Saturday, January 31, 2009

Tennis and Culture and Compassion

I expect sports people to know the culture of the country where they play. Perhaps that’s too optimistic given that they play in so many countries but tennis players tend to come to Australia for about a month every year so I expect them to have an understanding of conditions here. The hot weather at the Australian Open this year caused the usual problem of: when will the officials shut the roof? There has been an extreme heat policy since 1998 but many factors are taken into consideration—temperature, humidity, wind etc. and they won’t shut it just on the forecast. Forecasts in Melbourne are unreliable. Therefore no one really knows when they are going to shut it, but players ought to know they will shut it if conditions are deemed to be “extreme”. Every time it happens though there are complaints. Dementieva complained they didn’t shut it soon enough, Kuznetsova complained they didn’t leave it open long enough (for her to beat Williams, which she probably would have). There’s no point complaining, the officials can’t control the weather. It’s supposed to be an outside competition and they will keep it that way as long as possible.

Federer complains every year he wants the Open held later so he can have a longer break between seasons. While this is a valid reason he doesn’t understand why we cannot move it. It is held the last two weeks of our summer school holidays. We want our kids to go the tennis and be inspired to be great tennis players (like Federer!). Furthermore there would not be the crowds if it was held later. We only have a small population, even though we are sports mad, we do have to work. More people are on holidays during school holidays than any other time. Of course, if Federer wanted to play in front of half the crowds, for half the money… The US Open finishes in September so why doesn’t he talk about finishing the year earlier without moving any of the Grand Slams?

Anyway it makes me think how often I don’t allow for other people’s situations and the circumstances they find themselves in. I think I’m more thoughtful then I use to be but maybe not as much as I could be. People’s backgrounds play an enormous part in why they react the way they do and in order to be compassionate it is helpful to take the time to get to know more about them. Perhaps that’s why God is so compassionate—he knows all about us!

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Book Review : Finding our way again

Brian McLaren in his book, Finding our way again : the return of the ancient practice (Thomas Nelson, 2008) employs ‘going to the gym’ as a metaphor of spiritual life. I found this a helpful way of looking at spiritual practices: reading the Bible, prayer, fasting, meditation, sacred meals, observing the Sabatah, liturgy etc. When we go to a gym we tend to gravitate towards the equipment we enjoy using or believe gives us the best results. Likewise spiritually we gravitate towards those spiritual practices that we prefer. McLaren suggests from time to time it would be beneficial to experiment with other less familiar spiritual practices, not in a legalistic way, but as a way of connecting more deeply with God. Furthermore regular exercise enables us to do things which were previously impossible. McLaren points out this is true spiritually as well.

Another area where I particularly enjoyed McLaren’s teaching was in understanding how change comes to the church. Historically change happens outside the church and is gradually accepted into the church. McLaren is often asked, “Is it better to try to reform our existing faith communities that have lost their way, or simply to leave and start new ones? Do we work for reformation and renewal on the one hand, or for revolution and refounding on the other? His answer is, “both”. Since both are necessary for the church to change. I found McLaren’s explanations a helpful way to understand church history.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Devotional Thought : Titus 1:10

For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision group. Titus 1:10

The Message puts it like this: “For there are a lot of rebels out there, full of loose, confusing, and deceiving talk. Those who were brought up religious and ought to know better are the worst.”

It is interesting to note that Jesus also had his harshest words for those who “were brought up religious”, that is the Pharisees (Matthew 23). He reasoned with them, pleaded with them and shouted at them but it made little difference. Jesus said to them, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." John 5:39-40.

Those of us who have lived for a long time in a Christian environment can easily slip into the trap of becoming “mere talkers”. We know all the ‘Christian jargon’ and give the impression of being spiritual. I read this recently on a blog. “Christian parents all too often provide an atmosphere of inauthenticity and legalism which, among other things, results in a failure to align saying and doing. Children see this incongruity and because of it end up rejecting the faith that it is supposedly based on.”

Our children are quick to pick up the difference between what we say and what we do. They learn by osmosis what is important to us because they are always watching us, even if they do not listen! Knowing this requires us to be more honest and more authentic not only with others but also with ourselves. Am I just going through the motions of Christian faith or am committed to changing and becoming more like Jesus?

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Australian Open Tennis 2009

I mentioned last year when I posted about the Australian Open Tennis tournament that I find lots of parallels between sport and the spiritual life. This year I’m wondering what part self belief plays in the mental strength of players.

