UNCONFUSING THE MESSAGE

A short editorial ‘Jingle tills, jingle tills’ in the SUNDAY TIMES of 22/12/13 pricked my interest. Here it is…

It is that time of the year again, a deeply religious period when we go to worship at the mall of our choice. These places of worship are, as if by law, obliged to play corny music and put up replicas of trees that are indigenous to the northern hemisphere.

Another exotic is the reindeer, which once appeared in South Africa on the slopes of Table Mountain, to which they escaped along with Himalayan tahrs, a mountain-goat species from India, until both were culled from existence. The former now flourishes, mostly in plastic form, in malls.

Signs of the approaching season, which used to be detected around early December, now make their appearance late in October in some malls where the emphasis is on snow during one of the hottest periods of the year. It must have something to do with climate change.

It is also the time of the year for confusing messages (my bold print).

There is the birth of Jesus, which has over the years been hijacked by a creeping commercialism that linked the birth of a Saviour in straitened circumstances to that of a fat man dressed in unfashionable garb, defying every law of physics and gravity by travelling from, allegedly, the North Pole, around the world in a single night to dispense incredible largesse that fits on a sleigh no bigger than a 4×4 bakkie (a small pickup truck).

What children are expected to make of the significance of a bright star, shepherds, three wise men and the birth of Christianity, along with that pagan humbug of a flying man, his sleigh and a bunch of extravagantly horned Arctic antelope, is difficult to know. At least they have Google and Wikipedia to consult.

If you think this is an absurd view of an eagerly awaited time of the year, just go to your mall and observe – and you will realise that most in our country (South Africa) are a world away from our Christian indulgence.

Not bad for a secular newspaper!

Let’s not get into petty arguments about the date of Christmas or associations with pagan festivals, etc. The fact is we live in a particular world and in a particular context. Yes, as disciples of Jesus within and outside the ‘Institutional Church’ we should celebrate Christ’s birth every day of the year – however a church calendar has its uses in reminding us of the highpoints of the biblical revelation and the grand narrative of God’s sovereign purpose in Christ. The coming down of Jesus is certainly a high point for me!

So why not use this as a teachable time to try and explain to ourselves and our children and our grandchildren the unmatched mystery and magnificence of the God-Man come to earth in a Palestinian cave-cum-stable? And while the crib can never be separated from the cross, let us not neglect to celebrate (as we have done too often) the life of Jesus. For Christ’s humanity, earthiness, humility, play, humour, obedience and ‘glory’ in the every-day has so much to teach us. Not forgetting that his life, pre and post-resurrection, is just as much part of God’s saving purpose for the world as is his death. Recall with me the apostle Paul’s explanation of the Good News in his letter to the little ecclesiae in Rome:  Rom. 5:10-11, ‘For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.’ [verses 12ff develop this theme further:  ‘Death Through Adam, Life Through Christ’].

So how shall we celebrate Advent in Africa 2013? By unconfusing the Good News and celebrating Jesus’ life for us and the honour of God. 

  • Let’s do it in music, song, and merry-making (appropriate)! Read the Gospel stories around Messiah’s birth, preferably from a Bible version different to the one you are used to. Forget about Google and Wikipaedia – simple shepherds could get the basics.  
  • Let’s involve the children and grandchildren in rediscovering Jesus and his birth. Last Sunday afternoon I took a box of nativity figurines to the house church in Motherwell township to help illustrate the human role-players in Christ’s coming – Mary and Joseph, the baby, the animals, the humble shepherds from the veldt, etc. The children and teens were invited to arrange them on the well-worn carpet and talk about the significance of each figure. And so on…
  • Let’s build relationships with family and friends, and for goodness sake let’s talk about Jesus over the holiday braai (barbecue) fires, in natural and spontaneous ways [why o why is Jesus-talk restricted to Christmas morning 9 am to 10 am or any Sunday of the year 9 am to 10.30 am? Surely believers can’t talk about the economy or politics or the weather or their health or themselves all the time?]
  • Let’s reach out to a neighbour or a stranger at the till. Perhaps message someone who is lonely.
  • Let’s find some quiet spot and moment to personally ‘adore him, Christ the Lord!’ Let’s revel anew in his incarnation [for starters, salivate with Jn. 1:14, 18]. Sense again the mysterium tremendum (Rudolph Otto). Let God love you (men!), and love him in return.
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FOUR PRAYERS FOR AFRICA

