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Archive for the ‘missio dei’ Category

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.

The Journal‘s Maria Abi-Habib and Dahlia Kholaif introduce us to Hoda Ibrahim, a 20-year-old Egyptian university student, who says with a grim determination that is familiar on the lips of Christians in the Middle East these days:

We no longer see a future for us in Egypt, but we won’t leave … Yes, we’re very angry at the government. After each attach, they make the same promises only for it to happen all over again.’

Yet the article’s enduring resonance takes shape in its final paragraphs, which signal that this mess is not nearly as easy to figure out as Muslim-v.-Christian rhetoric suggests:

Youths sobbed on the sidewalk as they waited to enter the church, some clutching white flower wreaths shaped like crosses. Others had come immediately from class, textbooks in hand.

Ms. Ibrahim showed photos on her phone of 11 friends killed on Sunday. Her Muslim classmates also attended the funeral, women wearing the hijab embracing friends donning crucifix necklaces, crying alongside them.

However we may choose to come to grips with the pluriform shapes, convictions, and impulses of Islam as a religion, it is a mistake to indulge the feel-good language that lays such evil violence at the feet of all Muslims, let alone those of my Muslim neighbor.

Those hijab-covered friends of Hoda Ibrahim accompanied her into a Christian holy space to mourn the violence that their co-religionists have once again perpetrated upon the innocent.

There is no blood on their hands.

We may in good faith ask them what holds them to a religion that appears to engender such horrors at its margins. But we must not demonize them or suppose that theirs are crocodile tears.

The Middle Eastern man whose resurrection is celebrated this week would not have done so. Probably, he would have looked them in the eye, taken them at their word, found his heart moved by their grief and confusion. Likely, his tears would have mingled with theirs. In time, he would have taken their hands in his and shared with them some good news.

 

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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.

I love the thing after all, this ‘Langham Tripod’ with its scholars, its preachers, and its writers. I think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.

What, after all, could be more organically aligned with the work and the vision of John Stott … more importantly, what could be more attentive to the deep needs of the global church, with its odd mix of strengths and poverties than a sustained engagement with:

  • the study of Christian Scripture and Christian theology at the most rigorous, most generation-shaping level?
  • the conscientious proclamation of the Christian gospel?
  • the dissemination of books that emanate a careful engagement with Scripture and a love for the Lord of his church?

I love this tripod thing, and over many years as a fellow traveler of Langham … a Langham Watcher of sorts … I have come to admire and now to applaud Langham and its newly named (by me) Tripod.

In my view, it’s just the thing. Just the thing for the Global Church that has come of age in our generation … just the thing for tending to areas where that beloved Church suffers some of its deepest impoverishment … just the thing for a Western Church that is groping and seeking to come to terms with this question:

What is the core of our mission in a world where the center of gravity of Christian faith has, as is so often said, migrated away from its old keeps and strongholds and into the heart of the Global South?

It’s just the thing, and I’m honored to speak of it from my angle of vision.

LANGHAM SCHOLARS

When you’re a guest, you don’t pick favorites. So I won’t do it.

But I will say that Langham Scholars is the program I knew first and have known the longest.

It’s an odd thing about the now formidable armada of Langham Scholars who occupy positions of responsibility and influence around the world. As I interact with such people and become impressed by them—a not unusual occurrence—it’s often something late in the conversation that triggers the question from me …

Are you by any chance a Langham Scholar?

Very often the answer is ‘yes’.

Frankly, I’m impressed.

In not all that many years, Langham Partnership has managed to leverage and extend Uncle John’s extraordinary gift for recognizing outsized talent and uncommon gifting … and then has got behind these people to offer them the opportunity to develop that gifting to the highest level.

Some doctoral supervisors in the UK and North America have learned along the way that many of the most inquisitive minds, the most compelling scholars-in-the-making have been honed not by the high schools, preparatory colleges, and universities of the West, but rather by hard-pressed families and fraying institutions in places like the Palestinian Territories, Pakistan, Nigeria, India, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, and countless other nations of what we’ve come to call the Majority World.

Thankfully, most of those Langham Scholars who have studied in the West return to their places of origin and serve diligently over the course of a lifetime with fruitfulness that would have not been imaginable if there had been no John Stott … and if there were no Langham Partnership.

When I was at Overseas Council, we typically worked along side of 130 Majority World seminaries in 70 countries at any given moment. Some of them were regional powerhouses. A few of these schools had long and honorable trajectories of service to their region and beyond it. Many had known bumpy transitions between missionary leadership and national leadership, a transitional chapter that is now a decade or two or three behind them. Lots of them were peppy, entrepreneurial outfits with a God-sized vision, a minuscule resource base, and an attitude of ‘if the Lord is not in this, we’re toast.’

Here’s what I want you to hear:

Many of these schools would be a shadow of what I know them to be if it had not been for the Langham Scholars among them.

