corinthians 12:21-26. This we could call “mutual accountability”. The hand and the eye are of equal importance and cannot do without each other.The hand needs the eye to aim where to catch a ball. The eye needs the hand to actually catch it. One without the other and we drop the ball.

Churches cannot do without each other. And in this I mean churches at every level. Local churches cannot do without each other. Churches of different denominations can learn so much from each other. The Baptist cannot say to the Anglican “I do not need you”, nor can the Anglican say to the Pentecostal “I do not need you.” I have gained so much in theological discussions with non-Evangelicals, Orthodox and Catholic.

I also mean churches from different parts of the world cannot do without each other. The church blind spot of the Western Church can be seen very easily by the African Church. So the European church cannot say to the African “I do not need you.”

We need to read the Bible and the context ecumenically and internationally, holding firmly to our convictions but not at the expense of humility.

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Thinking Church

This title could have two meanings. It could mean thinking about the Church, where the word “thinking” is a verb. “Thinking” could also be an adjective; i.e. that the church is characterised by the fact that it thinks.

Today I want to think about a church that thinks. More accurately I want to think about a church that “theologizes”; it does theology. Yesterday I talked about kinking the theologians out of their Ivory Towers and onto the street. The theologian should not be thinking theologically but the church community should.

When I say, “theologize” or “do theology” I am not meaning reading endless theological books and discussing endless theological doctrine. What I mean it that the church must be ready to think about their mission in the light of the context and the gospel.

William Temple famously said that the church exists for the sake of the non-member. That is true, however, more accurately the church exists for the glory of God and therefore for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The church has the task of announcing God’s gospel in the world.

The church has the task of announcing God’s gospel in the world.

This phrase is interesting and often misunderstood at almost every word. “The Church” is not the pastors or the evangelists, or not even individuals, but the whole church. In its words, works and wonders the church announces and lives out the good news of God’s purpose.

“Announcing” does not only mean verbal proclamation but also in its actions and traditions, the gospel is to be visible to the world. Now, don’t get me wrong, verbal proclamation will always be necessary. I don’t agree with St. Francis’ famous axion, “preach the gospel always, if necessary use words”. Words will always be necessary, if not then you are in danger of being simply seen as a “do-gooder”.

“God’s gospel” is not a truncated, “believe in Jesus as your saviour and you will go to heaven when you die”. The gospel is not so much taking souls to heaven as bringing heaven to earth. “May you kingdom come, and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. This is Jesus’ prayer to being the values of heaven–of justice, peace, love and forgiveness–to earth. This means living out those values in the church.

“The world” is the whole world and especially the world of the suffering. This brings us back to the thinking church. All of this living the gospel is done in the context. Therefore the context is an integral part of theological reflection. So many theological books seem to leave out the context in which the church lives.

When we go to a corporate worship service, we do not “leave our problems at the door” this is the place where we bring our lives to God. Our lives together can then begin to reflect and announce his kingdom.

In Ephesians 3:18-19 Paul prays that “may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ“. It is only together when the church thinks together that we can know the dimensions of God’s  love is for his church but also for the world.

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Theologians out!

I ended yesterday’s post with a statement and some questions.

The task of witnessing to the gospel of Jesus Christ is a task of interpretation; it is essentially a hermeneutical task. How do we interpret the gospel for this time and for this place? How do I know I am not giving a gospel that is more influenced by my culture than the gospel itself? What does the context “speak back” to the gospel?

When I refer to ‘interpretation’ I mean to interpret both the gospel and the context and more to the point, what the gospel means in that context. One problem we encounter in Evangelical circles is that this task has often been handed over to individuals and that these individuals are normally professional theologians.

By saying this, you will note that I believe that the task of interpreting the meaning of the gospel for a given context is the task of the church community and that church community is one that lives in the context. Therefore the task of witnessing to the gospel of Jesus Christ is not the task of the individual professional theologian. They may have a role but they are NOT the most important.

This was the purpose of the Base Ecclesial Communities (Comunidades Eclesiales de Base [BEC] of Latin America. They met together and would discuss, in the light of the gospel, what their reaction to the context should be. This was true contextual theology.

In our churches, are there people who see their task as thinking about the context in which the church community is placed in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Do we leave this to church leaders who then tell us what to do, what projects we should undertake, what ministries should be resourced? Theology, as a discipline has been so elevated to the status of the elite that the average church member feels incapable of thinking clearly about their own task of mission.

Theologians should get out in two ways. Firstly we need to get out of our academic bubbles. Theological discussion at a high level is fun and I enjoy it but it is a luxury and one that the church cannot afford, either financially or missionally. Secondly, theologians need to get out on to the street. By street I mean into the place of mission. Theologians cannot do their real task in accompanying the church community in its theological task if it does not know the context in which the community is doing its work.

 

 

 

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Treasure in earthen vessels

This phrase from II Corinthians 4:7 demonstrates that the preciousness of  gospel comes from the gospel itself not from the vehicle; i.e. Paul and other messengers. It also shows that the “light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” is carried by sinful, weak and fallible human beings.

The reality of God’s glory is always, using another of Paul’s phrases “seen through glass darkly” (I Corinthians 13:12) even by the messengers sent by God. Therefore the transmission of the gospel of God, according to a document from the Faith and Order Commission, “takes place within the ambiguities of human history and the challenges of daily Christian life.” Our witness to Christ is a deeply ambiguous and difficult task.

As you will know I have just been in Vienna at a conference of CEEAMS. We spent a lot of time discussing the complexities of the Central and Eastern European context 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today, for Christians in that region, the context is terribly confused and at times baffling. It is said that those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them. I would make a corollary saying that those who do learn from the mistakes of history are likely to make new ones!

All of this means that the task of witnessing to the gospel of Jesus Christ is a task of interpretation; it is essentially a hermeneutical task. How do we interpret the gospel for this time and for this place? How do I know I am not giving a gospel that is more influenced by my culture than the gospel itself? What does the context “speak back” to the gospel?

In the next few posts I will be reflecting on some of these issues.

An interesting document to read is A Treasure in Earthen Vessels

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And so what now?

I have been at a conference of the Central and Eastern European Association of Mission Studies (CEEAMS) near Vienna. Its theme was, “Beyond the Iron Curtain: Being Church in Central and Eastern Europe twenty five years after the political changes”. The participants told stories of Christians living and working in that region and analysed the trends in the church and mission after the momentous events of 1989.

The fundamental approaches of this conference were personal and practical. The first two sessions emphasised these approaches. After each paper, there was vigorous discussion and debate around the subjects expounded. I, of course, had plenty to say!

The papers were wide and varied but all focussed upon how the Christian church existed in the past 25 years and how it should move forward into the future.

There are some interesting facts to note within this width and variety. The variety of speakers was very wide. 1/3 of the speakers in the devotional times and the papers were female; an impressive number for mission conferences! There were also a good number of younger speakers (under 30). They also came from a wide variety of confessions (ecumenical, evangelical, Orthodox and Catholic) and so some were local to Central and Eastern Europe as well as others from Western Europe.

Not only the were the speakers varied but the contexts of reflection were also varied. There were papers on the whole region but also on various countries (Russia, Bulgaria, East Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Poland). The denominational context were also varied (Orthodox, Catholic, Baptist, Anglican and Pentecostal).

In addition to the variety of contexts, the approaches to the subjects were varied. Approaches including statistical analysis, critical comparison and use of missiological models (Niebuhr’s “Christ and Culture”, the Pastoral Circle, critical postmodernity and generalational analysis)

Finally, the themes of study were varied. Subjects ranged from Minority Ethnic/religious experience and witness, missiological issues such missional church, Pluralism, social engagement, missiological education and church/State relations post 1989.

This conference covered a multitude of themes, with a multitude of approaches, in multitude of contexts, by a multitude of speakers, using personal and practical  approaches.

I enjoyed but am looking forward to seeing Wilma again…and Meg!

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So what’s is it all about!

When teaching theology, many students used ask “but what is this all about?” Sometimes they would say, “but all this is theory. What is its practical use?” There is a real disconnect between theology and mission.

This was the theme of two of the papers at the CEEAMS conference this morning. There was one on theory and practice and the other one on missional church in Moldova.

The first speaker was a great missiologist, Ann-Marie Kool. She discussed the dichotomy between mission (overseas) and evangelism (local) and how this created an idea that we have one theory and two applications: foreign and local. She also spoke about Ghetto mentality with Central and Eastern European (CEE) churches in which the church did not engage with the world and so did its theology “in-house”.

