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Archive for the ‘missio dei’ Category

What follows is my story. If you believe that learning the biblical languages should be quick or easy—and especially if you’re looking for tea and sympathy—read no further.

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I had the good fortune to learn Hebrew under less than optimal conditions.

In truth, I did not come to the task with much passion. I considered myself a ‘New Testament guy’ and managed to pull off an M.Div. in ways that made it something of a bulked-up M.A. in New Testament. It was John and Paul who lit me up, not Moses and Jeremiah. I had learned Greek in university and nothing was going to get between me and the texts.

But Hebrew was a requirement of the M.Div. and I was not opposed. It had never occurred to me that I might do advanced studies in Bible in the future. I did not take Hebrew so that I could subsequently be admitted to a Ph.D. I simply wanted to know the Bible from as close in as I could and then to teach it as an outflow of that intimate connection. Anything else would have felt like a travesty, like walking past a cave full of diamonds and not poking your head in to see whether any of them lay on the surface for the taking.

My wife and I had just had a baby boy and another was on the way. She worked days at Hewlett Packard and I worked nights loading trucks at UPS in a questionable effort to avoid educational debt that might delay our intended missionary service. It was a grueling job for my twenty-something body, arguably as physically demanding as state-championship-level basketball had been for my teenage body a decade earlier. For two years, I loaded and for another two years I supervised loaders, which meant that I now layered organizational responsibility to the business of loading the trucks of guys who were too sick or drunk or depressed or uncommitted to punch in at 3:00 a.m. It was nobody’s only job. We were all at the end of the rope.

For me it was exhausting and necessary in equal measure, a way to get through seminary without starving.

On weekends, my wife and I refreshed ourselves by serving as youth pastors at our church. But that’s another story.

My aging Ford Pinto didn’t have heat and we were too poor to find out why and get it fixed. Often in the New England winter my 35-minute drive to work would take place behind the wheel of a car where the temperature was a single digit, Fahrenheit. I would often yell at the top of my lungs as I charged down the dark highway in order to stay awake, my whole body shaking from the cold.

After work, stinking from a night shift’s perspiration, I would drive to the day-care center on days when I didn’t have morning classes in order to pick up our infant son Christopher, whom my wife had dropped off two hours before on her way to work. Our cars would pass on Route 128, she heading west, me heading east. I would study all day while looking after Christopher. Once I woke up with the impress of the carpet on my face, having fallen asleep on the floor while crawling after my diapered-up boy.

Because my alarm clock went off at 1:30 a.m., I would regularly tell visiting friends at about 9:00 p.m., ‘You may stay as long as you want. But please turn off the lights when you’ve finished.’

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays after the night’s work, I would drive past our apartment into the rising sun and continue on the additional half hour to the seminary. My car would shake almost uncontrollably at 58 mph, so I’d keep it steady at 57. Arriving at the seminary fifteen to twenty minutes after Hebrew class had begun, I’d throw a sweatshirt on to protect the other students from my sweaty stench. I’d stop by the cafeteria to snag two donuts and two cups of coffee in a sometimes failed effort to wake myself up and stay awake for the duration of Hebrew class, gulp it all down, and head down the hall to the last classroom on the left.

I’d let myself sheepishly into the classroom where class was already in session, find an empty seat, and begin to pay attention to the prof’s explanations of things that were by their vary nature alien and new. Our textbook was Thomas Lambdin’s classic Introduction to Biblical Hebrew, the work of the famed Harvard linguist who had written grammars of several ancient Semitic languages. Neither Lambdin’s book nor our prof—who had been Lambdin’s student—suffered fools. Terms like ‘compensatory lengthening’ and ‘inalterably long vowels’ were explained patiently but just once. After that you were expected to understand or figure it out at home.

