Monday, May 30, 2011

Song to the Holy Spirit- James K Baxter

I have long appreciated  and valjed New Zealand Poet James K Baxter's poem/;prayer 'Song of the Holy Spirit'.
A Pentecost psalm that seems to simply resound both with a deep walk with the spirit and (as this humble pictorial rendition seeks to show a connection with this land I call home.

Sadly I cannot lay claim to the pictures as ell as the words (and the last photo is not from New Zealand)

Lord, Holy Spirit,

You blow like the wind in a thousand paddocks,

Inside and outside the fences,

You blow where you wish to blow.

Lord, Holy Spirit,

You are the sun who shines on the little plant,

You warm him gently, you give him life,

You raise him up to become a tree with many leaves.

Lord, Holy Spirit,

You are the mother eagle with her young,

Holding them in peace under your feathers.

On the highest mountain you have built your nest,

Above the valley, above the storms of the world,

Where no hunter ever comes.

Lord, Holy Spirit,

You are the bright cloud in whom we hide,

In whom we know already that the battle has been won.

You bring us to our Brother Jesus

To rest our heads upon his shoulder.

Lord, Holy Spirit,

You are the kind fire who does not cease to burn,

Consuming us with flames of love and peace,

Driving us out like sparks to set the world on fire.

Lord, Holy Spirit,

In the love of friends you are building a new house,

Heaven is with us when you are with us.

You are singing your songs in the hearts of the poor

Guide us, wound us, heal us. Bring us to the Father

– James K. Baxter, ‘Song to the Holy Spirit’, in Collected Poems (ed. John Edward Weir; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 572.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Camping At The End Of Time: Some Reflections And Reactions (OK OK a rant)

"Saturday 6:15 am. up too early still it's not the end of the world..." this was my (somewhat) witty facebook status for May 21st 2011. It was partly because I was amazed that I was up so early on a Saturday morning (and on line) and a response to Harold Camping's failed prediction that the world would end on May 21st, starting with massive earthquakes here in New Zealand.

Camping of course had predicted the end of the world once before and after that date failed to bring this about has replied that he'd made an error in his maths. Now he is saying that because of God's mercy the end has been postponed till October 21st. we did have a spiritual judgement apparently on May 21st.

Sometimes being a Christian means having to deal with a real 'cringe factor'. In this case its like having your family judged by that eccentric old uncle that every one know to ignore at family gatherings.

Here are some thoughts from me on this whole event.

1. Camping seems to have based his predictions of a secret code he discovered after 50 years of studying the bible. This really is more akin to a new Gnosticism or even a cabalist approach to scripture rather than a hermeneutics that wrestles with understand the plain text. It shows a preoccupation with dates and the future rather than understanding scripture in its context and how it is to be applied today. Such things maybe spectacular and make for good ratings for TV or radio (you just have to look at the string of Apocalyptic films being produced by Hollywood) but they put Biblical scholarship on the same fanciful and speculative level as 'the Di Vinci code'.

2. In a newspaper article I read on Camping, it stated that camping believed the church had already been judged and God was no longer using it in his activity in the world. This is a sure sign that Camping and his followers have head off on the road to being a cult. It means Camping no longer has to pay attention to or consider what others think. He has set himself up as the authority. However understanding scripture is a communal activity. While it is the role of someone who believes God is speaking to them to say it, it is really up to the community of faith and church to desern its truth. You could say that Biblical scholarship like other academic endeavours should be open to peer review. if you write off other opinions you loose the ability to hear what the spirit is saying to the church.

3. Camping has been able to spread his predictions and mount a campaign round the world. I was amazed to see "May 21st End Of World" posters up in New Zealand. Admittedly I just thought they were clever (well not really that clever) adverts for a new radio station starting on May 21st. However by bypassing being in a community where there is mutual accountability and being able to simply broadcast what you think without that discernment process happening has mean that Camping has been able to disseminate his material beyond the chance for people to react and respond and has therefore get financial support. This is a dangerous situation and one which is now reaping, at least in my mind, warranted ridicule.

4. We live in times of turbulence and rapid change: Times of uncertainty that have peeked peoples fears and ponderings about the end of the world. In Biblical prophecy terms people have been wrestling with the significance of the establishment of Israel as a state in 1948. We have lived with the spectre (for the first time in history) of the possibility of world end through nuclear holocaust. Scientists speak of impending doom, with such issues as climate change. We are still living through a time of when the world has and the Christian faith has suffered from PMT (That's pre (and now post Millennium Tension). remember Y2K and the apocalyptic speculations based round a computers inability to deal with the date. As i said before we seem to want to entertain ourselves with TV shows about catastrophic natural disasters and movies about alien invasion and world ending possibilities.

Along with that is the movement of the Christian faith in the western world from being in the centre (think Christendom) and from holding sway and power in society to being more on the edge and marginalised (even in that last bastion of Christendom the US) has caused some peoples minds to think 'the end is neigh' Camping speaks into that loss of power and status, at least for some a with supposedly an authoritative voice.

