Tuesday, June 30, 2009

seeking a con:text:ual interpretation

con : text : u al = with : Bible : us all

with (honesty, whole bodies, through up and down, culturally attentive) : Bible (as God’s big story) : us all (the community living in and for our time)

Posted by steve at 09:59 PM

Monday, June 29, 2009

how important is the packaging?

My kids were indignant. “Even Wall E,” they yelled from across the shop. They were conducting research for a school project. The topic is recyling, so the kids were going through the toy department, assessing first the extent of plastic packaging and second whether or not the packing was recyleable. Wall E failed on both counts.

My kids were disgusted. We’d seen the movie together and been inspired by the eco-friendly evangelism. As I concluded my film review: WALL-E is a sermon, and a better sermon you are not likely to hear. The earth is God’s good gift and should be treated as such. Humans actions have inevitable consequences. Yet, in repeated grace, humans are offered an olive branch. Best we learn from our mistakes, avoid being called a race of wally’s, rather than trust our planet to a determined robot, name of WALL-E.

A fine sermon, spoiled for my kids, by the packaging; the rhetoric, ruined by the wrapper.

My thoughts turned to Sunday. Morning worship would include a dedication of a child – the family new to the church, visitors sure to be present. I began to wonder how our ‘wrapper’ might be perceived.

It’s not about the packaging right? That’s a common mantra of the missional/emerging church. We’re sick of slick. We’re tired of excellence. It’s all about being authentic. Who cares about the packaging. Right?

Or should we be more honest. Is authentic actually a legitimation for being slack? If the medium is the message, then the packaging should never be ignored.

I consider all the interlocking parts that would make up the Sunday morning experience: warmth of church, newsletter, greeting at door, welcome in foyer, soundsystem, data projection, microphone technique, music, notices, after church coffee, Kidstime arrangements, warmth of creche on a freezing cold winter’s morning. All the people that give time, that serve.

I factored in the reality that in New Zealand, we’re in the midst of flu season. With over 40% of our local school away sick, this must surely, at some point, impact the church. Volunteers will become unavailable and this will simply put more pressure on all the interlocking parts.

It’s not about the packaging right? Just be authentic.

Holding the non-recyleable Wall E toy, looking at the disappointment in the eyes of my kids, I’m no longer as sure as I used to be.

Further links:
Film review of Wall E here.
Numerous film reviews here.

Posted by steve at 04:29 PM

Friday, June 26, 2009

left behind video games theology

One of my tasks, as part of Grow for Sunday night, is to analyse the theology of the Left Behind video games trailer. It’s part of 3 weeks were we explore what the Bible says about the end of time.

Here’s the LOL comment made in youtube: personally, i cant wait for the rapture. as an atheist, i am sure to stay here, and if these christians are right, then they will all disappear. poof! the world just became a more logical and rational place!

If this is the text:

Throughout history, men and and women have chose one of 3 paths. Those who daily seek a personal relationship with God, unbelievers and believers who don’t seek after God and those who chose to ignore God.

And as the prophets foretold – God will come to take his people home. No-one knows the day or the hour. Without any warning all infants, children and many people, mysteriously disappear. Terror and confusion reign the world over. For those left behind, the apocalypse has just begun.

that what is this saying about God; and about humanity?

Posted by steve at 05:53 PM

a theology for extinct species and cultures

“We lament the “lost civilizations” of past millenia, civilizations we can only partially reconstruct from archaeological remains or in epic movies. But if we take Revelation 21 seriously, they are not “lost” forever! … Think of the prospect! All human culture, language, literature, art, music, science, business, sport, technological achievement – actual and potential – all available to us. All of it with the poison of evil and sin sucked out of it forever.” Chris Wright, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith, 202-3.

It’s a wonderful passage, which struck me, having been reflecting recently on cultural loss through history.

I then made a mental link with Revelation 5:13-14; when all creatures are singing praise and I ask: does “all” include dinosaurs and extinct species? Might, in the grace of God, the retrieval not just of buried cultures, but also of extinct species, be part of Christian hope?

