Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas reflection: What is it like to be 'truly human'?

Sight Magazine has published an article I wrote recently. It can be found here.

Gorman: Faith, church...

More from Michael Gorman's Reading Paul.

"Faith is a complex human experience, and [the apostle] Paul preserves this complexity while giving it a unique twist. While affirming its character as trust and conviction, Paul connects faith to the experience of Jesus as God's faithful Son. Faith is more than trust; it is also fidelity, or loyalty."

"The church, therefore, is a visible, even a 'political' reality, rather than just a group with invisible 'spiritual' bonds, whose mission it is to be a living commentary on the gospel it professes, the story of the Lord (Jesus) in whom the church exists..."

Hope: The trust-filled conviction...

"Hope, as the future tense of faith, is the trust-filled conviction that God will soon fulfill all promises and vindicate the faithful; this conviction enables a life of dedication to God (faith) and to others (love) in spite of having to share in the cross of Christ now." (From Michael Gorman's Reading Paul, page 166)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Doctrinal superiority?

Recently I visited a church of a particular denomination. It's a lovely church, with very sound teaching in the sermon. After the service one of the ministers chatted with me. In our conversation we discovered that we both liked the teaching of certain well-known Bible teachers. It was a good conversation... so far...

As the conversation continued, this minister started to tell me the differences between the belief of his denomination and that of others. In one case he said that one particular pastor of a church in another denomination was "liberal" (meaning "dangerous", I assume). In another case he said that his doctrine was very similar to a particular group of people in another denomination (which is known to be very conservative, and hence "safe" for this minister, I assume).

But this minister was eager to point out that there were still differences between the doctrine of this group and his denomination. And then he went on to say that people in this group would prefer to go to a church in his denomination when they were away on holidays.

At the end of the conversation I felt that what he was really saying was that the doctrine of his church/denomination was superior to that of everyone else.

I hope I am not misrepresenting his view here. (To be fair to him I won't name his church or his denomination, just in case I misrepresent him somehow.)

After the conversation I was glad that I had not told him which church I normally attended. And now, when I think about it, I am not sure whether I want to see him again, in case he asks me what church I belong to and despise me - and my church - as a result. Of course I am not ashamed of my belief, but I am not sure whether we can have a pleasant conversation if there is a sense of perceived superiority in the mind of one party.

As I read the New Testament I find that church division is something that God doesn't desire at all. It is true that Bible-based "healthy teaching" is absolutely important (as it is emphasised in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus). But equally Paul teaches us to receive one another with love, allowing diversity in the church. We are to be united as one people in the body of Christ. One has to accept that, as church history tells us, respected Christians do hold somewhat different doctrines. I respect both Calvin and Wesley, for instance, although there are differences between their doctrines. I believe that we need to study the Scriptures carefully and diligently. But at the same time I believe that we need to remain humble and learn to hear each other's voice and opinions. We need to be more gracious.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gorman on Ethics, the Church's Mission, Cruciformity

More quotes from Michael Gorman's Reading Paul. Personally, I like Gorman's idea of story. That is, our life is shaped by Christ's story, and our life is to be a living story for the world to see. These stories all centre on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Christian ethics is the resurrection power of the justifying, cruciform, three-in-one God expressing itself as the sign of the cross in daily life. (p. 130)

[The church's] mission... is to be a living commentary on the gospel it professes, the story of the Lord (Jesus) in whom the church exists and who lives within the assembly. (See especially Phil 2:1-15.)... This countercultural community is not produced by human effort, nor does it occur to perfection overnight; it is a process of divine activity and communal and personal transformation (e.g. Rom 12:1-2; 1 Thess 3:11-13; 5:23-28). To be holy is to be different, different from those outside the church and different from the way we used to be, changed from what was "then" to what is "now" (Gal 4:8-9;1 Cor 6:9-11; Eph 2:1-6; Col 3:1-7). (p. 134)

Cruciformity is cross-shaped existence in Christ. It is letting the cross be the shape, as well as the source, of life in Christ. It is participating in and embodying the cross. It may also be described, more technically, as non-identical repetition, by the power of the Spirit, of the narrative of Christ's self-giving faith and love that was quintessentially expressed in his incarnation and death on the cross. It is, therefore, a narrative spirituality, a spirituality that tells a story, the story of Christ crucified. (pp. 146-7)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Multi-faith world: East and West

One challenge for Christians today is that we live in a multi-faith world. But I see differences between the East and the West. I have lived in the West (English-speaking) for over 20 years, and I grew up in an Asian city. In the following I want to share some of my observations. I admit that my observations are somewhat subjective, but I hope it can be helpful to those interested in this topic.

In Australia I see roughly two responses to our increasingly multi-faith society. (Of course these two do not represent everyone's response, but I hope these rough categorisation can help to facilitate the discussion.)

(1) On the one hand, there are Christians who don't feel comfortable with it. They are concerned that it will dilute our "Christian heritage". (Whether we can still speak of a "Christian heritage" today is, of course, debatable, because our society is very secular nowadays.) Some of them (hopefully the minority) are not keen for Australia to accept too many migrants and/or asylum seekers because most likely they come from non-Christian faith backgrounds. (From the perspective of the gospel, I think that it is in fact a good thing to have people of other faiths come to Australia, for this creates the opportunities for us to share the love of Christ with them.)

(2) On the other hand, increasingly I meet Christians who think that other religions can lead people to God (ie. the Creator God in the Bible). These Christians are sick and tired of the aggressive type of evangelism done by certain churches. They are aware that ours is a multi-faith society, and people of other faiths are good people. They think that Christians should not judge these non-Christians and there is a good chance that they are saved (ie. will have eternal life) anyway - because other religions can lead people to the Creator God.

As someone who used to have a non-Christian faith background (a mix of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and ancestral worship), I wonder whether the above are "Western" responses. I wonder whether the above two responses are very much conditioned by our historical background of a society shaped by a Christian culture - ie. whether people go to church or not, most believe that there is a God and that God is the God of the Bible.

Many feel that Christianity in Australia has been historically a majority religion. As our society gradually changes to a multi-faith one, we either resist the change (as in (1) above), or we change our previous concept of Christianity to find a new meaning to our way of life (as in (2) above).

In the East, however, historically and in reality today, Christians are often the minority. I suggest that this is very similar to the situation of the earliest church in the Bible. In Acts and in Paul's letters, we find Christians living in a multi-faith society, where the majority of people in the society worshipped other gods.

When I became a Christian, most of the people around me worshipped other gods and/or belonged to a particular Asian tradition. Many of my Christian friends experienced some form of rejection - sometimes persecution - because they had chosen to follow Jesus.

In my case I do not reject people of other faiths - because I was one of them before, and my heart is to let them know the love of Christ rather than reject them.

At the same time, personally, I find it hard to think that other religions can lead people to Christ. I was there before. My former religious background was a mix of polytheism, pantheism and a cultural tradition that went back thousands of years. If there is anything from other religions that can lead me to the amazing grace and love of God as revealed in Christ, it would have been something my previous faith background. (I admit that this is quite subjective.) True, there are many elements of that faith that are noble and indeed similar to Christianity. But there are unique aspects of Christ's life, death and resurrection that I cannot find in my previous religion. I tend to think that it might be possible that very good people from non-Christian backgrounds may be saved by God's grace. But the reality is that all of us are sinners and it is hard to break free from our sins. I did try to be a good person for many years in my previous religion and tradition, yet I found myself a sinner and yearned for a freedom that I could not find anywhere except in Christ. I would think that many of us from a similar religious background and tradition would share a similar experience.

So, I hope this post will be helpful to my friends in Australia who are trying to understand our worldview (ie. one that is shaped by a historically dominant Christian presence), how that worldview influences the way we think (as in (1) or (2) above, or in other ways), and how that understanding can help us find our place in a multi-faith world.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Amazing grace: Roman justice VS the saving restorative justice of God

Here is another quote from Michael Gorman's Reading Paul.

