Wednesday, April 13, 2016

An Update and A Very Important Prayer Request

A specific prayer request:

If you have been following our journey living in Northern Ireland, than you know that we have recently jumped through some crazy hoops in regards to applying for new visas due to UK law changes.

Unfortunately, these hoops have not been enough at this point and our visas have been denied. We went through the administrative review process and the decision was upheld based on a lack of understanding of how studies at Queen’s University Belfast’s Institute of Theology work. Honestly, it’s a mistake that anyone who just looks at a piece of paper and doesn’t do copious amounts of fine tuned and delicate research would easily not understand. I am in the process of a PhD, and I still don’t quite understand the whole picture.

That being said, we have now moved onto a more formal review process with the home office in England in regards to our visas. We have been working with Belfast Bible College (the constituent college that I attend as part of QUB), the Institute of Theology at QUB, and our local Westminster MP, who is writing on our behalf to the minister of the home office for a thorough review of our case.

The evidence in the dispute for why our visas have been denied is based solely on the relationship of the colleges, (seen as independent private colleges with no public funding) and the Institute of Theology at QUB (which is four colleges embedded within QUB that teach on behalf of the university due to a historic charter that does not allow for QUB to employ religious faculty. For more history on that see the history of Protestantism and Catholicism in Northern Ireland…).  We were granted our full 40 points to remain in the country but have been held up by a trivial technicality.

The home office sees our visa sponsor as a private institution (which it is) that receives no public funding (which is false). Because of the nature of the unique relationship with QUB, the private colleges do receive block public grant funding. This is not easy to explain and without a proper legal team pointing this out and providing the evidence, a standard inspection of a visa application would not find this. The home office would not take any “new” supporting evidence to show this in our administrative review, thus leading to an upheld decision. This is the beauty of a broken system that allows for England to make Northern Irish decisions, as everyone in the Belfast branch of the home office understands how this all works, but all decisions are made in England.

We are now submitting all of this evidence and support letters from QUB, Belfast Bible College and the other three constituent theological colleges that make up the Institute of Theology to show that the home office has made the wrong decision. If they do not overturn this there are serious implications not only for us, but also for all non-EU/UK international students who would try to come and study in the Institute of Theology, as they would not be granted visas.

What this means for us:
If the home office does not look at the evidence presented or upholds the decision, we will be forced to leave the country and return home to the US to re-apply for visas through a different visa sponsor (which may prove to be difficult as the current arrangement will not allow QUB to issue my CAS number to apply for a new visa due to the nature of religion and the QUB charter, although they are working on making those changes at an institutional level, how long that may take is yet to be known). The other possibility is that we may be able to go to another EU country and re-apply.

The problem is that we do not have the funding to do either of these things. If they uphold the decision we lose the £1,800  ($2,600) we spent applying and would have to spend the same to re-apply plus expedited fees of up to £500 per person. This doesn’t factor in travel expenses and the cost of having to pull Liam out of school, have Sarah quit her job, and explain to our landlord the situation and potentially lose our housing. I also have an amazing job working with John Brown University as the onsite director for their Irish Studies program and lecturer in Philosophy. We cannot afford to lose these posts and deal with the wake of such a poor decision by the home office. It means that potentially, I will have to step away from doing PhD studies because we cannot afford additional £5,000 we may have to fork over to find a way to stay. This would be pretty devastating for us.

We ask those of you who have been following our journey, supported us in financial or prayer support, or have continually been involved in reading our blogs, and enjoying our adventures here to continue to do all of these things. We need your prayers right now more than anything. My PhD studies are continuing on and I am making great progress with my studies and we absolutely love being here. We believe that God has called us here and his provision has always carried us. We continue to trust in God’s plan and provision for us knowing that most often his provision is through His church, our friends, and our family.

We will keep you informed as we collect more information in the coming days. Pray for common sense to prevail.