5. There is a misunderstanding of Biblical Prophecy that I think underpins this whole Camping thing. I have always maintained that biblical prophecy is about telling forth God's word rather than God's word fore-telling events. Instead of pointing to a soon coming chance to 'stop the world I want to get off' it invites us to radically engauge with what is going on in the world and look at living a different way, a Kingdom of God response' to everything. One of the things that the Apocalyptic literature in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament do is provide a cosmic perspective to help people suffering from oppression and persecution seeing that God is till in control and that God's purposes will triumph in the end. It is to give encouragement to keep going, keep living, and keep loving ones enemies and one another with Christ like love.

6. I am concerned about the whole approach to evangelism that says " get right with God before you die", or as we've seen with the camping media campaign get right with God because the end is neigh. I don't read that in the gospels or New Testament. Jesus invites people to come and live a new way, to be God's new people and while there is an eschatological expectation in the early church the focus was always on the last one on Jesus Christ crucified rather than faith in Christ as an insurance policy for times to come. I know that is a sweeping statement, but I would say 'get right with God before you start living', the focus being on following Jesus as the way to live in a way that makes the possibility of a new world a reality

Monday, May 23, 2011

a prayer of thanks for God's presence and grace amidst the landscapes of our soul

Lord God almighty

You are the God who created the world and all that is in it

Arid desert and fertile fields

Distant high mountains and gentile rolling hills

Summit vistas and Valley floor

The unpredictable open sea and the still safe harbour haven

Forest, bush and open ground

Rugged coastline and still calm lakeside

Vast continents and our Island home

We praise you in the midst of your creation

Loving God

You are the God that invites us to walk through this world trusting you

In the midst of the changing seasons and landscapes of our lives you lead us homeward to be with you

You provide what we need to see our journey through

You provide water in the midst of our deserts

Stars to navigate by in the midst of our dark nights

Safe haven and courage amidst our storms

Green pastures and still water to restore our soul

We praise you for your presence to guide and provide

Merciful God

We had gone our own way wandered away from the path you had provided

Yet you did not leave us stranded in the wilderness or lost on city streets

You sent your son Jesus to be the light and the new way for us to travel

He healed the sick and made whole the broken

He spoke your word and brought good news to the poor

When the time was right he gave his life to pay for all we had done wrong

Being raised from the dead he is with you and with us

He will come again to judge with justice

We give you praise for Jesus

God who gives his holy spirit

The wind blows where it will over sea and land

It can be cool breeze in the sweltering heat of summer

It can fill the unfurled sail and take us on

WE can find ourselves trudging into the face of a gale

You send your Holy Spirit wind to blow into our lives

To speak your truth, to empower us to follow you

To lead and to guide us, fill and embrace us

Even to slow us down and turn us back when we walk away from you

We praise you that you are with us by your Spirit

Monday, May 16, 2011

Another Nudging Bird... A Kereru Strike and The Spirit of God's Leading on the Journey.

Kereru are the New Zealand native wood pigeon. If you've read some older posts of mine ( you'll know that for me they have become a symbol of the presence of the Holy Spirit's in my life. As a pigeon they are of course in the dove family and in scripture the dove is a symbol for the presence of the Holy Spirit. The ancient Celtic monks used to use the wild goose as a contextualised symbol (as there were not many doves on the rugged coastlines of Ireland and Scotland), as they did seem to our forebears in the faith to embody the idea of the Spirit articulated in John 3: 8  "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Interestingly enough in New Zealand one of the most distinct sounds of wings is the Kereru. You don't know where it has come from or where it is going but you hear it as it passes by.

In Dunedin where we lived for three years, Kereru kept turning up at opportune moments. Moments and places where I just couldn't help but realise they were there as what Leonard Sweet calls "Nudges") > Times when God was trying to get my attention. There was I time I was depressed and wondering if God had abandoned me ( training for the ministry can be a bit like that sometimes) I looked out my window only to see three Kereru sitting on the power lines on the power lines outside looking in at me. A real trinitarian moment. another time I was grumbling and praying and worrying about financial matters (being a stundet with four kids) and I looked up and saw a Kereru on the power lines with it's head under its wings asleep in the sun and sensed what Adrian Plass calls 'that disturbing voice at the back of my mind I equate with the voice of God' say... " Is that how you see me Howard? Asleep in the sun? Disinterested?" and of course the words of Psalm 121:4 came to mind " indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep." "point taken" I replied. Another time I was sharing with a Student in the Quad at Otago University in a conversation about the gospel and I heard the flap of Kereru wings and looked up to see a Kereru land on a tree in the middle of the crowded quad and look down at us, as if saying this is a God moment. I could go on and often do.

Moving to Auckland however, I have missed the sound and sight of Kereru, maybe I am not as observant or they do not come into the city. I have had bird 'nudge's' while living here, a realisation that maybe in this urban environment that just maybe the imported pigeon's that paint the building of down town guano white, little more than flying rats may in actual fact be a way of remembering the presence of the Spirit in my life. To reading Leonard Sweet's book "Nudge" about Bird's in buildings and finding myself dealing with a fantail that flew in but could not find its way out of the chapel.  (

Last month I found myself having a close encounter with a Kereru. It started with a sound a sickening "bang" as the bird flew into the window of the door I usually use to leave the chapel. It had flown straight into the glass (they never seem to see the glass). It was a big hit as the glass was left with a greasy outline smear of the bird's head and wings. I rushed outside to check it out. Kereru can damage themselves when they hit things my wife and kids can give you the physics of it. Heavy bird, moving fast hits solid object, forces etc. I went outside to check on the bird which was sitting stunned on the ground. After about 10 minutes when I was just thinking I should ring Bird Rescue or the SPCA, it simply shock its head spread its wings and flew off, weaving gracefully through the tree branches. 

