Thursday, July 27, 2017

Culture informs the Bible?

"I must have read Genesis 30 half a dozen times in my life, but I never realised exactly how disgusting it was until I watched The Handmaid’s Tale. In case you’ve been enjoying life away from the 24-hour news cycle, the television adaptation of the 1985 book by Margaret Atwood follows the story of a woman who is forced into sexual servitude in a society plagued by widespread infertility."
'The Handmaid’s Tale: religion gone wrong', by Tess Holgate, July 26th 2017, Eternity News

This text opens an article that considers a television version of a novel.  The novel establishes a dystopia - a harrowing mix of patriarchy and screwed-up Biblical legalism.
Image credit: Eleni Kalorkoti, In the New York Times.

I had read about the book, and the television production, some weeks before.  Indeed, the author of the book presents an excellent summation of the television production in this linked article.  However, I could not bring to read the Eternity News article beyond the opening sentence. 

Let's go through that opening sentence in detail:

"I must have read Genesis 30 half a dozen times in my life..."

I've no issue here.  It is a statement of fact.  There is possibly some poetic license as to the count - 'half a dozen' not being literal.

"...but I never realised exactly how disgusting it was..."

Critical here is consideration of the subject. "It" is Genesis 30.  So, Genesis 30 is said to be disgusting.

"...until I watched The Handmaid's Tale".

By construct of the sentence there is an implication that the television program has shed light on Genesis 30.  The author, in effect, identifies that she was informed about the Bible - and drew a conclusion about the Bible - through a secular television program. 

The book and television production's title stems from Rachel and Leah's handmaiden's Bilhah (verse 7) and Zilpah (verse 9).  I am inclined to think that the core issue developed through the book and television production is the sinfulness of man - the handmaiden thing is just a clothes hook for the story to swing from.

Let's push past the first thought that came to my mind - the curiosity of a journalist employed by the Bible Society of Australia leaving the reader with the impression that part of the Bible is disgusting.  Let's push on instead to the problem of allowing modern culture to inform us about the Bible.

I think relevance in preaching hangs very little on watching movies, and I think that much exposure to sensuality, banality, and God-absent entertainment does more to deaden our capacities for joy in Jesus than it does to make us spiritually powerful in the lives of the living dead. Sources of spiritual power—which are what we desperately need—are not in the cinema. You will not want your biographer to write: Prick him and he bleeds movies.

John Piper captures an important consideration.  It is not culture that informs us, or enriches us, about God's Word.  It is God's Word that informs us and enriches us about God's Word and culture.  We are to look from the Bible to culture, not from culture to the Bible.  The lens from which we judge culture is completely set for us by the Bible.

Genesis 30 is filled with magnificent beauty.  Where the Eternity News journalist identifies with  Genesis 30 as a whole, the relevant verses are only part of chapter 30 - Geneses 30:1-24.  While those verses may open with Rachel's jealously (verse 1), it comes to a wonderful point where "God remembered Rachel .. and opened her womb" (verse 22).  Rachel gives birth to Joseph (verse 24).  In this way, the verses can be read as being about God's providence of children despite the sin of Rachel. Indeed, it is a vital story as it identifies the birth of Jacob's children (see also Genesis 35:23-26) and establishes Jacob's lineage to Joseph.  The balance of Genesis 30 - verses 25 to 43 covers material that is not immediately relatable to The Handmaid's Tale.

The Handmaid's Tale potentially informs, or dystopically illustrates, a small part of Genesis 30.  Viewing The Handmaid's Tale should not draw a Christian to disgust for Genesis 30 but instead for disgust for current culture.


Note: all links good as at 27 July 2017


Monday, July 24, 2017

Who was the most ignorant American you have ever met?

An Answer provided on Quora to the question "Who was the most ignorant American you have ever met?

