Monday, December 30, 2013

Is Australia over the limit?

They say it is hard to see your own blind spot when you are living in the culture.

Australians look across the Pacific and say the Americans have a blind spot when it comes to guns. True enough.

But here's an observation looking west across the date line.

Australians have a blind spot when it comes to alcohol.

Yes - I know the issue has been getting some press recently with various violent assaults, but as a nation, very little, if anything is being done about it. (In the same way that a couple of awful gun "events" in the US generated a lot of angst and debate for a few months, but in the long run politics and the power of lobby groups meant nothing of any substance has changed.)


Because it seems that Australians are just blind to the pervasiveness of alcohol in everyday, neighbourhood culture - and until that is addressed, nothing will change.

Here's just one anecdotal observation which I think illustrates the point.

Over our winter holidays we've been enjoying watching the ABC series "The Time of our Lives." We've enjoyed the "normal-ness" of the people involved, their dealings with relationship successes and failures, kids, just the coming and going of life. We also enjoy the setting in Melbourne as it reminds us of 6 great months we had living there.

But for a show about a group of "normal" people, there is an enormous amount of alcohol consumed.

Admittedly, a couple of the characters manage an comedy club where there is a bar, so scenes there tend to be in the evening and there is alcohol being served - OK - that is the scene.

But every time the two partners have a chat about the business or a get together there is beer.

When one of the characters comes home from work after a tough day she is routinely offered a glass of wine to "make things better" in the way the English would offer a cup of tea.

Character x arrives unexpectedly at the house of character y at dinner time, is invited to stay and needs to go and get a bottle of wine to "contribute".

Two characters need to talk through a relational issue - they go out for a drink to do it (rather than going out for a coffee or a meal.)

When family members wrestle with the consequences of family breakdown, pre-teen angst and unemployment, it is dealt with sensitively, compassionately and with careful and expressive writing. When a character deals with her relational pain by regularly getting drunk, everyone giggles at her.

When a character is done for low range drink driving, it is laughed off and seen as an opportunity for bike riding and broadening his horizons.

Yes - the government needs to step in an enact Newcastle style lockouts and shot bans and all that stuff, but for any of that to happen, or to work, it seems to me that society needs to ask the question. As a society, are we over the limit?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas in Mexico

Christmas eve here in Mexico, which means Christmas Day in Australia. As we sit in our winter clothes on a cold, crisp day, it is a slightly strange experience reading the reports of carols in the carpark wearing shorts and eating ice creams, midnight carols services and various stages of feast preparation.

All the Christmas action happens on the night of Christmas eve here. Our church has a Christmas service at 6pm, although traditionally there aren't many people at it because the big family get together is getting underway. A huge family feast followed by present giving at midnight is the traditional way. For the adventurous, there are often amateur fireworks, and then Santa presents on Christmas morning. And thats it. The 25th is about recuperating.

Most churches do not have anything on Christmas Day - ours tried it a couple of years ago but so few people came it wasn't worth the effort.

What will Christmas look like for us?

Christmas Eve - I'm working. I've got a stack of exams to be marking and various bits and pieces to do for the new year. During the afternoon we'll skype with the Christmas early birds in Australia. We'll go to church at 6pm where a few of us will probably play music. Then we'll come home and have a quiet dinner. We'll have our traditional family breakfast of pancakes, strawberries and ice cream (strawberries are great here!) do presents on Christmas morning while the turkey is cooking, and enjoy a big Christmas lunch - even with Christmas pudding!

Christmas is one of the times of the year when I think we feel most strongly that we are foreigners living in a foreign land. It is very different here. Yes - there are different Christmas traditions, foods etc - no big deal. But most clearly, we are relationally foreigners. The majority of Mexicans are at big family celebrations tonight - as are many Australian friends - but for us, it'll be just us.

Have a great day celebrating Christmas. Enjoy the family, the food, the presents, all the good ways in which God blesses us. But most of all, remember the saviour.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A great and important read

If you are looking for a "thinking" book to read this Christmas break, can I recommend Dr Megan Best's "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made - Ethics and the beginning of human life" (2012, Matthias Media).

It is a great book - I've just finished it.

I highly recommend it because it gives the average person like me a thoughtful and perceptive insight into the ethics involving the beginning of human life. Dr Best is a committed Christian, a very smart lady, has a sensitive pastoral heart and writes brilliantly. Her desire for people to understand the science, the history, the theology and the pastoral implications of the ethics of reproduction, assisted reproduction technology, experimentation, stem cells and all sorts of other related topics is clear and helpful.

Megan writes clearly and in a really engaging way - the book is 500 pages and I read it while on a couple of flights this week - it is that sort of deep, but in an engaging sort of way book. You don't need a degree in embryology / ethics / law / theology to understand what she's saying.

For me, a few things stood out, and these are the reasons why I think you should buy and read this book.

- The science of the beginning of life is complicated. We need someone like Megan to explain what is going on. I learnt things that perhaps I should have known earlier... (It has actually been a really useful reference book for us to give to daughters growing up in our house.)