I've been  thinking about that encounter. Yes it was probably just a coincident, and since that day I have been very aware of many bangs as smaller birds hit the upper windows of the chapel hall. But it has got me wondering. Just after this happened I was told that the funding for the church plant I am involved in will be cut in February next year. Our backers have been very faithful in backing us and it is time for them to let it go. I have been quite depressed about that, but as I think about the Kereru that day I sense that (a flight of fancy I hear you say) there is a real sense of God letting me know that I can trust his Spirit to lead me on from here. from the chapel at the University to keep going somewhere else with the same church plant, or maybe even away from this place to a new place and a new context. I needed the nudge or the bang the loud crashing sound to make me realise that. I don't have any definite answers or kleadings at the moment. Perhaps like the kereu that hit the glass, I'm a bit numb and dazed however I do know that the Spirit is here in the midst of this with me and is able to lead and guide me from here. ... watch this space.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Short Letter With A Story Of Grace And Forgiveness ( A Sermon On The Book of Philemon)

A man has been part of the church fellowship for a long time he is lawyer and encourages some of the people in the church to invest money with him. Later on the police arrest him for fraud, he has embezzled the money from his trust fund to fuel an extravagant lifestyle and some of the most vulnerable people in the church have lost everything. Now he asks the church for forgiveness.

A young man  ‘borrows’ his sisters car without asking and goes for a joy ride he doesn’t have a licence and comes round a corner too fast looses control, mounts the kerb and kills two young children playing on the footpath. He pins them to a power pole. He runs away and the sister reports her car stolen. After a while the family of the young man comes to the family of the two children both families Christians and seeks for reconciliation and forgiveness.

A young woman living in Rwanda has fifty members of her immediate and extended family murdered in the vicious genocide and racial violence that erupted there in the early ‘90’s. Her father was beaten to death by a mob lead by her closest neighbour who just happened to be from the opposing tribe in this racial conflict. He is imprisoned when justice is reimposed but his father still lives just down the road. How could this have happened in a country where over 90% of the population identify themselves as Christians. The women is devastated yet as she continues to exist she is aware that she needs to do something to heal the emptiness and deep dark wound to her soul. She has to seek reconciliation.

I could go on and I guess for most of us the response would be well praise God I haven’t had to deal with those situations or maybe your sitting there and you have similar stories you could tell. Similar wounds to show. I know that because we are human we have to deal with broken relationships when we wrong or are wronged by other people, even other believers. Hopefully from the story of Philemon and Onesimus we can find some wisdom that will help when it comes to dealing with working out relationships between fellow believers that are broken because of wrong doings both great and small.

Philemon is one of Paul’s pastoral epistles, letters sent to individuals rather than general letters to churches his personal correspondence which gives us some interesting insight into issues that the early church had to deal with and of particular interest individual believers had to work through. Paul’s letter to Philemon deals with trying to sort out a situation where a believer has been greatly wronged by another person who has himself become a believer, a runaway slave called Onesimus. It’s made more complicated and risky because of the legal implications.

Philemon had become a believer when Paul had ministered in Ephesus, he is a leader in the church there along with Apphia his wife, they host a church in their home and Arichippus that people believe is Philemon’s son is involved in leadership in the church of Laodicea. He is mentioned in Colossians 4:17. Paul starts his letter with a prayer of thanksgiving for Philemon that shows us what sort of person he is. Paul has been encouraged to hear of his strong faith evidenced by his love and hospitality to the people of God, he refreshes them. The fact that he is able to host a church in his house shows that he is a person of some means someone who in the ancient Greek world would have had slaves.

From the letter Paul writes we can reconstruct an issue that has arisen for Philemon’s household. A slave called Onesimus ran away from him and possibly stolen from him as well, as Paul offers to repay anything Onesimus had taken in v.19. But as Onesimus had gone to the great city of Rome to try and hide amidst the masses there he had found his way to Paul and he too had become a follower of Jesus Christ. Paul had found him to be very useful and helpful, but maybe over a period of time the whole story had come out and Onisemus’s situation had become known to Paul and it became important that Onesimus deal with his past and seek reconciliation and forgiveness from his owner Philemon.

Being reconciled with God through Jesus Christ inevitable leads to us being reconciled with one another.

Paul had sent him back with this letter written in his own hand along with a trusted friend Tychius to support him and the gracious offer to make restitution for anything that Onesimus had cost Philemon. The letter was also an open letter to the whole church so that what was done could be seen by all as well.

In the Roman empire there was an ever present fear of slave revolts and to combat this and keep good order the emperor expected the heads of households to keep good order to make sure their wives and children were kept in line and their salves as well, It was a reflection of the way the emperor keep order on a wider level. The law required run away slaves to be punished harshly even to be put to death. So this pastoral situation was fraught with real risk and danger. How was Philemon going to react he had every right and real pressure under the law to have Onesimus put down like you would a rabid dog.