I clearly remember boiling with rage in class one morning as I struggled to penetrate the logic of dagesh forte, dagesh lene, and whether a freakin’ syllable was open or closed. I felt as if I were being tortured for the satisfaction of Thomas Lambdin, of our prof, or of some unseen, malevolent curriculum writer. It was humiliating. I had graduated summa cum laude in university and this was just seminary.

It took everything I had in me and more not to fold my cards and go home. At times I wanted nothing else. But I wanted to read and teach the Bible more. So I stayed.

I did not ask the prof to tutor me privately. If I missed a quiz, I did not ask the prof to extend the available time because I had failed to read the syllabus and did not realize we had a quiz today. I felt I was the poorest student in the classroom because on any given day all the other students were at least fifteen minutes and one or two topics ahead of me. I did not blame the curriculum or suggest that the prof had enjoyed more privileges than me or that Hebrew is more difficult for students who come from rural Pennsylvania Dutch contexts. I did not ask whether we could use a different textbook with fewer irritating details in it. I did not ask ‘how many hours of study are expected of me?’

In time, I found a toe-hold in the language. Barely. Then I got the other foot up onto the cliff. Eventually, I found that I could read the Hebrew Bible. I still learn something new in its pages nearly every day.

The Hebrew Bible still regularly slaps me around and calls me ‘Boy!’. When people ask—as they do—‘How long did it take you to learn Hebrew?’, my only honest answer is ‘I don’t know yet’.

But I live with this book now. It’s God-haunted. It’s inexhaustibly rich and alternately reassuring and deconstructing in the way of a very wise and somewhat recalcitrant uncle whom you can’t live with and can’t live without. It defies creeds and confessions and insists that I think again, that I look more closely, that I consider the unthinkable. If you ask me about a passage from the Old Testament and tell me I can’t look at the text, all I’ll be able to do for you is stare, glassy-eyed. It’s inside of me now. It’s taken nearly forty years and it’s still not finished with me.

If Providence brings us together as student and professor with biblical Hebrew standing formidably astride the landscape before us, and if you feel that your conditions are not optimal for working as hard as our subject is going to ask us to work, be careful what you say.

I had the good fortune to learn Hebrew, under less than optimal conditions. I hope you have the same good fortune.

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41EjOxKJC8LBecause my wife and I work as cross-cultural missional servants in Colombia, I was immediately responsive when a dear reading friend recommended this novel, set as it is in our adoptive South American country. It felt a little bit like the reading version of a blind date.

Yet, truth be told, ‘missionary fiction’ is not a genre that guarantees to quicken the pulse. Often it is wooden, moralistic, and—at times—condescending.

Against such modest expectations, I’m pleasantly surprised by this worthy read. I found Flying Blind to be something of a page-turner. (more…)

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Chinua Achebe’s terse, unromantic narrative of one man, one-and-a-half clans, and two 61spl57YceL._SS300_moments (precolonial and incipient colonial), set in an African village, scrupulously avoids moralistic evaluation. Instead, the strong but flawed gait of a too proud man carries the reader along though the ambiguities of tribal life and the arrival of a Western-led Christian church.

The reader surmises quite early that hope hangs on an unlikely scenario where reconciliation of the protagonist with himself, with his clan, and with the newcomers could somehow take place in the alternately shadowed and sunlit landscape that gathers all of these into an unsought encounter.

In the end, hope itself hangs, too sadly, too finally, too inexplicably for this reader’s heart to re-settle as quickly as it would like.

Superb.

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418wR785imLPaul House’s passionately written exploration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s practice and aspirations for the training of pastors under the gathering cloud of Nazi terror makes for refreshing reading in this era of technology-will-solve-all-our-(seminary)-problems pablum.

House finds in the German martyr’s writings and his experience—the latter as reported by Bonhoeffer’s colleagues and students—a model for the same kind of intensive, life-on-life training of Christian pastors today. Without doubt, Bonhoeffer modeled all this and more. House has done us the service of explaining just how.