These are women and men who are comfortably global in their skin. At the same time, they are deeply rooted in a given context … able to speak from it and to it and—on important occasions—able to speak as representative voices from that place they know so well. Either of the two famous post-colonial maladies—that sad, low self-esteem of the colonized on the one hand or the defensive aggression of the almost uncolonized on the other hand—are usually absent from such people. I tend to lay this virtue at the feet of John Stott himself, for his combination of strength and astute humility lives on in Langham Scholars everywhere. Sometimes legacy is a beautiful thing. It certainly is when you hang around Langham. Happily, when this kind of virtue goes all the way down to the core of the organism—as it does at Langham—this virtue becomes a shared aspiration. It becomes contagious.

The story gets even better in recent years as our brothers and sisters in the Global South have stepped up to prepare and launch doctoral programs of their own …. partly to reduce the calamity of ‘brain drain’ to the West but mostly to root the training of a generation’s finest leaders in the soil where they will in fact do most of their leading. Langham Partnership has been a key player in putting some robust wind in the sails of this movement. It’s one of the most encouraging developments I’ve seen in my entire life. If you gather the movers and shakers of this historical phenomenon in a room, the number of Langham Scholars on the roster would be jaw-dropping. A number of them sit with us in this room today.

And as a result of this daring initiative from the Majority World, more and more Langham Scholars are being honed and polished in Majority World doctoral programs. I hope we’ll hear more about this during this Vision Weekend.

I hope you can sense that, after 30 years in Majority World theological education and 13 years of fairly constant presence in Global South theological seminaries, I’m a true believer in the uncommon potency of the Langham Scholar … and in the catalytic influence of the Langham Partnership.

LANGHAM LITERATURE

And yet … the story gets better.

Because there are books

And not just any books …

You see, a good book is not as good as a live conversation with a wise author. But it’s the next best thing.

I like to think of a book-less life as an existence where the only wisdom that is accessible comes from (a) people who are alive right now and (b) people who are alive right here (where I am).

But if I’m going to escape my time-and-space bubble, I’m probably going to read.

And if I’m going to read, I’m probably going to read the work, sadly, of people who look and sound a lot like me.

Or, if I’m a Majority World church leader trying to make sense of my world and of the gospel as it infiltrates my world, sadly I’m probably going to read books that have been written by people who have never set foot on my soil and who know nothing of my people and my context. Because those are, by and large, the only books that are going to be available to me.

Unless, that is, a Langham Literature battles its way forward against the headwinds of a thousand economic and institutional gales and actually gets books by superb Majority World authors into print and then into the hands of eager readers.

Which, happily, is exactly what these crazy people do!

Take a look at their booklist or their book table or talk this weekend with the be-scarvèd Pieter Kwant or one of his minions. The work of Langham Literature is extraordinary work and makes it possible for our brother and sisters in the Global South—as it makes possible for us!—to take up and read … superb books by Majority World authors who, much more often than not, wield their pens as mature disciples of Christ who are canny as snakes and gentle as doves.

Our Langham friends are also developing skills in encouraging their Langham Scholars along the mine-strewn path that leads from the conclusion of doctoral research on to the publishing of accessible reads for a broader public. This is huge, but I’m not going to talk about it, except to say that Langham Literature stands there, ready to make the best output of their Langham Scholars available in writing to the wider church. If you want to know more about this highly effective, low-profile endeavor, talk to Dr. Ian Shaw, who is with us this weekend and up to his armpits (if I may use such a Pennsylvania farm boy term on such an august occasion as this …) in that very work.

Talk about synergy …. This is genuine kingdom-of-God synergy!

LANGHAM PREACHING

And then there’s Langham Preaching.

It’s probably no secret in this company that the Church as a whole suffers from a Famine of Biblical Preaching. Frankly, it’s awful. People shrivel up and die under its leaden sky.

And if you think it’s difficult to find biblically rooted, culturally aware, gospel-saturated preaching in San Diego or Chicago or Hayward, Wisconsin or Sunnyvale or Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania … I dare you to walk with me in Lagos or Moscow or Buenos Aires or Lahore.

The state of preaching … is … truly … awful, whether we understand it as a famine of biblical preaching or an epidemic of Silly Pulpiteering.

Sometimes the whiff of heresy floats in the air, but far more often we’re talking about good people—sinners saved by grace and well-intentioned servants—who simply do not know how to find their way to the kinds of preaching for which our hearts and minds yearn.

I was a in Medellín, Colombia a few months ago. The seminary in that city that Karen and I are ramping up to serve had recently said goodbye to a small army of some 200 preachers who had recently swarmed the modestly sized campus for the annual Escuela de Predicación Transformadora … School of Transformative Preaching. That’s what we know as Langham Preaching, rooted now in Colombian context, lives, and language.

These South American preachers are not the same population as Langham Scholars. These are, in the main, grassroots, self-taught gospel preachers. Some of them will be consumers and readers of Langham Literature publications. Most will not.

These are the men and women who are shepherding the numerical majorities of God’s people in Colombia and in many other places in the world. They are preaching Sunday upon Sunday, but also—many of them—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and … well, you get the picture.

They are the foot-soldiers of gospel proclamation.

