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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?




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!



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.