Paul writes literally begging for Onesimus’ life. It does come across a bit like his trying to butter Philemon up doesn’t it. Paul says he could order Philemon to forgive Onesimus free him and release him back to him but he won’t do it. Firstly because then Philemon would find himself caught between two imperatives from authorities above him. Secondly because Christian love and grace are not matters that can be settled by any other law except the law of Love, demanding forgiveness and grace doesn’t work it has to be freely given.

It’s interesting that the roman household code had been a topic that Paul had written to the church at Ephesus about. In Ephesians’ 5:22 following Paul had applied the law of love to this code, when he had told his readers to submit one to another, wives and husbands, children and parents and slaves and owners. It turned the code on its head by asking all people to exercise their place in this cultural structure as an expression of love and service to Christ and one another one not of imposed power and position. It’s interesting that down through the ages people have wanted to claim the roman household structure as biblical rather than the law of love, submitting one to another, and apply that to our different cultural understandings of relationships within families and power structures.

His appeal to Philemon is out of the fact that as an old man and a prisoner for the sake of the gospel that he has come to love Onesimus. He appeals on the basis of grace that while Onesimus had wronged Philemon and run away, and just like with Joseph in the Old Testament, God had used this bad situation for good. Onesimus might have been useless to Philemon at one time but now he was so much more, he had become useful to Paul and Philemon, a play on Onesimus name which means useful. In fact he was so much more than just a slave now he was a fellow believer and a brother in Christ. On this basis Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus back and from the general tone of the letter to free him and send him back to Paul. The relationship between the two had changed and so how they were to deal with each other changed as well.

What a real challenge of Christian love for Philemon, what dilemma follow the household code and legal obligations of his culture or follow the way of love. Keep law and social order or give kingdom of God grace.

There is a lot for us to ponder in this. You see we have all experienced and known the love of God in our lives and it’s only by the grace of God that we have been reconciled with him. We have been shown grace we need to show grace to others. Easy to say hard to do! Jesus parable of the man who was forgiven much but threw a fellow servant who owed him a little shows that yes it is hard to do but also the basis for showing love and grace to others. That we have been forgiven so much ourselves: God’s undeserved grace.

Secondly, grace is a costly commodity to give. It cost God the life of his son Jesus to make a way for us to be forgiven, it’s a mystery that I don’t think we can fully understand but it sets an amazing precedent. Jesus call on his disciples on us was to love one another as he had loved us. A love freely given, freely offered but costly.

Onesimus also shows us what we need to do when we know we have wronged someone as well. We need to deal with it and to ask for forgiveness. It was risky for Onesimus what if Philemon, a human being, couldn’t show mercy. But for Onesimus and for us our deepening relationship with Jesus our experiencing love and forgiveness from Jesus will lead us to seek to right past wrongs. Kris’s dad used to own a bakery in Tauranga and was amazed one day when a man walked into his store with a large mat that had been stolen from outside his shop two and half years before. The man returned the mat and apologised for stealing it. He said that he had become a Christian recently and wanted to set things right. That’s what it’s about.

Well, we don’t know how the Philemon/Onesimus story ends. There isn’t a sequel an email reply tagged on the end. From a letter written by Ignatius we do know that there was a bishop called Onesimus and scholars have wondered if it was the same person because Ignatius makes the same play on his name that Paul did. Perhaps its right that this story is left unresolved for us because it leaves the challenge to all of us in the situations we find ourselves in when confronted by broken relationships hurts inflicted by fellow believers or hurts we inflict on others. What are we going to do? Hopefully as Paul tells Philemon we will obey not a legal imperative but the way of love and show grace and forgiveness.

If your wondering about the situations in the introduction. I can report on two of them.

A past president of the Methodist church of New Zealand was the grandfather of the two children killed in the hit and run. A few weeks later he appeared on the Holmes show and amazed the nation by the fact that his Tongan family and the Samoan family of the young man had gathered together cried together asked and given forgiveness and it was as if it had never happened. He and his family appeared at court to ask that the young man not be sent to jail because he was forgiven.

The women from Rwanda appeared in a world vision video about reconciliation. She had written to the man who beaten her family member to death saying she forgave him and she was shown on the video preparing a meal to welcome the man’s father.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

" We Shall Not Be Moved" and the Art Of Tree Planting (a Sermon on Psalm 1)

I can’t read the metaphor at the heart of Psalm 1, of the person who finds joy in obeying the Law of the Lord being like a tree that is planted by the river, without it turning on that home entertainment centre that we all seem to carry round in our heads. It’s not string music and a picture of idyllic countryside with willows by a slow flowing river. Rather there is a song that starts. The old protest song “we shall not be moved”: Just like a tree planted by the water we shall not be moved.
Along with that song comes a series of vivid pictures. Civil rights marchers in the 1960’s arms linked together facing police battens and water cannons as they protested for equality. Each knowing that their cause was just and right and so full of truth that they were prepared to face opposition, harassment violence and even death to seek justice. AS I think about it other pictures come to mind, the Maori land occupation at Bastion Point, the police moving in, evicting old and young men and women. It was a new awakening for our nation to the justice of Maori land claims. Because of their just causes they have found themselves a source of water that will sustain them and allow them to make a stand. And as we read and look at Psalm 1 we can see that there is a measure of exactly that in what the psalmist is trying to tell us. He has found something that was a solid base for life and is the source of true happiness. He expresses that in a metaphor of something precious for a desert people, a tree planted by a river. A tree planted in the best of conditions in the rich alluvial soil with a constant water supply. For the Psalmist that was what I am calling God-ward living.
Psalm 1 strangely enough is at the beginning of the book of psalms. I know that sounds so ridiculous to say but we can overlook the fact that it is designed to be an introduction for the whole book. That it tells us something that is essential for the rest of the songs in the collection. It is again one of the Psalms we don’t have an author for, it’s anonymous, Placed here by the compiler of the collection Some see that its emphasis on the Law of the Lord could link it to the author of Psalm 119.

