The Student’s Desk

That we may know Christ

The Student’s Desk Newsletter – July, 2008

I’ve managed to get through another semester at PTC, and as I sit down to write another edition of The Student’s Desk this past semester feels more like a full year. This edition has ended up being longer than normal. Probably because I’m still trying to process all that’s happened! It’s been a very busy time. The fact I picked three of the hardest topics to study and became frustrated with the quality of the work by scholars added to a very long semester.

            As I mentioned last time, this semester’s subject included Isaiah and Westminster Confession of Faith. I really wanted to ‘nail’ Isaiah as I anticipated that the better I understood Isaiah, the better I could understand the New Testament. I was promptly warned at the start by a friend, “You wont nail Isaiah, Isaiah will nail YOU!” I drew no encouragement from our lecturer who also warned us, “You wont get your head around Isaiah. It’s just to big.” He did his doctoral thesis on Isaiah, and he’s saying it’s too big! What chance did I have?? Nonetheless, I did get a firm handle on Isaiah. I wont be so bold to say I nailed it, but I did achieve my objective in gaining a better understanding of the New Testament from Isaiah. For the 2 essays, I looked at the Sign of Immanuel in chapter 7 looking at the weird, whacky, and completely ridiculous suggestions commentators have come up with for the identity of the virgin and her child. Working with what our lecturer had to say helped a long way as I came up with my own ideas. I also looked at the theme of Kingship, and looking back, this wouldn’t have been much different to trying to summarise the whole book in 3,000 words – yah! Nonetheless, I gained an understanding in Isaiah’s agenda.

            As for the Westminster Confession of Faith, hmm. What can I say without causing too much controversy? I should say firstly that there is a place for church tradition and systematic theology. I’m not about to deny the relevance of the doctrinal standards of the Presbyterian Church as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith, as did happen in the 19th century. Particularly today as any aspect of Christian doctrine can mean anything and everything. It’s helpful for Christians to state what they believe corporately so we at least know what we’re on about as a group. If someone doesn’t subscribe to what is said, then maybe they’d do better to find another ‘ecclesiastical home’. But what concerned me is as I investigated again some of the controversies that have occurred in the Presbyterian denomination, I felt more like a lawyer then a Bible scholar. I found people arguing over the finer points of the Confession, and whether this or that teaching can be accepted on some technicality. Where the Bible was used, it was to provide a proof text, not some much to apply the broad, sweeping themes of Scripture. Mind you, this was at a time when only a minority of clergy believed the Bible had any credibility! I became sensitive to the use of the Bible from studying Isaiah, and being aware of the debates about the person and work of Christ that have raged in other times of Church history. Perhaps if a little more attention had been given to Isaiah, these debates would not have been so necessary. Church tradition and systematic theology have their place, but not as a second Bible! This is one of my objections to Catholicism that regards church tradition as being equally authoritative with the Bible (though in my opinion, Catholicism places the authority of church tradition over the Bible). Protestants must not do the same with our systematic theology. As helpful as systematic theology is to identify our persuasion on various issues, extreme care must be taken not to invest too much authority in it. I do not think that humanity in its fallen state has the capacity to crystallise beyond fault, the entire revelation of the Bible into systematic statements. I have come to the firm conviction that God gave us a Bible, not a systematic text, for very good reasons. I’m not sure what all those reasons are, but we would do well to give much more attention to the Bible than our traditions or systematic theology.

            However, the subject did give me an opportunity to revisit the issue of God’s providence after writing about it in relation to prayer last year. When I thought about what I had written last year, I wasn’t entirely happy with what I came up with. I also chose to write on it again as I had issues with what the Westminster Confession of Faith had to say at this point. This time, I was to consider God’s providence in relation to the problem of evil, and what the Confession has to say on the issue. This was the third difficult topic I chose. I still don’t have a final answer to the problem, and I very much doubt that I ever will. However the faculty would be pleased to know I’m more in line with the Confession on this point these days, though I still have a point of contention. I do know to be wary of people who claim to have a final answer to this issue. My studies showed that such people have a distorted view of reality, or the nature of God, or both. It was during the writing of this essay that frustration began to build. I have in my own library a copy of Erickson’s systematic theology. In it is a section addressing the issue of God’s providence and the problem of evil explaining three different viewpoints. I thought, “Beauty! That’s half my essay written! All I need to do is look up his citations.” Well, one of the references by Clark wasn’t available. But no matter. I found another book by Clark which was sure to say the same thing. To my horror, what Erickson said Clark was saying, Clark wasn’t actually saying! So this left a dirty great whole in my essay, and in any event, I didn’t fully agree with what Clark was saying! Somehow I had to integrate all this into my essay. All I wanted to do was get the essay written in the limited time! Oh, the joys of being an academic. I got the essay done, and I haven’t had my lecturer wanting to talk to me about it, so that has to be a good thing.