In addition to this, Western models of mission were imposed (post-1989) which were irrelevant to these churches. So theological texts were translated and many teachers arrived who did not understand local culture. Therefore their teaching methods were knowledge accumulation and knowledge implementation

This analysis helped us to discuss how to get resolve this issue. Ann-Marie gave us a testimony of how she approached teaching about mission among the Roma or gypsy people. In past she would start with missiological principles and try and apply these principles to the context. She told us how  with the students she started with the situation of the Roma. Afterwards she got the students to think theologically about that situation.

The feedback of the students was outstandingly positive. They felt that they had learned about the Roma but they had also learned theology as well. Theology became alive to them.

What at can we learn from these reflections?

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Breaking down walls

On 9th November 25 years ago I walked into my living room and turned to my tiny T.V. In the corner of the room. There were people standing on a tall wall with pick axes and sledge hammers. I thought, “that looks like the Berlin Wall, and people are knocking down. It was a truly surreal event. People had been shot in the past for trying to get over from The Eastern side and now people were knocking down. Crazy!

Because my dad had been chair of the Slavic Gospel Association UK and had visited several countries in the Soviet Bloc, I immediately phoned dad we shared the joy. We knew of many Christians who had suffered persecution under the regimes of the Soviet Union and this new freedom seemed a work of God.

Many believed this to be a window of opportunity that must be used before it closed again. They believed that the wall would go up again. Perhaps it is with what’s going on in Ukraine.

I am writing this sitting in the departure lounge of Gatwick Airport going to a conference called “Beyond the Iron Curtain” studying the Churches’ mission in Central and Eastern Europe 25 years after the Berlin Wall was destroyed. What walls still exist between East and West? What walls were unintentionally constructed by well meaning outsiders to Central and Eastern Europe?

My presentation will compare the Latin American mission movement and the mission of the churches of Central and Eastern Europe. We seem to have gone through and are going through similar issues.

The flood of foreign agencies and missionaries that deluged Central and Eastern Europe post 1989 ignoring the experience and suffering that many pastors and other christian leaders had gone through was stunning. Latin America has also “suffered the embrace of Western missions.” And there are other similarities I will mention over the next few days.

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Hug a humanist

David Cameron famously tried to soften his party’s approach to young people in a speech in 2006.

‘The hoodie is a response to a problem, not a problem in itself. We – the people in suits – often see hoodies as aggressive, the uniform of a rebel army of young gangsters. But hoodies are more defensive than offensive. They’re a way to stay invisible in the street. In a dangerous environment the best thing to do is keep your head down, blend in. For some the hoodie represents all that’s wrong about youth culture in Britain today. For me, adult society’s response to the hoodie shows how far we are from finding the long-term answers to put things right.’

“Hug a hoodie” became a catchphrase used by the media to sum up this change of stance.

I think it’s time for Christians to love and embrace atheists and humanists. So how do we “hug a humanist”? I would suggest Paul’s words on love in I Corinthians 13 could help.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

Although patience is a Christian virtue when it comes to atheists and humanists, it seem as if our patience runs thin. Being in dialogue with such people does require patience. You will be insulted but being insulted in Christ’s name is a privilege. Being kind is one of the most basic Christian characteristics. Kindness is saying and doing what is best for the other. Do not envy tells us to don’t feel inferior to your dialogue partner. We do not do a favour to anybody by being envious or defensive. Don’t be proud and feel superiority. We have not found the answer in Christ, Christ found us. There is no place for pride. Love doesn’t dishonour anybody. An atheist or humanist is made in God’s image and to defame that image is a sin against God whether that person believes in God or not. Love is not self-seeking. It should only seek the good of the other even if that other thinks that we are his or her enemy. Getting angry in debates with atheists, etc. is a real danger. We should be angry at injustice but not of unbelief. Keeping no record of wrongs; i.e. forgiving, is basic. We have been forgiven so much, we must forgive. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. Our aim in loving people is to do them good not to win an argument. The truth is that which sets us free. Protection, faith, hope and perseverance will lead to the good for others.

Finally, salvation is a free gift which is to be received freely. We can only love people because God is love.

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God hates four-eyes

Hang-on Maybe is was ‘God hates 4 “I”s’

I was thinking about Stephen Fry’s remarks about God and you may have read my blog-post on in last week. I think his anger, which was so evident in the interview, was less directed at God–who he doesn’t believe in anyway–and more directed at illness, injustice and intolerance. If I am right, then we need to join Stephen’s anger and to be equally angry at these things. But I find that many Christians are not angry at them at all. I find that I also don’t trouble myself about them at times.

I think it was John Stott who said there were four things, all beginning with “I” that God hates. Idolatry, immorality, injustice and individualism. He hates Idolatry because false gods require human sacrifice and as long as you give them offerings you can live as you like. He hates immorality because it hurts the weak and distorts truth. He hates injustice because it institutionalizes evil and imprisons all humanity. He hates individualism because it places “self” at the centre and not the other.

I would want to add a fifth “I” to that. God hates indifference. He hates indifference because it allows the other three to continue unchecked. Edmund Burke said that the only thing needed for evil to thrive is for good men [sic] to do nothing. We could probably paraphrase that to say, one thing that let’s evil flourish is for Christians to be indifferent.

God save us, save me, from indifference to evil.

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God is “capricious, mean-minded and stupid”

The internet and especially Facebook has been awash with comments and replies to Stephen Fry after his outburst on RTE. When asked what he would say to God if he was confronted by him at the pearly gates. He calls God “capricious, mean-minded and stupid” for creating a world with so much suffering and injustice. There have been many responses, some concerned for such an angry outburst, such as Krish Kandiah’s; some less charitable such as the head of Ireland’s Presbyterian Church, and even one from an atheist who asks “of you don’t believe in God, why insult him?”  In protecting free-speech, Justin Welby quite rightly points out that free-speech is God given.

The first point I want to make in this blog is not an apologetic or even an answer but a simple question. If a person as intelligent and well-read as Stephen Fry can make such a fundamental theological error about the Christian faith, where has any knowledge of Christianity gone in the great British public? Stephen Fry’s comment presupposes that the world is as God intended it to be. Now, if that was the case, I would join in the denouncement of, what would be, a demonic deity. But the world is not at all how God intended it. Human sin and the fall are essential in understanding the Christian view of God.

It seems as if knowledge of the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith have, in less than a generation, been lost. Christianity is the foundation of British society and value systems. If we lose that substrata of culture, our values will crumble under the weight of commercial and financial interests. .

The second point I want to make is that the doctrine of the fall and the fact of a fallen world; i.e. the world is not as it should be, should drive us to change it. If Stephen is angry about injustice and suffering I should be. Instead of name calling we should be praying for God to act as in Habakkuk 1, “how long oh Lord”. Also we should be working to change things in this unjust world. Finally, we need to be telling people what Christianity IS about instead of just buying their opinions second-hand from the media.

 

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But if not…

Yesterday was “quiet day” at All Nations. This happens each term on the 4th or 5th week. There are no chores, maintenance or classes. The students have a 24 hour period from 7pm on Tuesday night until 5pm Wednesday afternoon to read, reflect, pray, sleep or walk. The idea is to stop and hear God’s voice. This is a good discipline for all Christians.

I decided to take yesterday as a quiet day as well. So instead of researching, writing and preparing, I read, or rather reread a book. The book I chose was Tested by Fire by Chris Wright. The book came out of a series of sermons Chris preached at All Nations when he was a visiting tutor before he went to India.

It is based on Daniel 1-6 and the four friends’ experiences living their lives as worshipers of the one true God in a pagan context. It is a encouragement to Christians to live their lives out for God in their everyday lives.

Chris entitles the chapter on Daniel 3 “Bow or Burn”. Nebuchadnezzar, after hearing his dream interpreted by Daniel, probably thinks “with my head of gold, I had better unite the empire. So he organises a cultural event with a statue at its centre. Everybody is told to bow down to the statue at the height of the celebrations. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego do not and are threatened with the fiery furnace. The verses that are so impressive are verses 16-18,

16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from your hand, O king. 18 But if not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

This turns the threat of the king on its head. The king says, “if you bow…all well and good…but if not…(vs. 15). The three friends says, “if we are thrown…then God will deliver…but if not (vs. 18). Chris says that this isn’t a sudden loss of confidence but

Rather it is a triumphant affirmation of complete faith in God which still leaves God his freedom to do as he pleases. They fully expected a miracle, but they would serve God without one. They declared total faith in God’s ability, along with the total acceptance of God’s will.

