Friday, October 30, 2015

our global families

The most compelling thought for me over the recent decade has been the idea that the body of Christ and the household of God are global realities, not just local ones. It has transformed my life.

On the global stage, 1 Corinthians 12 is still about those who might consider themselves to be dispensable and living our lives in a way that makes them indispensable. 1 Timothy 3 is still about creating a sense that my fathers and mothers, my uncles and aunties, my brothers and sisters, my sons and daughters are found among those who share the gospel with me, and not just those with whom I share genes.

Yes, these are compelling thoughts. They have impacted us too such an extent that under God's direction and care, in our 50s, we have uprooted from home and family in order to give a fuller and deeper expression to them taking root in our lives.

And so just imagine how I felt when I saw this book emerge on a publisher's electronic news update. I could not get my hands on it quickly enough..

Our Global Families (Baker, 2015) is a collaborative project by Todd Johnson (associated for many years with that peerless statistician, David Barrett) and one of his students, Cindy Wu.

While I ran to it quickly, I did not read it quickly because it wasn't quite what I was expecting. However there will still be pages to which I return. For example: 'developing friendships and practicing hospitality' (139-147) are the obvious and simple habits to embrace, with a call to 'open our our our our minds'.

In a world overwhelmed by the complexity of migration issues, we are reminded that 'with the exception of the command to worship God and God alone, 'welcome the stranger' is the most oft-quoted commandment in the Hebrew scriptures' (141). While on the subject of Judaism, and acknowledging the need of the cross of Christ to complete the truth, it is a quotation by Rabbi Jonathan Sachs that sticks out to me. He writes that Judaism is about 'honoring the image of God in other people and thus turning the world into a home for the divine presence' (155).

Highlighting the dual importance of the indigenizing principle and the pilgrim principle is valuable: 'these principles guide us to a church that is different everywhere (by culture) and the same everywhere (by faith)' (96). Pointing readers towards James Davison Hunter's To Change the World, with his call for Christians to be 'faithfully present' in the world, interested me because it has been the stand-out book of the decade for me.

There are a number of fresh and clear statistics: 'In 1800 Christians and Muslims were one-third of the world's population, and by 2100 they are expected to count for two-thirds. Surely the relationship between these two religions is a significant one' (21). 'The high point for the non-religious was around 1970, when almost 20% of the world's population was either agnostic or atheist ... (but that figure has declined since then) and the future of the world is likely to be a religious one' (22).

The dual authorship of the book, with its tendency to add personal stories and testimonies, interrupted the argument a bit much for me. Plus, to be convinced of an argument, I need a stronger biblical-theological framework than the one provided in these pages. But if you, or your church, or your small group, are wanting to take some early steps into these ideas and have your life transformed as well, then this is a good book with which to begin. It takes time to define key terms like globalization and contextualisation. It captures facts and figures and quotations. It is written simply. It includes lists of practical suggestions. It has a small group discussion guide.
The primary problem is that our identities are too small. We tend to rely most on our smaller, cultural identities and ignore our larger, common identity as members of the body of Christ. (quoted on 70, from Christena Cleveland's Disunity in Christ)
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Friday, October 23, 2015

i beside e

Maths, maps and spelling were my favourite subjects as a little boy. A chief contributor to this favouritism was that each subject involved competitive classroom games.

'Around the world' was great fun. One competitor would stand next to the other, seated at their desk. A math's question? A capital city? Spelling a word? Bring it on. The first one with the correct answer moved onto the child at the next desk. In this way it was possible to make one's way around the entire classroom and feel like you were the undefeated champion of the world. In my own mind and memory, however inaccurate these faculties may now be, I was a legend at these games :).

Yes, it all sounds quite dreadful for today's sensitive ears. But I just loved it. Sorry. I was unevenly sanctified in those days (it seems to be a problem endemic to my nature).

With spelling questions, a handy little guideline was i before e except after c, although I quickly hear my French teacher saying, 'always expect an exception' - with the word 'chief' being chief among those exceptions.

Life teaches us that competition does not remain in the classroom, or the playground. It travels with us through life and vocation. Strategies need to be developed to manage it well. One such strategy for me has been i beside e especially with c.

