Monday, 30 March 2009

Coffee on the impact of the global financial crisis on employment

The Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE – that’s a great acronym…) is a research centre at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Their research, as their name suggests, aims to restore full employment – that is, everyone who's willing to work at the going labour market rate, gets a job.
In light of the global financial crisis, they've published an employment vulnerability index. The map for Sydney shows, unsurprisingly, that western Sydney is most at risk. I minister in the Parramatta region, the unofficial capital of western Sydney. The churches of our region must think about the how to minister to people, if there's a sudden increase in unemployment.
I'll post some thoughts on economics, employment and the gospel - AFTER I finish the paper on Calvin.
'Nuff procrastinating - back to Calvin & sex.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Alfred Kinsey meets John Calvin

You probably know that Friday 10 July 2009 is the 500th birthday of the Swiss reformer John Calvin. Calvin’s known for his systematic theology, the Institutes of Christian Religion. It was published in the 1550s, and is probably still, across the world, the best known Protestant systematic theology. He’s also known for his work in reforming the city of Geneva, trying to make it a “Godly state”. These two things gave birth to the third thing he’s known for: Calvinism, the style of theology and churchmanship and general approach to the world that follows in his footsteps.
Calvin heavily influenced Presbyterianism. John Knox, the main Scottish reformer [the Presbyterian church originates from Scotland], spent time in Geneva, learning from Calvin and observing how he went about reforming the church and the city. Hence, Presbyterianism has historically been heavily Calvinistic.
From 7-9 April, the Presbyterian Theological Centre in Burwood is hosting a conference on Calvin. I’ll be delivering a paper – my first academic presentation. It’s on Calvin’s sexual anthropology and ethic. Well, it’s titled “Kinsey meets Calvin: a dialogue between John Calvin and modern academic sexology on sexual anthropology and sexual ethics”. I’m co-presenting it with my mum. We’re gonna look at two questions:
1. What does it mean for humans to be sexual beings?
2. How can we express our sexuality in a healthy manner?
We’re going to put these two questions to two sources:
1. John Calvin, through his Institutes, sermons, commentaries, liturgical reform and law reform;
2. Modern academic sexology, represented by Alfred Kinsey, but not limited to him.
Hence the title: Kinsey meets Calvin. We want to bring the two into dialogue, and see what they think of each other. Will it be a big fight? A polite but distant chat? Or a surprisingly pleasant and mutually edifying conversation? Shall report in a coupla days…

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Reading the Bible as one book – important subjects that the Bible tells us about

Here's my introduction to my third MEPC seminar on how to read the Bible. It deals with systematic theology, or doctrine. Again, feedback is appreciated.
* * * * *
The Art of Systematic Theology
As we listen carefully to the Bible, in its own voice, and understand all of it in light of God’s redemptive plan, we see that the Bible has certain themes, or topics, or subjects, that it treats with particular importance. Systematic theology is the task of:
1. Discerning these topics, and
2. Assembling them in a orderly way that shows:
a. Why they’re important, and
b. How they’re related to each other.
We can only properly do this through exhaustive Bible study. Any systematic theology must be dependent upon the Bible, and therefore open to being criticised and corrected by the Bible.
That said, over the last 2000 years, there have been many thoroughly Biblical systematic theologies. They sum up the Bible better than an individual person, starting from first principles, could. Some of them are: Three assertions about Systematic Theology
1. The Bible sets the agenda, not us
The Bible tends to have different priorities to us. What we think is important, and what the Bible thinks is important, are often totally different. Don’t be surprised if the Bible treats something that you think is vitally important to your life as a minor detail, and instead spends ages talking about something you think is boring & irrelevant. The problem is not with the Bible, it’s with us – our priorities are all wrong.
2. The Bible tells us everything we need to have a full life, in relationship with God and each other; and it tells this to us with God’s authority
While the Bible has different priorities to us, it does speak to every issue in our lives. This is an aspect of the Bible’s sufficiency and authority. The Bible tells us enough for us to know God, ourselves and the world. And it tells us this with God’s own authority, which stands over every other authority.
3. We need to listen to the Bible on its own terms
To do this correctly, we must go through steps 1 & 2 first: we must listen carefully to the Bible, in its own voice, and understand all of it in light of God’s redemptive plan.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Reading the Bible as one book: following its big story