"Roman justice was a way of bringing order out of chaos, but it resulted in a system of more justice for some (the elite) and less for others. Furthermore, it required a system of punishment and deterrence that included the shame of public crucifixion for those who threatened the order that Roman justice created. In other words,... Roman justice required the exclusion and even the destruction of anyone perceived to be a threat to the peace/the social order/justice. The descendants of Roman justice, including certain contemporary versions of domestic as well as international justice, inevitably follow a similar pattern, culminating in the destruction of the enemy...

The saving, restorative justice of God revealed in the gospel is an alternative way of setting people right with God and with one another. It takes place not by inflicting violence to the enemy, but by absorbing violence on behalf of the enemy. Its extreme modus operandi is not to crucify but to be crucified. It does not require the destruction of the enemy but the embrace of the enemy. The justice of God, therefore, is not the opposite of compassion but the very expression of com­passion. It is at once the manifestation of God's faithfulness, because this is the way God is, and of God's grace, because it is not what humans deserve. Romans 3:21-26 and especially 5:6—8 demonstrate that Christ crucified displays this kind of divine justice, simultaneously revealing that "normal" forms of justice are in fact alien to the gospel:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person - though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (Rom 5:6-8)"

If Gorman is right, there is much for us to reflect on.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Discipleship re-visited, as the church faces the temptation of cultural captivity

Here is another quote from Michael Gorman's Reading Paul.

"Today, once again, many Christians and churches face the temptations of cultural captivity, 'spirituality' without discipleship or ethics, and knee-jerk nationalism. These are all forms of cheap grace, or cheap justification—a relationship with God in which God is believed to be a kind of cosmic agent of 'salvation' (happiness, blessing, security, prosperity, etc.) who requires little or nothing of the allegedly 'saved' or 'blessed.' Cheap justification is justification without trans­formation, without conversion, without justice. Once again, someone needs to speak, not merely of grace, but of costly grace; not merely of justification by faith, but of costly justification by faith. That someone is Paul."

Of course the language of "cheap grace" and "cheap justification" is not found in Paul's letters (not literally). But Gorman's critique must be heard. Any reading of Paul's letters will find that as Christ-followers we are challenged to follow the way of the Cross. At the heart of his letter to the Romans, we find a very important verse.

Now if we are children, then we are heirs — heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:17)

In the Greek the words for "co-heirs", "share in his sufferings", and "share in his glory" start with the same prefix, which means "with-" in English. This means that, for Paul, the three are all very important and are indeed interlocking ideas and cannot be separated (especially with the connecting words "if indeed" and "in order that").

Discipleship can be costly. I personally find it very challenging. But I think ultimately it is the love of Christ that compels us to follow him wholeheartedly. For me, I am very much aware of my limitations and weaknesses, and I ask the Holy Spirit to help me on the journey.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The challenge of biblical literacy

I think the greatest challenge for the church today is that too often Christians (individually and corporately) allow others to read the Bible for us (rather than reading it ourselves).

Today I read an article entitled "The Challenge of Biblical Literacy" (written by Cheryl Catford in Faith and Life Issue 3 October 2009). Here is a quote from the introduction.

"Bible illiteracy among the general Christian population has reached alarming levels and evangelicals are not far behind. George Barna's research amongst American churches in 2000 revealed that among adult and teen believers the most widely known Bible verse was "God helps those who help themselves" (yes, you're right, it's not in there). For some Australian Christians the only encounter they have with the Bible is when a small portion appears on the screen during the weekly service - there is no need to actually touch a Bible at all."

Catford then suggests five reasons (the following sections of the article are not cited in full):

1. The demise of Sunday School

"Today, children's programs are much more entertaining but, unfortunately, the Bible does not always feature prominently."

2. The atomisation of the Bible

"But so few have been taught or grasped the whole story so the Bible becomes a confusing jumble of unrelated stories or bits of information."

3. The desire for instant individual gratification

"Often the Bible is treated as the source of instant answers to whatever problem or question the reader has. "

4. The fear of not being relevant

"However, this concern has resulted in the proliferation of sermons that have little Bible content and seem more like motivational messages."

5. The emphasis on experience

"The old fallacious dichotomy between 'Word' and 'Spirit' seemed to force a choice rather than a marriage of the two in the lives of mature believers."

I suspect that there are more reasons (not unrelated to the above). For example,

a. An over-reliance on the teaching of our 'faith-heroes' (or 'superstars in our tradition/movement/counter-movement') - we have to remember that they are not always right! We need to read the Bible ourselves!

b. A culture that embraces pragmatism (the simplistic notion of 'if it works then it must be from God') almost unconditionally

c. An increasingly popular underlying theology that downplays the importance and value of Scripture

In the conclusion, Catford says,

"And the solutions? That is for another article but suffice to say all Christian leaders need to take the situation seriously."

Something for us all to ponder.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Gormon on the gospel according to Paul

A few quotes from Michael Gorman's Reading Paul.

"Jesus was not crucified for preaching a search for God within, as the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas describes his message, but for preaching the coming of the reign of God, a political image that stirred up both hope among Jews and fear among Romans. Paul was no different; he preached the 'gospel' of God." (p. 42)

"According to Paul, the gospel of God is not a set of propositions; it is the account of the planned, executed, and soon-to-be-consummated benevolent intervention of God into the history of Israel, human history more generally, and the entire cosmos to set right a world gone awry. Both the intervention itself and the retelling of it effect transformation in those who receive the message for what it is - good news of God's action in Christ and the Spirit." (pp. 44-45)

"To be sure, Paul's gospel calls individuals to a right relationship with God, but it calls them into a community where right relationships with God and with others - both insiders and outsiders - are taught, learned, and practiced." (p. 45)

An African's view on war and violence

I picked up a book by Samuel Waje Kunhiyop called African Christian Ethics. There is a chapter on war and violence. Here is a quote from the conclusion.

"Violent means have frequently been employed to try to solve the incessant conflicts around the world. But the current situation in Africa shows that violence is not the answer. Violence produces more hatred and more violence, but never ultimately resolves the conflict.

The answer to the nagging conflicts in the church and in the continent is the non-violence that Jesus practised and instructed his followers to practise. This refusal to accept violence does not mean that we passively accept whatever is done to us, nor does it mean that we cannot use force to protect ourselves when attacked. What it does mean is that we must not accept the use of force as a means of settling conflicts. Instead, we must encourage non-violent but active resistance when dealing with African ethnic and religious conflicts.

The effectiveness of non-violent responses to oppression and injustices has been demonstrated worldwide. In South Africa, Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela stood for non-violent but active resistance to the oppressive apartheid regime. In the United States of America, Martin Luther King Jr. was the major spokesman for non-violent bin active resistance to racial segregation. Gandhi adopted a non-violent approach to solving the political crisis in India.

Only love for the enemy and the determination not to use force or violence will win conflicts and win the enemy. These attitudes provide a theologically based "framework within which to carry on the vital task of building structures that can eventually eliminate war and its causes". The only effective remedy against oppression and injustice is the replacement of evil structures that have been institutionalized with good and just structures:

'The only true answer to violence is to have the courage to face the injustice which constitutes violence ... The privileged and the authorities will come to understand that common sense obliges one to choose between bloody and armed violence, on the one hand, and on the other the violence of the peaceful: liberating moral pressure.'"