Like most Jewish poetry it is full of parallels; in fact this is the hallmark and characteristic of Jewish poetry: It’s not the rhyming of words or lines and the rhythm of structure as much as the rhyming and rhythm of ideas. Here we have three parallels that are designed to contrast the difference between the righteous and the wicked.

Firstly we have a parallel between what it is that makes a person happy. Verse 1 answers that question by saying that it is someone who does not sit or walk or take advise of those who do not live in a God ward’s manner, that do not have the time of day for God. This is paralleled with those whose joy comes from meditating on the word of God, in this case the torah, and putting them into action in their lives.

Then we have two parallel metaphors to illustrate the difference between those who read and obey God’s word and those who don’t. The person who keeps the word of the Lord is like a tree planted by the waterside. It bears fruit in the right season and you get the picture that it is an ever green tree despite the adverse weather conditions it has a constant source of water and will keep going and growing. Those who do not follow God’s way, says the psalmist, are like the chaff that comes off wheat when it is threshed. They have no roots, the wind blows and they are gone. You can catch a glimpse of Jesus parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount about the two builders and the foundations they have the one who hears Jesus words and does not do them is like someone who built his house upon sand, while the person who hears Jesus word and puts them into practise is like the one who builds his house on a solid rock foundation. Of course in Jesus parable the river is not a source of comfort when the rains come down and the floods of life come up, it is the second builder whose house will stand. Similarly for the psalmist the one who does not have God at the centre of their lives will be blown away like the chaff.

Finally there is a third parallel, again a contrast between the God ward and those who do not look to God. God guides the righteous while the Godless simply follow a path to their own destruction. Again one of Jesus parables comes to mind, the narrow gate and the road that leads to destruction.

The best way to enter into this psalm is to put it into its historical context. Which is hard of course because we don’t know the exact time and place it was written. But we do now which period it comes from and that helps us in our understanding. It comes from the period of the exile, that 70 year period after the Babylonians under king Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed Jerusalem and the people had been taken into to captivity to that city on the Euphrates River. Babylon was a centre of much eastern philosophy and thinking, in the ancient near east much of it written to look at the source of true happiness in life. In this environment the Psalmist adds his opinion.

But perhaps the setting for this psalm is best seen by looking at another Psalm, a Psalm that has made the top of the hit parade in the last thirty years not just three thousand years ago, and is still a favourite on many dance floors today. I’m refereeing to Psalm 137 which starts ‘By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down’ recoded by the reggae band ‘Boney M’. The psalm talks of the exiles coming to Babylon and gathering on the bank of the Euphrates to remember their God and finding it difficult as they remember Zion, trying to keep their faith alive. From the book of Daniel, we know that there was much pressure on these people to conform to the faith and practices of the Babylonian empire. The policy of deporting people from their national homeland was that once they were removed from their nationalistic roots they would be assimilated into the dominant culture.

The Babylonians came and demanded that the Jews sing their songs not as worship or praise to God or for hope but for entertainment. It would seem in this environment that following God’s law and keeping his ways and praising him was futile. Some exiles would have let go their faith and been assimilated. But maybe as the psalmist stood in those sorrowful pressurised gathers on the banks of the Euphrates he would have seen a tree planted by that great river and God used that to give him inspiration and hope. That to keep God’s word was like being that tree and that despite all the evidence to the contrary it was that relationship with God that was the source of true happiness. It wasn’t the physical setting of the river but God’s life giving water.

The hustle and bustle the throngs of people round him who would have mocked the band of deportees the psalmist would have realised was like the chaff that was being blown out over the river from the market places. While the city had wide paved roads that looked victorious and prosperous; those roads did not lead to happiness but rather would end in destruction.

In this setting Psalm 1 becomes a redemption Psalm, a Psalm of hope rather than seeming to be one gloating in the victory of the righteous Jew. It becomes prophetic saying to people that they can only find true happiness and a solid base for life in following and knowing God. It that context then it invites the reader of the psalms to look God-ward not to be planted into the dominant culture but be transplanted to the source of living water in God. The God we know who sent his living water into this world in the form of Jesus Christ.

As an introduction to the psalms in invites the reader the worshipper to carry on and proclaim God as creator and God as the saviour of his people in the face of ‘ well evidence to the contrary’. Not to be persuaded by those who do not have time for God but to realise that in God there is the source of true happiness.

Well what new life is there for us from this old song.

Well Jesus starts his manifesto in the Sermon on the Mount like the book of Psalms by exploring what true happiness is. In a way that turns the world priorities upside down he says its not the rich, or the comfortable that are blessed rather it is the poor and those who know they need God, it is those who mourn for what they have done wrong and seek righteousness, even those who suffer for the sake of knowing Jesus they are blessed. There is a challenge for us to look at what we are told by society will make us happy and weigh that against what it means to know and follow our Lord Jesus Christ.