Here's the introduction to my second seminar at MEPC on how to read the Bible for yourself. In it, I deal with how & why we read the Bible as one book - "biblical theology". You'll see I basically take Graeme Goldsworthy's approach, with a bit of classic covenant theology thrown in for extra flavour. Advice & feedback appreciated.
* * * * *
As we listen carefully to the Bible, in its own voice, we see that the whole Bible is about God creating for himself a people, who live joyfully under his rule, in an environment of blessing. One way to sum up the whole story of the Bible is: God wants a people, in his place, living under his rule.
At key points in the Bible’s unfolding story, God sums up his purposes in a covenant. These covenants build on God’s past actions, sum up God’s relationship with the world at that point in time, and look forward to another significant step in God’s plan. These covenants are made with individuals or groups who will play a key role in God’s plan. They invite people to structure their lives around God’s plan for the world – that is, covenants invite faith.
Jesus fulfils God’s plan (*shock!*). He is God’s person – and he makes us to be God’s people, by dying and rising for us. He is God’s place – he is the focal point of all of God’s blessings – and he takes us to God’s place – the glorious new creation. He expresses God’s rule, both by perfectly living under God’s rule, and by being God’s promised ruler.
By fulfilling God’s plan, Jesus is the mediator of God’s covenant. Jesus, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, builds on all of God’s past actions, perfectly sums up God’s relationship with the world, and gives us the certain confidence of the final step in God’s plan: the renewal of all creation when he comes again. Jesus now invites all people everywhere to structure their lives around him – that is, Jesus invites us to have faith in him.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Hearing the Bible in its own voice

As I mentioned previously, one of my rewsponsibilities at MEPC is leadng a training group on how to read the Bible foryourself. Here's the introduction to my first seminar. I'd appreciate some thoughts & feedback.
* * * * *
The Bible comes to us as a book, which is itself a collection of books. Each book has its own author, style, and historical situation. It uses a variety of literary techniques to communicate its message in its own unique way. So each book of the Bible – sometimes different parts of one book – has its own unique ‘voice’. So, on the one hand, correctly understanding the Bible is actually quite easy. All we need to do is listen to it, in its own voice.
On the other hand, it takes effort to hear the Bible in its own voice. This is because:

  1. Some passages of the Bible are quite complicated. We need to read them slowly and carefully.
  2. The Bible’s a big book – there’s a lot to get through.
  3. We may not be used to the style of a particular book, or part of a book.
  4. The Bible was written in a time and place very different to ours. It can feel alien, unfamiliar, distant from us.

None of these are problems with the Bible; they’re all problems with us. The Bible’s big & sometimes complicated because God is big, and there’s things about him that are hard to understand. There’s a lot to know about God! Some of its styles are difficult because the humans who God inspired to write it were intelligent and creative. Many modern books are big, complicated and use unfamiliar styles of writing – but we still read them, and recognise them as high literature. And the Bible feels historical because it is historical! The Bible was written by real people in a real place. If we’re only interested in the latest thing, if we only understand our own time, then we’ve been sucked in by the narcissism of our age.
If we work at it, we can rightly hear the Bible in its own voice. In my first training seminar, I teach a general method for Bible reading. It’s a technique that’s based on the Bible’s bible-ness: the Bible is a book, which is a collection of books, each with their author, style, and historical situation. My prayer is that this helps us all to hear the Bible, in its own voice – and by so doing, that we would come face-to-face with Jesus, and trust, love and serve him more.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Getting even more fashionable

Some time ago I briefly blogged about the recent Calvinist revival. Looks like this movement has become big enough to get noticed by Time magazine.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

What does it mean to be Church?

