The sad neglect of lament in ministry (Soong-Chan Rah)

When I came to faith in Christ in Asia many years ago, suffering was mentioned in almost every church service. The reason was simply that suffering was the daily experience for most  people. Poverty, social isolation, lack of hope, despair, and oppression where commonplace. But in the West today, I find that suffering is not something that Christians want to talk about too much.

In an article written in 2013, Soong-Chan Rah insightfully speaks of the necessity of lament, especially in the urban context.

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Rah points out that prayers of lament can be found in about 40 percent of the Psalms (out of 150). But popular Christian songs often do not include lament. Rah says,

Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) licenses local churches in the use of contemporary worship songs. CCLI tracks the songs that are consistently sung in local churches. CCLIs list of the top 100 worship songs in August of 2012 reveals that only five of the songs would even remotely qualify as a lament. (page 61; emphasis added)

Rah goes on to say,

The American church avoids lament. The power of lament is minimized, and the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost . . . We forget the necessity of lamenting over suffering and pain. We forget the reality of suffering and pain. (page 61; emphasis added)

True reconciliation, justice, and shalom require a remembering of suffering, an unearthing of a shameful history, and a willingness to enter into lament. Lament calls for an authentic encounter with the truth. Lament must not be ignored for the sake of uplifting praiseworthy stories of success. Lament reintroduces necessary narratives of suffering. (page 62; emphasis added)

Praise seeks to maintain the status quo, while lament cries out against existing injustices. Christian communities arising from celebration do not want their lives changed because their lives are in a good place. (page 62)

Lament recognizes the struggles of life. The status quo is not to be celebrated but instead must be challenged . . . American Christians that flourish under the existing system seek to maintain the status quo and remain in the theology of celebration over and against the theology of suffering. (page 62; emphasis added)

To only have a theology of celebration at the cost of the theology of suffering is incomplete. The intersection of the two threads provides the opportunity to engage in the fullness of the gospel message. Lament and praise must go hand in hand. (page 63)

[A] triumphalistic theology of celebration and privilege rooted in a praise-only narrative is perpetuated by the absence of lament and the underlying narrative of suffering that informs lament. (page 63; emphasis added)

Rah then talks about an integration of lament in urban ministry.

The belief that the cities are places of need, devoid of the gospel, is linked to the success-oriented narrative shaped by suburban models of ministry. (page 67)

[U]rban ministry must embrace the theology of suffering in the face of great pressure to adopt exclusively the theology of celebration . . . our approach to urban ministry must acknowledge the painful story of the church’s dysfunctional relationship with the city. (page 67)

No longer should urban ministry be defined by the transplant who journeys to the city to save it. Instead, the relocator may find their redemption in intersecting with the city. Urban missionaries are not the saviors of the city. Rather, the churches in the city may provide redemption for those whose theology of celebration excludes the essential element of the theology of suffering. (pages 67–68; emphasis added)

The urban church becomes the place where the fullness of suffering is expressed in a safe environment. The church has the power to bring healing. That power is not found in an emphasis on strength but in suffering and weakness. (page 68; emphasis added)

A theological reading of Lamentations calls the church to make room for the stories of suffering. Space is created for healing to arise from the power of stories, particularly stories of suffering. (page 68; emphasis added)

Source: Soong-Chan Rah “The Necessity of Lament for Ministry in the Urban Context,” Ex Auditu 29 (2013): 54–69.

John Barclay on grace in Paul’s letters

In a recent interview with Wesley Hill of Christianity Today (31st Dec 2015), John M. G. Barclay talks about his latest book, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), and explains his understanding of the grace of God. In many ways Barclay speaks of my own understanding of grace, based on what I have learned in recent years through my engagement with the poor, cross-cultural mission, and my study of the issues around poverty and culture. It seems to me that, to a large extent, our understanding of the meaning of grace, the gospel, and the Scripture determines how live out our Christian life.

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Barclay said many amazing things in the interview, and here are some of them (emphasis added).

Paul talks about Christ as the gift of God, the grace of God. What is striking about this is that this gift is given without regard to the worth of the people who receive it. God doesn’t give discriminately to seemingly fitting recipients. He gives without regard to their social, gender, or ethnic worth. Nothing about them makes them worthy of this gift.