One of the real pressures on the Church in the western world has been to be assimilated into the dominant culture. We find our selves being invited to conform to materialism and consumerism and find our happiness in the comfort of our flash new lounge suit, lost in the wonder of our flat screen plasma to be filled with the richness of the food that we have ready access to, to find pleasure in the things we have rather than in who God is and calls us to be. Have you noticed the way in which many adds are couched these days, they tell us we have a problem that makes us unhappy but do not despair this product will solve your problem and make you happy again. And in this world where bad hair days or lingering odours round the house have so much invented in their solutions We are told not to rock the boat when we choose to face real injustice in the world. Maybe the environmental issues that rise up like a dark cloud on horizon are signposts that the psalmist is right and this road leads to destruction. In the midst of that the psalmist would invite us to be transplanted to a real source of water for life: Knowing and seeking God, hearing what he has to say to us through his word and putting that into practise in our lives.

Even the church has fallen into the metrics of the society we live in to judge its success. We view it in terms of the ABC’s Attendance, Buildings and Cash… but that does not sound like it lines up with the blessings that Jesus talked about… Leonard Sweet suggests a better way at looking at how we are going are the genuine stories of lives changed told in authentic voices. It can be judged not by the bums on seats but the butts in carparks… cigarette butts that tells us people out there like the tax collectors and prostitutes and outlaws of Jesus day want to round us because they sense the hope of Christ and Christ’s love in and through us.

We’ve been obsessed with growing great leaders and just maybe we’ve forgotten that it is about being humble followers.

The psalmist says the key to true happiness not just passing pleasure is in God-ward living. Supplanting standard of living, self-actualisation, maintaining strong family ties as the focus of our lives with God as the goal we are moving towards. Know I’m not saying these other things are not an important, its harder than its ever been to make end meet maintaining our unrealistic western standard of living is like a wheel in a rat’s cage we seem to need to run faster and faster without getting anywhere you are just going faster to stay in the same place. The call is to transplant ourselves to focus on the divine. Jesus said put first the kingdom of god and his righteousness and all these other things shall, be added unto you. It’s a challenge to our priorities, our use of time, what we invest our resources and ourselves into.

Like the protest song ‘we shall not be moved’ this source of living water gives us the strength to go against the flow, to make a stand, to put our God-ward living into practise by caring for the poor seeking justice.

You know if I’m honest, and I like to think I am, I find where I am at the moment isn’t a place of true happiness. It’s easy to say that we are planted by the riverside but some how we just don’t take the time needed to put our roots deep enough to drink long enough to quench our souls. It’s true that if the devil can’t make us evil he’ll make us busy. I find myself consumed with the work of simply keeping going, simply doing the stuff that makes church tick over, yet I know that God-ward living invites us to live in tune more and more with what is at the heart of what God wants. It’s a call to radically different living, it’s a call to align ones self to Gods deep desire that the lost come to know his son Jesus Christ who does not want anyone to perish and a call to care for the least around us. Which I have to say actually involves going against the flow of where mainline Christianity is at, at the moment. That’s why we need to be planted by that living water to make the stand.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Paul (2011) A Reflection on an A-Paul-ing Movie (sorry about the pun)

We've just had the school holidays here in New Zealand and as a family we go to the movies as a family. However as our children have got to different life stages they want to go to different movies. I went with my oldest to Thor (2010) my choice. I went to Rio (2011) with my eight year old and my two middle teenage children I went to see the comedy Paul (2011). It was rated R13 in New Zealand and I was amazed as when I was young movies with this level of swearing would be R16 or even R18. But we went and watched it.

Paul is a movie about an alien trying to get back home after having been here since 1947. two English ubergeeks help him in his escape. There were some good points to the movie.

 I found myself suspending belief and connecting with a CGI'd character. The movie was able to create a alien that one was able to relate to, it took the CGI of "Lord of the Ring's Gollum to a new level.

I enjoyed the homage to old sci-fi movies. Even when my kids had to point them out to me. In the pub brawl scene the country and western band played the music from the bar scene in Star Wars IV 'The New Hope'. My kids didn't recognise the devil's peak from 'Close Encounters of the Third kind'  and didn't get why SigourneyWeaver was so funny as 'the big guy'. they haven't seen the alien series... yet! The great moment was a flashback to 1980 Paul on the phone to Steven Spielberg giving him plot ideas for his movie ET!

I did find myself rather concerned with the caricature of Christians presented in the movie. they were presented as deluded legalistic backward folk (who knows maybe we are). Kristen Wiig  plays Ruth Buggs who is a very conservative christian whose worldview is blown out of the water by encountering an alien. The implication is that this disproves God and science wins, freeing Ruth for the finer points of life like cussing, sex, drugs and alcohol.

I am always reminded of Robert J Taylor's 2000 novel Calculating God where the advanced aliens who make contact with us cannot believe how backward science is on our planet that it walked away from a belief in God.

Ironically it is Paul himself who ends up being the Christ-like figure (if I can say such a thing) in the movie, bringing  freedom, enlightenment, showing love to humanity that have kept him captive and want to sacrifice him to the God of scientific knowledge,  healing and wholeness and willing to sacrifice his life for others.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Some Reflections on the Death of Osama Bin Laden

I have been wrestling with the news this week of the shooting of Osama Bin Laden.

