Friday, December 22, 2006

How I was Converted to Christmas (Again)

I used to be one of those Christians who didn’t think much of Christmas. That might seem strange – a Christian less than enthusiastic about the festival of Christ’s birth. It might surprise you how many Christians feel that way. Sometimes it’s because of pagan associations with certain Christmas traditions, such as December 25th having once been in ancient times the birthday of the sun, or the Christmas tree being a pre-Christian European symbol of fertility. At other times it’s the materialism they object to – all the madness of the silly season, the commercialization and the singing of such theology-lite songs as Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. A third objection is an odd one for those concerned for mission, but some Christians complain about those who attend church only at Christmas and Easter and never at any other time of year. (Well, two days of the year is better than none!)

I used to feel this way too, but I was converted to Christmas. I was converted to Christmas by reading the Bible, by hearing the passages we read at this time every year - the promises of the ancient prophets and the story of the Nativity that fulfilled those promises. For me the fact that there are pre-Christian origins to some of our Christmas traditions, only tells me that the Christian faith overcame and sent into obscurity all of those inadequate belief systems that predated it. The good news of the love of God through Jesus Christ just has no competition.

The three wise men were pagan magicians – astrologers, magi, dabblers in the occult sciences. But when they saw the Christ child, they worshipped. So there will be many people in church on Monday who haven’t been to church since last Christmas. That’s fine by me – some will see the Christ child and worship him. So Carols by Candlelight will swing from the sublime to the ridiculous in its musical programme as it always does – from O Holy Night to Santa Claus is Coming to Town. That’s okay – Jesus came for the foolish as well as the wise - for the three stooges as well as the three wise men.

Perhaps the most famous Beatles album cover is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It depicts a large crowd of very famous people all standing in a group with the Beatles at the centre. It’s fun to see how many people you can identify correctly. I think a great Christmas card would be one modelled on the Sgt. Peppers cover but instead of people gathering around the Fab Four they would be gathered around the manger scene with the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph at the centre. Instead of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Marlon Brando and the Rolling Stones would stand many of the great Christians of history – some famous for having been Christian – Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Wesley – as well as others perhaps not as well known for their Christian faith.

Along with the three wise men there may be some other threes. Perhaps the three stooges to represent the simple and “foolish” people who have a simple faith that needs no intellectual supports. Perhaps the three blind mice to represent the disabled people whom the world might disqualify but who find that they are as whole as anyone else and more whole than some because of Jesus. Each one would bring their gifts – perhaps not gold, frankincense or myrrh but precious things nonetheless, to show their love and gratitude to God for the giving of this child. Let everyone come to the manger this Christmas – pagan, Christian, Moslem, atheist – let them all look at this wonderful scene and marvel. We don’t have to control it. We don’t have to get everything theologically watertight. So there weren’t three wise men (the scripture just says "wise men' without giving a number), so Jesus wasn’t actually born on December 25th. There’s a time and a place for getting those factual details right but Christmas is a time to lay aside those scruples and welcome and rejoice with all who come to see this miracle baby.

Last Friday I drove by Como Park just down the road from where I live in Prahran, and saw a crowd of thousands leaving the annual Carols night, perhaps the biggest event on the City of Stonnington’s calendar. Some of these people were Christians, but I would say most were not. As I saw these people, young and old, single and married, straight and gay, coming away from their annual pilgrimage to carols on the lawn, touched once again by the mystery and the wonder of it all, I was converted to Christmas again.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Thunder on the Mountain

Here's Dylan's great new video of the opening song from Modern Times. There's no new footage here but it's a great montage of video from across most of his career. Enjoy! That means you too Megan!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Coke paid me nothing for this commercial!

Shadow of a Doubt

Alfred Hitchcock said that of all of his own films, Shadow of a Doubt (1943) was his personal favourite. Its easy to see why. He takes a small American town in northern California and into it brings the darkness of "Uncle Charlie." Charlie (Joseph Cotton) is all smiles and charm on the surface but not far below that thin veneer he is a cynic, a confidence trickster and a hater of the human race. But is he a murderer? His niece and namesake Charlie (Teresa Wright) will have her naivete shattered as she learns more about her uncle than she ever wanted to know. In a rivetting scene at the family meal table Uncle Charlie's dark side comes out in Thornton Wilder's crisply written dialogue:

"You think you know something, don't you? You think you're the clever little girl who knows something. There's so much you don't know, so much. What do you know, really? You're just an ordinary little girl, living in an ordinary little town. You wake up every morning of your life and you know perfectly well that there's nothing in the world to trouble you. You go through your ordinary little day, and at night you sleep your untroubled ordinary little sleep, filled with peaceful stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares. Or did I? Or was it a silly, inexpert little lie? You live in a dream. You're a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something."

Here we see the nihilism that will lead a person to commit multiple murders because he has first depersonalised his victims and removed himself from the realm of moral accountability. In an other scene Uncle Charlie pontificates: "What's the use of looking backward? What's the use of looking ahead? Today's the thing - that's my philosophy. Today." The one who lives entirely in the now need not worry about judgement, retribution or accountability. A heinous act may be committed and then moved on from without guilt or qualm of conscience.

The naive childlike innocence of the younger Charlie is slowly replaced by a harder realism. At the outset of the film the idea that such evil could exist in the world is unthinkable, and certainly could never come from her uncle whom she idolises. It's sad to see her lose that innocence but at the same time we know that she needs to do so if she is to develop an adult moral conscience.

There is an almost paedophilic relationship between the two as the older Charlie takes advantage of the adoration his niece shows him to ingratiate himself to her so that she will not unmask his dark past. As the younger Charlie realises his true identity the touch she once so dangerously coveted from him is something from which she now recoils. With courage she says no to his advances, unmasks his pretensions, and finds herself having to protect herself from becoming his next victim before, in a final showdown, he meets the fate we know he must meet if justice is to be served.

This is a first rate thriller as only Hitch could make them. The innocence and charm of small town America has a shadow cast over it that will make you wonder what evil may lie in the heart of the seemingly innocuous. As with all the titles in Universal's Hitchock Collection, there is a great half-hour documentary on the DVD with many of the original cast of the film being interviewed as well as usual suspects such as daughter Pat Hitchock and Peter Bogdanovitch. Highly recomended. Four stars.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Concert for Bangladesh

On Sunday afternoon I sat down and watched the 1971 "Concert for Bangladesh" on DVD. Afterwards I wrote this review for the Bigpond movies site.

This a wonderful slice of rock history with some really fine performances. The band is tight and George Harrison's gentle presence anchors the band as it stages a free concert to raise money for famine-stricken Bangladesh. And what a band! Ringo Starr AND Jim Keltner on drums, Eric Clapton on guitar, Leon Russell and Billy Preston on keyboards. Preston's performance of "That's the Way God Planned It" is an absolute revelation as his gospel roots take hold of him and he starts to shimmy and strutt across the stage like a pentecostal holy roller. It's great to hear Harrison perform Beatles tunes of his own composition such as "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Something," and "Here Comes the Sun" as well as his classic solo numbers such as "My Sweet Lord." Bob Dylan comes on at the end for a four-song set including "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall," "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Just Like a Woman." He's in fine form in his denim jacket and his 1971 "country Bob" vocal stylings. I even enjoyed Ravi Shankar's Indian music set (though admittedly I skipped it at first and then went back after I'd viewed the rest of the concert). If you're old enough to remember the cinema release of the concert this will be a nostalgia trip for you. If not, here's a chance to get educated on the first ever "Make Poverty History" style benefit concert.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Trinity and Mission (2)

Not THAT Trinity! How'd that get uploaded to my Blogger dashboard?

I received the following comment on The Trinity and Mission via email from Dr. Jon Case, Associate Professor of Theology at Houghton College, New York and thought I'd post it here.

