Tuesday, July 31, 2007

America's next top pastor

Satire alert! Who needs a calling when we can let the public vote? :-D

(HT: Internet Monk)

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Monday, July 30, 2007

Jesus Christ, bestselling author

Did you know that Jesus has a new book coming out? (and that he's bosom buddies with Terry Eagleton?)


Saturday, July 28, 2007

200 Pound Beauties and summer frivolity

I was over at my brother's last night with some friends to have dinner and to spend time together watching a DVD. The consensus pick was a South Korean comedy: 200 pounds Beauty. I don't watch Korean stuff at all, so I had never heard of it, but apparently it's popular.

On the surface, it sounds like this movie has been made a hundred times: ugly girl who aspires to be a singer and win the heart of her love gets a total makeover via plastic surgery and emerges as stunning beauty with a new identity. But in the process, who has she become? I have to say, though, I was pretty impressed with this one. It's very well-written, and avoids all the cliches that you expect of a film like this. They did well not to make the romance the main focus of the movie, although it still does, of course, play a big part. One of the obvious themes of a movie of this genre will have to be on the nature of true beauty, and they handled this really well, with a good dose of humour and no obvious preachiness.

The characterisation was surprisingly complex. A common pitfall of the Ugly Ducking Movie tends to to be the lazy treatment of the main character. Once the protagonist undergoes a physical transformation, she usually takes a turn for the worse, becoming arrogant and forgeting her roots without sufficient explanation. Thankfully, you don't get that here. She remains fundamentally the same person, although saddled with new insecurities. It helps that the lead actress is very charming and plays her role winningly. Nor is the villain some girl who's being evil for the sake of being evil, but we do, albeit briefly, get some insight into her motivations.

Yes, there is a big and arguably formulaic climatic scene of revelation, but by the time the movie arrives there, it has earned its dues. The payoff is rewarding, as we have gotten there without navigating through the usual routes.

But probably the biggest reason I liked it is simply because it's thoroughly warm-hearted. It's very sweet without (mostly) descending into sentimentality. There's a realism about it as well; it's not quite all lovey-dovey at the end, although it is a happy ending. And yes, it is very funny! (This is one for teens and above, though).

One of my favourite moments was hearing Blondie's Maria being belted out in Korean. I used to hear it on radio quite a bit in 1999 (I think), usually on the way to school! So I felt a little nostalgic upon hearing it again. Here's the video for it, which doubles as a trailer for the film:

I also went to have a look at the Global Cities exhibition at the Tate Modern this afternoon with another friend. Did you know that 50% of the world's population now live in cities, and this is set to rise to 75% in 2050? The exhibit was more or less a comparative study of some of the world's most well-known cities, including London, L.A., Cairo, Tokyo, Shanghai, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Istanbul, Mumbai and Johannesburg. Hmmm, wonder what the implications of an increasingly urbanized world are?

And I also succumbed to temptation and bought Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows today. I had originally intended it to be a reward for the completion of my thesis, but decided to use it as a reward for my hard work this week! :-p I also saw a rare second hand copy of Flannery O'Connors' complete stories and got that as well.

And that's the half-time report of my weekend. I'm BK, reporting live to you from London.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

I was Predestined to post this

Posting continues to be light this week. I'm making a renewed push on my thesis, especially as it's the last and largest piece of academic work I'll be doing for the forseeable future. It helps that it has been interesting work, although trying to structure it is a huge pain!

Calvinism doesn't come up too much on this blog, although those of you who know me know that I am a Calvinist. Nevertheless, it's not a topic I've visited recently, until this past weekend when I ended up chatting with a hugely zealous Calvinist. I realised that I should once again think through why I'm one, and I was directed to reading Packer's famous essay, which I've always heard about but never read. So for those of you who wonder what I mean when I refer to myself as a Calvinist, here's a chance to educate yourselves. You don't have to agree of course, although I think you should! :)

Introduction to the Death of Death by J.I Packer. It's long, and written in the Packerian style (if you've read Knowing God you know what to expect), but very helpful, especially in dispelling some misconceptions. This was originally an introduction to a classic book by the Puritan John Owen, so you can ignore the bits when he specifically refers to Owen.

