Sunday, April 26, 2009

Gavin Peacock's new career

People might enjoy this piece on Gavin Peacock, former Premiership footballer - I remember him from his time at Chelsea (when they still had players like Paul Furlong and Frank Sinclair! How Chelsea have changed from the mid-90s), now studying to be a pastor.

(HT: Stephen Murray)

Labels: ,

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Keller on substitutionary love at the LMC

I was at the London Men's Convention yesterday, my second time, but first as a mere conference-goer. I really enjoyed my first time two years ago, where I served as a steward at the Royal Albert Hall. So upon seeing the theme this year was basically "Jesus" (what can be more crucial than that?), and that the main speakers included Tim Keller and Mike Cain (author of this winsome book), I was ready to make another trip! And of course, getting to use it to spend a day with the brother is great too. :)

Thank God for Tim Keller and the gifts he's given him. The danger for many evangelicals, of course, is that we have our own celebrity culture, where we put too many individuals on a pedestal. So, deep breath, remind myself: Tim Keller is a sinner saved by the grace of God. Tim Keller needs a Saviour, and he is dependent on the Holy Spirit. With that in mind...anyone who has followed this blog long enough will know that I'm a bit of a fan, and his talks yesterday, on the cross and resurrection respectively, were just superb. He's a no-frills preacher, laidback, no gimmicks, faithful. But he is so insightful, both in his reading of the biblical text, and of the world we live in. When he preaches, he makes truth fresh, obvious, and it gets at your heart.

I was going to blog my notes from the first talk here, but sadly, I left my notes at a friend's place, so I don't have them at hand. But hurray, a quick search turned up someone else's (well-written) blogged notes! Like me, and I suspect, just about everyone in the hall, it was Keller's point on love as substitution which he found most arresting. So I'm just going to point you to his notes.

A preview:
Keller identifies three substitutionary motifs in John’s account of the death of Jesus:
  • Jesus as the Passover Lamb: shown by the specific reference to "hyssop" in v.29 (see Exodus 12:22) and the fact that Jesus’ bones remain unbroken.
  • Jesus as the Rock: Dr Keller linked John’s description of "blood and water" pouring from Jesus’ pierced side to Paul’s puzzling statement in 1 Corinthians 10:4: "the rock was Christ". Paul is referring to the incident in Exodus 17, where the Israelites "quarrelled and tested the Lord" in the desert. Instead of Moses’ rod (a symbol of judgment and authority) striking the Israelites for their disobedience, it came down on the rock, which thus produced the water the people needed. In the same way, God’s judgment against sin struck Jesus rather than us.
  • Jesus as the Ransom: his cry of "It is finished!" has connotations of "The debt is paid!"
Read the rest here and here.

In response, what can we say but thank you so much, Lord Jesus, please help me to live for you in light of what you've done?

Labels: , , ,

Friday, April 10, 2009

Takeaways from the getaway: On Jesus Christ!

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. - 1 John 4:10

We didn't have a theme song on our retreat, but as the week went on, it became clear that this was the song that fit best with the messages we were hearing from 1 John. It was certainly the song that I personally found most arresting that week! And it's an appropriate response, I think, this Good Friday.

Consider Christ
Consider Christ, the source of our salvation
That he should take the penalty for me
Though he was pure, a lamb without a blemish;
He took my sins and nailed them to the tree

My Lord and God
You are so rich in mercy
Mere words alone are not sufficient thanks.
So take my life, transform, renew and change me
That I might be a living sacrifice

Consider Christ, that he could trust his Father
In the garden of Gethsemane
Though full of dread and fearful of the anguish;
He drank the cup that was reserved for me.

Consider Christ, for death he has defeated.
And he arose, appeared for all to see.
And now he sits at God’s right hand in heaven
Where he prepares a resting place for me.

©1996 Bryson Smith & Philip Percival

Listen here.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, April 09, 2009

New Cabinet

The Malaysian Insider has a breakdown of Prime Minister Najib's new cabinet.

Political analyst Khoo Kay Peng says elsewhere that it lacks the wow factor, but truth be told, it was hard to see how Najib could ever find that elusive magic wand. Unless he installed lots of unknowns, but he would probably have ended up with a "what?!" factor instead. Or invited PAS to form some sort of unity government (joke!!!). I wonder if there's a bit of a talent gap in the next generation of politicians? The Cabinet could definitely be trimmed some more - I've always been baffled by the existence of the Federal Territories Ministry.