- The ethics associated with the science are equally complicated, but cannot be ignored or distilled into "soundbites". It is clear that the debate regarding these issues has often descended into "Who can produce the best one-liner or the most emotive story". As a society we can't make decisions about human life on this basis. This book opens to door to the possibility of an informed discussion.

- From the statistics presented in the book, the ethics of the beginning of life touch an extraordinary number of people. We are living in dreamland if we think these issues have not / do not / will not touch our lives or the lives of those close to us. This book will help us help them.

- The pastoral advice Megan gives is sensitive, wise, careful and based on many years of experience. Great advice for those walking in the pain and fog of infertility or suffering loss, or for those who are wanting to support those who are.

I urge you to read this book. It will help you think carefully, act wisely and in a godly way and encourage those around you in their walk.

PS For those who are blessed to have children, I think it will also encourage you to love them more deeply.

PPS  Don Carson says this is the "must read" book in the field. Who am I to argue?

Monday, November 4, 2013

One of many Copernican revolutions in Romans

I've enjoyed teaching Romans this semester in our little seminary here. I think the students have enjoyed it as well...

One of the great things about Romans is the number of times Paul takes a concept - often from the history or traditions of Israel - and turns it on its head, Copernicus style. And after he's "done a Copernicus" to the concept, it is almost impossible to think about it any other way but the new way.

In our studies of chapters 9-11 last week we came across one of these beautiful moments.

In the history of Israel, being a descendent of Abraham is one of the key concepts. To be in the line of Abraham means you are in the line of God's promises, you can look forward to his blessings and the great inheritance that awaits his people. The Israelites were very proud of their "bloodline" and the benefits that "being in the family" brought.

But look at what Paul does with this.

"For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring." (Rom 9:6-8 ESV)

See how he turns the definition of "descendent" on its head? The thing that matters is not your "flesh" line, but your "promise" line.

He then goes on demonstrate the existence and importance of this re-definition by using two examples from Israel's history.

First - Abraham himself. In verse 9 Paul quotes Genesis 18, when God visits Abraham and Sarai and promises that this time next year they will have a son, the son who will carry on their name, despite their advanced years. The key fact is that at this point in Abraham's life, he already has a son, Ishmael. In "bloodline" thinking, the descendent exists because Abraham has taken things into his own hands and had a son with his servant. But that son is not the son of the promise. Isaac is yet to be born. Promise "trumps" bloodline.

Second - Jacob and Esau (v10-12). Perhaps the most famous demonstration of God's electing power. Twins, whose birth order defines their "bloodline" standing, and yet, the divine promise reverses the order. Instead of the younger serving the older as would be expected, the older serves the younger. The promise of God again trumps the bloodline.

So what's the point of all this?

To make it clear that it is not your mum, your dad or your family heritage that saves you. It is your inclusion in the promises of God. And Romans makes it abundantly clear that this inclusion is achieved through faith in the saving work of Christ - which in fact is not an achievement of ours, but of God.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Giving the right impression matters.

In the last few days, the new Prime Minister of Australia, and several other members of parliament have got themselves into a spot of bother with the way they have used (and some say, mis-used) their travel entitlements. It seems to be a case of "one man's junket for a sporting event is another man's opportunity to meet members of the electorate at a community event."

Who knows what will come of it? Probably not much. (and living in a country where rip-offs of the system usually involve figures containing many more zeros, it hardly seems big bikkies).

However, there is an important lesson to be learnt for those of us who have the privilege of being paid from donations, and there have an important level of accountability to our donors. (To fit in with my opening argument, I'm using the term "donation" in a very broad sense, to include tax! But I think the issue of accountability still stands.)

The lesson is, we need to do the right thing, but more than that, we need to be seen to be doing the right thing. The impression we give is just as important as the fact.

Christian workers, pastors, missionaries - we need to take notice of this, because the dangers that this issue can cause to us personally and to the ministries we are involved in are real and severe.

First, there is the danger to the reputation of the gospel. There are those who will want to tear Christians down at the slightest hint of us misusing the system. Opponents of the gospel would like nothing more than to highlight the moral, legal or personal failure of a Christian to further their cause. From time to time articles are written and fingers are pointed at the way churches and christian organisations use or misuse their tax status. Failures, or perceived failures in this area do not recommend the gospel.

Second, we have a responsibility to be good stewards of the money that has been given to us by our supporters and church members. In response to our requests, many people give sacrificially and generously, and it is our responsibility to ensure that our care in spending matches their care in giving, both in what we actually do, but also in the impression we give of how we do it. Because no matter how many audit reports and bank statements and scrutinised budgets are presented at the annual meeting, if the beneficiary of the donations is perceived to be wasting the funds, it will leave a bad taste in the mouth of the donor.

Let me share a personal example. I was recently on a multi-stop trip, a long one, paid for totally by generous donors to CMS Australia, the mission organisation that does a great job looking after us here in Mexico. I had been at a conference of theological educators - people like me who are directors of seminaries, leaders of training institutions etc. A group of us caught the bus to the airport and so we were checking in for our various flights together.