What we Believe about Calvinism by the staff of John Piper's church. Also helpful, a more systematic presentation.

Defining NeoCalvinism - bonus thrown in, as I have read tons of neo-Calvinists so am influenced by them as well.

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Potter mania!

Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsI was quite amused today to walk past Waterstone's Picadilly, the biggest bookshop in the UK, and to see the masses all gathered in wizard's and witches - and others! -garb, all eagerly waiting for midnight when the final installment of the Harry Potter saga goes on sale [ed. note 26/7: link removed because of potential spoiler]. The majority were teenage girls, it seems, most of them carrying a Harry Potter book and having loads of fun. I even saw one group attempting to render the Potter Puppet Pals' Mysterious Ticking Noise! I'll be joining the millions reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows eventually, just not tonight! I've enjoyed the first 6 books and am curious to see how it all ends.

HP, of course, has been a source of controversy amongst Christians, although it seems to have grown somewhat muted as the years have gone by. Some of us might still be a little confused about the issues, so I thought it might be helpful to provide, briefly, a framework for thinking this through. (Warning: these are more random thoughts than a carefully constructed argument!)

  • The basics. We start with creation. Genesis 1 - we see God the Creator at work. The climax of creation is man, whom God grants the status of co-workers. (Gen. 1:27-28). We are to have dominion and subdue the earth. In fact, as we work, we begin to see that we too, are creators, creative beings. God delights in helping us fulfill this role in the beginning, allowing Adam to name the animals (Gen 2:19-20).

  • The fall. Genesis 3. We are creative beings, but we are also created beings. The serpent imaginatively hints at rebellion, subverting the imagination by implanting a vision of us supplanting God. Going against the Uncreated One has disastrous consequences. Adam invents a story, shifting the blame to Eve. Like a chain story, Eve tries to blame the serpent. Along with everything else, our creativity becomes tarnished.

  • Men and women remain creative beings, and they are not evil in and of itself. Even after the first murder, Cain's descendants are involved in culture-making activities (Gen 4:20-22), as they are meant to do as people made in the image of God, albeit fallen. This is seen in the building of the temple (eg. Exodus 31:1-6, 1 Kings 7:13-51). Our Lord Jesus was himself a carpenter, again giving significance to the act of creativity. Similarly, the creative act, though not evil in themselves, can lead to evil, eg. Babel, the golden calf.

  • The New Creation. There are hints that our work now will be carried over in the new creation (Revelation 21:24-26). Creative activity might even continue then (Isaiah 65:21-22). The resurrection of Jesus lends significance to creative acts now, reminding us that one day, the whole earth will be redeemed, including, most possibly, some of our current works!

  • So hopefully we have a high view of creativity in general with the outline I just sketched. With this, we also see that "the world" as is often used in the NT does not necessarily = "culture". To "not be of the world" does not mean not engaging in and with culture, if that is possible. So an isolationist stance for the Christian is not biblical.

  • What about fantasy? Many are suspicious of the genre, understandably seeing it either inherently occultic or at least pointing the path towards the occult. The first concern has already been dealt with above. The second concern is legitimate, but only serves to show that fantasy can be used for good and for bad. There is both good and bad fantasy.

  • Fantasy can help point to a reality beyond the material world. Asian Christians, perhaps, need no convincing on this point, but many Westerners have drunk deep from the wells of naturalism. Christians have had no scruples in the past with using the genre of fantasy, eg. Dante to Lewis, and Christian concerns about the genre, read in light of history, is actually quite novel.

  • Onto HP specifically. As many have noted, HP is not so much about wizards and witches, but stands in the long tradition of British boarding school stories - think Enid Blyton and Anne Digby! - which just happens to have wizards and witches and a world that doesn't just operate by scientific dictums alone. So I will argue that it is reductionistic to merely debate HP on the terms of whether it's occultic/leads to the occult or not. It is richer than that, and to read it in such a way is to read uncharitably and does a disservice to JK Rowling. Think of the way the book is narrated - through the school year - and important events in the year such as the Yule Ball and Quidditch matches.