All in all, nothing all that surprising. We haven't seen the end of the aftershocks from the political tsunami of March 8 just yet.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Takeaways from the getaway: on thinking about other religions

There were various seminars on offer at the student getaway, and I was asked to co-lead one on other religions. Now I’m patently not an expert on world religions, and when you factor in that people can spend 3 years in university doing religious studies, and I had 75 minutes...the task seemed gargantuan! So when I sat down to think how I would do this seminar, I had to think about what I wanted to achieve with it. And one of the big things I came up with was to try to model (very much imperfectly) how to think about the topic of other religions from an explicitly Christian perspective. I thought I’ll offer here some bits and parts from that seminar and how I attempted to run it.

I ran the seminar 3 times over the week, and each time I started by asking why people were in my seminar. They fell primarily into 2 camps: one camp felt as if they had absolutely no knowledge on the subject, and so wanted more information. One or two of them were perhaps motivated by the increasingly multi-cultural nature of British society. The other camp were those who would inevitably say, "I have a friend who is..." and so they wanted to, essentially, know how to be a good Christian and friend.

I then tried to show that while we had all sorts of good questions and agendas in coming to the seminar, and indeed, to the Bible, it would be helpful to begin from another starting point. In essence, before asking our questions, I wanted us to take a step back and proceed to ask, what is the biblical story? After all, if we call ourselves Christians, we would inevitably want to take the Bible as our authority, our foundational story. But just as importantly, I wanted people to see that the Bible wasn’t just a 'Christian' book, but made even grander claims than that. It claims for itself that it is the narrative of everything, from the beginning to the end of history. It focuses in on particular individuals, families and nations, but it is actually telling the story of humanity. And so the Bible is for all peoples, of every religious background, of every age. To ram home the point, I included this great quote from a Hindu scholar to Leslie Newbigin, a missionary in India for many years and who’s written extensively on the topic of mission – some of my readers might be familiar with him. This Hindu scholar said:

"I can’t understand why you missionaries present the Bible to us in India as a book of religion. It is not a book of religion – and anyway we have plenty of books of religion in India. We don’t need any more! I find in your Bible a unique interpretation of universal history, the history of the whole creation and the history of the whole human race. And therefore a unique interpretation of the human person as a responsible actor in history. That is unique. There is nothing else in the whole religious literature of the world to put alongside it."
And so the Bible, while not necessarily answering every single specific question we have, nonetheless gives us fixed points in our reflections on this question. It gives us the shape of the story we’re in.

I then went through 4 questions:
1. Who is God?
2. Who are we?
3. What’s gone wrong?
4. What’s God plan for the world?

And tried to go through these questions in light of the issue of other religions. Let me highlight how I tried to do this with the first question. Firstly, I went to Psalm 97, and asked what we learnt about God from it. From Psalm 97, and from quite a few of the other psalms, especially those that stress God’s kingship, we can learn quite a bit! I then asked how what we learn about God here impacts how we think about other religions. What does the truth, for example, of God as God of all nations shape our thinking? Or the fact that there is only one God? I argued that (although I have to confess I’m not completely sure if this is that explicit in Psalm 97!) that we find both a challenge and an invitation to adherents of other religions. Another way of putting it, which I learnt from my seminar co-leader, is "subversive fulfilment" (which might also be borrowed from Newbigin!). The gospel comes as fulfillment of the religious longing in the heart of humankind. Yet the gospel also stands in contradiction to human wisdom twisted by sin.

I then went to Acts, and one example of how Paul allowed this fixed point to shape his engagement with people of other religions. In Acts 14:8-18, we find the story of Paul and Barnabas in Lystra, where they perform a healing. Immediately news spread and they are feted as gods. And so Paul uses this as a preaching opportunity. But he does so aware of his audience, who would have been pagans who followed traditional Greek popular religion. Earlier on in Acts 13, he had preached to a Jewish audience, but he can’t employ the same rhetorical methods here.

So he begins with common ground, with their shared humanity (v.15), correcting their mistaken notions in the process. He then proclaims the truth that there is one Creator God (v.15b), and indeed He is a God who is sovereign over all the nations (v.16). He then moves on to the truth that God has revealed himself (v.17), that He is the provider and sustainer of life. That would particularly resonate with his hearers, from an agrarian culture, but implicitly it posed a challenge too, since that meant Zeus, the god of vegetation and weather, whom they worshipped, wasn’t in control! Paul had mixed results (v.18-19).

