Sunday, July 22, 2018

connect keynote: a Presbyterian missiology

flyer-connect I was asked to provide a keynote at Connect this weekend, speaking to 175 Presbyterian youth leaders, gathered nationally near Wellington. I used it as an opportunity to pull together some of my thinking over the last year (here and here) and articulate a Presbyterian missiology, one that made sense of the diverse cultural landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand.

So I began with the burning bush and worked with Maori, Samoan and Fhilipino conversation partners, weaving in stories of migration and diaspora. The result is, I think, a global reformed theology of mission, shaped by indigenous insights, which invites people into an even more global, yet profoundly local missiology.

People of the burning bush,
Ko koutou nga uri o Te Tahu Ngahere
Exodus 3:1-7

Mihi: with specific greeting – to everyone one of you, as people of the burning bush, Ko koutou nga uri o Te Tahu Ngahere (Burning Bush), tena koutou

We are people of the burning bush. Ko koutou nga uri o Te Tahu Ngahere. We come from a long line of ancestors who have found in the burning bush a call to mission. Not mission as imperialism. Not mission as colonisation.

Mission as love. Mission as listening. Mission as vulnerable standing on holy ground.

There is a Maori word – mata ora. One way, a literal translation, according to one of my teo reo advisers, is to understand mata ora as a change maker, a person who brings change.

Another way, according to another of my teo reo advisers, is to understand mata ora as a healthy face. We bring a healthy face to our communities.

I’m told that mata ora in Maori sounds like a Samoan word, mata ola. In Samoa, mata ola also means a person who brings change. Brings change by entering the village from outside and by listening.

When I hear the Exodus 3 Bible passage, which we’ve heard read in 10 languages and seen projected in English, I wonder if Moses is being asked to be a mata ora and a mata ola.

And so we understand what it means to be Presbyterian: we understand mission – as being a change maker; as being the people who bring a healthy face to our community; as people who enter our communities and are known for our listening.

Let me look at the Exodus Bible passage. Then let me tell you what the burning bush looks like in different cultures.

Emerges from love- On a working day beside a mountain called Horeb, a shepherd walked the desert. There is nothing out of the ordinary about his role, he is tending sheep from the family farm. In the midst of the ordinary, Moses hears the extraordinary – the “never-interrupted voice of love speaking from eternity.” (Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society)

In 3:7; “I have indeed seen the misery of my people .. I have heard them crying .. I am concerned about their suffering.” It is a wonderful image of God. It is the source of mission. It is the “never-interrupted voice of love speaking from eternity.” Repeated in 3:9 I have indeed – underlined, highlighted, bolded – heard the cry of my people.

This is God. The “never-interrupted voice of love speaking from eternity.” Who sees misery. Who sees suffering. Who is concerned about our communities. This is the God of the people of the burning bush; that God that makes us changemakers – mata ora – mata ola.

Mission as openness – On a working day, besides a mountain, a shepherd named Moses responded to the the voice of uninterrupted love. In 3:4 “Here I am.”

They are the same words as are said by Abraham,by Jacob, by Samuel, by Isaiah and by Mary: “Here I am, send me” for Isaiah. “Here I am, let it be with me according to your word,” for Mary.

Each a listener, responding to the voice of love. This is what it means to be Presbyterian. Scottish theologian, Alan Lewis describes the Reformed church, the people of the burning bush as ecclesia ex Auditu, formed by hearing (Ecclesia ex Auditu A Reformed View of the Church as the Community of the Word of God, Ex Auditu 35, 1 – Alan E. Lewis). People with ears. Who begin by listening. Hearing love. From God. And in each other. Like, Moses, listening for the voice of love, to which we will say “Here I am.”

Holy ground – On a working day, the ground becomes holy. In 3:5 “Do not not come any closer . Take off your shoes for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

I grew up, thinking the holy place was the church. That the closer to the front, the more holy it was. I also grew up thinking the way my church did worship was holy, the best way, the only way. Yet for Moses, the holy place is the working place, the place where he listens.

This changes how I see holiness. Every working place, every social encounter, every community, every young person, every rangitahi, is potentially a place that becomes holy as I hear the voice of uninterrupted love.

What does it mean for us and for our young people and for the way we design our programmes and understand our mission, if the voice of uninterrupted love is already present in every working place, every community?

Mission as love. Mission as here I am listening. Mission as vulnerable standing on holy ground – for Moses.

But we’re not Moses. Are we? Ask the person beside you – are you Moses?

Any Moses?

We’re not Moses.

But we are Presbyterians. We are people of the burning bush. Ko koutou nga uri o Te Tahu Ngahere

We come from a long line of ancestors who’ve found in the burning bush and story of life and vitality.