Two things happened which made me think carefully about this issue.

1. Earlier this year, a generous supporter gave me a one year membership to the Qantas Club. This means in some airports and with some airlines I can enjoy the benefits of their "VIP departure lounges" (basically free wifi, comfy chairs and snacks). It is really nice and it was generous of him to give it to me. He knows that I have a lot of trips and that small things like this make the experience a bit more comfortable. One of the benefits of this membership is that it allows me to skip the check-in line and use the business class desk.

So, off I went, checked in at the business class desk and met up with the group again later on.

A few of them said - wow - your organisation must be doing OK - you get to fly business! (said with not a particularly positive tone of voice!) So I explained the situation and their attitude immediately changed. What if I hadn't have had the opportunity to explain myself? I think their perception of "overseas funded missionaries" might not have been so good.

I know this because of the second thing that happened.

2. As I was leaving the check in line, a couple of others from the conference also went to the business counter to check in. And I couldn't help noticing that when they finished, they had boarding passes with those magic words "Business class" written on them.

What was my impression? Well, they must be doing alright to be able to waste money like that. What can't they fly economy like the rest of us? Are they better than us?

Wow - maybe they had used some points to upgrade? Maybe they had a sore back and had asked nicely? Maybe a generous person had given them a membership that gave them an upgrade? Who knows - but my reaction to what I saw was at the same time severe, jealous and judgemental.

For me, it reinforced the need to be seen to be doing the right thing as well as actually doing the right thing. Sure, maybe we need to work harder at educating our donors how we spend our money and being as open as we can about doing the right thing, but we also have a responsibility to be seen to be doing the right thing.

As world travel becomes easier, and as opportunities and invitations for travel become more frequent, here's a few things I've learnt along the way about doing the right thing, and making sure the impression you give is also that you are doing the right thing.

1. Make sure your accounting and reporting structure is accurate and externally audited - whether it is an official "government required" audit or just someone external who can check it for you. It is an insurance policy for you and for your organisation against any accusation of impropriety.

2. Don't not use the system for small transactions. If you are willing to fudge a bit on small amounts, the temptation is to change the definition of "small". When I'm travelling, I keep a small notebook with me and jot down all expenses, with receipts where possible. (I understand there are apps for that!)

3. You won't have the opportunity to explain your circumstances to everyone, so be humble and circumspect about it. Enjoy the opportunities you have, but don't brag about them.

4. If you must post "travel reports" on facebook, consider the impression you are giving. Inevitably, the photos at the beach, in the game park or at the national monuments are more interesting than your time in the library, giving the conference talk or meeting the pastor's group, so they'll end up dominating your postings. Think about the impression this gives.

5. Don't just give reports of your "extraordinary" activities. Talk about your day to day life with the same enthusiasm as the exciting bits.

6. Consider the way you talk about the people you are working with / serving alongside. In your excitement and enthusiasm, try not to come across as the saviour. Admit your difficulties and hardships, be honest about your homesickness, feelings of being out of your depth, loneliness. Real reflections help give the impression that you are working, not just having a fantastic holiday.

7. If you do have a holiday - be honest and open about it! Don't be a gospel tourist. Just be a tourist! Enjoy the opportunity to work, enjoy the opportunity to be a tourist, and do what you can to not confuse the two.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

High emotions, higher certainty

Latin America is a very emotional place – keep an eye out for the Latin American teams and their supporters in the World Cup next year and you’ll soon get the idea.

This “high octane emotion” is not only evident in the stands of the football stadium, but in church as well. Prayers in our church often involve tears genuine tears – both of joy and sorrow. There are churches here where I have experienced a level of genuine and authentic Christian joy not often seen in “the west”. For a pretty reserved bloke like me, this can be a bit of a challenge (although I can now give strangers a warm hug like a local!)

Of course emotions come with a warning. Emotions come and emotions go. They can be manipulated or turned on and off for show. You can feel great because you’re well fed, have a comfy seat and your favourite song is on the radio. You can feel bad because there was no milk in the fridge, the bus was late and there’s something wrong with the wifi. As I write this I am at the end of a long multi-location road trip and my feelings are “I’ve pretty much had enough and the next time I have to stand in an immigration or check in line, the groan may be more on the audible end of the spectrum than quietly internal!”

If we consider this rollercoaster of feelings in the context of the way we feel about God, whether we feel valued or loved by him, it doesn’t take long to see that we’re going to have good days and bad days, high times and low times. That is the reality of our life. The question is, what do we do about it? How do we respond, especially in the low times?

One of the reasons for the trip is that the GBU (IFES in Chile) asked me to speak on Romans at their annual training camp, and I’m thankful to them because it gave me the incentive I needed to get stuck into some careful reading and thinking.

As I was preparing to explain Romans 6 I noticed that we have something greater than emotions. In the context of explaining the new life that we have because we are justified by faith in Christ and not by the law, Paul uses these words and phrases.

