Saturday, December 30, 2006

Brief break

This is the day that the LORD has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.

- Psalm 118.24

May your new year bring 365 new days in which to rejoice.

I will be off-line for a few days, but when I return I have much to post. I will continue my new series "Worse than Death?", get back into discussion of Peak Oil, post a thought on corporate growth, a little more on Volf's book and share a little personal news. While you're waiting, feel free to check out older posts linked on the right.

There is more to come...

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Worse than death? I

A short new series
Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.

Psalm 63.3

Death is a Bad Thing. Death is the last enemy. It is not a comfort, a friend, a doorway to the world beyond, the river Styx before Hades or even the river Jordan on the threshold of the promised land.

However, it is an enemy that stands already defeated. The final silence of irrevocable parting has been broken by Easter laughter. For those who hope in the resurrected one, death has become sleep, with the secure promise of awakening at his return. This means that though its hostility is not diminished, there is no need for fear or despair in facing it daily (as we all do, to greater and lesser extents of consciousness and proximity).

Although we rage against the often pointless tragedy of death (particularly many deaths), and mourn all loss of life, it is nonetheless possible for this 'rage' to be expressed through a defiantly peaceful confidence as well as tears and anger. Christian A put it well in his comment on an earlier post where he pointed to the example of Simeon in the infancy narrative that so many of us have recently read:
"Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation.” (Luke 2:29-30)

Is it possible to “depart in peace” in a way that still shows the kind of disgust for death that Jesus showed outside Lazarus’s tomb? Perhaps we should rail against death not with despair but with assured anticipation.
In the light of the visible arrival of God's salvation in this little child, Simeon's imminent departure is now filled with hope. This salvation is not from death, as if he can now avoid walking this dark path altogether, but will be salvation from out of death - new life on the far side of sleep.

Thus, because God's salvation has begun in Christ (though is not yet complete), death takes its place as a secondary foe of humanity. While death will be the last enemy to finally submit to Christ's rule (1 Cor 15.26), it is not the Great Enemy, the Adversary.

There are things worse than death.
Series: I, II, III, IV, V, VI.
Fifteen points for correctly naming these pre-historic standing stones.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Free of Charge

Highly recommended
What is a gift? What does it mean to be a giver? How can giving be more than a business transaction? How ought we to forgive? Does repentence need to precede forgiveness? How can we forgive? Is it possible to be a little bit like God in our giving and forgiving?

Crotian theologian Miroslav Volf (author of the highly stimulating Exclusion and Embrace) wrote a popular level book for Lent 2006 called Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Jessica and I have been reading it slowly over the last couple of weeks and have really appeciated the straightforward ways he lays out the connections and distinctions between giving and forgiving with both theological depth and a light and accessible touch. These two basic modes of interpersonal interaction are at the heart of what it is to be Christian because they are very much on God's heart. Whether or not you're a believer, this book will gently stretch you and invite you into a way of life and of the heart that gets beyond the destructiveness of revenge and taking, even beyond mere justice and earning, all the way into giving and forgiving.

Revenge multiples evil. Retributive justice contains evil - and threatens the world with destruction. Forgiveness overcomes evil with good. Forgiveness mirrors the generosity of God whose ultimate goal is neither to satisfy injured pride nor to justly apportion reward and punishment, but to free sinful humanity from evil and thereby reestablish communion with us. This is the gospel in its stark simplicity - as radically countercultural and at the same time as beautifully human as anything one can imagine.

- Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge, 161. More on this book.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Merry Christmas?

If you're tired of hearing "Merry Christmas" morning, noon and night, if such wishes seem like cruel mockery rather than genuine possibility, Meredith posts some insightful thoughts on why we can rejoice in hope at Christmas, even amidst pain. Thanks Meredith, and a truly joyous feast of the incarnation to one and all: God is with us.

UPDATE: Check out this Christmas sermon from Kim Fabricius.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Fearless service III

In earlier posts, I started laying out some thoughts for a sermon I would have preached on Luke 1.67-80. Having been liberated from a divinely-imposed silence, Zechariah bursts into song over the divinely-acheived salvation of Israel. Such salvation means not simply deliverance from the hands of enemies, but more fundamentally "light to those who sit in darkness, in the shadow of death".

This is all of us. None of us by worrying are able to add a single hour to our life. None of us can guarantee tomorrow. We are all dying, giving birth astride a grave. Although some might be more aware of being close to death, this is a matter of quantity rather than quality. The universally deadly future casts its grim shadow back upon all the living. Our society either obsesses over death, or refuses to look or think about it. Either way - whether in explicit fixation, or implicitly through resolute denial - we live as though death is the definitive reality in life, colouring all existence.

