Friday, October 7, 2011

Confession Time

OK - so I need to make a confession.

After three years of travelling in Latin America to various conferences, classes and meetings in quite a range of countries, you'd have thought I'd have the knack of entering foreign countries down by now.

Well, as yesterday's events prove, not so much.

I'm preparing for my final trip, there are about 5 hours left before I head to the airport for an overnight flight to Santiago Chile and then onto São Paulo in Brasil. I'm checking the status of my visa for Chile (which you get at the airport on the way in - like every other country I have visited - except the US) and I wonder what the situation is in Brasil. So I check.

At this point, things start to turn bad.

Multiple websites say that Australians need a visa to enter Brasil - tourist or business. That's OK - I'll do the paperwork at the airport, pay my money and it'll be fine.

Ummm - no.

There is a complicated process that you need to follow and it take 5-7 days!

So I start making some calls. First to the Australian embassy in Brasil - yes, that is true, no exceptions.

Then to the Brasilian Embassy in Mexico - nobody answers the phone until 12:50pm and their office closes for the day at 1pm.

Finally, I call the Brasilian Embassy in Santiago - because in a stroke of genius I think I could have an 'amazing race' moment. Get off the plane in Santiago - dash into the embassy in the city - get my visa (which they will issue instantly out of deep mercy and compassion) - dash back to the airport and get on the connecting flight to São Paulo.

All a great plan - except they don't make exceptions.

So I can't go. Really frustrated and feeling dopey that I didn't think of it before.

As a result I've had to cancel and re-book flights to Chile (leaving tonight and at some expense to the management - sorry).

I guess the only good thing is that I realised while I was at home and could easily make phone calls (very cheaply thanks to skype), rearrange flights etc. The other option might have been that I got deported! (Now that would have made for a good story)

But - I'm looking forward to a great week of teaching, networking and promoting MOCLAM in Chile.

Moral of the story: Don't assume everything will work like it has in other places!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Slow and steady wins the race

I had a great day last weekend with a group of pastors in Tampico, a coastal city on the Gulf of Mexico. I spent the day teaching an 'intensive' class for 'Creation to New Creation', the first course in the Moore College ThC course. It was fantastic - we worked in detail through 3 chapters of the book, and they will complete the remaining 7 chapters in regular meetings (without me) over the next couple of months. My friend from Tampico who organised the day did a fantastic job and the students are enthusiastic and engaged.

At one stage we got talking about the 'pace' of theological education, particularly compared to other 'vocational' training. We were talking about the difference between a 'skills based' course and a more 'education based' course.

In the case of skills, you go to a course and learn how to do something better - whether it be strap a sprained ankle, cook a curry or preach a sermon.
In the case of education - it is often more about learning a body of knowledge that is going to shape your thinking and so inform your skills and application somewhere down the track. You might about the physiology of muscles and swelling which will better inform your practical treatment of sprains, or you might think about the doctrine of scripture which will inform your practice of preaching.

In this discussion, one of the students made an interesting point (and he wasn't an older guy just saying 'back in my day things were better.) He said that the in his opinion, one of the consequences of a very much 'instant results' generation was that the 'education' side of things seemed to be slipping down in priority. Now it was more about learning a new skill, being able to report on some concrete outcome at the end of the one hour class - and therefore, the instant, practical training was being valued more highly.

That's an interesting comment, because I think the process of theological education needs to be seen as a long, steady process. Sure, we need to keep thinking how we apply the things we are learning in our churches, lives and pastoral situations. But in the long run, if we are totally skills based, then we won't have much to say, will have trouble giving counsel in difficult situations and I think will be much more open to the trendy waves of 'new doctrine' that come through once every few weeks.

I suggested that the process of theological education was a bit like learning a new language. Day to day its actually pretty hard to see progress. Sometimes you'll have moments of 'A-Ha' (not the late 80's band) when you realise you have to use the verb estar when talking about location, but more often than not, progress will be slow and steady. You need to compare where you are now with where you were six months ago, not 2 days ago.

Of course all of that means that you need time and patience.

I'm encouraging my students to take a long view, to develop perseverance and godliness for the long haul, and understand that is a process that will take time.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Hospitality matters!

I've been travelling a fair bit lately, and as a result have experienced a lot of hospitality. In the vast majority of cases it has been fantastic - in fact many times, one of the highlights of my trip is the time I get to hang around with people, in their homes, over meals etc.

I think as Christians we hold, and need to continue to hold hospitality in very high regard. Being hospitable is a characteristic required of overseers in both 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:8. It is something we are all commanded to do in Heb 13:2 (because you never know who you might be looking after!) and we are to do it without grumbling (1Pet 4:9).

Implicit in these exhortations is the fact that hospitality will be costly - and of course, that is reality. You'll need to pick up your guest from the airport or the station. They'll probably need driving around somewhere which will interrupt what you normally do. You might need to rearrange bedrooms for the duration and of course there'll be extra washing, cleaning and feeding to do.

But its interesting, it seems to me apart from the comment in Heb 13:2, the benefits of hospitality aren't much spoken about in the Bible. But there are many benefits.

You and your family will get to make a new friend. Most guests are usually really interesting people who really appreciate time with other people rather than sitting by themselves in a hotel room. My kids still have very fond memories of visitors we've had over the year. One particular visitor (who will remain nameless - but think England, well known, evangelism course) has entered our family folklore with regard to his enthusiastic brownie consumption.

