Monday, December 20, 2010

commercialism at Christmas? An ancient story worth pondering

A world-denying Jew heard the call to asceticism. He thought it a part of the commandments that he must do without good food, good wine, and the company of good women and friends in general. He took no place at their festive tables; he heard no good music and did without great art. All of this he did with an eye on the promise of paradise for the renouncer.

He died. He did indeed find himself in paradise.

But three days later, they threw him out because he understood nothing of what was going on.

Posted by steve at 03:19 PM

Saturday, November 13, 2010

when do you get to old to be part of God’s mission?

I’m off to the cricket today. Not just any cricket, but to the historic Adelaide Oval. For years I’ve listened over hot Kiwi summers to the radio crackle with updates of cricket exploits from the historic Oval. New Zealand chasing down 290+ back in the 80s, Warne bullying the English more recently. Today’s the last day of England vs South Australia, warm up match for the Ashes and I sense a day of cricket relaxation calling.

It’s also the unveiling of the new Western stand (for more see here) and this was being discussed on the radio yesterday. It included mention of special seating. Best seats in the new Western stand. For who? Not for great players or for great sponsors. Rather for those who have been members for more than 50 years.

It made me reflect on how the church treats those who have been members for over 50 years? In the Kingdom, should loyalty be honoured? So much talk of the future and in doing so, what place for the past?

I preached at an older church a few weeks ago, invited to speak on mission. Many present would have been members for over 50 years. I wondered how appropriate would be my message. Then I thought of Anna and Simeon in Luke 2. Advancing in age, but still finding a place in God’s mission. Is there a time when you retire in the church from mission? What is the mission role for an 85 year old in God’s Kingdom?

Between deliveries, I will contemplate such questions today at Adelaide Oval. And if you, my blog readers, have stories of how you have seen churches invite those over the age of 75 into meaningful mission, I would love to hear them.

Posted by steve at 11:03 AM

Saturday, September 11, 2010

free iPad’s the future of theological education?

TRADITIONAL textbooks will be put on the endangered list next year as the University of Adelaide’s Faculty of Science becomes the first tertiary institution to embrace a new approach to online learning.

The pilot initiative involves all first-year undergraduate science students next year receiving a free Apple iPad to use with online curriculum, eliminating up to $1000 in annual textbook costs within three years.

The Faculty of Sciences’ executive dean, Professor Bob Hill, said “We will be the first university in Australia to teach in this innovative way. Our teaching material will be more accessible, more relevant and more frequently updated, providing the flexible learning environment that students are looking for.”

“But it’s a difficult process to make this transition. This is because our lectures have in the past been written around textbooks. Our future process will provide the latest information online and our staff will be integral in writing this content. However, face-to-face learning will remain an important part of teaching.”

Professor Hill says providing each new first-year student with an iPad as part of their core learning tools will transform their educational experience on campus.

(more here)

Posted by steve at 09:46 PM

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Spirited-church structures? Friends of students, teachers, creatives?

I’ve found this image a huge source of sustenance this week.

To gaze at the bent back and study the hunched shoulders,
To note the quill, a mind hard at ink,
To be reminded of the Spirit, in the form of a dove, hovering as Companion and Inspirer,
To do some research and find the story, of a man who wanted to live his life in prayer, but was dragged into administration and structures in the service of the church.

I’m tired and so are the students and so on Wednesday we started class by reflecting on those who have gone before, who have also worked hard over bent desk, hoping that in their work, the Spirit might be more fully named.

The man is Gregory and he is saint of students, teachers and creatives. He was leader of the Catholic church from 590 until his death in 604, the first of the popes to come from a monastic background, unwillingly forced from the monastic world of prayer into public church life. (especially through his first year as pope, Gregory bemoaned the burden of office and mourned the life he used to enjoy.)

Gregory was a missional church leader – most famous for sending a mission to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons of England. From Gregory we get what we know as the Gregorian chant, a system of writing down reminders of chant melodies.

Gregory is known for his administrative system of charitable relief of the poor at Rome. His philosophy was that the wealth belonged to the poor and the church was only its steward. “I have frequently charged you … to act as my representative … to relieve the poor in their distress ….”

My boss made a comment a few weeks ago, about what he called an “old-fashioned” lecturer, the type who did not write academic papers, but who worked out and expressed his theology in the service of the church, on councils and boards and writing church polity. Easy to dismiss. But it’s another whole dimension of ministry, of hard work and bent backs and seeking to see words and structures and administration and decisions be channels for God’s blessing.

Posted by steve at 08:24 AM

Monday, November 23, 2009

an ordinary day in pastoral ministry? trapped in Psych unit

Yesterday I found myself trapped inside the Acute Psychiatric Inpatient Unit. It began as a fairly routine pastoral visit. A phone call from the day nurse, asking me to visit.

Juggled my time table and by 5:30 pm I was outside the Psych unit. It was a quiet Sunday and it took me about 10 minutes to gain entry, standing in an empty main foyer, ringing the ward number.

Admittance, with instructions: This is a secure unit. No patients can leave. Whatever you do, give nothing, anything, to those inside.