Think of someone who sits with a homeless man on the street and listens to him, . . . or those who give up “good jobs” in order to spend their lives with people with severe learning difficulties . . . When he talks about the grace of God in Christ, that is the kind of gift Paul is talking about.

Paul’s theology of grace is not just about an individual’s self-understanding and status before God. It’s also about communities that crossed ethnic, social, and cultural boundaries.

[S]ome Protestants believe it’s inappropriate for God to expect something in return, because it would somehow work against grace . . . However, that can lead to notions of cheap grace . . . While there is no prior worth for receiving the gift, God indeed expects something in return. Paul expects those who receive the Spirit to be transformed by the Spirit and to walk in the Spirit. As he puts it, we are under grace, which can legitimately lead to obedience, even obligation.

What I find so profound is the capacity of grace to dissolve our inherent and inherited systems—what we might call social capital. What counts before God is not what we pride ourselves on—or what we doubt ourselves on. What counts is simply that we are loved in Christ. This is massively liberating, not only to us as individuals but also to communities, because it gives them the capacity to reform and to be countercultural.

That’s why some of the most exciting churches today are not necessarily the big ones, but rather the small, multicultural, urban churches where you discover that different ethnicities and languages don’t count before God. Our education, our age, our job, the kind of music we listen to, the books we read—these do not ultimately define us. What defines us is who we are in Christ. We all are on the same level together and are therefore able to form countercultural relationships despite our differences. And that opens up the possibility for hugely creative Christian communities.

Source: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/january-february/whats-so-dangerous-about-grace.html Accessed on 13th Jan 2016

Reading Romans in a globalised, urban world (David W. Smith)

My sense is that in the emerging globalised world we are seeing more and more urban poverty issues. For example, as I highlighted in the past, there are a lot of elderly people living in poverty in Hong Kong, despite the enormous amount of wealth among the rich in the city. (Click here to see the post.)

In his book, The Kindness of God: Christian Witness in our Troubled World (Nottingham, UK: IVP, 2013), David W. Smith insightfully talks about how we may read Romans in our globalised urban world. Here are a few excerpts.

The collapse of Christendom, and the resulting crisis for the churches of the West, the massive growth of Christianity across the Global South, especially . . . in contexts of urban poverty and suffering, and the accelerating expansion of cities, driven by economic and ideological forces which pose similar questions to those we have seen Paul expressing with regard to the Roman imperium, all of these developments in our world presage a new epoch in Christian history. The Hispanic theologian Justo González comments that we are living ‘in time of vast changes in the church’s self-understanding’, and that the consequences of the shifts taking place today ‘will be more drastic than those which took place in the sixteenth century’. The loss of Christendom, González says, should not be lamented since it opens up the possibility that the meaning of Scripture may become clearer to us as truth is seen to consist not in abstract, intellectual concepts, but rather as ‘closely bound with bread and wine, with justice and peace, with a coming Reign of God . . .

González points out that one of the features of the transformation taking place around us is that whole swathes of the human population, taught of their superiors and betters, are today finding their voices. Ethnic minorities, women and children, people who ‘for reasons of class, nationality, sex, . . . , will no longer be silent’. What this suggests is that the most significant insights into Paul’s message are likely to come from below, from people whose socio-economic situations in a globalized world corresponds closely to that of the majority of the original recipients of this letter [that is, Paul’s letter to the Romans] in the slums of the megacity of Rome.

This fact is highlighted by Peter Oakes’ use of archaeological evidence in the ruins of Pompeii to construct an imagined ’house church’ in first-century Rome. Such a group certainly included slaves, including women who were almost routinely subjected to sexual exploitation. How would such followers of Jesus have heard Paul’s letter?

Indeed, in the twenty-first century we must do more than think about this, we must ask our brothers and sisters in the slums of Sao Paulo, Nairobi and Mumbai how they hear this ancient letter and what following Jesus means in practice in their daily lives.

 

Sources: The references to González above are from Justo González, Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 48, 50. The excerpts from David Smith’s The Kindness of God are from location 1443–1478 in the Kindle version of the book.