This burning bush has renewed us.
This burning bush has given us identity.
This burning bush has given us a mission.

It’s like the bush itself has become a changemaker – a mata ora – a mata ola – in different communities and different cultures.

Here’s the burning bush of our ancestors in Scotland. A few weeks ago I was upside down and on the other side of the world because I was doing some work with the Church of Scotland, a partner church of the Presbyterian Church of Aoteroa New Zealand.

This is me – outside the national offices of the Church of Scotland.

The month was June. Last month. So on the other side of the world, the days were warm. The evenings were light, daylight at 10 pm at night.

I’ve got a coffee in my hand and I’m just about to talk to the Church of Scotland about what God is doing at Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership. Above me, you can see a logo – the symbol – the main visual sign of the Church of Scotland.

That’s the burning bush. Based on the story in Exodus 3

As part of introducing myself to the Church of Scotland, I took some photos with me of the burning bush in Aotearoa New Zealand.

I thought it would be a good way of making connections. And in so doing, to introduce the different cultures of the PCANZ to our mother church.

So I began with the covenant partnership the PCANZ has with Te Aka Puaho, the Maori Synod. So I showed them this symbol from Te Aka Puaho.

In English, Te Aka Puaho means the burning vine. So the Maori church has interpreted the burning bush as a burning vine. Drawn not only from Exodus 3 but also from John 15 – “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.

So this burning bush is understood in fresh ways by tangata whenua.

Second, I showed them the symbol from St Johns Presbyterian, Papatoetoe. This symbol honours another culture group. It honours Pacific migration to New Zealand from the 1970’s onward. In response to Pacific peoples on the move, St Johns Presbyterian change the church by building a new stained glass window.

In the words of Margaret Anne Lowe, the minister of St Johns Presbyterian: “ The new [burning] bush in our window … has flowers of the frangipani blossoming from it, representing later settlers from the Pacific Islands. It is in the blues and whites of the ocean waters which surround New Zealand … The flames are the white caps on the waves, blown by the wind and doves are the seabirds flying overhead. God’s spirit in the Pacific” (Margaret Anne, Adapted from St Johns Newsletter Jan 2011)

Third, I showed them this person. She is Mary Annie Geconcillo, She’s from the Philippines and she’s part of a 3rd migration of Asian peoples to New Zealand. This week she gave me this– for Connect – specially commissioned craft.

IMG_6472 And the entire thing is made from soft plastics.
Red colours comes from kitkat wrapper.
Brown colours comes from bread wrapper.
Yellow colour comes from 2 minute noodles
Black colour comes from rubbish bags.

Mary Anne trained for ministry in the Philippines. At a Presbyterian University. She was sent to a slum on the outskirts of her city. The slum dwellers said we want to get rid of this rubbish. So she worked with them. Found ways to run rubbish into bags. To sell.

So I reckon she’s a mata ora; and a mata ola – who begins to understand, like Moses
Mission as love – for the slum dwellers of Manila
Mission as listening – finding out what they want
Mission as vulnerable, standing on holy ground – working in community development.

This is fourth thing I showed them. From a recent youth event.

It involves taking pumice. Pumice is a volcanic rock. It occurs mainly in the central North Island. Soaking pumice overnight in methylated spirits. Building a burning bush out of metal. All welded together. Placing the pumice, soaked in meths on it.

Turn out the lights. Form a circle. Sit in the dark. The light the pumice. Glows a beautiful deep blue flame. And with pumice glowing to read the story of Exodus – of a God of love; of Moses response –Here I am; taking off your shoes – for vulnerable mission.

So in 10 years time and in 20 years time and in 30 years time, I wonder what the photos of the burning bush will look like; 2nd generation migrants to New Zealand; in light of how we respond to climate change; as we become mata oras and mata olas, change makers in our communities – I wonder what the burning bush will look like?

IMG_6480 I want you to take a rock which is under your seat. Think about your community. What it means for the God of love to burn with love? What it would mean for your youth ministry, to be a changemaker, a mata ora, a mata ola?

Pause 2 minute quiet reflection.

No reira, Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena tatou katoa

Posted by steve at 11:32 PM

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Tradition and Innovation in Early Christianity: my conference abstract

Tradition-and-Innovation-image-close-1-118x300 Tradition and Innovation in Early Christianity is a symposium to be held at the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at ACU Melbourne, 15 to 17 August 2018. A group of scholars in the Netherlands recently received a large (€ 18.8m) grant to study innovation processes in the ancient world, and specifically the difference between invention or novelty and successful (or, as the case might be, failed) uptake of the invention. The Dutch program starts from the assumption that, for an innovation to be acceptable and successful it needs to be anchored in the known and familiar. Hence the title of the program: ‘Anchoring Innovation.’