What a wonderful demonstration of humble faith. They did not demand a miracle from God, as in a “name it and claim it” theology but were committed to the God they serve and rejected Nebuchadnezzar’s gods.

We may believe that God has called us to something and we hold on to it in faith. If that something does not happen, serving God is the most important thing not our ministry dream. So we may believe we are called to a country, called to marry a person, called to a certain ministry, “but if not” are we still willing to serve God?

 

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Jesus, “It’s not all about me!”

There is a song that I simply can’t sing. Well, actually there are loads of songs we sing in church that I can’t and wont sing. There is one that has the lines, “and it’s all about you, all about you Jesus”. Apart from finishing the line in such an unsingable way, I think Jesus would not agree. He would be pointing to the Father, “no it’s all about Him”.

I am not saying that the Father is more important than the Son or the Spirit. I do not believe in a hierarchy in the Trinity. But my point is that the way Jesus Christ acted and spoke, he did not try and gain glory for himself, point towards the kingdom, towards his Father, towards the vulnerable, the weak, the sick.

Jesus lived to give himself to the other. His immense love that He had was in order to liberate the other from what oppressed them. Consider the “Rich Young Man” in Mark 10. Before Jesus told the man to sell all he had and give the money to the poor and follow him, Mark tells us “Jesus looked at him and loved him”. Jesus wanted to release the man from his slavery to money.

The gospel of John is full of references showing the relationship between the Father and the Son. Jesus finds his identity as the Son in service of the Father. Service of the other is where we also find ourselves. Following Jesus and glorifying Him is not a religious act; it is deeply spiritual and practical. Serving the other is to serve Him.

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The foot-washing God

In Latin America, Pastors of large thriving churches–and even small ones–are often referred to, and refer to themselves as “el siervo” or the servant. Some exhibit those traits but others do not in anyway act like servants!

Yesterday we were thinking about how God is a loving and serving God in the “intra-trinitarian” relationships. John 13:1-17, however, takes this to a whole other level. Jesus knows that he will soon be killed and so he shows the disciples how much he loves them and is committed to them. He washes their feet.

This is not what one would have expected in the light of verse 3. All things had been put under his power, he had come from the Father and was going to the Father, therefore…you’d expect some sort of demonstration of that power, a demonstration of his origins or a demonstration of his destiny, but no, he washes their feet. Jesus demonstrates his power, his origins and his destiny by serving. Wow!

Now, the role of washing the dust and dirt off the feet of any guest, not only was it not a pleasant job–although I don’t think back then they were a squeamish as we are now–it would have normally been the job of the lowest slave in the household. Jesus is demonstrating the radical nature of his revolution of love. The master and lord of this group of people is taking the role of a slave. So this God, who we have committed our lives to, is not only a servant God, he is a God who loves his disciples enough to serve them as a slave.

The little interaction between Jesus and Peter is incredible. Peter, in his normal heroic way, tells Jesus that he can’t wash his feet. This inverted pride of Peter is rebuked by Jesus. In doing this Jesus says a very surprising thing. Verse 8 Jesus tells Peter, “unless I wash you, you have no part with me”. What Jesus is actually saying beggars belief, “unless you allow me to serve you, you have no part with me”. We need the humility to allow the King of kings to serve us. So paraphrasing John F. Kennedy, “ask not what you can do for God, but what God has done for you”.

Verses 12-16 tell us then what all this means. I am guessing that the answer to Jesus’ question, “do you understand what I have done for you” would probably have been an unqualified, “Ummm”. He spells it out. He shows them the true quality of greatness and status. “Yes I am your master but in being your master I serve you to a most radical extent”. This is an example to the disciples. To be a master and lord is to serve even in the most menial tasks.

The final verse finishes with yet another stunning truth: blessing is found in service. Blessing is not found in status, power, wealth, respect or any other thing that the world sees as a blessing. Blessing is found in serving in the most menial of tasks. This service is not heroic but it does bring blessing.

 

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The Serving God

Yesterday I preached at my home church on the theme of “Serving our communities”. We are going through a series on the values of our church community. Service is a value of our church.

When thinking about this I wanted to go back to ask a seemingly silly question: why do we serve? It seems a stupid question. It’s obvious, everybody knows we should serve one another. The question as to why led me into some interesting thoughts and some wonderful early Trinitarian theology.

The first point I wanted to make was that we serve because we are made in the image of a serving God. Now this is not the idea that most people have of God. Most of us are more likely to think of God as an old man sitting on throne with lightening and storms going on around him. I know Psalm 104 says that but God’s true nature is of love and service. Read the rest of the Psalm and see how God services his creation.

In most of the creation stories of the nations around Israel, the gods created humans in order for the humans to feed the gods. Whereas in Genesis 1:29-30, God creates the first humans and provides food for them! This reiterates what most of the Psalm says.

The most important point is actually to be found in God’s own nature. God is a community of love and service. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity shows the persons of the Trinity in harmony. They indwell one another. Theologians call this “perichoresis”. This word is made up of the words for “around” and “making room for”, “move forward” or even “contain”. This makes it sound almost like a dance. This is the harmony and love of the triune God for each member of the Trinity.

We were made in the image of that God. We were destined to share that life but sin has marred us and the whole of creation. Sin has made us less than human, making us turn in on ourselves instead of out to others. Selfishness marks humanity.

In Christ we are drawn into this “perichoretic” relationship, invited to take part in the very life of the triune God. We do this through faith in Christ and in service to Him, which is worked out in service to one another. We can only truly find our identity in relationship with God and with his people. This is the mission of the church, to be that image of Trinitarian love in the world, serving one another and all those in need.

So this is why the church should be a community of service and love. The mission of the church truly is to be what the church should be!

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The Old Man – Ron Davies

I am finishing this week with the theologian who has had the most profound affect on my life: my dad. I hope this doesn’t sound tacky but he really has; certainly he has had the longest influence on my life and theology.

Ron Davies has an amazingly wide set of interests. He was very influenced by Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones and attended the Friday night Romans sermons for the time he was a LBC (now LST). New Testament studies and Greek, Biblical Theology, Historical Theology (later on writing his PhD dissertation on the Missiology of Jonathan Edwards), Eastern European Church and Mission as well as the history and theology of Revivals. He is a leading authority on the little known science of Isaac Hollis studies! Yes, a wide set of interests. I have picked up on some of these things, if not all!

My father taught me a great deal about the Christian faith, he baptised me (apparently I sniffed throughout the baptismal classes!) and was an example of faithful service. He was also a tutor when I was at All Nations. He taught me on the gospel of Luke; the doctrine of God; Paul’s letter to the Ephesians; Christological passages in New Testament Theology and Eschatology.

So these are five of my theologians from a Latin American Liberation theologian to my dad!

 

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The Celtic Ghanaian – Kwame Bediako

In 1996, Wilma and I had been only one year in Buenos Aires. IAMS (International Association of Mission Studies not a cat food!) was having a conference in the city. René Padilla organised an “asado” (Argentine BBQ) at the Kairos Centre for various of the participants. We were also invited. Asados are sit down events where you eat meat (not a beef burger in sight!). I sat down beside a short, white haired African man. He was very friendly and he introduced himself as Kwame Badiako.

I had read his Theology and Identity and Jesus in Africa and had found them very stimulating. So I was a little overwhelmed. He asked me what I did in Argentina and I told him. Then he asked me what module I was teaching at the moment. When I replied “History of Mission”, he inquired as to the part of history I had reached. I told him that we had just finished the Celtic mission movement. His eyes lit up and he said “Oh I love the Celts! They were so dedicated!” He then proceeded to talk rapidly about the Celtic missionaries he most liked. I got my notebook out (paper and pencil back then!) and began to take notes. He was so excited and with his wonderful West African accent in English, you didn’t know where you were: Argentina, Ghana or Iona!

Afterwards I thought, what a weird existence I had. Here was a Ghanaian theologian, sitting having an Argentine Asado, teaching a British theologian about Irish missionary monks! This did make me reflect about the whole issue of cultural and Christian identity, not only from Kwame’s books but the whole cultural mix I was experiencing. Kwame was concerned to have a truly Ghanaian expression of the gospel but this did not stop him from assuming Celtic history into his own Christian identity.