  • It is also insulting to the intelligence of many children to claim that reading HP means that they will inevitably dabble in occultic practices, or will definitely be anti-authoritarian. Many are more discerning than that.

  • Having said that, it is also unwise to present HP to someone you know who is obviously interested in the occult. Christians are to exercise discernment here.

  • HP has many of the classic themes of fantasy, such as the fight between good and evil. Friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice all figure prominently in HP. You could even argue that there is an Ugly Ducking trajectory at work here (HP as orphan to having a family, Ron Weasley the unheralded sidekick coming to his own, Hermione learning to deal with her insecurities).

  • HP reflects (British?) culture, eg. anxiety over modern fears (whom can I trust? Which adults are "safe"? How can I learn to judge somebody's character?) and celebrates authenticity over celebrity (Think of Gilderoy Lockhart, Sirius Black, Rita Skeeter, HP himself). These are not new explorations and are actually staples of children's lit, for eg. read the works of Saki aka H.H Munro.

  • Other things to consider. We are to honour our parents, and so if we are still under their authority, if they choose to ban us from reading HP, we are to honour their request.

  • We are not to cause our brothers and sisters to stumble. If HP genuinely does so, then it is far better to refrain than to assert our freedoms. Of course, I will continue to persuade those involved (as I have just done above!) that I do not think HP is harmful, although of course, depending on the person, there are exceptions. Nor are we to use HP as a weapon to separate "true" Christians from false ones.

  • Finally, I leave the last point to Greg Clarke, who after pondering extensively on HP debate, says: "I'm tempted to think that it boils down to this particular question: do you like stories or not?"
Sorry, as usual this post went on for much longer than I expected! I hope that helps. I don't think HP is the greatest book ever, but I do think that it is enjoyable, reasonably written and that the world is richly imagined, and I hope many won't miss out on it, in spite of the hype.

Further reading:
Fantasy Literature and Christian Readers by Greg Clarke
Support Kairos and get their issue on the Imagination. Highly recommended!
Spiderman 3 and the moral imagination. A previous attempt of mine to reflect theologically on another work of popular culture.
The Muggle Helpline for Distraught Potterheads. Hilarious! Proficiency in Manglish required.

If you're looking for other "summer" reads (I'm aware it's not summer in many places!):
The Independent's Summer Reading Special
The Times Summer reading
TIME magazine - what writers are reading

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The wrap

Quite a lot of things are calling for my attention lately. I've been working full-time the last 2 weeks on a very worthwhile work placement. I was in Bath yesterday - not for a holiday, mind you! - but because I needed to consult a work which was only available at their university's library. I did manage to get enough time off to go look at the Roman baths (slightly disappointed; I had these larger-than-life images of grandeur in my mind).

I'm mindful that I just can't keep up with everything, and attending to my 'reality', as it were, should probably take priority. As I continue working on my thesis, which I'm very behind on, and look for a job, it looks like blogging will be less frequent for the next month or two. So don't expect as many updates as usual. Here's a (long but possibly quite dated) wrap in the meantime!

The Gospel Coalition
The Gospel Coalition is an initiative to unite around the gospel. That's an overly simplistic summary, since which of us do not want that? Their Confessional Statement and especially their Theological vision is well worth a read, and I am in deep agreement with them. Dashhouse has brief commentary on what this means. I understand that there are some who will look at this with suspicion, wondering if it is too parochial or insular or just a "power" exercise, and I plead with them to be charitable and interpret the motives of those involved in the best possible light. This, I think, is an attempt to be what John Stott calls "radically conservative", and to practise "double listening" - the Bible in one hand, the newspaper (i.e the surrounding culture) in the other. I haven't had the time to listen to any of the talks, but I hope to one day.

Time for some critical self-examination. John Richardson looks at the unhealthy state of English conservative evangelicalism. It'd probably only be interesting for those wanting to see how the British scene is doing, but I thought I'll link it anyway. There is a follow-up on the wisdom of knowing when to keep silence.