 

Studies aren’t quite the struggle they could be as more technology is being used to aid students. This semester I started using a computer program called End Note. This keeps track of all my references so I no longer need to write the footnotes or bibliographies – the program does it for me. I can also use an online database to import biographical information straight into End Note. This saves time and errors. The database also allows me to search journal articles relevant to the essay I’m working on. Now I think the librarian dreads the days I come through the door. It’s a sure bet I’ll be sending him upstairs with a print out of a dozen journals I want retrieved, if not photocopied. Having the library database online has also helped as I can now see what books the library has and where in the library they are. It means I can go to the library with a print out of the books I want and where they are, pick them off the shelf one by one and spend my library time reading instead of trying to find reference to read! This probably saves 1-2 hours work in the library each time. The internet itself is also becoming more of a valuable resource. Every so often I find myself wanting an obscure book and find if you dig around the internet for long enough, you’ll find a full version of the book on a computer file somewhere, mostly for free! Now I’ve gone from the problem of not having enough references to having too many references. Sufficient to say I’ve become quite good at speed reading.

            Doing both subjects by intensive blocks rather than a few hours each week was quite a different experience as well. I had hoped this would give me more time to get more work done as every week wouldn’t be interrupted by a trip to Sydney. Yet somehow the end of semester still turned out to be a mad rush. This may be due to my own pet projects more than anything else. And after 10 hours of lectures in a couple of days, I wasn’t sure of what planet I was on! Life was also made a little more expensive as I had to drive due to the shear amount of junk I needed to take. Attempts at finding an alternative to driving resulted in a strained neck and shoulder which then went into spasm for 5 days. Hence I kept driving! But I certainly appreciated being accommodated while lectures were on. A 10 minute walk to college was so much more enjoyable than a 2 hour commute.

            As usual I went on college mission just before Easter. This time to South West Rocks. I found this mission to be very different. There were social aspects to the area I wasn’t prepared for, and pretty much took me the whole week to figure out how to handle those aspects. The fact I arrived at mission already tired also didn’t help. For the most part, I had the responsibility of driving the computerised presentation which I don’t have allot of experience in. Before mission, I use to think Microsoft Power Point was a horrible, horrible program. Now I know, I was right!

 

College isn’t the only thing that’s been keeping me busy. Church services at the Allambie Heights Spastic Centre continue with the same number of people attending. I’m really encouraged by the number of people coming forward to help. I no longer feel I need to stand behind people with a big stick to put their name on the roster. Now, I have people almost fighting over dates when they can come down. It’s fantastic!

            Earlier in the year I decided to go through the story of Moses. All was fine until I got to the Ten Plagues. I was left thinking, “how am I going to teach such a huge slab of Scripture in 10 minutes? And, what’s it all about anyway? Surely it’s more than God giving the Egyptians a good spanking for enslaving his people!” Indeed it was. I spent 2 weeks studying the plagues and the significance they had to the Egyptian culture at the time. What was impressed upon me was the all-sufficiency of God in providing for people. The sum of the situation was the Egyptians lived in an uncertain world, and by observing certain rites and beliefs, they could insure and be assured of some certainty. They took pride in this and failed to recognise God’s provision. What the Egyptians put their hope in, God showed to be a sham through the 10 plagues. He is the one who provided for the Egyptians, not some petty idol. We too live in an uncertain world, and we invest time, money, and energy into things that will make us secure and happy. And all too quickly the things that God has given us to enjoy have become our idols, as we fuss and become anxious about them. We forget God gave us these things to enjoy and use for his purposes. If God provided for us in the first instance, God will always provide. Perhaps not always the same thing, but God will provide. There is no need to be anxious about anything. I achieved my objective in getting through the 10 plagues in 10 minutes by discussing these points with the people.

