Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Shaped by the Story (6): Renewing God’s People

I contributed this week’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. It’s a lightly edited re-run of a piece first written in 2012.

Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them... You are the LORD God, who chose Abram... You saw the suffering of our ancestors in Egypt... You came down on Mount Sinai... You gave them kingdoms and nations... By your Spirit you warned them through your prophets... Now therefore, our God, the great God, mighty and awesome, who keeps his covenant of love.
Nehemiah 9:5, 7, 9, 13, 22, 30, 32

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the building projects – the temple and the walls of Jerusalem – that take place after God’s people come home from exile. No less real, and no less hard graft, is the rebuilding of the people themselves – in relationship with God and in community with each other. And at the heart of it, the means by which restoration comes, is the word of God. As Nehemiah 8-10 shows, God works through Scripture – and the story it tells – to breathe new life into his people.

In this case, reading the book of the law leads to confession, with Nehemiah 9 recording the longest prayer in the Bible outside the Psalms. Beginning with praise, the people then trace the biblical story from creation right through to their present day. In doing so, they confess their faithlessness and God’s faithfulness in his dealings with them, admitting their guilt and acknowledging God’s grace.

Mediated through the lens of a scriptural memory of God’s past actions on their behalf, that shared history cements the identity of the people of God, forming a community which will trust and serve him in the future. And so, confession turns to commitment as they make an agreement among themselves and before the Lord to make their own history different in the land God has given them anew. The renewal of the covenant that follows in chapter 10 flows from the awakening by the word of God in chapter 8 and the confession of sin in chapter 9.

Of course, we need ongoing renewal at the personal level. But what’s going on in Nehemiah, crucially, is corporate renewal, renewal of the people of God. A restored relationship with God leads to a restored relationship with each other, to a concern for the welfare of the whole community. The vision at the heart of these chapters, shaped by the biblical story, remains as powerful now as it did then – renewal through the word of God, renewal in relationship with God, and renewal as the people of God.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Centre for Public Christianity (May 2017)

The Centre for Public Christianity has posted the second part of an audio interview with Amy Orr-Ewing (Director of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics), looking ‘at the life and career of the inimitable Dorothy L. Sayers – a celebrated copywriter who wrote jingles for the iconic Guinness “zoo” campaign, a novelist and contemporary of Agatha Christie, a “woman of letters”, and a public Christian’.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Bulletin of Ecclesial Theology 4, 1 (2017)

The Bulletin of Ecclesial Theology is published annually by the Center for Pastor Theologians, and is drawn from the papers presented at the Center’s bi-annual theological conference for pastors.

Three archived volumes are available – 1.1 (2014) with essays on gender and sexuality (available as a pdf here), 2.1 (2015) with essays on work, wealth and economics (available as a pdf here), 3.1 (2016) with essays on liturgy, worship, and spiritual formation (available as a pdf here).

The latest volume carries the below essays on the doctrine of creation, exploring the relationship between science and faith, and is available as a pdf here.

Jim Samra
Faith as an Epistemology: Hebrews 11:3 and the Origins of Life

Dillon T. Thornton
Consecrated Creation: First Timothy 4:1–5 as an Underused Remedy for the Cosmological Dualism Prevalent in the Church

David Rudolph
The Science of Worship: Astronomy, Intercalation, and the Church’s Dependence on the Jewish People

Chris Bruno
Creation and New Creation: How should our Understanding of the End Influence our Understanding of the Beginning?

Gary L. Shultz Jr.
The Cosmological Aspect of the Atonement and the Integration of Faith and Science

Gerald Hiestand
The Bishop, Beelzebub, and the Blessings of Materiality: How Irenaeus’ Account of the Devil Reshapes the Christian Narrative in a Pro-Terrestrial Direction

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Shaped by the Story (5): The Main Role

I contributed this week’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. It’s a lightly edited re-run of a piece first written in 2012.

Give praise to the LORD, call on his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.
Sing of him, sing his praises;
tell of all his wonderful acts.
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice.
Look to the LORD and his strength;
seek his face always.
Remember the wonders he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced,
you his servants, the descendants of Abraham,
his chosen ones, the children of Jacob.
Psalm 105:1-6

Like other passages which tell the biblical story, Psalm 105 reiterates God’s own place in the drama. Clearly, his role is not merely that of the playwright, much less that of a spectator in the audience. As it happens, not only is he the main actor, the central character on stage, but he also has the most significant speaking part. In taking us from Abraham to Canaan, the psalmist does not simply recite the events, but attributes them to the initiative and promise of the Lord. And we, ‘his chosen ones’, are called to remember both ‘the wonders he has done’ and ‘the judgments he pronounced’, words as well as works.

Moreover, God’s saving work is effective for subsequent generations, and the summons to remember connects us to the events no less than the original audience. So, we too are not spectators in the audience, but called to be involved in the action, to take our place in the ongoing drama of salvation.