I find that this African author's approach to the issue is different from that of Western theology. Kunhiyop is aware of the Western approach (as discussed in the beginning of his chapter). But he does not go into a detailed debate regarding just war and pacifism. Rather, he looks at the wars and conflicts in Africa and then examines the Bible to find an answer. He discussed many Old Testament and New Testament passages in detail. I think it is a good approach.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Respect the Scripture and those who have suffered for it

Tonight I read a book with my son. It's about how the Bible was handed down to us. One person it mentions is John Wycliffe, who translated the Bible into English and was condemned by the religious and political institutions at the time as a heretic. I told my son that people like him suffered and/or died for the Bible, because they considered it as God's Word, and that it was to be respected and was important for our faith. Then my son said that those who persecuted people like Wycliffe were very mean.

It's true, isn't it? It comes from the mouth of an innocent child.

In my circle of friends I have increasingly come across sincere and lovely Christians who believe that certain Scriptures should be "deleted" because they cannot be from God. For example, they think that certain passages in Isaiah cannot be from God because those passages say that God is a God of vengeance. For them, these passages are incompatible with the message of love that Jesus teaches. They cannot come to terms with the tension between God's judgment and the grace of God found in Christ.

I do very much respect these Christian friends, for I know them personally and they are among the best Christians I have come across in my life. But I wonder whether their thinking stems from a Western modern worldview in which a belief system (as it is often assumed) should have as few internal tensions as possible, and that we (human beings) can get to choose which parts of the Scripture can be "deleted" when we want to resolve certain tensions. I think the earliest Christians did not have this problem. People like Luke and Paul did not seek to resolve those tensions. The biblical writers (e.g. the author of Job and Habakkuk) saw those tensions. They struggled with them. They even lamented and protested. But they learned to live with them and put themselves in the hands of a faithful and loving God.

Sometimes I think my friends are trying to deal with certain Christians/churches/doctrines that have turned the Bible into an idol and used the "authority of the Bible" as an instrument to abuse people. My friends are right in realising that there is a real problem there. The gospel message, as revealed in the Scripture, is about setting people free, not putting them in bondage. We submit to the Bible - not a particular interpretation of the Bible, a particular statement of faith or confession - as the rule of faith.

But one must respect people like Wycliffe, and many Christians in the world who have suffered and/or died for the Bible (for translating it into the common language or for keeping in their possession). They do so because they have experienced the transforming power of the Scripture as it is the revelation of the Creator God and the teaching of Christ through the Spirit.

Is social justice something that only some Christians should engage in?

Often pastors and leaders come to me and suggest that not everyone should engage in social justice. It is an important area of the church, they say. But they also think that people have different gifts and not everyone is interested in this area of ministry.

True and not true. It is true that everyone has different gifts and talents. But it is not true that individual Christians can opt out of defending the powerless. Despite our different gifts and talents, everyone of us should bear witness to Christ. Some of us use words. Some use actions. Some spend the majority of their time relating to Christians and little time on proclaiming the gospel, because their gift is not in proclaiming. But it doesn't mean that they don't pray for evangelistic activities. Similarly, not everyone is good at pastoral care. But everyone should in one way or another express their love for those in need.

In the same way, I believe that everyone should defend the cause of the poor and vulnerable. Some do it by engaging in advocacy work (e.g. writing a letter to or visiting an MP about social justice issues). Some do it through prayer and financial giving. Preachers can include justice issue in every sermon. Everyone can play a part by buying fair trade products.

The Micah mandate is not for a selected group of Christians. It's for every follower of Jesus.

"He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)

We use different gifts and talents for the cause. Some spend more time on social justice. Some spend less. But the call is for everyone.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Book review: Another Way to Love

Here is another book review for Another Way to Love. I have written a chapter in the book, but unfortunately the review doesn't mention it. Having said that, the review is very positive and says that it's a great book to read!

Click here for the review.

The apostle Paul in one sentence

I am reading Michael Gorman's Reading Paul. Here is a quote from the book (p. 8). It's a one complex sentence to describe Paul. It takes a bit of concentration to read, but it's worth the effort.

"Paul preached, and then explained in various pastoral, community-forming letters, a narrative, apocalyptic, theopolitical gospel (1) in continuity with the story of Israel and (2) in distinction to the imperial gospel of Rome (and analogous powers) that was centered on God's crucified and exalted Messiah Jesus, whose incarnation, life, and death by crucifixion were validated and vindicated by God in his resurrection and exaltation as Lord, which inaugurated the new age or new creation in which all members of this diverse but consistently covenantally dysfunctional human race who respond in self-abandoning and self-committing faith thereby participate in Christ's death and resurrection and are (i) justified, or restored to right covenant rela­tions with God and with others; (2) incorporated into a particular manifestation of Christ the Lord's body on earth, the church, which is an alternative community to the status-quo human communities committed to and governed by Caesar (and analo­gous rulers) and by values contrary to the gospel; and (3) infused both individually and corporately by the Spirit of God's Son so that they may lead 'bifocal' lives, focused both back on Christ's first coming and ahead to his second, consisting of Christlike, cruciform (cross-shaped) (1) faith and (2) hope toward God and (3) love toward both neighbors and enemies (a love marked by peace-ableness and inclusion), in joyful anticipation of (1) the return of Christ, (2) the resurrection of the dead to eternal life, and (3) the renewal of the entire creation."

I think it's a good way to understand the apostle Paul and his letters.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Reflection: A number of reflections I have recently

Enter the stories in the Bible and allow them to enter our lives, so that our lives can be deeply enriched and profoundly transformed, and that others can see those stories in our lives.

Is Christianity simply a religion that helps us to avoid God's punishment? Or is it about a deep sense of love for the true King and Creator God - and hence allegiance to him - because of our gratefulness to the risen Christ who died for us for our sins?

The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, LORD, have never forsaken those who seek you. (Psalm 9:9-10)

Caring for the poor and engaging in social justice is not so much an outcome of an intellectual-theological analysis of the Bible. Instead, it is the outworking of a profound knowledge of our God, who loves us enough to come to our world, to identify... with the suffering of humankind, to die for our sins, and to rise from the dead, so that we may have new life and shalom by faith in Christ Jesus.

I am not a Baptist, although I go to a Baptist church. I was not a Pentecostal, although I was a pastor in a Pentecostal church. I am not an evangelical, although my whole life depends on the Bible and I submit to God's word as revealed in the Scripture. I am a follower of Christ, and with the help of the Spirit I seek to live for Christ and live out the values of his kingdom. (By the way, I don't mind being called an Evangelical, Baptist, or Pentecostal, for in many ways I am. I just think that these terms are understood in so many different ways these day, and they can be misleading. At any rate, I think the Scripture says most clearly that we are followers of Jesus, rather than members of a particular denomination.)

An article by the Liberal MP Petro Georgiou

Click here for this article concerning asylum seekers in Australia. I think his views are worth listening to.

Guess who this is

Guess who this is. Someone wanted to harm him, and so he fled to another country and sought asylum. In fact, he was only a child, under two. His parents took him to another country and became refugees. Fortunately the leaders of that country did not call them "illegal arrivals" and let them stay, for soon the leader in their home country killed everyone who were two or under in the city that the child was born.

Reflection: An asylum seeker's story

Some time ago I got to know a lovely Christian man who came to Australia for asylum because of political persecution in his home country. He told me how reading the Bible sustained him, and how he was separated from his young family as he fled his country - and that he hadn't seen them since. His story breaks my heart. More recently we heard that his application for refugee status was rejected. He was devastated and had problems sleeping. His faith was tested. Many Christian friends gathered to pray for him. We waited patiently for the hearing of his appeal to take place. But the hearing was indeed 'short' because they decided to delay the hearing just before the schedule date. But last week I heard that the hearing eventually took place and straight after that he was granted permanent residence status to live in Australia. We are thankful to God for his mercy, but continue to feel his pain of being separated from his family. We struggle to understand why such a lovely Christian man has to go through all that hardship, but rejoice with him for the grace God has shown him.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Reflection: The lament of a so-called academic

Since I like studying the Scripture and I am working on a major research degree on the Bible, I am often labelled as an academic. Unfortunately this labelling comes with all sorts of negative connotations, and it causes me grief at times. Here are my protests and lament.