Posted by steve at 11:00 AM

Thursday, June 25, 2009

groups as mission

Last year at Opawa I offered the following snapshot of our mission life: Currently, three evenings a week, smaller gatherings occur at Opawa. They provide a snapshot of our changing mission

: Tuesday is espresso, a conversational congregation. Over the last few years, it has provided a place for those inside and outside Christian faith to talk, argue, learn, laugh.

: how to read the Bible is a 8 week block course on a Wednesday, that includes a number seeking faith and wanting to consider the place of the Bible.

: Sense making faith is on a Thursday and has a different set of participants, who bring with them existing spiritual experiences outside of organised religion.

It is fascinating to realise how mission has shifted for us as a church: away from Sunday attractional services to smaller, more relational groups. Each group has a different interest, funds a different type of conversation, engages with a different way of spiritually searching – questioning place, thinking place, experiencing place. (more here).

So it was interesting to read the following caution by John Finney, The Four Generations. Finding the Right Model for Mission. (It’s a Grove Book, which I find an increasingly useful resource). He noted that groups attract a certain type of person – more likely the curious, the gregarious, the educated, the articulate, those who have time. And that’s not everyone. “A vast number of people in this country go to work in the morning, come home, watch the television, do a bit of DIY and never go out except for excursions to the shops or on outings or to see other members of the family. They belong to no organization, join no group, seldom go to the pub; they are self-sufficient.”

So while a variety of short and long groups have been more than useful for us, a reminder that we need to keep chewing on the mission question. Which caused me to ponder again the potential of mission collectives in our life.

These were birthed over the weekend. (We are aiming for four a year.) The aim of the collectives is to collect, focus and resource energy around our mission life. We offered three different collectives on 3 different days in three different locations, each with a distinct vibe. In total 47 people turned up. Could have been more, but by and large, people left energised and challenged.

Now consider the collectives. Living encourages being a good neighbour/worker, creating encourages art installations, loving encourages our incarnational work in our local community. Their focus is NOT on groups as mission (although yes, the collective itself is a form of group), but on the use of lifestyle, creativity and service to name Christ. Perhaps this is both/and; groups and collectives together forming a partnership for us at Opawa.

Interesting. (Yes, I know, probably only to me dear reader, but this is my blog!)

Posted by steve at 04:45 PM

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Christian jihad or what sort of God killed the Canaanites?

So here’s the question? If your neighbours were and I quote from Deuteronomy 12, about to “burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods”, what would you do? Stand by and do nothing? Or take action?

That’s the cold, hard edge of reality being explored in the Old Testament. Consistent appalling behaviour. Do you let it continue? Or should you act forcibly to stop it? It’s not a part of Christianity that we like to talk about much. But it’s in the Bible and raises the question: what sort of God kills the Canaanites?

I’ve just finished reading a short little book by Lois Barrett, The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament, which provides a fascinating answer.

She notes the usual Christian response – that God either changes from the Old Testament to the New Testament, or that human understandings of God evolve. The trouble with such an answer is that the God the Warrior is still present in Revelation, as the Bible ends.

So, asks Barrett, how on earth to worship someone who is called both Prince of Peace and God the Warrior? Her answer is Jihad. Carefully framed – that God the Warrior does act in response to injustice. However the emphasis is always on God acting, rather than human acting.

She urges us to be honest about all the Bible. It is often imagined that Israel arriving in Canaan and killed everyone, when in reality, other nations lived on for centuries (see Judges 1:27-36). Equally, in Joshua and Judges, a variety of stories of conquest are present: some see only God winning, some see Israel mopping up, others see Israel actively fighting.

She notes the counter-cultural nature of many of Israel’s actions. At times, Israel deliberately uses “weapons” of peace. One example is the crossing of the Jordan, which draws on war language and war images, yet the people carried no weapons. At other times, Israel refused new war technologies (Joshua destroys the chariots and horses of other countries in Joshua 11:15).