And so I did the same with the rest of the questions (although I think my one on sin was quite superficial!). If we’re all made in the image of God, then surely we need to think of all human beings in that sense first before we think of them as Hindu/Muslim etc. If God left us with a cultural mandate in Genesis 1:26-28, then surely it is right to celebrate aspects of culture which are not blasphemous, although the question of how to disentangle culture from religion is a much more complex one which I steered away from! And so on.

I suppose one thing I realised and would have liked to rectify in my seminar was that Jesus did get sidelined a little. One of the interesting things in Paul’s sermon in Acts 14 is that he doesn’t mention Jesus at all, but I’m pretty sure he would have eventually got there if he had time and opportunity. But he needed to lay the ground first with people whose worldviews must have been radically different from his.

Jesus is mentioned, of course, in question 4, but otherwise I didn’t really think through how he would have fitted in. In John Dickson’s book, A Spectator’s Guide to Other Religions, he has an interesting chapter near the end called “What’s Wrong with Jesus?” in which he shows how Jesus just doesn’t fit into any of the other religions various doctrines or ethics or philosophies, and that’s one way to do it. I recommended John’s book in the seminar, btw, and I was interested to notice that it sold out at the bookstore by the end of the week! I should be in marketing...

One other thing I’ve learnt, 75 minutes is pittance. Not once in the three times I ran my seminar did we get through all our material. Admittedly I was pretty interactive and so allowed people to come back at me rather than rigidly stick to what was in my outline. But still, it’s amazing how quickly time flies! The second time I ran it was probably the smoothest, probably because people seemed to have their expectations adjusted accordingly.

Well, it’s the first time I’ve done anything like this, and so it was a good learning experience. I’m not sure how much I helped students - I certainly hope so!

† Expand post

Labels: , , ,

Monday, April 06, 2009

Takeaways from the getaway: on Sehnsucht

This time it was the mattress in the corner of the room.

It had been a great Tuesday at the student getaway. Good conversations, and a sense that people had been helped by the seminar I was presenting. Even better was the 10 minutes when I walked into the kitchen to calm my nerves just before the start of the main evening session, which I was due to lead for the first time. There I found a friend, feeling a little downhearted that the day hadn’t quite gone the way he hoped. A few words of encouragement, then heads bowed low and hands clasped. More words – petitions delivered upward this time. Nice warm fuzzy feelings. Then off I went to lead the session and enjoyed it very much. Even shockingly managed to deliver a half-intended gag with perfect comic timing. And bags of fun after Bible time.

Before you know it, it was time to call it a night. I meandered into my room, looked at my mattress, and then all of a sudden, I felt inexplicably...sad.

But why? The day had turned out better than I expected. And perhaps sadness is not quite the best word for it. Because it wasn’t as if all those mountain peaks of jubilation, those feelings of bliss, had altogether evaporated. Perhaps, bittersweetness is the better term. A little like a cocktail of spirits and bitters. Great day, sure but midnight beckons. Another day. It was fun while it lasted. All good things must come to an end. Etcetera.

And I knew what it was. That nagging feeling that we’re not quite there yet, that yearning for “more”, whatever that was. Sehnsucht. Christian scholar David Naugle, in Reordered Love, Reordered Lives, has the lowdown:

The German term Sehnsucht describes this obstinate aspiration for something that satisfies even though we seem perpetually estranged from it. Amidst the storms and stresses of daily life, this "inconsolable longing" gets triggered unexpectedly and stabs us in mind and heart with a “pang” in most unexpected ways and times. Whether it’s elicited by a blue sky, a beautiful face, the melancholy of a requiem, the lure of romance, the crashing waves of the sea, the scintillations of sex, the profundity of a film, an illuminating line of poetry, a beautiful song, or an unobstructed view of the Milky Way, we occasionally experience a mysterious and tremendous feeling that attracts and baffles us simultaneously. We need “it” and want “it”, whatever “it” is. We are convinced it is what we have been searching for all our lives. (p.28)
But was it such a bad thing? Well, surely yes? Why would I want my feelings of joy to be contaminated by all these unwanted dregs of melancholy? Unless I’m a masochist. Or is this how it’s going to be all the time? Never 100% happy. Suddenly that Buddhist doctrine of getting rid of all desire doesn’t sound so strange after all.

But when I think about it, I begin to see, that far from a curse, Sehnsucht can be a gift from God. What if I never experience it? I'm saying I’m happy with current lot, with the world as it is. It’s the shrug of resignation. But I’m not happy with the world as it is. I shouldn’t be. Life, relationships, work went well that day. But not always. It certainly didn’t go as well later on in the week. I’m not in Eden anymore. Things go awry. I go awry.