I'm generalizing to open so as to set the context:

Australians, perhaps like other countries, stereotypically consider American tourists in Australia as loud and slightly obnoxious. At Australian tourist attractions you see the Americans spending more time looking through a camera view-finder than absorbing the ambience.

Now to the setting:

To the west of Sydney, Australia is a mountain range that runs to a North South alignment from the southern tip of the continent through to the northern tip of the continent. It is called the Great Dividing Range. The part of the Great Dividing Range immediately west of Sydney is called the Blue Mountains. It is called the Blue Mountains as the trees release oil on extremely hot days and the oil creates a blue haze from a distance.

Within the Blue Mountains there is a popular tourist attraction called the Three Sisters. The Three Sisters are three outcrops of sandstone rocks. They are named the Three Sisters from an indigenous Australian story about three sisters that were turned into stone. Tourists view the Three Sisters from a series of platforms. There is a drop from the platforms to a valley floor. I image the drop exceeds 300 feet (think Grand Canyon but with a carpet of green tree tops as far as the eye can see).
At the Three Sisters is a tourist information center that is perched out onto the drop to the valley floor. The tourist information center has broad windows that give a scenic view of the valley. Tall trees tower up to the height of the windows.

In the Blue Mountains there are many varieties of Australian Native birds. This includes many parrots, galahs, cockatoos, kookaburras, lorikeets, rosellas and more. Many of these birds have very colorful plumage with bright oranges, reds and yellows common. The birds tend not to be too shy of humans.

The tourist information center includes bird feeders that sit out beyond the windows. The staff fill the feeders with seed each morning. I remember there being four of these feeders and each could fit about ten birds at a time.

Now to the scene:

I stood at the window of the tourist information center one day to watch the birds. I quickly counted eighteen different species amongst the birds that were freely coming and going and concluded that there was probably more species than I had counted. My mind was to how there was probably up to one hundred birds in the immediate vicinity. The wild birds could freely come and go and like most Australian native birds they fed at a number of locations on any given day.

So, I hope you have got that - the birds were numerous and they were freely coming and going from the bird feeders.

An American woman arrived beside me. She was wearing a fresh t-shirt that had a popular Sydney logo on the front which told me that she was probably only just off an airplane the previous day. She bustled in and quickly took about ten photographs of the birds. She possibly did not look beyond the birds to view the valley. As her husband joined her they both stopped to take in the bird feeders and the comings-and-goings of the numerous colorful species. She then turned to go as rushed as she had come. Before leaving she made a pronouncement at volume that everyone in the tourist information center heard:

"These Australians are so stupid, they should put those birds in a cage."

Sunday, July 23, 2017

2 Kings 7 sermon, slide 15 of 15

Wrapping up: I thought to reflect briefly on the life of a American missionary to the South American country Ecuador.  Jim Elliot died while on mission activities amongst indigenous people.  Jim knew confidently that faith required action, that he needed to share God’s mercy and that God cared for all people.  We are never foolish in God’s eyes if we give up things of this world for the gift of eternal life.  We are never foolish in God’s eyes when we seek to share God’s good news.  Go then boldly and share God’s wonderful message of grace through his son Jesus Christ. 

Go in peace.  Amen.

{The end}

A debrief from the Pastor that assisted me with this sermon is linked here


2 Kings 7 debrief

An extensive debrief followed the sermon on 2 Kings 7 last week.  The fifteen slides of the sermon commence from this link.  The Pastor who had prepared me offered excellent feedback over a coffee.  The feedback was in the sandwiched good-bad-good style.  All three feedback points are excellent.  They all need consideration.  I have added a fourth point to the Pastors three points to settle one of my own points of discomfort.