Here the 'c' refers to 'competition', while the 'i' and the 'e' highlight the difference between 'complementary' and 'complimentary' - and the need for both. One way to handle competition is to look to be both complimentary and complementary with that competition - and to do so authentically and prayerfully.

When I started as a pastor, Barby and I were called to a little Baptist church on 'the south-side of the tracks' - ie the sadder, poor-er area of town. 25 adults. I remember thinking how many of the characteristics of 'low self esteem' were evident among us, but in a corporate way. This is Scottish Presbyterian heartland. Within a stone's throw of us (almost) - on both sides - were thriving charismatic Presbyterian churches. Why are we here? What can we add? It was a time to process competitive instincts by being complimentary and complementary.

When I started as a principal, Barby and I were called to an odd situation. We had been on the staff at the only evangelical college in the country. You knew this was the case because when you mixed and mingled with evangelicals anywhere in the country they simply spoke about 'college' in a generic way, referring to this first college. It was the one and only college in their minds. The trouble was that, very unexpectedly, we sensed God's call to be part of seeing a second college, at which my grandfather had forbidden me to train (!), become known for being evangelical as well. They were interesting years! It was a time to process competitive instincts by being complimentary and complementary.

When I started as director in my current role, Barby and I had already decided to live where our work was happening. But this has created an odd situation. There are many other organisations doing similar things. Most of them have roots in the UK, or the US. That is a long way away. So, again and again, I find I don't know the people, or the organisations ... and yet I find myself involved in the leadership of one of the organisations that is perceived by others to be a 'market-leader', if you can permit me to use that phrase. In this absence of knowledge and relationship, there is a temptation to feel competitive - or, more worryingly, to be perceived as being so. The default setting kicks in, almost by habit now. It is a time to process competitive instincts by being complimentary and complementary.

There you have it. Three snapshots from my life.
What about you? Where does i beside e have a trajectory in your life?

Competition always seems unavoidable. Cooperation always seems desirable. Call me unevenly sanctified if you wish, but my experience is that a bit of mild, gentle competition does not need to be a bad thing. I have found that the best cooperation becomes possible when we are confident about our own calling and then enter all possible competitive settings with an intentionality about being complimentary and complementary, prayerfully and authentically.

nice chatting


Sunday, October 18, 2015

loving learners

I may have gone through my entire education without ever asking a single question in the classroom. I certainly never did it in my MDiv (theology), or my BSc (chemistry) days - and I have no memory of ever doing it in high school.

The reasons are partly physiological. The anticipation of speaking-up led to such a combo of clanging nerves, sweaty perspiration and pumping pulse that it never seemed to be worth the effort. Plus I tend to blush badly under pressure. As a learner, it was far easier to be quiet and passive.

So my early days as a student were not great. While the physiological plays its part, there have been some philosophical issues as well. I've learned a little about learners in subsequent years.

As a young lecturer, more than twenty years ago, I remember the meeting when the Academic Dean walked in, sat down and said, 'OK, we need to change the way we describe our courses. Teaching objectives need to replaced by learning outcomes. We need to shift away from a focus on what the teacher teaches and over towards what the learner learns and everything, especially assessment, needs to be aligned with this change.' That shift started a revolution in my approach to learning.

About this same time, I heard an expert say that making things compulsory in adult learning situations was counter-productive. 'Remove as much compulsion as you can'. 'Don't treat adult learners as children'. Intrinsic motivation is critical. As a principal of a theological college, I decided to commit myself to this conviction - with one example being a refusal to make chapel attendance compulsory. Instead, we worked hard to make them too good to be missed; we worked hard at the rationale for the rhythm of worship to be embedded into the discipline of study; we worked hard to set a good example for participation etc.

As a preacher, my bread-and-butter has been what is often called exposition where you begin with the biblical passage, assuming its authority, and gradually come to the listener. But now I love playing with a more inductive logic as well. Here you begin with the listener living in their world, lingering with them a little longer than the usual introduction - and gradually drawing them into biblical truth, as the rationale for it gradually unfolds in front of them.

As a student (again!), my doctoral work focused on the parable and the role of the reader, alongside author and text, in the process of interpretation. With the Bible I believe that a divine author lies behind an authoritative text with a clear and certain meaning (in an overwhelming majority of cases) delivered by a preacher with authority ... and yet, even with that being true, the listener still retains some sovereignty because they can choose simply to stop listening. The parable genre reminds us of the need for the reader/learner to participate if meaning is going to be complete and full.