Are we creating a Reformed celebrity culture?, asks Timmy Brister. Yes, if we're too proud to think we're not subject to the same sinful tendencies to elevate men above God as everyone else.

There's also a very good post on the non-primacy of the imagination in much Christian thinking today. I'm lucky that I have had much contact with those who were influenced by the neo-Calvinists, such as Os Guinness and contributors to The Christian imagination, as well as having been exposed to redemptive-historical preaching. For those of you who are stirred by the claim in the article that worldview as a set of propositions is inadequate, then errr...expand your worldview by reading James Sire's Naming the Elephant! :-p

9 Marks is a ministry devoted to thinking through what it means to be church, and their July/August ejournal is really good. Click here if you want to read it in PDF. I thought Greg Gilbert on Brian McLaren was especially good.

Tim Chester has been blogging a few mini-series on marriage, singleness, sex and beauty. They're short and very good. I have now used the word "good" too many times.

Dan Kimball on whether some Christians want to be "hated". His main point is that while it is true that the message of the cross offends, sometimes it's really us who offend, and we confuse that with "standing for the truth".

Michael Pahl on a big question - what is the gospel?. Shamefully, I didn't do much more than scan this, need to go back and have a read.

2 features from Christianity Today: Desire happens and Holy to the Core.

Onto Malaysians and their thoughts. Insightful post on Sunday School and the Kingdom of God.

pearlie gates is a blog I've discovered and very much enjoy.

Great post on the grounding of Christianity in history. On his point on truth, I would frame it differently - I would say we worship a covenant God who acts in history, and based on his past acts and his perfect keeping of his promises, that provides a framework for truth to both trust in and live out.

The Al-Jazeera feature on apostasy in Malaysia. I saw this one late, but if you haven't seen it, worth a look.

Those of you in Malaysia would probably have read about Nathaniel Tan. I only began perusing his blog a month ago, and was late to hearing about his arrest. (Like I said, I can't keep up! :-> ) Again, he is likely to be an insightful blog on the public square of Malaysia. Here's the publicity info for the DAP forum on the matter.

Great profile of Tim Duncan, the non-superstar of superstars.

Where does Man Utd's last title win rank among their triumphs?

Ratatouille has been garnering lots of positive reviews, but it only comes out in the UK in October!

The tourist map of literature! I foresee using this a lot.

Oh, and an interview with Ngozi Adiche, winner of this year's Orange Prize. She helps us see a little of what it's like to be an African.

Enough for the week, at the very least!

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Emerging Adulthood

Stumbled across this interesting book, Emerging Adulthood online last week. Dr. Arnett investigates this period of our lives where we're no longer adolescents, but not quite adults yet. Admittedly this only demonstrates my narcissism since this is the stage of life where I'm at right now. I'm conscious that in many settings, what's being described here can only be seen as a privilege. It's written from a sociological perspective, I think, and while it's mainly applied to the American scene, I thought quite a lot of what I read would make sense to anyone living in an urban setting worldwide.

Here's a few choice quotes:

For today’s young people, the road to adulthood is a long one. They leave home at age 18 or 19, but most do not marry, become parents, and find a long-term job until at least their late twenties. From their late teens to their late twenties they explore the possibilities available to them in love and work, and move gradually toward making enduring choices. Such freedom to explore different options is exciting, and this period is a time of high hopes and big dreams. However, it is also a time of anxiety and uncertainty, because the lives of young people are so unsettled, and many of them have no idea where their explorations will lead. They struggle with uncertainty even as they revel in being freer than they ever were in childhood or ever will be once they take on the full weight of adult responsibilities.

...it may be that the most important reason of all for the rise in the typical ages of entering marriage and parenthood is less tangible than changes in sexual behavior or more years spent in college and graduate school. There has been a profound change in how young people view the meaning and value of becoming an adult and entering the adult roles of spouse and parent...

