Church

Biblical Literacy … again

While listening to the radio the other day I heard an artist lament the lack of art history knowledge among art students today. He decried the lack of historical reference markers that enabled an intelligent discussion of art and its presentation in today’s society. Students had no knowledge of the historical scaffolding upon which they were trying to present their artistic expression.

This is also a good metaphor for biblical and theological discussions today. In the wall to img_1469wall debates we are currently hearing on the radio, TV and internet with regard to same sex marriage I am astounded at the lack of biblical literacy by those representing various iterations of the church. The lack of understanding of Christianity’s foundational text, a poor comprehension of Church history and thoroughly shoddy theology leaves one aghast at those representing and giving voice to many denominations in Australia today.

 

I am not alluding to disagreements about what the text means. That has always been an issue within the church and between denominations. My beef is more about the manner in which the Bible is used and abused. Issues such as the nature of the Old Testament, different genres within the Bible, the meta narrative that holds the Bible together and so on are so often missing in action.

The consequence is that we hear phrases like “I feel” or “the vibe” of the Bible/text/book. The subjectivity within discussions is quite alarming. The over arching idea presented in many of these debates is that we can make the Bible say anything we want it to say. Worse still, we read the Bible through the lens of the spirit of our age rather than asking what God’s message and intention is for our times.

If churches are to learn anything from our current discussion I think there can be no better lesson than to return to a serious and intentional study of God’s Word. Maybe that is the Reformation needed today.

 

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Categories: Bible, Christianity, Church, Uncategorized | Tags: , | 7 Comments

Preaching and the SSM debate

Scandinavia crossI haven’t written a post for a long time but the current debate about “Same Sex Marriage” has had me pondering. I have been particularly disenchanted, on the whole, by the debate among Christians and I believe the quality of the debate (or, more correctly, the lack of it) reflects a far deeper malaise in our churches, that is, Biblical illiteracy. This has is a problem that has been a long time coming and which I believe has been caused by a poverty of preaching in general.

This poverty can be observed in two distinct ways:

The first is the shallow level of argument. Cheap proof texting and casual Bible references of deeply profound biblical concepts such as “love” and “marriage’ is just one example. I would have to say this has come largely (but certainly not exclusively) from pro SSM Christians. Too often the Bible is not seen as the eternal word of God and has not been read with depth and integrity it deserves. I will not disparage the motive because this has often come from those who have a deep compassion and proximity with those struggling with their identity.

The second, largely, comes from those against SSM:

I take as my example the “Nashville Statement” – a conservative evangelical statement which the signatories declare to be a biblical summary about marriage and sexuality, which, to be honest, I have no problem with as far as it goes. My problem arises in that it doesn’t go far enough.

When Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman, the woman caught in adultery or Zacchaeus, (and we could add many others including the disciples) he didn’t begin with a “Nashville Statement”  he began with a relationship and only after that was established did he go further and reveal how they could be released from the problem we all have – human brokenness.

It maybe just me, but a “Nashville Statement” without that aspect of encountering our common brokenness has the smell of Phariseeism about it. This smell has been especially repugnant in recent generations because churches have been overwhelming silent and slow to act against abuses within their communities and have had to dragged into courts kicking and screaming.

Churches, in my opinion, are struggling with two key problems. How to read the Bible, the inerrant, eternal Word of God, richly and how to apply and live that Word in a way that is relevant and Christlike in 2017. Is this easy? Not at all! All the more reason to get on our knees, pray for forgiveness and return to His Word with urgency. Our response needs to be around the question, how do we apply the truth with compassion? Jesus was gentle with the broken and tough with those who should have known better. Too many of us have swapped that approach around.

That takes me back to the introduction. This confusion arises when preachers/teachers are not taking their God given role with the awe and responsibility that it deserves.

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Kids of the Kingdom

This post comes from my wife:
A lifetime ago I arranged for a photo to be taken of all the children in the church we attended. All kids under the age of fifteen or so were gathered in the church hall and the photographer stood on a trestle table to take the snap, while proud Mums, Dads, and the rest of the congregation looked on.