            Of late I have been going through the Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I’m finding that a most dangerous piece of Scripture. Just when you think you’ve got the Christian life nailed, you read the Sermon on the Mount. Hmm. But it’s been encouraging as well. I’ve been teaching it as “living life up-side-down” as Jesus inverts worldly standards to show God’s standards. This is good news if you find yourself disabled, and can’t conform to worldly standards. But Jesus doesn’t let you off the hook. The sermon emphasises relationships, and how God is honoured in those relationships. It often means doing things which are least natural for us to do. This presents a challenge for anyone, regardless of ability or lack thereof.

 

I was also involved in the disability camp in March, and to be quite honest, it feels much further back than that. I was asked to give my testimony, but apart from this, I was free and spent the time encouraging campers and carers alike, which probably does more than anything else.

 

Before returning to college, I spent the remainder of my holidays building my own website, happily entitled The Students Desk. This was a big job in itself, writing who I am, what I believe, and what I’m about. It mainly serves as an outlet for my writings so people can read at their leisure, and hopefully be encouraged in their faith. The website can be found at www.thestudentsdesk.com . My intent was to post a fortnightly devotion based on what I’m speaking on at the Spastic Centre. Unfortunately, my studies left me too tired to do much else. I’ll have to try and make more of an effort in the future.

 

Next semester I’m back to the weekly commute, twice a week unfortunately! I’ll be studying the reformation period in church history, and the doctrine of God and the work of Christ (more systematic theology). I’m looking forward to studying the Reformation. I’ve studied it briefly before and concluded that a few people came along with a theological bandwagon which everyone jumped on with their political agendas. I’m looking forward to having my knowledge of this time filled out a bit more. Hopefully the doctrine of God and the work of Christ will lift my view of systematic theology a bit higher,

 

I’ve also worked out where I’m up to in my course. I have about another 12 subjects to go, and at the rate I’m going, that’ll take another 3 years. So, there’s a fair way to go yet, but I’m getting there. I’m just thankful God doesn’t have deadlines!

 

Thank you for supporting and praying for me. It’s a big encouragement on a long road with many battles. A road that I don’t even know where it’s going! But, when all the hard work is done, it’s a good road to be on, because I’m learning more and more about Jesus.

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July 7, 2008 Posted by | Newsletters, Site News | Leave a comment

The Student’s Desk Newsletter – December, 2007

My studies at PTC continued on this last semester, and it has been the craziest semester I’ve experience. The fact that this Student’s Desk has come so close to Christmas is an indication of how crazy it’s been. Never in one semester have I learned so much, or written essays so quickly! Not to mention an impromptu trip to Hobart in the middle of it all. But more about Hobart later.

            My subjects for the semester were Church Ministry and Sacraments and Theological Ethics. If that sounds like a mind-full, it was! Both these subjects allowed me to pursue or visit two issues I have been trying to resolve for years. One of the issues has been prayer, which I have struggled with ever since coming to a greater understand of Jesus death and resurrection for me in 1993. Not so much the discipline of prayer (not that my prayer life can be regarded as disciplined), but how we think about prayer in relation to God’s providence and sovereignty, and our responsibility. So when I had the opportunity in Church Ministry and Sacrament to write an essay answering the question “Does God answer pray?” I threw myself head-long into the exercise. I was glad to find scholars who were struggling with the same questions I had been, and coming up with some thought out answers. Perhaps not all that well thought out, but I finally had some ideas I could interact with. I managed to resolve allot of issues concerning prayer for myself, and came to some fairly interesting conclusions that perhaps not everyone in the conservative evangelical tradition would agree with. I’m willing to share the paper I wrote, however, I’m still yet to collect the marked paper with the feedback.