"Think of the Trinity in doxological terms: Do you worship Jesus Christ? Do you worship God the Father? Do you worship, and pray to be filled with, the Holy Spirit?
If you answer yes to all of the above, then the question arises: just how many gods do you worship?

As a minimum, the doctrine of the Trinity attempts to maintain the tension that keeps you away from thinking of 3 gods and from thinking that Jesus, his Father and the Holy Spirit are not three distinct identities. If you say that they are not, then good luck to making sense of the NT. Father Son and Spirit interact with each other. Is that just a charade? If it is, then the text of the NT is no reliable guide to God.

Of course, if you answer 'no' to any of the above opening questions re Father, Son or Holy Spirit - you're in real trouble (and btw, you probably shouldn't be praying to be filled with a spirit that is not God's spirit).

If you answer: I just worship 'God' -and don't pay particular attention to the persons- then you have taken yourself right out of the pages of the NT. The earliest Christians worshipped Jesus --without denying worship to his Father-- by the infilling and power of the Holy Spirit. The worship came first - the theological precision followed a bit later.

If you say: 'Well of course I worship Father, Son and Holy Spirit and believe in only one God, but I don't want to use the term "Trinity" - let's use another term;' -- then in response I'd say you are showing poor theological judgement (a bit like trying to reinvent the wheel) and are needlessly causing confusion in the body of Christ.

So what difference does the doctrine of the Trinity make to mission? We are not calling people to merely follow Jesus (which by itself can be simply an ethical pursuit); we are calling them to worship Jesus. That activity, as the church has acknowledged, lands you in the middle of trinitarian considerations (in other words, just how many gods are we worshipping here?) And if you're not calling followers of Jesus to worship him, I'd say the whole idea of mission is in trouble."

The following was received by Dr. Mike Walters, Professor of Christian Ministries, at Houghton College:

"My daughter just had been asking me some questions about the Trinity for her cell group and I cobbled out a 3 page response...I'm very interested in the emergent church, for a number of reasons, but your response further down the page was appropriate. I once had a friend who left our mutual denomination (not the Wesleyans) who told me, "once the chicken leaves the egg, he/she then has to decide, "what will be my relationship to the shell? Will I disdain it as that which kept me bound, or will I gratefully acknowledge that it birthed me, protected and nurtured me, until I could walk on my own?"

Thanks for your comments guys.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Trinity and Mission

This is a continuation of the very lengthy discussion in the comments section of my blog entry An Open Letter to My Friends in the Emerging Church. If you want to follow that interesting discussion, start there first and then continue on here.

The Trinity is not just (as Chris puts it in the earlier comments section) "a very useful concept to understand what God's trying to tell us." The Trinity is God. Of course the doctrine of the Trinity is a construct of language and of the mind, but so is all speech and all thought. Anything we say about God is metaphorical, not just what we say about the Trinity. Nobody claims, least of all the Trintarian theologians of the Nicene era, that the human mind can fully comprehend the being of God. All is mystery to us except what has been revealed. In Luther's language the only God we see is the God who is clothed in Jesus Christ. But what the appearance of Jesus Christ drives us to inevitably is a God who is Triune. What the church confesses about the Triune nature of God is not something spun out of the air by rampant Hellenism. It was religion before it was theology. All formal theology has as its precedent the actual experience of God in the Christian community and in the world. It's not something begun in the rarified atmosphere of abstract thought (though it sometimes may end up there). That Trinitarian language (like all language about God) is limited is simply a given in all theological discourse. As Augustine put it, "When the question is asked, What three? human language labours altogether under great poverty of speech. The answer, however, is given, three ‘persons,’ not that it might be (completely) spoken, but that it might not be left (wholly) unspoken.” So it is a straw man argument to say that the Trinity is something not very important because no one can completely wrap his or head around it. To follow this line of reasoning would be to confess nothing about God at all, since we cannot do so comprehensively.

Chris says that my "fascination with [theology] is more academic than practical. Does knowing the trinity exists make you do your mission work better?" My response to the first part of the sentence is, brother, you couldn't be more wrong about that. My answer to the question about the Trinity and mission is a resounding "Yes." On the first point - Theology is a discrete academic discipline in many universities and other institutes of higher learning, yes. And though I teach theology in one such place, and am involved in the academic discourse of the discipline, my primary commitment to theology is as a Christian for whom it matters to think seriously about God. Theology is the business of every Christian, not just academics and professional theologians. Michael Jinkins helpfully reminds us that theology is reflection upon all of life, not just upon “religious” matters, when he says "Theology is the essential business of faithful reflection on human life lived consciously in the presence of God." (Invitation to Theology, 17.) Nothing could be more practical than this.

Now to the question, "Does knowing the trinity exists make you do your mission work better?" Absolutely it does yes. The most significant (re)discovery of twentieth century theologians was that God's existence as a "Being-in-Communion" (and not simply a divine Monad) is the fundamental beginning point of all Christian thought and action. This rediscovery of the Trinity as the beginning point of all theology and practice, beginning with Karl Barth, was the single most influential insight in the development of theology in a post-modern (please note the hyphen) world. Chris, as one who hopes one day to be a professor of theology, familiarity with this direction in theology should be of crucial importance to you. No-one hated philosophical theology more than Barth (with the possible exception of Luther), but he didn't find the Trinity in the philosophers. He found the Triune God in the Bible and inescapably in the Person of Jesus Christ. It is because God is in Godself a Being-in-relation, and we are made in the image of the Triune God, that we are called to reflect that same image in all of our interaction with others. We are called to be open to God and to others in outgoing, self-forgetting, love. The trinitarian relations within the Godhead whereby the Father gives his Son for the life of the world, the Son gives glory to his Father through unstinting, though costly obedience, and the Holy Spirit is given to glorify, not himself, but both the Father and the Son, provide the model for our relationships to others. Believers, in their relationships with one another, and with the world, are caught up into the “ecstatic” fellowship of the Divine Family. The believer is called to be one who shares with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in an “others-focused” orientation. Surely this is the only proper foundation for mission.

Modern Trinitarian theology has helped us to see that the doctrine of the Trinity begins with a focus, not on God’s ontological being, but on God’s saving activity. It centres on Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity, rather than being a doctrine derived from philosophical reflection on the nature of Absolute Being (a reflection which always tilts toward sheer monotheism or monarchianism), is rather the result of rational reflection on the saving activity of God in Christ. These divine occurrences confront human reason with the realization that only a triune God can account for them.

Eric Macall wrote in Whatever Happened to the Human Mind (1980) : "The Trinity is not primarily a doctrine, any more than the Incarnation is primarily a doctrine. There is a doctrine about the Trinity, as there are doctrines about many other facts of existence, but if Christianity is true, the Trinity is not a doctrine, the Trinity is God. And the fact that God is Trinity - that in a profound and mysterious way, there are three divine Persons eternally united in one life of complete perfection and beatitude - is not a piece of gratuitous mystification, thrust by dictatorial clergymen, down the throats of an unwilling but helpless laity, and therefore to be accepted, if at all, with reluctance and discontent. It is the secret of God’s most intimate life and being, into which, in his infinite love and generosity, he has admitted us; and it is therefore to be accepted with amazed and exulted gratitude."

In the so-called postmodern world, it is more or less a given that individuals are not lone atoms but persons in relation. There is no longer any "autonomous man" (now a thankfully debunked modernist myth). Each person is who that person is because of intimate connections with other persons. The doctrine of the Trinity speaks profoundly to this realization, for it tells us that God’s own being is constituted in precisely this way - God is a being in communion. This communion is, moreover, a loving communion. As Robert Wilkin has it, “The doctrine of the Trinity reaches to the deepest recesses of the soul and helps us know the majesty of God’s presence and the mystery of his love. Love is the most authentic mark of the Christian life, and love among humans, as within God, requires community with others and a sharing of the deepest kind.”