It wasn’t until later, when the photos arrived on my desk, that I noticed the banner hanging high on the wall behind the children. It read: Christians are different.

A baptismal font in Karlskrona, Sweden


We used to laugh about that. 

But the truth is, that when it comes to our children, Christians aren’t different enough.
We don’t see our children through God’s eyes. We are like all those adults watching the photo shoot and not seeing the bright yellow banner behind. 

We go about the busy-ness of child rearing; the milestones, the school fees and homework, the music lessons and little athletics. We stress over mixed parties and drugs and driver training, just the same as our unsaved neighbours are doing.
However God has different plans for our children, and He calls Christian families to BE different. One Christian put it thus: 

The Christian family must define Christ to the world, so that the world may find Christ.
May we scoop up that delightful toddler,

May we be caught up with the excited third grader who has won a ribbon for running,

May we hide a secret smile while our lovesick teenager mooches around the house,

But may we never forget that they are part of God’s plan for Gospel-spreading.

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My Turn

I have been watching the American election process with a fascinated horror. It is like observing a slow motion train wreck and being helpless to do anything about it. For me, it is scary to think that the “winner” will wield amazing power within and outside the US.

Yet the most appalling part of this debacle is watching the behaviour of many of my brothers and sisters in Christ. Their writhing and slithering around the candidates with obfuscation and weasel words is sickening to witness.

Let’s get a  few things straight. Every political candidate is going to be flawed. We won’t get the perfect candidate until we are in heaven – and then we won’t need them anyway. Less flippantly however, it is the hope that fellow Christians put into the political process, as though this process is going to be a means of “salvation”, which is alarming.

Christ was neither for the Jewish leaders nor the Romans. His allegiance was to the Father. I think we can learn a lot from that. Our allegiance should not be primarily for one party or the other but to the Father and His purposes. Our task is to put forward an image of an entirely different Kingdom – not a kingdom where we need to create a hierarchy of crucial issues and  choose abortion over gun control, or tax over social justice as issues, but rather where we give the world in which we live a picture of what life can be like under King Jesus. We can begin by showing that in our families, in the way we treat the weak and the vulnerable … and the list is endless. The problem has been that we have seduced by our culture. That seduction is in large part the the reason why there is teeth gnashing amongst many Christians today.  We have come to realise, rather late, how far the temptation has led us astray

For too long we have made the mistake of  assuming that democracy is somehow “Christian”. Like Churchill I believe it is the worst of all forms of government  except for all the rest. Now that Western societies have largely foregone their Christian values of the past (which, by the way, enabled democracy to work) we can no longer assume that the majority will get things right. For Christians there is a growing clash of values. We need to rethink our place and purpose in modern post-Christian democracies. I am not saying, don’t be involved – we need to be. But it isn’t the source of our hope.

I believe we are seeing the discomfort and angst of that transition in the current US election. But that uncomfortableness is true for any political arena in Western democracies today. In the US today that change is so glaringly in the spotlight.

Our task is to think about what allegiance to the Father means and how we can be counter cultural in a genuine way in this changing world.

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From Generation to Generation

Another blog post from my wife.

A while ago I found a book in a secondhand shop near our home. It had a title that caught my eye – “Portrait of Jesus” by Alan T Dale. I bought it and put it on my bookshelf, alongside all my precious children’s Bible books.
Recently I took it down and discovered what a true gem it is. But more than that, I found potraits of Jesusone of those award certificates pasted onto the facing page.
Amazingly, I know both the Sunday school student who was given the book 28 years ago, and her teacher.
I held the book open at this page and stared at the names. I could see those women before me. A older woman who encouraged me when I was ministering to the children in our church, and a young lady who gave such dedication and devotion to the children in her care that she was an example to me. And now I was using the book to prepare for another teaching moment.

The older woman happens to be a neighbour, so yesterday I went for a walk, with the book tucked under my arm. She answered my knock on her door, invited me in, and listened as I explained what I’d found. Yes, she remembered her student from 28 years ago.
We sat together marvelling at God’s goodness. He gave all three of us faith. He gave us opportunities to share that faith. He placed us, briefly, in the same time and space so we could encourage each other. And then He sent us onto our next mission.