What is interesting is when Barrett places the actions of Israel within their wider cultural context. She notes the use of the “ban” in Ancient Near Eastern cultures. This involved the killing all the soldiers, including the families, of those defeated in war. “The practice seems cruel to us, but it was a way of making sure that soldiers on the winning side did not become rich by taking the possessions of the enemy, or by taking the enemy as slaves. So God was able to use for some good even one of the bloodiest practices of warfare in the ancient Near East.” (25 -26). In other words, killing people immediately was the most humane option available!

She points out that Jihad is based on actions, not on birthright. Thus in the exile Israel, as God’s people experience “holy war” as consequences for their actions. “Any people who did not trust in God would find that God the Warrior sometimes fought against him.” (48). So Jihad is for justice, and is never an excuse for a dominant group to exercise moral cleansing.

It’s a fascinating little book. What do you think? What would you have done if you were Israel and had come across child sacrifice? What approach do you suggest Christians take to the Bible image of God the warrior?

For more: Here’s a sermon I preached on this topic – of the Canaanites in the Old Testament – last year. What I said was heavily shaped by Chris Wright’s Old Testament Ethics for the People of God.

Posted by steve at 06:40 PM

out of bounds book review: updated

“This [my The Out of Bounds Church? book] is easily one of the two or three most impactful books I’ve read on the church and its future in the mission of God.” Thanks Jonathan, who’s kindly also provided a concise overview.

Updated: And here’s another webmailed comment from Brazil, of all places! “The problems are the very same: churches (small and large) that, ignoring the historical and cultural changes, use the same communication methods, in both education and mission, used almost a century ago. Also here the churches need to become missional in a postmodern way. Not only the principles, but also the practical ideas you present in The Out of Bounds Church? book apply perfectly to urban Brazil.”

Posted by steve at 04:08 PM

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

adelaide revisited

I’m back in Adelaide early August. Saturday, 1 August I’m doing a day: “Culture with a K(iwi)” – a day seminar on mission as local culture-making. Brochure here.

Then over the week August 2-7 I’m the keynote speaker at “breathe“, a Uniting Church National bi-annual training event for children, youth and family workers. I’m trying to pull together some stuff around families and faith; weaving together Bible families, mission and faith formation. There seems to me to be a dearth of down-under thinking on faith and family, with a mission awareness. There’s some talk of it becoming a book, given that a week of speaking = quite a bit of work. Not sure it can all be pulled off, but we’ll at least have a crack.

Plus I’m doing a [re]generate pub and storytelling evening Monday night 3 August.

Should be fun, and helpfully building on my visits their in 2008 and 2007.

Posted by steve at 11:53 PM

Sunday, June 21, 2009

a christian response to swine flu part 3

Short-term, what 10 things would you give a family suffering from the flu? With people in our community now nursing sick kids, we want to put together a “thinking of you flu pack” (a variant on pastoral care through transition packs); some things that could be dropped into a letterbox and might bring cheer to the sick and those caring for the sick. Any ideas?

Longterm, this quote from the local newspaper: “Most infectious diseases are diseases of poverty.” Ouch. I stopped and read that again.

“And beyond fears of infection, there is a bigger story about inequality and social conditions …”As a society, we’ve got to look at the conditions some members of our society live in and recognise that the conditions in which poor people live are important for all of us. If we don’t reduce inequalities, it does ultimately affect all of us. And this is a stark example of that. This is what the reformists in the 19th century argued about poverty and disease. We look back and think it was about cholera and tuberculosis and it doesn’t apply anymore. It still applies. This is exactly what’s happened in Christchurch.” Alistair Humphrey in The Press, D2.

In other words, housing inequity is an issue that churches who dare to take the endtimes dreams of Isaiah 65 seriously.

Posted by steve at 08:42 PM

a christian response to swine flu part 2 (creative storytelling of Mark 1:39-45)

Today, in response to Mark 1:39-45, we prayed for all healthworkers. Everyone was given at the door either a white piece of cloth or a gold piece of cloth. One – white – stood for Mother Teresa, the other – golden – stood for Princess Dianna. Both became famous for touching the sick. And the challenge for us, whether rich or poor, young or old, to be willing to touch the sick.

