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Entries in Theology (55)

Wednesday
Feb192014

A blessing for absence

Today we have James Alison presenting a seminar at the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University. (By the way I stall cannot believe that I am so blessed that it is my work to attend a seminar!) It is a wonderful to be reminded of the importance of reconciliation and forgiveness and the central role that this plays in the expression of our faith in the world. We know this concept is central to our belief, yet sadly we often separate belief from action. James is a wonderful Dominican scholar who has a deep understanding of René Girard and the 'fresh' and 'creative' reading of Biblical texts. The meeting was opened by Rev Laurie Gaum with the following meditation from John O'Donohue:
May you know that absence is full of tender presence and that nothing is ever lost or forgotten. May the absences in your life be full of eternal echo. May you sense around you the secret Elsewhere which holds the presences that have left your life. May you be generous in your embrace of loss. May the sore of your grief turn into a well of seamless presence. May your compassion reach out to the ones we never hear from and may you have the courage to speak out for the excluded ones. May you become the gracious and passionate subject of your own life. May you not disrespect your mystery through brittle words or false belonging. May you be embraced by God in whom dawn and twilight are one and may your longing inhabit its deepest dreams within the shelter of the Great Belonging. (Eternal Echoes 275)>
- A blessing for Absences John O'Donohue.
Monday
Dec092013

Reflections on my first week in Nijmegen, Holland December 2013

I arrived in Holland last week on Sunday 1 December - I flew with Doris my Brompton all packed up from Heathrow Terminal 5 (British Airways) to Schipol in Amsterdam. I was a little worried since when Doris is packed in the B Bag with all of my clothes and toiletries she weighs in at around 27kg's and the BA baggage allowance is only 20kg's (a maximum of 23kg). Normally the extra weight is no problem because I am a Voyager (Star alliance) member with a 'few' airmiles - so I get to travel with 30kg.  But BA is not part of Star Alliance.

I said a little prayer, packed as well as I could, and headed to the airport at 5am (thanks Craig and Kath! You guys are AWESOME!) Thankfully my prayers were answered - the check in staff didn't even bat an eyelid.  I put Doris on the conveyer belt and off she went! Sadly because it was so early in the morning the bag wrapping service was not yet operating - so for the first time my Bromtpon B Bag went into the hold without any plastic wrapping.  However, it was a short flight (and very empty as well).  When I collected Doris at Schipol she was perfect! No damage, no problems.  So, I put the B Bag onto my luggage trolley (I take this with since it is easier to wheel than the wheels on the B Bag) and went to Schipol station for the 2 hour train ride through to beautiful Nijmegen.

The train ride was relaxing - with only one changeover at Utrecht where I literally walked from one side of the platform to the other.  On the first part of the trip I sat with an elderly Dutch couple who had just returned from a few weeks of holiday in Southern Africa - Cape Town, Kruger National Park and Victoria falls (and they did it all by train!) amazing. They spoke very enthusiastically about the beauty of South Africa.

When I arrived in Nijmegen I fired up my 9292 app on my iPhone and saw which bus would take me to Platolaan near the Erasmusgebou of the University.  The guesthouse (gastehuis) is right across the road.  While it is called a guesthouse it is actually just a large block of flats.  I have stayed here before.  It is very comfortable and such beautiful views.  Last year I overlooked the Brakenstein woods, this year my view was of the Astro turf hockey fields and the main University building.

By the way, it snowed here on Friday! I couldn't believe it! It wasn't very heavy snow, but it left a beautiful white covering on the ground for a few hours.  It was absolutely FREEZING!

I was very pleased to be in my flat in Nijmegen - I unpacked my clothes and Doris, pumped up her wheels and then headed to the Coop shop in the town center which is open later on a Sunday for some supplies. It was wonderful to be on the beautiful cycle paths, quite a change from London where every ride is like taking your life in your hands! Here cyclists seem to have more rights than motorists - special cycle lanes, special traffic signals, and of course thousands of fellow cyclists! It makes a real difference!