I come to this book as a lifelong seminarian who has known from within various roles the joy, enrichment, and occasional terror that the seminary is wont to offer up: as student, professor, dean, and president. So  I cannot but thrill to the promise that resides in such life together, all of which House is committed to teasing out of Bonhoeffer’s experience and laying before us.

Nevertheless, it appears to this appreciative reader that the author has chosen not to address a fundamental question about access.

Let me shape my concern as a somewhat cumbersome question: If I am fulfilling my vocation as a seminary educator and mentor to emerging pastors in, say, Mexico City, I am likely to have the privilege of nourishing a small number of lives into what one hopes will be greater rather than diminished capacity as servant leaders, even as shepherds of Christ’s people. For the sake of the argument, but also because I have yet to be convinced otherwise, I will agree with House that the very best preparation of pastoral leaders occurs in this kind of intensive, daily, full-contact, and dynamic environment.

Yet spread across this city of some 25 million souls are thousands of pastors, largely without the kinds of training to which I can lean my shoulder in my fictitious seminary context. These are bivocational pastors, holding down day jobs, tending their God-given sheep, most with some level of internet access and some limited margin in their saturated lives for occasional study-centered gatherings.

Farther afield in the Mexican state to which the capital and metropolis belong lie many thousands more, most of them faithful servants with limited or nonexistent coaching and no opportunity to reflect in the company of peers and a mentor upon Scripture, theology, their own context, and the Great Tradition of Christian presence and practice.

One wonders whether Bonhoeffer, were he availed of the tools we have today, would have insisted that only life-on-life training is valid because other forms of pastoral preparation do not fully measure up to what can be offered in such an intensive context. That is, does the existence of a ‘gold standard’ eliminate the urgency of thinking about ‘silver’ and ‘bronze’ options merely because they do not sparkle like gold? Must we leave unserved those who cannot have what we consider best?

We cannot know whether the adventurous Bonhoeffer would have chosen not to serve a wider constituency of the kind I am imagining in these lines. House, it seems to me, comes perilously close to doing so.

Yet this admittedly dubious stance I have sketched for myself does not eliminate my sincere appreciation for the counter-cultural defense of a seminary that is shaped by something other than the fickle, if hurricane-strength, winds that blow against the seminary today. She makes—this venerable, limping institution of ours—a decidedly soft target. I, for one, welcome all credible defenders.

Paul House has (re-)captured in words some of the magic that happens within her walls—I use the description advisedly and in deference to House’s preferred residential model—when a learning community like Bonhoeffer’s Finkenwalde, House’s Beeson Divinity School, or any one of a thousand lean-and-mean seminaries across the globe gets it right. House finds Bonhoeffer worthy of study, in part because even in the least promising conditions he ‘believed the German church’s future rested in the quality and commitments of its pastors’. House abbreviates Bonhoeffer’s vision for the seminary as ‘a community of faith’ that ‘live(s) for Christ and for one another’, ‘offer(s) encouragement to former students who have entered the sometimes-harsh world of church ministry’, and calls without apology upon the courage of ‘teacher-pastors in seminary education’ to engage their task with ‘sacrificial’ service, ‘given the inherently personal, incarnational, and visible nature of ministerial preparation’.

To this vision—Bonhoeffer’s and House’s—this reader can only offer his ‘Amen!’ and ‘Hear, hear!’, even as he hopes that the eminent blessing that adheres in our most privileged forms does not dull our energy for widening the tent pegs to shelter others who will for reasons missional and mundane never tarry for long in the holy city itself.

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519W8+BwhcL._SS300_As one of the evangelical movement’s most interesting and fruitful popularizers, Richard Mouw can almost be imagined rolling out of bed and dashing off an intriguing treatment of Isaiah’s sixtieth chapter, then placing it the next day in his readers’ hands. Such is the effervescent ease of his prose. Yet surely a book like this discloses instead years of reflection about what the Christian gospel has to say about God’s final purpose(s) with his world and how that ought to shape human conduct meanwhile.