            Theological Ethics introduced me to all sorts of strange ways of thinking and the equally strange people who identified and formulated different schools of ethics. One who stood out was Helmut Thielecke, who I wrote a short paper on. Thielecke was a Christian Ethicist who grew up in early 20th century Germany during the rise of Nazism. He stood out not so much for his strange thoughts – he was actually quite level headed, which was nice for a change – but for his dry and very sharp sense of humour, and a very down-to-earth approach to trials and difficulties. I took great pleasure in being able to read a good chunk of his auto-biography. In one section, he reiterated the time when his mother announced he’d be going to kindergarten the following day. As you may know, kindergarten in German literally means ‘children garden’. At his mother’s announcement Helmut burst into tears and started screaming, for he had imagined he was going to have his feet buried and constantly watered. Well, I had to put the book down until I was done laughing. I was left thinking, “I’m studying ethics, and enjoying it. THIS IS NOT RIGHT!!!”

            Reading his observations of what was happening to the church and wider society in Nazi Germany also helped me to understand the theological and philosophical heritage western culture has, particularly in its modernist approach to sexuality and the post-modern reaction to this. Not that this was a topic I had to write on, but it has been an issue I’ve been trying to understand for a few years now. Reading a few comments from Thielecke brought this and a number of other issues together, which I now have safely tucked away in the back of my mind for another paper on another day.

            Yet, all this learning about prayer and the German Church’s response to Nazism wasn’t without its toll. I spent far too much time on both the prayer and Thielecke essays, and this had the effect of pushing back the rest of my essays which resulted in a great rush getting them all done. By semester’s end, I had 4 1,500 word essays and 4 weeks to do them. Somehow I pulled it off in 3½ weeks. In the end, I found Theological Ethics quite maddening trying to understand the different schools of ethics, and which categories of thought belonged in which school. On one hand, I found it helpful to learn different ways of deciding what would be ethical in different cases. On the other hand, I wondered if it was all just a hair-splitting exercise to justify sinful behaviour. Yet, in the midst of this madness, I must’ve done something right as my results were much better than expected.

 

 

Beyond the Theology Books

 

Church Services at the Allambie Heights Spastic Centre have also continued this semester, and it has been a real honour and a joy to still be able to be part of this work of God’s. This does not mean it’s easy. To go down each fortnight and spend time with the people there is still a struggle. Nonetheless, when I consider how the ministry is continuing, and even growing, I am convinced that God is at work among those people. For 5½ years I have been involved in this ministry, and the demand for it is just as great, if not greater then when I began. Despite having a few members dying (which there have been no deaths for quite some time), numbers have been either consistent or growing. Typically I can expect around 10 people turn up. For the past couple of months, numbers have been around 14 or 15 people. My presence each fortnight is very much anticipated by the people, which I take to be a great complement. I certainly don’t “tone down” my doctrine, or put on an entertainment show. What I say at the Spastic Centre is exactly the same as I would say in any church pulpit, or article I write. So I can only assume they come to hear the Bible being taught, and to address God in prayer. This semester, we worked our way through the parables of Jesus. It was great to see the tremendous dignity that Jesus gives to those who are less able than others, and how we can all partake in the Kingdom of God and have responsibilities despite a lack of ability.

            I did have great delight this semester in briefly connecting with these people on a different level. I tend to use humour as a means of reaching and connecting with people. The hardest people I’ve found to do this with are those at the Spastic Centre. Though for a few minutes, we were all able to have a good laugh. The occasion came about when one of the people there proudly told me they were have 2 parties to celebrate their 40th birthday. At this I exclaimed, “Two birthday parties?? Are you turning 40 twice? It’ll be enough for me to turn 40 once!” They found this most amusing, and it was great to make that informal connection.