Downward mobility for Jesus

Upward mobility seems to be the hope and desire for many today, not least among middle-class Asians living in the West. There are many Christians who seek the same thing. But I have wondered whether this aspiration should be questioned. Recently I came across something written by a Chinese living in the UK (Rev Henry Lu), who suggests that downward mobility is not a bad thing at all!

Increasing social mobility is something most of us aspire to achieve in life. We set our goals to move up the social class ladder by attaining a higher level of education, moving into a more prestigious profession, and by accumulating more wealth. After we achieve our own success, we want to ensure our children will be better off than we are. In a society where pursuing upward mobility is the norm, it is very easy for Christians to also accept it as common sense and as a necessity without any exceptions. We steer away from moving downward to a lower social class.

By contrast, the path that our Lord Jesus took when he came into our world was one of descending and identifying with those at the lowest level of society. Our Lord gave up his divine privileges to not only become a human being but to also take the humble position of a slave; He even walked this downward path of obedience all the way to death on the cross (Philippians 2:6-8).

As followers of Christ, we are also called to go into the world to reach out to our fellow human beings, who are down and out, with compassion and the love of God. While we need to pursue excellence in everything we do so as to not waste the gifts and talents God has entrusted us with, we also need to ask God to give us courage to act obediently when God points us in the direction of downward movement on the social class ladder. It is time we consider living our life in a conscious way of downward mobility for Jesus.

Source: The article can be found by clicking here. (Accessed on 5th January 2016.)

Reflections on the long journey of becoming a biblical scholar

Truth be told, I am an academic by nature (although I am not very smart). I am not a practical person. In high school, I liked Pure Maths, but didn’t enjoy Applied Maths. At University I liked browsing the academic journals in the library. When I finished my BSc (Hons) and MSc degrees, my professors suggested that I should do a PhD. But I didn’t take up their offers because I thought I wasn’t smart enough.

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Then I migrated to Australia and worked in IT. When I turned thirty, I enrolled at a Bible college. I thought God wanted me to serve him, and theological training was a steppingstone to full-time ministry. I started working in my church as a pastor while I was still at college. But meanwhile I discovered (once again!) that I loved academic studies.

Pastoral ministry taught me a lot. I had many opportunities to hear the stories of people whose lives had been transformed by the gospel. I spent time with the poor, as well as the wealthy. I visited the sick at hospital. I learned to deal with inter-personal conflicts between church members. My wife and I had little money, and we learned to trust God for his provision. Life was difficult, but I would not trade those years for anything else.

But my passion for academic studies continued. I enrolled in an MPhil as soon as I finished my BA in biblical studies. The MPhil was a research master’s degree, where I had to write a major thesis. God led me to study under a respected New Testament scholar in the UK. But the MPhil was costly, because I had to fly to the UK a few times (even though I could do most of the research in Australia). Yet, once again God supplied all our needs, even though we had little income.

After that I worked in an international aid and development organisation. My job was to speak at theological colleges and churches about poverty and development. For almost seven years I studied the issues surrounding poverty and social injustice. Meanwhile, we attended an inner-city church where a significant number of members were refugees or living with mental health issues. This gave us the opportunity to stand in solidarity with the poor and marginalised.

I learned that poverty was a complex matter. And the longer I was involved in aid and development, the more I found my life impacted by the pain and suffering of those living with poverty and social injustice. Since my academic discipline was in biblical studies, I spent a lot of time thinking about what the Bible had to say about poverty. I began to realise that there was a big gap between academic biblical studies and the lived reality of those living with poverty.

During that time, I started working on my doctoral degree part-time. Since my primary passion was the Bible, I decided to research on the New Testament, rather than poverty and development. And since I believed that the research topic should be relevant to real life issues, I chose to study the apostle Paul’s view of suffering. I completed my PhD at the age of fifty, and by God’s grace a revised version of my dissertation is now published. Unfortunately, nowadays there are very few tenured teaching positions for New Testament scholars. And so I don’t see myself getting a permanent job for a long time, if it happens at all. But God has given me plenty of opportunities to teach as an adjunct lecturer.

