Thursday 24 December 2009

'Jerusalem Widow': A saviour comes!

The Bible gives detailed accounts of the birth of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew (Matthew 1 & 2) and Luke (Luke 1 - 2:40). It presents the details of the birth, shows how Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah are fulfilled in him and presents a number of descriptions of the encounters of ordinary people with the baby Jesus. Two of the most wonderful stories in the gospel accounts are the encounters of Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:21-38). Both knew of Jesus coming and rejoiced at what it meant to them personally when he arrived as a baby in Bethlehem. Two separate people who faithfully waited for the promised Messiah and who overflowed with joy when he entered the world.

At this time when we remember the birth of Jesus and rejoice that in him salvation has come, I thought I would simply share a beautiful poem written by my daughter last Christmas, that tells of the old Jewish widow Anna who was a faithful servant of God fasting and constantly praying in the Temple as she awaited the arrival of the promised Messiah (the painting is Rembrandt's 'Anna Prophetess'). Might all readers of this blog encounter Jesus in their own way at Christmas.

Jerusalem Widow
By Nicole Starling

Luke 2:36-38, Lamentations 1:1-2, Isaiah 54:1-4

Married seven short years,
Jerusalem widow
alone and childless,
makes the temple her home.

She does not know
the chatter of children
squeezed around
a table filled with food.
Just the hard knot of hunger,
fasting day and night.

She has no comfort
in the night.
No warm arms
slipped around her belly
as she sleeps.
Instead, she weeps into the dark,
And waits a lifetime.

But when a baby comes
one ordinary day,
She knows.
Her wait is over.
She takes the baby,
and holds him.

Jerusalem widow
(like widow Jerusalem)
cradling salvation in her arms.

May God bless all readers of this blog at this time and enrich our understanding of the amazing entrance of God into our world.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9:6

Sunday 20 December 2009

How will our children 'read' us this Christmas?

Children are learning machines. From birth they observe their world and the people who inhabit it. Even if you wanted to stop children from learning you'd find it difficult. The hard part about being a parent is that often we don't have the degree of control that we'd like in the things that our children learn. We often lament the fact that our children don't (or won't!) learn the things we want them to. But in many ways, a much bigger problem is the fact that they learn lots of things we'd prefer them not to learn simply by observing us.

The major task of the parent is to shape their children's character. I doubt that there is any parent, irrespective of their worldview or faith, who would not want to influence their children for good. But unlike the humanist who assumes that all people are basically good or capable of becoming good people, Christians believe that all people are marked by sin and require God's intervention and salvation. The Bible teaches that the "..intention of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Gen 8:21), so consequently, one of the major tasks of the Christian parent is to train our children's hearts. Our aim is not simply to shape behaviour, but instead we seek to influence their foundational beliefs. We do this in many ways. Clearly we set limits on their behaviour and try to train them to demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26), but as Tedd Tripp points out in his book 'Shepherding a Child's Heart', it is easy to spend most of our time focusing on our children's behaviour and to neglect the need to train their rebellious hearts that produce the behaviour (Luke 6:45). We need to work constantly to orient our children towards God. We do this in many ways.
By teaching them about Christ and their personal need of forgiveness and redemption.
Through the example that we set for them and the extent to which our own behaviour reflects the orientation of our own hearts towards God.
The priorities that our family life demonstrates - how much is life within our families shaped by our faith in Christ and our desire to know him better?
At Christmas Christian families have great opportunities inside and outside their homes to speak about and demonstrate the reality that Christ lives (!) in their hearts and lives. And yet, it is easy at this time to demonstrate inadvertently the opposite in our words and actions towards others and hence provide confused messages and priorities for our children. While my children are grown up, I still have a responsibility to provide an example to my children and grandchildren, and members of our extended family. And I still find it challenging to provide a message in my actions that matches my faith in Christ and the priorities that I say have shaped me.

So as we approach Christmas it would do us all a lot of good to consider in advance how our family members will 'read' us at this time when we celebrate God's grace and mercy in breaking into the world in the person of Jesus. I offer some questions below for self-evaluation that I've framed broadly enough for those of us who don't have young children.
Do we speak of God's grace at this time and yet demonstrate lack of forgiveness in our attitudes and actions towards our family members, fellow Christians, workmates and neighbours?
Do we talk of the love of Christ and yet demonstrate a coldness of heart that fails to show patience, kindness, and gentleness in the way we deal with others?
Do we speak of the generosity of God in sending his Son into the world and yet demonstrate avarice, greed, envy and jealousy?
Do we speak of the priority of Christ in our lives and yet at this time demonstrate in our actions that other things gain priority over our devotion, love and service in Christ's name?
Paul challenges his readers in several of his letters to be imitators of godly men and women who in turn are imitators of Christ (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2:14). Similarly, the writer to the Hebrew church exhorts his readers to be imitators of those who through faith and patience have inherited the promises of God (Hebrews 6:12; 13:7).

