Friday, 30 June 2006

Au revoir et à Dieu

'On the road again'

In various posts over the past few months I've made references to moving from Belgium, but I've not posted about it so here it is briefly for anyone who doesn't already know. I leave on 4th July. This period in Brussels was for a year, as a member of an IFES InterAction Team. I love Belgium, with all its quirkiness, friendliness, cultural mélange - with all its need of the gospel. I'm passionately committed to student ministry. And I also (in a different way to Belgium!) grew to love England and student ministry there during my time there. Here I could add only one more year of voluntary work. So it seemed wise to me, through God's direction, those advising me, and those resposible in the application process in UCCF, that I return to the Midlands to work for UCCF:thechristianunions as a CU Staff Worker from August. I'll be based in Birmingham and serving CUs down the M5 corridor. I'm really looking forward to serving students there in building them up in the gospel and encouraging and equipping them to share it on campus, and to growing through this myself. Very exciting, and a great privilege! I'll need loads of grace and wisdom from God. Moving does my head in (and helps me rely more on God) and this will be the 4th place I've lived in as many years, so I'm looking forward to settling there for 3-5 years, giving me more opportunity to get stuck in to the student ministry, church, make non-Christian friends, etc.

Au revoir

Plans are made with the wisdom of the time, and change as God wills. But for the present, it's only an au revoir I want to say to Belgium. No matter how good I am at packing in July, I think I'll leave some of me behind, and take some of Belgium with me which won't weigh in or show up in any security scanners for the Eurostar. Unless God gives me leave, this little country will continue to be in my prayers and plans.

A Dieu

The French only say adieu when they won't see the person again. Why? I object. I currently think of coming back to Belgium, but still the greatest thing I can do is regularly commit her à Dieu - to God.

So around here, expect more theological ramblings (I won't stop reading!), and don't expect me to stop mentioning Belgium. Perhaps, however, my reading list should change culturally from Proust and Rousseau to Douglas Coupland. Hmm.

Thursday, 29 June 2006

A sleepy irony

Earlier this week I was preparing the seminar for IBS on the Lord's return.

"Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming." [Mt 25.42]
"Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake - for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the cock crows, or in the morning - lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake."
"So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake
and be sober." [1 Thess 5.6]

I fell asleep.


Wednesday, 28 June 2006

Time & tide

I would love to not care about time. I've tried to train myself in thinking of time as coming rather than going: lots to do? Time just keeps coming in which to do it. (A more African than Western European approach.) But this morning when I'd travelled 40min into town and then waited 40min outside a computer shop which was 'momentanément fermé', I was annoyed. The very kind and honest owner (and sole worker) of the computer shop may be Tunisian, but I'm not. I had work to do! I gave up and went back.

Belgian things that struck me while waiting (perhaps I'm supposed to learn from these!):

- I called his work mobile several times and by the time I gave up waiting, I'd been told by the voicemail in 3 different languages that he wasn't available to answer. But being multilinguistically unavailable is no better than being unilinguistically unavailable.

- A man stopped by and chatted with me, seems he knows the computer shop guy. Told me that I was lucky to have found this shop, as the guy is good - unlike most computer people who are fraudsters. This affirmed what I already knew of this computer guy, from previously. But an honest worker who isn't there was no better to me than a dishonest worker.

- Turned out (he asked me what my work is) that this guy stopping by is also an evangelical Christian. How wonderful, to meet another evangelical Christian where we are less than 1% of the population! What was his priority in conversation having just discovered that I was also an evangelical Christian? He asked me what church I went to, then, 'Is that Baptist?'. I said that although the churches of the 'Belgian Evangelical Mission' are united in the gospel rather than differences in baptism, as it happens, it is. 'The difference,' he immediately rejoined, 'between us, and you Baptists,'(!) 'is that we are more lively, have more music, and... joy!'

I laughed (joyfully, of course, and possibly even musically) and told him that styles vary from one church to another (& that as it happens in my church we sing a lot and I play the violin). 'The style of our response to the gospel isn't what's important!' I parried. 'It's the response itself!' 'God looks on the heart,' he agreed.

It just occured to me afterwards just how sad a thing it was, what had just happened. Christians are around 1% of the Belgian population, and that figure includes swathes of more liberal Protestants too. Yet he'd come across another one of that small number of not only self-confessing Christians, but Protestant Christians - and not just that, but evangelical Protestant Christians! And the one thing he thought to say on that occasion was to find/make a difference, pigeonhole, and assert how his church was better! How sad.

