Friday, January 30, 2009

The week: looking back, looking fwd

Uni Mission week is coming up. Some of my friends in Malaysia look quizically at me when I mention this - and I don't blame them, it's quite a British Christian jargony word! Basically, while providing a witness to the Lord Jesus, verbally and holistically, should be part and parcel of the everyday life of a Christian, mission week provides an especially good opportunity to step evangelism up a gear, with plenty of formal events, be it apologetics or gospel preaching, to providing safe places for informal conversations. But far better to just see what it's like! Krish Kandiah, who works for the Evangelical Alliance UK, has just blogged through the mission week at Warwick University:

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 3 continued
Day 4
Day 5

All universities are different of course, but it does capture the flavour well! I still remember my last mission week; I was terrified at knocking door-to-door and offering gospels (as in Mark Luke etc.), but that turned out to be a great learning experience. And of course, I got to see one person give her life to Jesus.

I'm not as directly involved, seeing as I'm no longer a university student, but will definitely be on hand to support some of the stuff being done. Am especially pleased to see them attempt some stuff specifically directed at international students for the first time, as they're the ones who tend to fall through the cracks at weeks like these, at least here.

It's been a big week, and I'm pretty tired, exhausted-tired rather than lack-of-sleep tired (although that has to be a contributing factor). I listened to John Lennox for the 4th time on Tuesday, and then we had a big church prayer meeting for our mission partners on Wednesday. That was good, was encouraged by just the huge number of mission partners we sent out and challenged when I realise what our mission partners have chosen to sacrifice. Then it was a leaving party for one of the Japanese in my group last night - the sushi was excellent! I'm also trying to finish off prepping for Sunday School, always more work than you think! I am a little grumpy that my off-day tomorrow isn't quite an off day therefore, as along with Sunday School there's training in the morning, but hopefully I'll find something completely relaxing to do in the afternoon! I've got to think through some decisions as well, but it's best if at least for one day tomorrow, I leave them to the side.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

How to do Bible bashing without Bible bashing

Conversation in the kitchen while my flatmate does some dish-washing...

Me: (lamenting) I think I've got the basic point of the passage, but I just don't have any inspiration on how to write this talk.

Flatmate: Yeah. The thing is to see where it applies in your life, where it grips you, and it suddenly becomes easier to see what direction to take your talk.

Me: (lightbulb beginning to glow brightly above head)'re so right! Thanks, that's good advice!

Flatmate: (grin) That's the hard thing about being Bible-teachers. You forget you're supposed to be Bible-doers as well.

There's even a meta-application going on here: he was obeying James 1:22 at the same time he was pointing me to it. Or put another way, he was being a Bible-doer precisely at the moment he was being a Bible-teacher to me.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

What kind of preacher are you?

HT: Jared Wilson

"The Contemporary"
Sermon prep includes perusing movie clips because, well, there's so much spiritual truth to be found in there.

"The Spirit-Led"
Prepares only one quarter of the message because the rest is sure to come on Sunday.

"The Artist"
Brainstorms what kind of objects can be handed out at the entrance to confuse the attenders until the sermon reveals their purpose.

"The Exegeter"
Uses a dictionary to prepare for sermons because the audience surely wants to know the correct definition of a word before it is expounded upon.

"The Verse by Verse"
It's Easter, but gosh darn it, you're in Habakkuk by God's sovereignty, so Habakkuk it is.

"The Ranter"
Can somehow insult the congregation week after week, but they like it and come back for more, because of an off-the-charts likability factor.

"The Nooma"
Frequently supplements sermons with melancholy video segments that feature themselves musing on subjects in interesting locations.

"The Visionary"
Somehow every sermon ends with the same application - the church's short-coming to reach the entire city for Christ - regardless of how the message starts out - stewardship, marriage, worry, doesn't matter.


Got another 10 minute talk to prepare for next week; again, for preaching workshop. Except this time, it's on Numbers 17 or 18! Help!!!

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Friday, January 16, 2009

The world of the Dark Knight

...Spoiler alert...

One of the bonuses of going home last month was getting to see The Dark Knight for free on the plane, having been one of the few who missed it during the summer. It's an excellent film, although it certainly does live up to its dark moniker. I'm not going to be showing it to my hypothetical kids anytime soon, and I see why giving it a mere 12A rating stirred the pot a little here in the UK.

I really wished I had written down some of my thoughts while they were still fresh, so I'm afraid I'm only serving up the leftovers.

A good question to ask of any cultural/artistic piece is what it assumes about the way the world is, or to put it another way: what is not possible in this imagined world? Fantasy novels and films foreground this question since we usually know upfront we're entering a different universe, but any piece of work makes decisions about the shape of reality. Mills&Boons novels, for eg., make plain that their worlds must end in a neat, happy ending.