The young people of today, in contrast, see adulthood and its obligations in quite a different light. In their late teens and early twenties, marriage, home, and hildren are seen by most of them not as achievements to be pursued but as perils to be avoided. It is not that they do not want marriage, a home, and (one or two) children—eventually. Most of them do want to take on all of these adult obligations, and most of them will have done so by the time they reach age 30. It is just that, in their late teens and early twenties, they ponder these obligations and think, “Yes, but not yet.” Adulthood and its obligations offer security and stability, but they also represent a closing of doors—the end of independence, the end of spontaneity, the end of a sense of wide-open possibilities.
[I know a lot of my friends and I, subconsiously or not, think this way to varying degrees]

Although the rise of emerging adulthood is partly a consequence of the rising ages of marriage and parenthood, marriage ages were also relatively high early in the 20th century and throughout the 19th century. What is different now is that young people are freer than they were in the past to use the intervening years, between the end of secondary school and entry into marriage and parenthood, to explore a wide range of different possible future paths. Young people of the past were constricted in a variety of ways, from gender roles to economics, which prevented them from using their late teens and twenties for exploration. In contrast, today’s emerging adults have unprecedented freedom.
Not all of them have an equal portion of it, to be certain. Some live in conditions of deprivation that make any chance of exploring life options severely limited, at best. However, as a group, they have more freedom for exploration than young people in times past.

There are five main features [of emerging adulthood]:

1. It is the age of identity explorations, of trying out various possibilities, especially in love and work.
2. It is the age of instability.
3. It is the most self-focused age of life.
4. It is the age of feeling in-between, in transition, neither adolescent
nor adult.
5. It is the age of possibilities, when hopes flourish, when people
have an unparalleled opportunity to transform their lives.

You can read the whole of chapter 1 in its entirety. I guess some of these isn't really new. Certainly I can identify in general with what's being said here (although hopefully I'm fighting against the tendency to be self-centred!). But anyway, if you're at a similar stage in life, what are your thoughts?

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Wordsmiths: Upon Westminster Bridge

The sand has been trickling down the hourglass at breakneck speed. I've now actually been in London for a year! It's miles away the biggest city I've ever lived in, and there are plenty of times when I still feel like an overawed kampung (village) boy. It's a little bit of a love-hate relationship really - there are some days when it's nice to be in a place with a bit of a buzz, and I absolutely love crossing London Bridge and marvelling at Tower Bridge (the true belle of the bridges) on the way to church every Sunday. But there are plenty of times when it's really hard going, and it's easy to feel lonely in such an enormous place.

So today's poem pays tribute to 12 months in this global city. It's a well-known piece by a well-known poet, the gangsta rapper Wordsworth himself (ok, so Byron was the true rock star). Come to think of it, when I went to Oxford for my interview, I was asked to analyse this. Can't remember a single thing I said!

This poem describes London from the standpoint of a person passing through Westminster Bridge in early morning. But, this being a Romantic poem after all, it also tries to pinpoint a moment of revelation - an "Aha" moment when the persona sees London as it should be, free from pollution, subservient to Nature ("open unto the fields...smokeless air"), a throwback to more superior classical times ("ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie"). It is a living city - notice how just about everything gets personified. Ultimately, Wordsworth, as the Romantics commonly did, saw something transcendent about the scene. I wouldn't go that far. :>

EARTH has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

- William Wordsworth
Thank you, Lord, for seeing me through the past year, and help me to keep trusting in you even though I find it so hard.

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Saturday, July 07, 2007

Congratulations Wynn and Jos!

kissing in church ok?
The Godfather and Godmother are finally married!

Wynn was my Bible study leader from a couple of years ago and I've known both of them since arriving in England 4 1/2 years ago now. He also knows a lot about rational spectral analysis. Jos has read way more Victorian lit than me despite being a lawyer. And they've been good friends, as evidenced by the fact that they've put up with me!


