Friday, June 25, 2010

the hole in our gospel

Over recent years I have appreciated my links with World Vision. My brother-in-law (Jon Warren) is their top photojournalist internationally (well, I think he is!); two opportunities to speak at World Vision (NZ) prayer days stand out in my memory; I was thrilled to see the recent appointment of an esteemed friend, Chris Clarke, as the new CEO of World Vision (NZ).

While by heritage and instinct I am more a TearFund person, I have massive respect for the way these two organisations have commended and adorned the gospel in NZ public life with such credibility.

With all this in mind I decided to read Richard Stearns, The Hole in our Gospel (Thomas Nelson, 2009) on my recent flight across to the UK.

Here are a few reflections...

1. This is a personal story. Stearns weaves in his journey from being a corporate high-flyer, excessively high-earner with different companies through to his current job as President, World Vision (USA). His honesty impresses me, even if this part of the story leaves me a little cold. However the book is pitched at those high-income Americans for whom a hole in the gospel exists and Stearns is to be admired for the way he generates some heat with that readership.

2. This is an easy-to-read story. This is not a scholarly book. While I appreciated the way every chapter engages biblical material, the content tends to be full of reminders rather than new insights or angles on the text. He gets himself around the big issues in a clear and succinct manner with the bulk of the book being about "a hole in the world" and "a hole in the church". And the momentum develops as the book goes on...

3. This is a useful book. All sorts of things stand out. His explanation of "the three major impediments standing in the way of anyone wanting to love their distant neighbours" to be awareness, access and ability (101-105). His description of poverty, neatly summarised on p131. He uses the word "imagine" a lot - for example, in his analysis of "the horsemen of the apocalypse": hunger, thirst, sickness (malaria, tuberculosis, HIV and Aids), nakedness (no money, no clothes, illiteracy, gender, refugees, war). This works to draw in the reader to participate in the statistics and the facts that would otherwise be kept at arm's length. Then he moves to a practical appeal for "time, talent, treasure" at the end with a "sharp elbow in the conscience" and the dream of a "mountain of mustard seeds". There is a Study Guide at the end which makes the book a useful resource if you are wanting to wake up people in a local church.

4. This is a courageous book. With his readership in mind, he sure does wade in to some 'sacred' areas. He knocks down the popular understanding of the Prayer of Jabez (40-42). His "tale of two churches" (171-180) helps shrink the globe and enables people to see that there are "beggars at our gate" to whom we must respond. He puts the issue of gender and the oppression of women where it needs to be - right at the top of the list: "the single most important thing that can be done to cure extreme poverty is this: protect, educate, nurture girls and women and provide them with equal rights and opportunities - educationally, economically and socially" (156-157).

He rightly observes that "one of the most disturbing things about Church history is the Church's appalling track record of being on the wrong side of the great social issues of the day" (190). And he hangs the idea out there that the current issues of global poverty and injustice could prove to be the slavery-equivalent for which our grandchildren mock and critique us. He has a chapter on "Putting the American Dream to Death" (203-209) - that takes some doing in his context! He attacks the lack of generosity of American Christians, "the wealthiest Christians in all history" (217), calculating that they give "two percent of two percent ... about six pennies per person per day to the rest of the world (217) ... (and if we just tithed as a minimum) it would raise USD168 billion dollars" (218).

5. This is a quotable book. Each chapter starts with some beauties. For example, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" (Martin Luther King). He includes some great stories - like the one about forgiveness with Margaret in Uganda (158-160) - a contemporary Corrie Ten Boom story. His own paraphrase of Matthew 25 sticks with me:
"For I was hungry, while you had all you needed. I was thirsty, but you drank bottled water. I was a stranger, and you wanted me deported. I needed clothes, but you needed more clothes. I was sick, and you pointed out the behaviours that led to my sickness. I was in prison, and you said I was getting what I deserved".

6. This is a hope-ful book. Stearns does a remarkable job remaining upbeat - which could well be the book's greastest achievement. He builds this hope around three convictions: "(a) Everyone of these hurting people is created in God's image and loved by him; (b) Every one of these challenges has a solution; (c) Every one of us can make a difference" (151).

[As an aside, Stearns' own conversion occurred when he discovered John Stott's Basic Christianity and read it right through over seven hours one night. "Somewhere that night God had gotten hold of me and the truth came shattering into my life" (80). As I write this post, I am at The Hookses in Wales where John Stott wrote his books. Yesterday I found the little ledge on the cliff overlooking the ocean where Basic Christianity was crafted! How cool is that...]

nice chatting


Friday, June 11, 2010

grading nz at the world cup

With the opening game of the World Cup happening to my left as I write, I find myself wondering about how well New Zealand will play at the event.