“Do you not know…?” (v3)
“We shall certainly be…” (v5)
“We know that…” (v6)
“We believe (trust) that…” (v8)
“We know that…” (v9)
“Do you not know…” (v16)
“you have become…” (v17)

The chapter is driven by a whole lot of facts, things that we know, things that we can be sure of.

I’d say that Paul’s main idea in the chapter is not that we know things, but that the things we know (ie: the work of Christ on the cross) are very important – but I think Paul’s appeal for us to be living as people who have new life comes not from something that comes and goes, nor is based on whether we feel warm or cold towards God, but of facts, of knowledge, of sure things.

We know we are loved by God, we know we are a new creation, we know we are not slaves to sin. Therefore, we can be confident of our relationship with God, despite the way we currently feel.

That is great news, especially when you’re in a trough rather than a peak.

So if you’re in a trough, be encouraged – your closeness to God is not proportional to your feelings. Fortunately, we can be much more secure than that. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The world's most most liveable city is...

The results of the 2013 survey of the World's most liveable cities have just been released. Melbourne won, and three other Australian cities - Sydney, Adelaide and Perth all made it into the top 10.

Whether you agree or not with the Economist Intelligence Unit's criteria and the associated accusations of "anglo-centricity" (ie: a liveable city means an English speaking city), I think most would agree with the general tone of the list. On a sunny spring day where would you rather be? Melbourne or Douala?

Of course we would rather be strolling around the waterfront on the harbour or Port Hacking or taking in the new blooms in the botanical gardens. Who doesn't enjoy the afternoon sunshine watching the AFL finals at "The G" or the distinctive smell of the freshly cut lawn of our suburban block.

All these things are great - and we miss them. But with their goodness and pleasure comes a trap.

The trap is, that living in one of the most liveable cities in the world can lull us into thinking, we've got it all. Heaven is here for us now. We're living in "God's country."

That has a lot of implications for us - including where we put our hope and what we think is important. But it also makes it difficult to leave.

Let's be frank - there are not many moments when I'm working here or driving around the city when I'm tempted to think "This is heaven on earth". Life here is harder than it is in Sydney. Not just because we are foreigners - it is harder for our local friends as well.

So if you're living in Sydney or Melbourne, leaving to go somewhere else for the sake of the gospel might well be harder - because the "differential" between the life you have and the life you will have is so great.

But here's the thing. Living a happy "liveable" life is not the main game.

Remember when Jesus was talking to his disciples about wealth and riches. He said

"I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing ... Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom and these things will be added to you." (Luke 12:22-23, 29-31)

I wonder if Jesus was speaking to Aussies today he'd say don't be anxious about what you will eat or what you will put on or the liveability of your city?

But what are we to seek? The kingdom of God. And that includes people from all nations, tribes and tongues. And to reach them, we need to go to them. That means we need to give up our desire for liveability, and pursue the priorities of God.

For some, that means leaving a top 10 city?


Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A (very important) difference I only just realised

The list I could write of things that are different about living here compared to living in Australia is very long and would range from the trivial but kindof interesting (there is a guy on each petrol bowser who we tip after he has filled us up) to the jealousy-inducing (I take our car to be fully serviced and it cost less than $150) to the ridiculous (items of stationery are really expensive here).

But in the last few days I've realised a very big, and important difference.

That is, there are a huge number of people who live in Mexico who are taking steps to go and live somewhere else - and by that I mean, in another country. Most often, in the United States, but there are other places considered as well - Canada, France, Germany.

Just in the last two days I have spoken to three different people who are about to move, are waiting for their papers so they can move, or are going to move anyway whether they get their papers or not. Interestingly, these three people are from quite different "levels" of society. Two of them you would say have "respectable" and secure jobs.

But as I've thought about other people I have met over the last couple of years, the list of those wanting and planning to leave rapidly grows.

And so I got thinking about these people. Are there generalisations that can be drawn about them as a group?

Some of them have children, others don't. Some have close family members who they will leave behind, others don't. Some have a clear place and job to go to, others will go somewhere and work it out when they get there. Some speak the language of the country they hope to go to, others don't. Some have a relative already in the place they want to go, some will arrive on their own. Some of them have personally experienced a threat to their security, others not.

And so - no, it is very hard to say "the people who want to leave are like ..."

Except in one way. When you get into conversation with people who want to leave Mexico and move north (or somewhere else) there is one word that always comes up in conversation. Opportunity.

They see that moving to the US or beyond will bring new opportunities. In education, training, wealth, security, travel, status - it is all about opportunity.

This is a huge difference to life in Australia. Think about your circle of friends, or your church, or your neighbourhood in Australia. How many people do you know who want to move to another country so they have more opportunity? Virtually none I'd imagine. People move to Australia because of opportunity, not away from it.

I have to admit that realising this has made me sad. It is sad to know so many people want to leave their country because they think (and I suspect in many cases they are right) that another country will give them more opportunities.

It is also a challenge for us here, because those who are leaders in churches are not immune from this desire for opportunities on the other side of the border. Whether they get lucky and are awarded a scholarship to study in the US or find a position in a church there, the reality is that just as some countries suffer a "brain drain" as their best and brightest go overseas to study and research and work, there are countries in Latin America that are, and will continue to suffer a "ministry drain", as those who are busy serving in their local churches head north.

