Thursday, 31 March 2011

North - South divide

Our Italian friends, reporting on Cape Town 2010, drew out a dichotomy, which they say was encapsulated in what John Piper said, contrasted with René Padilla. 

The reason I draw out this implication of the cross is to hold together in this congress and in the church of Christ two truths that are often felt to be at odds with each other, but don’t have to be.
One truth is that when the gospel takes root in our souls it impels us out toward the alleviation of all unjust suffering in this age. That’s what love does!
The other truth is that when the gospel takes root in our souls it awakens us to the horrible reality of eternal suffering in hell, under the wrath of a just and omnipotent God. And it impels us to rescue the perishing, and to warn people to flee from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10).
I plead with you. Don’t choose between those two truths. Embrace them both. It doesn’t mean we all spend our time in the same way. God forbid. But it means we let the Bible define reality and define love.
Could Lausanne say—could the evangelical church say—we Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering? I hope we can say that. But if we feel resistant to saying “especially eternal suffering,” or if we feel resistant to saying “we care about all suffering in this age,” then either we have a defective view of hell or a defective heart.
I pray that Lausanne would have neither.
This felt consistently in line with The Lausanne Covenant
Here too we express penitence both for our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive. Although reconciliation with other people is not reconciliation with God, nor is social action evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation, nevertheless we affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty. For both are necessary expressions of our doctrines of God and man, our love for our neighbour and our obedience to Jesus Christ. ...
In the Church's mission of sacrificial service evangelism is primary.  
René Padilla expressed a concern not to speak of prioritisation, when given the stage for a conversation with Samuel Escobar
After Lausanne '74 there were several consultations. ... I had the privilege of attending the 4 consultations arranged by John Stott. ... The last, in Grand Rapids, 1982, Evangelism & Social Responsibility. I think those conferences were very very important for the Lausanne Movement. And they really emphasised the importance of a holistic mission, what we, in Latin America call 'integral mission'. Not trying to specialise in evangelism, to specialise in social action, but combining all that the church is supposed to be about. 
Global North - South Divide
Our Italian friends (reported by ICN), and some bloggers, describe this as a critique of Piper's earlier comments. It could equally have been a (well known) ongoing emphasis of René Padilla, or correcting a vibe from others at the Congress. I don't see this as necessarily opposed theologically. I think they might agree. But it is a classic north - south approach to the question: Piper likes to express things numerated, clear and prioritised; Padilla wants a more global, encompassing approach. Piper would have logical points leading to a conclusion to resolve apparent tensions; Padilla would draw a picture including all these things to show they're not in tension. 

Tension can hold us together
In my admittedly young and probably naïve opinion, the failure to understand this difference of outlook has contributed to holding N.Irish politics back for decades at least. Unsurprisingly, those from global souths resonated more with Padilla, and northerners with Piper. This may reflect a natural leaning more one way or the other (which was not what either leader wants, from what they said), and it may reflect that global souths are most aware of grave social injustices and issues of life which the gospel addresses. But the north - south resonance with different speakers is also quite probably not because of theological distinction, but because of the way we think

Some were looking for that tension to be resolved or addressed in The Cape Town Commitment, which it isn't (don't think a difference of outlook can be resolved in a document like that) - but it does have a good section on the integrity of our mission, which concludes: 
We commit ourselves to the integral and dynamic exercise of all dimensions of mission to which God calls his Church.
  • God commands us to make known to all nations the truth of God’s revelation and the gospel of God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ, calling all people to repentance, faith, baptism and obedient discipleship.
  • God commands us to reflect his own character through compassionate care for the needy, and to demonstrate the values and the power of the kingdom of God in striving for justice and peace and in caring for God’s creation.
Having come from a mathematical training, I'd expect to want logic, priorities, and points. I do appreciate those - without priorities, it's hard to have direction. But I've been learning to embrace things a lot more globally, drawing on a background of storytelling, myths and music, and learning from those who think differently: whether Ravi Zacharias moving persuasively with circles and spokes, our African friends giving time to description until you 'get the picture' rather than expediently moving in a line to 'getting the point', or a former colleague giving a talk from such an artist's perspective that it was tremendously engaging but I couldn't follow it - and he said similar of my logical discourse!

I delight in how God in his great wisdom has revealed his Word to us in Scriptures of such literary diversity - to wrestle with the argument of Romans pushing on, or to plunge into the whirlpool of Job and let it batter you, or to throw yourself on the safety net of John's dichotomies and let them hold you up. Let's seek to borrow others' spectacles, at least occasionally, so that our blind spots get smaller, and our blinkers more transparent.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Send for the bard!