I met the person I was visiting. And spent time listening and talking. By now it was 6:20 pm. I was due to preach in 40 minutes, so made my goodbyes. Being a secure unit, the nurse showed me to the door, unlocked it, and let me through.

I walked about 5 paces. Found a second door, opening onto the main empty foyer. Which was locked. Turning to ask for help, I realised I was alone. The nurse who had let me through the first door was now gone, returning to her work station.

Strange, I thought. I gave the outside door another pull. It didn’t move. I looked for an exit button and found it. But it needed a key to turn. Probably the same key the nurse had used.

I returned the 5 paces to the door the nurse had let me through. By now, it was shut firmly behind me. I pushed it, but sure enough, it also was firmly locked. This was, after all, a secure unit.

I peered through the glass, but the corridor was empty. The walls looked soundproof. I felt foolish. I felt like banging on doors and yelling, but wasn’t sure if this was the best behaviour to exhibit in a pysch unit.

I remembered I had my cell phone. So I scanned the walls, looking for a number. None. I had phoned from the main empty reception, so returned to the exit door.

I peered through the glass into the main area. But the phone numbers were out of eyesight, around the corner. It was becoming hard not to panic. Still noone in the corridor leading back into the ward from which I had come from.

I tried the exit door again. Pushed. Pulled. Being Sunday, there were no staff in the main reception area, so it was useless banging on that door.

I breathed deeply and looked at the door closely. When I pulled hard, the door did bend. Enough to let me see that the metal glasp was down. Enough of a gap to get my fingers in. A bit of a fiddle, poke and prod and I managed to push the glasp back.

And this time gave the door a push, not a pull. It swung up. I was out, free, walking through the empty main reception. Fresh air smelt good. It was difficult not to run, not to feel guilty that I was somehow escaping.

Definitely not an ordinary day in pastoral ministry. But the experience has become a metaphor for prayer. Despite momentary panic and heightened anxiety, I could leave. Not everyone can. Some people find themselves permanently trapped, locked behind closed doors, feeling alone, entrapped.

God, be in their head
God, be with their carers, their loved ones, their doctors
God, hold their faith while they mend. In time, open their doors to life,
to the full

Posted by steve at 05:42 PM

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

death and dying: contemporary trends and Christian life

A fascinated opinion piece by theology professor, Tom Long in the New York Times. It’s on cultural trends in funerals. I have just finished a course on reading contemporary culture. We look at cultural icons – at Nike shoes and play stations – and the implications for being human today. How then to live, and to live life to the full (John 10:10)?

Reading Long pushes me to think about another dimension of contemporary cultural change, that of recent trends in the funeral industry.

For the first time in history, the actual presence of the dead at their own funerals has become optional, even undesirable, lest the body break the illusion of a cloudless celebration, spoil the meditative mood and reveal the truths about grief, life and death that our thinned-out ceremonies cannot bear.

The context of course, is Halloween, that day in which a society faces death by dressing up and trick or treating. Long surveys contemporary funeral practices. Such as increasingly gaudy coffins. And the trend to no longer accompany the body to the crematorium or graveside, but instead to let the body be driven, while the cup of tea is poured back at the church.

Long concludes

“Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people,” William Gladstone, the British statesman, is said to have observed. Indeed, we will be healthier as a society when we do not need to pretend that the dead have been transformed into beautiful memory pictures, Facebook pages or costume jewelry, but can instead honor them by carrying their bodies with sad but reverent hope to the place of farewell. People who have learned how to care tenderly for the bodies of the dead are almost surely people who also know how to show mercy to the bodies of the living.

It brought to mind a similar conversation with a New Zealand funeral director a few years ago, alarmed at industry trends in which families are being encouraged not to accompany bodies to the place of burial. And the contrast between Pakeha funerals and Maori funerals, in which the body stays at the house and on the marae for a number of days. And how it allows a different type of grieving, a greater acceptance of death, a wider range of emotions, a greater relational connection.

And the contrast with that common euphemism “passed away.” So easy to use weasel words that mask the reality that life matters and things hurt when what matters becomes broken.

The church has many options for doing mission today. They include helping people face death with honesty, reality and Christian grace.

Posted by steve at 02:50 PM

Monday, November 02, 2009

Why are americans so hung up about megachurches?

Among those surveyed in the 2009 Congregational Economic Impact Study, 40.5 percent of the congregations reported an average weekly attendance of between 101 and 300 people. Only 3.5 percent of surveyed congregations indicated an attendance of more than 1,000 people. Here.

We live in a world fascinated by size. It feels like an enormous amount of church health and growth literature is directed at wanting to be large in church size. Yet, based on the above, only 3% of the US church scene has been mega-up-sized, while nearly half of the US are 100-300 congregations.

To make an analogy, it feels to me like we’re walking around our young people, telling them that 7 feet or mensa intelligence is the new norm, the aspirational goal they should all feed on, read on and grow to. And we’d call that dumb and unfair.

Wouldn’t we?