It is this morbid situation that Zechariah realises God is addressing. How does God execute this salvation from the shadow of death? By raising up a mighty saviour in the royal line of David. Of course, this points forward to the rest of Luke's narrative. By the end of the story, that a saviour has been "raised up" (now with an extra and more direct meaning) makes all the difference to those who pale at the approach of death. Zechariah puts it like this: "By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” The resurrection of Jesus dispells the gloom of death. Death is still there, but its terrors melt away in the breaking dawn.

And what is the intended goal of this salvation? God doesn't simply remove the negative, but replaces it with a positive design. From sitting in darkness, we can now rise and walk "the way of peace". Having been saved from enemies, especially the last enemy death, we are liberated to fearless service.

Service seems risky. So often, we are anxious that if we pour our lives out in service of God and neighbour, we might miss out. Our attempts to bless might be repaid with curses. We might be left forgotten. But the one who remembered his holy covenant with Abraham will not forget you. And the one who has dawned upon us will bring everything to light.

Daylight is come, our saviour is risen, the path of peace lies gleaming before us. Let us follow our master in service without fear.
Series: I; II; III.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Eco on writing for others

[There is] another view common to bad writers - namely, that one writes only for oneself. Do not trust those who say so: they are dishonest and lying narcissists.

There is only one thing that you write for yourself, and that is a shopping list. It helps to remember what you have to buy, and when you have bought everything you can destroy it, because it is no use to anyone else. Every other thing that you write, you write to say something to someone.

I have often asked myself: would I still write today if they told me that tomorrow a cosmic catastrophe would destroy the universe, so that no one could read tomorrow what I wrote today?

My first instinct is to reply no. Why write if no one will read me? My second instinct is to say yes, but only because I cherish the desperate hope that, amid the galactic catastrophe, some star might survive, and in the future someone might decipher my signs. In that case writing, even on the eve of the Apocalypse, would still make sense.

One writes only for a reader. Whoever says he writes only for himself is not necessarily lying. It is just that he is frighteningly atheistic. Even from a rigorously secular point of view.

Unhappy and desperate the writer who cannot address a future reader.

-Umberto Eco, 'How I Write' in On Literature, 334.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Fearless service II

When we left him at the end of an earlier post, Zechariah's months of divinely-imposed silence were finally broken and he bursts into thanksgiving. For what does he give thanks?

For the salvation of Israel that has come from the hand of her god Yahweh. This salvation has an impressive pedigree. It is in line with the royal promises to David, and ultimately goes back to the binding promises God made to Abraham. Just as the prophets of old kept this promise alive to each generation, so Zechariah's son, born in his old age, will also 'be called a prophet of the Most High' and will 'give knowledge of salvation to his people'.

But what is this salvation from? Most directly, 'from our enemies' or 'from the hands of our enemies'. This is a regular theme in the books of Judges and Samuel: God appoints a warrior to lead Israel in battle against her oppressor. To Israel under the sandal of Rome, such stories expressed yearnings at once tantalising and dangerous. Until the pagan empire of Caesar gave way to God's rule expressed through a commissioned Israelite, Israel knew she continued to suffer for the sins that had led to her sorry condition in the first place. Thus, salvation from being ruled by enemies would be the concrete sign that her sins were now forgiven.

But Zechariah sees a deeper reality. There are enemies worse than Romans. Israel is not just occupied by a foreign superpower, but is sitting in the darkness of the shadow cast by the real enemy: death. Zechariah's son will proclaim his prophetic announcement not simply to a nation in search of political autonomy, but to an audience enslaved by fear of death. This fear is what gives every tyrant or Caesar his power. It makes uncertain every plan, ends every dream, silences every voice.

This is where we all sit.
Series: I; II; III.

Do not go gentle

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

- Dylan Thomas, 1952

This poem, one of my favourites, was composed by Thomas in May 1951 (published 1952) when his father was approaching blindness and death. The 'good night' is thus both the darkness at the end of vision and of life.

But why rage? Why not accept the inevitable with dignity and composure? Why desire life beyond one hundred, when vision dims, memory blurs, the body rebels and friends desert one by one?

Because life is a good gift. Because death is the final enemy of humanity and God.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Do you want to live to a hundred?

What is your immediate gut response? Is it any different once you've had a chance to reflect?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Barth on Jesus Christ

“Jesus Christ means: God, not against the human, or – which would be even worse – without him, but God with him and for him as his Friend and Helper and Saviour and Guarantor. Jesus Christ means: God himself becomes the human’s Neighbour and Brother…. Jesus Christ is in person the faithfulness of God which draws near to the human’s unfaithfulness and overpowers it, as God the creator not only confirms and maintains his covenant with his creature but once and for all leads it to its goal and secures it against every threat. Jesus Christ is the reconciliation of the world to God which does not merely look and go beyond human sin but sets it aside…. He is the kingdom of God which with its comfort and healing has approached and invaded torn humanity suffering from a thousand wounds, and put an end to its misery…. In a word: he is the goodness of God.”

