Sunday, October 31, 2010

"Natural" disasters and human sin

Recently the "natural" disasters in Indonesia and New Zealand (earthquake) have prompted people to ask whether they are acts of God's judgment because of human sins. I am no expert on this topic but here are my initial thoughts from a biblical perspective.

(1) We need to first remember that the Bible was written in a historical and culture context that was very different from ours. They did not have the knowledge of science that we have today. People like Abraham, Isaiah and Paul would have a worldview very different from ours. For example, their view of the creation story and the fall in Genesis would be very different. Today's question of whether we have a "young earth" would not have been their question. Likewise, I think the word "natural" in the phrase "natural disaster" might not make sense for them. My sense is that for them what we call "natural disaster" may not be natural to them. Floods, famine, plagues and indeed the rise and fall of nations are all ultimately beyond their control, and they know that God is ultimately the one who has control over these things. The same worldview is held by many peoples today, with the Western culture being an exception (although the world is changing rapidly with many non-Westerners taking on a somewhat Western worldview).

(2) I find that in the Old Testament people have two responses/explanations to (the so-called) natural disasters.

(i) They are God's punishment as a result of human rebellion. This is very often applied to God's (chosen) people in the ancient world. But it also applied to human rebellion in general, with the flood as a good example, and with the threat of the destruction of Nineveh in Jonah as another example.

(ii) They are not God's punishment. This is especially the case in Job. The ancient Israelites struggled with whether suffering (including suffering as a result of natural disasters, which Job also experienced) is the consequence of human sins. Job's friends have a view of retributive justice. But Job maintained his innocence. The prologue of Job attributes the source of evil to the devil. But the lesson for us all is that God is sovereign.

(3) The corollary of the above is that suffering can happen to both the righteous and the unrighteous, and God's people are to be faithful to God by acting justly and righteously and at the same time trust in God's faithfulness, love, righteousness and justice. The prophets speak against idolatry and social injustice, as well as God's judgment against human disobedience, especially on God's (chosen) people. But the prophets also complain about God's apparent injustice, with Jeremiah and Habakkuk being good examples.

(4) I wonder whether our (Western) dualistic mindset is being very unhelpful here.

On the one hand, there are those who think that everything should be taken spiritually. Thus the bushfire in Victoria last year, for example, was suggested by some to be God's judgment on human sin. That is, bushfire is a spiritual consequence of human sins, instead of a physical consequence of dry and windy weather. There are two problems here. (i) Romans 2 tells us that no-one can claim any moral superiority, whether we are Christian or not. No-one should judge another person. Only God can judge. He alone is the righteous Judge - and he does judge! Who are we to suggest that the people who suffered from the bushfire are under God's judgment and that we ourselves - who are sinners as well - are not under God's judgment? Peter says that God's judgment will start from the family of God. (ii) In any disaster there can potentially be innocent people, even if it is God's judgment. For example, God punish Israel when Jeremiah was the prophet. He was one of the many innocent people who suffered in the hands of the Babylonians. We cannot understand why it happened to them. But it did.

On the other hand there are those who think that everything should be interpreted according to natural causes. For example, a bushfire is a result of circumstances, namely, bad weather, long draught, etc. One can also say that the unusally bad bushfire was perhaps indirectly a result of human activities on climate change. All these should be taken seriously. But one must note that this natural-cause-and-effect thinking is quite Western. The biblical worldview seems to be that human actions (righteous and unrightoues acts; just and unjust acts and social systems) can have cosmic consequences. Indeed, the rejection of Jesus as the Messiah by the religious leaders in Jerusalem led to Jesus' judgment on the Temple, including the physical destruction of the Temple. The subsequent destruction of the Temple in AD 70 was not simply a consequence of Roman conquest, but a cosmic event in which the rebellion of God's people was met with God's just judgment. (But once again we must be careful not to apply this to the bushfire via the "spiritual consequence" path.)

In the final analysis, I think, we cannot have a one-size-fits-all explanation to natural disasters. It is in many ways a mystery. "I don't understand it all" is probably not a bad thing to bear in mind.

(5) What does it mean? Some suggestions when there is a natural disaster.

Do not judge the victims. Leave it with God to judge.
Love the victims and stand with them in solidarity by means of practical help.
Reflect on our own sins (including the sins of the Christian community), rather than the sins of others.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

God triumphs through the death of Christ, he wins by losing (Timothy Gombis)

Here is what Timothy G. Gombis says regarding Ephesians 3:1-14. I found this in an interview with him (in this blog) about his book The Drama of Ephesians. I think this sounds really good.