Sadly Kwame died quite suddenly in June 2008; a sad loss to African and World Christianity.

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The Triangle Man – Christopher J. H. Wright

Those of you who know something of Chris Wright’s work may know about his triangles of relationships. God at the top, humanity on the bottom left and creation on the bottom right. Then inside that another triangle that touches the top (God) and then bottom left is Israel and bottom right is the land. In this sense Israel is a model for the world in its relationships.

When I was a student at ANCC, Chris had developed this in his Living as the People of God. One time at the end of term, some of the students sang “He’s a real triangle man, living in his triangle land”, to the tune of “Nowhere man” by the Beatles. For all the banter, this idea has been really helpful. I have used these triangle for years as a way for students to get a handle on the Old Testament.

Chris is my third theologian to “show” this week. Chris Wright introduced me to the Old Testament; gave me a love for that vital part of the Scriptures; supervised my MA dissertation and has been a source of constant prompting to think deeper about the missional nature of the Bible.

Chris is an Old Testament Scholar, a ethicist, an apologist for the uniqueness of Jesus and a friend. His Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative deserves to be a missiological text book for years to come. I hope that there will be little or no excuse for ignoring the concept of “mission” as a hermeneutical key for biblical studies.

Chris also taught me about expositional preaching, especially the importance of summarizing the passage first before getting into the details of that passage. He has such a clear manner of opening up Scripture that has been an example to me. I certainly cannot live up to his high standards but he showed me the way.

 

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The Father of Integral Mission – C. René Padilla

I am guessing that this theologian will not be too much of a surprise to those who know me.  C. René Padilla was born in 1932 in Quito, Ecuador. He was a IFES student worker for Ecuador and Columbia. He studied at Wheaton Seminary and University of Manchester and has lived for the past 48 years in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

René is a friend as well as a teacher for me. We met in 1995 at the International Seminar at the Kairos Centre in Buenos Aires. This was a month-long orientation that he ran every year for foreign missionaries to Latin America. At that seminar we met some very interesting people such as Peruvian theologian, Samuel Escobar and sociologist Fortunado Mallimaci.

René was a member of the church where we attended and we were on the preaching commission together. I learned a great deal about biblical exegesis and exposition from him. Also I saw a deep humility in René. René is a strong card-carrying evangelical, but when evangelicals depart from biblical standards he will highlight this. When being opposed by somebody, I have heard him say more than once, “show me from the Bible where I am wrong”.

As with Míguez Bonino, René holds to an inaugural eschatology, following more George Eldon Ladd’s line rather than Oscar Cullman, as in Míguez Bonino’s case. The final chapter of his  Mission Between the Times is a good explanation of his position.

René is more of a biblical than a systematic theologian. This is demonstrated throughout his writings. He has done more than most (not John Stott perhaps) to make the Lausanne Movement more biblically founded. He was influential in many Lausanne papers and is most famous for the phrase “integral mission”.

For René integral mission is NOT Christian development work or even social action. Integral mission is the mission of the local church, supported by agencies when necessary. This is his greatest influence on the world church. When we go to Argentina in a few month’s time I hope to see him again.

 

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Show them a Theologian

This week is “Show them a theologian” week. The idea is to “to celebrate great or interesting theologians and create positive – perhaps even humorous – awareness of this branch of life and scholarship that may often appear a little obscure.” As I used to say to my allnations students, one of my aims in life is to get them to love theology.

So, all this week I will pick a different theologian who has influenced me in my theology and explain a bit about their theology. Nobody should be surprised at the first theologian I pick.

His name is José Míguez Bonino. He was born in 1924 in Rosario, Argentina and died in 2012 in Tandil, Argentina. He is often referred to as “Bonino” in English speaking circles but Bonino was his mother’s name. He really should be referred to as “Míguez” or “Míguez Bonino”.

The key to understanding his theology is not the themes of his theology but rather the methodology. “Faith Seeking Effectiveness” is the best way to grasp his theology. Effectiveness is effectiveness in mission. He starts by studying the context of mission and the church’s part in that context. Then he takes the themes that the context throws up to him and then projects forward for a better missionary practice in the future.

The theological themes that are most important to him are the church. The church is the “relaunching of God’s creation project” where it shows the world what God originally wanted for humanity. The second theme is the kingdom of God. He has an inaugurated eschatology, where the church reflects God’s future in the present. The final important theme is the Trinity. He understands the triune God ‘is a permanent conversation, a communion of love, an identity of purpose and unity of action: Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. for him therefore, he states ”

What we are shown here is the nature of ultimate reality: The life of God is communion; identity is not affirmed by closing in on oneself but by opening up to the other; unity is not singularity but rather full communication. It is in that image we are created, it is in participation in that constant divine “conversation” that we find the meaning of our existence, life abundant; it is on this model we should structure our human relations. Neither the all-embracing authority of one over another, nor an undifferentiated mass uniformity, nor the self-sufficiency of the “self-made man,” but the perichoresis of love is our beginning and destiny—‘as persons, as church, as society”

 

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Preacher man

Today we come to the final reflection in our series on Jesus as a model for our mission. In Jesus’ ministry he did not only do miracles but he also preached and taught. He often preached in the synagogues and his message seems to be “Repent because the kingdom of God is near”. This of course was the same message that John the Baptist preached. He was announcing what God was doing in through his own life. He was, in terms of what the church Father Oregon said he was the Auto-Kingdom: the “autobasilaia”. The kingdom of God is was near because the king is near.

Following Jesus in his mission we announce what God has done in Jesus Christ. God has brought his kingdom upon the earth.  Jesus taught his disciples to pray saying “May your kingdom come may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. Jesus is kingdom but his kingly rule is not universally accepted.  The gospel is that God has brought his kingdom to bear upon the earth in the person and life and work of Jesus Christ. And we can be part of that kingdom through faith in him.

The preaching of the gospel is essential mission of the church. I do not like the oft-quoted  phrase from Francis of Assisi, that we should “preach the gospel and if necessary use words”. It is always necessary to use words. There is never a time when actions are sufficient without words. For result may be that people may think that we do these good works because we are good people. And more importantly, they need to know the meaning of the actions we are doing. It is similar to what I said yesterday about the miracles. As the wife of René Padilla said, “words without actions are mere words and actions without words are mute”.

Finally in this series, Jesus taught his disciples. Teaching is another essential action in the mission of the church. This takes us back to Matthew’s Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). In this Great Commission we are told to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Clearly teaching to obey is very important [that is demonstrating what it is to obey] but again the explanation is essential. This equips disciples for the work of mission.

Jesus taught in various ways. Firstly, he taught through parables. Parables were a very common way of teaching. People knew the genre of the parable. I am not suggesting that we also teach parables, however, the important lesson to draw from this is to use culturally appropriate forms to teach. This could be through film, drama, or even through song. Too often at preaching and teaching I’ve done in ways that do not allow the people who are listening to learn. We need to be creative.

Clearly Jesus had an agenda in his teaching. The sermons in Matthew and the groupings of parables in Luke demonstrate this. We can see this throughout the gospels. Luke especially in chapters 9 to 19 demonstrate how Jesus used circumstances as well. We can see this in the disciples question about the collapse of the tower in Luke13. Jesus uses the question in order to take the disciples. We can also see this in Matthew 24 when the disciples of Jesus were leaving the temple and saw how big the stones were in the temple and Jesus uses this circumstance in order to teach about the end times.

So let us learn from Jesus in his mission.

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Just do it!

This is probably one of the most famous advertising campaigns in history. Nike’s “Just do it!” was a worldwide phenomenon a few years ago. It was even parodied by the Simpsons.

Just donutCertain types of missiology seem to also sign up to a Nike approach; just do it, don’t waste time on thinking. In my opinion this is very short sighted. So we are thinking about how we can do mission in a way that is effective but biblical.

Today I am reflecting on what Jesus can teach us about the way we do mission. Firstly, Jesus’ approach was integral or wholistic. There were debates in the 1960s and 70s in Evangelical circles about whether evangelism or social involvement was primary in mission. I think we should be past that debate now. John Wimber added to that debate by adding to the debate about words and works, the issue of wonders or miracles.