When I got back home I set up my laptop and connected to the VERY fast broadband connection (wired via ethernet - thankful there was an ethernet cable in the room since I forgot mine at home!) And then set up internet sharing on my Mac so that I could use my iPhone and iPad for Facetime.  I immediately called Megie, Courts and Liam - by this time it was already dark. I miss them so much, I can't tell you.  There is an emptiness in my heart, a dull ache all day. I can't wait to get home next week! We had a great chat. It is such a blessing to be able to 'call home' for free and just chat to them for as long as we want with crisp, clear, video.

On Sunday evening I had a wonderful dinner with Professor Jan van der Watt and his wife Shireen and a fellow PhD student Alexander from St Petersburg in Russia (Alexander's wife and son were also with us - it was great to have a little guy around the place. It made me thing of Liam).

On Monday my work began big time! Sadly this year has been so busy with EXPOSED - Shining a light on corruption and Unashamedly Ethical work and travel that I have done very little on my second PhD. I have done some reading, but had not had much time to convert my thoughts and ideas into text.  So, with my first deadline looming on Monday afternoon I worked from late Sunday evening, early Monday morning until I met with Prof Chris Hermans - my co-supervisor who is helping me with Practice Oriented Research methodology (since I am doing some qualitative empirical work in my current study). I managed to send him something worthwhile, and then I started working towards my deadline for Professor van der Watt - I am working on the text of forgiveness with him.

I had BibleWorks 9 fired up on my Mac (in Parallels of course) and was digging deeply into the Greek text to do a thorough Exegesis.

On Tuesday I had to spend the afternoon on a conference call with the other directors of TEE College, for which I am a director.  We did our final business for the year, of which a part was to receive the final results for the 2013 examinations. So the students should be getting their results very soon!

Then, I had two further deadlines, a Wednesday and Thursday meeting with Prof Chris, and a Friday meeting with Prof Jan.  So, every moment was spent behind my keyboard, reading and writing.

I also had a wonderful opportunity to meet with a friend Johan who lives in Holland - he connected with me via the internet.  He follows my blog and saw that I was in Holland.  It was great to spend some time with him talking about his work, ministry and research.  He used to be a community health worker here in Nijmegen (actually he taught health care at the University - he has a PhD in epidemiology).  Now he is studying theology and serving an international Church in his city. I was so inspired by his commitment and service!

On Saturday I took a few hours for exercise - other than walking to the main University building and cycling a few km a day for supplies, I have not been as active as I am back home.  So, I set out in WET and COLD weather for a 30km ride along the Waaldijk.  It ended up being 43km because I got a little lost on the way back (road works meant that I couldnt' get back along the road that I knew). It was awesome to be out! The scenery is beautiful, and it felt great to stretch my legs, open my lungs and just be quiet and reflective.

There were lots of other cyclists out - the group which seemed to be part of a cycling team were excited to see a guy on a Brompton! ha ha! I say if you can't fold it you shouldn't ride it!

By the time I took this photo I was rather soaked and a little hungry.  Ha ha. Still, lots of fun.

On Saturday and Sunday I spent the 'off time' working on some editing I am doing for the Sentinel Group on Transformation materials. It was a nice change of pace and I found it inspiring and also very encouraging to be able to 'tick off' a few projects.  Achievement is an important part of the human psyche - to be able to work hard during the week, cycle well on Saturday, and do good work over the weekend left me feeling content and blessed. I am very thankful for all of the opportunities that I have.

It was also wonderful to spend some time on Facetime during the week, and a few hours over the weekend, chatting with Megie, Courtney and Liam.  I cannot tell you how much I love them!! I look forward to being home in a week's time! Family, sunshine, and mountainbiking!

Friday
Nov292013

Hermeneutics and homiletics - On Malcolm Gladwell's story of David and Goliath  

A good friend of mine @JohannGrobler alerted me to a fascinating TED talk given by one of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell on the Biblical narrative of David and Goliath.  You can watch it on Youtube below.

