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


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!


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.



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?



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.


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.