I'm very willing to be sharpened in considering feedback, after all:

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

The four points are:

  1. I failed to have a question at the beginning to spark the audiences interest in the topic.  Something was needed to order of: "“Have you ever been in a state of despair where you could not perceive any answers?”, or, “Have you ever wondered whether God would respond to your needs?”. 
  2. The application point "Faith = action" needs some work.  It is plausible that the lepers were simply acting in fear.  Alternatively, the lepers may have been acting out of desperation.  They need not have had faith and God did not need to observe faith for God to take action.
  3. Consider developing the context a little bit further.  2 Kings 6 ends with various indications of the state of the king's leadership and his relationship with the prophet.  How does this context affect the consideration of the events in 2 Kings 7.
  4. Consider that Samaria does eventually fall and the people are exiled.  Why is God providing for the people in 2 Kings 7?  How is that Samaria do not fall into exile earlier? Consider the people's obedience to God and there worship of other gods.
Much thinking is needed!  The feedback is very welcome.


Ministry of church signboard

It has been an amazing week.

I had delight in preaching a sermon on Thursday to join an "Interactive Cafe" discussion of the message afterwards. (The sermon slides start at this link post).  The highlight was in observing how the first application point had sunk into people's hearts.  "Yes", they said, "we too are unlikely agents for God's Word and we can serve him".

Then, as a coincidence, the Sunday morning radio sermon that we listen to was on The Parable of the Talents from  the Gospel of Matthew.  The coincidence is in that the Parable identifies with how people should use the skills that God has offered them for the kingdom.  Thankfully, the preacher did something that I think to be rare in preaching from this text.   The preacher identified with deployment of both people's skill and money - where many preachers seem to focus only on deployment of money).  The preacher did this by identifying three people engaged with an overseas missionary body where the people's engagement was predominately skills based.

Along the way I learnt that the Primate of the Anglican Church in Australia seemingly has not heeded a verse of the Bible.  As a result, I've added Ephesians 5:3 as a verse to excise from the Bible.

Finally, another person pointed out a local curiosity - an informative sign before a blank sign:

Now, I find that church signboards can be quite useful.  They can be eye-catching and quirky.  They can trigger a smile.  They are like a newspaper front page headline - perhaps as important as a church's website (Southern Cross magazine, July 2017).  They can be cheeky with messages like: "The church is full of hypocrites yet there is always room for one more".  Church signboards can be Biblically provocative: mirroring for instance Jesus when Jesus powerfully let the church leaders know that Jesus heals today:

When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” 

Church signboards can be a valuable ministry for a congregant (or number of congregants) to adopt - a retired person perhaps.  I've had a turn at changing a church's signboard message myself.  I was disappointed one day to find that someone had accessed the local signboard and altered the letters in a most derogatory way.  I see this local sun-drenched signboard as highly valuable in that it faces traffic of approximately three thousand vehicles a day and busloads of people.


Note: all links good as at 23 July 2017
Note: an earlier post recognises that one Pastor was very responsive to church signboard feedback (linked)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Unlikely agents

Praise God!  I preached today on 2 Kings 7.  The fifteen slides commence from this link.

The highlight was not in the preaching.  After all, the preaching was just foolish me and a humble set of slides.  The highlight was not in Christians brothers and sisters who came, yet it was a delight to have friendly faces. The highlight was not in the prayer session beforehand with the pastor who guided me to prepare the sermon, although her assistance was appreciated.  The highlight was not in the experienced service leader or the well chosen sermon-matching hymns, yet they were grand.

The highlight was not in monologue.  It was in dialogue.
A food van serving German sausage; photographed as I travelled home on Pitt Street Mall.  The van is run by a Christian friend.  Please consider purchasing from them

The church group continues immediately after the service in a circle of chairs.  They share a cup of tea and discuss the day's sermon.  The service leader invited me to stay, for the whole, or for part, of the discussion group. 

The highlight came in a series of spontaneous questions from members of the group.  The questions all perchance centred on the first of the five application points.  The application points are on this linked slide.

That application point - rich in textual reference to how God had restored the people of the city of Samaria using four destitute lepers - was that God uses unlikely agents.