After all, to which God are we introducing people when we engage in mission? Not Plato's Unmoved Mover, or the Absolute Monad of Arianism or of Universalism, but the God whose Name is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is not some vague Higher Power or Supreme Being, but a Particular God - a God with a history. This is the God whose Name we all received at our Baptism, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (yes, and of Athanasius too), who brought our ancestors through the Red Sea, who transformed the world through the cross and the empty tomb. Chris says we can learn a lot from Buddhists and Mormons, and of course we need to be respectful listeners to all people. We cannot say we disagree until we can first say we understand and the church has not always been good at this. But what will happen if we lose the distinctiveness of the God we confess, what if we forget God's Name, what if we forget our Story, what will we have to offer in the dialogue? If emergent/missional churches are going to sit loose on the Trinity I truly fear for them.

Finally (if you've got this far you're probably one of the few), Chris thinks I'm mistaken when I say my church is "traditional" and that in fact we are "missional" but don't know it. I think we are using the word "traditional" in completely different senses (which is a very bad basis for dialogue). Chris, you seem to use it to mean something like this (correct me if I'm wrong) - "evangelical churches who are unfaithful to the Gospel because they are so consumed by running their own programmes that they are not engaged in mission beyond their own four walls." You see, to me there is nothing traditional about that at all. Some churches (of all kinds) are stuck in this pattern and some churches are not. I would suggest that far fewer are as dead in this respect as the emergent/missional churches claim. How then might I define my church as "traditional" and thus different from a typical emergent approach?

We believe that God calls us to gather together on the first day of each week in commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It's not a sabbath - it's the Lord's Day - a mini-Easter every Sunday (or if you like every Easter is a Big Sunday). Emergent/missional churches don't think it's all that important on which day they meet or indeed if they meet weekly at all. Any day or time of the week will do; it's all the same to the Lord.

When we gather we enact a liturgy that narrates the story of what God has done in Christ. We enjoy preaching and we like it to be from the pulpit, a symbol, not of the minister's authority, but of the authority of Holy Scripture. We take up an offering each week because we think Christians should discipline their love of money and because we want to support and enable the church, including the pastor, in its ministry. We don't think it's absolutely necessary to sing hymns or any other kind of songs, but we embrace music (especially hymnody) gratefully and enthusiastically. Emergent/missional churches don't typically think too much of these patterns of worship, though some will do them. But worship is just as valid if it's meeting with a Christian friend down at the local cafe and having a talk about Jesus. We love to meet our friends at the cafe too but we wouldn't feel, like we had worshipped or "been to church." That's one of the things that makes us "traditional."

Like emergent/missional churches we wholeheartedly believe that ministry belongs to the whole people of God and that the church should do its utmost to equip and enable all of its members to fulfil their task in ministry. However, we still believe God calls men and women to a Ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Order - to have a shepherding responsibility over a Christian congregation. It would certainly be wrong for our pastors to big note themselves or lord it over their flocks, but we want to honour them and respect them as the Scriptures command us. We believe that a ministry of preaching, teaching, and pastoral care requires a high level of professional skill and knowledge development, so we want our ministerial candidates to have a degree in theology as well as whatever other specialised training helps them in their ministry. Just as we want the members of our congregation who are doctors, plumbers, or garbage collectors to give themsleves wholeheartedly to their life's vocation, to be recompensed fairly for their labours and to have safe and just workplace conditions, so we want our pastors to have the same. In keeping with this, a large proportion of our budget goes to pastoral support and we are unapologetic about this. This makes us "traditional." Emergent/missional churches tend to frown on professional clergy as a waste of money and resources and feel (again correct me if I'm wrong) that the system obscures the priesthood and ministry of all believers, so that the pastor does all the work and nobody else does anything. It's okay to operate without paid pastors of course, but it cannot be the only way. We (and millions like us) are happy with the traditional model of pastoral supply and apparently still reasonably "missional" as well.

To me "traditional" just means doing things pretty much the way the church has always done it, and "emergent" means trying something different. By that definition our congregation is "traditional" and emergent churches are not. One can be just as effective in mission as another.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

An Open Letter to My Friends in the Emerging Church

Recently I attended a seminar during which an emergent church leader reassured his audience that the movement supported more traditional types of churches and was not making the claim that the emergent model was the only way to go but simply one of many possible configurations. "We are here to help. We believe in what you are doing. We want to affirm you and also share with you the insights of our particular model." Well that sounded pretty good to me. Later that week I went to the website of the ministry he represented and the first image I saw was of a traditional suburban church with a large "Detour" sign pointing away from it! What's going on here guys? Excuse the politically incorrect language but does the emergent church speak with forked tongue? Are you guys in solidarity with the whole of the church or not?

Off I went to another emergent church website, one belonging to the same denomination as my own, and found the image you see here, captioned "The Missional Church, turning the established church on its steeple..." Can I just say as the pastor of a more or less traditional church that I am a little offended by such images and by the anti-traditional-church rhetoric that seems to be a part of the emergent church's mandatory discourse. I think some of the emergent churches are doing great things, especially those who are identifying with the poor and the marginalised, in ways that would make some evangelical churches bow their heads in shame. I applaud the recovery of sacramental life that is evident in some quarters. Who could object to an emphasis on a missional presence in communities hitherto unreached by the church? Certainly not me. My general impression of the traditional evangelical church's response to the emergent church movement has been "Go for it; If you can reach people we can't, more power to ya. In fact. we'll give you money and personnel and prayer support and other resources to help make it happen." (At least this has been the case in my own denomination.) But what do the more traditional churches get in reply - we are mocked, ridiculed, and made the butt of jokes. We are told that we are hopelessly behind the times, that our methods are ineffective, that we aren't missional, that we don't care about reaching unreached people, that the wave of the future is with the emergent church and unless we get on board, we'll miss what God is doing.

This is particularly galling when you reflect on the fact that the leadership of the emergent church is made up of people birthed in, nurtured in, trained by, and supported by the traditional church you seem called to bag out. Please brothers and sisters I urge you not to bite the hand that feeds. We are your own family. We prayed for you, loved you, wept with you, rejoiced with you, and encouraged you to give your all in service to Christ and the Gospel. Now that you are doing that (albeit in a little different way than some might have expected) it hurts to be told we are redundant.

It is also hurtful (and myopic) to assume that the traditional church is not missional because it meets in a chapel and not in a pub or in a cafe and it sings hymns and preaches sermons and passes the plate in the good ol' fashioned way. My congregation averages about 25 people from all walks of life. Typically between Sundays, members do such things as volunteer in a cafe that ministers to street people, counsel marginalised youth, provide marriage counselling, volunteer construction help in a primary school in an impoverished area, talk to their neighbours about Jesus and the list goes on. Do people in the emergent church think they are the only ones who undertand this principle of incarnational presence in the world? Or that any of this is in any way new? What is "emergent" about this kind of living? (Does any body remember the Jesus movement. Maybe not; it was after all 30 years ago). Extending and completing the church's gathered worship by going out and serving the wider world is as old as the church itself and church history provides any number of examples of people who modelled this in magnificent ways, whether Francis of Assisi, William Booth, or St. Columba of Scotland! Little suburban churches all over the country live like this, but they are not interested in dispensing with their regular gathering on the first day of the week. They gather around Word and Sacrament each Sunday. They sit in pews. They drink coffee and chat over morning tea. It isn't hip, it isn't sexy. There's nothing emergent about it. But it's church and it's been going on for two millennia and it will continue to go on until Jesus comes again. The discipleship of these people is just as real and just as genuine, and in some cases more so, than some more hip emergents for whom these grey headed little old ladies and gents are the target of ridicule.

