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Archive for May, 2016

Faith and audacity sometimes come close enough to each other to be indistinguishable to the naked eye.

While normally YHWH shows himself in the ordinary and the mundane, the confidence in his reliability that we call ‘faith’ sometimes emerges in the extraordinary moment.

Saul, Israel’s first and unfortunate king, will come to no good end. Yet his son Jonathan is the type of young buck that anybody (including YHWH and the future king David, its merges) would love.

As Israel’s line of battle faces off against the Philistines in one of those slow-motion encounters that could almost be seen as casual—until suddenly it is not and warriors are dying—Jonathan plans a reckless foray into the Philistine camp.

Jonathan said to the young man who carried his armor, ‘Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that the Lord will work for us, for nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.’ (1 Samuel 14:6 ESV)

In the mix, the historian of Israel hears Jonathan speak out one of YHWH’s great truths: the strength of his human cohort is of no matter when YHWH’s purpose is to save.

Jonathan’s dictum, for so it stands in the narrative, is both perceptive and nuanced. This is not what one would expect from a two-dimensional comic-book war story, which the Book of Samuel most certainly is not.

It may be, Jonathan tells us across the centuries, that YHWH will work for us. There is no presumption here, just principled courage or recklessness. Time will tell.

But if he is in this, Jonathan coaches his young armor-bearer, whose life will be equally at stake, then YHWH can do what he wishes to do. His hand is unbound.

Biblical realism takes many shapes. Similarly, its dimensions are sometimes writ large—across the span of nations—and at others sketched into the small space of a young warrior’s disgust with passive resignation in the face of enmity against YHWH and his people.

Either way, it challenges the reader to reckon with YHWH’s reality, not as a religious principle or a psyche-soothing construct but as a real and powerful presence. Just as real as this chair, this laptop, this floor under my feet.

Against mammoth odds—YHWH’s truth has now become Jonathan’s—the Lord can save if he wishes. We are not alone in this world so full of destroyers, without and within.

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Centralization of power is easier to achieve than to undo.

The biblical narrative, child of an historical era in which kings were routinely elevated to the stature of demigods, displays countercultural and powerfully mixed feelings about the magnetic pull of power to the political center.

The prophet Samuel attempts in vain to persuade Israel’s tribal confederacy that the apparent gains of monarchy are not worth the cost.

So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’ (1 Samuel 8:10–18 ESV)

Alas, kingship had for these Israelites an obvious logic and an attraction too strong to resist. Besides, all the other nations have kings and it’s hard to be different.

Why swim against the tide?

Why, indeed, when we can be comfortably cared for, told what to think and when, provided for in our infirmity? Where’s the harm?

Then one day, we see our sons—their faces too young for such a hard, weary look—running and stumbling before his chariot. ‘Hail to your king!’, their lips move in unison.

Easy to do, impossible to undo.

 

 

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Convocation, Clark Theological College, Nagaland

17 April 2016

Honorable chairperson of the Board of Governors and members of this Board, Respected Principal Dr Takatemjen, incoming Principal Dr Mar Congener, faculty of Clark Theological College, distinguished guests, parents of the graduating students, graduating students, continuing students, staff, and the larger CTS family …

May I speak in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ?

  *   *   *

One of my favourite things is to look into the faces of graduands, like these 2016  graduands of Clark Theological College … and to imagine ….

Will you allow me to look without embarrassment into your faces?

I see feats that you hace already accomplished and sacrifices that you have already made …

Some of these achievements have been widely celebrated in your community as miracles of God and as heroic efforts by one or another of you.

Others have been quiet … even silent … invisible to all but one of you. These private acts of heroism may be known only to your closest family and friends. Or perhaps only to you. It’s no matter. God knows them.