(1) I have done most of my academic studies part-time. For all these years I either worked in a church, or as an IT professional, or in a relief development agency. I am not an academic who doesn't know what the real world is like. Again and again pastors say to me that what they have learned from theological colleges doesn't work in practice. That is often true (unfortunately), but I hate to be classified as an armchair-theologian as such. I hope my working experience can help me read the Scripture through the lens of the joys and pains of human experience.

(2) Some people have suggested that a higher degree in theology is a sign of prestige and privileges. My experience is quite the contrary. If anything else, as I said above, I feel somewhat marginalised.

(3) Academic studies is not only hard work in itself, it is also costly. Not only that there is a financial cost, it also involves a lot of sacrifice in terms of time, security and stability. In Australia there are too few positions in theological colleges for the many trained academics. Often those who do hold a position have to work very long hours at a low wage.

(4) Lastly, my lament is that (at least in the Western world) there is a diminishing interest in the Bible. For a range of reasons, there is a tendency to rely on the teaching of well-known speakers and their books, rather than the Scripture itself. I think it is fair to say that Bible literacy is on the decline, generally speaking. The end result is that most people are not interested in studying the Bible with someone trained academically.

With these I am often discouraged. But at the same time I also feel the encouragement from the Holy Spirit to persevere. I hope in doing so many other fellow students of God's Word may be encouraged too.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Reflection: Sometimes I get into trouble when I insist on reading the Scriptures aright

One struggle I have in my teaching is that at times I get into trouble when I insist on using the Bible to understand God and his purposes for us.

Sometimes I am accused of being pedantic or too academic. But I believe that often what I say can be affirmed by a simple and commonsense reading of the biblical text - that is, if we do not have a presupposed interpretation in mind (through our church upbringing, for example).

Sometimes I am accused of being judgmental. I sincerely hope that I am not judgmental, for I simply cannot claim any moral superiority over others. But I do hope that my insistence on reading the Bible properly, and allowing it to speak to us and challenge us, can be taken seriously. I think it can be a positive experience - one that leads us closer to God and his restorative purposes for his world.

At times people react to my insistence on reading the Bible according to its original social and historical context. They say that the relevance of the Scripture's in today's world is more important. I totally agree that we need to allow the Scripture to speak to us today, and let the Spirit guide us in applying the biblical text in the contemporary world. But we simply cannot separate any literature and ancient stories from their original social and historical context. To neglect the original intent of the biblical writers (and the original understanding of the Bible's first audience) would lead us to a reading of Scripture that centres on what we think rather than the original meaning of the text. The danger is that we tend to hear what we want to hear rather than what God wants to say to us.

So I struggle along. I hope people hear my heart - a heart that desires the church to hear God's voice through the Scriptures.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Let's spend our money somewhere else

I am reading Christopher Wright's The God I Don't Understand, and have come across this quote about the enormous amount of money the world spends on weapons and armies.

"At over one trillion dollars in annual expenditure — an incomprehensible figure that continues to rise — global military spending and arms trade surpasses all other categories of global spending. The figures are astounding: In 2005 global military expenditure reached over $1,118 billion, fully 2.5 percent of world GDP or an average of $173 per human being. Accounting for 43 percent of global military expenditure, the United States is the principal determinant of world trends. American military spending, at $420 billion, dwarfs that of other high-spending countries, including China, Russia, the United Kingdom. Japan, and France - each ranging from 6 to 4 percent."

Wright is talking about the Bible's vision of the new heaven and new earth, where there will be healing to the nations (e.g. Rev 22:2). I hope that before the return of Christ God's people will advocate for better use of the nations' resources. Let's use our money in places where we can bring life rather than destroying it.

Source of the quote above: Jonathan Bonk, "Following Jesus in Contexts of Power and Violence", Evangelical Review of Theology 31 (2007): 342-57, as quoted by Christopher J H Wright, The God I Don't Understand (Zondervan: Grand Rapids: 2008), 204.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Socioeconomic hardship and persecution in the earliest church

Recently I had a chat with a theological college lecturer about whether Christians in the earliest church suffered from socioeconomic and political hardship when they were persecuted. For him, there is no evidence for that. But for me, it's quite obvious.
Think about why Joseph, Mary and Jesus had to escape to Egypt as refugees in Matthew 2. They left for Egypt because the magi just visited them and that they had told Herod that there was a King born to the Jews. Jesus was a political refugee! And that's because he was to be the King. Any refugee would know that socioeconomic hardship was part of their life. (The life as refugees would not be easy for Jesus' family despite the magi's gifts.) Imagine that you were a Christian living in the Roman Empire and that you declared that Jesus was the true Lord and King of the whole world (hence by implication Caesar was not Lord). You would not assume that your life would be easy, would you?

Another example. The imprisonment of Paul and Sila in Philippi (as in Acts) sounds like that they were in a carcer (a type of prison in the Roman Empire). According to Capes, Reeves & Richards, Discovering Paul, "The carcer entailed the harshest conditions for the worst criminals. Prisoners feared this form of custody since many died from malnutrition, exposure or disease. There were no food rations or state-issued clothing for criminals or laws governing due process. These prisons operated at the discretion of the magistrate; many prisoners were left to rot in jail." (p. 205)

Paul and Sila left the prison with relatively little hardship. But one can imagine that for many Christians in Philippi (a Roman colony), they would expect harsh socioeconomic hardship if they were persecuted. They might not be put into a carcer type of prison. But nonetheless its condition would not be like the prisons in Australia. They would have to rely on relatives and friends for food and clothing. If they were freed in the end, their health would have been deteriorated greatly. They and their loved ones would be suffering socioeconomically, which, in turn, was part of the unjust ancient Roman political system.

Ask Christians who suffered in the former Soviet Union, or ask a Christians who suffers in an oppressive regime today, they would tell us how they suffer socioeconomically and politically when they were/are persecuted.

I wonder how much our theology today is influenced by our own middle-class Western thinking? Let's read the Bible in its own social and historical context. Most Christians in the earliest church knew what it means to be poor and how it feels to live in an unjust social and political system. Let us enter their world and allow God to speak to us.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Isaiah's vision

It seems to me that the Christian hope is not about a ticket to heaven. It is, instead, about the hope of a new world in which death not longer has its power. It is about life eternal, where one day those who are in Christ will rise with him and enjoy his presence with them. It is about a new creation where we can enjoy Shalom.

What Isaiah foreshadowed was quite amazing. Read these verses in Isaiah and let them touch your life and encourage you!

25:7-8 On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people's disgrace from all the earth. he LORD has spoken.

26:19 But your dead will live, LORD; their bodies will rise — let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy — your dew is like the dew of the morning; you will make it fall on the spirits of the dead.

11:6 The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.
7 The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
8 Infants will play near the hole of the cobra; young children will put their hands into the viper's nest.
9 They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Was a tentmaker or carpenter middle-class?

One common midunderstanding about the socioeconomic status of people in the New Testament is the perception that artisans (ie. the carpenters, tent-makers, etc, in the days of Jesus) were middle-class, like a nurse or a school teacher today in the West.

Virtually all New Testament scholars would say that the vast majority of the population in the ancient world belonged to the lower class (>95%; some would say >99%). There was a huge gap between the upper and lower classes. Artisan (e.g. a tentmaker like the apostle Paul) would belong to the lower class. It's true that a tent-maker might be better off than the rest of the lower class, but he's poor socially and economically nonetheless. A part-time tentmaker like Paul would most probably be struggling greatly economically. It is very likely that the vast majority of the people in the earliest church were very poor, with only a small number of exceptions.