I have no problem with the church "scattering" into its community for mission. But I do have a problem when this scattering is set over against the church's "gathering." The church is, or should be both "scattered" and "gathered." I do not believe that sitting with a mate down at Starbucks and talking about Jesus can be called "having church." It's a great thing to do, and I wish I could do it more often, but it isn't church and it isn't the church's liturgy. The church's gathering is something concrete and identifiable. We are welcomed into a specific community through our baptism. We, the baptised, gather to narrate the story of God's saving work in Jesus Christ. We gather to be guided and taught by Holy Scripture, to hear the stories from our family album (I almost said "family history" but "history" might sound too traditional.) We gather to make Eucharist (give thanks), to break bread together in remembrance of Christ. These things have a concrete, local, specific and particular manifestation in real space and time. There is a circumference to our circle. We are those called by and named by Christ. Mission means the circle is always enlarging (or should be) but the church is not some amorphous (shapeless) thing with no boundary or identifiable limit. It is incarnate (embodied) not gnostic (reified). Our weekly liturgy, held to commemmorate the day upon which God raised Christ from the dead, is a celebration of God's saving work in Christ participated in by those who by the Spirit have been made his people. Admittedly it's not always done well or faithfully and perhaps this is why many of you in the emergent church have left more traditional churches. But it has been going on since the first Pentecost and I don't see it being replaced any time soon.

Look, pardon my passion in all this but I guess what I want to say here is that we are brothers and sisters together in the one church. We may differ from each other in certain ways and in this post I have been critical of certain blind spots I believe the emergent church has. But I believe in your right to exist. I applaud your efforts to emulate Jesus and reach people with the good news of God's love. I celebrate the grace of God at work in your faith communities. All I ask is that you return the sentiment.

Kingsley chapel message: Romans 15:23-33

I’m not sure what you think of when you hear of Spain. Maybe you think of bullfighting, flamenco dancing, or conquistadors. A lot of people think of clubbing because Spain is one of, if not, the biggest nightclub country in Europe. But when the Apostle Paul thought of Spain he thought of only one thing – the thousands there who had not heard of Christ. To get as far as Spain and to preach the Gospel was the goal and destination of his missionary endeavour. His destiny instead was imprisonment, chains, and death in Rome. (The image in this post is Rembrandt's Paul in Prison)

He had already stated in verse 20-22 that he wanted to preach Christ where he was not already proclaimed (vv.20-22). In order to do this he planned to visit the church in Rome en route to Spain (vv.23-24). But first he had a detour to negotiate as is clear in verses 25-29. He was on his way to Jerusalem in the service of the Lord’s people there. The Macedonians and Achaians had made a contribution to the famine-struck Jewish believers and Paul wanted to deliver this aid, before he went on to pursue his Spanish vocation. Paul seems to have been a person who was open to God’s purposes in any detours that he might meet with along the way.

You may have seen the ad on TV where a group of twenty-somethings jump onto a train somewhere in Europe and they are all excited about getting to Paris or somewhere and the conductor calls out “All aboard the express train leaving for Berlin”! They all look at each other with shocked expressions as if to say, “Berlin! We’re on the wrong train!” But then just as quickly they dissolve into laughter and excitement again, “Oh well, Berlin it is then; It’ll probably be just as much fun!”

If only we could deal with the disappointments and detours of life so well. I don’t know about you but when I have a goal in life that I don’t reach I feel like a failure. I have had a number of pretty major disappointments in life and ministry and I am sure you have also. But would you say Paul was a failure because he didn’t ever get to Spain? I don’t think so. God had other plans for him, plans which were not known to him at the time that he wrote to the Roman believers. By the time he wrote to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:6-7 he had greater clarity on his destiny. Assuming Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles (I’m sure you won’t mind me assuming that) they were probably written between the end of his first Roman imprisonment and his likely execution under Nero (A.D. 63-67). By this time he was able to write, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” In Romans he is coming to Rome via Jerusalem and en route to Spain. In 1 Timothy he has come to Rome to die and he never will see Spain. The missionary trip to Spain was a straightforward plan, all laid out and fully in keeping with Paul’s vocation as a missionary. But it was not to play out the way he expected.

What is your Spain? What has God called you to do? Keep heading toward it. But be aware that God may have something else in mind. Paul never did get to Spain, but he sure went a long way in the attempt and he sure did a lot of good along the way. So we haven’t met our life goals yet. So we are not today where we thought we would be five, ten, or twenty years ago. So what? This will only feel like a failure to us if we are self-made, self-directed, career-focused success mongers. But we are not that; we are servants of God and of Christ. We go where God disposes and we do as much good as we can wherever we find ourselves. Have we failed because we felt God called us to a certain thing and we never did get there? I’m not talking about those who are in disobedience because they don’t follow God’s call. But there are those who wholeheartedly set the course of their life in one direction and end up somewhere else. This is not failure at all. It’s simply reassignment.

I was recently reading of a man who left the Catholic priesthood and felt shame and guilt because he had left his vows. While he was still a Jesuit, because he had taken a vow of poverty, he could not give or receive personal gifts, even at Christmas. His niece said to him, “Uncle I bought you a present this year but I can’t give it to you because Mummy said you aren’t allowed to own anything.” “That’s right darling,” he answered. “And that’s because you’re a priest isn’t it?” “Yes sweetheart that’s right.” “Well, that’s OK,” she assured him, “I’ll just keep it and give it to you when you’re a man again.”

To come to the realization that one is allowed to be “just a man” without other identifying or legitimizing features is a liberating thing and if it is God’s appointment that we move from one thing in life to another there need be no sense of shame or failure involved. If your Spain becomes your Rome just remember your God is still your God, you are still his child, and your life remains where it has always been – in his hands.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Quote of the Week

"Postmodernism, at least as applied to history, is an intellectual dead end which will one day be equated with pseudo-sciences such as phrenology ["reading" the bumps on people's heads] in the early nineteenth century and the study of the paranormal later...[It] will be seen - sooner one hopes rather than later - for an 'emperor's clothes' phenomenon, and...there will be wonderment that so many clever people wrote, believed, and applauded so much manifest nonsense, and were promoted for doing so; and that it it inspired the writing of so much ugly, pretentious, jargon-ridden English."
- R. M. Thomson reviewing K. Ashley and P. Sheingorn, Writing Faith: Text, Sign and History in the Miracles of Sainte Foy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999 in The Journal of Religious History 30:3 (October 2006): 375.

The same issue of the JRH has an excellent article by Joanna Cruickshank, "Appear as Crucified For Me: Sight, Suffering, and Spiritual Transformation in the Hymns of Charles Wesley," of which you can read an abstract here. For a lengthier synposis you can visit the August 1st entry on Joanna's blog.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Ned Kelly and the Wesleyan Preacher

At left is a remarkable image of the death mask made from Ned Kelly's actual features and displayed at the wax museum in Bourke St in 1880. This is from the interesting Kelly archaeology site Two Huts

A little known story of Ned Kelly is his death row encounter with the Wesleyan preacher John Cowley Coles. The story is told in the generously titled book The Life and Christian Experience of John Cowley Coles Giving the History of Twenty-seven Years of Evangelistic Work in the Colony of Victoria, Australia and elsewhere, principally in connection with the Wesleyan Methodist Church, also chapters on the doctrine of entire sanctification and the enduement of power, with an account of the social conditions and mode of life of the diggers in the early days of gold digging in the same colony, written (at the request of many of his friends) by himself (London: Marshall Brothers and Melbourne: M. L. Hutchinson, 1893). Boy, they really liked long book titles in those days! Coles held services for the inmates of the Melbourne Gaol and members of his Band meeting were keen to know if he would be visiting Kelly. He applied to the governor of the gaol “as representing a Christian Church” but the governor said, “No, Kelly is a Catholic and has his own minister.” Not to be put off so easily Coles and his Methodist friends prayed that “the Lord would open the cell door” in order that he might “enter and see Kelly, in order to talk with him about his soul.”