New Zealand has been the focus of joke-making all over the footballing world, having reached the finals by beating the likes of Vanuatu and Bahrain - while multiple teams in Europe and South America, with a far better pedigree than NZ, remain at home. But as they say, "you play to the whistle" - and NZ has played by the rules and here we are. Simply marvelous. [Although I can't see the rules staying as they are - so let's enjoy it while it lasts].

While there is plenty of optimism around, we do need to be realistic about NZ's chances. Before a game is even played here is how I would assess NZ's results:

Making it to the second round. This would be remarkable and go down as one of the great achievements in our sporting history.

Winning a game in the opening round. [As I understand it, this does not necessarily lead to making it into the second round]. Regardless of what happens in the other games this would be a result to savour.

Gaining two draws in the three games played in the opening round - and maybe scoring some memorable goals which my grandchildren will watch again and again on TV.

Gaining one draw AND keeping the 'goal difference' (the difference between the number of goals scored against NZ and the goals scored by NZ) below three. In other words we compete fully, we are not embarassed, no team beats us by more than two goals - and (hopefully) we score some nice goals ourselves.

Gaining one draw, but the total goal difference rises to more than three.

Gaining one draw, but the total goal difference rises to more than seven. In other words we scratch out one good result but are embarassed badly in at least one other game, demonstrating that we do not really belong in the game at this level.

Losing all three games in the round robin but we are competitive in all of them - scoring some goals ourselves and keeping the total goal difference to less than five.

Losing all three games, the goal difference rises above five, but we do score a memorable goal - and in this our fans and media will delight for forever.

Losing all three games, the goal difference rises above five - and we score no goals at all.

We are embarassed, losing all three games with a total goal difference rising above nine.

nice chatting


Sunday, June 06, 2010

recalibrating spiritual gifts

This past week I made my first trip back to Carey Baptist College to be interviewed as the weekly community lunch came to a close. The interview covered all sorts of topics.

Early the next morning I received an email from someone whose opinion I respect, suggesting that I had been "strident" and "disparaging" in the way I had spoken about spiritual gifts. Gulp?! Those are strong words. He is probably right. I suspect that I did give that impression. For three decades I have considered that children and grandchildren of charismatic renewal have rarely embraced this subject with the biblical balance it needs. Plus, I was very nervous and notefree and that combo often gets me into trouble...

However let me try and pull together my misgivings on the way spiritual gifts have tended to be handled over the past generation. Maybe this will dilute any strident disparaging-ness...

1. For years - to be fair, it does not seem to be quite so common anymore - the approach taken was to cobble together a definitive list of spiritual gifts from the various lists in the New Testament. The presupposition is that a person's gift is somewhere on this list - and often there is a ranking given with a primary gifting and a couple of secondary ones. I am not convinced that such a definitive list exists.

2. When it comes to offering guidance on an area of service, the advice tends to be "find your spiritual gift and use it". This suggests that spiritual gifting determines where obedience will lie. This is the default setting in so much of contemporary Christian life and conversation. I just don't buy it. In offering guidance on an area of service, the primary advice must be to listen to God's general and specific call on my life, revealed primarily in his Word and heard best in the context of community, and then step out and "trust and obey for there is no other way". And what do we find happening? As we 'trust and obey', God energises our obedience and makes it possible by gifting us for what he has called us to be and to do. Calling is prior to gifting. Gifting energises obedience, it does not determine obedience.

3. The problem with #2 is that it tends to leave people living and serving only within the boundaries of their gifts and what they are good at. So when and where do we work at our weaknesses - a critical issue, given that long-term effectiveness is linked directly to self-awareness about weakness, more than strength? Does it quietly become impossible for God to call someone to do that for which they are unproven, or simply not good at doing? When does a person, living solely in their gifts and strengths, have the opportunity to echo with Paul that “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Cor 12.9)?

Too easily and too often living exclusively in our strengths and our gifts is a recipe for self-sufficiency, self-confidence and it can shut-out God simply because he is not needed so much. The CV-culture beyond the church and the SG-culture (spiritual gift) within the church - when it operates like this - are over-rated as devices for guiding and placing people in arenas of service.