Sehnsucht is that sudden jolt that I’m in a foreign land. I bear traces of Eden, and the world bears traces of Eden. But the garden doesn’t exist anymore. I’m homeless. I hear the echo of a tune I’ve never heard, news from a country I’ve never visited, as C.S Lewis memorably puts it, in Sehnsucht. For, as Lewis also suggested, the Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are far too easily pleased. God is looking to whet our appetite, ring the alarm to prevent complacency. And it reminds me too, that the loveliness of what I'm seeing is but a window into what it will be like, all the time, when God comes to take his children home.

Bittersweetness. But I shouldn’t just look at the first two syllables, but the last 2 as well. Sadness and longing, but satisfaction and contentment as well. The cross and the subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit makes that possible. I don’t just gain a new status, but a new life when God made me, us, his disciples. No longer a wanderer, but a pilgrim. And so a new mission. Surely that dispels any talk of being too heavenly minded to be of no earthly good. On the contrary.

That wasn’t the first time I experienced Sehnsucht, and it won’t be my last. When I looked at the mattress that night, it symbolised the end of one day which happened to be good, with no guarantee that the next would be similar. Jesus’ words take on a new poignancy then: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." Rest now? Maybe, maybe not. But a Sabbath-rest spent in the presence of God in the new creation; definitely.

† Expand post

Labels: , ,

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Takeaways from the getaway: On Doubt

If only to try to provide grist for this blog, I've decided on this cheesily titled series 'Takeaways from the getaway' (cue groans), where some of my reflections et al. on the recent student getaway I was on will be used as jumping off points for some of my posts.

When in doubt, tell the truth
– Mark Twain
I’ve gotten to know someone who is doing postdoctoral work here in biochemistry a little. He is not a believer, although he occasionally comes to church, and we tend to have a chat after the evening service when I see him. Often, he asks me what I’ve been up to during the week gone by. And to my shame, sometimes my stomach tightens up and goes all squishy at the same time. I mumble something about some of the practical work I get up to, maybe mention the Bible study prep that took up Monday night. And I become intensely aware that I’ve received the unwanted blessing of X-ray vision and see his internal eyebrow rising a little too high.

And I imagine him being similarly endowed with supernatural vision and catching a glimpse of several moments in my week. He might scratch his head as he watches me and a few others with our eyes closed and talking to the ceiling. He might scrunch up his face as he sees me cutting some pictures and gluing together lolly sticks for toddlers. He might wonder why on earth I’m at my table looking intently at a paragraph in an ancient book for an hour. And he might concur with noted atheist writer Sam Harris. While religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs are. And from time to time, that makes me pause. The weeds of doubt begin to sprout. I have a BA from an educational institution of some standing, an MA with first-class honours (that should be proof enough there is a merciful God!), and this is what I do? Is it worth it? Is it even sane?

I doubt(!), though, I struggle with doubt as others have. Or maybe that’s because I haven’t come to terms with my particular doubts yet. For most of the time, I have strong confidence in the existence of God. To be honest, I don’t think I could ever be an atheist. To me, it seems too clear that its end point is despair. Does that make me someone who leans on faith as a psychological crutch, then, rather than someone prepared to go where the evidence leads? I don’t think so. I have prior faith commitments, to be sure, but when I consider the best arguments for theism, I find them compelling.

But when I reflect upon it, my doubts are of a different nature. I can easily believe that God exists. Indeed, even that God is in control. But when it comes to the business of life, that’s when I see where my struggle lies. I don’t necessarily ask it, but it’s there in the back of my mind. Is God good? Does he actually care for me? The struggle, for me, lies not between theism and atheism, but theism and deism. That is, God is out there, sure, but is God near? Is he for me?

And when those doubts gain the upper hand, it doesn’t necessarily lead to me renouncing my Christian faith. Instead, I beat a hasty retreat to living in the here and now with perfunctory references to God. That’s easy. Or easier. Easier than grappling with the prospect of hope. Opening myself to the possibility that I might discover more of a God who loves me more than I could imagine, who wants to make me more in line with what he’s created me to be, that’s mind-blowing. But I can’t cope with the prospect of disappointment either, that God simply doesn’t show up. Or worse, won’t show up. That’s where doubt focuses you and me. Vaughan Roberts describes it well: doubt is an attention-seeking child.