As a signal of his (and this world’s) destination, Mouw writes early on that …

Isaiah 60 records a vision of a magnificent city. In it the prophet is speaking to the city, calling attention to various aspects of its appearance. His tone is joyful, his mood excited. This city is not like any other that he has seen among the products of human efforts at urbanization; it is a city built by God. Sometimes Isaiah addresses the city in the present tense; at other points he employs the language of future fulfillment. Though the city has not yet been established, he is certain that it will someday arrive. It is clearly a transformed city. Many of the people and objects from Isaiah’s own day appear within its walls, but they have assumed different roles, they perform new functions.

Transformation of what God has made and what has fallen from its intended purpose is a core feature of Mouw’s vision of history’s destiny. His argument broadens out beyond exposition of one chapter of an Old Testament book’s sixty-six to offer a richly traced counterproposal to skinny Christian views of human fulfillment as ‘dying and going to heaven’.

Mouw wants to know—as apparently did the Isaianic tradition—what will become of all of this, not just of me and of people who believe things like the ones I believe.

The result, in this reader’s assessment, is a stirring vision in which all nations bring their best stuff—their cultural, religious and existential product—to the perfecting of a city that is resplendent in both beauty and justice.

Mouw sees the walled but gates-flung-open city of Isaianic vision as something of a metaphor for this world when it has been duly refined, purged—again, transformed. It stands along more familiar descriptions of the same that travel under the title ‘new heavens and new earth’. The author avoids narrow definitions of ‘how things will be’ that fail to recognize the vivid power of imagistic description. Yet for all this Mouw never distances himself from the vision’s concreteness, whether in its beauty, its justice, its joyfulness, or its inclusion of surprising agents and elements.

This delightfully readable book has retained its value since its genesis in the early 1970s and its revision at the onset of a new century. It deserves strong recommendation still, particularly to potential readers who are interested in Old Testament prophetic vision, biblical theology, missional eschatology, or hope in a context of hopelessness.

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511492nmk9LWhen Australian New Testament scholar and educator David Seccombe writes about ‘Jesus’ revolutionary message’ (the subtitle of The Gospel of the Kingdom), it is almost inevitable that he should set out a two-part arrangement that puts one in mind of the apostle Paul: ‘What is the Gospel?’ and ‘Proclaiming the Gospel’.

This is so because Seccombe’s scholarly gifts have always been deployed in the interests of people and churches whom the author longs to see brought into redemptive, joyous, and invigorating relationship with Jesus Christ. A gospel minutely defined and delimited but not preached, lived, and taught would fall short of Seccombe’s ambition.

So in thirteen spritely chapters, in the course of which Seccombe wears his scholarship lightly but not without effect, we are asked to think again—or even for the first time—about the nature of the strange news that intruded into human discourse by means of Jesus’ life and teaching. (more…)

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Easter is becoming a rough time for Christians in lands where Islam is the dominant religion. It’s likely to become still rougher, as this preeminent Christian holy day packs the elements that most enrage Islamist sensitivities into one dense cluster of hours.

A poignant and stirring pair of paragraphs closes today’s Wall Street Journal coverage of the pain and anger that follow upon this weekend’s double massacre in Egypt. (more…)

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Langham Partnership Vision Weekend

March 2017

I’ve had the privilege for nearly fifteen years of being a ‘fellow traveler’ with the people and mission of the Langham Partnership.

I’ve sometimes felt like an adoptive member of the family, sometimes a bit like odd Uncle Harry who turns up at holidays and bellows his opinions too loudly from a corner of the living room, sometimes a strategic collaboration partner, sometimes Langham’s very own Serial Party Crasher, and quite often the recipient of that beautiful surprise we call friendship. Along the way, I’ve come to love and admire the people and the mission of Langham.