The first is by Trevor Huddleston (1913-1998), Anglican bishop and political activist, and it is very brief…

God bless Africa;

Guard her children; 

Guide her leaders and give her peace,

For Jesus Christ’s sake,

Amen.

The second, my personal favourite, is by John Knox Bokwe (1855-1922), celebrated Xhosa hymn writer and Presbyterian minister…

[It has a haunting melody, and is beautifully sung by Sibongile Xhumalo, among others]

Give a thought to Africa

‘Neath the burning sun.

There are hosts of weary hearts,

Waiting to be won.

Many lives have passed away

And in many homes

There are voices crying now,

To the living God.

Tell the love of Jesus

By her hills and waters:

God bless Africa

And her sons and daughters.

Breathe a prayer for Africa

God, the Father’s love

Can reach down and bless all hearts

From his heav’n above

And when lips are moved by grace

They so sweetly sing

Pray for peace in Africa

From our living God.

Tell the love of Jesus

By her hills and waters:

God bless Africa

And her sons and daughters.

The third prayer is an Afrikaans translation of the above, by Bouwer van Rooyen. The lyrics are superb…

Laat ons bid vir Afrika,

Land van helder son

Daar is soveel wat nog wag

Om verlos te word

Vele lewens reeds verby

En nog soveel meer

Roep om redding tot U, Heer,

U is lewend God.

Laat dit wyd bekend word,

Elke tong en taal pleit saam:

God seen Afrika

En sy kinders een vir een.

Kom ons bid vir Afrika;

Here wil U gee

Dat God se liefde heers

Oor ons wye land

En dat God regeer.

En wanneer ons saam aanbid

Voor die troon van God,

Bid vir vrede in ons land

En dat God regeer.

Laat dit wyd bekend word,

Elke tong en taal pleit saam:

God seen Afrika

En sy kinders een vir een.

God seen Afrika

En sy kinders een vir een.

God has not finished with Africa yet! Let us earnestly pray for Africa in the words of JESUS (Mt. 6:9-13/NLT)…

Our Father in heaven,

may your name be honoured.

May your kingdom come soon.

May your will be done here on earth,

just as it is in heaven.

Give us our food today,

and forgive us our sins,

just as we have forgiven those who

have sinned against us.

And don’t let us yield to temptation

But deliver us from the evil one.

Amen!

MADIBA MAGIC [or, THE COMMON TOUCH]

One of the subtitles on Sunday’s Sunday Times front page read, ‘SA prepares for one of the largest funerals the world has known as it mourns its favourite son.’ As most know, Nelson Rolihlahla Madiba Mandela, first President and ‘Tata’ (father) of democratic South Africa, passed away on Thursday night, aged 95 after a long sickbed. ‘Madiba’ is his clan name, a name much loved by most in our country and abroad. Ordinary people have sometimes spoken of the ‘Madiba Magic,’ thereby referring to his seeming ‘magic touch’ pertaining to things, including sport. My son and I attended the exciting international Sevens Rugby Tournament which took place in our city last weekend at the Nelson Mandela Stadium in Port Elizabeth. Our team beat every one of the other 15 participating nations, including the mighty All Blacks and current champions Fiji! Our local press claimed it was the ‘Madiba Magic’ that did the trick. I wish you could have felt the atmosphere at the stadium – vibrant, jubilant and yet respectful of Nelson Mandela’s passing.