In a creative moment, the Bible text became a story, of Jane and her rabbit and how healing touch overcame the impact of quarantine. (Following on from last Sunday’s creative storytelling of Mark 2:1-12- Bill and Ben and their goat called raisins).


Posted by steve at 08:41 PM

Friday, June 19, 2009

mission collectives weekend

Just a friendly reminder that Mission Collective Meetings are to be held (birthed) this weekend!

LIVING collective meets Friday 19th, 7:30-8:45 pm, Bad Back Shop, 303 Colombo Street: You might choose LIVING if your find yourself most challenged to be a good Christian neighbour or workplace witness. You will be encouraged, connect with others, share the ups and downs and gain some thought provoking input.

CREATING collective meets Saturday, 20th, 8-9:30 pm, on the stage of Opawa church auditorium: You might choose CREATING if you are most energised by something like a Christmas Journey. You will connect with others, engage around some thought provoking input on installations and reflect on the recent Flaxing Eloquent Pentecost Installation.

LOVING collective meets Sunday, 21st June, 12:30-2:30, in church foyer. You might choose LOVING if you find yourself most involved in a local Waltham focused ministry. You will experience the history and diversity of Waltham, connect with others who love this community and be inspired by hearing what they are doing. (Lunch provided and bring layers as you will be walking outdoors.)

What are mission collectives? As a church we have a passion for reflecting Christ’s love into our communities and beyond. Mission collectives help resource and encourage us in this. They happen four times a year, once a term. All regulars (members and adherents) are asked to choose one. By going, you encourage others. It’s simply part of being a healthy body. By going, you are encouraged, through input, sharing of stories, pray and planning.

Posted by steve at 01:20 PM

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Lament and hope in U2’s N/One Tree Hill

(Some writing today, for a paper on contemporary Baptist worship, July 15-18 in Melbourne – and dedicated to anyone planning for the U2 conference Oct 2-4, or dreaming of Oct 3.)

A number of explicit Biblical references in “One Tree Hill” lend itself to a reading of the song in relation to lament and hope. The subject referred to in the first line of the chorus changes through out the song: the initial “You ran like a river oh, to the sea” becomes, by songs end, “We run like a river to the sea.” This is an articulation of the inevitability of death, as expressed in Ecclesiastes 1:7: “All rivers go to the sea, yet never does the sea become full. To the place where they go, the rivers keep on going.”

The song journeys through lament; (We turn away to face the cold, enduring chill; The moon is up over One Tree Hill, We see the sun go down in your eyes) to become a protest not just against one death, but against all death (And in our world a heart of darkness, A fire zone where poets speak their hearts). This is linked with being human and the Cain and Abel narrative in Genesis 4:10 (You know his blood still cries from the ground).

Yet lament is not the last word, for the song ends with the hope of reunion (I’ll see you again). This is not a naive belief that all will be well in this life (I don’t believe in painted roses or bleeding hearts, While bullets rape the night of the merciful). Rather it is an eschatology in which the world is changed at the end of time, (I’ll see you again When the stars fall from the sky, And the moon has turned red over One Tree Hill”). It has echoes of Revelation 6:12-13: “Then I watched while he broke open the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; the sun turned as black as dark sackcloth and the whole moon became like blood. The stars in the sky fell to the earth like unripe figs shaken loose from the tree in a strong wind.” Despite the need for lament in the midst of our present darkness, there will be reunion with those we love, and have loved, coupled with judgment on present evil. A message of hope indeed.

Posted by steve at 03:19 PM

one christian response to swine flu

The Bible text for Sunday is the story of Jesus touching the leper. I’m not sure how to relate this to the quaratine culture surrounding swine flu containment. But it reminded me of two women. One became famous overnight, simply by marrying a prince. The other became famous over 45 years, by living – simply – among the poor.

Both are remembered because they choose to touch the sick. In 1987, Lady Di, shocked many, when she choose to publicly shake the hand of an AIDS patient. Instantly famous, for touching the sick.