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3, 798-99. H/T Ben.

Barneys update

When I began this blog, my church building at St Barnabas, Broadway had just burned down. I posted thoughts on this here, here, here and especially here. For those interested in the progress of this issue, here is the latest update on the Sydney Anglican website, including some comments from our rector, Ian Powell.
More posts on Barneys and the fire: I; II; III; IV; V; VI.

Ben's "Theology for beginners"

Ben Myers has now completed his excellent 22-part series Theology for beginners. Go and have a look if you are looking for a lively summary of Christian thought, an introduction to key theological topics, a wide-ranging theological bibliography, or just some plain good writing.

Monday, December 11, 2006


The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?

- Psalm 27.1

Does the imminent approach of a large and unknown danger make our daily worries pale into insignificance? Do our quotidian, pedestrian worries fade away at the approach of a new and greater terror? On the contrary, the daily battle against insecurities and anxieties is where the action is at. A thousand little fears can shrink our lives far more effectively than an illness or tragedy.

Why is it possible not to fear? Because the LORD is my light: not the comforting night-light to hold back the shadows of the dark, nor 'the lantern which a traveller in the dark carries in his hand - but the glow on his face of the coming dawn' (Lesslie Newbigin). It is because we believe in this one that fear no longer makes sense.

What does it mean to not fear? It is to trust this Lord to do his will, not mine. It is to love those around me without being lost in self-absorption, to give myself wholeheartedly to my neighbour and not hold back in case the potential loss is too painful. It is to remain thankful despite great loss and refuse the easy temptation of bitterness. To refuse also the pull of despair and instead to groan in hope; to look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.

Let us fear not. This is our task and prayer.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Fearless service I

Notes for a sermon
Yesterday I was meant to be preaching at all three services, but because of my voice, I missed out. Here are some thoughts on what I might have said. The passage was Zechariah's prophecy regarding his son John [the Baptist] (Luke 1.67-80):

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
   “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
      for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
   He has raised up a mighty savior for us
      in the house of his servant David,
   as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
      that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
   Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
      and has remembered his holy covenant,
   the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
      to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
   might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
      before him all our days.
   And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
      for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
   to give knowledge of salvation to his people
      by the forgiveness of their sins.
   By the tender mercy of our God,
      the dawn from on high will break upon us,
   to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
      to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
Zechariah, the priest of Yahweh had been struck dumb by an angel for nine months for doubting when he heard that his elderly and apparently barren wife was to bear his first child (Luke 1.18-20). Once the child is named during circumcision, Zechariah regains his lost voice and his first words are praise (1.64). It seems nine months of watching God's promise grow has taken this priest from doubt to new-found faith.

Having been (semi-)silenced myself over the last weeks, I have some vague idea of how many thoughts and emotions must have pressed forward, clamoring for expression at that moment. So many misunderstandings to clear up, so many shared experiences to be acknowledged and clarified, so many plans entertained and formulated.

But before all that comes praise. In enforced silence, cut off from the regular blessing of daily conversation, Zechariah has rediscovered the primary purpose of human speech: to address God. In silence he has re-learned the primacy of God's speech, that God's word made the heavens and earth and everything in them (Gen 1; Ps 33.6), that until God first addresses us, calling us into being, calling us by name, we are voiceless. The gift of human language is one of the ways in which are like God, and just as children learn to speak by being spoken to, humans come to speech through God first speaking to us.

Zechariah therefore appropriately addresses his first words Godwards in response. This reply in the presence of others, who overhear, is praise.

And he gives thanks. For his regained voice? Possibly. But when we turn to the content of his praise in our passage, we find other concerns uppermost.
Series: I; II; III.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

MLK and the apple tree

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree. - Martin Luther King, Jr.

This quote illustrates a hope in God in the face of disaster that I find quite inspirational. Every small enacted hope requires faith in the God who raises the dead and calls into being the things that are not (Romans 4.17). Such a faith neither desperately clutches at the present out of fear of change and loss, nor does it need to reject the present as irrelevant in the light of impending catastrophe. The good gifts of today can be celebrated without idolatrous hoarding or thankless world-denial. Although Stoic thought (and some forms of Eastern philosophy) would counsel us to minimise our desires to avoid the pain when (as is almost inevitable) they are frustrated, Christian hope is free to love deeply, to mourn keenly, to yearn fearlessly.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Milton on calling

Apart from being a theologian and blogger par excellence, Ben Myers is also a published expert on 17thC English poet John Milton. He's posted a great Milton poem and some liberating reflections on what it means to be called by God. Particularly relevant for those of us who find our own urgent sense of importance paralysing our ability to serve.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Blessed are the poor in spirit,
          for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
          for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
          for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
          for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
          for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
          for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
          for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
          for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

- Matthew 5.3-10

As Jesus spoke to Israel once again gathered around the mountain, the future so overshadowed the present that what was yet to be determined the meaning of the present. The triumph of the second half of each line is not to make the first half redundant or marginal. On the contrary, it is the very yearning woven into the condition of the first half that is to be abundantly satisfied. Our desires are not ignored, replaced or marginalised by God's promise. In the light of the coming future, it is not our desires that need to go, but our fears.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The godfather

I became a godfather last night (and currently have the voice to go with the part). Having been raised in churches that didn't use this practice, I'd love to hear some stories about having and being godparents. What have you appreciated about the role? What are the potential difficulties? What are your best memories of your godparents? Do you have any advice for us?