Much Love,

The Birds Abroad

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Damien Rice on the Church (by my own misinterpretation)

"Trusty And True"

We've wanted to be trusty and true
But feathers fell from our wings
And we've wanted to be worthy of you
But weather rained on our dreams

And we can't take back
What is done, what is past
So fellas, lay down your fears
'Cause we can't take back
What is done, what is past
So let us start from here…

'Cause we never wanted to be lusty or lewd
Nor tethered to prudish strings
And we never wanted to be jealously tuned
Nor withered into ugly things

But we can't take back
What is done, what is past
So fellas, lay down your spears
'Cause we can't take back
What is done, what is past
So let us start from here…

And if all that you are
Is not all you desire,
Then, come…

Come, let yourself be wrong
Come, it's already begun

Come, come alone
Come with fear, come with love
Come however you are
Just come, come alone
Come with friends, come with foes
Come however you are
Just come, come alone
Come with me, then let go
Come however you are
Just come, come alone
Come so carefully closed
Come however you are
Just come…

Come, come along
Come with sorrows and songs
Come however you are
Just come, come along
Come, let yourself be wrong
Come however you are
Just come…

I've always been a fan of re-interpreting meanings. Could this be a song that applies to 2000 years of Church History? Is it as simple as come?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Transformative Call of Grace: Costly Grace or Cheap Grace

Romans 6 (NIV)
Believers Are Dead to Sin, Alive to God
 1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.
 8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

The call of grace in our lives reveals an interesting paradox. On the one hand we believe that grace is a free gift that God has given us through Christ. On the other, it seems that there is something more to our justification than just belief in a free gift of grace. I am not talking about works, but rather, the difference between what complacency has defined as cheap grace, and what Christ calls us to as costly grace.

The difference is simple but rather robust. Cheap grace allows us to pay lip service to God and allows us to live in a make believe world of simple penance and shallow fear. We should not forget that just as God is love, He is also just, and he will judge even those who believe. Cheap grace allows for us to live our lives with no difference in the way we act, live or speak. It is inclusive and individualistic and on the verge of being a prideful catastrophe. It is the kind of grace that the enemy wants to spread because it never transforms humanity. In our post-modern world the constant focus is on our individual happiness and “come as you are,” ideals. We then make the mistake of making grace about us as our free gift without realizing the responsibility that comes with the true understanding of that free gift.

Costly grace calls us not to simply believe in who Christ is or what he has done. This is the foundation, but if this foundation never grows from your mind to your heart to your whole being, then the question must be asked if you truly believe in who Christ is and exactly the depth of consequence for humanity what He has in fact done. This grace calls us to partake in the acts of Christ himself. It is not simply enough that we just believe. If belief were enough then why would grace not cover our continual sinning so that grace could increase? It calls for transformation! If we go on living as if grace will cover us without a cost of our own we are surely mistaken. The cost without the true grace of Christ is our eternal death and separation from God. True grace calls us to be transformed into Christ. It calls us to die with him. It forces us to reject sin and be dead to it. To accept the cost of free grace means that we are willing to sacrifice our whole being to Him. Not just our minds, or our words and shallow prayers nor our works and merit. Grace calls us to come and believe, but after belief, it calls us to come and be transformed so that we may go and make disciples (Mt. 28:19).

Grace affects our hearts so that as we live our lives we are better husbands, fathers, friends, community leaders and servants because we are living through Christ alive, and no longer enslaved by sin. When we offer ourselves, we empower God to transform us, and then in return, He empowers us to go and love in His name and be extensions of free grace. By the transforming power of grace, our lives reflect the true cost of free grace. We become living sacrifices to God (Rom. 12:1-2) and we are salt and light by action rather than just by word. Our ethics will change. Our opinions and attitudes will reflect Christ and the sin that we once were held under will no longer be what controls us. The greatest tragedy of simple belief is the apathy of accepting grace without allowing it to transform you.

The choice is asking yourself whether or not you have allowed the transformative power of grace to really sink in enough to make the commitment to die with Christ so that you may live through Him. Have we allowed our circumstances, experiences, immunity to sin and small temptations, or even our past relationship with the church muddle our consciences? Do our jobs, studies, art, careers, friends, or romantic relationships cause us to live with a cheap outlook on grace? Have we allowed the enemy to tempt us into thinking that grace is easy to accept? The paradox of grace is not for the faint of heart and that is why Christ beckons us by His grace to have our hearts. It is more costly than anything we could ever fathom. It cost God his son, it cost Christ his life and it will cost us ours as well. The acceptance of true costly grace does indeed cost everything but it will surely transform everything in its wake as long as you make it a daily decision to choose the costly grace over the cheap grace.

Reflection and Prayer:

O to grace how great a debtor
                  daily I'm constrained to be!
                  Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
                  bind my wandering heart to thee.
                  Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
                  prone to leave the God I love;
                  here's my heart, O take and seal it,

                  seal it for thy courts above.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Church Discipline

I am all for accountability within the human aspects of the Church (C as in universal, c as in local body). 