Here's my current notes for my third and final talk at the SBM weekend away. I'm working towards a missional ecclesiology - another fashionable but fraught topic. I've had a read of Tim Chester & Steve Timm's book Total Church. Interesting.
As ever, feedback highly appreciated.
* * * * *
Church is the family of people who have been redeemed from sin by Christ’s death and resurrection. Their defining characteristics are faith and repentance: they trust Jesus to be forgiven, and they have turned from sin, to follow Jesus.
On the one hand, the church is a foretaste of the end. In heaven, we’re going to be gathered around Jesus, being ruled by him, worshiping and praising him—which is what we should be doing on earth. Heaven is an eternal church service.
But we’re not in heaven yet. The church is still in the world—a world in rebellion against the God we serve. While we’re in this world, we must be characterised by two things: repentance, and evangelism.
Although we’re not of the world, we’re from the world—we once were sinners; now we’re redeemed, saved. Having come from the world, we all have sinful habits and behaviours that still hang around. Many of them will be cultural; many will be ‘blind spots’ to us. This is why we need the church—God’s community. The church is a workshop for Godliness, where we confess our worldliness to each other, and call each other to repent of it. For the church to be that, it must be both safe and challenging: safe enough so people can honestly confess their sins and failings; but also unequivocally challenging people to repent of those sins and failings. Hmmm—that’s exactly what Jesus did. “I do not condemn you… [but] go and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).
This repentance will itself be evangelistic. Godly relationships will themselves testify to the God we serve. People will see how we’re different to the world, different to worldly culture. They’ll see how we’re constantly confessing, challenging, and repenting—and they’ll be threatened by it. The sins we’re confessing and repenting of will be sins they’re living in. As we confess and repent, they’ll feel judged; and they’ll hate us for it. But we can’t leave it at internal church relationships. Church is dynamic because the gospel is dynamic, and the gospel is dynamic because God is dynamic (ref talk 1). Every church should be outward focused, seeking to expand God’s kingdom as much as possible, because our God is outward-focused, and seeks to expand his kingdom as much as possible.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

What's culture got to do with it?

Here's my current notes for my second talk at the upcoming SBM weekend away. I'm tackling the difficult issue of Christ and culture. Does this make me brave or foolhardy? Hmmm....
Again, I haven't read any books on this topic yet. I've just started reading Don Carson's "Christ and Culture Revisited". Shall post a review if able.
Anyway - as usual, I seek feedback. Please gimme your thoughts.
* * * * *
Definition of culture
“Culture” has two meanings:
1. The taken-for-granted rules, habits and customs that define acceptable relationships and communication. All communities have a culture, a way of doing things, which is different to other communities. Communities and their cultures can be ethnic (Chinese, Italian, Sub-continental); geographic (north-shore vs the “shire”); or based on interests & professions (computer geeks, surfies, train buffs, foodies). All these different communities will have subtle rules and customs that define acceptable relationships and communication.
2. The human capacity for organising, constructing, and generally ruling the world—science, technology, the fine arts—what we might call “high culture”.

Culture before sin: a way to worship God
Before sin, culture—in both senses of the word—was a means to worship God.
1. God defined acceptable relationships and communication.
2. Humans were called to rule the world and subdue it (Gen 1:28), under God, as God’s image-bearers.

Culture after sin: a way to reject God
After the fall, both senses of culture were corrupted, and became a means to reject God.
1. We want to define ourselves and our societies our own way, against God. Sometimes we do this explicitly: today, communist Russia and China are explicitly atheist. But explicit atheism is unusual: most of the time, we just dream up gods to suit ourselves—hence, the various religions of the world, with their respective moral codes.
2. Human ingenuity, science, and technology become a means of rejecting and replacing God. Eg: Genesis 11: the tower of Babel. Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel ch 4: “is this not Babylon, which I built by my own power”. The 18th century Enlightenment explicitly rejected a God-centred view of the universe, and replaced with a human-centred view: humanity was free, powerful, able to rule the universe. But most people aren’t that sophisticated: we just stuff our faces with the good things of the world, and forget the God who gave them to us.