The Tradition and Innovation in Early Christianity symposium is designed to learn about this project and see how its theoretical frame might be co-opted by early Christian studies and also refined by the new social and intellectual phenomena of Christianity, and the insights of theologians and historians of theology. A long-standing set of questions in patristic studies, of course, relates to how Christianity adapted ideas and forms of life from the surrounding Greco-Roman world. We hope that the emphasis on mechanisms of ‘anchoring’ might provide a useful framework to extend this scholarship and allow it to speak in new ways to other areas of the humanities.

I am wondering about taking some breathing space, using some days in lieu and some of the award from my Flinders University Vice-Chancellor’s Awards for Excellence in Teaching (ironically for leading sustained innovation in theological pedagogy) in order to articulate my academic thinking, what Dr Doug Gay described as a really strong reading of 1 Corinthians, that lies behind my book, Built for change: A practical theology of innovation and collaboration. My aim is to foreground some gospel and cultures dimensions, in particular the way Paul uses temple and parent, to demonstrate that for Paul the conversion of the imagination (to subvert a term from Richard Hays The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture), includes drawing on his cultural world. This is a missiological approach to innovation, guiding how we might engage with popular culture today.

Here’s my abstract:

Tradition and innovation in 1 Corinthians 3-4

In 1 Corinthians 3-4, the Apostle Paul uses 6 metaphors to describe his ministry. He is a servant, a gardener, a builder, an oikonomos, a fool and a parent. Each can be analysed in relation to tradition and innovation. This involves a number of angles.

First a looking back to Jesus Christ. This is consistent with the place that Paul gives to his encounter with Christ. It also provides a Christological angle on the six images of 1 Corinthians 3-4, in which Christ as servant, gardener, builder, oikonomos, fool and parent provide a tradition, yet also an innovation in understanding Paul’s ministry. This is particularly so with regard to fool and parent, which become radically counter-cultural in a context of pater- familias.

A second angle is provided when the six metaphors are located in relation to the context of Corinth. A fine example is that of builder, in which Paul’s use of temple in a context of multiple temples suggests an innovation which challenges boundaries of purity in ecclesial identity.

This suggests that the early Christianity of Corinth is both tradition and innovation. It draws on Paul’s training in Judaism and his experience of Christ. At the same time, Paul presents his ministry in ways that innovate, challenging the identity of the church in Corinth and the ways that ministry and family structures are understood.

(It was an abstract written in some haste, in a few spare minutes, sitting at a Koru lounge at Auckland international airport.)

Posted by steve at 11:43 PM

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Was it …. how did I manage to write 6,200 words in 8 hours?

On Sunday morning, I woke grateful for words. I experienced a deep feeling of joy and gratitude, of the way that in the beginning, there is silence and the potential of words to create meaning, bring clarity and express love.

It had been a wierd weekend. I had spent Saturday in bed with a head cold, aware I needed to preach that Sunday morning at South Dunedin. So waking grateful for words gave purpose and joy as I woke early, headed to work to print off some visual resources and then drove to South Dunedin.

As I arrived, I recognised faces from the last time I visited in March. A person stopped me to recall my opening sermon story and name one of the art images I used. A reminder of words heard, pondered.

Following the service, I walked St Kilda beach in the sharp winter sun. I listened to Luke Hurley’s The Sound on repeat, pondering the gift of sound, to minister to the ozone hole in the human soul.

Later that day, I sat down to a writing deadline due that day, a request to submit a book chapter for an International publication. I had no hope of meeting it, but I wondered if I could send them what I had and let them decide whether to grant me an extension or move on without me. Either was, I was relaxed.

Words began to flow. I had some scraps: a conference paper (Missiological approaches to the “Silence” of religious change) from 2016 and a conference paper (Seeing Silence) from 2017. Some 300 words of jotted thoughts stored in Evernote that tumbled out one morning as I walked a few weeks ago. I had drafted an introduction a few days ago. This gave me a cohesive argument. Buttressed by the scraps, the words began to flow.

By that evening, some 5 hours later, I had written 5.200 words. Encouraged by the progress and with a relatively clear diary on the Monday morning, I returned to the project. The due date was set by a Northern Hemisphere editor, so I did still have a few hours!

I rearranged two sections and the project felt much more coherent. I wrote an conclusion. This meant I could write the abstract. I had 6,800 words. In the space of less than 24 hours, over about 8 hours, I had wrote 6,200 words.