In my opinion miracles come under the category of works. Jesus did miracles and the gospel writers record them, for two reasons. Firstly, they were good for the person for whom the miracle was done. I accept the man who had been blind from birth as a possible exception (John 9). The vast majority of Jesus’ miracles were to benefit others; normally the poor, sick and vulnerable. Secondly, Jesus did a miracle and the gospel writer interprets them, saying something about the kingdom of God or salvation. John is explicit in this, actually calling them signs but the other writers do as well. In Mark 2:1-12, Jesus starts by telling the man let down through the roof that his sins are forgiven and then says, “that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” and then heals the man. So he starts with the words and then authenticates his words with a miracle. In Luke 11, Jesus casts out a demon and as a response to the people’s murmuring, he says, “if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom has come to you (11:20). The action comes first then the explanation. Words and deeds or deeds and words together are wholistic mission.

Tomorrow we will conclude the week speaking about preaching and teaching.

 

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Who are your friends?

How are you going to live as a cross-cultural Christian worker, or missionary if you like. Missionary lifestyle can refer to what sort of house or area you will live in; the people you work with; the amount of time you work or about any other lifestyle issue you care to mention.

You wont find this in any commentary or theology book but of all the insults hurled at Jesus during his earthly life, “friend of sinners” I reckon was his favourite. Matthew 9, Mark 2 and Luke 5 all show the scandal that Jesus caused by eating and drinking with “tax collectors and sinners”. He was not at all worried about his own reputation but was more interested in being inclusive. There is no indication that any of these reprobates Jesus was associating with was interested in his message; he was interested in them.

In Luke 7, Jesus allows a woman who had led an immoral life to touch him. The host, Simon the Pharisee thinks, “how can this man be a prophet, letting a sinner touch him”. Jesus accepted this woman in all her sin and confusion. On the other end of the economic scale, Jesus went to the house of Zacchaeus, the tax collector, and declared that he had come to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). Tax collectors were dishonest, collaborators with the Romans and generally all round bad guys. Jesus is not interested in what people thought of him but was interested to seek out the lost.

I remember being at a party celebrating the wedding of a friend who works with drug users in Latin America. They had invited a lot of folk from the shanty town and had asked them not to get drunk or do drugs that night as there would be kids there from the church. I was sitting between a local drug dealer and another user. I said to one of them that I felt like Jesus. She looked at me weirdly–well so would you if somebody said something like that.This kicked off a conversation about how Jesus spent more time with the outcasts than the supposed “righteous”.

Jesus spent time with those who were unacceptable by the rest of society: the sinners. As a model for our missionary engagement, we can draw our own conclusions.

Secondly, Jesus models a healthy lifestyle in that he engages and withdraws from activity.  He understands that he needs time alone and with his friends. In Mark 1:21ff Jesus casts out a demon and heals Simon’s mother-in-law but after the whole town turns up, Jesus gets up early and withdraws. Jesus knows that constant ministry is unsustainable. He had not even healed all of them (Mark 1:23).

Missionaries can be workaholics. In the first few months or years of ministry we can get into the habit of accepting every preaching or teaching engagement until one day we realise we can’t go on. Regular “quiet days”, regular days off, regular holidays are all important for sustainable long-term ministry and spiritual refreshment. The frequency of missionary burnout is testimony to support the belief that missionaries don’t seem to put this into practice. Follow Jesus in this.

As with the above point, Evangelicals seem to find it difficult to accept Jesus’ needs. This comes from a latent “docetism” (the heresy that said Jesus only seemed to be human); he was actually just God in a body. But Jesus needed sleep, food, water, rest, etc. Jesus also needed to pray. Jesus prayed at times when he needed to make a big decision or when he was in distress. Jesus wasn’t a superhuman he was truly human (Matt 14.13; Luke 5.13).

If prayer–all types of prayer, not just intercession–is not part of your missionary life, then I would review your spirituality. Praise, adoration, confession and intercession demonstrate and then put into practice reliance upon God. Jesus did things in the strength that came from God.

So Jesus demonstrates in his solidarity, his engagement and withdrawal and his prayer a healthy missionary lifestyle.

Tomorrow we will look at how Jesus models ministry.

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Missionary prep: Jesus style

I have been involved in preparing cross-cultural Christian workers since 1995. Previously to that I have spent three years preparing to become a cross-cultural Christian worker. So much of this process, both in me and in other, was not so much knowledge but attitude.

Jesus spent 30 years preparing himself for ministry before he burst on the scene in Galilee. Just prior to that scene-bursting moment, he is prepared in three distinct ways. Firstly, Jesus consciously identifies with humanity. Luke 3 has Jesus coming to John the Baptist to be baptised. Baptism in those days was not–as we Baptists mistake–a witness to our conversion but rather more a rite of passage, announcing that you have left one community and are joining another. It is about identifying with a community. Jesus says that he wants to “fulfil all righteousness” (Matt 3.15) by identifying himself with sinful humanity, which he did ultimately on the cross.

If we want to follow Jesus as a model for mission, then we need to identify with the people we will be working with. We cannot stand aloof from them we need to begin to feel things that they feel, to think like they do, care for the things they care about. This is the first stage of the attempt to contextualise ourselves to the people. We need to see things through their eyes.

Jesus is further prepared for his mission in that he is assured of his identity. Again in Luke 3 Jesus hears the voice from heaven assuring him that he is God’s son and God is pleased with him. Luke goes further to show the importance of Jesus’ identity in the genealogy. Whereas Matthew starts with Abraham (Matt 1:2-16) and moves forward to Jesus, Luke begins with Jesus and goes right back to God (Luke 3:21-38). Jesus was facilitated in his mission by a firm knowledge of his identity. He was going to need it!

Immediately after Jesus’ baptism and Luke tells us of the genealogy, Jesus is led into the desert to be tested. The first thing the uses to test Jesus is questioning his identity. “If you are the Son of God…” Jesus was able to repel these attacks because he knew his own identity.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I blogged about the whole issue of our identity in cross-cultural work. I don’t need to say much more here, only to add, knowing our identity is following Jesus into mission. See also Luke 4.1; Mark 1.12-13 & Matt 4.1.

Finally Jesus was prepared for his mission by the Holy Spirit descending upon him (Luke 3.22; Matt 3.16; Mark 1.11). The importance of the Spirit in mission should go without saying but so often missiologies miss the role of the Spirit. Jesus needed constant communion with the Father through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Luke is the gospel writer who most emphasises the role of the Spirit both in the gospel and in Acts.

Incidentally each of the commissions in the gospels and Acts, the Holy Spirit is mentioned. In Matthew, Jesus promises his presence (implicitly in the Spirit) (Matt 28:20); Mark says that miraculous signs will accompany the preaching of the Gospel (Mark 16:17-18). In Luke Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to send the Spirit (Luke 24:48). In Acts, Jesus tells the disciples that they will be witnesses after the Spirit comes (Acts 1:8).  In John, Jesus breathes on the disciples and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit (John 20:22).

We need as cross-cultural missionaries to keep being filled with the Holy Spirit. If Jesus himself needed the Spirit’s ministry so do we.

Tomorrow we will see how Jesus models lifestyle to us.

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Jesus, the very best missionary

There is an excellent blog of a North American missionary wife and mother called Jamie, the very worst missionary: inappropriate comments, embarrassing antics and generally lame observations of an American missionary. It is one of the most followed missionary blogs. Jamie is honest and attempts–rather successfully as it turns out–to blow away some of the myths of missionary life. It is well worth a read.

Conversely I want us to reflect upon the very best missionary: Jesus Christ. I want to continue thinking this week about how we can know whether we are doing a good job in mission or not. This is, of course, an unanswerable question and we will only truly know when we meet Christ in person, however, that is no excuse for not thinking through the issue now! So, this week I want to think about Jesus as the very best missionary; to look at him as an example or a model.

In the evangelical world we have avoided the idea that Jesus is an example, or to see his teaching as vital. Jesus is our saviour not our model or example. This was the reaction, however, in the last few years we have recovered from that reactionary disease and begun to see the importance the gospel writers put upon Jesus as our example.

I would give three major reasons we can do this. Firstly, the Apostle Paul views Jesus as the New Humanity. Jesus Christ is the founder of a new race to dwell in the New Creation. In Ephesians 2:15, Paul declares that Christ is making Jew and Gentiles one. “His [Christ’s] purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace”. Colossians 1:18 says that he is “firstborn from among the dead”. We are created in Him to be part of a New Humanity. He is our forerunner.