We often forget that the Church is flawed because people are flawed. There is no perfect Church in the current state of the already (the power of the kingdom manifest in the work and life of Christ actively present in His people through the Church in the power of the Holy Spirit) and the not yet (the bitter reality that sin still plagues creation and His people even though we are to be living in the constraint of grace). This problem is a universal problem. There is no perfection possible until Christ's return, yet we strive without ceasing for this glimpse of the kingdom of God. 

Try as we might, we are failures, and that is okay. Really, it's okay. Even Paul talks of being torn with the things he longs to do while still doing the things he hates. Find me any Christian who doesn't have this problem and I will eat my words and then call them a liar. 

The truth is that we long to do our best under the constraint of grace, while seeking the wisdom of the Lord in prayer and submission to the Word of God found in the Bible. 

Is the interpretation of the Bible easy? No. It's actually quite complicated. And this is my point. 

Ministers, pastors, teachers, professors, and theologians in general, all wrestle with how the text is to be applied in practical ways in the there and then, and the here and now. 

A basic understanding of languages (Hebrew, Greek) is incredibly helpful, as is the study of textual criticism, history, philosphy, and basic psychology. This means in every sense of the word that privilege is very much a part of leadership. It assumes that one has the ability to go to school, college, seminary, or training, that is accessible and affordable through work, loans, grants, or scholarship. This does often mean that it separates a social class from another in terms of education. This is an important topic for discussion that I will address at some point in the future. I am aware of this privilege and how it can, and does, affect the church and views of white, male privilege, especially in the West. 
Knowing this as a presupposition, allows me to continue this discussion in what follows. 

Churches create documents and covenants with a theological understanding and interpretation of the text that best guides and navigates the streams of the already and not yet. Are these doctrinal statements, covenants, and practicing of them perfect? No. And this too, is okay. 

The problem lies in people who have no formal understanding of all of the moving parts of theological formation making claims of misogyny, abuse, and doctrinal social clubs for men without ever knowing the basic premise for why these ideas are in place to begin with. 

Some say it's all about Jesus and how he was on the side of the marginalized. True. But even Jesus was firm in his statements of the kingdom of God, submission to the Father, and statements of sinning no more. People want a friendly Jesus, not a King Jesus. 

What does Jesus as King have to do with Church discipline? Everything. 

We submit to Jesus as he submits to the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit. I trust that the doctrines in place for practical use of the church are in place not for use of power and authority of an elite few (although, some have strayed and do manipulate this), but more often then not, they are made through the efforts of good, holy (as much as a sinner can be) and Godly men and women in each local context all the way to definitive denominational statements.

I am troubled that many people are more interested in bringing down churches through cynicism and deconstruction than actively participating in bringing out the good in the church even though they would say that bringing this things out is good for the Church. What is interesting though, is the amount of complaints and accusations without any practical support, ideas, or participation in fixing something. 

The larger a church becomes the harder it is to practice certain aspects of polity and the more general, and even defining, a covenant or doctrinal idea becomes. I believe that these ideas are necessary for the greater reality of the Church. That discipline under the church leadership is Biblical (read 1 Cor for Pete's sake) and that deconstructing these basic principles of institution can be more harmful than good. 

If abuse is happening, it should be addressed, but I would say that abuse is not the norm despite what many bloggers and progressives will tell you. 

We cannot throw the baby out with the bath water. Perhaps when complainers realize that they become fundamentalists in the way they address the things that they fundamentally oppose, I will take them more seriously. Until then, I will submit to the Church and church authority with the trust that they know what they are doing through the constraint of costly grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Theology at the Pub

Why study theology?
Why come to N. Ireland to study?
You're American. I don't trust you. 
You're a cult. Are you trying to convert us?
I don't believe in God. 
There are no absolutes. 
You're an empire builder. 
I've been preached at for 40 years. 
My uncle was blown to bits by a catholic bomb. 
There is no God. 

These were just a few notable lines from a conversation last night at the pub. 

The initial conversation started when a nice gentlemen realized that the group of us were American and began to ask us about why we were here. It is often something we are asked at the pub because we sound very different. It is often assumed we are tourists. When we explain we are theology students, the conversation either ends, or it becomes very interesting. 