Posted by steve at 03:17 PM

Friday, September 04, 2009

changing world: changing fathers

In honour of fathers, Statistics New Zealand offers the following facts ahead of (New Zealand) Father’s Day this Sunday (6 September).
* The average age of fathers of new babies is 33 years.
* One in 100 babies has a father aged 50 years or over.
* Today’s newborn babies have fathers who are, on average, four years older than their own fathers were when they were born.
* Fathers with children aged under a year old manage with 42 minutes less sleep than the average of 8.5 hours.
* Over a lifetime, fathers have seven fewer Father’s Days, on average, than mothers have Mother’s Days. This is because men generally start parenting later in life and women have a longer life span.
* More than a quarter (28 percent) of babies born in New Zealand last year were to fathers who were not themselves born in New Zealand. This compares with 24 percent a decade ago.

Other facts about Father’s Day
* The first Father’s Day is thought to have originated in Babylon over 4,000 years ago.

Posted by steve at 12:16 AM

Monday, August 10, 2009

are you playing, or are you hiding, behind that gay card?

Big dust up in the New Zealand media while I was in Australia, as some (only some) of the allowances paid to New Zealand politicians were publicly named. In the midst of a recession, the Beehive residents have been made to look like greedy pigs, manipulating the public purse for financial gain, while demanding fiscal restraint from the suffering public.

Just this morning I was enjoying Colin Espiner’s opinion piece. “We may now know how much each MP has spent on travel and accommodation over the past six months. However, we still don’t have the details. We don’t know how much each MP spent on spousal travel. We don’t know how much was spent on international versus domestic travel (except for ministers). And, more importantly, we don’t know the reason for each trip. MPs have argued the public does not need that much detail, and to require it would be an invasion of their privacy.” (Paragraph 9, 10, 11). So there we are, a general comment on each MP (emphasis mine).

This was followed by turning the spotlight on specific MP’s. First to be mentioned was Wayne Mapp and Bill English. And then in paragraph 24, “MP Chris Carter is one of Parliament’s biggest spenders of our money, despite never having had portfolios that demand much travel.” No mention of sexuality by the way (emphasis mine).

Now I notice that the aforementioned Chris Carter is suggesting exactly the opposite. “Why was there no interest in any other minister taking their partner with them, only me? Why should that be? The only conclusion that I can draw from that is it’s because I’m gay, and that if I was a heterosexual minister taking my husband or wife with me, it would be of no interest.”

Well excuse me, Chris Carter, but as a tax payer I am interested in ALL MP’s use of travel. And so is the New Zealand media.

So from where I sit, I think you’ve simply pulled out gay card simply to shut down debate. You’re in the spotlight and rather than front, you’re trying to hide behind the gay card.

And that, frankly, IMHO is a pretty sad use of your sexuality. What’s more, it seems demeaning to all those who have fought so hard to remove sexuality as an excuse for discrimination. Step out of the closet Mr Carter!

Posted by steve at 09:48 PM

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

ode to change

In the midst of new folk at Opawa, the energy of missions week coming to an end, the bang of the building project, a new semester at Laidlaw, heading off to Adelaide for 8 days come Friday … it was encouraging to read this:

It’s stasis that kills you off in the end, not ambition. “Bono

And to place that alongside the creativity that has gone into their new concert: 360 degree stage and all the technical mountains that required surmounting ….

Posted by steve at 03:58 PM

Thursday, June 18, 2009

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

Thursday, May 21, 2009

a boxing pastor? (updated)

Updated: I’ve just been informed by the radio station that this turned out to be the most popular Quick Word in months, with emails requesting the MP3!

“If you give up being a pastor, you get always take up a career as a boxer. You don’t pull any punches.” A comment upon hearing my latest “A Quick Word” on radio.

Which wasn’t my intention, I simply pulled a piece from a recent (3 part) sermon series I did on forgiveness, then massaged it a bit to make it stand alone. I hoped it would be Bible centred and thought provoking.

So here is it – entering the ring – Steve the boxer! (Does it “box”? If it does, does it matter? Should communication “box”?


Posted by steve at 08:42 AM

Thursday, May 14, 2009


“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less”.

A quote, not by some emerging, missional hipster, but General Eric Shinseki, now President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Posted by steve at 06:48 PM

Friday, May 01, 2009

some swine has trotted off with Catholic chalice: updated

I’m preaching on communion (1 Corinthians) this Sunday, so this caught my eye – that with Influenza A and Swine Flu having been identified in New Zealand, the Catholic bishops have urged caution with regards communion. According to Diocesan website, the following actions are to cease: communion on the tongue; communion from the chalice; shaking hands at the Sign of Peace.

Break out all those little separate Baptist cups, some swine just trotted off with the chalice!

It feels a bit like an April Fools joke, but hey, this is the globally conscious world we are part of. Ironic, given that disease and hygenie standards were appalling in Romans times and worse through the dark ages.

Update: Here is Rodney Stark on hygenie in the early church: So you still had to live with a [sewer] running down the middle of the road, in which you could find dead bodies decomposing. But what Christians did was take care of each other. Their apartments were as smoky as the pagan apartments, since neither had chimneys, and they were cold and wet and they stank. But Christians loved one another, and when they got sick they took care of each other. Someone brought you soup. You can do an enormous amount to relieve those miseries if you look after each other.

Posted by steve at 05:28 PM