Sunday, 25 June 2006

Would'yuh give me a lift like?

I'm looking for a lift back to Belfast from New Horizon on Monday 24th July, after hearing John Piper speak that evening - the trains don't run after 9pm. I have no idea if I've any Norn Irish readers apart from my lovely family who'll be away then, but if so, anyone know someone (in church maybe?) who's going and driving back that evening?

The Message of the Bible

Where did anyone get the idea that things 'wind down' towards the end?!

Day 1:
- Intro to the Bible,
- Creation (& character of God as seen in creation),
- Fall (and descent as far as Babel)

Day 2:
- Abraham to Exodus (inc. roles of law, priesthood & land)
- Sin, judgement, grace cycle in Kings & Judges (inc. role of king, prophet & judge)
- Life of Jesus (inc. fulfillment of OT roles)

Day 3:
- Jesus' death, resurrection & ascension
- In the meantime: the church, inaugurated escatology (now & not yet) etc.
- Jesus' return and final judgement (inc. challenge)

I've got the fall and the final session to do. Well, grace is seen most clearly against the darkest backgrounds! We'd all appreciate prayer for prep.

Wednesday, 21 June 2006

all of God

The gospel of God is that

"the love of God makes escape from
the wrath of God by sacrificing
the Son of God to vindicate
the righteousness of God because people have sinned and trampled
the glory of God."

- John Piper, in sermon on Heb 10.26-31

La musique d'une vie

I'm reviewing this novel for my French oral exam, and couldn't be bothered to think in English to say much about it here, but it's a fab book. Traces the way through a Moscow man's life as music traces its way, helping him to survive, preserving him from being fatefully homo sovieticus. I love reading French novels - where the language and literary skill is as important as the plot, character development, etc. Marvellous. Trouble is, I get too into it - this is my second time through, and I keep forgetting to take notes for the oral.

From near the end of the book, where, having been living for years under a stolen identity, he 'slips up' and reveals himself in music:
Quand il laissa retomber ses mains sur le clavier, on put croire encore au hasard d'une belle harmonie formée malgré lui. Mais une seconde après la musique déferla, emportant par sa puissance les doutes, les voix, les bruits, effaçant les mines hilares, les regards échangés, écartant les murs, dispersant la lumière du salon dans l'immensité nocturne du ciel derrière les fenêtres.
Il n'avait pas l'impression de jouer. Il avançait à travers une nuit, respirait sa transparence fragile faite d'infinies facettes de glace, de feuilles, de vent. Il ne portait plus aucun mail en lui. Pas de crainte de ce qui allait arriver. Pas d'angoisse ou de remords. La nuit à travers laquelle il avançait disait et ce mal, et cette peur, et l'irrémédiable brisure du passé mais tout cela était déjà devenu musique et n'existait que par sa beauté.
La musique d'une vie, Andreï Makine

Monday, 19 June 2006

Neither nor

give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
and say, "Who is the LORD?"
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God.
[Proverbs 30.8b-9]

This is a challenging prayer to pray in so many ways. It applies to generally every area. Am I willing to pray it as regards money, support, health, emotional stuff, comfort, being settled,...?

IFES Interaction people were saying that many ex-team members leave saying they'll come back, and then don't - some for good reason; most because they get too settled. So I was trying to pray that whatever God has in store for me in which to serve him, I wouldn't get too comfortably settled to move on. Trouble is, I know what God's used in the past to stop me getting comfortably settled, and I don't actually want that again. The fight to pray continues. And it's a fight for God's glory.

Don't give me too much comfort in anything,
lest I be full and deny you and say, "Who is the LORD?";
give me what I need, that grace for every situation in which you place me,
lest I be poor and seek comfort for myself that isn't mine to have,
and profane the name of my God.

Saturday, 10 June 2006

in these last days

Well, now that summer has finally hit Brussels, we appear to have today a fête in my street and those adjoining it (complete with unicyclist, band and trampolines with elastic suspense bungy things) and, as we've had all week, full-on sun with an excellent breeze. I am for once glad that my room doesn't get the sun as it's cool enough to sit reading once I've the window and door open. Although my French notes on 2 ways 2 live have just blown off the desk and across the room in an aerial race with someone's prayer letter (probable finish line: the kitchen sink). Tomorrow after church I head to Barcelona for IFES Teams Debriefing conference - in a hotel by the sea. It's hard, this missionary life.

