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.