Friends of mine have posted two quotes that sum things up for me on their facebook pages.

"do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice". Proverbs 24:17

... a facebook quote (I have had to edit because of useful comment. 'I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy... (which then goes on to quote  from a 1957 sermon on loving your enimies by Martin Luther king Jr)  "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate.... Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Fruit of the Holy Spirit: Joy (Galatians 5:13-25 and John 16:16-24)

This is a message I preached at ACPC (Auckland Chinese Presbyterian Church) on Sunday. My wife Kris did wonder if it wasn't  a depressed persons reflection on Joy:). I am aware that when I post sermons they are in actual fact longer than normal blog entries so if you read the whole thing then... thank you.
I’m having trouble with Joy.

I find that my joy in life can be attacked and bought down by life's Chihuahua's: Mexican hunting dogs who yap and snap at the heals until they bring down their prey with exhaustion.

If I’m honest it’s partly, because I have an amazing shelving system for my books. They are in perfect order except for the ones piled on the floor because they don’t fit on the shelves. And I know where everything is... that is until I need a particular book... Like ‘The fruit of the Holy Spirit’ by Thomas Trask and Wayne Goodall then they simply manage to hide. Usually they reappear where I had absentmindedly misplaced them when I am starting the next fruitless search for the next book I really need.

I’m having trouble with Joy.

The first time I had scheduled to preach about joy there was an earthquake during the week in Christchurch. Peace was more appropriate.

The second time personal circumstances aspired against me, it was a week of interruptions. Patience seemed more appropriate.

This month Joy is appropriate, we are in the Easter season celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. In the passage we had read from John’s gospel. Jesus tells his disciples that there would a short time of sorry and pain for them and then their joy would be made complete as he was raised from the dead.

I’m having trouble with Joy.

Like many people I mix joy up with the idea of happiness. The emotion we feel when everything goes well. Happiness comes from happenstance, the way things are, whereas the idea of Joy comes from beyond that, the Greek word for ‘joy has the same root as the word ‘grace’ and Joy has it’s roots beyond circumstances in the eternal, in God’s grace and character. I fear we find ourselves substituting the elusive emotional well being for the deeper virtue that comes walking with God’s spirit.

I’m having trouble with Joy

If Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, does that mean that Christians should be upbeat all the time. It does not fit well with the spiritual journey we find in scripture particularly the almost manic swings of the Psalms.

I’m having trouble with Joy.

Maybe because sometimes I get made to feel like I’m failing at it. Sure sometimes worship feels like we are a gathering of the lemon sucking society. At the other end of the extreme I’ve been at various expressions of church where from the front we are extolled, cajoled brow beaten even to express joy in whatever is the flavour of the moment or the speciality of the house. And if we don’t live up to that then... perhaps they will say there is something wrong with our faith. But that sort of thing can feel so plastic.

I’m having trouble with Joy, and I don’t think I’m the only one. So here are some thoughts on Joy.

Firstly, Joy is a delight in life that runs deeper than pain or pleasure. It is not limited or tied to our external circumstances. In the Bible Joy is a gift from God .

It is important I think to realise that God is joyful, we often get hung up on a God who is wrathful or an angry God. We can see and the bible tells us that God is Love but perhaps we don’t see that equated with a joyful God.

Let me tease that out a bit.

God finds joy in right relationships. That’s why the trinity must be a joy filled community, they love and are loved so perfectly that it could be nothing else. It says in the wonderful parables of the lost being found in Luke 15 the punch line is that the whole of heaven rejoices over one sinner who repents. In Hebrews 12:3 we see it was the joy that was set before him that enabled Jesus to endure the cross. I don’t think it was that he could finally go home and put his feet up, but rather that the kingdom of God had been established and you and I and all people could have our sins forgiven and come back into a right relationship with God and in that with each other. On the night before his death recorded in that wonderful metaphor of the vine and the branches, Jesus talked of his and our Joy being made complete in that we may abide in Jesus love just as he abides in the love of the Father.

Joy for us comes from experiencing the presence and the knowing and being known of God. It is why as a fruit of the Holy Spirit it develops as we walk with the Spirit. It comes from experiencing God’s grace. God salvation, God’s forgiveness, God’s provision, Gods, protection, God’s leading, God’s love, God’s making us whole. This last point by the way is why James tells us right at the beginning of his letter to suffering churches that we should consider it all Joy when face all kinds of trials because it leads us into maturity in Christ. We often have this wrong idea that such things are punishment judgment from an angry God. But they are in actual pedagogical; they are opportunities for learning and growth, from God who is described as a good parent who knows how to discipline his children. And even that biblical word we seem to view through the lens of punishment don’t we, where as in 1 Timothy Paul likens the Christian walk to the discipline of an Olympic athlete, trained for physical perfection, to run the race. There is joy in that sort of discipline as well as pain and sacrifice.