Reflecting on this long journey, I would like to say a few things about what I have learned in the process.

First, the Bible is important. I don’t say this lightly. I say this based on years of pastoral experience and involvement in aid and development. I say this after a lot of time living in want and having to trust God for his financial provisions. I have no regrets in doing many years of intense study on the Scripture. It is a privilege.

Second, I thank God for biblical scholars. I am indebted to those who have gone before me to master the biblical languages and provided students with valuable tools to study Greek and Hebrew. I am thankful to scholars whose works enrich and deepen my own understanding of Scripture. Ultimately the church is the beneficiary of their labour.

Third, and most importantly, I tend to think that academic biblical study is an integral part of a long journey of knowing God and his purpose for his creation. For me, academic study is not a pathway to a promising career. Nor is it something to satisfy my intellectual carving for abstract ideas. I did a PhD because I wanted to know God, and it is still my desire to know him through the Scripture. An academic vocation may be a by-product. And yes, I like playing with abstract concepts in my head. But my primary reason to study the Bible is that I may know God through the Scripture, and allow God to transform my life for his purposes.

Of course, God does call people to be full-time academics. But it is not a “career” to be pursued in order to become successful. Instead, it is a vocation that calls for cruciform commitment for the sake of the Christ in the service of the church and the mission of God. The apostle Paul, a very learned figure in the Bible, did not set out to become a renowned or distinguished scholar. Instead, he wanted to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and share in his sufferings—being conformed to his death (see Phil 3:10).

(I suppose many would disagree with me here. I should say that these are my reflections on my own journey. Different people have different experiences and convictions.)

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Fourth, it is worth taking time to work outside the academy. When I was a pastor, I realised that I could become out of touch with the world if I spent all of my time dealing with people inside the church. Likewise, biblical scholars can lose touch with the reality faced by the people outside their teaching institutions. After all, the Bible is about real people living in the real world, and one cannot truly understand the biblical text without spending time outside the academy.

I know that it is not practically possible for many—if not most—scholars to engage in work outside the academy. And I want to emphasise here that full-time biblical academics have my highest respect. But I wonder whether there are creative ways to engage with the world in some tangible and concrete ways?

I grew up working in a factory in East Asia, and I worked in IT in corporations in both Australia and overseas. These life experiences are incredibly valuable when I teach the Bible. I did my MPhil and PhD part-time while I was working part-time (in IT or the aid and development sector). And now I have a small office-cleaning job, which serves as a reminder of what it is like to earn a living through low-paid menial tasks. Again, Paul, being a leather-worker (or “tent-maker”), was a good model of being a bi-vocational pastor, missioner, and theologian.

Fifth, let us realise that genuine Christian faith involves Christ-centred transformation in every sphere of our lives. The goal of biblical interpretation is not primarily about apologetics or defending the truth, but living out the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus in everyday life. Some years ago, a respected scholar was invited by an aid and development organisation to speak at a special event about poverty. He eloquently demonstrated that in church history Christians were generous in giving financially to the poor. He refuted the claim that the church failed to care for the needy. He called on the audience to continue the long church tradition of involving in charity work.

I agree with this scholar’s argument, and I admire his humility in his presentation. But I was disappointed by his simplistic view of poverty. Even a standard textbook on aid and development will show that financial generosity alone (though important in itself) is a limited and insufficient solution to poverty. He might have won the argument in showing that the church was active in serving the poor in the past. But his rather simplistic view of poverty reduction would not win the heart of those who actively walked with the poor in the twenty-first century.

I understand that it is impossible to know everything and be involved in everything. But it wouldn’t do to ignore the culture and the struggles of people outside the four walls of the seminary or the building of a well-resourced middle-class church. If we don’t have friends from a low socioeconomic background, how can we truly understand Jesus’ fulfilment of the Isaianic text of proclaiming good news to the poor in Luke 4:18? If we are ignorant of the issues around refugees, and if we don’t personally know any refugee, how can we understand the many biblical texts concerning them? If we don’t have friends from different ethnic backgrounds, how can we recognise the cultural and racial dynamics in the Book of Acts and Paul’s letters? If we don’t get to know people living with a disability and those suffering from domestic violence, how can we teach the Good News in the Scripture effectively?