A few things need to be noted. It is often difficult for me to engage in real conversations at the pub because often times the conversation occurs with people who are noticeably drunk and slurring words at times. I was reminded last night though by a good friend, that we should never tire of having the opportunity to speak the life of the gospel when we can and this is no different. I have to trust that if I remain faithful to the gospel, that it's not the words I speak that makes a difference. I've never had someone accept Jesus after having just lost an argument. 

I sincerely enjoyed the conversation with S last night and I hope that a light of hope reached into the depths of his cynical soul. After the initial hostility to our  French Englishman, S opened up and we had a very good conversation about his life, his history, America, cults, and his job working with disabled people. 

I am convinced more now than ever before, that the historical realms of western Christianity are long lost to cynicism, relativism, and general disdain. The countrysides are dotted with spectacular churches that are empty. The culture is so entrenched with a scope of Christianity that is contrary to the gospels and it sits as a fragment of a deconstructed moral society. 

This is why I love theology. This is why I study the things I do. Christianity needs a resurgence in practical grace. The Holy Spirit is doing work, it's our job to participate with what God is already doing. To be Christ existing as community for the sake of the other is our call. Are we ready? Can we do it?
After last night, I raise my glass to S. Cheers. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The ambiguity of orthodoxy

What makes a church the church?

Is it something in ontology or economy?

Perhaps both?

Recently, I have been researching and writing on ecclesiology as it relates to the German Confessing Church and specifically to Dietrich Bonhoeffer's writings. 

In Sanctorum Communio he makes a statement that has a profoundly practical application. The church is Christ existing as community for the sake of the other. 

This is an essential reality of what it means to be the church. Community as Christ. A message of ontologogical substance in definition, yet also full of practical economy in how it functions in the world as Christ functioned in the world. 

A suffering servant. 

Do we suffer for the broken? The widow? The orphan? 

I believe that at our core, we ought to. To love our neighbor and our enemy is the most Christian thing one can do. 

But herein lies the ambiguity of orthodoxy. What do we do when our particular range of doctrinal belief is different than our fellow Christians in other denominations, countries, races, sexual orientations, and genders? 

Does it matter?

What is orthodoxy?

I would say it does matter. The more I read and write on the confessing church, the more I am convinced of the bare bones reality of the scripture being preached and the sacraments practiced is the embodiment of what Church looks like. To confess the gospel of Christ should be a social reality. But while it may look like a practical and potentially liberating truth that allows for a wide range of beliefs, I would counter that a social gospel is one that takes seriously the reality of the transformative cost of grace. We invite all no matter who they are and what their sin, but through discipleship and participation in the life giving grace of the gospel, the church should never expect nor allow any sinner (read all people) to remain there as a sinner. 

In the coming days, months, and years, the ambiguity of orthodoxy will become more and more blurry. I believe that the church is becoming more socially minded , which is very good, but in doing so, is allowing for cultural influence to usurp the costliness of true grace. 

In this way, orthodoxy becomes a victim to relativism and orthodoxy is fragmented to a hierarchy of belief. Essentials and non essentials. But I wonder, if the main reason Christ went to the cross was to break the context of sin and become the mediator for human kind with God in relationship and to establish a new humanity, it would make sense to me that sin, injustice, and unrighteousness are not simple things humans can pick and choose to define categories of what falls in them or not. Rather, the cross calls all sinners to become new creatures leaving sin behind, not justifying it (see Romans 6). 

It is not my place to judge anyone, but it is within my place as a member of the body of Christ, the church, to proclaim the simple reality of the cross, costly grace, and transformation into disciples. Orthodoxy is not as ambiguous as culture wants us to think, and for this, I thank God. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Settling in...

So, I ventured into the QUB area today to find my way around campus and libraries. I am a student of essentially 3 different schools/institutions. It is rather confusing so I'll post more about the programme next week after orientation. 

I found my way to Union Theological College to examine the library and see what my privileges are at this particular library since I am a post-graduate student at QUB but not through Union. 

I will have full catalogue access, and internet privileges, but no borrowing access, which is a bummer, but I will enjoy spending some time utilizing the shelves and magnificent reading room. 

After spending a wee but of time looking through the resources available, I ventured out to see the main historic building of campus. 

I have orientation at QUB next week where I will register for my modules on Tuesday. My BBC registration also coincides with this next week as well so I will update as I can piece together how to explain my status as a student of three institutions (persons) under one degree (substance). Thus beginning my trinitarian  studies in enrolement (practicing my UK English writing skills).

More to come...