This was the most powerfully transformative passage for me personally. It is so utterly counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. We imagine that we will succeed personally and professionally through self-assertion and will advance in our careers (or in ministry!) through power-accumulation and the exercise of power over others.

But throughout Ephesians (and everywhere in Paul), the manner in which God triumphs in Christ sets the normative pattern for Christian discipleship. God triumphs through the death of Christ, he wins by losing. The victory of the powers was their defeat and the defeat of Christ was his victory. Paul draws the clear implication that if God triumphs through the cross, then cruciformity thoroughly shapes Christian communities and Christian lives.

I believe this is what Paul is getting at in Ephesians 3. His imprisonment is not a set-back, but the perfect place for God to magnify his triumph over the powers. God builds his church through the preaching of this shamed prisoner, this ‘least of all the saints’, rather than through someone with loads of social or political capital. For Paul, this makes perfect cruciform sense, and it is one of a number of passages that sets the normative ethical pattern for Christian existence.

How do we model that? By cultivating postures of servant-hood and humility in relationships, never exercising power over others nor relating manipulatively. For those who are well-practiced in (self-)destructive relational modes, our repentance is a bit more painful! But the way of life is the way of the cross.

Click here for the entire interview. It is worth reading.

Forgiveness and an ever-deepening friendship with God

There is an article in Christianity Today (October 2010) entitled How Far Should Forgiveness Go?

The author talks about her own experience in her own life and in a mega-church, without a sense of condemnation but with honesty and sincerity. The article interacts with various good authors on the topic and is worth reading. Towards the end of the article it cites from a book called Embodying Forgiveness by Gregory Jones, which is worth quoting here.

Forgiveness is not so much a word spoken, an action performed, or a feeling felt as it is an embodied way of life in an ever-deepening friendship with the Triune God and with others. As such, a Christian account of forgiveness ought not to simply or even primarily be focused on an absolution of guilt; rather, it ought to be focused on the reconciliation of brokenness, the restoration of communion—with God, with one another, and with the whole Creation. Indeed, because of the pervasiveness of sin and evil, Christian forgiveness must be at once an expression of commitment to a way of life, the cruciform life of holiness in which we seek to "unlearn" sin and learn the ways of God, and a means of seeking reconciliation in the midst of particular sins, specific instances of brokenness.

Click here for the full article.

Paul as a herald of the Kingdom of God

I am reading Timothy G. Gombis' Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed. Here is a good quote.

"Paul is a herald of the Kingdom of God and of the victory and Cosmic Lordship of Jesus Christ. This is an intensely political vocation, since Paul is proclaiming the emergent reality of a radically new political order— the Kingdom of God—along with an alternative ruler; the crucified, risen, and exalted Jesus. This calling as a herald inevitably involved a pastoral task, since Paul's aim was to see the creation and establish­ment of Kingdom of God communities throughout the world." (page 23)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Chris Wright: the greatest hindrance to world mission is God’s own people

Here is a good sermon from Christopher Wright, who spoke at the recent Third Lausanne Congress at Cape Town.

Click here for a quick summary.

Click here for a the audio-visual of the whole talk (about 20 minutes).

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Reading Bible stories

We visited a church recently where there was a very good family service. The service sought to engage both parents and children, and invite them to participate in all sorts of activities together. It's very creative and I really appreciated the effort they put into it.

On this day they looked at Daniel 3. The main points, I gathered, were that Christians needed to stand up for their faith in adversity and that they could trust the all-powerful God as they did so. They worked out some very simply points in the passage, and delivered their message through various interactive activities that made the whole service very engaging for young and old alike. It's a job well done.

But I keep thinking that this way of reading Scripture is typical of how we are taught to interpret the Bible. Certainly the main points were captured aright, and indeed applied beautifully to daily life. But I wonder whether we do recognise the most natural reading of Daniel 3 here - that is, the chapter is first and foremost a story. Our sophisticated ability to analyse Scripture helps us to jump to the key themes of the chapter, and apply them in everyday life. But in doing so we miss out on experiencing some of the most important aspects of the Scripture.

Let us enter into the stories in the first chapters of Daniel together. That is, let us join Daniel and his three friends in their journey.

The first thing we realise is that we are fellow Jews in exiles. We are slaves as a result of the conquest of the Babylonian Empire. We have been displaced from our homeland. We and our beloved families have been on a long journey to a foreign country. We are well aware of God's covenant with Abraham, our ancestor. And we are aware that it is because of our people's unfaithfulness to that covenant that we are now in exile, as the prophets foretold. Our story in recent times has been a sad one indeed. Our life is full of struggles, pain and tears. We experience social, racial and political oppression, and there is no way out.