In the face of this challenge, there are two immediate responses.

1. We need to do what we can to train people in their context, without requiring them to leave (and therefore opening the door for the option to never return). The work I am doing here with MOCLAM is critical with that.

2. We need to do what we can to be training up the next generation of ministry workers, because even without planting new churches and ministries, there is a reasonable chance they will be needed in their local church just because of the people who are waiting for a greencard.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The best leader of a church service I have ever met

Last Sunday I had the privilege of being part of a church service that was led by my friend, who is (IMHO) the best leaders of church services I have ever met. Here’s 10 reasons why.

1. Everything he says oozes the gospel.
Whether he is saying a few words of welcome, directing us to the notices for the week or interviewing a visitor, everything he says oozes the gospel. The vocabulary and themes of grace, forgiveness, joy and peace are everywhere.

2. He is friendly
You can’t help but like this guy. He makes you think that he is glad you are there. And before or after church when you speak to him you realise he actually thinks that.

3. He is structured, and the structure is instructive
The way he leads church indicates that he has thought about what he is doing, and has structured all the elements to achieve various ends. Each element teaches us something, but in fact the way in which the elements are ordered teaches us as well. For example, we confess and hear the gospel message of forgiveness before we celebrate the Lord’s supper together. Very 1 Corinthians 11.

4. There is lots of Bible.
Not only do we read big chunks of the Bible in preparation for the sermon, but also as part of the general flow of church. We are welcomed with words from scripture, encouraged, rebuked and prayers use the language of scripture. This is clearly a consequence of his Anglican and BCP heritage, and relates closely to point 3.

5. He is informal, but not casual.
When he leads, we are made to feel like we are doing this together and we are all “normal”, but not in a way which makes us think what we are doing is unimportant.  There is something special about the gathering we are participating in. We are meeting with God and with each other. And yet there is nothing “priestly” or “different level” to who he is. When we are meeting together he points us to our heavenly father, rather than “the big guy upstairs who we can call mate.”

6. He is welcoming and values everyone being there.
A consequence of point 2. He welcomes some people by name, says “it is good to see you” – things like that. He has a great knack for names.

7. What he does up front matches what he says and who he is.
The man has a lots of words to say, and his words ooze the gospel, but so do his actions and personality. From his body language to the way he treats others, everything he says is reinforced by what he does.

8. The values the participation of others.
He is not a control freak or a “I need to do it all” sort of guy. He welcomes others to preach, read, lead in prayer, give announcements etc and visibly and audibly appreciates their contribution.

9. He is unapologetic
He tells us what why we are here, what we are going to do and what we might like to do in response – and is unapologetic about it. There is no sense of “I know this might make you feel awkward and so I’m going to tone it down a bit”. No, it is all clear (while considering 2,5 and 6.)

10. He is instructive
He wants us to learn from what he does, and so he should. He is not just leading us through the service, he is teaching us how to respond to what we are hearing. As the service leader, he has realised that he has an important teaching role, and he has taken on that role with great consideration and care.

I hope you have a service leader like this. If not – feel free to pass this on!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Classes cancelled tomorrow

This semester I've been teaching a discipleship class at a seminary here in Monterrey. It has been fantastic - the dozen students are great, enthusiastic, asking good questions, learning - it is a joy to be teaching them.

But tomorrow night, classes are cancelled.

You see, Monterrey has two football teams in the Mexican League, and the home stadium of one of them (Los Rayados) is 2 blocks from the seminary. Tomorrow night is "El clasico", the local derby between Los Rayados and Los Tigres. And that means just one thing.

Enthusiastic chaos!

At the same time I'd normally be teaching, 50,000+ people with trumpets, flags, banners, drums and general happiness will be trying to park their cars and walk to the stadium, past my classroom. 500 transit police are being deployed into the area to try and keep things relatively under control - but it won't work!
(For Australian readers, think trying to teach a class out the front of Flinders Street station on Grand Final afternoon, or outside Olympic Park station on State of Origin night - with bands!)

Not an ideal learning environment.

So - class is off tomorrow.

Will I be watching the game?

No - it is only on Pay TV and we don't have it. But, some of our neighbours do, and I know which house supports which team, so I can keep score by listening to the cheers.

Vamos los rayados!

(By the way, "Bimbo" is the local bread company and sponsors quite a few of the teams. The players are not making a statement about their manlihood!)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The challenge of success in a bi-vocational setting

There are many things that are different about ministry in Latin America, but a conversation I had recently gave me an insight into one difference and resulting challenge that hadn't even crossed my mind.

Many, if not the majority of the pastors I am working alongside here are bi-vocational. As well as pastoring a church they have a "day job" to pay the bills. Most commonly this is the result of a combination of factors - economic, cultural, family expectations etc.

Being bi-vocational has all sorts of implications. Greatest of all is that you generally don't have much time on your hands. You are busy doing your "day job" and then in your other hours you are frantically trying to do the best you can for your church, prepare your sermon for Sunday, visit those who need visiting etc. I think most of us would be aware, or even be able to sympathise to some extent, with the pressures of wearing different hats.