We all doubt, to varying degrees – the Catholic writer Michael Novak calls doubt a razor’s edge that runs through every soul. The messiness of life virtually ensures its existence. And if all the culture-watchers are right and we live in post-modern times, characterised by incredulity towards metanarratives, then the conditions are even more ripe for doubt.

Assurance was the theme of our recent student getaway, with talks from 1 John. And students did show up with questions. There were intellectual kinds of doubts. Doubts that crop up because we’re talking about things that need work to get our heads round. Predestination. And Scripture. Big questions. The latter, especially, seems to me to be the urgent question of our times, and yet one which I believe we can develop robust answers to. And doubts that weren’t strictly due to the lack of evidence, but due to us deeming it insufficient. I wonder if there’s something to the criticism of conservatives/Reformed types that we sometimes foster a culture which demands that we have everything neatly tied up, although I think in my context, this is more due to university rather than church culture.

There were other kinds of doubts. Friends who we thought were going strong as Christians, but have dropped out. That can shake you – will it happen to me too? Especially when I know I’m a pretty rubbish Christian? I’m not where I ought to be.

The answer, as it always is, is Jesus. Not in a superficial way. Not that, as my student pastor says, we bury our doubts. We name them, and we examine them. But we also consider Jesus. Jesus, who really did become human. Jesus, who really can and does sympathise with us. Jesus who is good and trustworthy, and who gave up his life for us on the cross. The cross tells us of the seriousness of our sin, and the certainty of forgiveness and restoration. And as we struggle to follow him, in spite of our doubts, we know that we follow him – that’s a big theme in 1 John.

Doubt calls attention to the dissonance we feel in our lives, the disordered hearts that we have. Doubt reminds us of our finitude as human beings. But God can use doubt too, to point us back to faith. Faith that rests on historical evidence, and faith that acknowledges God has broken into our world. God has shown up!

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
- 1 John 1:1-3

† Expand post

Labels: ,

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Servant of God, or, what one evangelical looks like to the world

I'm always fascinated by how the media portrays evangelicals/evangelicalism*. I think part of it is because I'm interested in the medium itself, and as an evangelical, I am also naturally curious about how I'm perceived by the world at large. Of course, at the same time, it can be a bit of a risky exercise, since it can leave you feeling incandescent with rage or self-pity when you feel (inevitably?) misrepresented! Hey, we evangelicals have a strong doctrine of sin after all! :-p Still, I gave in when I saw that BBC3 had a documentary following a British teenage evangelical, and caught in on the internet. The above is Part 1 of 6, all of which you can find on Youtube.

It's actually quite fair-minded, and by the end of it, I confess to feeling even a little proud of Deborah. She's probably the most mature 13 year old I've ever seen! Their family looks pretty level-headed, and it's quite refreshing to discover that not knowing who Posh Spice isn't going to destroy your life.

Now I'm sure most of us can also spot some of the negatives. It's quite easy, and valid, to pick on her gospel presentation. A lot of us nowadays cringe at something that sounds nothing more than fire insurance, which is what her gospel outline sounds like. Remember though, she's 13! So the hope is as she grows up, she would receive some neccessary biblical corrective teaching on whole-life discipleship. Deborah, do read C.S Lewis's essay 'Learning in War Time' at some point! She's also obviously got a very sensitive and caring nature, and there is a danger where the doctrine of hell could overwhelm her in a way that could be damaging. The other thing that caught my attention was how much "Christianese" there was, which must sound completely alien to anybody that's unchurched.

But at the end of it, I was struck by her boldness, which nonetheless was never expressed in an arrogant spirit - quite the opposite. And I was really interested that a lot of the people she spoke to weren't put off by her, although they probably found what she had to say hard to swallow. In one sense, her age was an advantage. And I was also struck by how much influence her family must have played in her character. Negatively, this could be construed as "brainwashing", as the more charitable comments of skeptics on youtube put it. Positively, though, her level-headedness could also be attributed to the benefits of a stable upbringing, which is increasingly less true of many British teenagers today. There's certainly some truth in the fact that she's culturally conditioned, but then, aren't we all?

Now this documentary isn't going to change anyone's presumptions about what evangelicals are like. But it's good every once in a while to inhabit someone else's eyes and see what strange creatures we are! And to, in spite of our warts and all, not be too quick to see only the bad in evangelicalism*, but rejoice in some of our positives as well.

*in this case, Western evangelicalism, since obviously, Asian evangelicalism wouldn't quite look the same!

Labels: , , ,