I find it painful when a player suffers from a lack of self belief. For example, Samantha Stosur was playing Serena Williams in a warm up tournament. Stosur served for the match at 5-4 in the third set, and was up 40-0 before surrendering her serve with two unforced errors and a double fault. She also lost the next two games and therefore the match. It was hard to watch. Tonight she is playing Elena Dementieva which is going to be tough for her. I don’t mind if she loses as long as she doesn’t cave in. (Of course, on the other hand, there are good tennis players who have so much self belief that it becomes arrogance, which isn’t pleasant to watch either.)

In Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell writes about God knowing what we are capable of, yet so often we lack belief in God’s calling on our lives. God is often like the coach on the sidelines saying, “keep going, play on, go for it, you can do it” and we’ve got a handful of match points but doubt we can win. Jesus often said to his disciples, “O you of little faith”, I wonder how often he says it to us?

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Book Review : Velvet Elvis

I found, Velvet Elvis : repainting the Christian faith by Rob Bell (Zondervan, 2005) to be a refreshing look at the Christian faith. Rob Bell provides a lot of background information for the context of Jesus’ teaching which gives a deeper understanding to why Jesus said some of the things he did. As well as giving insights into the Pharisees' and the Jewish crowds' understanding of what Jesus was saying. It also helps us to understand why the disciples were sometimes slow to catch on. I particularly like his explanation of the Rabbinical system and how this applies to us today. Since Jesus chose us, he expects us to learn to be like him. Peter’s desire to walk on the water was because he wanted to like Jesus, his rabbi. Likewise we too should be eager to be like Jesus.

Rob Bell writing style is honest and down to earth. He doesn’t present theological truth in a dogmatic way but rather he tells stories and gives examples from his own life. He doesn’t pretend to have all the answers but understands he too is on a journey. He discusses parts of our faith that have either been neglected or over emphasized to bring some balance to our understanding.

Rob Bell is likely to be misunderstood because of his casual, almost flippant, sometimes touch in cheek approach. Yet I enjoyed his style. We take ourselves way too seriously some days and it is energizing to read a perspective that is more radical. After all Jesus was radical in his day.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Devotional Thought : Acts 20:25

"It is more blessed to give than to receive." Acts 20:35

One of the aspects of servanthood that is often overlooked in the incident of Jesus washing the disciples' feet is the need to have people willing to be served. Peter did not want to be served. Both of his responses tell us that he did not want Jesus to serve him. "No," said Peter, "you shall never wash my feet", (John 13:8) and when that did not deter Jesus, Peter went to the other extreme, "Then, Lord," Simon Peter replied, "not just my feet but my hands and my head a well! (John 13:9) Peter didn't want to accept the gift of service being offered to him. He wanted to be in control and didn't want to be seen as vulnerable.

I think this attitude is very prevalent today. Some Christians are very reluctant to let you serve them. It takes humility to receive. We must accept the fact that we have a need in order to receive. An independent person, who feels very self-sufficient, is not going to appreciate someone trying to meet their needs. They will ignore their act of service or they will try to pay for it. I don't see Jesus doing any this. He accepts the women who anointed his feet with gratitude and acknowledged her service to Him.

I think some non-Christians struggle with Christ's claims because at an unconscious level they don't like having to accept the fact that there is nothing they can do to earn their own salvation. Free gifts are not as easy to receive as one might think.

So often we rob others of the blessing of giving because we won't receive from them.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Film Review : Legally Blonde (2001)

I requested and received Legally Blonde on DVD for Christmas. There are several things I really like about this film. Firstly Elle (Reese Witherspoon), the main character makes friends with everyone, university professors, lawyers, fellow students, her ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend and the local hairdresser. She doesn’t discriminate; she is genuinely interested and helpful to all those she meets (if only more of God’s people were like that!). Secondly circumstances conspire together to push Elle into reaching her potential. Something she would not have done voluntarily. There is a message here for us—we are more capable than we realize. Thirdly Elle rather unexpectedly solves a murder mystery in the middle of a romantic comedy! What a great twist. I love it.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Synchroblog : Just a God of the West?