Our children read us every day. How will they read us this Christmas?

Related posts

My review of Ted Tripp's book 'Shepherding a Child's Heart' (here)

'How not to teach children to gamble' (here)

Sunday 13 December 2009

The promises of God in the midst of anxiety: The Consolations of Theology

We live in an anxious world filled with anxious people. Whether it is our anxiety concerning when the Global Financial Crisis might end, the threat of terrorism, whether human’s are causing global warming, the future of our job’s or our children, the signs of anxiety are everywhere. What do we do with anxiety? What does it mean for the human condition? Is it an inconvenient threat that we need to deal with medically or through counselling? Or do we pander ourselves with little luxuries in the hope that the anxieties of life go away? What about some of the other maladies of our age (or perhaps all ages)? What do we do about anger, obsession, despair, disappointment or even pain?

A recent book edited by Brian Rosner reminds us that the Bible has much to teach us about consolation that is immensely practical and that will lead us towards becoming the people God wants us to be? Rosner’s wonderful collection of essays records some of the papers of a conference that attempted to offer a theological perspective on all of these human conditions. It draws together what some significant theologians have said about the consolations of God and the individual authors’ insights concerning the Bible’s teaching.

Overview of the book

‘The Consolations of Theology’ was the outcome of a conference at Moore Theological College in Sydney that used the structure of Alain de Botton’s book the ‘The Consolations of Philosophy’ to consider the work of six theologians and what their work has to say about the consolations of God in the midst of the struggles, challenges and disappointments of life. Just as de Botton had followed the pattern of Jean Gerson and Thomas More who had in turn followed the genre of the pioneering work of the philosopher Boethius in the sixth century, the speakers at the Moore College took de Botton’s work framed by philosophy and instead applied a theological frame. The resulting publication has six rich and challenging chapters:

  • Richard Gibson considers ‘Lactantius on Anger’
  • Andrew Cameron considers ‘Augustine on Obsession’
  • Mark Thompson considers ‘Luther on despair’
  • Peter Bolt considers ‘Kierkegaard on anxiety’
  • Brian Rosner considers ‘Bonhoeffer on disappointment’
  • Robert Banks considers ‘C.S. Lewis on pain’
A quick summary of one chapter might give you a flavour of this wonderful 160-page book.

Peter Bolt on Anxiety

Dr Peter Bolt frames his chapter with Paul’s words to the Roman church, “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Hebrews 8:19) and proceeds to offer a discussion of the anxiety of our age that he reminds us is little different from previous ages. “To be human in this fallen world is to be anxious” for all have been anxious since sin entered the world through Adam. But the Bible suggests that rather than conquering us and leading us to despair and immobility, that anxiety can, indeed should, move us towards anxiety for the things of God (1 Corinthians 7:32) and his people (2 Corinthians 11:28; Philippians 2:20; 1 Corinthians 12:25).

Peter Bolt then unpacks Kierkegaard’s writing in the nineteenth century on anxiety as dread (“Angst”). Kierkegaard argued that anxiety must be distinguished from fear, since animals share the latter. Fear relates to real threats while anxiety reflects the mere possibility that something might happen or come to pass. Kierkegaard also stressed that anxiety must be distinguished from despair. Despair he suggests reflects us giving up on becoming the people God wants us to become, whereas “anxiety arises from the act of us becoming spirit, of becoming who you were created to be. It arises from the possibility that exists in the actual experience of our freedom”.

Bolt then summarises Kiekegaard’s ideas on the relationship between sin, freedom and anxiety this way, “there is a severe disturbance in all of creation, and we human beings are caught up in this objective anxiety. There is a profound disturbance at the core of our being as we live as part of a world subjected to frustration” (Bolt, p.92). The whole world is groaning in anxiety (Romans 8:19 reinforces).

As creatures that have had their relationship severed with God we live under the shadow of death. Bolt in presenting Kierkegaard, suggests that this is “an objective anxiety, a core insecurity, built into them” but there is a subjective anxiety that “arises when a person has set before them the possibility of becoming spirit”. Kierkegaard argued that anxiety is necessary “that the individual must feel the anxiety of the moment of decision, and by choosing to act, so they become human…as we stand in the moment, we stand as a being before God, who must become spirit. As we feel the anxiety of our freedom’s possibilities, we need to act in order to become the person that God wants us to be.” Kierkegaard also talks of anxiety “about evil”, that anxiety about evil can lure us to do evil. And he addresses anxiety “about the good”, anxiety that can lead us to be enslaved to NOT choosing to choose the good, to be the person God wants us to be, that God expects of us. This is an anxiety that shuts us off from the good.