This doesn't mean that there weren't some kind of class divisions among the lower class. Those who were at the lowest end of the social heirachy were the widows, the chronically sick, the crippled, the prostitutes, etc.

It is, therefore, important that we bear the above in mind when we read the New Testament. We in the West are among the most wealthy, relative to the rest of the world. We all come to the Bible with our blinkers on, and perhpas we need to enter in the world of the New Testmant - including the world of the poor in the ancient world - in order to understand God's Word better. The fact is that the biblical writers (Paul, Luke, etc) were very much aware of the socioeconomic hardship that they and their audience experienced. Their audience would have heard their writings somewhat differently from us. Let's enter their world and hear them.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Who is Tom Wright?

Some time ago I spoke at a Christian gathering about the righteousness and justice of God as well as the lordship of Christ. I used some of N T (Tom) Wright's material in my presentation. Afterwards someone asked me about Tom Wright's teaching because she had heard some negative comments about him.

I don't intend to defend Tom Wright's theology here. But I think it is unfortunate that Tom Wright has attracted quite a few negative comments about his teaching. Tom Wright is a fellow follower of Jesus who has made significant contribution to the church and the academic community. Wright is not always right. Nor is anyone of us.

One rather unfortunate misunderstanding is the association of the so-called New Perspective with Tom Wright. Some Christians express grave concerns about the New Perspective. But one must note that Tom Wright would have disagreed with certain views of E P Sanders, who is a leading figure of the New Perspective. In Wright's writings he regularly points out how Sanders has got it wrong (but agrees with him at certain points, as every good academic would have done).

In a previous post, I have mentioned how I came across Tom Wright's books. (Click here for the post.) But here I would like to say again that respected scholars like Gordon Fee has spoken very kindly of Tom Wright. Click here for an interview with Fee. Similarly, people like J I Packer have recommended Wright's books. (See back cover of some of Wright's books.) I have read books written by respected respected Christian leaders/scholars like Christopher Wright, Richard Hays and others, and often they cite Tom Wright and use his materials.

(An informed reader would know that there are other opponents of Tom Wright, who come from the other end of the theological spectrum. Space does not allow me to deal with that.)

I also found an article written by Doug Green, who is a professor at the Westminster Theological Seminary. This article is worth reading if one wants to read something from a conservative evangelical perspective. Click here for the article.

It does not mean that Fee, Packer and others would have agreed with Wright all the time. Nor does it mean that Wright would have agreed with them totally. But it does mean that Tom Wright is well received by respected evangelical Christian leaders.

Everyone has to read the Bible and determine whether they agree with Tom Wright. I can only let his own teaching speak for himself. But I feel a bit sad to find that people reject a Christian like him when they themselves haven't read much of him. Let's be a bit more gracious toward one another.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

God's plan for us - Jeremiah 29:11

Recently in an address someone said that God had a plan for all of us. I don't want to get into a theological discussion for or against this. But I suppose many would have in mind Jeremiah 29:11 here.

I already talked about the word "prosper" (or "peace") in this verse in a previous post, and said that the original Hebrew word shalom conveys a much richer meaning than peace or prosperity.

Here I want to look at the context of the verse closer. The verse is part of a letter to the exiles in Babylon. The LORD's word to them was that he would bring them back from exile to their own land.

Jeremiah 29:10-14 is one of my favourite passages in the Bible. It's such a comforting passage, and it lifted my heart many times when I was going through the trials and difficulties in life. I have no problems in applying this verse to our individual circumstances.

But I do wonder whether we do take this passage too far at times. Surely the original setting of the passage is that God would rescue his people - a people suffering from oppression and immense hardship, because of their own sin and rebellion, I must add.

If anything else, the passage is about God's love for his own people, despite their own sinfulness and disobedience. But it must be remembered that this people was suffering from political and racial oppression. In the New Testament this mercy and compassion of God is clearly extended to all the peoples in the world, for the gospel is not just for the Jews but also for the Gentiles. (One must also note that this concept of worldwide lordship and compassion of Yahweh is already present in the Old Testament.)

Thus "God's plan for us" must not be understood in individualistic terms. It is not about "what's in it for me". Instead, it is about God's justice and mercy for all of his image-bearers, despite the fact that that image is no longer perfect after the fall.

On the one hand, let's take comfort from this verse as individuals. Faith in Christ is intimately personal. But on the other hand we should not privatise our faith. God's plan is for the whole humankind, and let's share this message of hope with the world, especially those suffering from hardship, poverty and injustice.

Peter Adam on "Australia - Whose Land?"

I just came across this article in Sight Magazine. It's an edited extract of a lecture given by Rev Dr Peter Adam, Principal of Ridley College, Melbourne. It is about I haven't read the whole article yet, but I think it's worth letting the readers of this blog know.

Here are two quotes from the article:

"God in His mercy may have worked some things for good when the Europeans arrived in Australia, despite much that was evil. But that does not make that act of conquest and act of will of God."

"We may think that we are not the ones to repent, because we did not commit the sins. However although the Bible teaches that we may not blame the sins of our ancestors for our suffering in order to claim that we are innocent, it also give examples of repentance for the sins of ancestors."

Click here for the article.

My pilgrimage (2) - Walking with Bible teachers

As mentioned in an earlier post, I am one of those people who try to read the Bible from cover to cover once a year (and, again, that practice does not make me superior to others in any way). Along the way I have come across two Bible teachers who have major influence on me.

Just over 21 years ago I came across a book called How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, written by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. It is about how to read the Bible within its own contexts and according to the different genres of the books in the Scripture. I learned heaps from it. One of the reasons why I liked it is that what it says resonates with my own reading of the Bible.

As I embarked on my own theological studies and later on worked on a postgraduate research project in the New Testament, I found myself studying and enjoying Professor Gordon Fee's commentaries and books all the time. I would say that he was my best Bible teacher, despite the fact that I had never met him personally.

Some years ago I eventually had a chance to sit in one of Prof Fee's public lectures at Regent College, Vancouver. At the lecture someone asked him which New Testament scholars he liked most. He was reluctant to single out anyone, but mentioned F. F. Bruce and N. T. (Tom) Wright specifically.

(Recently I found a video clip of Prof Fee in which he mentioned Tom Wright. Click here for the clip.)

At the time I was reading Bishop Tom Wright's books on the apostle Paul. Upon Prof Fee's recommendation, I have since read many of Wright's writings. I have to say that they really resonate with my own reading of the Bible. Tom Wright is able to put together a lot of things in the Bible that I would not have articulated in my own words. Yet I find myself agreeing with him because I have read the Bible in very similar ways over the last 28 years.

This does not mean that I agree with Tom Wright and Gordon Fee all the time. Nor does it mean that they are better than all the other Bible teachers. But I do have to thank them for being my teachers in my own journey of seeking God and learning from the Scriptures.

My pilgrimage (1) - Faith hero - Hudson Taylor

I read a book about Hudson Taylor soon after I came to faith in 1981. Here is a famous saying of Hudson Taylor that touched my life as a young (Chinese) Christian.

If I had a thousand pounds, China should have it. If I had a thousand lives, China should have them. No! not China, but Christ. Can we do too much for Him?

He made immense sacrifice for us. Not only that he gave up his career for the gospel. He also lost his wife and some of his children in China. He trusted in God totally for his provision, and never asked people for financial support for his mission.

Instead of working at the coastal areas in China (where other missionaries were, and where lands were taken by European countries by force), Hudson Taylor went inland. He adopted Chinese customs, put on Chinese clothes, learned the language, and used his medical skills to serve the poor. He identified with the sufferings of the Chinese people, and loved them dearly. To me, that spoke volume about the sacrificial love of Christ himself, and the gospel that I have come to embrace.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Book review: Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

I have just finished writing a brief review on Barack Obama's first book Dreams From My Father. Please click here for the review.