However, meanwhile, I've a Bible study to prepare for after the conference, and if anyone can help me with 2 Thess 2.3-8 I'd be grateful... I'm commentary-less (apart from IVP NBC on CD which wasn't excedingly helpful) and struggling. We're only getting half the conversation as Paul refers to what he's already told them. If he is drawing on Apocalyptic references (Ezekiel 28, Daniel), is what he says here to be interpreted more as apocalyptic in genre and therefore not a literalistic specific reference? But if so, why would Paul offer it as a sign (Don't be deceived: that day will not come unless this evil parody of Christ person comes first) if it doesn't refer to one specific figure who will be recognisable as this character? And as for the restraining one, it seems that it's got more to do with the 'law' (contrast v7, mystery of lawlessness, and 8, the lawless one) than God - as the restraining one will be 'out of the way' when the lawless one is revealed. I suppose then that the question is, is the reference (a) to something already historically fulfilled in one person (say, in the passing of the Roman Empire's rule of law and order), (b) as one of the events of these last days, a specific and unique person to come, or (c) a more general reference to the rule of Christ-parodying, God-defying rule of lawlessness of these last days [see Isa 11.4 for similar Messianic judgement]? I would say that for the purposes of this passage it doesn't matter very much whether it's a unique or more general reference, but it's a puzzling interpretative question - how is Paul, recognising that the coming of the Christ has taken 'us' into the 'last days', interpreting and applying OT apocalyptic? How then should we? Answers on a postcard - or the comment box will do, ta!

The end is nigh

Living in these Last Days, reading in these last pages...

It was rather ironic that I found myself so excited on entering the concluding pages of Vanhoozer's Is there a meaning in this text?, just at the prospect of finishing the book (after over a year of making my way through it), that I couldn't concentrate to take it in and had to take a break.

What is it about the prospect of the end that is so excitingly distractive? Why is it hard to engage well knowing that the end is nigh?

It seems that the Thessalonians had the same problem.

[The book's very good by the way. Well worth taking a year to read - I may well do it again sometime!]

Foolishness is thinking a lot...

"Foolishness is thinking a lot about what matters a little and a little about what matters a lot." (Piper on Heb 9.27 & Ps 90.12 as I noted it, though not quite as in script.)

"Moses put it like this in Psalm 90:12, "So teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom."

Surely the writer of Hebrews wants us to hear this word of the Lord in [ch.9] verse 27 and be wakened from the usual numbness and sleepiness of our lives. Most people think very little about what matters most and think very much about what matters little. The Bible is God's gift to us to keep us from that foolishness and to make us wise. Wise people are people who have proportion in their lives. What matters most they are most concerned with, and what matters least they are least concerned with."

Thursday, 8 June 2006

Art for God's sake

Every first Wednesday of the month, 1-5pm, the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique - Brussels are free! So this being the last first Wednesday of the month for which I'll be in Brussels for the time being, and with a meeting cancelled that I've had every other Wednesday afternoon, I finally took the chance to visit it. There are 2 permanent sections: Art Ancien (15th-18th C) and Art Moderne (19th-20th).

It was far too much to take in, and my head is hurting from trying. I had a team meeting this evening and my head was too full of art to make other conversation at the dinner table!

Most of the pieces were of artists from the Low Countries, so it gave quite an interesting glimpse into the culture's history here. And it has to be said that the Low Countries have turned out some fine artists! Of course once a Belgian becomes famous he becomes known as French, but anyway...

Most of the Art Ancien really did my head in (the descriptive prose of a cultured art critic here!) - it was oppressively full of hundreds of representations of 'La Vièrge et l'enfant', only interrupted by panels of various RC saints being martyred or looking on at... la vièrge et l'enfant. Occasional vividly coloured scenes of angels and martyrs fighting hideous demons also featured, as did passion scenes after a while - but the Vièrge et l'enfant definitely dominated! I found it so distressing that it completely distracted me from admiring/contemplating/analysing most of them as pieces of artwork. The only vièrge et l'enfant I liked was a very simple one of Mary feeding Jesus porridge, very unadorned - the only religious references being the Book of Hours and some bread. Most of them depicted Mary in such style as you'd imagine 'the Queen of Heaven' to be, wearing the dress of a courtly 16th century lady in rich colours and fabrics. Quite a few bizarrely had the baby lying on the ground naked in order to be admired by shepherds/magi/others - what kind of mother would leave her baby on the ground naked in the middle of a circle of admirers?! Wierd. I had naïvely thought that older art was somewhat more realistic than modern - but I'd never looked much at 15th - 18th century religious works. Then of course there were the various ascensions, with the mythological ascention of Mary featuring more than the ascension of Jesus, I'm pretty sure. The most famous Belgian painters from this period have to be the Brueghels - The Fall of Icarus was interesting (if only as a Greek myth respite from Roman Catholic myth), but the Fall of the Rebel angels is gruesome - messes with your head. The rebel angels appear to be changing into demons as they fall: but the demons are strange and horrible animals!