But like Daniel and his friends we seek to be faithful to the God of our ancestors. As we seek to remain faithful to him, we experience God's faithfulness despite our rebellion. We watch Daniel and his three friends risk their lives to follow our God, we see God perform signs and wonders to deliver them. Even though we remain in captivity, we see signs of God's blessing and faithfulness.

By entering into the stories of Daniel and his friends, we identify with their sadness and pain, as well as their hope and joy. We struggle with them. We learn to trust God as we watch them - because they are willing to sacrifice and suffer for their God.

As we walk the journey with them, inevitably we relate their experiences with ours in our everyday life. As we allow the Holy Spirit to touch us and speak to us, we worship our faithful God just like the Psalmists in the Bible. We learn to persevere in our own journeys as we seek to remain faithful to Christ in our own daily struggles.

We may want to relate to stories that took place after Daniel: The (partial) return from exile of Israel; the coming of Christ, and above all, his life, death and resurrection. We can go on to relate to the earliest church in Acts, other New Testament epistles and in Revelation.

If we know how to interpret culture (the culture in which we live) and social issues, we would quite easily relate the stories to various social justice issues both in Australia and overseas.

Much more can be said. But I hope I have painted a picture of how much we can experience by simply reading the Bible on its own terms - and in this case, in terms of the fact that we are reading stories.

Again, nothing wrong with the service of the church that we visited. Indeed they did a good job in running the service. My question is around how we have been taught to read the Bible. My suggestion is that our sophistication in analysing the Scripture can potentially mean that we miss out on reading the Bible as it really is - in this case it is "stories". How amazing it could be if we travel into the stories and let the stories travel with us!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

God does not forget the "nobodies" who seek to serve him

This is really good.

"We must be content with being nobodies for Christ; to be forgotten. Many missionaries will have passed through the twentieth century only remembered by relatives and a few people that they were able to minister to. Their lives were never considered great, but they did their part faithfully, and most importantly, God does not forget them." (Patrick Fung, OMF General Director )

Reflection: Reading the Bible as stories

I wrote this recently, "When we read the Bible as stories - God's stories - we stop treating it as a set of rules or prooftexts, or treating God as a genie for our benefits. As we enter the stories in the Bible, we feel the pain and suffering of the characters, feel the wonders of God's deliverance, identify with God's people as they struggle and falter, and experience the amazing grace of God in all our failures and shortcomings. And as we enter those stories and allow the Holy Spirit to touch us, we enter into worship just as the ancients did - and by the empowerment of the same Spirit, we enter into the world to make those stories known through our lives and deeds."

Then I received a note from a missionary friend, Sarah, in Cambodia, which said, "Enjoying the privilige of leading a family to know God simply by telling the stories of the Bible chronologically. I was so thrilled to find yesterday that they have figured out how to talk to God just from hearing the stories."

Sarah has been using story-telling as a way of proclaiming the gospel. This is her response to what I wrote, "It is stories that shape our worldview and worldview that shapes our beliefs and values, which lead to our behaviour. God knew what he was doing when he set so much of his Word in narrative form."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

New Creation and New Community (Newbiggin)

Here is something Newbiggin wrote about the new creation and the new community. Definitely worth reading. (I found this from the blog Euangelion. Click here for the link.)

This presence of a new reality, the presence in the shared life of the Church of the Spirit who is the arrab┼Źn of the kingdom, has become possible because of what Jesus has done, because of his incarnation, his ministry as the obedient child of his Father, his suffering and death, his resurrection, his ascension into heaven, and his session at the right hand of God. When the apostles are asked to explain the new reality, the new power to find joy in tribulation, healing in sickness, freedom in bondage, life in death, this is the explanation they give. It follows that the visible embodiment of this new reality is not a movement that will take control of history and shape the future according to its own vision, not a new imperialism, not a victorious crusade. Its visible embodiment will be a community that lives by this story, a community whose existence is visibly defined in the regular rehearsing and reenactment of this story which has given it birth, the story of the self-emptying of God in the ministry, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Its visible centre as a continuing social entity is that weekly repeated event in which believers share bread and wine as Jesus commanded, as his pledge to them and their pledge to him that they are one with him in his passion and one with him in his victory. Instead of the celebration of the sabbath as the end of God’s old creation, they celebrate the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, as the beginning of the new creation. In this they find enacted and affirmed the meaning and goal of their lives as part of the life of the cosmos, their stories part of the universal story. This story does indeed lead to a glorious end and is therefore filled with meaning, but the end is not some far distant date in terrestrial history. The end is the day when Jesus shall come again, when his hidden rule will become manifest and all things will be seen as they truly are. That is why we repeat at each celebration of the Lord’s Supper the words which encapsulate the whole mystery of the faith: “Christ has died, Christ has risen: Christ shall come again.”

