Friday, December 6, 2013
Mandela: just a man but what a man
Cyberspace and the airwaves are today (6 Dec 13) buzzing with the death of Nelson Mandela.
Much of the commentary is adulatory (eg I have seen references to him as a Christ figure). In response, some push back with respect to his embrace of violence in the ANC armed struggle against apartheid.
I want to make a quick Christian comment under two headings.
1. Mandela; just a man.
Nelson Mandela was born with the creational greatness of every person of every colour. He was made in the image of God - and that is greatness (Gen 1:16-17).
But he was just a man. This showed in his creational limitedness, most recently visible in his aging, illness and death. It also showed in his sinfulness, for he too was part of the ‘all’ referred to in Rom 3:23. This showed in things like his initiation of the ANC violent struggle and the depths of that violence. It also showed in his part in a publicly dysfunctional marriage and family life.
So, Mandela had feet of clay like the rest of us. That’s no surprise to those who read their Bible, but it is worth mentioning on this day when hagiography abounds.
2. Mandela: what a man.
Jesus tells his people not to retaliate against their enemies but to bless them (Matt 5:38-47). The later Mandela embodied this to a remarkable degree and with far reaching global impacts.
From his birth in 1918 until about 1990 Mandela lived with the stigma of being a black man in a racist society. This mean separate and unequal treatment, in which he was subject to deprivation and to the depravation of institutionalised white supremacism.
His moment of greatness came in association with his 1990 release from prison and his subsequent election as President of South Africa. Power was now his. However, this was an hour of grace and reconciliation not revenge. That is remarkable considering his sufferings under apartheid and his previous involvement in the armed struggle. It is also rare in a world where the ‘lest-we-forget’ way of the Balkans and the Middle East is expressed in endless cycles of hated and payback violence.
Mandela: indeed just a mortal and sinful man, but what a man in his generous grace.
Thursday, December 5, 2013
Hosting a visiting gospel worker
The preacher was already away from home and had been in two beds over three nights. He had preached that morning and sat through a lengthy congregational meeting. Ahead of him was an evening sermon and then an hour's drive to another new bed and another new group of people. The hostess invited him (with others to lunch). When he entered her home she showed him the bathroom and a spare room, commenting that she expected he would want an afternoon nap. Her family was introduced and a generous meal provided - with the invitation that he eat only as he desired and feel free to leave the table for the spare room whenever he desired. The visitor's heart was warmed and he was well-rested to preach that night.
The Scriptures speak of the gift of hospitality as being important (Heb 13:1) and it is especially singled out as a quality of church leaders (1 Tim 3:2).
These passages have wide implications. For now I want to focus on the ministry of hosting at travelling gospel worker. In doing so, I note the words addressed to such people as to how they should receive hospitality (eg Lke 9:1-5). Put simply: the visitor should stay where they put and be content with what is provided.
I write as one who has often been a visitor in people's homes and churches and who is grateful for the hosts who make a thoughtful ministry from the act of hospitality. Of course, the Scriptures also give many examples of this ranging from the widow who housed Elijah (1 Kng 17:8f), to Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:2-3), the mother of Rufus (Rom 16:13) and not to forget those who received the Lord himself such as Mary, Martha and Lazarus (Jn 11:1-5).
The following points are derived from my experience. Each needs to be adapted to circumstances and some may just not be possible.
· House the worker in just one home during a visit. Moving from home to home can be draining especially if the schedule is heavy and the guest is a more retiring type.
· Provide a private room in a quiet part of the house with a clean bed and bedding. If possible include a comfy chair and table where the visitor can sit to pray, chill out and work. Include hanging space and somewhere to hang clothes.
· Offer clothes washing facilities - depending on length of stay.
· If you have it, offer wireless facilities so your visitor can hook up to family, work and the wider world. Likewise for printing facilities.
· Provide a door key and local information so your visitor can come and go as desired and explore the neighbourhood. Can you include a travel card for local services?
· Don't provide a different venue for every meal. Pity the worker who goes to a different place for every meal. Not only is the succession of new people to engage with tiring, but each host may act as though this is the only meal that will be eaten all day and provide meals whose richness and quantity leave the visitor gasping.