Soon after at the conclusion of one of the prison services, a warder approached Coles and asked if he would like to see Kelly. He said he would but that the governor would not allow it. The warder told him there was a regulation that any prisoner who requested it could see the minister who had been conducting the service. The warder went to see if Kelly wanted to speak with Coles and was told that he did and that he had heard every word of the service from his prison cell. Here is the fascinating description Coles gives of Kelly. "This man by no means looked a ruffian. He had rather a pleasant expression of countenance. He was one of the most powerfully built and finest men that I ever saw. He treated me with great respect, listened to all I had to say, and knelt down by my side when I prayed."

As for Coles’ ministry approach to Kelly here is how he describes his advice to the captive bushranger. "I refused to hear anything from him about his bushranging exploits, but I kept him to this – that we might die any moment. I might not live another half-hour; but if he did not die before he was sure to be executed on a certain day, and that he was a sinner standing in need of a Saviour…He evidently wanted me to think that he did not care for his position, and that he would see it out like a man."

This was some time after the 22nd September, 1880. Coles spoke with Kelly again, this time for “about a minute or two” on the 7th October, along with the Rev. R. Fitcher, who conducted the service that day. Kelly was “heavily ironed, going to the exercise yard.” On the 20th October, after preaching at Kelly’s request, Coles accompanied Kelly to his cell. Coles had preached from the text “Prepare to meet your God.” Immediately he set him straight on his purpose in such visits. "Do not think, Kelly, for one moment that it is out of any foolish curiosity to see you that I have sought these interviews with you; nothing of the sort. Indeed, I wish I could be spared the pain of seeing an intelligent young man like you in such an awful position. My sole object in speaking to you this morning is to impress on you the fact that you have a soul to be saved, or for ever lost; that Christ died for the chief of sinners, and if you will but be sorry for your sin and confess it to God and ask for mercy for Christ’s sake, He will have mercy on you."

Kelly’s response shows a remarkable openness and an exercised conscience as he reflected on his bushranging exploits. "I have heard all that you said this morning…I believe it all. Although I have been bushranging I have always believed that when I die I have a God to meet…When I was in the bank at Jerilderie, taking the money, the thought came into my mind, if I am shot down this moment how can I meet God?" Coles and Kelly then knelt side by side and prayed together. Upon standing Kelly crossed himself and thanked the preacher for his ministry. This was the last time the two men spoke together. Before long Kelly went to the gallows. Coles did not attend the execution. "I could have done the man no good by doing so,” he reflected, “and was saved the pain seeing a fellow creature ushered into the presence of God.”

This is a touching portrait of a little known instance of pastoral care in a moment of personal crisis. Kelly the penitent Catholic Christian kneels beside Coles the forthright Wesleyan preacher, the two men together calling upon God to grant mercy to a fallen sinner.

If you enjoyed this blog entry you might also enjoy the following: Ned Kelly and the Anglican Bishop; The History Wars; "Wiping Out" the Aborigines and The Proposition

Ned Kelly and the Anglican Bishop

Bushrangers have been seen as heroes and champions of the underdog, who, Robin Hood style, robbed from the rich to give to the poor (or at least to unseat the rich from the arrogance of privilege). On the other hand, they have also been seen as mad dogs, murderers, scoundrels, and rebels, deserving the full weight of civilization’s unbending justice. Australia’s most famous bushranger Ned Kelly (1855-1880) has generated both sets of sympathies.

According to Bill Gammage, “Bushranger is an Australian word. It evokes bushcraft, daring, defiance, and freedom from convention, rather than crime or evil. It touches an Australian nerve [as evidenced by] G. T. Dicks’ 1992 A Bushranger Bibliography [listing] over 1200 books [almost 100 on Ned Kelly]." Sympathy for Kelly is not something read back anachronistically into a distorted past. It began during his lifetime and has continued to the present. I recently came across the following interesting incident in Morna Sturrock’s biography of Bishop James Moorhouse, Bishop of Magnetic Power (2005) while reviewing her book for History Australia, which brings sympathy for Kelly into focus. The second Anglican Bishop of Melbourne, Moorhouse, visited north-west Victoria in October-November 1878. The newspaper headlines spoke of the “Mansfield Outrage,” Sgt. Michael Kennedy having been shot dead by Ned Kelly, alkong with three other cionstables, at Stringybark Creek. His body was brought into Mansfield and Moorehouse was called upon to preach there. Kennedy (and Kelly) were Catholic but Moorehouse visited his grieving widow to console her and also to strongly advise her against viewing “the poor disfigured corpse” of her husband. Half his face had been shot off and a wild animal had chewed off his left ear sometime over the three days his body lay in the bush before it was discovered. "She agreed," wrote Moorhouse, "that I should go and see if the sight were fit for her; and when I told her it would be wicked for her in her state of health to subject herself to such a shock, she went quietly home. I attended the poor Sergeant’s funeral. The Priest asked me to walk with him at the head of the procession."

The funeral service, from St. Francis Xavier’s Catholic Church was quite an ecumenical occasion with Moorehouse leading the procession along with Father Scanlan, Samuel Sandiford, the Anglican rector of Mansfield, and the local Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Reid. In the age of sectarianism this is quite notable. Father Scanlan had ridden by night, “along the wild road from Benalla, with the reins in one hand, and a revolver in the other.” While standing in solidarity with the victims of the crime and insisting that the perpetrators should be tracked down and arrested, at the same time Moorehouse showed remarkable sympathy for the Kelly Gang. "Poor wretches! One cannot help pitying them, crouching among the trees like wild beasts – afraid to sleep, afraid to speak, and only awaiting their execution. But bushranging is so horrible, so ruthless, so utterly abominable a thing, that it must be stamped out at any cost." Two days after the funeral while preaching in the church at Mansfield he repeated these remarks, prayed for the murderers and told the people they should “pity the poor wretches who caused us to mourn over these disasters.”

Not long after the funeral, Moorehouse and his wife stopped at an inn in Benalla for a meal and a change of horses. They were surprised to notice Chief Commissioner Standish, who was overseeing a yearlong search for the Kelly Gang, leave the inn without speaking with them. As the Moorehouses moved on they noticed a mounted policeman up ahead of them and others stationed here and there along their route as if keeping watch over them. Upon returning to Melbourne he was informed that the Kellys were angry at the Bishop’s influencing of public opinion against them and had planned to kidnap him, spirit him away to the mountains and hold him for ransom. While enjoying a smoke in the garden of the inn he had been in range of their rifles. However, some of the Kelly supporters thought such an action would damage their cause and so warned the police; hence the armed escort.

Many alienated small farmers and farm labourers became Kelly “sympathisers.” John McQuilton’s The Kelly Outbreak (1979) describes widespread agricultural ignorance, poverty, and disillusionment in north-east Victoria at this time. Colin Holden’s history of the Diocese of Wangaratta, Church in a Landscape, states that the Kelly Gang enjoyed support in the local community because struggling farm workers saw Kelly’s plight as an exaggerated form of their own situation. Rural newspapers of the day noted that the Kellys also enjoyed support among “the respectable and well-to-do” people, including Anglicans, “who might in other circumstances appear as supporters of law and order.” The Church of England Messenger said that bushrangers could always count on finding “punctual provisions and trusty spies among the settlers in the remote districts.”