An earlier thought scribbled before 'Write the songs':

We need bards, in every generation. Singer-songwriters, poets, those who write novels for children: those who give voice to history so give the present identity. We need the kind of ballads a whole family can rip through on a long car journey, and the anthems a rugby crowd can bawl during a match. We need the stories which can be myths of identity: those which give a deeper, older, more communal sense of being than that of an individual composition of organic matter.

We don't have to see these stories as fact. But it seems a sad loss to me, that while I grew up with Odin, Zeus, Prosperine, Hercules, Mount Olympus, Valhalla, Sigfried, Odydius, the Minotaur, Icarus, Helen, Midas, and all of C.S.Lewis' more recent explorations of gods, myth and mediaeval cosmology, most children now will have lost those. I don't think they were true; they did represent that we live in a meaning-drenched universe.

[Inspired by: Bob Dylan, Martyn Joseph, a rawkous and fast family rendition of 'The Rattlin' Bog' en route to Aberdeen, the strength of The Fields o Athenry during the Eng-Ire game in Dublin, Chronicles of Narnia, the Cosmic Trilogy, & 'Til We Have Faces.]

Developed more in 'Write the songs'.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Quote of the day: wonderful, ethical commands

UK residents: Did you put some form of religious affiliation on your census, on Sunday? 

One of my friends was wholeheartedly backing the campaign to persuade those who aren't believing, practising religious people, to tick 'No religion' on their form. I'm sympathetic to this: it must be frustrating for all those secularists to see so many non-believers happily tick 'Christian' simply because they feel some sort of affiliation to the culture. But if that's what they want to tick, let them! It's not to others to police what people feel some affiliation to.

Thankfully, in church we don't have to judge by what religious affiliation people like: not having to allocate government funding, we can welcome one another as God in Christ has welcomed us, to the glory of God.

But I did come across a quote to share with you, if you acknowledged some religious attachment yesterday: 
The Bible is full of many wonderful ethical commands, which would be very inspiring except for the fact that we are not wonderful, ethical people. [DeYoung]
If that doesn't bother you, carry on being religious (or failing to be religious, as it were). But if it does, you may like to look at a hint of the Bible's own solution to this rather depressing problem, here.

Thoughts? Do comment!

Monday, 28 March 2011

To live & die in comfort

Dear Government,

I guess you want to know what we're like because you're trying to work out what we need most. Or at least, our needs relative to the budget, legislation... and votes. I'm not convinced that the questions you asked really got to the heart of the matter, so I suggested a better one for the vacant Q17, here. And its corollary, is, 'So what do we actually need, in order to live and die in the joy of that comfort?' Wouldn't any government give a lot to know the answer to that?

Someone suggested an answer some years ago, and it's not been found wanting since. That what we need is to be grasped by guilt, grace and gratitude. Everything else you could want in your Big Society, will flow from that. Admittedly, this isn't peculiar to the UK, or our particular difficult times. It was made possible by a Jew in the 1st century due to a plan well before our time, nicely summed up by a Pole/Austrian in Germany in the C16th, and here's an explanation by an American:
'All three things are necessary. If we don't know about our sin - which brings a true sense of guilt - we will be too confident in our abilities to do right and make the world a better place. We will ignore our most fundamental problem, which is not lack of education, or lack of opportunity, or lack of resources but sin and its attendant misery. 
'But if we don't know how we are set free from this sin and misery - which comes through God's grace - we will try to fix ourselves in futility or give up altogether in despair. And if we don't know how to thank God, showing gratitude for such deliverance, we will live in a self-centred, self-referential bubble, which is not why God saved us from our sin and misery in the first place. ...

'When we think of living and dying in comfort, we imagine reclining armchairs, massages, and all the food you can eat (with none of the pounds, of course). But the Catechism has in mind a different kind of comfort, one that is deeper, higher, richer, and sweeter. We find this comfort by admitting our sin, instead of excusing it; by trusting in Another instead of ourselves; and by living to give thanks instead of being thanked.'

Sunday, 27 March 2011


Today, UK residents are returning census forms. This brings issues: how to summarise the work of a minister; whether to admit a 'religious' affiliation; whether to describe myself as British, Northern Irish, or both; and whether all the data will be left on a train by a government official, and sold to direct mailing companies by someone enterprising, for the next 50 years. 

But more importantly, overall, it raises the question of what information the government sees as key to understanding the residents of the kingdom. So I wanted to provide them with a Question and answer for the Q17 (intriguingly blank on the form) - this would sum things up far better than the answers I've filled in: 
Q. What is your only comfort? (Now wouldn't that be a fantastic census form question?)
A. (Mine, anyway.) That I, with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yes, that all things must be serve my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, from now on, to live for him. [Heidelberg Q&A1].
(Sure, I'll pay to Caesar what's Caesar's, but they have my tax info already, and make regular use of it.)