Culture and God's redemption: towards a Biblical theology of culture
In the face of this human rebellion, God acted to judge sinful culture, and create a Godly culture. He created the nation of Israel, and gave them his law: God’s own relational instructions, his own “culture”. God always intended Israel to show their culture to the world, to be a “light to the nations”. The Queen of Sheba visiting Solomon is an example of this.
Israel failed to live by God’s law, God’s culture. God judged them by kicking them out of his land, to the lands of the nations, where they had to submit to a foreign, anti-God culture.
Jesus was born and lived in a particular time & place, in a particular “culture”. He submitted to ordinary first-century Jewish cultural customs: he was circumcised (Luke 2:21), and obeyed his parents (Luke 2:39). When he spoke, people understood him, so we assume that he spoke the ordinary language of first-century Israel: Aramaic. In his teaching, he tends to use metaphors from fields and farming, which suited rural Galilean culture. All this shows that culture is not necessarily only sinful: it can be used to communicate divine salvation.
However, Jesus is unique: he is the incarnate Son of God. We cannot build a sinless culture here on earth; that awaits the second coming. Jesus perfectly fulfilled God’s culture. He perfectly obeyed the law, both outwardly—he was circumcised, celebrated the Passover—and inwardly—he loved God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength, and loved his neighbour as himself. He loved God so much that he obeyed the Father’s salvation plan, even though it meant sacrificing his relationship with the Father. He loved his neighbours—us—so much that he died for us, even though we were his enemies. Christ’s death and resurrection are God’s culture.
As God’s culture, Christ’s death and resurrection simultaneously judges and redeems our human cultures. Jesus demonstrates real love, real sacrifice, real relationship: we all fall far, far short—we sin. This is his judgment. But in his death and resurrection, Jesus forgives us for that sin. He also gives us a new, worldwide community, with a worldwide culture: the church, the new Israel, the new people of God, where we are called to love each other as Christ loved us. This is his redemption.
Jesus has perfectly fulfilled Jewish Old Testament ethnic culture. Therefore, we don’t have to become cultural Jews to be saved: we don’t have to be circumcised, keep the food laws, the clothing laws etc. Christian culture is a culture of loving sacrifice: giving ourselves freely, for each other, and for the world, just like Jesus did.

Using culture as a way to communicate the gospel
The risen Christ now calls us to use human cultures in two ways: discipleship and evangelism. We must learn to relate to other Christians, from our various human cultures, within the worldwide church. We must also use culture to reach out to the world.
Because God created all the people of the world, every culture will have some point of contact with the gospel, some way of communicating with that culture about Jesus. But because of sin, that point of contact will not be perfect: it will be similar, but different. Eg: in sub-continental culture, families are closer-knit than in traditional Aussie culture. Prima facie, that’s a good, Godly, Biblical thing: God is positive towards families (Deut 6:20-24; Ps 22:30-31; the Proverbs are addressed to “my son”; Eph 5:21-6:9). However, in sub-continental culture, parents may rule and dominate their children, which may lead to resentment—neither of which is Godly. Eph 6:4a: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children”.
So, our challenge is to ponder carefully how we can use our culture to express our loyalty to Christ, in discipleship and evangelism. The order is important: Christ is the goal; our culture is an instrument to serve that goal. We are Christians first; sub-continentals (or any other culture) second. If we rightly use our human culture to express our loyalty to Christ, then we will clearly communicate the challenge to repent. Because we are using culture, we will communicate clearly. Because we are loyal to Christ, the content of what is communicated will be the challenge to turn from sin, and follow him. Clear communication involves speaking, but also ways of relating: it involves “culture”. If we clearly communicate the challenge to repent, people will understand us enough to hate us—just like they hated Jesus.

Two dangers to beware
If we miss either side of the equation—clear communication of repentance—we will be safe, but ineffective.
We could withdraw from the world, and set up little Christian communities, where we live by our nice, clean, safe Christian culture, insulated from the big, bad, wicked world. Then we’ll be safe, but irrelevant. We’ll be a curiosity; a laughing-stock; a bunch of old-fashioned eccentrics.
On the other hand, we could accept human culture so much, as to merely reflect back to the world what they’re saying. Rather than challenging them to repent, we can affirm them in their sin. Again, we’ll be safe, but irrelevant—and this time, irrelevant to God.

Conclusion
Christ enacted God’s culture in his death and resurrection: a culture of sacrificial love. Christians, and the church, are shaped by that culture. We must use human culture to clearly communicate the challenge to repent and follow that crucified & risen Christ. To be effective in this, we must be ready to suffer as Christ suffered.

Monday, 9 March 2009

What does it mean to be evangelistic?