But there is one aspect of "bi-vocationality" that hadn't even crossed my mind - and that is the way you think about success.

In "day job world", success can often be measured in quite concrete indicators like sales figures, investment performance, exam results, efficiency improvement, production targets being exceeded, waiting times reduced, customer satisfaction, number of enrolments etc.

But in ministry, how do we measure success? Should we even consider it as a appropriate category to be measured?
Perhaps categories like "faithfulness" and "love" and "patience" might be better indicators of success and performance, not sales figures or attendance numbers, but how do we measure those things? And if we are to measure them, can the very act of measuring and analysing them create an unhelpful rod for our own backs?

For bi-vocational pastors, the tension of working in "two worlds", and the difficulty that comes from stepping from one world to the other is enormous. Measuring the "success" of their ministry can be one of those areas where it is so easy to unconsciously transfer the thinking of one sphere of life into another, with the result that often the pastor can easily feel dis-heartened because they are not seeing the "performance" that they see in the other workplace.

Of course, such feedback can motivate and energise the pastor to try new things, to motivate his people to work hard on a gospel project or some personal milestones. But it can also mean that perhaps less gospel-centred thinking can creep in as well as a way of "boosting the numbers." Latin America is full of examples of churches that have tried to increase their "success" in ways which focus on the world and what itching ears want to hear, rather than on faithful, loving and patient gospel proclamation.

I am grateful for the insights which my bi-vocational brothers have shared with me and for their willingness to serve in such difficult contexts. We need to continue to pray for them and support them as they carry on this difficult task.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

What do you do at a conference on mission?

I'm in Orlando, Florida at the moment, participating in a pretty big conference about christian mission. (Well, actually, OK - it is huge! At the moment the "pre-conference" is on and there are 3,000 people at it. I've heard there will be about 10,000 by the time the main conference gets going tomorrow. That is a lot of people seated in one room!)

Today, one of the speakers (John Piper - if that name means anything to you) had us think about what you actually do at a conference about mission. Yes, we have heard from a couple of missionaries (although not that many), I've just been to a great session about the history of mission in Latin America and I'm just about to have dinner with a group of leaders from Latin America, but what is the essence of a mission conference?

His answer was great. The key activity at a mission conference has to be the opening and teaching the scriptures. Why? Because it is as we open and study the scriptures that we understand what mission is, and learn what will sustain mission and missionaries.

So for the last day and a bit we've been reading and studying 2 Cor 4-5, and it has just oozed gospel, gospel motivated mission, and gospel sustained mission.

The temptation at a mission conference is to get all caught up with the missionaries and spectacular stories or success or failure, or to hear about great needs or rejoice in needs met. And those are all good things - but they won't in the long run motivate or sustain mission - especially when it is difficult. What will motivate and sustain mission is the gospel - a firm understanding of the gospel its place in the world.

I am glad to say - I've been challenged and motivated once again by what I've heard.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Dreams and aspirations

I enjoy ready the travel section of the Sydney Morning Herald. I enjoy hearing different experiences that people are having from around the world and seeing if I recognise places or airports as they are mentioned.

I especially like reading the travel letters in Saturday's paper. Some of the things that people complain about are in the hilarious / get-a grip-on-reality category ("we ran out of champagne half way through our flight - it was an absolute disaster") and there are also good news stories about airline and hotel staff going out of their way to be helpful and accommodating.

Today, one correspondent caught my eye. Michael Schokman was commenting on the paper's interest in reporting on the latest designs, fads and gadgets that are available to travellers who get to sit up the front of the plane, and there by definition are out of reach to the vast majority of us who sit in squashed seats counting down the hours and dreaming of that one time when an upgrade might come our way. (By the way, forget it, I fly a lot of miles, have some "status" as a frequent flyer, usually travel on my own, dress reasonable well and and well behaved, and have never once been upgraded... but I digress.)

Michael defends this publication and promotion of the impossible, saying "I would hope such an article would inspire children such as my 12-year-old son, who is made about planes, to maybe get a better education than his old man, work smarter, and one day do what I couldn't." (ie: fly first class)

Is that what we really want for our kids? For them to be able to fly first class? Surely there is more to life than that?

Jesus said "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth or rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where you treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6:19-21)

What do we dream about? What do we dream about for our kids? What do we communicate to our kids as our ambitions and our dreams for them?

Surely it is more than a good education, a good job and the ability to fly first class? We need to make our ambitions heavenly ambitions, and therefore have our dreams, investments and efforts reflect that heavenly calling.

The reality is, if we want our kids to understand a dream beyond the good job and the lavish lifestyle, we're going to have to be very intentional about communicating that, because that is what they get fed every hour of the day.

So let's dream, let's wonder, let's talk about what might / could be. But let's make the point of our dreaming lasting heavenly treasure.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Oh the humiliation!

Working in a language which you've had to learn as an adult is a humiliating experience! We've been here for 4 years now and I am still making the most basic mistakes. It is very frustrating.