I picked up my afternoon tasks and once the office went quiet, I moved from writing mode to editing mode. I printed off the chapter and read the entire 6,800 words aloud, making editorial changes as I went. There was plenty to change: some paragraph arguments to strengthen, some repetition to delete. But it remained, in my opinion, a coherent, imaginative, researched piece of considered missiology, engaging the literature, yet offering genuinely new insights in a dialogue between film studies and Christian witness.

Later than evening, with the changes made, I emailed the chapter – “Understanding conversion in light of the “Silence” of religious change’” for Conversion as a lived experience: Narratives and experiences of converts as a source for missiological reflection to the editors. They will read and respond and more review is likely. As it should be with academic work. Then the book as a whole will go to a publisher and to peer review. Who might turn it down. As is always possible with academic work.

Despite the uncertainty, I sit with a concrete reality: that I wrote 6,200 words in two 8 hour periods; that in less than 24 hours I smashed out an academic book chapter. For the last few years, I’ve been snack writing – regular, limited, settting aside time 4 days a week to write. An hour a day, first thing every morning. In a cafe so I’m less likely to be disturbed by work. Snack writing is placed in contrast to binge writing – large slabs of time, often when faced by a deadline. Snack writing has dramatically increased my output. But on Sunday, here I was binge writing, and finding myself remarkably productive. When I snack write, I tend to write about 300 words an hour. That means it would take me 21 days, or 5 weeks (at 4 mornings a week) to produce the amount of words I crafted in the 8 hours of Sunday and Monday.

As I’ve shared my shocked relief at meeting the deadline with colleagues, we’ve together tried to understand the productivity. Is there anything here to be bottled, to be learnt from, as I seek to understand myself?

  • Are they rubbish words that will be rejected, as the imposter syndrome kicks in?
  • Was it the scraps – the two conference papers and some words stored on evernote – that in reality meant I was working from a rough draft?
  • Was it the introduction, which I had struggled over in the week prior, which provided the clarity to guide the scraps into coherence?
  • Was it the topic, something close and dear to my heart, which meant I had many internal resources to draw from?
  • Was it the carefree knowledge that I had no hope of meeting the deadline, which generated a sense of playful, what the heck?
  • Was it the down tools day prior, mixed with the sheer luxury of a Monday morning with no appointments, and so a sense of stepping, rested, into a brief moment of space?
  • Was it the gift of awakening on Sunday morning with joy and gratitude, sensing the potential of words to create meaning, which turned what felt like a chore the week prior, into a creative, joyful?
  • Was it the response at South Dunedin, the grateful praise for words spoken prior?
  • Was it the walk on St Kilda, the tonic of sea breeze and Dunedin sounds?
  • Was it unrepeatable, a one-off gift to savour?
  • Was it ….
Posted by steve at 10:54 PM

Friday, July 13, 2018

a public missiology of pop culture: or why am I researching Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?

I had wonderful news this week. Following two stages of peer review, I heard on Monday that I have had a journal article accepted for publication (due out October 2018) in a leading international journal. It’s a significant achievement. More exciting, the journal is in English literature and thus outside of theology. There is thus a real sense of satisfaction in having been able to engage another discipline and learn to write within their style and way of working.

The process of writing and waiting does test mental health (as the excellent article by Helen Kara helpfully articulates). There is considerable self-doubt along with the energy required to keep working at a task that is signficant stretch.

For me, in relation to this article, first there has been the vulnerability, the can I do this. It is easy verbally to offer some ideas. It is quite another exercise all together to sustain those ideas over 6,000 words. And then to place your 6,000 in the hands of peers, in this case from another discipline, who are diligent in wanting to ensure quality control. While the feedback is likely to generate improvements and enhance the quality of my work (and certainly has in this case – thanks Reviewer 1, 2 and 3), it is still a personal exercise in humility and vulnerability.

Second, the timing. The first deadline for submission and the second deadline for reworking have been very close to Summer and Winter block courses at KCML. Block courses are intense and demanding and to be writing in and around that emotional intensity has been for me a struggle.

Third, the topic. To be writing in another discipline has generated for me enormous self-doubt. Not only can I do this. But should I do this? What does writing about zombies have to do with being Principal of a seminary? The research has certainly led to some interesting conversations – sitting beside a passenger also reading Jane Austen on a Los Angeles to Heathrow flight or discussing Wesley’s sacramental theology in a modern university. But is it a good use of work/church time?

Here’s my response: Missiology is the study of the reception of faith in diverse times and locations as part of learning something about the Christian faith. Reception can take a range of forms, including acceptance, adaptation and ironic rejection. Contemporary popular culture is one place in which Christian faith is received, and responds, in a range of responses. Given we live and move and breathe in popular culture, one important essential arena for missiologists to be active in is the world of popular culture.