Here's my preliminary thoughts for my first talk at the SBM weekend away. I try and lay the foundation of what the "gospel" is, and why it should motivate everything we do.
By the way - I haven't read any books yet. This is purely the result of me reading the Bible & thinking hard.
Feedback welcome! Tell me what you think!
* * * * *
To be evangelistic, we must know what the “evangel” is.
“Evangel” is the Greek word for “Gospel”. We usually translate it as “good news”, but it really means “important news”, “significant news”. Something really important has happened, which we need to listen to and act upon. What is this weighty, important news? It is that in Jesus, God has restored his rule over the world. The basic Christian message is that Jesus is the Christ, the Lord, the king over the universe.
How does Jesus become king over the world, and thus restore God’s rule? By dying as a sacrifice for us rebels, who reject God’s rule. So, when we become Jesus’ servants, we become servants of the servant-king, who came to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). When we come under Jesus’ rule, we are ruled by the one who died for those who rejected his rule. This is what it means to be a Christian: to be ruled by Christ’s redemption; to be ruled by the cross.
This gospel, this evangel, is powerful. It has energy, dynamism, within itself (Rom 1:16). This is because the God, whose gospel it is, is a dynamic God. God is living and active; therefore his gospel is living and active; and the Bible, which proclaims the gospel, is living and active (Heb 4:12a). The living, active God created the world as a living, active place (Genesis ch 1-2). This same God is now re-creating us, bringing us to new life, new activity, in his gospel of redemption. The gospel itself changes people, from being sinners in rebellion against God, to be followers and subjects of Jesus, who serve him and stand for him in the face of a hostile world. It makes us see everything from Jesus’ point of view. It makes us want to live for this king, who died for us. We want to follow his example of serving people with our whole lives. We want other people to also be redeemed, to also follow this king who died for them. This is what it means to be evangelistic: it means to be redeemed, and in the process of being transformed, by the powerful gospel of Christ, in a world that’s hostile to him. It means to be a normal Christian.
This does not mean it’ll be easy—in fact, the opposite. We should expect it to be difficult. The sinfulness of the world we live in, our own sinfulness, and the supernatural powers in rebellion against God, all combine to try and crush this gospel dynamic out of us. We battle the world, the flesh, and the devil.
But, we need not fear. For the content of the gospel is that God, in Christ, has defeated all these foes. Jesus is Lord—Satan is not. So, we return to the gospel of the crucified Christ, to be re-energised by him through it. And we go out to the world, to do battle for him.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

SBM weekend away April 3-5

On April 3-5, I’m going to be speaking at the weekend away of Subcontinental Bible Ministry (“SBM”). I was involved with their Bible studies 'til last year. This year, they've become a new congregation of St Andrew's Anglican church in Strathfield.
I'm going to be speaking on "what it means to be an evangelistic, cultural church", 'coz that's what SBM want to be: a church that reaches out to people from the sub-continent (India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh). I'm going to post my current thoughts for my three talks:
1. What it means to be evangelistic;
2. What it means to be cultural;
3. What it means to be church.
I'd appreciate any thoughts & feedback you have, so I can improve them.
First post tomorrow!

Saturday, 7 March 2009

MEPC: training, new Bible study & new congregation

I’m just re-surfacing after a bad bout of ‘flu. As the weather cools down, my ministry’s hotting up. I have several significant ministry projects in progress. I'll start with what I'm doing at Merrylands East Presbyterian Church (“MEPC”).
I’m running a training course on how to read the Bible. It deals with the basics of taking the Bible on its own terms – in context, paying attention to style, situating the passage within the big picture of God’s unfolding plan of salvation (“Biblical Theology”) – all that sort of thing. It’ll lead into a course on how to lead Bible studies, and then another course on preaching. I’ve had previous experience in running the first two types of training courses – reading the Bible, and leading Bible study – but I’ve never trained preachers before. I thought you had to be someone of the caliber of Spurgeon or Lloyd-Jones before you had a go at that.
I'm also helping to start a new Bible study in the Liverpool-Fairfield area. There's three young people who live in the area, and have for a while been keen to start a study. There's quite a few people associated with MEPC who don't come for Bible studies at the moment because of distance and lack of transport. Please pray that they'll come along to this new group!
Finally, I'm also involved in the launch of a new congregation at church. MEPC used to be an Arabic-language church. I minister with the English-speaking young people. At the moment, we have two parallel Sunday meetings: one in Arabic for the parents, and in the hall, an English meeting for the young people. On 3 May, we’re going to move the English-language meeting to 12pm. It’s an exciting opportunity for us to take more responsibility for running our own congregation, rather than merely thinking of ourselves as a big youth group.
Shall post about my other ministry projects. Watch this space...