· Ask about any dietary restrictions and honour them. Ensure good balance in healthy and tasty foods. Travelling can be a health hazard in more than one way!
· Give your visitor the opportunity to sleep when wanted and be careful of late night conversations immediately after travel or ministry - or just before ministry.
· If you are responsible for setting the schedule, include times of rest especially for extended visits. Take are in adding extra ministries at the last minute and check that your guest is up to them.
· When there are down times, ask your visitors what they would like to do and give a range of choices.
· Include the visitor in family activities to the extent that they wish it. Some will delight in engaging with your (grand)children and pets. Others may not.
· Pray for your visitor and offer to pray with him or her.
Finally, on behalf of myself and other travelling gospel workers, I thank you for receiving us in the Lord's name. Your service is not just a functional necessity but an echoing of God's hospitable gospel and a vital ministry in bringing it to others.
Saturday, November 16, 2013
The Eden Project and Gaia theology
The Eden Project (www.edenproject.com) near St Austell in central Cornwall is aptly named. The Project attempts the reproduce the biodiversity of planet earth through a series of climate- controlled domes and gardens. What was once a disused quarry site that slashed the landscape with scars of human intervention is now a place of beauty and quite fecund with life.
The Eden Project is more than an exercise in regeneration after human use. In its own words:
Much of this is great and Christian people can say a loud 'Amen'. The Scriptures tell us that we humans are at the peak of creation and are to use its resources and can eat other living beings (Gen..). However, this command and permission is beautifully balanced by the command that we also 'care' for the earth (Gen 2:15). As populations have increased and industrialisation has advanced and spread, the earth has suffered under our over-use and misuse. The present scientific consensus is that human behaviours have adversely affected the earth's very structures. In short, it seems that the time has come to redress a balance through greater efforts to care for the earth as well as use it.
In this sense the Eden Project is a good reminder of the breathtaking beauty of the earth's biodiversity, but also it's fragility, human interdependence with the rest of the planet and the impacts of human actions on the environment.
There is a big 'however' over the Project and much of the present environmental movement that it represents. The 'however' is represented in a circle of stones and accompanying plaque in the Mediterranean dome with the Eden Project. The plaque reads: Our Medicine Wheel embodies Father earth, Mother Sky and Spirit Tree.
Here is an expression of a modernised earth-centric trinity reflecting a pantheistic worldview. This goes far beyond a healthy respect for and care of the environment. It is a distinct worldview of a religious nature. It is Gaia theology (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaia_philosophy). Earth, sky and trees become divine and presumably are to be worshipped and invocation made to them.
The Christian problems with this plaque are several-fold.
1. It is a theology not founded on the Scriptures.
2. It blurs key distinctions within the created order.
3. It substitutes idolatry for true religion.
Gaia theology does not come from the Bible and indeed contradicts it with respect to creational distinctions and the object of true worship. It is an interesting question, but beyond my present scope, to examine from whence Gaia theology derives.
With respect to 2, Gaia theology typically undermines distinctions that the Bible asserts. These include distinctions between creator and creation (directly undermined in the plaque) and also the distinctions between different life forms.
Gaia theology tends to work from a monist metaphysic where the interdependence of all things becomes an essential sameness between them. On this score the Bible differs. The Bibles presents neither the sameness of all things (monism) not their radical separateness (atomism). God is indeed separate from his creation (it is 'creator God' not Father Earth') and Lord over it, yet he is deeply entangled with it through his works of sustaining its physical being, providentially ordering its affairs and redeeming it through its Son.
Again, the Bible asserts distinctions within the created order, for example as seen in the Gen 1 account. Rocks are different to trees and trees are different from fish and so forth. In particular, humans are different to other beings also made animate by the breath of God, for we alone bear his image and have his mandate to rule, subdue, use and care. We are part of the creation yet not the same as other living creatures, plants, rocks and oceans. In short, God is not identified with his creation and people are part of the creation yet distinct within it.
With respect to 3., Rom 1:18ff tracks a downward spiral that includes suppression of the knowledge of God as creator and worship of created objects. This is the idolising of creation and giving it what belongs to its maker. The plaque points us to worship the creation and not the creator, despite the evidence (even within the Project) of his fingerprint in the beauty, orderliness and utility of just the world of plants.