In discussing the question of whether Kelly should be viewed as a violent psychopathic criminal or a hero of the people, more sinned against than sinner, one of my students asked whether 100 years ago we would be remembering serial killer Ivan Mallatt as favourably as we remember Kelly today. The answer to the question is “no” for many reasons, but one of those reasons is that Kelly was a popular figure in his day. Ivan Mallatt and his kind have no supporters. They are psychopaths who seem to kill for no reason and with no remorse. 38,000 people signed a petition for Kelly’s pardon. No one today advocates for Millatt. Kelly was a violent man enmeshed in the criminal underworld of north-east Victoria in age of widespread police brutality and corruption. Criminals are the results of both nature and nurture; communities produce them as much as women give birth to them. It was “not easy being an Irishman in Queen Victoria’s colony.” People do not commit crimes simply because they are evil and the world is not a place made up of men and women who are either good or evil. We are more complex creatures than that. I think Bishop Moorehouse understood this and so he prayed for the “poor wretches” who made up the Kelly gang and he exhorted his flock to have pity on them. So was Kelly a hero or a criminal? Probably both.

If you enjoyed this blog entry you might also enjoy the following: Ned Kelly and the Wesleyan Preacher; The History Wars; "Wiping Out" the Aborigines and The Proposition

Friday, September 22, 2006

Love Behind Enemy Lines 2

Mark 7:31-37

In Love Behind Enemy Lines 1 we considered Jesus' healing of the Syro-Phoenician woman. The scene now shifts, in Mark 7:31-37 to the Decapolis. This was a region of ten cities in Palestine, east of the Jordan river, including Damascus, mostly populated by pagans. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, “The cities of the Decapolis…were organized entirely along Hellenic lines; had Greek worship and Greek games, and were always hostile to Jews.” (Richard Gottheil and Samuel Krauss, “The Decapolis”)

So again we have Jesus in foreign territory, behind enemy lines, as it were, continuing to break through racial and religious boundaries and take the love of God to all people in need. Here some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him. Again we see faith being exercised for the sake of another. Earlier a mother on behalf of a demon possessed daughter; here friends on behalf of a deaf mute. A couple of weeks ago I went to hear two lectures at Whitley College by Professor David Bebbington, a leading historian of British evangelicalism from the University of Stirling. As well as being an historian he is also a keen observer and commentator on worship practices and he was asked during question time what he believed was the major change in worship in Great Britain over the last 40 years. His reply was disturbing. He said that intercessory prayer - prayer for others beyond the congregation - had all but disappeared in evangelical and charismatic churches. There was plenty of prayer for those present in the church. Many people received prayer at the altar for all kinds of personal, physical, emotional, and spiritual problems, but prayer was rarely offered for anyone not present. Historically this has always been part of the church’s liturgy. We are commanded in scripture to pray for governments and all in authority. It doesn’t matter whether we voted for them or not, we are to pray for them. We must pray for peace, pray for our church leaders, pray for the sick, pray for the hungry, pray for the homeless, pray for those who struggle with mental illness, pray for drug users, pray for those who cannot pray for themselves.

When asked why he thought this alarming trend had developed Prof. Bebbington said that in his view it was a result of the widespread cultural concern for authenticity which had also become of central concern in the churches. Now authenticity itself is certainly a good quality, but here’s how it plays out. Since I don’t really know the exact political causes of genocide in Darfur and people in my congregation may not have even heard about it, there’s no point praying about it. Since I don’t know anyone in East Timor it would seem inauthentic to pray about the situation there. I’m not sure whether its right for the Prime Minister to send more troops to Iraq so I won’t pray for them. And since people in my congregation have different opinions about whether the war in Iraq is even justified I had better not mention it. Not many people in our congregation know our National Superintendent and his wife so what’s the point of praying for people hardly anyone knows? When it comes to praying for major social problems which seem intractable, such as poverty or gambling, or drug abuse, if we are not ourselves directly involved in addressing such issues we think it would be inauthentic to pray about them. As if not praying was somehow more noble than praying! We hear an accusing voice saying. “What’s the use of praying about it if you don’t do something about it” to which of course we could as easily reply, “What’s the use of doing something about if you don’t pray about it?” People forget that praying is doing.

The people who brought the deaf mute to Jesus did not seem to suffer our contemporary angst about intercession. They had a friend in need, and they brought that friend to the place where he could get the help he needed - to Jesus. Jesus then quietly took him aside, away from the crowd, stuck his fingers in the mans’ ears and spat on his tongue. You thought he gave the Syro-Phoenician woman a hard time. At least he didn’t spit on her! What Jesus was doing here of course was touching the affected areas. He put his fingers in the man’s ears because this was the location of his disability. He spat and touched his tongue because it was here that the secondary effect of deafness was located- his inability to speak clearly. He wasn’t completely mute but his deafness had made it impossible for him to speak well. These were invasive procedures, as healing cures often are. No one likes to go to the doctor and be prodded and probed but we submit to it because our health is at stake and we want to be well again. When I first met with an orthopaedic surgeon regarding my hip replacement I found him impersonal, gruff and downright unlikeable (eventually the opeartio was performed by another surgeon - just in case Dr. Falkenberg is reading my blog as unlikely as that is). I mentioned this to my GP who is quite the opposite kind of doctor and he said, ”Yes, surgeons; are often like that; They prefer their patients unconscious.” Well Jesus is the perfect combination of GP and surgeon. He knows how to show understanding and compassion. He prefers his patients, not unconscious, but alive and well. At the same time he knows every medical procedure in the book, and he has all the specialist information to address whatever it is that ails you.

When Jesus had applied his treatment he looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to the man “Ephphatha!" (which means “Be opened!”). At this, the man's ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. What was in this look to heaven? What was in this deep sigh? In looking to heaven I wonder if he was looking to his Heavenly Father, as he did before he raised Lazarus from the dead. “Father the hour has come, Glorify your name.” He had laid aside his divine privileges when he took on the conditions of human existence. He knew he had to look to his home country and to his Father to gain the power he needed to perform these miracles of healing. So he looked up to heaven.

Accompanying this look was a “deep sigh.” How do we read this “deep sigh”? Did it come from the physical and emotional tiredness he must often have felt in his ministry? This was draining work indeed. Was there perhaps also in it that “deep sigh” at the heart of God for a universe broken by sin, sickness, disease and death. No matter how many people he healed there would always be another and another and another. While the kingdom was being announced as having come in the person of Jesus at the same time it was not then and is still not yet fully come. Everywhere around us we see the evidence of sin’s destructive power. We groan along with creation until it is delivered from the frustration to which it has been subjected because of sin. We are still waiting for that wonderful day when the glorious liberty of the sons and daughters of God will be made known and everything will be set right. But that day has not yet come. He looks to heaven and he sighs, but then, thank God, he speaks. And what he speaks is a life-giving word - Ephphatha! (“Be opened!”). At this, the man's ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. As simple as that - “be opened” and it was done.

In both of these stories we see that Jesus’ love and compassion reaches out to all people regardless of whether they are identified with the covenant community of God’s people. It’s not that there is no difference between those who are in the church and those who are not. But the difference does not lie in God’s unwillingness to bless people who are still to come to faith in him, or who have a kind of faith we might find difficult to see. In any case, we should not hesitate to bring to Jesus, both in our prayers, and as we are able, in our witness face to face with their Saviour. We can’t say, “They are not Christians; they wouldn’t be interested.” God is interested in them.