These galleries of 15th-18th century paintings really brought home to me Belgian's Roman heritage - oppressively so. If this represents what they think Christianity is about, no wonder, humanly speaking, that today's Belgium is so secular and dismissive of Christianity.

That said, I noted a few artists whose work was striking, even through the Roman culture - obviously Rubens was amazing (17th century), but also Jan Sanders van Hemessen and Michel Coxcie did some I liked, art-wise. Cornelis Bisschop's 'La lecture' of an elderly lady poring over a book in a dark room was wonderful - I suppose I've been brought up loving old ladies and books, but I fell in love with it! The composition of light was marvellous. I must go back to the museum shop and pick up a postcard.

In the 19th century, I found a gallery full of landscapes which (pleb that I am?) made me wish that I'd gone quicker through the Flemish primitives sooner to give me more time to stand gazing at these. Dubois, Lamorinière and Hippolyte Boulenger - I loved their landscapes (realism style I think?), and then Vogels moving into impressionist subjectivism, playing with light, is marvellous. Heymans, developing this style, was a bit too light though. Degroux's social realism was good, and although there was only one example of an Artan it made me wish there was a room-full - he concentrated on painting the North Sea: and gazing at it gave me exactly that salty wind and wild excitement feel of it when it's rough! As for Emile Claus's 'Cows Crossing', it's immense both in size and in just how real it is - I almost found myself doublechecking that the cows' hides were painted, not real leather! The riverwater is marvellously captured and the light... apparently he used to go down to the spot every day to see the light and atmosphere again - and he spent 12 years on it! Now he was a real painter of light - knocks Kinsade out of the water into another continent. Magritte has to be noted for brilliance (L'empire des lumières) and for brilliant craziness in others... I couldn't quite believe that the few Magrittes were by the same man! But I can't stand Dali. Just can't stand him: gives me the shivers to look at one. James Ensor had some 'nice' realistic ones I liked and some... strange ones. I've not got adventurous taste!

I got a bit confused by the meanderings of the museum (3 bits of building interconnected, one of which has floors -8 to -4 and another a couple of unnumbered floors... I think +2 to +4 were closed - renovations) but I possibly missed some of the 20th century work. I was feeling rather swamped though after 3 hours so I was following exit signs rather than searching for more!

It really is amazing what can be done with dyes, oil and so on mixed, plus some human skill and imagination. There was a blue silk painted which looked like I could reach out, pick it up and try it on. Praise God for his own creativity, beauty and order. Praise him for giving people the gift of art when he made us in his image! I pray that he would continue to raise up artists who would seek to glorify him in their art.

See also:
- New book out by Ryken, 'Art for God's sake' - waiting for it to hit the UK in a few weeks.

Thursday, 1 June 2006

"Yeay, Babel's curse!"

In Modernism we celebrated Babel - uniting without reference to God to seek security and significance in human 'progress' without reference to God. In Modernism-post, forced to recognise the impossibility of realising that vision, we celebrate the incoherence and diversification which frustrates our plans: in short, we celebrate the curse on Babel.

There is an alternative to the stark extremes of Modernism and Modernism-post. The Christian can recognise the vanity of Babel's ideal and acknowledge both the grace and the judgement inherent in the curse. God showed grace in allowing us to live despite the antitheist (humanistic) ambition of Babel; he showed grace in effectively dispersing us to fulfil his commission to fill the earth and subdue it, faced with our refusal of his command; he judged in frustrating the project for exclusively homocentric unity, security and significance. Misunderstanding, non-communication and confusion of expression are not good. We can recognise all this and look forward to the complete reversal of the curse - and not just its reversal to return to vain-glorious humanism, but the fulfilment of unity in created diversity, security and significance centred on God: being to him a name, a praise and a glory. Of this we have a foretaste in the church: his people gathered from all languages scattered across the earth, united and brought to God in Him whose name is above every name.