4. People lose sight of the fact that the word for 'spiritual gift' is the word for 'grace' with a few letters added on. With spiritual gifts we are in the realm of what we do not deserve - like our very salvation. So why then do people so commonly sound so possessive of spiritual gifts - for example, speaking of my spiritual gift as if it is something to find and then to own? Spiritual gifts are to grace what raindrops are to rain - and God can turn the rain on and off whenever he pleases. Spiritual gifts grace our lives for the service of others to the glory of God.

5. I am sorry about this next misgiving. Forgive me for saying it. But in the hands of the immature, this is what I have seen again and again over the years. There is a dangerous syncretism going on. In the absence of #4 owning us, I fear that in a world so dedicated to anthropocentrism, so devoted to consumerism, and so susceptible to narcissism what fuels the preoccupation with spiritual gifts can owe more to the spirit of the age than to the Spirit of God.

When we come to the topic of spiritual gifts having soaked in a culture that is full of receiving what I deserve, living for what feels good and what fulfills me, and claiming what is mine by right - it is easy to place 'my' spiritual gift in the same frame and empty the picture of all grace.

6. When people talk about "the things of the Spirit", inevitably they are referring today to the practise of spiritual gifts - and often just that smaller number of 'power' gifts. I am not a cessationist. Far from it. But what concerns me is the "Honey, I shrunk the Spirit" era through which we have lived. The 'things of the Spirit' become equated with (power) spiritual gifts when this is a relatively minor aspect of New Testament teaching on the Spirit. What happened to the Spirit being the agent by which God sanctifies us and makes us holy? When did you hear a series on that theme? Holiness is out of vogue today. What happened to the fruit of the Spirit? What happened to the Spirit active within the trinity? What happened to the Spirit active in revelation? It just goes on and on and on. These are also 'the things of the Spirit', are they not?!

I think I may be starting to sound strident and disparaging again. That is not my intention. If we do not embrace the fullness of who the Spirit is we cannot really expect a part of what the Spirit does - the giving of spiritual gifts - to be all that it is designed to be in the life of the church.

In reality if you scratch a bit further I will admit to where some of the stridency comes from. I am a great admirer of my father (and my mother too!) and his testimony of walking with God. A little book on his life is due out within weeks. The story of Dad's life is the way God kept calling him away from what he was gifted for to embrace some odd obedience - which when he stepped out to 'trust and obey', God energised him with the gifts he needed to be faithful and effective. And in my own little life I have experienced this. That call to Carey, where I was this past week, was an odd obedience. Nothing in my CV suggested being a Principal to be the next step. It was silly. I was out of my depth. But God called me. Weakness after weakness surfaced in those years - but so did God's gracious gifting of me as I leaned on him for help within a supportive community.

nice chatting


Thursday, June 03, 2010

extending the playlist: praise-full

This is Part Two of my case for re-introducing some hymns into the playlist of the contemporary church. Outside of a well-worn 3 or 4 (Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art, Great is Thy Faithfulness...) - we do not sing hymns any more.

Part One - a prayer-full playlist - is here.

I trawled the hymnbook of my NZ Baptist tradition (others will have other traditions) and found some that I'd love to see added to the playlist. Just one from among these 20 each Sunday would be about right, I reckon. With an enthusiastic lead from the 'worship-leader' (so none of this drag-your-feet 'the pastor made me do it' body language), these all have possibilities. I'd put these praise-full ones at a more buoyant time in the service. Check with an older musician in the church on the possible tunes - but I suspect that, unlike the prayer-full ones, you may well need to amp them up a bit. But don't play them too quickly! You will discover that these hymns connect people with a deeper, richer spirituality.

I will name the first line of the hymn (in bold) and then include a verse (in italics) that stands out to me - so you catch something of the flavour. OK?!

1. It is a thing most wonderful
And yet I want to love Thee, Lord;
O light the flame within my heart,
And I will love Thee more and more,
Until I see Thee as Thou art.

2. I cannot tell why He whom angels worship
I cannot tell how He will win the nations,
How he will claim His earthly heritage,
How satisfy the needs and aspirations
Of east and west, of sinner and of sage.
But this I know, all flesh shall His glory,
And he shall reap the harvest He has sown,
And some glad day His sun shall shine in splendour
When He the Saviour, Saviour of the world, is known.

3. Sing we the King who is coming to reign
... Joy to the nations when Jesus is King...
... Wrong shall be ended when Jesus is King ...
... Sword shall be sickle when Jesus is King ...
... Love is victorious when Jesus is King ...
... Satan is vanquished AND Jesus is King.

