New Chancellor at Queen’s

image174512enQueen’s University, Belfast has inaugurated a new Chancellor, His Excellency Kamalesh Sharma, who after a distinguished career as a diplomat, now serves as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth. He succeeds Senator George Mitchell who retired from the position this past summer after serving for 10 years.

In his inaugural address, Kamalesh endorsed the goal of the administration at Queen’s to see it become one of the top 100 universities in the world and he distinguished between globalisation and globalism. We recognise the phenomenon of globalisation, but globalism is a mindset, or an ideology, that emphasizes the current trend toward international organisations and institutions. Some people claim that globalism has one world government as its ultimate goal, a frightening notion for many, and one that would have some of my friends reaching for their Bibles and turning up the Book of Revelation.

What was interesting about the inaugural address was how the new Chancellor talked about globalism in exclusively humanistic terms. In working for an expanded, global mindset, there was no mention of anything spiritual or religious. This goal, he said, would be achieved by looking inside ourselves and working through education.

In our very religious world, its hard to see how increased international cooperation can be achieved, or how hearts and minds can be changed, without taking into account our identity as religious beings made in the image of God. The very basic issue of justice and human rights, a key component of any international society, cannot be addressed through a purely secular approach. Nicholas Wolterstorff makes this point in his book, Justice: Rights and Wrongs where he traces our intuitions about rights and justice back to the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

What we need, for a theistic grounding of human rights, is some worth-imparting relation of human beings to God that does not in any way involve a reference to human capacities. I will argue that being loved by God is such a relation; being loved by God gives a human being great worth. And if God loves equally and permanently each and every creature who bears the imago dei, then the relational property of being loved by God is what we have been looking for. bearing that property gives to each human being who bears it the worth in which natural human rights inhere.

I endorse the desire of Queen’s to increase its international and global connections, but that will be done best, not by suppressing its Christian foundations and opting for a purely secular, humanistic approach. We remember that the first Chancellor of Queen’s was The Earl of Shaftesbury, whose famous forebear initiated great social reforms in Britain as he worked out his strong Christian convictions.

2Of course, the most obvious Christian connection which Queen’s has is through that well-known son of Belfast, C.S Lewis, whose contribution to literature and Christianity is recognised in the C.S. Lewis Reading Room in the wonderful new library. Personally I would love to see Queen’s build on that connection and establish a C.S.Lewis Study Centre where an inter-disciplinary study of literature, Christian apologetics, and media could be focused. I am certain that such a facility would contribute to the international appeal and reputation of the university.

After all, who could fail to be interested in the writings of a man who gave us The Chronicles of Narnia, and who had so many insights?

Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.

Can a mortal man ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable.

A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful in his reading.

The Word made fresh

3Traditionally the second Sunday of Advent has been designated as Bible Sunday, an opportunity for Christians to reflect on the great theme of how the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Through the Bible, the written Word of God, we come to know Jesus Christ, the Living Word.

This week I was able to visit the Bible Society of Northern Ireland’s offices in Belfast and hear about the new and fresh ways in which they seek to fulfill their vision, namely, that all the people of the world would have access to the Bible in their heart language, in a medium they can understand, and at a price they can afford, so that they would be able to engage with the Word of God. The BSNI have carried on their ministry of publishing, promoting and distributing the Bible for over 200 years, and continues today through its enthusiastic team led by John Doherty. Continue reading “The Word made fresh”

Christmas gift ideas

When it comes to the excesses of commercialism and materialism obscuring the real meaning of Christmas, it has all been said before. Apart from the fact that most of us spend too much money at Christmas, we put ourselves under enormous pressure to come up with a gift that is just right. So how can we celebrate the true meaning of Christmas without endorsing all the excesses?

smalltearfundlogoTop of my list has to be Tearfund and Christian Aid. Tearfund’s Living Gifts is a great place to start and a wonderful gift idea. I have used these in the past, and I am happy to report that the recipients have been delighted. This year, these kinds of gifts have an added significance for us following our visit to Ethiopia. Two congregations which I visited recently gave me Living Gifts following my report on our travels and it was very thoughtful and most appropriate.

images-1Christian Aid’s equivalent is Present Aid which allows recipients to specify the object of the gift. In our materialistic Western society, these options are not only interesting but must be an essential item on our list of possible Christmas gifts. I suspect that most people will appreciate the thoughtfulness and intention of giving such gifts.

The Bible says that Christian giving should be willing and cheerful (II Corinthians 9:7), a regular pattern of life (I Corinthians 16:2), proportionate to one’s ability (I Corinthians 16:2), generous (II Corinthians 8:2,3) and sacrificial (Mark 12:42-44). The Bible clearly and repeatedly emphasises the need for Christians to care for the poor as one of the fundamental requirements of the gospel.

The Christmas story reminds us that Jesus himself was born to poor parents and that he had few possessions during his public ministry (Matthew 8:20). He said that as his followers do, or not do, to the hungry, thirsty and naked, so they either do it, or not do it, to him. (Matthew 25:35-45). Paul and the early church took Jesus’ teaching seriously and were “eager” to remember the poor (Galatians 2:10).

With your credit card close by, you don’t even have to move from in front of your computer screen to do this kind of Christmas shopping. Your friends will be delighted, the poor will benefit, and Christ will be honoured. It’s a “win, win, win” situation.