Here in my hands I hold the testimony to this truth.

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The Prophetic Imagination 

I have just finished reading Walter Brueggemann’s book “The Prophetic Imagination” (1978, revised 2001). From the outset I want to make it clear that I don’t understand all of it.  His descriptions, allusions and theological ideas left me floundering on more than one occasion.  I found his writing style difficult.  Yet, it is one of the most exciting books I had read in recent times.

Breuggemann’s main thesis is that the prophet’s task is to lead the people in the groans and complaints (grieving) over the current order (which he calls the “royal consciousness”) with its lack of compassion, justice and with its propensity for self-justification and  self-preservation. Positively, the prophetic is called to lead the vision and praise for a new kingdom – a new future led by Jesus himself.

Brueggemann takes us on a journey through the Old Testament, from Moses to Solomon and then onto Jeremiah. He explores the idea that the God in the midst of His people in Moses time had been subsumed to the King’s wishes from Solomon onward.  The “Royal consciousness” of Solomon’s kingdom (much like the arrogance of pharaoh’s royal consciousness) had overrun the alternative community inaugurated by Moses when he led the people out of Egypt.  The prophets’ task then was to grieve for that which had been lost and the kingdom’s deathly future and to herald a new possibility.

Brueggemann says much about the grieving of the prophet for the addiction to the culture of death. This resonated with me.  Because we live in a culture of death at present and we,  like many of our fellow citizens, are blinded to its decay and futility.  The powers of our age with their spin, bread and circuses camouflage the fact that our present social order is toxic and deadly.  Even our churches have taken on many of the attributes of royal consciousness in the way they operate.

This book also made me think about so many issues our society faces – refugees, minorities, aborted children, in fact all those dis-empowered and on the fringe.  His solution however is Christ centred. The answer he discovers from Scripture is a real king and a real kingdom that has been inaugurated and that calls its citizens to both grieve for the present but also energize the new.

Brueggemann also reminded me of the “prophetic” element of the Christian’s “prophet, priest and king” calling. There is the challenge for the body of Christ to be far more grief stricken for that is which is unjust, deadly and flawed in our culture and to proclaim and embrace a more Christ-like vision.

Even though this book has been around for a while I believe it has a particular relevance for our present time. And moreover,  you are probably smarter than I am and can even get more out of it.

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Burying Our Children

The following is a challenging and uncomfortable reflection from my wife.



Burying our children?
What if the talents of Matthew 25 were the children in our churches? What if the servants were the adults, and the elders?

How would the parable look in your church? How would it end?
How many children has your congregation been given?

Does it matter how large or small the original number is? Did the master give the greatest number of talents to the best businessman?
Some churches have very few children or even none at all. Did they bury them a long time ago?

Some churches have children who might as well be buried. There is no sign of them in the liturgy or the worship place. There are no signs that they may occasionally be present, no expectation that some children might appear one day. (That reminds me of a church service we attended with our kids while on holidays. Ours were the only kids in the church and the preacher could not have known that we would be coming, but he had a children’s talk ready.) 
Our services are designed for those aged 20 to 60 years old, of average intelligence, good at listening, reading and singing. (As opposed to being good at looking, watching, drawing, wriggling, dancing, jumping or running.)

  

We conveniently don’t see the rest. We have buried them.
The Master gave children to churches. He expects to get a return on his investment. What does that return look like? 

What will it take to make the investment grow?

How exciting it will be when the Master returns to find his talents have grown a hundredfold!

Categories: Child Theology, Children, Church | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Has Jesus left the Church?

I have deliberately made the title vague. It can be taken in a number of ways.

I have just been observing the lead up to Christmas and Christmas itself in Europe. In some places like Seville there was a Christmas market which only sold items for nativity sets. In another few markets I could have bought gloves, scarves and solar panels to do me for a few lifetimes. There has been a mixture of the sacred and secular. All in all, the secular wins.