It is fascinating to watch Malcolm share his perspective on this well known Biblical narrative.  He is not only a very creative and astute thinker - able to find a novel angle to well known data, and then develop a point that opens up new possibilities for thought - he is also a very engaging and effective orator.  I enjoyed watching the talk a great deal!

What Johann wanted to know was whether what was said about David (that he was probably more agile and skilled than Goliath as a warrior) and Goliath (that he was so large because of a cancer that causes unnatural growth (acromegaly). One of the side effects of this disease is short sightedness and double vision) were true.  Well, my answer to Johann's question is quite simply, I am not sure!  Unless we have medical evidence on Goliath's condition and corroborating testimony to substantiate the suggestions made about David by Malcolm Gladwell, Gladwell's theory is as plausible (or unplausable) as any other theory.  We cannot have absolute certainty on the theory without substantive evidence to support it. 

I can say, however, that I found what Gladwell said sensible and very interesting. What he suggests is certainly not outside of the realm of possibility. He does offer some second tier evidence to support his hypothesis.  To support his claims about David's skill he cites historical documents and data about the effectiveness and accuracy of sling shot users in the ancient world.  To support his claims about Goliath he cites some studies from contemporary (modern) medicine - although I am sure in both cases there is probably equally significant evidence and cause for reaching different conclusions.  That is the nature of academic debate.  Simply because and article is published, or a point is substantiated, that does mean that it is more true than another point.  There are some very bright and intelligent people who believed all sorts of crazy things (with medical evidence to support their claims).

What struck me as most significant about this talk was the manner in which Gladwell has adapted the disciplines of hermeneutics and homiletics so effectively in making his point.  What he is doing is very similar to what millions of priests, pastors, rabbi's and imman's do every week.  He has taken a narrative (in this case the Biblical narrative of David and Goliath) and interpreted it creatively in order to argue a particular point - the point here is found in his conclusion, i.e., that we must not be too simplistic about our accepted view of dominant narratives, and that giants may not always be what they seem (which implies that underdogs may also not always be what they seem).

Homileticians use this approach frequently, they communicate and idea by using 'foundational knowledge' as a connecting point with the audience.  Then they draw on other authoritative sources (in this case history and medicine) to introduce new knowledge that will support the reasonable acceptance of desired truth.  In Biblical studies we teach our students to understand that the text always has a historical context, that the 'players' in the narrative have depth to them (they are seldom what the narrator or author of the text has presented).  The intention is to use whatever data is available to unpack the deeper and more subtle truths about the elements of the story (the characters in the story, the plot lines, the intention of the author or narrator (what did he or she include or leave out, what was emphasised, what was underplayed - Gladwell does this a number of times in his talk), what was the situation of the recipients of the narrative (what did the author assume about them, their needs, their religious and social framework etc.).  The process us called hermeneutics - the science of interpretation.

I am grateful to Johann for pointing me to this great talk, and for raising the question that allowed me to view Malcolm Gladwell's talk with a more enquiring mind than just accepting admiration.

Sunday
Oct202013

Faith and Reason

I love theology. I love theology in this sense, that is, theology as an attempt to know something about God and God's nature and will.

There are few theologians that I love as much as Stanley Hauerwas. Here's one more reason why I love his theology:

[The claim] that some think theological claims must be grounded in empirical proofs is based on the assumption that there is an essential tension between faith and reason. Even Christian theologians have sometimes underwritten the assumption that the faith of Christians cannot be rationally defended. However, the very presumption that reason is one thing and faith is another betrays a distorted view of reason. What Christians believe is not a “take it or leave it” choice, but rather an ongoing claim that all that is exists by God’s good grace. The working out of that claim is never finished.

- Stanely Hauerwas

Via @irregulartheology.

Saturday
Dec012012

Should we have the right to read the Bible?

I was deeply challenged by the quote below from Stanley Hauerwas:

Most North American Christians assume that they have a right, if not an obligation, to read the Bible. I challenge that assumption. No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America. Let us no longer give the Bible to all children when they enter the third grade or whenever their assumed rise to Christian maturity is marked, such as eighth-grade commencements. Let us rather tell them and their parents that they are possessed by habits far too corrupt for them to be encouraged to read the Bible on their own.