Peter Bolt then takes Kierkegaard’s work and considers it in the light of the New Testament. Anxiety should move us towards God not away from him. He concludes:
“Anxiety is not something to flee from; but it is here, in the midst of anxiety that is built in the fabric of our world, that we can hear the promises of the gospel most sharply. It is here I am summoned to believe, to stake my all on the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Bolt argues that, “this is the age of anxiety”. Our very mortality makes us insecure, and we struggle day by day to cope with the anxieties of life, and can succumb to it. As a young 31 year old I can well remember how crowded in I was by the anxieties of life, the security of my young family, my career, relationships, the mortgage, and death. These anxieties eventually lead me to consider the promises of God and I committed my life to following Christ. But this of course did not remove life’s anxieties, rather it simply redirected my desire to depend on God and seek consolation in these anxieties knowing that my life was in his hand. I needed to learn to be strengthened by anxieties not weakened by them, and I’m still learning this lesson 26 years later.

In drawing on Kierkegaard’s thoughts on anxiety of the good, Peter Bolt concludes that our separation from God can so distort us. That is, the very promises of God and the purpose he has for us to live as the person he wants us to be, are seen as slavery rather than the freedom that the Bible promises in Christ. As the parable of the sower tells us like the seeds in thorny ground the word of God is choked and so are we. The Bible promises that there is a future, an eternal one, that nothing can take away. Nothing can separate us from the love of God:
The gospel promises bring us the most profound consolation. With the promise of this glorious future, even in the midst of the groans of our anxious world, there is a tremendous impetus to constantly turn our groans into prayers – to “cast all your anxieties upon him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

Related posts

Freedom to Choose (here)

Saturday 5 December 2009

Marriage As Covenant Not Contract

I've just returned from the wedding of two former members of the New College community. It is a Christian residential college at the University of New South Wales. Every part of the wedding ceremony was a wonderful reminder of the fact that marriage is not simply a legal agreement between two people. The message delivered by the preacher, the words of Scripture that were read, the vows taken and the promises made by the young couple, all pointed to the fact that they were not looking simply to sign a simple legal contract of marriage.

Many people enter marriage today as a way to sort out the legalities of a long-term relationship and in order to give shape to their obligations and rights in the relationship. Of course, for those who choose to enter into a legally binding marriage outside of a church marriage, there may well be little more intent than this, and even this limited function has some social benefit. But the Bible teaches that marriage was meant to be so much more. As Gordon Menzies reminds us in an article he wrote for an edition of Case Magazine on the theme 'Family Foundations', marriage is meant to be a covenant between a man and a woman, not simply a legal agreement that entrenches rights, obligations and responsibilities. He wrote:

"...the starting point for the covenant understanding of marriage is not the gains from marriage, but the relationship between man and wife, the ‘inner commitment’ of the couple to each other in self-giving love (Greek: agape), involving openness to each other - emotionally, psychologically, sexually and spiritually. This is a relationship for life: as the Anglican marriage service puts it “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part”. An exclusive sexual relation is central to this relationship, primarily as an outward expression of the inner commitment of the couple. In this understanding, any productive ‘gains’ from marriage, and even procreation, are marital ‘goods’, by-products of the relationship, and are shared by the couple on the basis of their love one for the other. Bargaining over the gains is completely alien to this model. Moreover, the marriage would still be valid if there were no productive gains (or even losses), or if one of the partners experiences a net loss of real income through the marriage. The marriage is defined solely in terms of the relationship between the partners, and not at all in terms of the ‘gains’ and how they are shared."
Menzies reminds us that the Bible stresses that marriage promotes a number of things, including relationship (Genesis 2:8), procreation (Genesis 4), social order (Genesis 2:24), sexual intimacy (1 Cor. 7:3-7) and the provision of 'material goods' (to use an economics term) that meet the needs of the couple (Gen 1 and 2). But unlike a simple contract, the marriage covenant involves a solemn promise by a man and woman before God, that reflects their ‘inner’ being, not just the assent of their minds.

As Kim and Lachlan embarked on marriage today, there was no doubt that they were entering into a covenant relationship before their God. There was no doubt that this was an unqualified commitment, and that in their vows they were committing themselves to a relationship that they hope will survive all the circumstances of life (‘for better, for worse, for richer or poorer’). This is not relationship where the expectation is that it can be cancelled as soon as one of them fails to fulfil their obligations. This is a relationship that is a reflection or echo of the relationship between God and his people (Ephesians 5:29-32). The implication is that the marriage covenant demands complete faithfulness of the man and the woman irrespective of the material good that they receive from the relationship. This is a tough requirement not to be entered into lightly. In contrast, the marriage contract can easily be seen as something that can be broken as soon as rights and obligations are not seen as being met. The Christian marriage is until death us do part, whereas the marriage contract is until either of us has had enough.

I praise God for the precious gift of marriage and young men and women like Kim and Lachlan who enter it with their eyes open and the highest expectation that in this precious institution they might bring honour and glory to God.