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Quote of the day: write the songs

I knew a very wise man [who] believed if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation. And we find that most of the ancient legislators thought they could not well reform the manners of any city without the help of a lyric, and sometimes of a dramatic poet. But in this city the dramatic poet no less than the ballad-maker has been almost wholly employed to corrupt the people, in which they have had most unspeakable and deplorable success.

After all, a song-writer doesn't merely reflect society, but forms its thoughts. Its not just the catchy phrase that gets stuck in your head. 

Lady Gaga saddens me - she seems so insubstantial, so ever-changing, that I wonder if even she knows who she is. Singing female-affirming lyrics, but gyrating undressed enough to ruin any man's imagination. Announcing herself as an obscenely-birthed goddess, 'mother monster', but reducing herself to a piece of meat on stage. But 31,124,368 people 'like' her on facebook, and she attracts such comments from young girls as,  
'mother monster, I wouldn't have made it this far in my life without you, if it weren't for you coming along in the spotlight, i would have commited suicide. YOU saved my life! I always keep you in my heart.' 
So when Lady Gaga confusedly denies anything wrong in her life 'cos God makes no mistakes, I'm on the right track, baby: I was born this way', wanting acceptance without repentance or atonement, that'll be what people hear. When Lady Gaga insinuates that it's God's job to accept her, 'cos she was born this way, that's what people will feel. When Lady Gaga sings of justification by self-love 'just love yourself and you're set', poor homo curvatus in se will turn in on ourselves with little encouragement needed, and be justified as little as the Pharisee in Jesus' story

We need songs which call us out of ourselves! [Amusing '80s example - with some truth!] Even better, songs which impress truth into us from outside, so we can then express it. What goes in will come out! 

[* HT: Christian Persuaders podcast - Susan Boyle & the MP expenses scandal]

Thursday, 17 March 2011

I will not celebrate Irishness

because of this day, but I will celebrate the kind of gospel which was even for the Irish, and the belief in God's promises which took Patrick there, to share it. It continues today -

The testimony of our brother Patrick of 1561 years ago, could equally fit in the mouth of this North Korean schoolgirl, and her father:
'I give untiring thanks to God who kept me faithful in the day of my testing, so that today I may confidently offer my soul as a living sacrifice for Christ my Lord. Who am I, Lord? or, rather, What is my calling?, that you appeared to me... so that today among the barbarians I might constantly exalt and magnify your name in whatever place I should be, and not only in good times, but even in affliction?

'So whatever happens to me, whether good or bad, I accept it equally, and give thanks always to God. He revealed himself to me so I could trust in him, implicitly and forever. He will also encourage me so that, although I'm ignorant, I may dare to take on such devout and wonderful a work; so that I might imitate one of those whom, once, long ago, the Lord appointed to be heralds of his Gospel, to witness to all peoples to the ends of the earth. This is what we are seeing, and so it is fulfilled.

'I wish to wait then for his promise which is never unfulfilled: 'Many shall come from east and west and shall sit at table with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.' We believe that believers will come from all the world. ...

'This Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached throughout the whole world as a witness to all nations; and then the end of the world shall come.' And similarly the Lord foretells through the prophet: 'And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.' And in Hosea he says: 'Those who are not my people I will call my people, and those not beloved I will call my beloved, and in the very place where it was said to them, You are not my people, they will be called 'Sons of the living God'. ...

'Therefore may it never happen that God separates me from his people whom he has won in this most remote land. I pray God that he gives me perseverance, and that he will allow me to be a faithful witness for his sake right up to the time of my passing.'
Patrick, c.450AD, Confessio

Friday, 11 March 2011

Quote of the day: We're not barbarians...

Like we were way back when

We've learned from history

So we're going round again.

[As sung by the good ol' Proclaimers]

The reading of church history is not the preserve of academics. It is a vital component of our Christian service. Even the New Testament urges us to remember those who told us about the gospel (Hebrews 13:7). To read Christian biography and church history is to be reminded of what God has done in the past in fulfilling his purpose to build his church in the world. The truths of the gospel are timeless, but each generation of believers has had to witness to, and contend for, the faith at specific points in the history of the world. What others did in their day, we are called to do in ours. We are not called to fossilise the past, or pay it undue homage. Nor are we to retreat into some golden age of Christian history. We are called to appreciate our heritage, in order that we may build on it, and so serve our own generation by the will of God. the Christian faith, as Mark Noll reminds us, has an 'irreducibly historical character'. 
- Iain D. Campbell, Heroes & Heretics: Pivotal moments in 20 centuries of the Church, CFP, 2009

Thursday, 10 March 2011

A question of caring & cowardice

Most of us probably know the value of a well-placed, well-phrased question. Not that the questioner is simply asking as a means of pushing their view, but seriously giving you what they consider to be a pertinent question to help you onwards. Or perhaps a question to try to understand more, rather than assuming and answering on that basis ('Why?'). 