Secondly, Paul uses Christ as an example of humility. Philippians 2:5 says, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus”. Jesus, in his attitudes and therefore his lifestyle is an example to us. This is followed by that wonderful hymn of worship to Christ, who shows his greatness in his humility. He is the example of the very best missionary.

Finally, Christ can be an example to us because John tells us so! In John 20:21, Jesus commissions his disciples, “as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” In the same way the Father sent Jesus into the world, Jesus is sending us. His mission is the measure of ours. If we want to know how we are doing, look to him.

Over the next few days we will consider various ways in which we can follow Jesus in mission.

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Poking the Rattlesnake’s nest

In the late nineteen-eighties, I was a youth pastor in Starkville, Mississippi. It was a truly formative period of my life. Working with Jim (Nap) Clark and Kenny Hodges and also with Dick and Linda Hill was one of the most important experiences of my life.

This is also where I developed my phobia of snakes. I was 26 years old and so needed to be macho with the guys in the youth groups. Fear of snakes is not something that is respected among the rural young men of Mississippi. I learned that almost all if not all black snakes in the US are not poisonous, but can give you a really nasty bite. Black racers are non poisonous but have a really bad attitude!

One time I was in a very rural part of Mississippi and came across a Rattlesnake’s nest. The snake was motionless and for all intents and purposes, looked dead. Hoping not to look scared, I got a long stick and poked at it. As it turns out, not only was the snake not dead, it was the world record holder for the longest strike from a standing start (well lying-down start). It got within 2-3cm of my hand. OK, it could have been 20-30cm! When I told the pastor, Nap, he said “if you poke at a rattlesnake don’t complain when you get bitten!”

Now you can poke a lot of animals and not get bitten. I can dig my finger into my dog’s side and she’ll simply look at me with a “what was that for” look on her face. But there are certain animals that you just don’t poke at or if you do, you need to do it in a way that does not provoke the animal to strike. Poking at rattlesnakes is not against the law in Mississippi but it’s not advisable.

Draw your own conclusions.

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The Culture Swamp

Yesterday, I left rather a big question begging. How do we avoid culture Christianity? It seems to be rather like a swamp. The more I try to avoid being a culture Christian, the more I am dragged down into the dark mire of the relationship between the Gospel and Culture.

There is a further complication though: the way we read the Bible. I am pretty sure many of the readers of this blog are thinking, “but we have the Bible and so we know what is culture and what is Gospel.” There are at least two problems with this statement. The first is that the Bible is a huge book. Well, it’s not even a book, it’s a library of varying types of literature, written over a very long period, with numerous authors, widely differing cultures and worldviews. It is not so easy to choose where to start.

The second problem is that we bring cultural baggage to our reading of the Bible; often unconsciously. I will give a couple of examples. I was in a discussion with some colleagues from another Bible College about the role of women in the Church. They did not believe women should lead or teach and I don’t have a problem with it (this is a discussion for another time). One of the people from the other college said, “well, all we need to do is to go down to your wonderful library and look at some commentaries to see what they say about the subject”. I remember one of my All Nations colleagues saying–quite rightly–“yes but almost all are written by men”. This is not to say that a man’s view is not valid but it highlights that a women may have a completely different view because of her gender.

Let me give you another example. the local leaders of a church planted in East Africa by a Western mission agency believed that it was time for the foreign missionaries to hand over the reigns of the church to the locals. The foreign missionaries did not want to do this. A mediator was called in and after some discussion he suggested that the local leaders and the missionaries went away and discussed separately what the meaning of the Joseph story was in Genesis 37-50.

After a time the two groups came back together and the mediator asked them for their conclusions. The Western missionaries said that this was a story of a man who was faithful to God as God had been faithful to him. The African church leaders said that this was a story of a man who was faithful to his family even though the family had done evil to him.

Now, we can see both interpretations are true and, perhaps see the cultural emphases of each group influencing their interpretations. The Western group emphasise the individual and his relationship with God. The African group emphasise the importance of faithfulness to the family.

Perhaps this is the answer: we must read the Bible together; bring all our cultural baggage to the other; listen, respect and not reject their interpretation because it does not fit with our own and be mutually accountable to each other for our interpretation of the gospel.

Am I doing mission right? Ask your brothers and sisters from other cultures, traditions and denominations.

 

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How culture is our Christianity?

I mentioned yesterday how some majority world mission leaders, at a mission congress in 1974, accused Western mission leaders of perpetuating a “culture Christianity”. This “culture Christianity” is an expression of the Christian faith that is more dependent upon Western values of freedom, individual expression and internal spirituality.

Now, of course, all our expressions of the Christian faith will always be culturally defined; there is no way that we can have a “pure” expression of the Christian faith. And if you make a survey throughout Church history, you will find that how people worshiped, acted, thought about the faith and a host of other factors will be radically different from one another and from ours, but it is the same Christian faith.

What is true historically is also true geographically and culturally. The expression of the Christian faith in Africa will be different to that in South America, or Europe, or Asia. Walk into a African church in London and you will not think that this is middle class Anglican church in middle England. Now, I would say that is great and perfectly ok. However, where does the problem arise when an expression of the faith become “culture Christianity”?

Like I said earlier it is really when the culture rather than the gospel defines that expression. Or more accurately, it is where the values, essential to the gospel are replaced with values essential to the culture. Culture wins out over gospel.

This is difficult to think about in abstract forms so let us take a concrete example: Western culture. As we have observed over the past few days with the Charlie Hebdo massacres, values essential to Western culture are (1) freedom of self-expression; (2) individual rights and (3) the denial of a critique of these values.

When we think of Western Christianity today–especially in its Evangelical, Charismatic and Pentecostal forms–and examine its worship songs, preaching, church government, etc. I think we must seriously question whether we are not perpetrating a “culture Christianity” today.

 

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Which Good News?

Here in the UK there is a TV programme called “Russell Howard’s Good News”. Russell is a talented young comedian who has a sharp eye for hypocrisy and the plain weird. He is irreverent but very funny.

It occurred to me not long ago that actually the title of his show is quite shocking. “Good News” is what we call the gospel. I know I’m a bit slow on the uptake but I got it eventually. He has a section in the show which is not comic but is a good news story. The rest of the time he points out with comic effect the crazy things going on.

What is the good news? When I was a kid and I started to take my parents’ faith seriously, I started to witness at school. One kid who I had clearly annoyed said, “so what’s the good news you keep banging on about”? I said rather nervously, “if you believe, you’ll go to heaven when you die”. Now pretty much every 12 year old boy thinks he’s immortal this is not good news.

In 1974 there was a mission conference organised by the Billy Graham Organisation and Christianity Today. The agenda was pretty much organised in the US and the conference was going well until a group of young Majority World student workers accused the conference organisers of promoting a “culture Christianity” that promoted Western Values more than the gospel. That culture Christianity was individualist, future orientated and internally pietistic. Does the gospel take people to heaven or bring heaven to earth?

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How do I know I am doing mission right?

There’s a question to toy with? Not as easy to answer as you may think? You may be thinking, “don’t you call yourself a missional theologian? Don’t you know?” Well, I know the question; I’m just not convinced that I can answer it?

The classic answers would be “taking the gospel to other countries”; “spreading the word”; “planting the church” or “preaching” are obviously valid enterprises.

In 1792 when William Carey sailed the ocean blue to India and in the subsequent century these were the definitions. 1792 up until 1914 is what Kenneth Scott Latourette called “the Great Century” (Ken was never that good at maths!) Up until the First World War, there was great confidence in the Western view of the gospel and of mission. How we are to achieve it was the question that the Edinburgh World Missions Conference was asking.

After the two greatest missionary sending nations (Germany and Britain) had spilled the blood of a generation on the fields of Flanders and France as well as many of the young men of their colonies (which they had evangelised) mission confidence began to wain.

Those benighted four years of slaughter questioned the right of European powers to teach the rest of the world how to live and what to believe. Not only had a generation of potential missionaries been shattered by the war but the very project was being doubted. Do Europeans know what the gospel is? Is their missionary project valid?

As an Evangelical, I trust in the gospel, but I don’t trust human endeavors, including missionary enterprise. We must be critical. We must reflect upon this enterprise in the light of the gospel. We must bring our missionary activity to the light of the gospel to allow it to be critiqued and interrogated at the foot of the cross.

This week I will be reflecting upon how we can do this in our current context. Do join in the debate!