In short, the Project does a great job in lifting human vision from ourselves to the physical environment around us. Its just a pity that it stops there and encourages worship of the creation instead of the Creator who made so beautiful and who tells humans to rule, use and care for it as part of our worship and service to him.
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
In the last several months I have been on the road. This includes visits to churches in Canada, Singapore, Thailand, England and Scotland. These churches have been small and large; established and independent; and their services have been traditional, contemporary and more. It has been a learning time on how to welcome visitors. I have seen it done well and poorly.
This reflection is written in the light of Hebrews 13:1-2. It is interesting that the first expression of brotherly love is to receive strangers well. Behind these words there lies the old commands to care for strangers (eg Lev 19:34). Undergirding all this is the gospel grace wherein God shows hospitality to those who are strangers and even estranged from him (eg Rom 5:10). And finally, to welcome a stranger is akin to welcoming the Lord himself (Matt 25:35).
To you I am an unfamiliar face. It's not too hard to see that I am visiting as I may arrive well before the service or a little late. I don't walk in with familiar ease and may appear uncertain and tentative. I don’t know who sits where, what to do at different parts of the service, where the toilets are or what happens when the service ends. In short, I stand out from the regulars.
Who am I? I may be a committed believer who is passing through. Or a newcomer looking for a church home. Or I may be a local person enquiring about the faith. Or a desperate unbeliever seeking help and solace where I can find it. I may be on the edge of despair-driven suicide or it may be that walking into your service was a conscious choice to avoid a traveller’s temptation. Whoever I am and however long I stay, I am an opportunity for you to show God’s hospitality.
What to do:
- Give me a warm greeting as I enter, hand me any books or service sheets and help me find a seat (I didn’t know that seat was reserved for the elders!);
- Somewhere (handout, slide etc) tell me anything I need to know during the service, where the bathrooms are and any post-service arrangements ('behind the small hall’ is not a destination that I know);
- If you are sitting near me, say ‘hi’ and take an interest in me – take me over to the coffee venue and ask if you can help with information about the church or area;
- Have a welcoming team who watch out for visitors and assign someone of a similar demographic to link with me;
- Notice my name and use it when talking to me (I’ll try and do the same to you).
What not to do:
- Single me out during the service by asking visitors to identify themselves (I’m already uncertain about walking into your space);
- Come on strong with an overly heavy greeting and an evangelistic spiel when you first meet me (you don't know me yet);
- Try and sign me up for something unless I express interest (I don't like being pushed);
- Leave me standing by myself during coffee time (I’ll be the person lingering over the outdated notice board or bookstall or standing near the door).
If you don’t know what to do, just put yourself in my shoes. How do you like to be welcomed when you are the stranger and visitor?
Thursday, October 10, 2013
Beyond the objectification of women
The sexual objectification of women is an often-discussed topic.
Women object to being characterised and treated as objects, and especially objects of male sexual pleasure and gratification. (See http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-objectification/ for a useful introduction.) There seems to be less discussion of the objectification of men (although note the brief mention in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_objectification).
I am writing this from a city that I am visiting. At times I wander down a main street for some shopping and to find food. I am frequently approached in both day and night. This is sometimes by a man waving a folder of photos and asking if I want ‘a young girl, young boy, anything?’. At other times the approach is by a female (a sex worker I’d guess) asking if I want a good time.
Who am I to these people? I am an object with body parts, desires and who is presumed to have cash to spend. I find it offensive to be thus treated and have no doubt that women find the same when they are treated in the same way.
Objectification is more than a female issue. It is also more than a matter of sexual objectification, whether of women or men.
Objectification can take many forms and be in many directions. The key thing is that a person is seen not as a ‘who’ but as a ‘what’. The objectified person is a route to some other goal. To a business, an opportunity of profit. To the demagogue, an opportunity of control. To the careerist, an opportunity of advancement. To the hero, an opportunity of feel-good heroics. The examples can be multiplied and go wider than we may expect.
The language of objectification is one of ‘I – it’, not ‘I – thou’, to use Martin Buber’s phase. It does not reckon with the personhood of humans. Nor does it reckon with the Bible’s view of humans.