Just one of the ways we do that, exemplified by the psalm itself, is through praise. Interestingly, the first part of the psalm is drawn from 1 Chronicles 16, where it is sung in celebration of the arrival of the ark of the covenant in Jerusalem. Beyond its use on that special occasion, it continues to be sung by God’s people, showing that more than a mental act reciting the biblical story is taking place. In poetic praise of God’s covenant faithfulness, God's ‘chosen ones’ of every time and place are invited to recount and remember, then respond in celebration and praise.

Crucially, however, we do so to ‘make known among the nations what he has done’ (105:1) – another reminder of the global dimensions of the biblical drama of which we are a part. Confident that God will bring to complete fruition his promise to bless all nations, we praise the Lord and proclaim his name not to benefit ourselves, but to make known his works and words to all people everywhere.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Didache 17, 1 (2017)

The latest issue of Didache (sponsored by the International Board of Education of the Church of the Nazarene) is now available, the various essays addressing broad concerns in theological education.

As the Editorial notes:

This current edition reflects a range of writing, new and old, that encompasses those areas of engagement for the sake of higher education. The edition begins with explorations into one of the primary theological challenges in our global society, prosperity theology; a challenge often overlooked by our tradition. However, the journal also celebrates theological responses by students based on social justice and missional engagement. The edition then addresses the role of theological education, primarily through seasoned educators and theologians. Finally, the journal concludes with two essays that embody the overall flow of this volume, offering new and mature visions of theological education that may well embody the promise and wisdom of our collective future.

The below essays are available from here:

Dean G. Blevins

Dorothy Bullón
Are We Being Blessed, Prosperous and in Victory?

Dorothy Bullón
Estamis Bendecidos, Prosperados y en Victoria?

Kirsten Jeffery
Love, Power, and Suffering: Salvation in Ghanaian Pentecostalism and Romans 8:35-39

Jason Phelps
Understanding the Wealth and Poverty Gap: A Peek through the Lens of Jubilee-Sabbath

Tami Lundgren
Missional Theology: A Multidisciplinary Approach

Daryll Gordon Stanton
Christ-Centered Higher Education Strategies in Africa

Dean G. Blevins
Castles of Sand or Heaven on Earth: Discipleship for the 21st Century

David Wesley
The Implications of Wesleyan Intercultural Studies in a ‘Flat World’: Toward a Missiology of Learners, Partners, and Servants

Henry W. Spaulding II
Naming the Whirlwind: Preliminary Thoughts on the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy

Ryan K. Giffin
Midwifery, Scaffolding, and Hospitality; The Value of Controlling Metaphors for the Ministry of Teaching

Roger L. Hahn
To Boldly Go Where the Church Has Gone Before

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Shaped by the Story (4): Remembrance of Things Past

I contributed last week’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. It’s a lightly edited re-run of a piece first written in 2012.

My people, hear my teaching;
listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth with a parable;
I will teach you lessons from the past –
things we have heard and known,
things our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their descendants;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD,
his power, and the wonders he has done.
Psalm 78:1-4

The story of Israel is told not only in different periods of time – by Moses, then Joshua, then Samuel – but through a variety of literary genres. Psalm 78, for instance, the second longest in the psalter, poetically recounts God’s acts on behalf of his people, from the exodus through to David.

Interestingly, this psalm addresses the congregation rather than the Lord. The speaker begins by inviting the people to listen to his ‘teaching’. In particular, the teaching is given in the mode of ‘a parable’ – the type of instruction one associates with a teacher of wisdom, a teller of stories – which requires an attentiveness that goes beyond the surface level of what’s said. And, like other wise teachers, his move between ‘I’ and ‘we’ shows this is for him too; he is not distancing himself from the necessity of learning ‘lessons from the past’.

In this case, then, it’s about the significance of remembering and passing on what has been heard and known from one generation to another. What, exactly, are they to tell? The Lord’s ‘praiseworthy deeds... and the wonders he has done’. Indeed, the presence of the psalm in Israel’s hymnbook, used regularly in gathered worship, indicates that the story – and its lessons – are to be told again and again.

But, far from the psalm being a flat recitation of the works of the Lord, still less a condemnation of the people for their constant rebellion against him, it is designed to recall the past for the benefit of the people in the present with the encouragement to tell it to others. As it happens, the psalmist does not exhort his audience directly, in the style of Moses or Joshua. He sets up himself as a model of remembering what God has done, engaging his audience’s memory by exercising his own.

For us too, it’s a valuable reminder of the assurance that comes from knowing God has been involved with us from the beginning, of our responsibility to pass that on to others, and the significant role of communities, churches, and families in doing so. The covenant was founded when God ‘remembered’ his commitment to our ancestors in the faith (Exodus 2:24), and the covenant will endure as long as we continue to tell subsequent generations of God’s acts for us, to remember and not forget.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Lausanne Global Analysis 6, 3 (May 2017)

The latest issue of Lausanne Global Analysis, from The Lausanne Movement, is available online from here. This issue ‘has a strong theme of engaging with and reaching out to Muslims’.