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Je Suis Charlie

I have been blogging over the past few days about identity. My point has been that we need to maintain closely our relationship with Christ. This is important for at least three reasons. Firstly, so that when difficult times come we are not shaken because we are not what we do but we know who we are. Secondly, it is important because this enables us to hold lightly to parts of identity when we enter other cultures. The final reason I want to give today is that we need to know our identity in order to identify with others.

As you will have already read the title of today’s blog, you will know that I want to mention Wednesday’s incident at the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. I want to identify with the victims of that evil act of murder. You may know the magazine and have seen their cartoons which are normally aimed at being offensive to especially religious people, whether they be Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or any other religion, They do also target politicians and many other institutions.

The people who carried out this attack were clearly committed, well-trained and utterly brutal and ruthless. They were driven by a deep hatred of those who they see to have blasphemed Mohammed. We have seen with the growth of ISIS this year that radical Islam creates people who hate anything that is not their brand of Islam, especially Christians.

It is not surprising that it did not take long for many commentators in the media to begin the rather tiresome traditional bashing of all religion. Salman Rushdie (probably not surprisingly) is leading the way saying that all religion deserves our deep disrespect. Christian medics and nurses, motivated by their faith, who go and help vicitms of Ebola are hardly worthy of deep disrespect.

How do we react to the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo and their like? How do we react to radical Muslims? How do we react to those who condemn all religion because of this terrorist act?

How do we react as Christians? Well, I would suggest something rather simple. You don’t need to read too many pages of the New Testament to find the answer to my question: fewer than 5 chapters of Matthew. This is Jesus speaking,

I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you

No matter whether those enemies be Humanist cartoonists, Muslim extremists  or liberal commentators, our responsibility is to love them. Hate is not an option. I personally can easily start getting angry at the injustice of it all and shout at the TV or write to the Independent an angry email.

How do we find the love in our hearts? The truth is we can’t. This love only comes from being “in Christ”. Having our identities firmly rooted in Him. God is love.

Peter also broaches the subject of how we react to evil and insult,

Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.

I Peter 3 is rather a lot further through the New Testament but the point is easily seen: do them good, bless them. We can only do this if we know that we are children of God. Insults from any enemy can hurt but when we know that we belong to Christ we can identify with even our enemies like Christ did.

Therefore, I say today Je Suis Charlie.

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Identity and mission

“Hey Ali, Ali, Ali!” I heard this but didn’t react. “Halima, get Ali”. I suddenly realised that it was me that they were calling. We were in Morocco for mission experience trip. We were training missionaries in Argentina and also in other parts of Latin America. A lot of these students wanted to be missionaries in the Muslim world but neither of us had any experience there. Wilma had been in Taiwan and I had been short term in the USA. So we decided to spend a month in complete immersion in Muslim culture.

A Latin American organisation, working among Muslims organised a trip for us. A former student, now a missionary in Morocco organised for us to spend time with a couple of Muslim families. When our friend told the family our names–Pablo and Wilma–they said, “Oh that’s too difficult to say, he will be Ali and Wilma can be Halima”. (I only realised later that I got called “Ali” because I had a ginger beard and Ali Baba was red bearded.) The problem was that I didn’t possess an “Ali” identity so didn’t even realise I was being called.

I did, however, develop a “Pablo” identity. I spent 30 years being Paul before going to Latin America and got called “Pablo”. It was slightly weird but I did prefer it to “Pol” and “Pool” which I did get called at times. Wilma was variously addressed as “Vilma” or “Bilma”. There was another a missionary who was very irate with Argentines because they could not pronounce her name right.

I often say the first part of my identity that I lost in Latin America was my name. In cross-cultural work, the successful missionary will give away a lot of his or her identity. You cannot express yourself in the way you normally would do. If you do then you are likely to be misunderstood. You need to find ways of expressing yourself that are culturally appropriate.

The big challenge is to stay me but be me in ways that are understood by local people. This is why it is so important to know who you are in Christ primarily. Child of God, saved sinner, chosen, holy and loved.

Lord help me to know who I am in you, not relying on my success or even my name but on your love for me.

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What do you do? Who are you?

The first question is one that I get asked a lot; the second one isn’t polite so I don’t hear it so often. If I go to a conference people constantly assume that I have a fixed role, with an organisation. At this point in my life this is a question that stirs many emotions. I’m in a liminal period only gets a coherent response from anthropologists and readers of my blog! I used to answer, “as little as possible”, which although true, was not something I succeeded in doing!

These two questions are linked but actually come the wrong way round. What I do is dependent upon who I am. In Western society we find our identity in what we do. Biblically, the order is reversed: who we are should lead to what we do. Our actions are based on our identity. Of course, it’s not that simple because our actions also form who we are but the Bible starts with who we are.

In Colossians 3:12 Paul tells his readers that as believers they are three things: chosen, holy and loved. After that he gives the Colossians a list of massively challenging instructions, but those instructions are based upon the fact that they are chosen, holy and loved.

It is interesting to observe that none of these facts are based upon the Colossians themselves. They are all external and objective.

They are chosen by God. They are selected by God. It is almost as if God points his finger at us and says, “I choose you, and you, and you”. The idea is that we are specially selected for a purpose. Our existence is not dependent on us, or our success or on other people’s opinions of us; rather it is based upon God’s selection.

We are also holy. We have been made holy. We have been set apart. Although this is closely related to the idea of election, it adds the element of distinction; of comparison. Being holy is being like God. Again this is external and objective. God has made it so. There is no room for boasting, only thanksgiving.

Finally we are loved. Paul uses a word with the root word “agape”. It is such a strong word to use. God loves us. This gets to the heart of our election and holiness. They are due to God’s infinite love upon us. Once again, not because we are lovely or attractive but because sets his love upon us.

What I do emerges from these facts: we are selected by God for his purposes, we are made holy by him so we reflect his character and he loves us with his infinite because…well because he IS love.

Thank you our father that you have chosen us–may we be worthy; that you have made us holy like you–may we reflect your character to the world; and that you love us–may we love others with that same intense love.

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Who is the one who is to be born king of the Jews

Just when you thought Christmas was over…well it’s not! Not for the millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians across the world. The 6th January, for them, is Christmas. Last year we had 25th December in Ethiopia, which was a normal working day and Orthodox Christmas in the UK, which was also a normal working day. So, we celebrated both

The word Epiphany means “unveiling” or “revealing”. So it makes sense when we realize that the 6th is also the celebration in Eastern Christianity of the Baptism of Jesus where he is revealed as the Son of God. In Western Christianity we celebrate the coming of the Magi where Jesus is revealed as, not only “king of the Jews” but also the Lord of the Gentiles as well.

The wise men come to worship him and Matthew gives us an early hint that this very Jewish Messiah is the one who will command his followers to “make disciples of all the nations”. The 6th of January is an intensely missionary day. Christ is Christ for all. Jesus is not the “God of the Christians”; Jesus is the Lord of the Nations.

So today, do feel free to have your very own epiphany and worship the king of both Jews and Nations.

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Who am I?

Over the past 6 months I have questioned my identity many times. The first module in En Route is entitled, “Who am I?” It is so important to know who we are in Christ and not rely on our own job or role in life.

 

I want to share with you with a poem written by someone, whom a Latin American theologian called, the most authentic Christian of our time—Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer wrote this when he was in prison during the Second World War. He was hanged just a few days before the Allies liberated Flossenburg Prison where he was being held.

Who Am I?

Who am I? They often tell me

I would step from my cell’s confinement

Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

Like a squire from his country house.

Who am I? They often tell me

I would talk to my warders

Freely and friendly and clearly,

As though it was mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me

I would bear the days of misfortune

Equably, smilingly, proudly,

Like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I know of myself,

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,

Yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,

Trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,

Tossing in expectation of great events,

Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

Weary and empty praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?

Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army,

Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.

Obviously my situation, my reflections and my humility do not reach anywhere near the extremity, the depth nor the height of Bonhoeffer’s but I hope we can reach towards that authentic Christianity exemplified by Bonhoeffer and modeled perfectly by Jesus Christ.

 

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Personal liminality – Neither here nor there

In the last post of the year I want bring the Cosmic liminality of living between the times that I talked of yesterday, down to the personal. Paul, in Philippians 3:10-14 speaks for how he experiences this.

