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.


Is God great?

The late Christopher Hitchens wrote a book called, God is not great: Why religion poisons everything. He is responding to the many times on the news when we see conflicts going on around the Arab world and when a mortar flies or a bomb goes off we hear one of the fighters shout, what is known as the Takbir, or Alluha Akbar (الله أكبر) translated as "God is great" o"God is greater" or more accurately, "God is greatest". Hitchens refutes this in his refreshingly unsubtle way. Now this is the "God-talk" of many Muslims. God is the greatest being in the universe. Hitchens begs to disagree.

As I was reflecting about our "God-talk" recently, I wondered what we say about God. What is God's most important attribute? What I mean is how we talk about God? What do we say God is? I know we do refer to God as "He" or "Him" and so we tend to think of God as a man; which, of course, is not true. God is not male, nor is God female. God is both. Is God's most important attribute greatness? Many Christians may say, "yes", I would say "no".

The Bible has a clear stance on this, Yes God is great but God's most important attribute is love not greatness. In fact we could probably say that God's greatness is seen in his love. The most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16 says this. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son". God's love immediately leads to giving not getting. From the start God serves humanity. In the Garden of Eden, God provides food for the first humans. In most other creation stories, humans are created to provide for the God. Not so with the biblical God.

There is a danger in that we start to talk about God in, what amounts to, a non-Christian manner. In our context where there is a perceived conflict between the Islamic world and the West, Christians feel that there is a need to defend God; to super-inflate his greatness. Chris Tomlin's song "Water you turned into wine" falls into this trap. "Our God is greater, our God is stronger our God is higher than any other". My first beef is to ask, just how many God does Tomlin think there are? As far as I can see the Bible discounts the existence of any other God who desrves worship. And secondly, this is not a competition between competing deities. It smacks of "my dad's bigger than your dad" of a childhood playground. If our God is great then he is great because he serves.

By extension then, if we want greatness, then its down on our knees to serve as well.


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?


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


See what you think.


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.


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.


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!


Worship without justice is idle worship

I was always taught that Christians should not take each other to court. This is based mainly upon I Corinthians 6:1-8. Christians should allow the church to judge in cases of dispute and not rely upon pagan courts. I am not sure how much that is applicable today but that is for another time and another discussion.

The interesting thing is that God often takes Israel to court in the Bible! Just to take one example, Isaiah 1 is a court case brought by God against his people. "Hear, O Heaven, Listen, O earth!" (Isa 1:2). God calls on the heavens and the earth to bear witness to the complaint he brings to his people. The heavens and the earth are witness to the sealing of the covenant (Deut 30:19; 31:28 and 32:1) so they stand as witnesses to the breaking of that covenant.

The very interesting point here in Isaiah is that the rebellion that the Israelites have done is to have "forsaken the LORD" and "spurned the Holy One of Israel" (Isaiah 1:4). How have they done this? They did this, not by worshiping other gods--they were obviously were worshiping the LORD (Isa 1:11-15) but were violent and not protecting the most vulnerable (vss. 16-17, 23).

Amos 5 has the same complaint.

21 “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.

This is the LORD's complaint against his people, we often are so taken up with our religion that we do not care for the vulnerable and needy. Our theology becomes more important than those who God cares about. When I hear people say, "it was a good time of worship", I think what they mean is, "we enjoyed the singing". But would Isaiah and Amos agree? Singing without justice and righteousness is idle worship or do I mean "Idol worship"?


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!


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?