Including movies.

Including zombie movies like Pride And Prejudice And Zombies no less.

At the same time, as per the definition of missiology, the study has certainly led to a learning about faith, including in this case the role of Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 in relation to social justice, the role of apocalyptic literature and eschatology in sacramental literature, the dangerous interplay between Christian piety and colonialism and the role of Exodus in the human journey of liberation.

Further, in this particular project, I have conducted this investigation not within the church or even of missiology journals. Instead, I have worked and written in an interdisciplinary context of secular humanities, with results presented in an international journal. Hence what I am doing is a public missiology, placing Scripture and sacramental theologies in public, intellectual environments. In doing missiology I am being missiology! It does not directly benefit the church, but then nor should public missiology.

While I am unlikely, as a minister of the Gospel, to directly use the work, it has deepened my engagement with Scripture and made me think more carefully about the Christian use of sacraments. It has also forced me to reflect on my writing and thus has a professional development dimension.

Looking back, with satisfaction, reflecting on my doubts, one of my regrets is that I haven’t had enough fun. As I let out yet another groan, reading Pride and Prejudice, one of my wise daughters told me “It’s meant to be groaned at dad. That’s the point.” I realise not that the groaning has not only been about Elizabeth and Darcy. It has also been about the self-doubt and internal questioning and timing pressures I’ve been feeling. Which in a desire to be vulnerable to you, my blog readers, I’m articulating here.

Posted by steve at 12:05 PM

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Understanding conversion in light of the “Silence” of religious change

Some writing I’ve been doing over the last few days. I’m trying to knit together a conference paper delivered in August 2016 and a conference paper delivered in March, 2017, for a potential book chapter due mid-July 2018!

Both conference papers stand at around 2,000 words. Together, could the two pieces, make a whole, a chapter for a potential book publication? This will require one central idea and some clear editing. That begins with an introduction. So, can I find an introduction ….

Jesus comes announcing the Kingdom of God is near (Mark 1:15; Luke 10:9). This invites the possibility of conversion. Hence the relationship between conversion and Christian witness becomes an essential area of study for missiology.

The documents of the early church offer narratives in which the proclamation of the Good News is linked with life change and transformation. In Acts 2:41-47, three thousand experience a transformation into a church which practices a passionate spirituality, experiences the supernatural and outworks a radical egalitarianism. The book of Acts chronicles the expansion of Christianity, geographically from Jerusalem to Rome; ethnically, from Jews to Gentiles; numerically across the cities of the Roman empire. Soards argues that the speeches in Acts, of which he identifies thirty-six, are key to the unity and emphasis of Acts. In words, they present “the story of the early church’s bearing witness to God’s will and work in Jesus Christ.” (The Speeches in Acts: Their Content, Context, and Concerns, by Marion L. Soards. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 194). The relationship between Christian mission, conversion and expansion continue through the history of the church. Individuals stand in church to testify to finding faith in Christ and the transformations that result from conversion. Mission agencies draw on accounts of conversion in seeking prayer and financial support. In each case, the assumption is that conversion and transformation are intrinsically linked to Christian mission.

Equally, the historical record, in both Josephus and the Christian Gospels, is that Jesus’ announcing of the Kingdom was met with both receptivity and resistance (Luke 9:51-55). Essential to a non-coercive invitation is the freedom for conversion and transformation to be resisted. The theological challenges that result must be considered in constructing a missiology that is equal parts robust and realistic. Indeed, amidst the expansive narratives of Acts, is the reality that individuals resist the Gospel. It is easy to celebrate the thousands in Acts 2 and 4, but in many of the cities in which the Apostle Paul preaches, there is a refusal to convert and resistance to the transforming announcement of Good news of Christ. Hence study of the nature and dynamics of Christian witness must, in the search for truth, engage with the realities associated with resistance to conversion.

A robust and realistic missiology must include not only the possibilities that surround a lack of conversion. It must also examine the human desire to deconvert. In 2014, in the United Kingdom, National Secular Society supporter John Hunt made headlines when he sought to be “debaptised.”. Adams reports that over 100,000 Certificates of De-baptism were downloaded in five years from 2004 to 2009. While uncomfortable, it is an area that any study of conversion must consider. Who is God and how might conversion and transformation be understood, if there is no conversion? What is the nature of Christian mission given the reality of deconversion? How to narrate Christian witness when expansion is not the entirety of the Christian story?

In the writing on Tuesday, and the rewriting today, things become clearer. It is still draft. But in reaching for words, key points emerge.

Posted by steve at 06:04 PM