In the four Gospels we find that Jesus was very often on the road, and he gathered a community of believers from all walks of life, not least the poor and marginalised. The narratives in the Gospels serve to draw us closer to God’s heart, and challenge us to see our own inadequacies. Spending time with those who suffer helps us to see the amazing work of God in their lives and understand the biblical texts accordingly. We will do well to follow Jesus’ footsteps.

So, is it possible for a biblical scholar to do all of the above? Given the heavy workload and demand within the academy, it is very hard. But I know scholars who do the above in various ways. They do personally spend time with the poor and marginalised, and pour out their heart to those in need in prayers. They engage with real people in the real world. Some do that a lot, and others do less. But no matter how much or little they do, they are an inspiration.

 

Book review: David W. Smith, The Kindness of God

Book review: David W. Smith, The Kindness of God: Christian Witness in our Troubled World (Nottingham, UK: IVP, 2013).

In his book, The Kindness of God, David Smith asks some penetrating questions about how to bear witness in a trouble world. Smith turns his readers’ attention to two things at the beginning of the book. First, he talks about his experience as a speaker at a conference in Jos, Nigeria. Jos is described as a post-colonial city that owes its existence to the expansion of European colonial power, and it sits on the fault line between African Christianity and Islam. Second, Smith refers to the foresight of the well-known missionary and scholar, Leslie Newbigin, that in the coming century there would be three factors that would compete for people’s allegiance: the gospel, the free market, and Islam.

The book then proceeds to discuss many issues concerning the world today: globalisation, urbanisation, market economy, suffering, poverty, violence, and religious tension. Smith argues that we need to translate the gospel for the globalised world in the twenty-first century. He challenges Christians to critique their own understanding of the gospel in light of the Scripture. He skilfully proposes an informed reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans for the urban world. Smith concludes by bringing his readers back to his experience in Jos, Nigeria, as well as Newbigin’s insightful comments about the gospel, the free market, and Islam.

David Smith's The Kindness of God

David Smith is well versed in the history of mission, missiology, and the Bible. This is demonstrated by his familiarity with the works of Justo González, Walter Brueggemann, Kevin Vanhoozer, Robert Jewett, and Leslie Newbigin. His competence in these areas allows him to provide a lucid, insightful, and informed discussion on Christian witness in a world of racial conflicts and religious tensions. His book helps its readers to understand the historical and present inter-relationships between faith, the free market, globalisation, and urbanisation. This, in turn, assists Christians to assess the way they face the challenges that lie ahead of them.

The book contains many perceptive uses of Scripture. Smith refers to the Bible frequently, with one chapter focussing on Romans and its implications for the urban churches today. He argues that in church history there were times when Christians interpreted the same Scripture in opposite manners. He then suggests that in our troubled world nowadays Christians still read the Bible differently, resulting in opposing interpretations and applications for the same issues. Smith calls for a faithful reading of Scripture in our troubled world—one that is in line with our allegiance to the crucified and risen Christ rather than human idolatrous desires.

The book is not for those looking for a self-help book that simply tells people what to believe in. But if you want to read a book that invites you to think carefully and respond thoughtfully about Christian witness in the world, then The Kindness of God is for you. Smith does not go into convoluted theological arguments. He is, however, a passionate and persuasive writer. The book is engaging, full of insights, and challenging. It will leave the reader with plenty to ponder.

Finally, it is worth citing an excerpt of the endorsement by Jonathan Lamb, Director, Langham Preaching.

[The book provokes] us to think freshly not only about the missiological challenges out there . . . but also the challenges at home that we so easily neglect — a church shaped by materialism, a gospel distorted by secular culture, a proclamation of the cross without the experience of its weakness and power. In this troubled world, he urges us to rediscover the fullness of the gospel . . . and to listen to the voices of compassion from the underside of globalisation . . . this book provokes reflection on the hope which flows from the kindness of God. It is an urgent, prophetic and compassionate book that is rooted in our broken world but lifts our eyes to see God’s purposes for his global church.