  • Some have chosen a path of Christian ministry against other more lucrative careers that your family had in store for you.
  • Some have perhaps left a girlfriend or a boyfriend to pursue a calling that that person could not encourage or support.
  • You have worked late into the night to master Greek or theology or anthropology or the history of Jesus’ church.
  • You have encouraged each other.
  • Perhaps some have summoned up the strength against depression or sadness … the strength simply to get out of bed and to go to class. This, too, can be the deed of a hero.
  • You have discovered spiritual gifts that you didn’t know God had given you, and academic aptitudes that you didn’t know were yours to steward.
  • Your curiosity has been awakened and you have become alive to the joy that is learning to learn …
  • You have learned to stop talking in order to listen intently.
  • You have served your home churches or other ministries in which you have become experienced with new learning. You have learned to deploy that learning with humility and tact among sisters and brothers who have not had the opportunity of study.
  • You have discovered the heart of Jesus for the broken and the outcast.

 

The truth is, the churches and people of Nagaland and of India and beyond are fortunate to have you … blessed to know the kinds of servant leadership that you will provide over the next thirty years … or forty … or fifty … or sixty.

Rooted in scripture … eager to serve … with minds alert … and with hearts that sing … in more than one sense of the word, ready to go.

It would be awkward for an invited guest to speak anything but congratulations on an occasion such as this. It would be almost a social sin to speak of anything but commendation and well-deserved praise and encouragement to keep on into the future as you have walked in the past.

And I see the future, or at least I imagine that I do … and it inspires me … it makes it a wonderful thing to look into your faces this day and to think of things that will be.

Without invitation, my mind already wants to add you to the famous list of the book of Hebrews, chapter 11:

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. (Hebrews 11:4–8 ESV)

 

It would be an easy thing, during a ceremony such as this, to add your names to this list and to sum up the deeds you will accomplish, by faith.

*    *   *

But the truth is, I don’t know your future. I can only imagine. Perhaps I can only speculate.

However, two thing I do know:

You will face hardship. And you will be resilient.

 May I give to you as my gift on your graduation day a passage from the ancient book of Isaiah that has become so very important to me?:

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:27–31 ESV)

Now back to those two things about your future, of which I am certain.

 

You will face hardship.

In fact, you will experience exile.

Do you know what an exile is?

Exile is simply the loss of everything that seems important.

Old Testament Israel suffered what is for Jews and for Christians an iconic exile.

This people of God, this chosen race, lost everything.

  • Temple
  • Priests
  • Sacrifice
  • Land
  • Promise
  • Identity
  • Future

Israel lost everything. That’s what exile does. It strips you of everything you knew …. Everything you thought you were … everything that sustained you … everything you believed …

What does an exile sound like? Israel’s voice out of exile sounds like this:

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”   How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy! (Psalms 137:1–6 ESV)

It gets worse. Israel’s emotions in her exile become more savage and violent than I can bring myself to read out on a happy occasion such as this.

One thing was true of exiles in the time of Israel’s captivity in Babylon: nobody ever survived them. Exile was designed to liquidate peoples … to abolish all sense of separate identity … to destroy a people’s name and hope and future … to let captivity and assimilation accomplish their fatal work.

Exiles are final. They are terminal. They lead nowhere. Every exile claims to have the final word.

Yet the Lord turned Israel’s exile into one of his greatest miracles. He transformed an experience that could only possibly destroy his people into a rebirth that refined and resurrected them instead.

The Lord spoke  deeply into the lives of his captive people. He assured them that he was capable of being with them in this foreign place, as capable as he was of being present to them from the Holiest of Holies back in the promised land.

By YHWH’s grace, Israel experienced a national resurrection. Israel survived. Israel returned. Israel gave birth to Israel’s Messiah. You and I are here at Clark Theological College, brothers and sisters, together—sons and daughters of the Lord Most High—because of it.

*   *   *   *

I wish it were not true. It seems on such a happy occasion as this a shame to say it, especially as I exercise my privilege to look from this platform into your beautiful faces.

But you will experience your exiles.

For some, they will be momentary and fleeting. For others, the rest of your lives may prove to be an unremitting difficulty … for most of you, you will be somewhere in between.

Yet all of you—you, with your feats and victories and accomplishments, with your brilliant futures ahead of you, with your love and your families still awaiting you—all of you will know something of exile.

But here’s that second thing, that second prediction that I can make with confidence about your future.

You will be resilient!