As a trainer, I like to arrive early on that first day - always. Why? Because I am seriously fussy about something. I want to see how the chairs are arranged in the room where the learning will take place. Are they in rows, all facing the front, suggesting that all that is of value comes from the front?  Or, are they in circles, or clusters, or around tables, facing each other, suggesting that learning will come from each other as well - because it does and it will, as participation and interactivity is featured.

Participants from four different continents collaborate in the process of learning
If I was ever a pastor again, one of the first initiatives I'd take is to have a small group from the congregation walk the preaching journey with me for a year. I'd draw them into the process of forming the sermon. I'd have them help me with illustration and application. The sermon-making process would become more collaborative. We'd change the group each year and gradually the entire congregation would be drawn into this participatory learning process.

In all these roles I have come back to Berea (Acts 17.10-15) where the preacher is hardly mentioned, even though it is an apostolic one. The focus is on the quality of the listener-learners. It is a reminder that preaching is not just about the preacher and the text - but about the listeners as well. To be effective, good preaching needs good listening.

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Sunday, October 11, 2015

scratching out the cross

For a millennium, the Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world. It reaches all the way back to the worlds of Chrysostom and Constantine. When Istanbul was conquered by the Ottomans, it was turned into a mosque - and now it is a museum. The history is amazing - and so also is the beauty.

However it is neither the history nor the beauty of the site that will remain with me. It is the sight of the feeble attempts to scratch out the cross that were to be seen everywhere.

Here is the irony. While images of the cross have been defaced, every tour group enters the building at the Imperial Gate, crowned with its own mosaic. It is an image of Jesus, flanked by Mary and Gabriel, with the emperor prostrate at His feet. Jesus is holding a book with an inscription which is dutifully translated by every tour guide to proclaim, simply and clearly, the message of the cross in the language of every visitor:

'Peace be with you. I am the light of the world'. 

Peace in the midst of conflict. Light in the midst of darkness. The wonder of the cross.

A few dozen meters away there is some silly darkness going on. The ridiculous sight of people in a long queue for The Wish Column. Here visitors stick their fingers in a hole (worn away by pilgrims through the ages) in a column, believing that their wishes will be fulfilled if the finger comes out wet.

Quite a few dozen miles away there is some sad conflict going on. Within an hour or so of our visit to the Hagia Sophia, there is a terrorist attack at a peace rally in Ankara in which more than one hundred people are killed. The worst attack of its kind in Turkey.

Light and peace are must fully found in the Christ of the cross. No place in history has come closer to scratching out the cross than Turkey, home of the oldest Christian world. While it once provided the terrain for the missionary journeys of Paul, the location of the seven churches receiving messages from Jesus through John, and the circuit for the letters of Peter ... today the Christian community is weak - just a few thousand among many millions. And yet it will not always remain like this because while 'the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, to those who are being saved it is the power of God' (1 Corinthians 1.18). All those arms today, with cameras lifted high, will one day be arms lifted aloft with praises to Jesus.

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Sunday, October 04, 2015

constantia conversions

It is always great to be back in Delhi. On this visit I decided to make a different pilgrimage. When we first moved here in 1970, Delhi Bible Fellowship (later to be pastored by my future father-in-law, Charles Warren) was just getting started. There were different congregations around the city and then a combined service on Sunday evenings - in Constantia Hall, at the YWCA in New Delhi.

We lived in Old Delhi. I was 11 years of age. Every Sunday evening my folks would pack us all into a Morris Oxford taxi for the trip to church. A fervent Canadian pastor-evangelist would lead the services. He still receives our newsletters. I owe him a great deal. Thank-you, Uncle Murray. He often gave strong appeals at the end of his gospel-centered messages - and I often responded. He 'saw my hand (while every head was bowed and every eye closed)' on many occasions, even though he may not remember.

While I do not have a dramatic testimony with a lightning-strike conversion experience that took me from the darkest night to the brightest noon - as I get older, I am increasingly grateful for the gracious dawning of the day which took over my heart. Slowly and securely, my heart turned towards God and I have been kept by Christ in the power of the Spirit ever since.

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