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.