Thursday, July 05, 2007

Some thoughts on being heirs and New Creation people

nepotism is not a dirty wordOne of the things I’m interested in, and which makes sense to me both existentially and intellectually, is the already/not yet tension that we as Christians often experience. This is obviously reflected in the title of my blog! For those of you who aren’t quite sure what I mean, one good example is found in Jesus’ expression of the “kingdom of God”. Sometimes he says that it’s already here. Other times, he says that it’s coming. This has and is hotly debated in academic circles, but most New Testament scholars are now fairly settled, following the work of George Eldon Ladd, that in some sense Jesus’ coming to Earth meant that he established the kingdom, or rule of God, but that it will not be completed (consummated is the word people like to use) until Jesus comes again. On our day-to-day level, this is most clearly seen by the fact that there is still sickness and war in this world even if there is good being done and that many turn to worship the true God every day, as my friend did this week!

And I think this is really important on a practical level too, because how we view and negotiate this tension affects how we see the world, and subsequently how we live. You’ve probably seen me occasionally use the rather technical term “overrealised eschatology” (and less frequently, “underrealised eschatology”) on this blog. If we tend to the former, it’s possible that we get so consumed with the things of the here and now and we have unrealistic expectations of what the Christian life should be like, minimising suffering and forgetting that it will truly be a glorious future we’re waiting for. On the other hand, the less mentioned but equally damaging notion of an “underrealised eschatology” might mean that we isolate ourselves from the world now, and that our Christianity takes a "grit and bear it" mentality. I know I get this wrong often. In my younger days I tended to the former (one of the first Christian books I ever bought was called The Victorious Christian Life!) and nowadays I fall prey to the latter more regularly.

So I’m often interested in how we can try to express this already/not yet tension in a way that is helpful and biblical. I’m currently dipping in and out of a book, I will be your God, which is a book on the convenant, and last night I read this paragraph (in the context of speaking about covenant people and 1 Peter in particular):

We are a chosen people and a royal priesthood. We are the offspring of royalty. Our Father is the head of the dynasty that rules over all creation (Rev. 4:5-11). His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, has been made King of kings and Lord of Lords (Ps. 2; Acts 2:36). We are his offspring, We are destined to share in his rule.

Now this sparked a tangent and I put the book down, and began thinking of what it means to be an heir (Romans 8:17, Galatians 4:6-7). To be an heir means that we’re going to inherit something. It’s something that is future, something that we look forward to. At the same time, if we are heirs, especially co-heirs with Christ, then our conduct should be one that is becoming of an heir, Paris Hilton notwithstanding.

But firstly, how do we become an heir? It is only when we become a child of God, by the work of the Spirit, because of the work of the Son. One way this is described in the New Testament is that we individually become a new creation. At the same time, the Bible also describes that one day, there will be a time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, a New Creation where there will be no tears or sorrow, and where God himself will come to be with his people. Yet obviously this is not what it’s like now. Therefore, to be heirs is to be New Creation people in Old/Fallen Creation. To use an analogy, Paris has the Hilton surname, thus signifying her claim to her inheritance, but she hasn’t actually got it yet!

Now, what is expected of an heir? Back in Genesis 1-2, we see God instituting humankind as one who rules over creation. We are like a regent, a crown prince, under the True King, God himself. And so we go about engaging in the roles we originally were created for. This will affect our everyday work and day-to-day living, whether we are students or in the workplace or even homemakers. This will have an effect more widely, as in our relationships we seek to relate to each other. This inheritance is designed to be shared, as we invite others to join into the family. This will affect our affairs corporately, because we want to prepare the world, be it from a cultural or from a justice standpoint for the coming New Creation.

At the same time, the very word “heir” protects us from thinking that we can build a utopia now. It is a safeguard against falling into the trap of being too caught up with present-day uncertainties. It tells us that ultimately, we can’t change the world, or even ourselves on our own. “Heir” also suggests that we didn’t do anything to earn our way into this inheritance, but that it was given to us. And it reminds us that we are called to be spiritual philanthropists: asking and depending on the Spirit’s help to save us, and others we come into contact with. For what good is it preparing the New Creation from merely a cultural or justice perspective if people themselves are not re-created, by the death of Jesus in our place, to share in the New Creation? Genesis 3 needs to be put to rights.