Challenging the culture of our time

I just borrowed Michael J Gorman's Inhabiting the Cruciform God from the library. I haven't starting reading it, but as I flipped through the pages I found a passage that is very interesting. It raises some pointed questions about the popular notion of "national interest" in the Australian political rhetoric. Here is the quote - and over to you to comment!

This brings us inevitably back... to poli­tics, to the "normal" god of civil religion that combines patriotism and power. Nationalistic, military power is not the power of the cross, and such misconstrued notions of divine power have nothing to do with the majesty or holiness of the triune God known in the weakness of the cross. In our time, any "holiness" that fails to see the radical, counter-imperial claims of the gospel is inadequate at best. Adherence to a God of holiness certainly re­quires the kind of personal holiness that many associate with sexual purity. That is one dimension of theosis. But participation in a cruciform God of holiness also requires a corollary vision of life in the world that rejects domi­nation in personal, public, or political life — a mode of being that is often considered realistic or "normal."

Source: Micahel J Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 128.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The scandal of the cross (Derek Tidball)

I just found something in Michael Gorman's blog that is very helpful. Here is an excerpt from his blog (which, in turn, cites Derek Tidball).

“The scandal of the cross continues. From Paul’s day to our own, [it] has never been anything other than a scandal, a cause of offence. People respond to its offensivness in different ways. Some ridicule it. Others try to ignore it. Chrstians, no less than others, have their techniques for reducing its shame. Long familiarity with it has lessened its absurdity and repugnance and led us to turn it into an item of beauty…. Morna Hooker comments: ‘Our problem is simply that we are too used to the Christian story; it is difficult for us to grasp the absurdity—indeed, the sheer madness—of the gospel about a crucified savior which was proclaimed by the first Christians in a world where the cross was the most barbaric form of punishment which men could devise.’”

[Derek Tidball, The Message of the Cross (The Bible Speaks Today; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001), 200.]

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A ticket to heaven? Or resurrection?

For years I thought that as Christians our destiny was heaven. In fact, when I was a pastor I used to say that to the people in the church. But then someone said that heaven was not our final destiny. Then I went back to the Scripture and I found that he's most probably right.

I have heard sermons that say that people will go to heaven if they give their lives to Jesus. But then in Acts - the book in the Bible that records the preaching of the earliest church - we don't really find the apostles preaching that kind of message. Instead, they preached the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah!

In 1 Cor 15 Paul says that what is of first importance is that Jesus died, was buried and was raised from the dead, and then he goes on to talk about the resurrection body. What is important about the gospel is not that Christians are going to heaven. Instead, the Christian hope is about the resurrection, which is based on the resurrection of Christ himself (after his death for those who have put their faith in him).

When Jesus was on the cross, he said to the person next to him, "today you will be with me in paradise." Paul says that after Christians die, they are asleep. This means that, for Christians, between death and resurrection there is a period of rest - in paradise. But that is not our final destiny. Indeed in Revelation it is clear that the new Jerusalem will come down out of heaven (Rev 21:10). It seems to me that our final destiny is a place in the new heaven and new earth, in which life is not about a disembodied existence in heavenly bliss. I see a real sense of human communal and bodily life with the presence of God himself in the future. The Christian hope is that those who are in Christ will be raised to life when Jesus returns, just like Christ himself was raised from the dead.

But why does it matter? What, in practice, is the implication of the difference between "going to heaven" and "being raised to life"? I will talk about that in another post. But for now I may mention two things.

First, for us who believe in the Bible as God's revelation it is always good to stick with what it actually says! There is surely benefit in doing so. Second, in the long chapter about the resurrection in 1 Cor 15, Paul concludes with this statement:

"Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain." (1 Cor 15:58)

What is going to happen in the future has implication to what we do today, just as what happened in the past does. The most important event in the past is the death and resurrection of Christ himself, and that means that we are to live for him. But the climax of history will be that Jesus will return, those who believe in him will be raised to life, and the entire creation will be renewed. Paul says here that this future event means that our labour today is not in vain! It is because of this assured future that we are to give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord. The future has profound implication to what we do today!

I will say more in a future post.

Reflection: The kids in my son's school

My son goes to a small Christian school. It's a great community and I have met some wonderful Christian families there. I am very grateful to God for that.

Here is an encouraging story about some students at the school. A group of them were on a school trip to Canberra. On their way back they had lunch in a country town. As they had lunch someone was watching how they behaved and afterwards he commented on their good behaviour and maturity. He is right, I think. The school is a good school. Most of the parents are Christians. They provide a stable and secure home environment, and know how to teach their children to behave.

But my thoughts go to the kids in other schools, schools in the low socioeconomic suburbs of Melbourne. I hear stories of a Christian school teacher who worked for many years in one of those schools. She found herself spending most of her time dealing with the issues that children from dyfuncational families faced. The fact is that it is not the fault of these children that their behaviour is not-so-good. They just happened to have born into families that were less fortunate. For some of them, their parents were migrants from poor countries. They came to Melbourne to flee from poverty and oppression, and found themselves struggling with the language and the culture. They just happened to be born in a country where life was not at all as easy as Australia.

My heart goes out to those children, whose prospects of life will not be the same as children in my son's school. My heart goes to them because they are in fact in our own "backyard", and I suspect that Jesus would have gone to them if he were here today.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

"I am a follower of Christ"

Tonight at bedtime my son asked me what is the difference between Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican and Orthodox churches. So, starting from Jesus, I went through the 2,000 years of church history with him (all in 15 minutes) to explain how the different denominations came about. In my answer I also mentioned the Wesleyans, the Methodists, the Catholics, the Reformation (as an introduction to the Protestants), the Anabaptists, the Mennonites, the Uniting Church (in Australia), the Pentecostals, and even the different types of Orthodox churches - and my son added the Salvos! - and then I said that where I preached this morning was probably an independent evangelical church. I explained to him that there are different types of Anglican churches (high, low, evangelical, liberal, charismatic, etc), and indeed different types of churches within a given denomination.

Then I briefly explained to him the subtle differences between their doctrines, and how often each group thinks that their doctrine is better. Indeed many would argue that their doctrine is closest to what the Bible teaches.

My son actually finds it a bit amusing. I briefly mentioned to him that such divisions in the body of Christ is in fact not what the biblical ideal is.

In the end, I told my son that I see myself as a follower of Christ, rather than a Baptist or a Pentecostal (or whatever denomination). I love the Bible, and I belong to the body of Christ. I won't say that all doctrines (from the different denominations) are equally valid. But I am not sure whether we can say that any one doctrine can reflect the teaching in the Bible perfectly.

Reading Leviticus with your child

Do you think it is a good idea to read Leviticus with your child?

I guess every child is different and hence I won't say yes or no to this question. But I have been reading some selected passages in Leviticus with my son recently, and it has been a good experience. I showed him how some offerings had to be made, and the significance of that to Israel and how that would help us to understand the New Testament. We read about the Sabbath year and the Jubilee, and learned how that worked in Israel's social life and how that protected the poor. I plan to read the day of atonement with him soon.

To me, as a parent I find that even Leviticus can be interesting - even fun - if we know how Leviticus works and how to make it interesting. But I am also aware that every child is different and so probably it won't work for every child. Having said all that, I think reading the Bible creatively with our children will build a solid foundation in our children's lives.

Friday, August 7, 2009

How I read the Bible - entering the text

I remember that before I got baptised, a wise and mature Christian lady said to me that how we understood the nature of the authority of the Bible was critical. I guess I didn't understand her fully back then (it's in 1985!). But I have since found that it is indeed a crucial matter. I will explain why another time, but here I'll share some of my own experience in reading the Scripture.