As such, I was intrigued (and actually, a little disturbed) by Gotham, and specifically, what sort of world it was: a world in which there is no Universal Authority, no Supreme Being. Let me unpack that a little. This isn't to say the movie is explicitly spouting some atheistic pseudophilosophy, but simply because of the way it's set up, with the Joker the centre of gravity in this film. One of the reasons the Joker is such a frightening figure is because he delights in anarchy, or as Alfred puts it: he "...doesn't play by the rules. Some people just want to see the world burn." In some ways, he reminds me of what Samuel Coleridge said of Iago in Shakespeare's Othello, that he was a "motiveless malignity". The Joker doesn't play by any principles (except maybe nihilistic ones), and so fears no consequences. There's no boundary he isn't willing to cross. And how do you stop someone like that? The Joker knows it, and he constantly dares Batman to stoop to his level. Where do you draw the line, Batman? Be a mask-wearing vigilante and risk the lives of foolish copycats? Break international law on wire-tapping, but not kill the Joker? Who are you going to save, Batman? Harvey Dent or Rachel Dawes? The Joker, with his tactics, poses the question of just how different Batman is from him, just with more (unnecessary?) restraint.

And part of the reason the Joker can do so is because well, Batman isn't God. He's not omnipresent or omniscient. Sure, he's Gotham's superhero, but he doesn't possess supreme insight in knowing what's the right path to take. He isn't able to enforce justice all the time or rescue every individual. It's a responsibility too big even for him to bear. Batman depends on society retaining some cohesion - that people will generally trust each other, be good citizens, etc. while he cleans up around the edges. What happens, though when such social cohesion begins to unravel? The Joker, with his pessimistic views on human nature, is seeking precisely to do just that. He appeals to humanity's self-interestedness. So, he announces the mayor (was it the mayor? I don't quite remember) has to die, or he blows up the hospital. Cue the mob.

Time and time again, the Joker forces the good guys into impossible moral decisions, and for me, exposed the hollowness of a morality independent of God. Why should Batman play by the rules? Why shouldn't the people on one ferry blow up the other? Why shouldn't we applaud the Joker when he kills other mobsters? And why shouldn't Batman be right in the end when he decides that "truth isn't good enough?" If the world in which Batman and Joker and Harvey Dent populate is ruled only by chance, then there's no reason to look out for others beyond pious platitudes about goodness. The Joker says, "you know the thing about chaos? It's fair." That's a truly frightening world.

But if God does exist, then the world isn't so bleak any longer. The prospect of final justice in the hands of a all-powerful, all-knowing, all-just God allows us to turn the other cheek and not take the path of a vengeance-fueled Harvey Dent. The Christian story in particular means that we can be relieved of trying to play Saviour, a burden none of us, even Batman, can bear. It also means that even in a world where seeming randomity still strikes, and the likes of the Joker roam about, we can actually have a deep-seated security that transcends surface appearances. And the Dark Knight, bleak as it is, isn't willing to depict a completely amoral world. The resolution of the ferry scene is one much needed gulp of air for the audience, as is Commissioner Gordon, and to a lesser extent Lucius Fox, whom the movie relies on as one/two fixed moral point(s) amidst constantly shifting ground.

Thank God we don't live in the world of the Dark Knight.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Salt of the earth, light of the world

This is actually quite old news (just after Christmas), but I realised that some of my readers might not have across it, so thought I'll just flag it up. It's an amazingly honest, remarkable column by Times columnist, Matthew Parris:

As an atheist, I truly believe that Africa needs God.

The title says it all, and it should be an encouragement to us Christians that the slow, unseen work is worth it because they do act as a signpost to God!

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Friday, January 09, 2009

Random reflections after a conference

Well, it's been ages since I went to a conference as consistently thought-provoking and bang on the buck as the one I've just been on. The expositions from Titus helped me refocus on a pretty unsexy subject: godliness, and how much it actually needs to be front and centre of my thinking. It's certainly a, if not the, purpose God saved us for, and just as importantly, it's how we do mission - the world is watching, and how we live is so key if we are to make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive. The more practical talks all addressed relevant issues in ministry as well, be it the need to nurture a grace-based spirituality, or wrestling with sexual temptation, or thinking through work-life balance (or better, "sustainable sacrifice").

But most scarily, actually, it was the fact that someone I have loads of respect for, having heard me give my practice sermon, later took me aside and affirmed that I definitely have embryonic gifts in that area. But that with those gifts come big responsibilities, by far the biggest one being that I had better make sure I know how to read and interpret the Bible for myself correctly because I could potentially lead people astray. And I think for me, that moment was when for the first time, I really felt the weight of this whole "full-time ministry" malarky. Right now, I'm in the exploration stage, and in one sense, it's still fun and games. But I guess, in the past week, both in some of the chats I had with a few people in Kuala Lumpur (where I was last weekend) and in hearing some of the things the last several days, I've just been feeling quite overwhelmed as I begin to think what it would really mean should I go further down this avenue. There's still so much I need to learn; in fact I'm still so far back that I need to learn what is it I need to learn. And we ain't just talking head knowledge here either.

But it certainly looks like 2009 is going to be a year where I need to put in the hard work of praying and working things out all while being dependent on God...

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