This month’s synchroblog topic is Faith and Ethnicity and I’m feeling decidedly unqualified to write on this topic. Australia, where I live, is referred to as a multi-cultural society, however this is really only true of the major cities. I have lived in country towns which have been predominately Anglo-Saxon so I have had little experience of expressing faith in any other settings. Nevertheless from my limited experience I would like to share three things, which are probably more cultural observations than anything else, but still, here they are:

Firstly in the area of women in ministry:
Some years ago the conservative church I was attending did not agree with women in any upfront or leadership role. When a young boy reached his teenage years he was added to the roster to do the Bible reading, helping with communion, and the like. The teenage girls were added to the cleaning roster! This church was very supportive of missionaries and one of the missionaries they supported was a single lady who they knew personally. Now here’s the point, this lady was allowed to preach, teach, pastor in a foreign culture but they would not let her do any of this in our church. What were they thinking? (Just as an interesting aside, while at this church I wrote my devotional thoughts for their church paper. It seems that because it was written and not spoken, this wasn’t deemed to be a woman teaching!) It is culture that turns God into a domineering male.

Secondly in the area of work and recreation:
Another church I attended had several people with various addictions. Internet addictions, smoking, alcohol and also some who were addicted to their work. The ones who were addicted to their work were held in high esteem as hard working, valuable citizens. Yet they were often unable to attend church activities or spend time with family and friends because they were working. Their thinking was that God would be pleased with hard work, yet the Biblical pattern is for work and rest. In the Bible rest is seen as valuable and necessary and so are times of celebration. It is culture that turns God into a slave driver.

Thirdly in the area of family:
Every church I have attended has made faith to be a very individual thing. This too, is a Western trend and while personal commitment is important it isn't exclusive. In other parts of the world faith is modeled in families and communities. Families, whatever part of the world they are in, have tensions yet it seems other cultures are better able to handle this than Western culture. We excuse our lack of tolerance by making our faith personal and individual. Yet throughout the Bible we see community, we are given word pictures of sheep, of a body, of a wedding, of a building. God works through people groups. It is culture that turns God into my Father (instead of Our Father).

So these are my scattered thoughts on the topic of Faith and Ethnicity. Following is a list of links to other bloggers who have posted on this topic:

Phil Wyman on Seeing the Middle East from a Jewish Perspective
Susan Barnes on Just a God of the West
K.W. Leslie on Why I went to an all-white church
Adam Gonnerman on Multicultural experience (and inexperience)
Matt Stone on Is the church ready for a multiethnic future?
Beth Patterson on Viva la particularities
Steve Hayes on Christianity and ethnicity"
Matthew Snyder asks What's Your Nation?
Jeff Goins on Gypsies in Spain

Plus a couple of late additions:
Joshua Jinno the Antechurch
Raffi Shahinian on Faith and Ethnicity: A True Story

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Book Review : Midnight Clear

Midnight clear by Jerry Jenkins & Dallas Jenkins (Tyndale House, 2007) is the story of five people whose lives cross in unexpected ways one Christmas Eve. Jenkins creates believable characters when he depicts a jobless/homeless man; a disillusioned gas station owner; a suicidal old woman; a young mother separated from her husband; and a frustrated youth pastor—each one at a low point in their lives; each one looking for meaning and purpose. Jenkins cleverly weaves their individual stories together, overlapping and intersecting them with ease. The major problems in the character’s lives remain largely unsolved yet by various acts of kindness the burdens are eased and a story of hope is formed.

I enjoyed this short story (168 pages) and loved the way Jenkins was able to move so deftly from one scene to the next. The book also includes photos from the film.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

Devotional Thought : Jonah 4:2

He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love. A God who relents from sending calamity.” Jonah 4:2

Jonah was angry because God was gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love, and relented from sending calamity! –which seems an odd thing to get angry about.

Jonah’s real problem was that God was acting this way towards the Ninevites and in his mind they didn’t deserve it. They weren’t God’s chosen people, just mere pagans, who were in fact enemies of the Israelites. Jonah’s attitude is like the elder brother’s in the parable of the prodigal son. Luke 15:28 tells us, “The older brother became angry and refused to go in (and join the party for his brother’s return).” Jonah and the elder brother became angry because the “wrong” people received mercy, the “wrong” people received a blessing, and the “wrong” people received a party.

God, it seems, does not act according to our understanding of fairness. Jesus made this clear when he told the parable of the workers in the vineyard, who were all paid the same, though some worked much longer than others, and then he asks, “…are you envious because I am generous?” Matthew 20:15. Are we envious of what God has blessed others with and wondered why God hasn’t blessed us in the same way? God is Sovereign and has the right to be generous to whoever He chooses, even those we may consider “undeserving”.