I am one of those people who read the whole Bible from cover to cover every year. (Yes, I have just finished Leviticus and am reading Numbers! But I have to say that this does not necessarily make me a better Christian, and indeed I can see many better Christians around me.) Since I have been a Christian for a long time, I have read the Bible many times.

In this journey I find that I enter the world of the biblical texts. When I read the Gospels I imagine that I am walking with Jesus as one of his disciples. When I read Exodus I imagine that I am a fellow Israelite walking in the wilderness. When I read the Psalms I find myself praying with the psalmists, pouring my heart to the God of Israel - the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

For me, personally, I find that this is an amazing journey. The "text" is not a rigid set of doctrines or commandments (although it contains elements of those things). It comes alive and relates to me. In this way I hear God's voice and learn to walk with him, knowing that he is with me, just as he did with Israel and the disciples.

No wonder the Bible is "God's Word". It's to be heard - and obeyed, because we love him and are grateful to what he has done for us through Jesus.

My work and my academic life require me to read theology textbooks and talk with theologians. My research project requires me to study the Scripture using multiple (technical) commentaries. But I find my own faith anchored on my own daily reading of Scripture, which requires no commentaries or complicated theology. I hope our sophiscation and modern (and post-modern) mindset will not steer us away from the most basic and natural reading of the text.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Reflection: My experience of power, powerlessness and identity

The following is an excerpt from a sermon I preached recently (plus some additional reflection).

Here is an excerpt from Barack Obama's first book.

"Power had taken Lolo [Obama’s step-father] and yanked him back into line just when he thought he'd escaped, making him feel its weight, letting him know that his life wasn't his own. That's how things were; you couldn't change it, you could just live by the rules, so simple once you learned them. And so Lolo had made his peace with power, learned the wisdom of forgetting;… She [Obama’s mother] remembered what Lolo had told her once when her constant questioning had finally touched a nerve. 'Guilt is a luxury only for­eigners can afford,' he had said. 'Like saying whatever pops into your head.' She didn't know what it was like to lose everything,… He was right, of course. She was a foreigner, middle-class and white and protected by her heredity whether she wanted protection or not. She could always leave if things got too messy…." Source: Barack Obama, Dreams form My Father (Three Rivers: New York, 2004) 45-46.

What I find here is the gap between Obama’s American mother and his Indonesian step-father. Here is a contrast between the privileges, freedom and security of being a citizen of the Western world, and the sense of hopelessness and powerlessness of living in another part of the world, where those privileges and security are a luxury if not an impossibility.

I said to my wife that this is the struggle I have in finding my identity as a bi-cultural person living in Australia (someone who has spent half of my life in Australia and half in Asia).

Perhaps the ultimate reason why I desperately long for embrace is that there is evil in this world, which manifests itself through power-relationships. What I experienced in the first part of my life in Asia is something that people around me cannot understand. It was the sense of oppression that we experienced as working-class people in a city going through a rapid urbanisation process.

We were part of a generation in which everyone tried to move from subsistence-level living to an affluent living standard – and to do so within a very short space of time. In this process we became victims of power: The power of money; the power of materialism; the power of capitalism and globalisation, where a person’s worth is measured by how much money they have as a consumer. Ironically, it is the search for power – by trying to move from a powerless position to a powerful one – that we fall prey to power itself.

In my own search for identity I find comfort in my faith in Jesus the Messiah. I find a sense of security in the faithfulness of the Creator God, and the Scripture he has given his people. I find a way to overcome the oppression of "power" through the shalom that God has given to us in Christ and by the Spirit - not by overcoming power with power, but by God's power in my weakness.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What did the Old Testament law have to offer foreigners?

Christopher Wright says that the Old Testament Law says a lot about caring for foreigners.

What did the Old Testament law have to offer such foreigners? A great deal… The Old Testament speaks of protection from general oppression (Ex. 22:21; Lev. 19:33) and from unfair treatment in court (Ex. 23:9; Deut 10:17-19; 24:17-18); inclusion in Sabbath rest (Ex. 20:9—11; 23:12; Deut. 5:12-15) and inclusion in worship and cov­enant ceremonies of Passover (Ex. 12:45-49), the annual festivals (Deut. 16), the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29), and covenant renewal ceremonies (Deut. 29:10-13; 31:12); the economic benefit of the triennial tithes (Deut. 1-1:28-29; 26:12-13) and access to agricultural produce (gleaning rights) (Lev. 19:9- 10; Deut. 24:19-22); and equality before the law with native born (Lev. 19:34).

See also the similarity between the second greatest commandment (as Jesus affirms) and the instruction to look after foreigners (both found in the same chapter in Leviticus).

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. (Lev 19:18)

The foreigners residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. (Lev 19:34)

I hope these Scriptures can help us to formulate our view on asylum seekers.

Source: Christopher Wright, The God I Don’t Understand [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), page 103-4.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Closing the Gap

This is a good clip from OMF about serving the urban poor.

(More OMF video clips can be found on OMF Media.)

Poverty more than simply a lack of income or food

The following is an excerpt from the book Another Way to Love: Christian Social Reform and Global Poverty (2009). It is really worth reading.

What do Australians need to understand about the nature of poverty and what it is like for people to be living in poverty? How is poverty more than simply a lack of income or food?

Jayakumar Christian: The concrete expressions, or symptoms, of poverty are familiar to us all - social and economic deprivation, low income and unemployment. The causes of poverty, however, are flawed relationships. Poverty is about the oppressive relationships between the poor and the non-poor - how the poor and the social systems relate, and how the poor relate to civil society and government. Within the context of these flawed relationships, power is abused. This abuse of power is then expressed in low income, lack of food security, lack of nutrition and all those usual ways we measure poverty.

(Dr Jayakumar Christian is National Director of World Vision India. Click here for the book detials.)

Reflection: One of my most important faith experiences

I have slowly come to understand that the Christian faith can be understood quite differently in different cultures. I have been living in Australia for over 20 years, and I find that most of my (Aussie) Christian friends have grown up with largely Aussie Christians, or at least their non-Aussie friends have tried to relate to them according to Australian cultural values and social assumptions. But I spent my childhood and young adult years in Asia where it was a multi-faith society. I grew up in an era where our traditional faith and culture collided with that of the Western world.

In Australia, Christians are learning to live in a multi-faith and multi-cutlural society. Some think that Christians converted from another faiths and cultures should adopt a Western lifestyle and Western church culture. This way of thinking is of course problematic, because Christians in the New Testament (e.g. the apostle Paul) did not live a Western lifestyle, nor did their churches look like a Western church.

There are other Christians in Australia who think that all other cultures and faiths are just fine. As long as they love God and do what God wants, what they actually believe in is not that important.

Instead of going into a theological debate, I will share my own faith experience here.

I used to worship traditional gods in our culture, which was a mixture of Buddhism, ancestral worship and other pantheistic faiths. (I think we had about six household gods in our apartment.) Within this belief system it is also believed that there is a supreme god somewhere who rules over everything. Traditionally, we are a people with a high moral standard - not that we live up to it at all, but it's embedded in our mindset.

In my search for identity and reality, the most important part of my faith is the realisation that I am a sinner. I know that no matter how I try to live up to our moral ideals, I fail.

It is in this realisation that I learn to know the love of God in sending his own Son to die for me. It is because of this that I want to give my whole life to Jesus and to serve him wholeheartedly. It is in the resurrection of Christ that we find true hope in all the sufferings and trials in this life. It is because of this that we seek to love God with all our heart, and love the people around us.

Some Christians may find the above a bit boring, for they hear this every Sunday. For others, this may be a new thing, for their churches don't talk about sin that much.