North American Christians are trained to believe that they are capable of reading the Bible without spiritual and moral transformation. They read the Bible not as Christians, not as a people set apart, but as democratic citizens who think their “common sense” is sufficient for “understanding” the Scripture. They feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community to be told how to read. Instead they assume that they have all the “religious experience” necessary to know what the Bible is about. As a result the Bible inherently becomes the ideology for a politics quite different from the politics of the Church.

Note, it is not an issue of whether the Bible should be read politically, but an issue of which politics should determine our reading as Christians. All reading is embedded in a politics, and avoiding politics is not something for which we can or should strive.

Stanley Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America (via lukexvx)


At first I was shocked when I read this quote - of course it applies as much to South Africa as it does to North America - and, I am passionate about getting people to read the Biblical text!

But, then as I thought about it I began to wonder, what does it mean to allow people to have access to this powerful text when all we do is overpower it with our own ideas, our need to support our ideologies, and our misuse of the text to abuse others. To use the Bible in this way is more harmful than good. It disregards the God who gives us this book of love, wisdom, and challenge.

Perhaps if the Bible were more scarce, if the text was seen to be precious, we would treat it in that way! We would listen to the text, rather than choose its words to express our own thoughts.

I agree with Hauerwas' sentiments, perhaps there are better ways to recapture a respect for the text and reeducate readers of the text?

Saturday
Oct222011

A visit to the Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary

This week I had the wonderful privilege of visiting the Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary. This is where the minister of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa are trained for the 6 nations of Southern Africa.

SMMS pano.png
It is a truly remarkable place - the attention to detail and excellence is visible throughout the property. Moreover, that staff and students of the seminary exemplify excellence in their commitment to their vocational formation.

SMMS Chapel.jpg I was invited to SMMS to do some examinations for 3rd year students in Systematic Theology (for a course in Ecology and Caring for the earth), and also for 3rd year Church history students. My friend, Peter Grassow, who is a lecturer (and the Chaplain at SMMS) invited me. I also the joy of working with Dr Lilian Siwila, as well as preaching in the magnificent Chapel (for the SMMS community, which makes up staff, students and their families).

SMMS forms part of a theological cluster around the University of KwaZulu Natal in Pietermartizburg. Among the 'cluster' institutions are the University's theological faculty, the Lutheran Seminary, the Catholic Seminary and an Anglican house of study. As a result of this diversity the students get a great deal of ecumenical interaction, as well as the highest level of theological formation for ministry.

SMMS chapel 2.jpg
Thursday
Oct062011

Giving thanks for the life of the Rev Dr Angela Shier-Jones

It was with great sadness that I learnt that Angie (Dr Angela Shier-Jones) passed away in September this year.  This is such sad news.  Angie had been struggling against cancer.

I remember a great conversation we shared last year when I was in the UK.  We were on the train after a meeting at LEAT and we were talking about dissease and faith.  The topic of our conversation centered around a special edition of the Epworth Review of which Angie was the editor for which I had written an article on being Christian in an HIV+ world.  As always her input was deeply challenging, a magnificent theological mind matched only by her pastoral heart!

Thanks for sharing the news of her passing with me Jenny.  I am deeply saddened by the news of her death.  However, I can only imagine what she is doing in heaven!  

Here are two wonderful memorial posts I would encourage you to take a look at.  Each of them gives a wonderful insight into one of the great (Methodist) theologians of our age.

Indeed, Lord, thank you for the gift of your daughter Angela.  Teach me to number my days correctly that I may gain a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90.12).

Tuesday
Sep272011

Do you believe in angels?

In this video I share a short story that leads me to ask the question:  Do you believe in angels?