In the Biblical view we are not objects or even animals, but we are creatures made in the likeness of God, bearing his image and entrusted with a delegated management of his creation (Gen 1:26-27). God breathed his breath into us (Gen 2:7). All this gives a high view of people, irrespective of their capacities, deeds, gender, race and such like. The seriousness of intentionally taking a human life arises because we bear God’s image (Gen 9:6). Our value as humans is further shown in God’s gracious act to send his Son Jesus for our redemption. The Son of God came to save people, not objects.
If we live out the implications of this Biblical view, we will treat people as people, not as objects to use as a means to our goals. At a basic level, it means courtesies such as greeting people personally (and by name where possible), thanking those who serve and help us (and looking for opportunities to reciprocate), giving people our time and attention when we have nothing to gain from them. At higher levels, it may mean changing family, workplace and community structures to give dignity and recognition to all people.
It’s easy to see and object to objectification when it is sexual, directed towards women and especially in gross forms such as pornography and prostitution. And it is easy to say no to the touts on the streets of a city. However, it is much harder both to see and eradicate objectification on these other levels.
I’m about to go to lunch. I guess I start by smiling at and thanking the person who serves my meal and then helping to clean my space before I leave the table. And if there is a tout, I can refuse their offerings in a way that treats them as a person and not as an object that is a means to my feelings of self-righteousness.
Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Film review: Ilo Ilo
Ilo Ilo (www.iloilomovie.com) is a 2013 Singaporean film about local family life. The film has received global recognition, winning the Camera d'Or award at Cannes 2013 and is nominated for other awards (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilo_Ilo).
It is not the best film technically, which may be partly a product of the low budget ($500,000) and local inexperience in filmmaking. However, it is still worth a watch.
The film is set in the 1997 Asian financial crisis and features a family of mother, father and son who are under external pressure (lost jobs, school problems etc) and who also face issues internal to the family (parental tension and a wayward son). This stressed family life is changed when a Pilipino maid (Teresa) is hired to help manage the son.
The film explores themes of HDB life in the period and the complex family dynamics between husband and wife, parents and child and, especially, between Teresa and the initially hostile son.
My interest is in the worldviews displayed in the film.
Several worldviews are on view.
The host family is quite godless, as evidenced in an early scene when a neighbouring maid tells Teresa that ‘God is not here’ and that she should forget her rosary. This represents the rejection of theism.
In one scene the family goes to an ancestor’s grave for prayers and offerings and even Teresa is pushed into the rituals. This however seems to have little impact of their daily behaviour and functional worldview. This represents irrelevant traditional religion.
Meanwhile the mother’s desperation prompts her to attend a promo night by a motivational speaker whose credo is ‘hope is within you’. This is the gospel of self-reliance. Even this turns out to be deceptive when the speaker proves to be a con artist who collects fees and then tries to disappear.
What is the family left with? The son tries to manipulate and improve his world by carefully tracking and betting on winning lottery numbers. This enables him to ameliorate a school punishment in an amusing scene, but ultimately it fails as he tries to win the lottery to save the family finances and keep Teresa in Singapore. This pairing shows worldview of cosmic randomness or capriciousness.
Finally the family are left with themselves. There is some irony as the scammer’s message comes true among them. They do find some hope and comfort among themselves as truth, forgiveness and generosity arise within this tortured family. The film ends with Teresa’s forced repatriation due to poverty, but each family member has been changed for the better.
This is a warm ending, but a question that extends beyond the movie remains for me. Are our internal resources sufficient to cope with, and rise above life’s challenges?
Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Mucking about with words
Time to dip into the box
Inspecting, rejecting and selecting
Seeking the right one for the spot.
But these are not tools for fools, nor toys for the boys (and girls),
Or, maybe the best toys and tools of all.
Cajoling, bemusing, caressing, carousing and more.
Words that transport to far off places and worlds beyond time and space.
Words that beckon, berate, bemuse and bestride the universe.
Nouns, verbs, adverbs and more,
Syntactically diced, marinated, stir-fried and baked to perfection,
Prepositions, conjunctions, disjunctions blending part to part,
Master Chef for the mind.