But I thought I might share my own experince because it is so important. Despite all my talk (in this blog) on justice, mercy and the grace of God, deep in my heart the most important faith experience is the realisation that I am a sinner and that God wants us to give our whole life to him and love him with all our heart. It's more than a doctrine or theology. It is an experience (from the Spirit of God, I believe) that is based on the Bible. It is an experience that finds its roots in the faithfulness or God.

For those who have grown up in a Christian community and have never lived in a strongly multi-faith environment, I hope my experience above can be helpful as you try to understand the emerging culture in Australia.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

My reflection: This morning at our Sunday service

This morning in our little Christian community we heard two inspirational stories.

We prayed for a man who was taking up a job in a place near Alice Springs. He will be working in some kind of youth at risk program. There are both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Then there was a long-term member of the church asking prayer for her new job. She has been a teacher in a socio-econ0mically poor suburb for many years, helping and teaching kids from dysfunctional backgrounds. Now she is taking on a new job in a special school, where the children suffer from intellectual disability. She says that she is looking after eight children, all of them have great needs. It's been very challenging to say the least.

They are people who want to serve some of the most vulnerable people in Australia, and I am really inspired from them.

Last Sunday we had a lovely lunch with some old friends. I commented that this little church would not grow. One of our friends - who, I think, is capable of making some of the most insightful comments - said that growth is not measured by numbers. (Well, that's my interpretation of what she said.) It is precisely women and men like the above that make our little church such an amazing community. I would say they truly have something close to the heart of Jesus, and they willingly (and sacrificially) use their gifts to serve the people whom God loves.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Isaiah's vision of God putting the world to rights

The following is an excerpt of Tom Wright's recent sermon on Isaiah 11.1–10; Acts 17.22–32.

I find the first paragraph amusing - abstract thoughts of a theologian! But the following comments on Isaiah's vision are profound. We have messed up God's creation, but God is in the process of putting it to rights by transforming it. May that be our vision too!

(Click here for the whole sermon.)

"The theologian tells the time by looking at the future and the past and discerning where we are in relation to both of them. And a great deal of the trouble in today’s world is caused by people who think we’re living in the past, on the one hand, and by people who think we’re living in the future, on the other hand. You and I are called to live in the present, in appropriate relation to past and future, but in a realistic appraisal of the differences between present and past and present and future.

Now that’s horribly abstract, so let me at once jump to something solid, concrete, and actually stunningly beautiful. Here is the vision of the future we heard a few minutes ago, one of the most evocative passages in all poetry:

The wolf shall live with the lamb
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah’s vision of a world put to rights: not only put to rights, but transformed, made to be more fully and gloriously itself, discovering at last what the Garden of Eden might have become if only we hadn’t messed it up. " (Emphasis added)

Living out the gospel as a community

I just came back from a leadership meeting in a Christian community that I belong to. I am so blessed to be part of the community. Here are some reflections from the meeting.

We talked about our building project, and part of the planning permit application is that we want the redevelopment to include provisions for affordable housing for the disadvantaged people in the area. Isn't it great that a building project is not so much about how we can benefit from it, but about how we can walk with the vulnerable and marginalised?

We discussed the challenges we faced in providing accommodation and pastoral care for asylum seekers and refugees. We talked about providing facilities for a local toy library and playgroup. Two members of the leadership team talked about their involvement in the recent Kinglake bush fire relief effort. In case you think that we are a big church with a lot of human and financial resources, we are in fact a very small community with around 50 people in the Sunday service! As a relatively new member of the community I am amazed by the amount of work we do with the community.

In the absence of a full-time minister, we discussed how we might share the load for one another. We want to make sure that no-one is taken for granted. We want to ensure that no-one feels that they have to do everything - ie. everyone should feel that they can say no when asked to do things for the community.

I am learning heaps from this little group of people.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Plans to "prosper us" - What does it really mean?

Jeremiah 29:11 is a well-known verse in the Bible. In fact, it is one of my favourite verses in the Old Testament. Note the different translations below:

For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (NIV)

For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. (NKJV)

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. (NRSV)

In using the word "prosper", I think the NIV is trying to highlight the extravagant grace of God for his people despite their sinfulness and disobedience. Israel was going into exile because of their sin, but Jeremiah prophesied that God would restore their fortunes in 70 years.

Unfortunately in our Western world today the word "prosper" carries a connotation that (I think) does not reflect the Hebrew word in the original language. Today, to be prosperous often means "to be wealthy and affluent - primarily in terms of one's material possession and success in the soceity". Also, prosperity in our world today is often measured by the excess wealth and luxuary people enjoy. This meaning (ie. the excess ownership of material possession), I believe, does not reflect what Jeremiah says.

The Hebrew word used in the passage is shalom. What is shalom? According to the usage of the word in passages Isaiah 32, 65 and Ezekiel 34, shalom seems to refer to wholeness and well-being in all our social, ecological, political, agricultural and economical relationships, which are in turn rooted in a restored covenant relationship with God. It is about peace, security, wholeness and well-being in all relationships. It is about what we can experience in Christ as we seek to love God and one another here on earth now, but its final and complete realisation will only take place at the final renewal of heaven and earth.

So let us take comfort in the fact that the LORD knows his plans for us - plans to give us shalom! But let us not turn this into a self-centred pursuit of pleasure and prosperity, which is a temptation in our materialistic and individualistic world today.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Old Testament Law and Justice

I am going through the lectures on Old Testament given by Prof Iain Provan at Regent College, Vancouver. He said some things about the Ten Commandments that are very interesting and important. Here are a few things I note (according to my understanding of Provan's lecture).

The Ten Commandments are not an exhaustive set of laws for human behaviour, and hence cannot be a simple and precise measure of good human behaviour and ethics. For example, when the Rich Ruler said to Jesus that he had kept all the Commandments, the Lord asked him to sell everything and give to the poor. This implies that the requirements of God go much further than keeping the Commandments. Indeed Jesus summaries the Law with the love commands of loving God and one's neighbours.

Then Provan says that even in the Old Testament we see how the ethical requirements of God can be summarised in terms of what should be done to reflect his values: Do justice and show mercy.

Here I am reminded of Micah 6:8, Deut 10:12-22, and Jeremiah 9:23-24 (and more in Isaiah 1, Amos, and Zechariah).

Something for us to ponder on.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Show our love to the children in our churches

Someone at church made two comments today, which I think are very insightful.

(1) For the parents the most important thing is that their children want to come to church. (I guess that is the ideal scenario.)

(2) The children stay at church (when they grow up) because they have had a good relationship with other parents.

As a parent I know that it feels great if the children want to go to church. But at the same time it is not about going to a church where the children can be "entertained" (if I may use that word) with a fantastic program. Instead, it is about relationships that they can have in church. It is not only their relationship with other children either. Rather, their relationship with the adults is also very important. Do they feel welcome by the adults? Do they feel loved and cared for? Do they feel, on the contrary, that they are second class citizens in the church (ie. not as important as the adults)?

People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." (Luke 18:15-17; TNIV)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Tim Chester, UK

Here is Tim Chester's website. To give you an idea of who he is and what he does, here is an excerpt from his website.

I am a writer, Bible teacher and church planter. I am married to Helen and have two daughters, Katie and Hannah.

I am a leader in
The Crowded House – an international family of church planting networks – and within TCH I lead The Edge Network in Sheffield, UK. Most of our congregations meet in homes. We emphasise sharing our lives together rather than programmes and structures. ‘Ordinary life with gospel intentionality’ is one of our catchphrases. The Crowded House is often described by other people as part of the emerging church movement. It is true that we have a different approach to church to that of most traditional churches. But we are also different from many in the emerging church movement – we are Reformed and evangelical with a strong emphasis the centrality and sufficiency of the gospel word. See also the blog entry on Total Church.

Have a lookat his website!

Tim Chester website