It is a great way to expand your horizons. You learn many things about the world we live in and its different cultures by hosting a guest from a far off land.

If you're in a situation where there are kids in your house, its a great way to model kindness and generosity to them. When they see Mum and Dad being open and welcoming to guests - it is sure to rub off later in life.

So - be hospitable!

(Today's photo is me high up in the Andes outside Santiago in Chile - where I enjoyed wonderful hospitality!)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Advantages of a church calendar

I'm not exactly what you would call an apologist for the prayer book, the lectionary or any of that stuff. But - this Easter I have been reminded of what a great heritage some sort of order of church worship gives us.

This Easter weekend I was in the south of Chile, teaching a MOCLAM subject in intensive mode. We had 12 hours of class a day for 3 days - and the students will be doing their exam later this week. It was a pretty full on few days!

Each morning and evening session began with a devotional, and given that the days included Good Friday and Easter Day, I kindof assumed that we would be thinking about the death and resurrection of Jesus.

But we didn't. In fact, during the whole weekend, not one word was mentioned about Easter.

I wondered whether that might be a Chilean thing, so I asked around a bit. No - for most people, Easter is a big thing and many of the churches were having special events, public celebrations etc. But not this group. It made me wonder why? Why was it that we could spend a weekend together as a group of Christians, and not mark the most important date in our calendar?

My theory is something like this - and I haven't asked whether there is any truth to my theory, because I didn't want to come across as accusing or superior.

Everyone on the group was from a freechurch, or independent church background - contexts where they prided themselves on their flexibility and informality of churchmanship. In many cases they are reacting against the cold, repetition of prayers and utterances which they have seen bore countless generation - they want to be new and fresh and engaging. And so they have done away with the old forms.

Now I'm all for new and engaging (as long as the Bible is still there) and have no particular love of old things because they are old, but it raises an interesting question. If you are going to get rid of something, it is worthwhile thinking about what you are going to replace it with. In some cases I think with these folks, lots of thought has gone into the 'getting rid of' part of the process, but not so much into the 'replacement' part.

It is possible that one of byproducts of this 'out with the old' feeling, is that some of the observance and remembrance aspects which are so clear in the prayer book and fixed liturgies have been lost - including in this case, a careful observance of Easter.

Thats a shame I think - because I wonder if we lost a great opportunity to reflect together and encourage each other on what is a joyful and important time in our Christian life.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Another cultural insight

I was chatting with a friend yesterday and he mentioned a difficulty his small group was having with a passage in Acts.

The passage was Acts 13:1-3 - where the church in Antioch send out Barnabas and Saul. I read the passage, thought 'it looks like a pretty standard 'missionary commissioning' sort of thing' and wondered what the problem was.

The problem the group was having was this. 'What happened to the church in Antioch?' As the story continues in Acts 13 the missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas is followed, but we don't hear much about the 'sending church'.

I was kind of - oh well, doesn't matter, I guess it carried on as normal, just with a few less members who might have been missed for a couple of weeks but life went on.

But no - and here was the cultural insight. This was a great concern for my friend's group, because here in many cases the identity of the church is very, very closely bound with the identity of the pastor. Saul (son to be Paul) and Barnabas were clearly very important pastors in the church in Antioch (they had been there for a year Acts 11:26), so for them to leave, in the mind of the group here, was an almost unimaginable thing.

Not only that, but they didn't just leave, the church sent them out!

Because of the strong link between the church and the pastor here, that was a very difficult concept for the group to get their head around.

And so I asked - what happens when a pastor leaves a church? I mean, surely it happens.

Well, yes, it does, but often it is the source of great disruption and division in the church. It depends a bit on the circumstances, but sometimes a significant number of the congregation will leave and go with the pastor to his new position, or sometimes they will just leave. Sometimes it precipitates a huge power struggle, because the church / identity / pastor link is so strong the vacuum needs to be filled. Sometimes the position can never be filled, because the new guy can never be as good as the old guy.

But I asked - what about sending missionaries. If it is so difficult for a pastor to leave, what hope is there for the congregation to send him off as a missionary.

'Not much' was my friend's reply.

I'm very thankful for the 'sending' culture of our churches in Sydney. To be sending the pastor away to serve away from 'homebase' short-term or long-term is seen as a great thing to do, not a threat to the health and identity of the church. That is a wonderful reflection of God's concern for the whole world, not just the bit of the world inside our own parish boundary.

(By the way, the picture is of the church Friday night men's group I am part of)

Monday, January 24, 2011

A quick update on courses

Just wanted to let you know of some good things that are happening at the moment.

Last week, and this week, there is an 'intensive' class running for staffworkers of COMPA - the Mexican IFES group. 10 staffworkers have gathered from all corners of Mexico here in Monterrey, at the house of our friends John and Jan to have a 'mini-sabbatical' of study and fellowship while the uni students are on holidays.

The aim is that each student will complete (including doing the exams) 3 MOCLAM courses in 2 weeks. Last week I taught New Testament 1 to one group, while another group did Old Testament 2. This week, I'm John and I are teaching Old Testament 1, while one of the more experienced students is teaching Creation to New Creation to a couple of newbies, and two others are helping each other through Reformation Church History. In their free time they are reading Doctrine 1 by themselves.

Its been a great time so far, and promises to continue this week. Amongst the study there is plenty of time for discussing other issues, eating and mucking around.

So - good things happening here.