Then there’s Mother Teresa, who in 1948 began to minister to the poor, sick, orphaned, and dying in Calcutta. She went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize and the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour. She also became famous for touching the sick.

Both woman follow in fine footsteps. In Mark 1, we find Jesus touching a leper. Historically lepers were declared unclean, quarantined from society for fear of infection. The actions of Jesus, of touching the sick, began to make him famous.

Today we know better. Medically we know much more about germs. We know that leprosy is spread not by touch, but when an untreated infected person coughs or sneezes on another.

Rodney Stark in a sociologist has studied the growth of the early church. He wrote that one of the main reasons the early church grew was because of the way they cared for the sick.

In 165 AD a flu pandemic swept Roman Empire. Over 25% of the population died. Amid panic and hysteria, many choose to flee. But not the Christians, who became famous for the way they stayed and cared for the sick and dying. So much so that by 362, the emperor Julian, complained that “The [Christians] support not only their poor, but ours as well.”

Today we as New Zealanders are facing a flu pandemic. As Christians we have the example of Lady Di and Mother Teresa, of Jesus and of the ordinary Christians of early church. I wonder what we’ll become known for in the coming days?

Posted by steve at 09:33 AM

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

God in the silence: the lost history of Christianity part 2

Where is God when bad things happen to good people? How, if God is sovereign, could God let over 1,000 years of Christian life disappear in Asia and Middle East? If God loves us and has a purpose, then why do churches die? What does this do for Christian faith in God’s love and companionship? The last 2 chapters of The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died addresses these questions:

1- Be honest:

“Historically, all major religions have produced multiple instances of intolerance and persecution, and the scriptures of Islam include considerably fewer calls to blood-curdling violence than do their Christian and Jewish counterparts: witness Joshua’s conquest of the land of Canaan, or the ethnic purges associated with Ezra and Nehemiah … At various times, some Muslim regimes have been inconceivably brutal, others mild and accommodating. That diversity suggests that episodes of persecution and violence derive not from anything inherent in the faith of Islam, but from circumstances in particular times and places.” (242)

2 – Be Strategic:
Churches are better positioned to survive tough times if they diversify, accepting that times are always transient and thus being willing to adapt, both politically, economically, sociologically, ethnically. “Churches also survive best when they diversify in global terms, so that they are not dependent on just one region of the world, however significant that region might appear at a given time.” (244). A look at history shows that “Too little adaptation means irrelevance; too much leads to assimilation and, often, disappearance.” (245).

3 – Take the long way home:
As we consider, for example, that Christianity has appeared in China four times over the last 2000 years, we should be weary of too quickly declaring something dead. In other words, “forever can be a risky term to apply to human affairs, and so can extinction.” (256).

4- Easter benchmarks:
Our criteria for influence are too easily secular, too easily tied to power and politics. In reality the Christian understanding of Easter offers a totally different paradigm by which we should view life: that of suffering and surprising life. “The more we study the catastrophes and endings that befell individual churches in particular eras, the better we appreciate the surprising new births that Christianity achieves in these very years, in odd and surprising contexts.” (261) Jenkins ends with a great quote from the title by a Charles Olson poem: the chain of memory is resurrection.

5 – Silence is simply our shame:
Jenkins is a historian and so he can’t resist waving a flag for his discipline and having a dig at our contemporary culture of amnesia. He notes that yes, silence can be due to nobody speaking. Yet silence can also be because nobody is bothering to listen. If Christians do believe God speaks through history, then why are we not better studiers of history? And make that all history, not just the successes, but the failures too? “Losing the ancient churches is one thing, but losing their memory and experience so utterly is a disaster scarely less damaging.” (262).

In that sense The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died does us a great service. And leaves us with a great question: how are we going, attempting to listen to history? What ways have you find helpful to educate, and be educated about, the times before you became the centre of your theological world?

(This is a 2nd post. Part 1, including debunking of some myths about Christianity, is here)

Posted by steve at 04:14 PM