"The biblical scholar and homiletician, Fred Craddock, tells the story of a missionary sent to preach the gospel in India near the end of World War II. After many months the time came for a furlough back home. His church wired him the money to book passage on a steamer but when he got to the port city he discovered a boat load of Jews had just been allowed to land temporarily. These were the days when European Jews were sailing all over the world literally looking for a place to live, and these particular Jews were now staying in attics and warehouses and basements all over that port city. It happened to be Christmas, and on Christmas morning, this missionary went to one of the attics where scores of Jews were staying. He walked in and said, "Merry Christmas." The people looked at him as if he were crazy and responded, "We're Jews." "I know that," said the missionary, " What would you like for Christmas?" In utter amazement the Jews responded, "Why, we'd like pastries, good pastries like the ones we used to have in Germany." So the missionary went out and used the money for his ticket home to buy pastries for all the Jews he could find staying in the port. Of course, then he had to wire home asking for more money to book his passage back to the States. As you might expect, his superiors wired back asking what happened to the money they had already sent. He wired that he had used it to buy Christmas pastries for some Jews. His superiors wired back, "Why did you do that? They don't even believe in Jesus." He wired back: "Yes, but I do."(Dirk Ficca, “The Look On His Face.")

If we believe in Jesus we will have a similar generosity toward people that crosses racial, ethnic, and religious boundaries. Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone about his healings but the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” Why Jesus does not want people to tell others about him is uncertain. Perhaps he wanted to wait for the right time before making his Messianic identity public. One thing’s for sure, though. He has not sworn us to secrecy, but has done exactly the opposite - commissioned us to preach the good news.

Pray for those you love who are in need. Don’t give up on them. Argue with God. Don’t be easily put off if he delays his answer. Be like that stubborn Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30 whose love for her daughter was so great that she took desperate measures to get help for her - talking back to Jesus until she got the help she needed. As you are given opportunity introduce people to Jesus as the friends of the deaf mute man did. Have the same confidence that they did when overwhelmed with amazement they declared, “He has done everything well.”

Jesus’ love goes behind enemy territory into the camp of sinners and he touches them and heals them and brings them into his family. We are called to follow him outside the camp, to go with him behind enemy lines, to risk the shame of identifying with those who do not yet know him, so that they will have a better chance of finding out who he is. They may not yet believe in Jesus, that is true. But we do, and because we do, we can never give up on anyone.

If you liked this post you might also enjoy Love Behind Enemy Lines (1)

Monday, September 18, 2006

Door to Another World

Our church is undergoing remodelling at the moment. A couple of weeks ago Christop visited and took this great photo. I wasn't sure what it evoked in me. Hopefully not "this church is a door to nowhere" or "we serve free bricks." Christop assures me had something else in mind. "I was thinking more along the lines of a gateway to a different kind of world. Or the idea that the church isn't dependant on buildings."

Friday, September 15, 2006

Love Behind Enemy Lines

Mark 7:24-37

In the story of Jesus' encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman and the story of a deaf man from the pagan region of the Decapolis that follows it, we have examples of Jesus’ love going behind enemy lines into pagan territory and reaching the foreigners beyond the boundaries of Israel.

Jesus treats the Syro-Phoenician woman quite rudely and there seems no getting around that fact. This is even clearer in Matthew’s version (15:21-28). Mark doesn’t tell us exactly what the woman said when she made her request but Matthew tells us that she cried out “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly” and that when Jesus heard this he “did not answer a word.” So the first thing he does is ignore her.

The next thing he seems to do is disqualify her whole race from receiving the benefit of his ministry. When the disciples urge him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us,” Jesus seems to disqualify her whole race when he answers “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

He has ignored her; he has racially slurred her; and now he just comes right out and calls her a dog. Matthew tells us she knelt before him (Mark says she begged him) and cried out “Lord, help me!” and he replied, “It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs.”

The amazing thing is that none of this deterred her. She just flat out contradicts Jesus in Matthew’s account when she says. “Yes it is, Lord. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table.” What incredible tenacity! What holy stubbornness! What great faith! And this last thing is what Jesus ultimately commends her for. Jesus said to her, in Matthew‘s account, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour. Her faith was in her answer as Mark’s account makes clear, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Do you really think Jesus was rude and uncaring toward this woman and that he needed to be convinced of her plight before he would have mercy on her and her daughter? Of course not. This woman was driven by love for her daughter. Sure she was a Syrian - a Syro-Phoenician - a Gentile dog, but Jesus knew that a pagan mother’s tears over her tormented daughter were seen by God just as surely as the tears of a Jewish mother. “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” That cry went up to the ears of a merciful God and was answered.

The deaths of Islamic children in southern Lebanon are as painful to the father heart of God as the deaths of Jewish children in northern Israel. God doesn‘t take sides in politics. He’s not half so interested in whether Israel has a right to defend its borders or Hizzbolah has a right to exist in Lebanon. He sits in the heavens and laughs at the schemes of men but he weeps at the blood of children and the tears of mothers. Larry Huch, a Texas pastor and a regional director of Christians United for Israel, was recently defending Israel's right to self-defence at a rally in Washington, DC. In his speech he said, “We will not turn the other cheek.” What the…? Run that by me again. “We will not turn the other cheek?” Now we all feel that way sometimes - that the teachings of Jesus are hard or even impossible to obey, but to come right out as a minister of the Christian church and say it? “We will not turn the other cheek; We will not obey the teachings of Jesus. We will no longer see the Sermon on the Mount as our code of conduct or even as our ideal.” Now hopefully Pastor Larry said this in an unguarded and unconsidered moment caught up in a flush of political rhetoric, engaging his mouth before his brain was in gear. But this is what happens when the racial or political definition of a person makes their blood more excusable to spill. Makes their mother’s tears less keenly felt because they are our enemy’s tears. Makes their father’s deaths more acceptable because after all he was a terrorist and deserved to die.

Jesus was not rejecting this woman or her race, though he seemed to be at first. He was a master psychologist. He knew how to bring out the best in a person’s faith. He strung her along for awhile so that she could exercise her faith and demonstrate the earnestness of her request. Might he sometimes do the same for us? We pray and he seems to ignore us. We plead and his silence seems like an insult to us. We intercede for our loved ones and the heavens seems shut up like brass. What do we do? Go away dejected? Nurse a grudge against him? Or are we like this woman? Insistent. Not easily dismissed. Worrying the Lord night and day until he gives us what we want for those we love. Do we have in our prayers the honesty and the courage and the integrity to contradict God, not to take “no” for an answer? When Jesus seems to say to us as he said to this woman, “It is not right…” do we just give in and say, “oh well that’s it then“ ? Or do we say as she said, “Yes it is Lord. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table.” OK I’m a dog; I’m unclean; I know I’m a stranger to the covenants and promises of Israel. I know all that. But I’m a mother and I have a sick child, and I will take whatever crumbs you toss my way to see her get well again.

Our dog Ami sometimes jumps up on a chair while we are eating dinner and looks longingly at what we are eating hoping for a handout. She closes her eyes, as if in closing her eyes we won’t notice she’s there. This is her passive approach. But if that doesn’t work and she’s particularly hungry and what we are eating is meat-based, she may adopt her more aggressive style which is to utter a little growl that says “gimme food” and make a little snapping motion with her mouth as if to say “…and stick it in ’ere!” Of course she runs a big risk in adopting this more aggressive approach, because while we may be willing to accept her presence at the table with her eyes closed she is very likely to be roused on and sent away if she tries this more aggressive stance. But if she’s hungry enough it’s a risk she’s prepared to take. This Syro-Phoenician woman seems to have a similar strategy and to run a similar risk. She approaches Jesus and calls out for mercy but when he seems to ignore her and dismiss her she gets more insistent. When he says, “It is not right to feed the children’s food to the dogs” she growls back and snaps out, “Yes it is. For even the dogs eat the food that falls from the table.” Jesus sees great faith behind her aggressive petition and her strategy pays off.