It is helpful to remind ourselves that, Jesus’ sacrificial death for our sins is enough for us to be eternally thankful.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Book Review : Jesus take the wheel

I start reading this book back in November making a commitment to read just one chapter and post a comment each week. Here's why. I must say I found the discipline of reading a book this way highly challenging but I'm glad I was able to follow through. These are the links to each chapter: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, and Chapter 8.

Now I'm posting an overview of the entire book.

Stuart Migdon writes with great passion and enthusiasm. His book, Jesus take the wheel : 7 keys to a transformed life with God (WinePress, 2008) is designed to encourage people to live a committed Christian life. By using the illustration of driving a car to create a picture of God being the driving force of our lives he is able to bring out many aspects of the Christian life.

Early in the book it is mostly Moses that Migdon uses as an example. Moses’ humility and his avoidance of self-recognition are qualities that make him usable to God. However it is also a process where Moses learns to trust God and exercise faith. Migdon also uses other Old Testament people such as Hezekiah and Jehoshaphat to expound his points. Of course, Jesus is the perfect example of a life lived in obedience to God and Migdon writes about Jesus’ time on earth. I found Migdon’s insights into Jesus’ trials during his three years of ministry particularly helpful.

Migdon expects that the Christian life to be joyful in spite of difficulties and trials. God provides us with all the resources we need to live victoriously. It is up to us to avail ourselves of these resources by learning how to focus on God and rely on him.

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Monday, January 05, 2009

Devotional Thought : Jonah 3:10

When God saw what they (the Ninevites) did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. Jonah 3:10

This so-called pagan city repented of their evil ways and responded to Jonah’s message in a way that God’s people rarely did. God’s people did not generally listen to the prophets God sent. Occasionally a king would come to power that followed God’s ways and he would destroy the foreign idols. Yet often God’s people merely followed the king’s directive rather than actually repenting. Usually it wasn’t until they were being oppressed by their enemies that they turned from their evil ways.

Jesus indicates this as he wept over Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you…” (Matthew 23:37). God’s people did not respond to the prophets’ message, yet the Ninevites did. No wonder God relented!

This raises many questions. Why don’t God’s people respond to his messages? Why does it take a crisis before God’s people call to him? Why is it that non-churched people often respond with greater enthusiasm when they understand the gospel?

Many who have grown up in Christian cultures take God for granted. They presume upon his grace. R. C. Sproul writes about an event which took place during his time as a university lecturer. After giving his students just two extensions of time on different assignments the students had come to expect that they would always be given more time to complete work. But, not only did they come to expect more time, they considered it unfair if he refused to give it!

The Ninevites hoped for mercy, they did not presume it (3:9). Let’s remember the extent of God’s mercy and grace so we don’t take it for granted.

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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Andre Rieu - on loving classic music

For Christmas my husband bought me the DVD of Andre Rieu Live in Australia. As I was watching Andre play his violin with his eyes shut I was reminded of this remark from Donald Miller author’s note in Blue Like Jazz:

I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn't resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes. After that I liked jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.

Watching Andre Rieu loving classical music makes me love it too.

On the subject of Christmas presents I also received the following books: Finding our way again by Brian Mclaren; Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell; C.S. Lewis Remembered and a couple of books by Cameron Semmens who is an Australian author who writes alliterated poems and stories from the Bible. As it is not economically viable for me to purchase all the books I read, I’m grateful for Christmas presents, birthdays, and libraries (like the one where I work)!

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

Devotional Thought : Jonah 2

“When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.” Jonah 2:7

The second chapter of Jonah is his prayer from inside the fish. The previous verse to the one quoted above reads, “I was as far down as a body can go, and the gates were slamming shut behind me forever” (The Message). It reminds of the opening lines of the poem, The Great Mercy by Katharine Tynan:

Betwixt the saddle and the ground
Was mercy sought and mercy found.
Yea, in the twinkling of an eye,
He cried; and Thou hast heard his cry.

It only takes a “twinkling of an eye” to cry out to the Lord, only the briefest passage of time to acknowledge God. It was the thief on the cross who said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” and received God’s assurance of eternal life. It was at the first glance of his prodigal son that the father ran. God is so eager to cover us with his mercy that it may be in the last instant of a person’s life where they discover the awesome and sudden mercy of God. We will never know this side of heaven who cried out to God in their dying moments.

For Jonah, his cry led to the return of his physical life yet he is expressing his praise even before he finds himself on dry land. His relationship with God had been restored and he wants to shout with “grateful praise” (v.9-10). A restored relationship with God is more precious than the continuance of physical life.

It is a shame to wait to the point of death to cry out to God when God is always willing to bestow on us his mercy.

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