For God:

- used Joseph, the least of his brothers, to give the Israelites a name in Egypt, and,
- used Moses, a murderer and a stutterer, to lead people out of Egypt, and,
- used David, a shepherd boy, with a sling to defeat a Philistine giant, and,
- used twelve most unlikely men to be Apostles, and,
- used an apostle; Peter, who denied Christ three times to build his church, and,
- replaced one of those Apostles with Paul; a man who described himself as the worst of sinners.

The questioners identified with their own brokenness and their own failings.  They had warmed to the message that while they were least amongst people of the world they were capable of great work of God.  For example, a man spoke of how in his steady path to deafness, and through his many medical appointments for cancer treatment, God was using him to share the Gospel with medical personnel. 

It is in community that Christians most encourage each other.  It was a pleasure to be part of the church's community and to see them care for each other and encourage each other.  It was wonderful to seem them identify with just one single point of application and to see them deliberate on it. 

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. 

The highlight was not in message delivery - it was in the hearer's absorption and understanding.


POSTSCRIPT: The day after writing this post I debriefed with the Pastor who had guided me through the sermon preparation.  I took away three main feedback points and will be working on each of them.  Our conversation quickly turned to a more important matter - after I had departed from the discussion group three persons; the pastor, a regular congregant and a irregular congregant continued on.  The three had enjoyed discussion for some time.  The irregular congregant; a Hindu by birth, gave his life to Christ.  I care not to take any credit for this man's decision yet I recall that Charles Spurgeon, early in his preaching career, begged God to reveal to him one convert of his labours - the reward of preaching is when people change their hearts.



Note: all links good as at 20 July 2017

Note: I recently considered the balancing act of the suburban preacher in this linked post.  I am not suggesting that I am anything like a suburban preacher as a blow-in has none of the pastoral or parish responsibilities.

Trial that lasts only as long as you can bear.

I am in preparation for a sermon on 2 Kings 7.  Indeed, today is the day. It is a blessing to dwell on a particular part of Scripture.  The sermon is now complete in fifteen slides commencing from this link.

In late preparation I chose to turn to a consideration of what the passage does not say.  The text from which the sermon was prepared was 2 Kings 7:3-16a and I used the NIV.  It seems odd to contemplate what the text does not say yet it seems a purgative to ensure accuracy in presentation.  That is, purge first in written word least I purge with a loose tongue during the sermon.
So, here is what the text does not say:
  • There are only four lepers,
  • That the lepers, in colony, are only men,
  • That the four lepers are suffering leprosy – indeed; leprosy seems to be used as shorthand for a range of skin diseases,

  • The duration of the leper’s situation outside the city,
  • The relationship of the men to people in the city, nor the identification of any relationships that are estranged by the men’s absence from the city,
  • Whether the lepers are visited by priests (whether for assessing their state of health or for pastoral reasons), and,


The King’s name, although we know it to be Joram from 2 Kings 3:1.
Then, I also found cause to deliberate on something puzzling in 2 Kings 7:13:
One of his officers answered,
“Have some men take five of the horses that are left in the city.
Their plight will be like that of all the Israelites left here
—yes, they will only be like all these Israelites who are doomed.
So let us send them to find out what happened.”
The puzzle was in the life and health of the horses.  The siege had caused much break in order.  There had been great hunger.  The King’s officer alludes to how either horsemeat had been devoured or horse food shortage had led to death of horses – “five of the horses that are left in the city”.  So, the puzzle is in why any horses were spared.  Any of the food that was suitable for both humans and horses would surely have been devoured by humans, and, the horses themselves would have provided sustenance to those who hungered.   For instance, in 2 Kings 6: 25 it is evident that a donkey’s head was valued for food.
The puzzle has no answers in the text.  We can imagine that God was working even to safeguard the few horses remaining that those horses may play their role in Samaria’s restoration.  God had given Samaria a trial that only lasted as long as Samaria could bear.
I can bear any pain as long as it has meaning
Haruki Murakami
Note: all links good as at 20 July 2017