Wisdom from Andree

imagesAndree Seu was manager of the cafe at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia when I worked there and her comments and conversation about life around the seminary were always insightful, encouraging and wise. She is a regular contributor to World magazine where her column and articles are appreciated by so many of the magazine’s readers.

The last lines of her recent comments on Joshua 24 really struck me.

Herein is our comfort—that we do not save ourselves but God does all the saving. Herein is our dignity—that God allows us to become a part of that story.

I have been thinking recently on the importance of story and narrative in the Bible, and how the story of our lives fits into the great over-arching story of God’s redemption and salvation of his people. I think Andree does a great job of helping me to make the connection and to state it in a practical down-to-earth way that inspires faith and trust in God. As a fellow fiftysomething, I think she nails it in the context of a commentary on an ancient Old Testament passage.

God is not a history buff. You would almost think He was. He has so many chapters in his Book that recapitulate the history of the Hebrew people, sometimes starting with the wandering nomad from Ur, and sometimes from the parting of the Red Sea. And then there are the hundreds of other abbreviated synopses throughout the Bible, embedded in many a narrative.

And it seems like all His “favorites” are little history buffs like Him. The Psalmist tells again the “dark saying from of old,” though they are “things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us” (Psalm 78). Peter, baptized in the Spirit, becomes a raconteur (Acts 2). Stephen’s last act before his executioners is to tell the old, old story (Acts 7). When the synagogue ruler in Antioch ask if anyone has a word to share, Paul stands up and relates the history of Israel—to Jews (Acts 13).

In today’s chapter, Joshua, the venerable general venturing out of retirement for a farewell address, chooses for his final words a review of history.

But my epiphany this morning is that God is not into history for history’s sake. Several words stand out to me in the old warrior’s address—the words “sea,” “Balaam,” and “hornet.” Riddle: What do these references have in common? Answer: They are all ways that God saved his people that have nothing to do with man’s strength.

They involve, respectively in verses 7, 9, and 12, the incident in which God sends a wind to part the waters for an escape route (no man gets the glory for this deliverance); the incident in which a talking donkey is key and a foolish prophet is reduced to a megaphone (no man gets the glory for this deliverance); the incident in which an advance team of hornets softens up the enemy ahead of Israel’s army (no man gets the glory for this deliverance). I am even a bit surprised that Joshua doesn’t bring up the hailstones: “There were more who died because of the hailstones than the sons of Israel killed with the sword” (Joshua 10:11). And the sun that obeyed the voice of God and stopped in its course to give an unfair edge to Israel in battle (Joshua 10:13).

All but the naive know that history books always have an agenda or organizing principle. What is God’s agenda here? Is it a coincidence that every instance selected in this condensed narrative refers to occurrences beyond usual human experience?

“It was not by your sword or by your bow,” Joshua summarizes in verse 12.

At age fiftysomething I am no longer interested in theology for theology sake, any more than God is interested in history for history sake. It is not a “neat insight” for me to see that God pulls deliverance out of a hat with signs and wonders, and that history does not proceed in a closed circle along naturalistic lines. The thought of Red Sea and Balaam and hornet and hailstones and tarrying sun is eminently practical for me. It not only changes my life; it changes my day. It makes me to feel safe to relinquish idols and to simply trust the One who will give me a miracle if I need one.

Psalm 78 puts the moral this way: “He established a testimony . . . which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children . . . so that they should set their hope in God . . . (verses 5-7).

Joshua’s conclusion, and mine:

“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (verse 16).

If God is going to conscript all nature for my deliverance, if He is really going to work out all things for the sake of those who love Him, right here on the hot pavement of life, then I am motivated to serve with abandon.

Herein is our comfort—that we do not save ourselves but God does all the saving. Herein is our dignity—that God allows us to become a part of that story.

Church-time burglaries

It can be risky to go to church on a Sunday evening, particularly if you live in Portadown. Last week it was reported in the Portadown Times that were more than 12 burglaries in the Killicomaine area of the town and many of the the burglaries took place over two Sunday nights while their elderly owners were out at church or visiting family members. Jewellery, much of it of sentimental value, and cash were taken and the intruders gained access by forcing back doors or windows. Many of the pensioners were very upset and terrified by the events, with one elderly woman “frightened to death” in case the culprits return.

Tommy Archer
Tommy Archer

One of the victims was 96 year old Tommy Archer, a long time member of the Salvation Army, who had been at his evening service when his home was burgled. Thankfully he survived the trauma and last night he was able to play his cornet as part of the Salvation Army Band at a Memorial Service in our church hall in Edenderry. Good man, Tommy!

Today I received a flyer from the Craigavon Community Safety Partnership warning about church-time burglaries and offering some advice to help keep our property safe. The basic advice is to lock all exterior doors and windows, to secure all garages and sheds, and to make our home look occupied even when we’re not at home. The leaflet recommends using a timer switch which can be used on lighting or a radio in a room which is normally occupied. That’s a really good idea which many people should take up if they are not doing so already. A timer switch would be a really good Christmas gift for the grandparent who has everything!

Portadown is a church-going town. Unlike some other places where evening services are small or non-existent, most of the evangelical churches in the town still have good attendances. It would be a shame if older folks particularly were discouraged from going to church on Sunday evenings by the malicious activity of these scoundrels. The leaflet calls on everyone to remain alert and to pass on any information about suspicious activity, whether it’s a person or a vehicle, to the police. By taking sensible precautions, and by watching out for each other, we can maintain one of the best traditions of our community…going to church on Sunday evening.