Sometimes, voicing a troublesome question is helpful, because it raises a topic for healthy discussion, and we can dig down deeper on it. It invites a variety of perspectives, honing each other's ideas, filling in blind spots and correcting error. Good questions will pierce through and encourage us to examine our foundations, our authorities for knowledge. But everyone also knows the frustration of someone raising an interesting question, which engages us personally, only to create more confusion and walk away. It is one thing to question and hold things in tension. It is another to deliberately tangle the strings, mislay the ends, and make fun of those who try to find them. Or as Challies says, better than me:
Questions matter. They can help you to grow deeper in your knowledge of the truth and your love for God—especially when you’re dealing with the harder doctrines of the Christian faith. But questions can also be used to obscure the truth. They can be used to lead away just as easily as they can be used to lead toward. Ask Eve. ...
They say that the person who frames the debate is going to win the debate.
And so, Tim Challies considers the difference between thought-provoking and falsely framed questions, in relation to Rob Bell's latest book, on hell. It's a helpful review.

The debate about the video which introduced this book, raised questions for me, too. Specifically: yes, it's serious that a supposed pastor-teacher would confuse his flock rather than feeding them, and would feed them sweet-tasting thorns to tear their gut. But how can I feel righteously angry at someone for teaching that there’s no hell, when I don’t warn my friends of it? How much can I protest at someone causing others to question if there's eternal punishment, if I act in conversation with my friends as if there's little danger of it? Bell may question whether hell is eternal; I can act as if my friends have eternity before they need to know of Christ. Bell may imply that God isn't that angry about our God-rejecting, selfish disobedience. Would my friends know from my speech and life that I worship a God who made us in justice, holiness and righteousness, and cares about that enough to be angry at our twisting of it, and punish wrong?

So, friends. Despite some cowardice, I do love you and want you to be reconciled to God in Christ. I do think the consequences of staying an enemy of our good Creator will be horrendous, and it tears me up to think that might be you. But I worry that you'll misunderstand, and think I'm trying to say I'm better than you, or that you've got to clean up your act somehow, or get religion - so I've not mentioned it much. Is that what you'd think? You know I'm not some naturally better person - I know if God were to judge me by what I've done, I'd have been in hell long ago. I'm just waiting for Jesus, God in skin, to come back and rescue us from God's judgement to follow. Rescue not for better people but for those who call, 'Help!' And I'd love you to join me, because the kind of God who devises a rescue plan not according to how good we are but by coming to us, suffering, and dying himself, precisely for those who know they're no good - that God is a joy to know! Would it not be worthwhile to question it a bit, see what this rescuer God is like, who Jesus claimed went to such lengths for you?

And I really don't mind a hard, 'stupid', or possibly offensive question, between friends. Better that than things assumed and never talked about. Hm?

Monday, 7 March 2011

Healthy Parachurch

(Or 'You can be my wingman any time.')

A fine article by Mack Stiles: 9 Marks of a Healthy Parachurch Ministry. I've heard many disparaging things of parachurch ministries. I've read articles and blog posts which sounded more like they belonged on Animal Farm than in Church: 'church Good; parachurch Bad.' And in honesty, I've heard many disappointing attitudes to church in some parachurch organisations, and seen bad practice. So Mack writes,
The standard cliché for parachurch is that it’s not the church, but an arm of the church. Yet historically, that arm has shown a tendency to develop a mind of its own and crawl away from the body, which creates a mess. Given the grand scope and size of many parachurch ministries, those which go wayward can propagate error for years: missionary organizations become gyms, heretical seminaries pump out heretical pastors, and service organizations produce long-term confusion between the gospel and social action.
So what should mark a healthy parachurch?
Mack goes on to give 9 marks of a healthy parachurch ministry. The article's part of a 9 Marks e-journal considering various aspects of parachurch ministries - Are they evil? How do they go off the rails? How can you pray for them? [Read more.]

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The danger of Christian faith

"When I'm leading the campaign against Sharia law, for the abolition of the blasphemy law, speaking for the oppressed and marginalised, persecuted Christian and other minorities, these Taliban threaten me.
"But I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of the cross, and I'm following the cross. I'm ready to die for a cause, I'm living for minority community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights. So these threats and these warnings cannot change my opinions and principles. I prefer to die for my principles and for the justice of my community rather than to compromise on these threats."
Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistani Minorities Minister, shot dead today, speaking in January. Video interview.
 Some would say that religious belief is dangerous. It makes people fanatical. Ready to kill others for a cause. But anyone who has truly put their trust in the cross - the death - of Jesus Christ, becomes fanatical and dangerous in another way. He is ready to live for suffering people, and to die to defend them. This is a Christian, a 'little Christ'. A servant is not greater than his Master.