Now I have no official authorization to coin the phrase ‘The Langham Tripod’. But old friends usually tolerate the liberties that old friends take, or at least overlook certain foibles. So I’m going to do it. (more…)

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Henri Nouwen’s A Spirituality of Fundraising is a book I need to read again every year in order to keep my bearings.

415qui41ql-_ac_us436_ql65_My own battle with fundraising has seen some success and some notable failure. I was raised to believe that a decent person never asked anyone for money. Nouwen’s little book turns that idea upside down.

Or, better said, rightside up.

For Nouwen, asking people to become generous and even sacrificial stewards is offering those people the gift of conversion. He means this in the deepest, process-oriented, open sense of the word. Seen this way, it is a service rendered. Ministry extended. I need this.

Nouwen starts strong:

Fundraising is proclaiming what we believe in such a way that we offer other people an opportunity to participate with us in our vision and mission. Fundraising is precisely the opposite of begging. When we seek to raise funds we are not saying, “Please, could you help us out because lately it’s been hard.” Rather, we are declaring, “We have a vision that is amazing and exciting. We are inviting you to invest yourself through the resources that God has given you—your energy, your prayers, and your money—in this work to which God has called us.” Our invitation is clear and confident because we trust that our vision and mission are like “trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither” (Ps. 1:3).

A winsome, God-fueled lightness of spirit pervades Nouwen’s reflection on fundraising, a light-heartedness that is seldom evidenced when this subject is on the table. We are freed, in the best rather than the self-serving sense of the phrase, to be free as we seek funding.

Indeed, Nouwen writes about such in connection with our ultimate security:

If our security is totally in God, then we are free to ask for money. Only when we are free from money can we ask freely for others to give it. This is the conversion to which fundraising as ministry call us.

So it is not only the person receiving our request, but we ourselves who encounter the opportunity of conversion as we go about this work.

I have grown weary of fundraising technique. My soul longs for a gospel-grounded understanding of this otherwise distasteful task.

Nouwen provides it in A Spirituality of Fundraising, this reviewer’s annual reading on the topic.

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Clinton Arnold wrote 3 Crucial Questions About Spiritual Warfare two decades ago. Yet it remains the single best written resource on the topic to place into the hands of Christian believers.

Arnold cuts through both overheated rhetoric about ‘spiritual warfare’ and entrenched refusal to contemplate that reality by bearing down on just three questions:

√ What is Spiritual Warfare?

√ Can a Christian be Demon-Possessed?

√ Are We Called to Engage Territorial Spirits?513qhwb-vul-_sx322_bo1204203200_

In the process he brings to bear careful exegetical consideration, attention to how the early Christian church engaged similar issues, and a pastoral concern honed by the author’s own experience in cultural contexts where demonic activity seems less alien than in the West. The result is superb.

Working from first principles, Arnold demonstrates how Jesus engaged the reality of conflict as the normal condition of human life in this age. Consequently, spiritual warfare is not principally a specialized ministry but rather the circumstance and the responsibility of every believer. Yet the well-informed Christian will understand that the conflict is an uneven match. God’s sovereignty over his world is not threatened by the reality of Satanic blowback. Satan’s reign is conditioned both territorially and temporally. In the light of Jesus’ vanquishing of Satan’s power, the latter’s reign will eventually end here and end altogether.

So spiritual warfare is a given in the life of Christian individuals and communities. Why, then, the resistance to the language and the substance of such conflict?

Arnold deals patiently and fairly with ‘6 common objectives to emphasizing spiritual warfare today’. Since the 1970s, the English-speaking world has become awash with bizarre claims about ministries that do—at the risk of considerable understatement—‘emphasize’ spiritual warfare. Too often, the most high-profile among them are personality-driven and theologically impoverished.

The author is adept at re-shaping a biblically informed model for spiritual warfare for those who believe that truth matters enough—even amid the urgencies of wartime—to linger long in the understanding and embrace of it.