These are not conclusive thoughts, but it seems to me that thinking about ourselves as heirs is a helpful way of thinking and living our way through this already/not yet tension. (To be fair, this turned out to have more of an emphasis on creation/recreation/New Creation than I thought when I first began typing!). If you have any further thoughts, do let me know. And remember, tension is a passing note to a beautiful chord!

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Monday, July 02, 2007

And the angels dance!

I have just received the best news in the world!

L is from China and a friend of mine at university. He only arrived in England last October and struggled initially with the language and Western culture in general. He didn't look like the sort of person I'll initially click with: a chain smoker, a tai-ko look etc. But I also knew well that appearances deceive, and how difficult it is to be a stranger in an alien environment.

God has given me a knack for being able to understand people even when they don't articulate themselves well, and of course, coupled with the fact that I am Chinese after all, even if my Mandarin is rubbish, I was able to better understand him, help him with his English and negotiate the everyday foibles of life - purchasing cheaper train tickets, using the library etc. And he taught me a lot as well: he has much experience in life, and his generous spirit and his bravery at studying in a foreign tongue never fails to amaze me.

At some point, it came out that I was a Christian, and he confided in me that he had been shown kindness in New Zealand by Christians as well, where he had initially studied English. And he was eager to know more. I broached the topic of my faith in several conversations, and introduced him to Christian friends whom he could better converse with in Mandarin.

And one day, I took a chance. I asked him if he wanted to read the Bible with me. To my big surprise he said yes! And so we began looking at Mark's gospel together over a couple of months. It's a great experience to read the Bible with a non-Christian, especially one who has zero Bible knowledge, and I had to make sure that I explained Bible terminology such as "sin", "repent", "believe", "prophets", "Pharisees" as simply as I could without completely draining them of meaning!

Nevertheless, I took him to the Gospels simply because I wanted us together to see Jesus. Together we saw Jesus coming onto the scene, declaring himself to be the King who had been promised ("The time is fulfilled! The kingdom of God is at hand!"). We saw Jesus' compassion on the paralytic and his amazing twin claims to being the King ("Which is easier to say, your sins are forgiven, or go, take up your mat and walk?") and Rescuer ("I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners"). We saw Jesus exercising his Kingly power over creation ("Even the wind and waves obey him!"), evil spirits ("What do you want with me Jesus, Son of the Most High God?"), illness (the woman with infirmity) and even death (Jairus' daughter). And we see Jesus telling us why we are in need of a Savior ("What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean'"). We saw Jesus ready to help a man with even his unbelief ("I believe, help my unbelief"), for only Jesus can cure us of our spiritual blindness (Peter's confession of Christ comes after Jesus performs a rather unusual healing of a blind man, and it is clear that Mark deliberately sets the narrative that way).

It was a good experience, but it was not without its frustrations. Many times, I wondered if I was really communicating a gospel of grace or if I was subtly communicating a works-righteousness gospel. There were times when L seemed on the verge of becoming a Christian, only for him to shrink back. Many times I despaired at my own prayerlessness and my own failure to model a Christ-centered life. I worried if I was getting too pushy, or not challenging him hard enough. But through it all, I also knew that God was really the One who was overseeing things, and I was not the one who was ordering the future.

We haven't reached the momentous events of Mark 15 yet (although he does know how Mark's story ends). In fact, I had been neglecting meeting with him to read the Bible together recently, partly out of busyness but also partly out of discouragement. But tonight L gave me a call. He told me that he had read a book of testimonies that I had given to him. And that finally, he had decided, at 2am, just like one or two in that book, to get on his knees and talk to the Creator of the Universe, who also happened to give his only Son out of love for us.

And that, he thinks, he's finally become a follower of Jesus!

It's not an easy decision. I know in many ways, his understanding of following Jesus (as is mine) is still limited. But he knows it will cost - together we read Jesus' warning that following him means taking the way of the cross. When we next meet, I'll be reading the story of the rich young man with him. Only with God is all things possible.

And I know that really, L becoming a Christian was only possible because of God. It didn't have that much to do with me, I was just in the right place at the right time. But I rejoice anyway, knowing that my God is both a sovereign God and a loving God.

Update: See my follow-up post May the angels truly dance.

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