In the issue overview, editor David Taylor says:

‘We look at how refugees in Europe are turning to Christ and in turn reviving the church there; we assess Disciple-Making Movements as a Biblical solution for the remaining task of reaching least-evangelised peoples; we consider how we should view Islam and the importance of developing a biblical worldview that gives a framework for relating to Muslims; and finally we ask what the Caliphate means and how we should respond to many Muslims’ aspiration for it.’

Monday, 15 May 2017

Shaped by the Story (3): Under New Management?

I contributed last week’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. It’s a lightly edited re-run of a piece first written in 2012.

Then Samuel said to the people... ‘Now then, stand here, because I am going to confront you with evidence before the LORD as to all the righteous acts performed by the LORD for you and your ancestors... If you fear the LORD and serve and obey him and do not rebel against his commands, and if both you and the king who reigns over you follow the LORD your God – good! But if you do not obey the LORD, and if you rebel against his commands, his hand will be against you, as it was against your ancestors.’
1 Samuel 12:6-7 & 14-15

Like Moses and Joshua before him, Samuel calls the people to covenant faithfulness at the dawn of a new era in their history – the transition to Saul’s kingship. Again, like Moses and Joshua, his instruction is informed by the biblical story to this point. How will the monarchy relate to what has gone before?

Samuel begins by ensuring his own integrity is not under dispute, and the people happily agree that he had neither cheated or oppressed them. But he goes on to show that the Lord, likewise, has been faithful to them in his ‘righteous acts’.

His historical sketch begins with God’s liberation of the people from Egypt, through Moses and Aaron. It takes in the period of the judges, as Samuel makes it clear that the Lord repeatedly raised up leaders to deliver them when they rebelled against God and fell into enemy hands. In the context of the people wanting a king ‘such as all the other nations have’ (1 Samuel 8:5), the clear upshot of Samuel’s telling of their story is that God himself, as ruler over all, has consistently provided leaders to rescue his people in times of need. The ongoing problem, it appears, is not the system of leadership per se so much as their constant turning away from God.

Even now, notwithstanding their request for a ruler, God remains committed to Israel. But the king will not guarantee their future success. That will be down to their ongoing trust in, and obedience to, God whose covenant still stands – for the king as well as the people. Kingship will be allowed, but both leader and people are to serve the one who is Lord of all.

As it turns out, later generations would come to know that kings do not and cannot save. And the biblical story anticipates the need for a ruler who would reign forever, who would bring about a salvation that Israel’s king could never achieve. Now, as then, as 1 Samuel 12:22 makes clear, the basis for our confidence and delight in serving God is his saving grace towards us: ‘For the sake of his great name the LORD will not reject his people, because the LORD was pleased to make you his own.’

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Centre for Public Christianity (May 2017)

Among other items of interest, the Centre for Public Christianity has posted an audio interview with Thomas Crow on ‘how artwork that seems devoid of religion – whether it’s a still life of a white tablecloth, or an Andy Warhol-inspired anti-war poster – can point towards something sacred’.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Shaped by the Story (2): The Promises of a Settled People

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. It’s a lightly edited re-run of a piece first written in 2012.

Joshua said to all the people, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: “Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshipped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants...” Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness... As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.’
Joshua 24:2-3 & 14-15

Towards the end of his life, Joshua gathers the people and recites the story of all that God has done for them. His account intersects with Moses’ earlier summary in Deuteronomy 1-4, but is also influenced by the situation at hand. Having now entered the land of promise, they have stopped journeying and must decide how they will live as a settled people.

Joshua reminds them of God calling Abraham, defeating the Egyptians, bringing them through the wilderness, and dispossessing the Canaanites (24:2-13). The Lord is repeatedly the main actor in Joshua’s account – the one who ‘took’ and ‘led’ and ‘gave’ and ‘sent’ and ‘brought’ – emphasising that it is only by his grace that the people now stand where they do. Moreover, like Moses before him, Joshua shuffles between ‘they’ and ‘you’ in his telling in a way that interweaves his audience with their ancestors, such that the foundational story of the covenant people becomes their story too.

Not to be missed, however, is that Joshua tells the story of Israel’s past as a journey from a ‘foreign’ land to the promised land by the descendants of people who ‘worshipped other gods’. Just as Abraham made the journey from polytheism to faith in the one true God, so Israel’s future depends on the acceptance of this same journey as their own.

So it is that Joshua tells the story in a way designed to bring Israel to a decision. On the basis of God’s great acts for them, he appeals to the people to dedicate themselves to the Lord, announcing his own commitment to do so. Now that they have stopped journeying, they can live as Terah did ‘beyond the Euphrates’, or they can serve the one who delivered them from idolatry and slavery. One way or the other, the story of God’s people will continue to unfold.

For us too, the call of Jesus to ‘follow me’ flows out of what he has already done on our behalf. And we do so with the confidence that he has brought us this far and will be with us always, to the very end of the age.