The New Testament (special attention is given to the Apostle Paul’s instruction in the letter to the Ephesians) teaches that Christians are assaulted not by one enemy, but rather by three: the world (the ways of the world), the devil (the ruler of the king of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient), and the flesh (the cravings of our sinful nature).

Together, this triad of unequal adversaries present the Christian with a complex rather than a simple conflict. As we engage it individually and in community, we discover that ‘spiritual warfare is a way of characterizing our common struggle as Christians’. Because parasitic re-positioning of actual truth is one source of defeat, Arnold pays particular attention to ‘common christological heresies’ on his way to a sane fleshing-out of how individuals and small groups of Christian might do battle with their real rather than their imagined adversaries.

At this point in Arnold’s book (as in this early stage of this short review), the reader could be forgiven for imagining that Arnold had metaphorized spiritual warfare down to its vanishing point in run-of-the-mill Christian ethical formation. This is certainly not the case, as his response to the second of three crucial questions will show.

As he engages the second crucial question (‘Can a Christian be Demon-Possessed?’), the trajectory of Clinton’s argument reaches its most valuable point.

When faced with the New Testament’s plethora of demon-encounter narratives and exhortations, the thoughtful Christian usually takes one of three paths:

√ S/he dismisses the stories about demons altogether.

√ S/he reinterprets the stories about demons.

√ S/he accepts the stories as what really happened.

Arnold chooses neither of these three paths and attempts to lead his reader through a more subtle consideration and towards a more faithful response.

A cautious survey of the language common to the discussion ensues. English Bible translations and, therefore, English-language discussion of biblical texts inexplicably settles into the language of ‘possession’ or ‘ownership’. In consequence, the question becomes whether a Christian can be owned or possessed by a demon. Many Christians will state that this absolutely cannot take place, given the reality of God’s redemption and therefore ownership of the Christian.

Arnold allows that ‘I wholeheartedly agree with this conclusion. A Christian cannot be owned and controlled by a demon.’

However, this is not to speak the language of the biblical texts, which usually employs the more flexible term daimonizomai (δαιμονίζομαι). This word can be understood to mean ‘tormented’, ‘vexed’, or ‘troubled’ by a demon. After engaging the pertinent texts and a number of examples from history, Arnold re-frames the question thus: ‘Can Christians come under a high degree of influence by a demonic spirit?’ … ‘Is it possible for Christians to yield control of their bodies to a demonic spirit in the same way that they yield to the power of sin?’

To such questions—which no longer joust with the more absolute concept of demonic possession—Arnold gives his ‘yes’.

This conclusion is followed by pastoral examples of how a believer can find himself in such troubled straits, with practical counsel on how to deal with demons, and with instruction on extremes that are to be avoided.

From the in-principle considerations of his first two ‘crucial questions’, Arnold then moves on to the contemporary issue raised by tactics that purport to engage ‘territorial spirits’. Though his introduction expresses appreciation for one of the leading advocates of the movement, Arnold is critical of one of its premises.

He endorses the notion that territorial spirits, as generally understood exist.

Nevertheless, ‘In spite of the widespread consciousness of the people of God throughout history of the existence of high-ranking hostile angels, we do not find them naming the powers, rebuking them, binding them, or trying to cast them out of a region.’

For reasons based in the biblical record and the testimony of the early church, the author is dubious that the tactics of ‘Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare’ have the theological and historical pedigree that they claim.  However, Arnold credits its practitioners’ concern for the lost and suggests alternative ways of ministering to a city that do not involve human beings ‘taking authority over’ the purported demonic lords of a region or a city.

By wearing his scholarship lightly, Clinton Arnold has produced a carefully reasoned, popularly (or semi-popularly) accessible manual to a matter that is intrinsic to the very idea of the Christian life in a contested world. At the same time, he has provided a meeting space for people of good will who will gather thoughtfully around a matter that has provided inexhaustibly divisive among contemporary churches.

Two decades on, 3 Crucial Questions About Spiritual Warfare is still the place for English-language readers to begin.

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