You see, I cut my teeth in Latin America alongside this kind of person. Mario was an auto mechanic and a bit of a drunk until a street preacher in a park caught his ear. He found himself sobbing and loving the forgiving Jesus he met in the evangelist’s words before he had words to explain what was happening to him. Within months, his extended family and a bunch of neighbors—not all of them, mind you—had responded to his testimony and had become his little flock.

He was such a genuine pastor because he knew intimately the hard-scrabble life of his people. It was his own life, too.

Mario spoke with such a frictionless empathy with his people. He loved the Bible, but as he moved beyond his first-generation proclamation, he simply didn’t know how to connect the Bible he read ceaselessly with the people he loved so zealously.

He could not connect the dots … he had no hermeneutical method … he knew neither a reliable route from text to context nor from context to text. Beyond simple evangelism, he could not speak for his people the reality that he knew from his bones outward.

The potential upside of people like Mario, to whom the Lord has entrusted deeply embedded proclamation ministry, is huge … if only someone can help them find a toe-hold into life-long development as preachers of the gospel. Someone who knows their context and the fire in their bones in the way that they know it.

This is exactly what Langham Preaching is doing, exploring various modalities, figuring out what works and what does not when providing intensive preaching training to veteran practitioners.

Honestly, Langham Preaching looks to me like the logical next step after Langham Scholars and Langham Literature. I mean, what else would you do but this …

I was delighted to find myself speaking with our brother from Lahore, Pakistan last evening and to learn that Langham Preaching is thriving in … (You heard it here first!) … Pakistan! Just great stuff.

WRAPPING THINGS UP

The Langham Tripod …

  • If careful thinking and the scholarship that turns it into a life-long discipline means anything for Christ’s church …
  • If making hard-won wisdom available to expanding circles of Jesus disciples means anything for his people …
  • If the astute and loving proclamation of the best news ever is the heart and soul of a thriving global church …

… then it’s no wonder that a guy like me can take a long gander at the Langham Partnership and know that these fellow travelers have stumbled upon—no, rather, have been lovingly led into—one of the single most cost-effective, scalable, God-pleasing, church-empowering ministries that I’ve ever known.

So that’s my story … and I’m stickin’ to it.

 

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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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Andrew Davis has written a splendid little manual to large-scale memorization of Scripture that is not for the faint of heart but will develop in the adventurous practitioner a strong heart.

51rqavqfyrlDavis attends to both the why and the how of memorizing entire chapters and books of the Bible. He distinguishes between meditation and memorization, but finds it difficult to accomplish the former without investing in the latter. I think he’s right on this point, particularly as he notes an author’s logical flow that is perceptible and eventually absorb-able when the object of one’s memorization is a the wide Scriptural landscape rather than a short stopping-point here or there.

Davis’ method (the term seems preferable to ‘technique’) provides tracks for what will inevitably represent for the memorizer a long and even stubborn obedience in the same direction. He minces no words about the challenge of large-scale Scripture memorization, but encourages the readers that accomplishing this feat is more a matter of blood, sweat, and tears than of natural mental endowment.

I derive the title of this very brief review from one of Davis’ methodological steps. He calls it ‘weeding the garden’, which is the step he endorses that will allow the memorizer to return to what he or she has committed to memory and weed out the small errors (‘weeds’) that will creep in.

This book (99¢ in Amazon Kindle format as I write this review) meets a bona fide need, is clearly a labor of love, and will without doubt move would-be memorizers past the various early-stage obstacles in this journey and on to the place where many words of the Word have been securely placed in the storehouse of the heart.

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Near the end of twelve impeccably written lectures delivered to Fuller Theological Seminary in 1964 and published in 1968 as The Inescapable Calling, R. Kenneth Strachan summarizes his work by asking this question: What good is the Christian in the world today?

Strachan’s life ended prematurely in 1965, so this book is in some way the valedictory of a respected mission statesman who had found credibility among both his Latin American and North American constituencies at a time when such an outcome was by no means guaranteed. Indeed, it was doubtful, so tense were the times. The Latin America Mission was taking its first innovative steps towards ‘turning everything over to the nationals’, a step that raised eyebrows among conventional thinkers, put at risk deep institutional legacy, and—in retrospect—defined the genius of the ‘LAM’. (more…)

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We have a dog. Little Rhea is a mutt, a canine of uncertain provenance, a largely unremarkable and persistently shedding presence in the home.

Our newspaper appears every morning (well, Monday through Saturday) sheathed in a thin, blue, plastic wrapper that makes a marvelous, repurposed poop bag when we walk Rhea in the park across the street. When I ‘taught’ Rhea to ‘fetch’ the newspaper every morning (Monday through Saturday), I imagined the entertainment value of training this largely underperforming household companion to do something useful. But I also anticipated saving a few steps in my daily (Monday through Saturday) journey down the long driveway to the side of the road whence the newspaper in its thin, blue, plastic sheath gets hurled from a passing car onto endlessly creative subsections of our driveway and its vicinity. (more…)

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