There are three fundamentals to be born in mind as we think of the father of our nation and icon of the world.

  • We need to see Mandela in perspective. He was a great man, but at the same time a man of flesh and blood. Barak Obama, President of the USA, endeared himself to his audience when he referred to the statesman’s humanity, even his mischievousness, things which demonstrated the greatness of the man.
  • There is one infinitely greater, who also walked this earth. He was divine and yet he was flesh. His name is Jesus of Nazareth. He has no equal or peer. We worship him alone. Many South Africans have a tendency to idolize Madiba but this is out of place [in this regard, do read Tobie v.d. Westhuizen’s blog at naturalchurch]. One woman declared Mandela ‘the greatest man to walk the earth.’ Mandela himself would have vociferously denied that.
  • Did Mandela have a personal, saving knowledge of Jesus Christ?? We know he was christened, raised and schooled as a Methodist in rural Transkei. I remember reading in his biography that he never failed in 27 years to attend a chapel service on Robben Island. He spoke openly at church meetings and synods of the fact that, while he saw faith as very personal, he was committed to implementing the Christian values with which he had been raised [one has to have some sympathy with Mandela in this regard – he governed a nation of many religions, and South Africa long ago ceased to be the ‘Christian nation’ it so often purported to be under white leadership]. I also heard a past President of the Baptist Union of SA tell us how he asked for an interview with Mandela and on that occasion presented him with a Bible and a daily devotional book. Mandela was honest enough to say that he would be too busy to read the Bible on a daily basis but that he would certainly read the devotional book on a daily basis. Of course none of these things per se qualify him as regenerate. However let us be aware that in the issue of personal salvation we can never play God – he alone remains final Judge of all things and all people. For myself I certainly hope he knew and loved Jesus – that’s as far as I can go! Each one is of course entitled to their own opinion in this matter.

What I do know, and think many of you would agree, is that Nelson Mandela was raised up by our sovereign God to lead our young nation in her most critical hour. This fact, together with the earnest prayers of God’s people across the country, ensured a bloodless and largely peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy.

What I also know is that Mandela, by the outrageous grace of God alone, displayed some wonderful qualities of which the Church and all believers should take serious note and implement:

  • We can learn from his humility. Often officials would find Madiba in the kitchen of some larny hotel, talking to and jiving with the staff in obvious pleasure.
  • We can learn from his love of children. How he interacted with children at their level, put them on his lap and affirmed them. How he worked for the upliftment of disadvantaged children in the most forgotten corners of our country.
  • We can learn from his servanthood. He reminded South Africans that he had not come as a prophet among them, but as their humble servant (how the current regime can learn from this!). Once his official car passed a woman along the roadside, trying to cope with a flat tyre in the rain. Despite his body guards’ remonstrations he got out, took an umbrella to the woman and saw that her tyre was changed so that she could continue on her journey.
  • We can learn from his humanity. Theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer once declared that Jesus had come to make us ‘human.’ I love John’s Prologue to his Gospel, Jn. 1:1-18. Verse 14, particularly apt at this Advent time, reminds us how ‘The Word (eternal and pre-existent) became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory…’ ‘Flesh’ is a strong, almost crude word stressing Christ’s humanity. ‘Made his dwelling among us’ derives from the Greek word for ‘tent’ or ‘tabernacle’ – Jesus pitched his tent among us, he moved into our neighbourhood. Through all this his divinity shone through.
  • We can learn from his spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. How a lack of these graces has characterised many a church group and many a church member!

Maybe I could conclude by saying that Mandela had ‘the common touch.’ Francis Schaeffer, in the early 1970’s, wrote a booklet called ‘The New Super Spirituality.’ He warned of a time when true spirituality [see my blog archives] would be eclipsed by an eastern, mystic, ‘new age’ guru spirituality totally foreign to the Bible. There is much of that ‘super spirituality’ on display today:  in the Church’s fixation with success and prosperity, upward mobility and arrogance, crass materialism and other-worldly gnosticism, a superabundance of ‘gifts’ to the detriment of ‘fruit’ (or character), etc.

