college travels

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sabbatical with Balaam #6: The Power of Words

I don’t know how many times I chanted, 'sticks and stones may break my bones but names with never hurt me' as a child, or thought it as an adult. I don’t know how many times I’ve found it to be true. I suspect the first number is bigger than I’d like to admit and the second number is zero.

Words hurt. They can leave an indelible mark on the way we see ourselves and the way we relate to others. James knew the problem all too well. He wrote to his fellow Christians, “out of the same mouth comes praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.” In another part of the Roman world the problem was not so much that Christians were dishing it out, but that they were on the receiving end. Guess what? It’s got something to do with Balaam!

Balaam turns up in the Bible in Numbers 22-24. I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit recently. But his name also appears in Revelation 2 in a letter, or rather part of a letter, that John wrote to the Christians in Pergamum in the west of what is now Turkey. It seems that the Christians there were facing persecution. It was not an easy place to live, so much so that it is identified as “where Satan has his throne” (Rev. 2:13). Satan, of course, comes from a word meaning “to accuse”. Satan is “the accuser”. The accusation being levelled at the Christian community in Pergamum was that they were corrupt and a corrupting influence on those around them. The name that was being used against them was that they were modern-day Balaams. It seems that 'Balaam' was a derogatory term used to put others down, and to write them off as an individual. Other documents from around the same time indicate that a Balaam was someone who was boastful and proud and led others astray.

Through John, Jesus invites the Christians in Pergamum to consider to what extent the accusation is true. If there is any truth in the accusation then he reassures them that there is a way forward. “Repent” (Rev 2:16). It’s not always easy, and certainly not the first thing that crosses my mind, but in every put-down there is an opportunity to examine yourself and see if there is a home-truth that needs your attention. It takes courage. It takes character. But if we do it and if we do see something within our behaviour or the way we relate to others that does cause offence, particularly a proud of boastful attitude, then there is a way forward. Repent.

Recognise that this sort of thing is out of place for a person who has been saved by grace. Admitting faults should not be impossible for us. We were not saved by being perfect ourselves. And that is not the message that we want to suggest to others through our attitudes towards them. We were saved because we needed saving. We were saved by someone who was perfect. That’s the truth that we want to shine out.

But then there is still the hurt, isn’t there? You’ve recognised that it wasn’t deserved or it wasn’t entirely deserved. You’ve repented. But it still hurts. No doubt the Christians in Pergamum would be the same. Jesus knew that. Every time they heared the term ‘Balaam’ then they remembered that this is what they had been called. The pain and the hurt come back. Jesus knows this too and he gives them a way forward. He gives a new name, his own name, his own pet name to each and every Christian he has called. "I will also give to him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it" (Rev 2:17).

The names people call you do hurt. But did you know that Jesus has a new name for you, the nickname that he will call you, a pet name that describes who you really are? And he is faithful and true.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Thinking Big Thoughts on Lord Howe Island

Hi there - here I am, temporarily holed up in the Anglican rectory on Lord Howe Island.  In between the arduous tasks of leading a Bible Study group, teaching a Scripture lesson and preaching at two church services, there's a whole lot of God's glory to behold and enjoy.

I'm also taking time to read, think and pray (i.e. I am working!).

This morning I was sitting in a cafe, enjoying a nice coffee, overlooking the lagoon with Mt Gower towering in the background, reading an article 'On Evangelical Ecclesiology' by John Webster (Ecclesiology, 2004, p.9-35), and came across this idea:  that the church has its origins in the free will of God that desires to move beyond himself so that 'there should come into being a creaturely counterpart to the fellowship of love which is the inner life of the Holy Trinity' (p.9).

How amazing is that!  (1) that I could get paid to sit on Lord Howe Island and read theology!  (2) that God would desire to create us, the church, the 'creaturely counterpart' to his eternal fellowship of love! and (3) that he has made us with the ability to sit in a cafe and contemplate his inner life of love!

Simply breathtakingly good in every sense of the word.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Teaching our Children God-Esteem

Recently I have been reflecting on the issue of self-esteem. I find myself drawn in two different directions.

Firstly, when talking to people about how they feel about themselves I feel that they must understand themselves in the light of Jesus revelation. That they are made in the image of God, they are part of God’s precious creation that he has pronounced to be “good”. Secondly, they have been important enough to God to send Jesus to die for them, more precious than jewels. Jesus has taken away a Christian’s sin & guilt, they should feel liberated from the old sinful self. They are spotless and blameless.

I have really emphasised our worth in Jesus eyes, that we should feel happy and at peace as a child of God. This is the message of grace.

Because of this emphasis on grace, when my daughter recently was convicted of her sin and wept over her failure before God I felt really uncomfortable. She was a child, she should feel happy and good about herself. I wanted to say to her, don’t worry about that, God forgives you, it doesn’t matter too much. I wondered later on how much my thinking about self-esteem was shaped by the bible and how much was shaped by a culture that emphasises the right to be happy over everything else, the cult of self-esteem.

Meanwhile, I was studying the Evangelical revivals of the 18th century and the response of children. There are many stories of children coming under real repentance and terrible conviction of their sin and their condemnation before God. Do I emphasise God’s grace so much, especially to children that it becomes cheap grace rather than a costly grace that takes away the punishment for our real wickedness and evil. How do we speak to children about their rebellion against God? To Christian children about being both sinners yet justified? Are we encouraging them to continue with repentant hearts, in the ongoing struggle with the sinful nature?

Ian Fry at the Theology of Youth Ministry conference said a wonderful thing that has helped me in thinking about these issues. "We want to hold up to children not a mirror (as the world does) but a window." Their life’s goal should not be their own happiness, but the honour and glory of their heavenly Father who made them. This is the way to genuine lasting joy.

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