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,  I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Paul wants to know Christ, not for all the benefits he can gain by being in fellowship with Christ but all the suffering, death as well as resurrection. He knows that Christ is immeasurably more valuable than his own life and so wants to be part of Christ’s life. This is Paul’s “already”. He already knows Christ but not fully. He is in a liminal period between knowing Christ partially and being completely in fellowship and union with Him.

Paul recognises, however, that he has not made it yet. There is still a “not yet”. So he clings to the hope in Christ and His life, death and resurrection. This is only possible because Christ has already taken hold of him. Paul’s efforts would be all in vain if this was not already the reality.

So Paul takes one more step. Forgetting his successes and failures of the past, Paul looks forward to the full salvation that will come in the future for which God has called him. That is, to be where He is. Paul is very future orientated in his outlook. He has already said that he could boast far more than anybody else about his past, but for Paul, this is irrelevant. The prize of full union with Christ is what he looks forward to.

In the meantime, in this liminal time, Paul knows the ambiguity of his thoughts, his feelings and his efforts. This is not a comfortable time for Paul, he needs to cling on to Christ and he need Christ to take hold of him. There is in the Christian life always an ambiguity, a discomfort and a sense of not belonging here. This is not unusual, if we felt at home now we perhaps have forgotten the eternal home. remade by Christ in the future.

At the end of a year that has brought me personally massive challenges, I want to move forward into the new year and press forward to the “not yet” of 2015 and God’s future.

God bless and a Happy New Year! I’ll be back on 5th January 2015.

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Cosmic Liminality- Neither here nor there

Continuing our theme of liminality (being between two big events like Christmas and New Year) naturally made me think of how we live between the first and second coming of Christ: a Cosmic Liminality

In His earthly life, death and resurrection, Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God. It was brought near in his presence. In the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Church at Pentecost, the powers of the age to come became available to the Church. As Rene Padilla puts it, the future has invaded the present. He goes on to say that the Church therefore lives “between the times”. Now longer fully here but not having yet attained the future. Theologians refer to this as living between the “already” and “not yet”. A liminal period. A period where there is uncertainty, ambiguity and excitement. It is also a time, or should be in the church, where normal social relationships become questioned. We don’t act towards each other in the way the world would.

Love is the marker of this new age. So in this micro liminal period between Christmas and New Year let’s recognize the much greater cosmic liminal period that we live and in which we carry out our mission in the world.

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Neither here nor there

Between Christmas and New Year I always get a feeling of disorientation. I never knew why this was until I married an Anthropologist! She gave a name to hook into this: Liminality. It is not a common term; my computer dictionary didn’t even have it. A little red line appeared under the word. So I’ve checked that I did spell it right and now it is in the dictionary.

Liminality is the state of being between two stages of life. Anthropologists use this for being in between beginning and ending parts of a rite of passage. People often leave the community for this period. The most obvious for us may be the honeymoon where you are between singleness and settled married life.

Being between Christmas and New Year does the same thing. In liminal periods, incidentally, social roles are often disrupted. For instance, in Pantomime the Dame is played by a man and the hero is played by a young woman.

I never really know what to do during this time. Eat more cannot be an option! Of course we go for walks…when its not pouring down. But I’m sort of at a loose end. I don’t really want to start any major project because New Year pops up just as you get going. Writing blogs is a good activity hat you can start and finish in this period ;).

So why am I waffling on about liminality. Apart from the fact that I am suffering from its effects. Well, I do think that this is a concept that can help us as we engage with contemporary society. Change is here to stay is a phrase I often use. Contemporary Western culture seems change. Nothing can stay the same. “Progress” or “Economic Growth” are lauded as vital where as “Static” or “Economic Stagnation” are the terms which seem most to be avoided.

This constant change means, that in some sense, society is suffering some sort of liminal state constantly. Some people feel almost in culture shock in their own country. Change wont go away. So I ask, where is our stability in a changing world?

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Jesus, one of us? Why?

A student worker called Ada Lum wrote a book of Bible studies called Jesus, one of us. They are very good studies that attempt to relate Jesus to contemporary life. This, together with the fact that  46% of UK people do not see Jesus’ birth as relevant to their Christmas, got me thinking.

According to the Bible, Jesus was born to an unmarried mother (Matt 1) with all the stigma that that can bring. He was homeless when he was born (Luke 2). He became a political refugee, hunted by a power hungry, fearful madman (Matt 2). The first visitors after his birth were a group of Shepherds (Luke 2); not the most salubrious bunch. Even in the first 3 years of his life, he didn’t have a privilege of kingship, although he was a king.

And why did God become one of us? Well, let me leave that answer to Karl Barth, courtesy of “Karl Barth for Dummies” FB page

The object of divine action in the Incarnation is humanity. God’s free decision is and remains a gracious decision; God becomes a human being, the Word becomes flesh. The Incarnation means real and complete descent of God. God actually became what we are, in order actually to exist with us, actually to exist for us, in thus becoming and being human, not to do what we do – sin; and to do what we fail to do –God’s will; and so actually, in our place, in our situation and position to be the new human being.

He is one of us that we may become like him.

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The Worst and Best Carols

In an attempt to be less bah humbug this year, I would like to reflect upon the worst and the best carols. Start with the bad ones and then celebrate the best ever. 

I don’t like a lot of carols because they are sentimental, but the worst ones are those that perpetuate myths about the nativity. One introduces characters that don’t even exist in the story. No, there is no donkey, little or otherwise!

Some just get all the facts wrong. For example “We three kings of Orient are”. In the gospel of Matthew we are told that they are Magi, not kings. We are told that they brought three gifts but not that there were three of them. They certainly came from the east, but they were certainly not from the orient.

OK, rant over.

What of the best. Well, there is only one candidate in my list: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”.

Hark the herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled”
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ by highest heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

This is the real deal. It gives us the true meaning of Christmas. It gives us the theological meaning behind Christ’s coming. God and sinners reconciled by the incarnate deity, who is born that we no longer need to die, we are given second birth. That’s why we can join with the angels and sing “Glory to the newborn King!”

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The Nobody God

As I said yesterday, I get grumpy at this time of year. The increasing commercialism of Christmas, the dumbing down of the story and all the myths around the story drive me nuts! Where is Jesus in all this? Christ is being shoved out of the Christ-mas. Xmas, happy holidays as a greeting raises my blood pressure to dangerous levels. Christ is being marginalised.

Then I suddenly realised, this is the story, apart from a light show and carol concert on a hill outside Bethlehem, the town was unmoved by Jesus’ birth. A peasant girl having a baby was not big news. At “the first Christmas” Jesus was not at the centre. He was marginalised, he was the nobody God, he was the God of the nobody.

And this is the meaning of Christmas; the real God is on the side of the nobody. It is not the winner of X-Factor or Strictly who is most important to God, it is the child in Syria or Iraq who is suffering the evil of IS or the bombs of the US.

So here’s to the Nobody God. Let us serve Him.

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The true meaning of Christmas? Bah Humbug!

A couple of glimpses of Christmas. I caught a glimpse of Ant and Dec as I was searching for something else on the TV last night. It was only a glimpse; which is about all I get of Ant and Dec before my thumb automatically clicks again. All I heard was that the true meaning of Christmas was about giving: quite a common statement these days.

I also caught glimpse, actually more than a glimpse, of The One Show last night. Chris Evans and Alex Jones went next door from the BBC to All Souls Langham Place. They gatecrashed a carol service but described it as visiting a neighbour. One of clergy there said that visiting neighbours was important at Christmas because many people are lonely at this time of year. He described God as the best good neighbour because instead of staying away he came round to see us in Jesus! An interesting take. Alex Jones looked rather taken a back!

This time of year makes me feel (at act) rather Bah Humbugesque! So instead of being the grumpy old man that I am, I decided that I would think about what the Bible tells us about the birth of Christ and more specifically, what it tells us about God.

The events of the birth of Christ are to be found in only two of the four gospels: Matthew and Luke. They are very different stories. Matthew’s account is minimalist. Apart from Jesus’ genealogy, Matthew recounts Joseph’s dream, the story of the Magi, the escape to Egypt and return to Nazareth. Luke is far more detailed a really does feel like an eye-witness account. The repetition of how Mary pondered these things in her heart could be evidence to say that Luke got the story from her.

Over the next three days I will write some short reflections for Christmas, hopefully to prompt us, and me especially not to be Scrouge-like but to understand more of what God is telling us about himself in these stories.