When this woman went home she found the demon had left her daughter and she was once again in her right mind. And it was all because of the compassion of a loving God and the insistence of her faith against all the odds that she would be heard. Lord give us such faith!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water

The worst film I have seen this year, hands down, is M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water In fact each of his films after a great start with The Sixth Sense was a little less accomplished than the previous one. The only good thing about the film is Paul Giamatti who is a great actor and does his best with the poor material he has to work with. Shyamalan needs to give up this whole "Writer-director-auteur-cameo filling player of all instruments in the band" thing and hire a decent writer. He has to put some distance between his own undisciplined vision and the final product. If he has minders and advisers he sure isn't listening to them. The dialogue is indulgent and stupid new age psychobabble crap (boy I really did hate it didn't I?) It's a bedtime story he made up for his kids and on that level maybe it works but if I'm going to shell out my hard earned dollar (OK the Boy Wonder paid on this occasion but you get the point) I want a better story than "a water person came to the earth people to save the world but the big bad wolves with grass for fur ("scrunts" - almost a very bad word indeed) tried to kill her so all the people in the apartment got together to save her, then the big eagle came swooping down from the sky and the earth and water people could now live in harmony again. " Puh-lease! When he is told this mythical story the main character shows no incredulity at all, buys the whole scenario and when he passes the story on to everybody else in the building they show a similar and totally unrealistic propensity to just accept the whole far-fetched story without question. OK all fantasy films are far-fetched - no problem there, but there need to be real world characters who find the fantastic elements of the story at least somewhat difficult to believe, in order to provide a sense of authenticity to the narrative. In previous films the director has written himself into relatively unobtrusive cameos. This time he has a major role - no less than a misunderstood writer who will write a book that others will read which will change the course of human destiny. Such humility! And he's not even a very good actor. I have enjoyed all of his films until now. For awhile I thought maybe he could have been this generation's Hitchcock but now the wheels have fallen off all of that. Ironically, he takes himself far too seriously to be considered seriously any more. And what's with those monkey things that turn up at the end to chase the scrunt away? Simian versions of the lupine scrunt they look like something the intern cooked up playing around with the digital software when everybody was out of the studio getting krispy kremes. Okay I'm finishing this post before I lose my last trace of composure.

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

"What the...?" of the Week

"We will not turn the other cheek." - Larry Huch, Texas pastor and a regional director of Christians United for Israel, defending Israel's right to self-defence at a rally in Washington, DC.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The History Wars

The Prime Minister has recently called for a renewal of history teaching in Australian secondary schools, with the suggestion of making history a compulsory subject in all schools. Mr. Howard is concerned about how we are to preserve, in an increasingly pluralistic society, a sense of Australian national identity, without an overarching and coherent narrative. “I do not believe,” he said, “that you can have any sensible understanding and, therefore, any sensible debate about different opinions of Australian history unless you have some narrative and method in the comprehension and understanding of history. How you can teach issues and study moods and fashions in history, rather than comprehend and teach the narrative, has always escaped me.” (“Summit divides over compulsory history,” The Age 17.08.06)

Just last week a summit of historians, politicians, and educators met in Canberra to discuss the Prime Minister’s proposal. This seems like a welcome trend but there are some who are concerned about the possible “politicization” of history that may result from such an approach. If Australia is to have an “official” history, if the Prime Minister is to appoint the historians who write the curriculum, if government funding is to be directed to some projects and not others, then whose version of history will be sanctioned? Already the opposition Labor Party is concerned that the government wants to rewrite history to reflect its own conservative world-view. Opposition education spokeswoman Jenny Macklin said in The Age “The teaching of history is very important in our schools but the last thing we want is John Howard pushing his ideology down the throats of our children.”

Is this just the opening round in the next campaign of the “history wars”? Debates about the nature of the past are hugely significant in shaping the identity of any people and in charting a way forward into the future. The heart of the argument can be traced back to a phrase coined by Geoffrey Blainey (left) in his Latham Lecture of 1993 and then subsequently picked up by John Howard when he won government in March 1996. Blainey referred to the pessimistic view of Australian history as “black-armband history.” Earlier generations had held a very positive “three cheers for the British and their great accomplishments” kind of history. This at least was the history I was taught at school. There was lots of flag raising, and military uniforms, with the Aborigines somewhere in the background looking on from behind trees, waiting to perform cultural ceremonies to the delight of their newly arrived guests. No blood was spilt (or very little) in the history I learned at school. Words like “genocide” or “massacre” were never used. Blainey held that in reaction to this overly rosy view the pendulum had swung too far the other way and on overly pessimistic view had emerged resulting in an equal but opposite historical jaundice. (It should be noted that black armbands were used in the Aboriginal protest movement in the 1970s, before Blainey coined the term, as a symbol of Aboriginal dispossession.)

The person most responsible for this “black armband view” of Australian History, according to Blainey, was Manning Clark (above), the man usually seen as the founder of the approach to Australian History as Australian, rather than as an episode in British history. Blainey maintained that a “guilt industry” had emerged from Clark’s work outsides of the historical profession – in the ABC, in the Australian Labor Party, in educational institutions, and in the High Court. Too much emphasis was being placed, it was said, on the dispossession of the Aborigines, and on the destructive impact on the environment of European civilization. White Australians were racist, sexist, militarist, and exploitative and they needed to make reparations. John Howard, picking up on Blainey’s criticisms came into office in 1996 asserting that “the balance sheet of Australian history is a generous and benign one.” This appealed to an Australian sense of patriotism and national pride and no doubt contributed to a Liberal victory. [Mark McKenna, “Black-armband history,” in Graeme Davison, John Hirst, and Stuart Macintyre, eds. The Oxford Companion to Australian History (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001), 73.]

More recently controversy has broken out over the nature of the dispossession of the Aborigines in Tasmania. In 2002 Keith Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History made the claim that the “genocide” of Tasmanian Aborigines was a myth and that there had been no widespread massacres of Aboriginal people during the period of white settlement there. He argued that the Aborigines had no sense of ownership of land; such an idea was not part of their mental universe so they could not be said to have had their land stolen from them. The land was “terra nullius” – an empty land, belonging to no one and so legitimately appropriated by the British crown.

Windschuttle’s book created a storm of controversy and seasoned historians of Aboriginal and settler relations on the frontier, such as Henry Reynolds, clashed head on with Windschuttle’s hypothesis, as well as with his historical method and accuracy. Winschuttle became something of a cause celebre among right wing conservatives and The Australian ran a series of pro- and anti-Windschuttle pieces that kept the debate in the national consciousness for quite a while. For its own part The Australian tended to editorialize in favour of Windschuttle and he became something of a figurehead for those who opposed the “black-armband” approach to history. Professor Robert Manne, one of Australia’s leading public intellectuals, has lamented the way that “so many prominent Australian conservatives have been so easily misled by so ignorant, so polemical and so pitiless a book.” [Robert Manne, ed. Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History (Melbourne: Black Inc. Agenda, 2003), 11.

The latest move from the Prime Minister continues to stir the pot on our national history. So here we are in Australian in 2006 certain that history matters, and that the generally understood narrative of a nation does indeed affect national identity, politics, education, and a good deal more.

[If you liked this post you might also enjoy reading the following previous posts - Trying to Speak Good Christian in Canberra, Bring the Troops Home, "Wiping Out" the Aborigines, The Proposition and Race Riots in Cronulla.]

Friday, August 18, 2006

Back to the 80s

My daughter Ellen (on the left in the photo at right) starred in her school production Back to the 80s Thursday through Saturday of last week. We went twice. She did such a great job. Maybe I'm biased. No, I am biased, I'm her dad, but she really shone. She was an acting, singing, dancing, all star sensation and we are so proud of her. All those daggy 80s songs were kind of cool too. Here are some photos.

One of the wild and wacky cast members!

"Cory" dreams of better days.

The "male" (?) teacher of the production (Ellen goes to a girls school).

Cory and his daggy friends.

These guys got married in the end.


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