Many years ago a young Christian couple I was privileged to unite in marriage, while discussing the Church and church leadership in general, paid my wife and I the compliment (imho) of having ‘the common touch.’ I never want to lose that, and you are free to rebuke me should I stray from that path. Jesus supremely owned ‘the common touch’:  consider his birth in a smelly stable; his intercourse with the poor and broken and outcast;  his washing of his disciples’ sweaty feet (Jn. 13);  his self-humiliation in becoming  ‘a servant’ for our sake (Phil. 2);  his dying a criminal’s death on our behalf;  having a fish braai (barbecue) with his fishermen friends on the beach (Jn. 21);  working with 12 ordinary men (one of them a traitor) and empowering them to do the extraordinary in his name;  giving his followers a similar Comforter, to make his own presence real beyond his grave;  promising to return visibly to abide with them forever in a transformed earth;  etc.

By the life of Jesus within (Jn. 15) take time with the teller at the supermarket if you can, thank and affirm her. Don’t just give money to the poor but get to know the poor. Be patient with the disillusioned and the hopeless. Incarnate Jesus in the ecclesia and in the market place. Be the Bible to people who would never think of opening it (if they even have a copy). Reconcile people to God and their neighbour, through Christ, wherever you can (2 Cor. 5:11-21).

And so, and in a myriad other ways, may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ be praised!

THE CASE FOR GOOD THEOLOGY

Yesterday I noticed a company logo as I drove past:  EDUCATION COSTS, SO DOES IGNORANCE! 

As I broach the subject of good theology once more, may I urge you to remove any ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign from your mind and spirit. We don’t want to be like the fellow who said ‘My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with facts!’ I include the ‘mind’ because God is in essence a thinking God, and has created us in his image to think as he thinks and act as he acts. So many believers today pooh-pooh ‘theology’ (lit. the study of God) when the fact is that we ALL have a theology of sorts. It can be a good theology based on the self-revelation of God in creation, the Bible and the Logos (the living Word). Or it can be a poor theology based on our own subjective ideas, speculations, rationalisations, emotions, experiences and impulses (are they always from the Spirit, as we claim?) which are often unreliable (Jer. 17:9, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?’). Years ago well-loved theologian, John Stott, wrote a booklet entitled ‘Your Mind Matters’ – of course it does! (Rom. 12:1-2; 2 Tim. 2:15, 3:10-17; 1 Pet. 1:13)

This post was triggered, I believe by the Spirit, when I received mail from good missionary friends in Hong Kong, reminding me of the imminent 90th birthday of one of our mutual mentors, Dr. Ralph Christensen. I owe the foundations of my theology to two men in particular. One was our College Principal, a Scotsman named Sandy Gilfillan – he was one of the sharpest Greek and NT scholars in South Africa during my theological training and has been to this day. I pay tribute to him because he gave us a ‘biblical theology’ drawn from and shaped by the text itself, exegeted in context. By contrast, a ‘systematic theology’ can easily impose a rationalistic and pre-determined ‘system’ on our reading of the Bible, bringing division rather than unity in the Body. Thus, for example, (imho) rigid ‘Calvinists’ have sometimes bought into a system of state-church which during Reformation times led to the martyrdom of thousands of saints in the Anabaptist movement and in modern times terrible national upheaval [thus Apartheid, the Rwandan genocide, etc]. Not to mention the confusion spawned by dispensationalists, secret rapturists, etc…

My second theological mentor was Dr. Ralph Christensen, a N. American of Danish descent who came to South Africa with his wife as TEAM missionaries. He lectured Missiology at the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa, where I was a student in the mid-to-later 60’s. Having earned an MA in Theology from Wheaton in the USA and a Doctorate in Missiology from the University of South Africa under the world-renowned missiologist Prof. David Bosch, and having had the benefit of many years of cross-cultural church planting in Africa, he was certainly well equipped to teach and mentor me and my fellow students [cf the ‘pastor-teacher’ function of Eph. 4:9-13]. Later as head of Rosebank Bible College he taught and mentored scores of missionaries who scattered all over the globe in the cause of the kingdom.