I was chatting to a fellow missionary here the other day, and he was sharing his frustration at this week-in, week-out reminder of his failings. He shared that one of the things that frustrates him most is that it really threatens his ability to be useful and to be a "contributor to the team." In the end he said "I want people to like me and I want to feel like I am doing something useful - and my daily struggle with Spanish threatens that."

But he then went on to say - that is just ungodliness on his part, and it is something he needs to repent of.

I was thinking about this conversation later, and it really resonated with me. Language proficiency can be just another example of relying on our own abilities and our own talents, rather than being a jar of clay which displays that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2Cor 4:7) We want to fight the crushing, perplexing and despairing (2Cor 4:8) which comes from bad pronunciation and poor conjugation with an excellent fricative 'd' and a smooth use of the subjunctive.

But that's not where the apostle finds his strength in 2 Cor 4. He says

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you."  2Cor 4:7-12 (ESV)

I doubt whether anyone is going to kill me because I get my pronouns mixed up, but it can sure feel like  your contribution slips quickly down the "useful" rating when it happens. Our strength and our confidence needs to be in Christ, not in our abilities.

So if you are ministering in your own language, how might this be a problem for you? Where is your confidence? Or where is your lack of confidence, and how do you respond to that?

Is it in strategy - those key steps to implement? Is it in the schmickness and professionalism of style or presentation? Is it in a particular model or mode?

Wherever it is - be a jar of clay.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Helping the theological famine

One of the great challenges facing anyone involved in theological education in a language other than English is the availability (or more to the point, the unavailability) of resources.

In English, we are blessed with a massive number of books, articles, training resources, conferences and mp3s  - and the ease of the internet makes accessibility for many people more or less a non-issue.

This is certainly not the case once you step outside the English-speaking world. For example, in Spanish I am guessing that for every 100 English books and training resources, maybe there is 1 in Spanish. (That is a complete guess and I have no hard data to back it up, but that's the vibe.)

The resources are often also expensive, because they require translation and a lower production run for a smaller market, so in many cases, out of reach of the people who need them - pastors, church leaders etc.

I understand from my friends working in other cultures that the situation is equal, or worse for them.

I remember speaking to someone from Argentina who I have great respect for, and he said that if he knew anyone who was serious about doing some theological study, the first thing they should do is learn English - because that is where the resources are.

It is great to see that there are various groups trying to address this theological famine. In Spanish, books by Vaughan Roberts, Don Carson, the 9Marks crowd, and Matthias Media are slowly making their way into the market. Along with this increased availability comes an increasing willingness to buy, read and study - which is really excellent.

I particularly want to highlight the work of The Gospel Coalition - International Outreach.

This project, led by my good friend Bill Walsh has a number of projects on the go, but my favourite is the "Packing Hope" project.

TGC-IO raises money to translate and print great titles in some of the language groups that are suffering a theological famine, and then make the books available for distribution - using a really ingenious method.

The idea is that if you are a US resident and you are going overseas, either on a holiday or on a short term mission trip, you get in contact with TGC-IO and organise a box load of books to take with you. The books are free, all you need to do is pay the delivery from the warehouse to you. Brilliant!

There are a great number of titles available, and all the time new projects are seeking funding - in fact at the moment, Vaughan Roberts' "God's Big Picture" in Spanish is seeking funding.

If you are in US reading this and know people going overseas, please highlight this great opportunity to them. And if you are interested in helping relieve the theological famine that so many languages are suffering under, please donate to this great project.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

An open letter

An open letter to my brothers studying a DMin.

Dear Brothers,

I’m writing to you because I know that you think theological education is very important. You have demonstrated this in the sacrifices (both time and financial) you have made over many years. For many of you, you’ve served a 2 year apprenticeship, studied full time at Moore College for 4 years, have studied part time as an MA student, and are now making the long trek overseas to study your DMin while busily working in your church. I commend your commitment and effort to be well prepared for the ministries that God has prepared for you.

In this context, I’d like to share a challenge with you.

In many parts of the world, Christian leaders have nothing like the opportunities that you and I have to study and prepare themselves for ministry. For many, the opportunity to study theology is an economic and cultural impossibility, and yet they need to lead churches, teach their congregations and deal with the pastoral difficulties of life just like we do. In reality, they are lacking the most basic skills of reading the Bible and being able to share it with others. While there is absolutely no question about their faithfulness and their commitment to serving our Lord, many times their lack of discernment is causing problems for them and the congregations they lead. More and more we are seeing that as “schmick” packages are introduced to these hungry leaders, they are falling victim to false doctrines, such as the prosperity gospel, with disastrous results.

While we need to take a multi-pronged approach to helping equip these pastors and leaders, theological education is a key prong.

As people who have benefited so greatly from the great wealth of theological resources, I would like to challenge and invite you to be involved in the provision of basic theological education for those who have far less opportunities than us. Specifically, I want to challenge you to be significantly involved in paying for those who cannot pay for themselves.