Having been tagged by Elizaphanian, here are my answers to this meme of the silly season.*

1. Egg Nog or Hot Chocolate? Hot Chocolate. Egg nog has never really made it Australia, though since Christmas means summer and temperatures often in the 30s (=over 90F for those stuck in the past), hot chocolate doesn't make much sense either.

2. Does Santa wrap presents or just sit them under the tree? I thought he outsourced all wrapping to elves.

3. Colored lights on tree/house or white? Neither.

4. Do you hang mistletoe on your house? No. No mistletoe in Austrlia. No house to hang it on.

5. When do you put your decorations up? We don't have decorations. We are so infrequently at home around Christmas that we just freeload on the decorations of others.

6. What is your favorite holiday meal (excluding dessert)? Summer fruits: cherries, plums, bananas and especially passionfruit.

7. Favorite Holiday memory as a child? Christmas in Scotland while on holidays when I was nine. To a young colonial boy, Christmas in the motherland complete with address by the Queen was a fascinating mix of novelty and deep familiarity.

8. When and how did you learn the truth about Santa? Which one? One year when I was probably around 6 or 7 I saw Mum and Dad buy the gifts that ended up coming from Santa. A few years later I learned the truth about St Nicholas. A few years later again I learned the role that Coke played in creating the modern image of Santa. And then a few years later I started thinking about the social and relational function(s) of Santa. Truth is a complicated concept.

9. Do you open a gift on Christmas Eve? Sometimes. We've recently started a tradition of having dinner with a close friend on Christmas eve and this sometimes involves presents. See also #13 below.

10. How do you decorate your Christmas Tree? No tree. See above.

11. Snow! Love it or Dread it? In Sydney?

12. Can you ice skate? Yes. Took my wife ice skating on one of our first dates.

13. Do you remember your favorite gift? Life - received every breath, every day. New life - received on Christmas eve fifteen years ago.

14. What's the most important thing about the Holidays for you? God with us.

15. What is your favorite Holiday Dessert? Whatever is available on years when I manage to avoid eating too much before dessert to be able to fit any in.

16. What is your favorite holiday tradition? Gathering for church late on Christmas eve with great expectation and joy.

17. What tops your tree? See above.

18. Which do you prefer: giving or receiving? Receiving. A close call, but we are all fundamentally recipients before we are called to imitate and participate in God's generosity.

19. What is your favorite Christmas Song? Hark! The herald angels sing, Joy to the World or O Come, o come, Emmanuel. The last is probably my overall favourite, but you don't hear it as often.

20. Candy Canes! Yuck or yummy? In primary school, they used to function as a currency of popularity at the end of the year as everyone would hand them out to their friends.

21. Favorite Christmas Movie? Are there any good ones? There have sometimes been some good Boxing Day movies, but which studio is so short-sighted as to release a film on Christmas Day?

22. What would you most like to find under your tree this year? My voice back again.

23. Favorite Holiday memory as an adult? Discovering that there are so many delightful members of my extended family (I come from a very large extended family and as a child was always a little intimidated by the sheer numbers at Christmas gatherings).
*During a recent doctor's appointment, I revealed that I have been studying theology and am to work as a Christian minister. From this point on, my doctor was obviously embarrassed every time he made reference to the 'silly season'. As always, it was only afterwards I thought of a response: 'It is indeed silly that we have managed to turn a time with such reason for joy into a season of stress and anxiety.'

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Weekend links

• I've already mentioned Rev Sam on peak oil pledges. Go and have a look.
• Ben has been thinking about how to settle theological debates.
• Meredith has started a series of "ten things I think about the environment": Intro; I; II; III. As a bonus, there are lots of great pics by Meredith too.
• Kyle has declared War on Christmas.
• David is worried about Surnames and sexism. I suggest what I humbly believe to be the perfect solution (see discussion in comments).

The rest of the virtual world
Bono + sacramental theology = U2charist? H/T Aaron.
• If you're feeling a little down - make sure you scroll down to 'Mediocrity' and 'Quality'. H/T Paget.
• And check out these for corny but fun political activism: The Meatrix; The Meatrix II; The Meatrix II 1/2.