Some may say that it is quite a strange thing for me to be asking this question.  However, since Psalm 91.11 and Luke 4.10 relate so clearly to the little story I recount in the video I thought I would ask you for your opinion.  So, do you believe in angels? And could you tell me why, or why not?  Also if you have any stories to tell of an encounter with angelic beings I'd love to hear about them.

When I posted this question on twitter I had three almost immediate responses from @hayesstw @gigglebug and @ursh13 to say that they all believe in angels.  Knowing the persons who left the comments, and their theological perspectives, I'm sure that their reasons for believing in angels would be quite different.  That's what most interests me - why do you believe in angels?

Wednesday
Sep212011

Intuitive? Try God!

I was alerted to this fascinating research, done at Harvard, by my friend Philip Collier.

In summary, the researchers found that persons who are capable of making intuitive decisions are more likely to be people of faith. Intuition is an extremely complex function of the human brain, since intuition relies on gathering lots of data, processing it at speed, and reaching a conclusion.

God is related to decision-making style, with those who rely more heavily on intuition reporting higher rates of belief, while those who are more reflective tilt toward atheism.
By linking religious belief to intuition, the study supports the idea that there is something in the cognitive makeup of humans that promotes belief in a higher power. For example, the natural tendency that people have to see a purpose behind random events, or the need to reduce uncertainty in their lives — as well as the anxiety it causes — may promote a belief in God.

The research makes no value judgement on intuitive versus reflective cognitive ability (since this is a matter or style rather than intelligence).

What do you think? Are intuitive thinkers more likely to be persons who hold faith convictions?

PS. My doctoral work was in cognitive neuroscience and theology. You can read more about that work on this blog by clicking the neuroscience link (tab) at the top of the page or the tag below.

Here's the link to the Harvard Article: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/09/intuitive-try-god/

Friday
Aug122011

Why I am a pastor scholar

“[Theology] has often overshot its goal and degenerated into repeating the same empty phrases…. Sometimes it seemed to proceed from the idea that it could answer all questions and resolve all issues. It has often been lacking in modesty, tenderness, and simplicity. This was all the worse inasmuch as theology has to do with the deepest problems and comes into contact with the most delicate stirrings of the human heart. More than any other science, it has to take to heart the admonition ‘not to think of itself more highly than it ought’ (cf. Rom. 12:3). It is better honestly to admit that a thing is not clear than to make a wild guess.”


Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), p. 605.

This is why I am a 'pastor scholar' - my desire is to think deeply about faith and the world in order to serve, not to merely 'tell' or 'teach'.

Sunday
Apr102011

Another chapter published!

On Friday I received an email from Paul Chilcote to let me know that 'Making disciples in a world parish: Global perspectives on Mission and Evangelism' was published.

I was privileged to contribute one of the chapters that make up this book.  I wrote about the theology and ministry of Christians in Southern Africa in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.  In my chapter I discussed issues such as the contextualisation of theological methodology, an insight into what it means to live with HIV/AIDS and what it could mean for Christians and the Church to respond appropriately in that context.  It is entitled 'Evangelism, mission and discipleship in Southern Africa: How hope is overcoming tragedy'.

I'd encourage you to check out the book at the following URL - you can purchase the book from Amazon here.

Thursday
Apr072011

Lent - the importance of Easter in the Christian faith

As I'm going through Lent, and preparing for Easter, I have been reflecting on the importance of this feast in the Christian tradition. Somehow in the West we place more emphasis on Christmas - perhaps it is because we're so self centered and are caught up in the reward and response of giving and receiving gifts!

This quote reminded me how important Easter has been for all of Christian history:

Take Christmas away, and in biblical terms you lose two chapters at the front of Matthew and Luke, nothing else. Take Easter away, and you don’t have a New Testament; you don’t have a Christianity; as Paul says, you are still in your sins. We shouldn’t allow the secular world, with its schedules and habits and parareligious events, its cute Easter bunnies, to blow us off course. This is our greatest day. We should put the flags out.

- N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope (via @invisibleforeigner's tumblr blog)

May the Lord richly bless us as we prepare to celebrate the significance of God's generous gift in Christ.