There are many opportunities for doing this. I am sure you know of seminaries overseas that are struggling to offer the scholarships that their students need to study, and in many cases, the value that we get for our money is incredible. In Cuba, $50 provides transport, tutoring, food and lodging for one student to complete 2 ThC subjects as part of a 1 week MOCLAM (Moore College in Latinoamérica) intensive. In 2012 over 1,000 Cubans participated in this program – some of them studying up to 8 subjects in one year! In Paraguay young church planters and leaders can be taught a ThC subject in one week for less than the cost of a meal at LAX. In Chile the Centre for Pastoral Studies (CEP) tries to help students coming from the remote parts of Chile and from other Latin American countries, and then sends them back to minister in all sorts of situations.

Here is my challenge to you.

I know that studying a DMin is an expensive business. Would you please consider matching every dollar that you or your church spends on your DMin studies, with a gift to the scholarship fund of a developing world theological institution?

Please take the time to consider this challenge seriously and prayerfully.

Of course, I would be happy to give any further information, engage with you about this, or provide some direction as to where and how you might be able to direct your money.

Your brother

Peter Sholl
Monterrey, Mexico.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

That was a bit different...

Living in another culture certainly presents its fair share of surprises, and happily the vast, vast majority of them are good / happy / great for a laugh.

I guess we'll look back on this one like that, but, at the moment, maybe not so much.

Yesterday, daughter #1 (1st year of High School) came home talking about a movie they had watched at school. She was a bit disturbed by it - nothing major, just a bit bothered. It was on Youtube, so we found it and last night I watched it.

It was a New York Times documentary about a family in Pakistan, and the effect that the Taliban had on their life. I think (although I am not sure) that the daughter in the film was the girl who was shot recently by the Taliban - an event that made world headlines.

Anyway - it was pretty confronting, I guess because a lot of what the Taliban is doing in this area of Pakistan is pretty confronting. We saw decapitated bodies, judicial beatings, and at one point we saw a close up video of someone being executed by being shot in the head with an AK-47!

An interesting choice to show to a bunch of 13 year olds!

It was tricky though, because apart from those scenes, it was a very good illustration of what happens when there is a different rule of law - and I think that is exactly the point the teacher was trying to make. But whoa - maybe there might have been some careful editing, or at least some sort of warning to "look away now if you have a sensitive stomach"

We wrote a letter to the head teacher, but as we were writing I was thinking about the violent society we live in and the gruesome pictures we see on the front page of the paper every day - I wonder if the teacher who reads our letter will think we are just being a bit soft?

But then again, I suspect quite a few parents might be thinking the same thing as us - but it takes more than thinking to try and counteract a cultural trend.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Real hope

In the lead up to Christmas I had the opportunity to preach in our church. They asked me to preach on the theme of hope, and I ended up focussing on 1 Corinthians 15.

It was an interesting week, because while I was preparing, a plane crashed near Monterrey, killing the famous Mexican singer Jenni Rivera and the other passengers on the plane. The crash happened in a remote mountain area so it took the rescue workers a few days to get there, process the site etc. During this time, the family of fans of Jenni were using the language of "hope" - along the lines of "we are hoping that they will find her alive." Of course all the evidence indicated that this wouldn't be the case. The speed of the impact, the fire etc - all pointed to a very sad outcome.

But it indicated very clearly the different ways in which the word "hope" is used. For the fans of Jenni, hope was what they had despite the evidence, despite the facts.

But in 1 Corinthians 15, hope is what we can have because of the evidence, because of the facts.

In verses 1-11 Paul presents the facts of the gospel. The facts of the live, death and resurrection of Christ - pretty much without interpretation or explanation. This passage reads like a kids holiday diary "this happened, then this happened then this...."

And it this factual presentation that then forms the basis of his argument, because the controversy of the day (and clearly there is nothing new under the sun) is that the resurrection didn't happen. OK - well, if that is the case, then there can't be any exceptions, and therefore Jesus did not rise from the dead either. And what is the result of that? v19 "If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied."

That is, if all the facts don't allow for the resurrection, then we can't have hope.

But in verse 20 we get one of those key Biblical words. "But"

But the facts are there. The resurrection did happen - and therefore we can have hope, a fact based hope.

And what really caught my eye was the thing that we can have hope in. We can have a sure, certain, "Biblical" hope in our resurrection. Because our resurrection follows on from the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is the firstfruits, the first one in a long line of those who will follow after him. And therefore, the question we can ask is not "If we will be resurrected" but "When we will be resurrected."

The hope we have of our new life is founded on the facts, not something we desire despite the facts.

So what difference does that make?

Well I was thinking about Jenni Rivera's family - waiting for news, for confirmation. How would they be feeling? Nervous. Fearful. Worried. Tense. Stressed.

Why? Because their hope is not based on the facts.

But Christian hope, a hope based on the facts means we can wait without fear or nervousness or worry or tension. Because we know our hope is certain.

Sure, there may be other factors that cause us to be fearful or tense or stressed, but they will pass. Our hope of the resurrection, based on the facts of the resurrection of Jesus should not be swayed.