Above all Dr. Ralph’s theology and missiology was refreshingly God-centred and simple. The Church was called to mission because God was at heart a missionary [David Livingstone once said, God had an only Son and he made him a missionary] [Dr. Ralph’s mentor, David Bosch, was known for his statement, ‘missiology is the mother of theology’]. I was reminded by my Hong Kong friends how he introduced the first lecture of their second year with the question, ‘Where is God?’ The students’ offered different answers like ‘God is omnipresent,’ ‘he indwells believers’ and so on. Dr. Ralph replied that while their answers were biblical, the more biblical answer was ‘God is going into his world.’

I believe that organic/house churches have re-discovered that more intimate communion of the saints with God and the Body. The danger is so ‘hanging out’ with Jesus and fellow-believers that we neglect the call to mission, i.e. by life, deed and word. The evangelist John in the Fourth Gospel reminds us of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to his disciples (who for fear of the religionists had turned in on themselves) of their divine mission (Jn. 20:21-22):  “‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” A quick summary of ‘As the Father has sent me’ and the implications for us as Body of Christ:

  • Jesus came incarnationally. So must we go into the world.
  • He came into a family. Church begins in family and every family must be a ‘little church’ led by the parents. 
  • He came relationally. Building relationships are ‘key,’ within the Body and in the market place.
  • He showed the way by being and doing. So must we.
  • He focussed on the kingdom of God. We must have a focus as wide as the kingdom, i.e. the reign of God in Jesus Christ.

During the last 17 years of pastoring an institutional church, I made it my aim to lead the congregation to be missional in every way, both locally and globally. We sent missionaries locally and to the ends of the earth. I made one fundamental mistake – we over-did the doing bit and under-did the being bit. In my facilitation of house churches over the last 7 years, I have tried to do justice to both. God has blessed our small efforts in remarkable ways. Perhaps more particularly, because we have begun to see ourselves as the indwelt temple of the Spirit, individually and corporately. At the same time we are trying to live from ‘the Tree of life’ rather than the ‘The Tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ (cf. Gen. 1-3) [see my earlier blog on ‘A Theology of Two Trees’]. It really makes all the difference to live from divine life rather than self-effort.

Here’s my challenge to those who gather organically [see earlier blog for definition]:  while enriched by community let us not degenerate into holy huddles. Ultimately the Infinite-Personal God of the Bible is not here just for us and our immediate needs, our prosperity and self-development, our health and well-being, our ‘destiny’ and good feelings, etc. This God has a global purpose in Christ, which is to install him as ‘Head of all things’ (cf Eph. 1-2, Col. 1), both in the present and the future – graciously he involves us in that process! God is massive in his sovereign intent for our world and this universe. The gospel is not about ‘3 easy steps to salvation’ but is about:  Christ’s death according to the Scriptures;  his burial and resurrection;  the resurrection of the dead;  his headship over all;  a new heaven and earth (1 Cor. 15). Sell your shirt and try and get hold of N.T. Wright’s ‘Surprised by Hope.’ In it he argues that what we believe about life after death directly affects what we believe about life before death. If God intends to renew the whole creation – and if this has already begun in Jesus’ resurrection – the church cannot stop at ‘saving souls,’ but must anticipate the eventual renewal by working for God’s kingdom in the wider world, bringing healing and hope in the present life.

Now that’s saving theology, life-giving theology, theology on fire, life-transforming theology, a theology of hope, theology that puts Christ at the centre and glorifies the Father! And that’s how we should live…