 Resilient means that you will rise up from what should have crushed you. You will find your way past the moans of pain and into the songs of rejoicing.  You will discover strength when you thought you could only continue to collapse.

Out of your mourning, you will find that you have been given …

… a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that you are once again called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. (Isaiah 61:3 ESV)

And then, miracle of miracles, you will be even stronger and more beautiful than you are today.

It seems impossible, but this is what awaits you, dear graduands.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:27–31 ESV)

Thirty years ago, I was a young missionary in Latin America, learning to teach and to mentor young men and women with whom I had a powerful intuitive connection. Things were going well, and the Lord was causing a spiritual gift of teaching to flourish. I had been a very insecure person and found it difficult to imagine that all this good ministry was happening around me and even through me. I could not have been happier. I was 28 years old.

One day, after I’d finished teaching my heart out, an elder colleague whom I still refer to as the man who shaped me in ministry, approached me and said something I have never forgotten: ‘I want to hear you when you’re forty’.

Forty seemed a long way off then. Now it seems a very long way in my past. But that man knew that the best things come through exile and resilience … and that these take a long time to have their effect.

I want to hear you … I want to see you when you’re forty.

 35 years ago I read an essay on the back page of a famous magazine in my country called TIME. It told the story of two older gentlemen who loved classical music and frequented the performance hall of one of the world’s most prestigious symphonic ensembles, the New York Philharmonic.

One day a very young Korean girl—a prodigy really, for no one should be able to make music like the music she made at such a tender age—appeared on the program to play the famous Brahms Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic. It was the first piece on the program, to be followed by an intermission, and then by music of a different composer.

The performance was technically perfect. This little girl never missed a note. It was astounding. The audience was baffled by the ability of such a youth to play the music of a master as she had done.

There was only one problem: the performance had no soul to it … no pathos.

The one elderly music lover came upon his friend in the lobby of the concert hall during intermission. After exchanging pleasantries, he asked ‘So, what did you think?’

The other man looked thoughtfully down at his shoes for a while before answering. Then he looked his friend in the eyes and offered this comment: ‘She needs to suffer before she plays that piece again.’

*   *   *   *

You look this morning as though you are at the height of your powers. Vigorous … beautiful … strong … youthful.

But, in truth, you are not yet at the height of your powers. You are merely on your way.

The height of your powers will come to you when you have suffered your exiles and, in them, found resilience through the strength of the living God … The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob … the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … the Giver of his empowering Spirit.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:28–31 ESV)

May it be so.

And congratulations for a most admirable beginning!

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When YHWH calls the boy-prophet Samuel in the late-evening twilight of Eli’s life, light and speech have grown scarce in Israel.

The story of this special child’s emergence as Israel’s prophet is replete with last vestiges.

‘ … the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.’ (1 Samuel 3:1 ESV)

The nation’s state is mirrored by its Old Man’s own lot,

‘… for at that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his own place. (1 Samuel 3:2 ESV)

One might as well sketch this scene as faded daguerrotype, the figures recognizable enough, but too little vision, too little light, too little clarity. Too little of all that mattered, YHWH having absconded to the shadows.

Even the physical ‘lamp of the Lord’ in YHWH’s Eli-tended shrine nears day’s end and the hour of its snuffing out. Or are we too read promise into its vesper flicker?

The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. (1 Samuel 3:3 ESV)

Soon the divine calling of Eli’s apprentice will occur in a voice that is at first too quietly enigmatic to be discerned. Samuel believes it Eli who calls, not only because the Lord has not yet clear ‘stood calling’ Samuel as he will soon do (v. 10). Indistinguishable whispers carry through the night air, for the boy Samuel is as yet a bare promise, a mere hint at Israel’s rescuer, not yet versed in the naming of voices, for …

‘… Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.’ (1 Samuel 3:7 ESV)

When YHWH inhabits the shadows—we are gently instructed by a narrative whose purpose seems prima facie to be bolder than just this—a restless boy might well become a man of God, evening’s shadow might just give way to a bright morning, lost Israel might find YHWH and thus herself.

Evening shadows, for those who will watch and listen, bear sometimes the quiet rustling of redemption.

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