But Christmas is only a microcosm of society’s attitude to faith and religion in general. So little of the Christ of Christmas remains but that is true of life in general.

So has Christ left the church, in the sense that even the church has left the Christ of Christmas tucked away in some small corner? We sing the carols, attend church for the one time in the year but they are empty tokens. How many sermons were preached this Christmas that declared a radical Christ who introduced a new kingdom through his own death and resurrection? How many sermons declared Christ’s own words, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” That politically incorrect statement comes from the Messiah and is unpopular in many churches today. The cute baby in in a feed trough is easier to speak about and certainly less confronting.

But there is an even scarier perspective. Christ withdrawing himself, not unlike the Shekinah leaving the temple in Ezekiel. Christ leaving because the people who bear his name do do so thoughtlessly. I know he says in Matt 28 that he will be with his disciples to the end of the age but that was on the basis of their continued faith (not perfection).

The radical Christ, the counter cultural Christ, the Christ of a new and everlasting kingdom, the Christ who purchased the lives of his people on the cross and is now preparing a place in eternity for them, the Christ who dwells in his people through the Holy Spirit, the Christ who fought injustice and prejudice, the Christ who tells us that this life is only a brief pilgrimage … He is so hard to find in many churches and many western lives. Alas in my own life.

Has Jesus left the church? Only if we, his representatives on earth, have left him. In our syncretititic and politically correct age we need need to have the courage of the one who gave us his name to stand up to the culture and attitudes of our age and reveal how amazing his message really is. This Christmas have we been overawed and amazed that God became one of us because He loved us so much? Have we been humbled by his claim on our lives? Are we rejoicing in the revelation of His kingdom?

 

A nativity scene in a side chapel at Caen Cathedral

  

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Seeing the truth

We have now spent about three weeks in Spain and Portugal and I have come to the conclusion that many people on the Iberian peninsula are deeply religious. It is a religion steeped in history and tradition. You can see glimpses of the gospel but on the whole it is overlaid with stories and myths and age old patterns.
The story of St James in Santiago is connected with Mary the mother of Jesus bringing a marble pillar to build a church Zaragoza, in order to encourage James. Icons and relics are treasured in many churches. The worship of Mary dominates. One wonders at the psychology of that. 
And yet, there are glimpses of the heart of the gospel:

* “God is honoured in this place” was written over the front door of a convent

* John 3:16 emblazoned in a Cathedral

* many of the windows and frescoes relate Bible stories
But a question remains: what is at the heart of the faith of the people that attend these churches? Is it a Romans 1:16 faith or is it laden with works and deeds and right behaviours to gain salvation?
In nearly every church we enter I spend some time praying that the gospel may be heard clearly.  

  

   

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Fences: of God or Man?

We like to categorise. Put things in baskets. Label. It makes life so much easier. In Christian circles we have this advanced grid at work. Catholic – Protestant. Once we have chosen that basic category, then in the Protestant section we then select the denomination. And then what end of the spectrum: Liberal – conservative. We fine tune: Adult baptism – paedobaptism. Creationist – evolutionist. And if a creationist – what sort? A clever person could make a flow chart of all these distinctions and many many more. It is a trick we use to enable us to place everyone on the faith map somewhere and have likeminded people around ourselves.

I sometimes wonder what it was like a few years after the last apostle had died. John was gone, now what? We have to think for ourselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. No more letters to or from Paul. No flying visits from those who had personally known Christ. Now the early church had to live the gospel by themselves (and I am not forgetting the Holy Spirit). The Word still needed to be applied, lived, meditated upon in this volatile Roman world but without some of the human reassurances.

FountainsNot much different to today really. But now after 2000 years we have these categories – measuring sticks and safety alarms (like my trusty Calvinometre – which measures how far someone is from a Calvinist position on any topic). My question is: How helpful are our categories in enabling and empowering us to understand how the gospel needs to be radically (from the root) lived in 2015? Does it blind us to what the Word may be saying to us today. My nagging suspicion is that it does.

Does that mean we accept all views? Of course not. Paul and John warned of false teachers. But then again, in 2000 years we have built some human fences that may no longer be helpful.

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