4. How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I'll praise Thee as I ought.

5. Loved with everlasting love
Heaven above is softer blue,
Earth around is sweeter green;
Something lives in every hue,
Christless eyes have never seen:
Birds with gladder songs o'erflow,
Flowers with deeper beauties shine,
Since I know, as now I know,
I am His and He is mine.

6. God of grace and God of glory
Heal Thy children's warring madness;
Bend our pride to Thy control;
Shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom,
Grant us courage,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom's goal.

7. Jesus, I am resting, resting in the joy of what Thou art
Ever lift Thy face upon me, as I work and wait for Thee;
Resting neath Thy smile, Lord Jesus, earth's dark shadows flee.
Brightness of my Father's glory, sunshine of my Father's face,
Keep me trusting, resting; fill me with Thy grace.

8. Come let us sing of a wonderful love
Jesus is seeking the wanderers yet;
Why do they roam?
Love only waits to forgive and forget;
Home! weary wanderers home!
Wonderful love
Dwells in the heart of the Father above.

9. There is no love like the love of Jesus
There is no heart like the heart of Jesus,
Filled with a tender love,
No throb nor throe that our hearts can know
But He feels it above.

10. I know not why God's wondrous grace
I know not how this saving faith
To me he did impart;
Or how believing in His word
Wrought peace within my heart
... but 'I know whom I have believed;
and am persuaded that he is able to keep
that which I have committed unto Him until that day.'

nice chatting - and I hope some 'worship-leaders' are reading this!

'Go on - go against the flow and do something different.
More people are tiring of the current 'liturgy' than you realise.
Just one of these twenty songs on any given Sunday,
enthusiastically introduced, and watch what happens!' :) :)


Wednesday, June 02, 2010

extending the playlist: prayer-full

A recent post revisited this vexed area of what we sing as part of our worship of God.

I tried to make a case for re-introducing some hymns into the playlist of the contemporary church. Outside of a well-worn 3 or 4 (Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art, Great is Thy Faithfulness...) - we do not sing hymns any more.

I thought that I might post a few possibilities. So, here goes... ten prayer-full ones and ten praise-full ones. I trawled the hymnbook of my NZ Baptist tradition (others will have other traditions) and found some that I'd love to see added to the playlist. Just one from among these 20 each Sunday would be about right, I reckon. With an enthusiastic lead from the 'worship-leader' (so none of this drag-your-feet 'the pastor made me do it' body language), these all have possibilities. I'd put the prayer-full ones at a more reflective time and the praise-full ones at a more buoyant time. Check with an older musician in the church on the possible tunes and amp them up a bit if you need to. But don't play them too quickly! You will discover that they connect people with a deeper, richer spirituality.

I will name the first line of the hymn (in bold) and then include a verse (in italics) that stands out to me - so you catch something of the flavour. OK?!

1. Dear Lord and Father of mankind
Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Til all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

2. O Love that wilt not let me go
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.

3. O Jesus, I have promised
O let me hear Thee speaking
In accents clear and still,
Above the storms of passion,
The murmurs of self-will;
O speak to reassure me,
To hasten or control;
O speak, and make me listen,
Thou guardian of my soul.

4. I am trusting Thee, Lord Jesus
I am trusting Thee to guide me;
Thou alone shalt lead,
Every day and hour supplying
All my need.

5. We have not known Thee as we ought
We have not loved Thee as we ought,
Nor cared that we are loved by Thee:
Thy presence we have coldly sought,
And feebly longed Thy face to see:
Lord, give a pure and loving heart
To feel and know the love Thou art.

6. O My Saviour, lifted from the earth for me
Bringing all my burdens,
Sorrow, sin, and care,
At Thy feet I lay them,
And I leave them there.

7. Lord, speak to me, that I may speak
O teach me, Lord, that I may teach
The precious things Thou dost impart;
And wing my words that they may reach
The hidden depths of many a heart.

8. Take my life, and let it be
Take my love; my Lord, I pour
At Thy feet its treasure store:
Take myself, and I will be,
Ever, only, all for Thee.

9. In heavenly love abiding
Green pastures are before me,
Which yet I have not seen;
Bright skies will soon be o'er me,
Where dark the clouds have been.
My hope I cannot measure,
My path to life is free,
My Saviour has my treasure,
And He will walk with me.`

10. O For a closer walk with God
Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and His word?

nice chatting - and be glad you can't hear me singing