Lesslie J. Newbiggin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 120-21.

Authentic Partnership (Vinoth Ramachandra)

Some good stuff from Vinoth Ramachandra about partnership between the West and the South. What Vinoth has to say is important for every church and mission in the West that seeks to work with those in the South.

Click here for the link.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Paul's "the righteousness of God", the debate between Piper and N T Wright, etc

Just read an interesting post from Daniel Kirk's blog about Paul's famous phrase "the righteousness of God".

Click here to see the post. You might also be interested in reading Scott McKnight's comment on this post - it's the first comment.

Everyday Theology (edited by Kevin Vanhoozer)

I just bought Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends, edited by Kevin J Vanhoozer. Here are two interesting quotes on page 8.

If theology is the ministry of the Word to the world, it follows that theologians must know something about the world to which they are ministering. What should have been common sense, however, has for various reasons been something of a blind spot, at least until the advent of postmodernity. Indeed, one way of viewing postmodernity is as a "turn to culture." Postmoderns have criticized modern myths about universality precisely because postmoderns have a keen sense of our situatedness in race, gender, class, history, tradition—and culture.

Christian missionaries have always been aware of the need to engage culture. Yet only recently has it been suggested that the West has become a mission field. Lesslie Newbigin points out that the West presents a special challenge to Christian missions, for this is the first time the church has had to mount a mission to a culture that was previously Christian. How does one evangelize cultures that have already received the gospel only to revise or to reject it? For these and other reasons, Christian colleges and seminaries are increasingly coming to see that the study of culture is part and parcel of the prospective minister's theological training.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A divine drama that goes back to creation itself

I read the following from Daniel Kirk's blog recently. Worth reading. (I've read Hays' book below. Good reading for any New Testament student.)

Jesus as we meet him on the pages of the Gospels is not living out a self-contained story, but is acting out a final, climactic scene in the on-going drama of Israel that stretches back to creation itself.

In Paul’s letters as well, the story of the church is only intelligible as the continuation of the story of Israel. Paul is not merely making arguments, he is narrating the story of Israel with his gentile churches as full participants in the story. Paul is a narrative theologian, striving to help his Jesus-following churches understand a new past, present, and future that are all-determinative for their identity now that they are followers of Jesus. To understand who they are in Christ, Paul’s gentile churches no less than we ourselves required a comprehensive reframing of their story, what Richard Hays refers to as a “conversion of the imagination.”[i]

[i] Richard B. Hays, “The Conversion of the Imagination: Scripture and Eschatology in 1 Corinthians,” in The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 1-24.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Weakness as true mark of Paul's apostleship - An example for Christian leaders to follow

I am reading Barry D Smith's Paul's Seven Explanations of the Suffering of the Righteous (New York: Peter Lang, 2002). Here are some good quotes about 2 Corinthians.

Paul would argue that he is not naturally weak; rather, God has made him weak by means of this "thorn in the flesh." (p 167)

In his view, God intentionally humiliated him in this way in order to give him a much-needed sense of the need of reliance on another power. (p 168)

The confession of his inherent incapacity is a pre-condition of the ingression of the power of Christ. The pedagogical effect of his "thorn in the flesh," therefore, is invaluable to Paul's apostolic ministry; his affliction prevents his entering into a state of illusory and unfruitful self-confidence, which would cut him off from the power of Christ. (pp 168-9)

Nothing succeeds like success in breeding self-confidence; self-confidence would not be self-confidence unless the self-confident one is convinced of the sufficiency of his innate abilities. According to Paul, however, there is no place in the apostolic ministry for self-confidence for reasons already stated. So when Paul experiences success in his ministry as the apostle to the gentiles, God strategically forestalls the natural movement to self-confidence occasioned by his success by enforced weakness, as well as by "insults, hardships, persecutions and difficulties." (p 169)

Thus, suffering functions to counterbalance the effects of success by reminding Paul that his success has not come from himself, but only through the power of Christ. As a result, he is in a position to appropriate that other power. This is the pedagogical benefit of suffering. (pp 169-70)

The apostles seem always to be on the verge of being overwhelmed by the suffering resultant from their commonness and fragility, and thereby of being rendered ineffectual, but are never actually overcome. It is this model of apostleship that Paul's residual opposition Corinthians find objectionable. they cannot fathom how men who are constantly teetering on the brink of personal collapse can be genuine apostles.

All human beings offer nothing to God. In Paul's view, the realization that this is the human condition is the single qualification for being an apostle. (p 174)