In the account of creation in genesis 1 we see the Joy God finds in creating and in creation. At the completion of each day God says ‘it is good’. God finds joy in what God has made. At the end of the sixth day God said it was very good. Know some have misread that to see the creation of human beings as the high point of creation, but it says God saw all he had made and was pleased, so much so that God took a day off to rest. Not because God was tired but to enjoy what he had done. Scripture tells us that we should enjoy what God has made. We can enjoy this world as around us. Food, drink, the beauty of nature they are there for us to enjoy and rejoice in and with, but to see them as a gift from God to be used in the right way. It’s interesting that the book of Amos comes at a time when Israel were finding themselves prosperous, at least a significant portion of the society were, and as a result of that religious festivals and rejoicing were at a high point. But Amos comes with a message from a God who finds joy in right relationships, that he hates the peoples rejoicing and giving thanks to God, because what God had given was not being shared with the poor. God finds joy in right relationships.

As a church we will find our Joy grow as we experience more e and more of the presence of God and his love and share that with each other and those around us.

I’ve been married for almost 24 years and I would say that I find joy in the love that I have with Kris more than I did at the beginning. I love Kris and I have learned to trust her love. We’ve had difficulties, I’m trying to grow up into the man Kris needs and deserves. But the joy we have and the love we share comes from building on and working on that relationship. I’m a bit thick and sometimes I have to be reminded that I love Kris I can take it for granted, circumstances can get in the way. I don’t always feel that feeling you feel when you feel the feeling you’ve never felt before. About five years ago we did an Alpha marriage course and found it revitalised our marriage. I realised that for the relationship to work I had to invest more time and energy into it. We started having regular dates together, doing romantic stuff. Talking more, learning how to communicate at a deeper level. That’s the same way Joy develops in walking with the spirit. We take time learning we are beloved, we take time letting others know they are beloved and we share that together and in that we find our joy growing.

But I don’t want to harp on about it but I’m still having trouble with Joy. I sense the church in the west is having trouble with Joy.

Now if you hear a splash here its because I’m going off the deep end OK.

IN the passage in Galatians that contains the list of Christian virtues we call the fruit of the Holy Spirit, Paul is contrasting that list of virtues that come from immersing ourselves in Gods Holy spirit with the work of the flesh. In typical Paul terms he points to the excesses and the worst of what those work of the flesh produce. However I wonder if our fruit trees are not producing much fruit and in particular joy because the church finds itself struggling with the two things Paul says we are not consistent with Walking in the Spirit.

We have bought into the whole western worldview and dream of what the good life means. It’s tied to a standard of living, we certainly don’t want to go down the road of drunkenness and sexual impropriety, but we’ve bought into the fact that our happiness and joy has a lot to do with our standard of living our prosperity, our comfort, material comfort. We may not say it but our dreams for our children are that they might get a good education, get a good job and get the good life. We want them to live in safe neighbourhoods and have nice families, yes we do hope they will have faith and be good Christian people... But I can’t help but hear Christian radical Shane Claiborne’s critique that it’s like we want what the world has but with Jesus sprinkles on top. And I can’t help say you can’t get joy from the sprinkles on top to sustain you. Sugar rushes only last so long.

We live in a time when we find the world disillusioned with that whole western dream, with the economic down turn its not obtainable, with climate change, it’s not sustainable, confronted with starvation and suffering in the world it’s not defensible. But boy is it still pervasive, boy is it still persuasive, boy is it still tempting. I fear we have swapped the enjoy of the lord for this western vision of happiness. We’ve forgotten Jesus definitions of what it is to be happy in the beatitudes, Blessed or happy are the poor, are those who know they need, who seek righteousness, justice, who make peace, who are willing to be persecuted for going the Jesus way. We need to rediscover the alternative vision that Jesus offers. That was the source of Joy that enabled him to face the cross.

Splash indeed right, I don’t want to bring you down to share my trouble with joy with you but my hope is that you may discover more and more the source of Joy

Let me finish with a quote from Creath Davis of the Christian Concern foundation in Dallas Texas. He says

“ from a Psychological perspective one cannot experience Joy while being preoccupied with ones own security, pleasure, or self interest. Freedom from inhibitions comes when one is caught up in something great enough to give meaning and purpose to all of life and to every relationship. God alone is the only adequate centre for human existence, and God alone can enable us to experience life with Joyous spontaneity and to relate to others with Love.”

Monday, May 2, 2011

Waitemata Wondering:A Poem (Of Sorts)

I take some time when I can to sit at a lookout and look out at the Waitemata harbour that graces Auckland City. when I see it, its always different and it always moves me. It's a natural beauty, a natural wonder amidst the hustle and bustle of a cityscape. So I wrote a humble, bumbling poem (a Psalm maybe, but not quite).

Day after day, season after season, change after change

The only constant its ability to take my breath away

Moody grey and dull cold silver,

Sparkling blue and flashes of blinding light

Resting still and calm,

Ruffled and beginning to stir,

White capped and writhing as if winded

Lined by the silhouette of house clad hills

Embraced by Green sunlit slopes and mimicked in window glass bling

The busy mechanical ballet of container wharf

the constant rush and pulse of coastline city arteries

At narrowest point spanned and  bridge girdled

The shimmering fingers of toitoi calling Harae mai and welcome to the wandering wind

The graceful symmetrical rise of volcanic cone

In inadequate reply, the arrogant thrust of skyscraper walls

Boats wharf-side riding the tide,

ferry’s scurrying,

Yachts bowing to the breeze,

A homeless man sleeps with million dollar view

Lovers grab rails and bask in each other, loving it all

Tradesmen stare from vans eating lunch to radio blare

My soul pierced and filled, My spirit lifted and fortified