 

 

Blessings and Praises

 

It would seem to be becoming a habit of mine to do something crazy in the second half of each year. Last year I went out wandering about Central Australia on my own for 5 weeks, followed by South East Australia for another 4 weeks. The year before that I spent 6 hours on a train to Dubbo to buy a 9 year old 4wd from Japan so I could go wandering about on my own. So what happened this year? Well, that’s where Hobart comes into it. At the beginning of October I found myself on a plane to Hobart to buy a push bike. YAH! Told you it was crazy…

            ‘Bike’ is actually short hand for recumbent tricycle. I’ve been ridding the things for 14 years, and there’s not too many around. I already had one, which was my second one after the first was stolen, but the way I had it made, it didn’t lend itself to off road duties. I had it designed for long range touring, and not much else! Since collecting my 2nd bike I found touring in a van much more preferable. I’ve wanted to change to a more general purpose bike, as was my first one. Problem being, to by one new is around $6,500, and second hand they’re normally around $3,500. So, when I did a casual search on the internet to see what was available and found one going for $1,000, right make, right model, I jumped! It was the same as my first bike, only a later model. The bike seemed to be ok when I contacted the seller, so I decided to buy. There was only one problem – I was in Gosford, the bike was in Hobart! After scratching my head for a few hours thinking of ways to get it, the best thing to do was to jump on a plane, have 1½ days in Hobart, pick up the bike, and fly back with the bike on the plane the next day. I had not been to Hobart before, or purchased an airfare. So it was all a bit of an adventure – particularly when I should’ve been home working on essays (oops!). There were some anxious moments during the trip (what am I saying? The whole trip was an anxious moment!), but praise be to God all my needs were catered for. I found the bike in the said condition, and it needed a fair bit of work, but nothing too difficulty. A recent trip down to Victoria to see recumbent specialist, who’s also a mate, took care of the repairs. Now it’s a very nice, and very quick bike.

            So what does this new bike mean? And do I really need 2 bikes? The new bike is shorter which means I’ve got use of all 4 seats in the Hotel Royal (my van). So next time I write a Student’s Desk on Location I’ll be able to do so from the comfort of the Lounge Area (the 4th seat) and not Master Bedroom (the bed). So camping will be much more comfortable. Also, I’ll be able to set up a base camp in the bush and explore the surrounding area by bike, whether it means ridding on highways or bush tracks, which has been the intention all along. Unfortunately, I can’t justify owning 2 bikes, which is why the tourer will be going on the market, after I get it fixed up, and it will be going for much more than $1,000, if anyone’s interested.

 

Australia‘s oldest bridge still in service

Built in 1820, Richmond, Tasmania

Hobart is about the strangest place I’ve been to. It was like the calendar got to 1850 and stopped! Not that I saw anyone wandering down the main street of Hobart with their feet shackled. Mind you, it would not have looked too out of place. Hobart has allot of colonial architecture, and it was great to see old buildings still in use. What really took my fancy was nearby Richmond which was like walking around a colonial theme park. I saw what I presume to be an original cottage, and right next to it was a new house built in the same style. It was a rather surreal experience. Having seen just a small slice of Tassie, I’m now really keen to get down there with the Hotel Royal and explore this island state.

 

 

The Year Ahead

 

I’ve already enrolled for my subjects for next semester, and will be doing two intensive subjects – Isaiah and Westminster Confession of Faith, which is the doctrinal statement of the Presbyterian denomination. What intensive subjects means is instead of sitting lectures for a few hours a week for 14 weeks, the lectures are delivered in 3 day blocks 3 or 4 times throughout the semester with nothing in between these blocks. I’m hoping this will make things not so intensive by giving me more study time and less travel time. I’ve certainly found I can get much more done by not having my week interrupted by a trip to Sydney.

            I’m very much looking forward to studying Isaiah. I’ve been led to believe it’s the most quoted book in the New Testament, and prophesises much about Jesus. I also know the background to Isaiah, but I have not begun to understand the book as a literary unit, and how it all fits together. So I hope to be able to work hard to gain this understanding.

            Westminster Confession of Faith should also be interesting as, although I identify myself as being in the reformed theological tradition, there are parts to the confession I don’t agree with from a Scriptural basis. So this will be an interesting exercise that will stretch my knowledge of theology, the Bible, and my ability to construct arguments.

Reflections

 

Events in recent days, which I do not wish to disclose, have caused me to reflect on 2 Scriptures which I’d like to share with you. The first comes from Joel who prophesises the day of the Lord, and the outpouring of God’s Spirit on his people. In these days, Joel prophesied that  “… everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved…” (Joel 2:32). Peter used this same passage to explain the events of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples of Jesus, and they spoke with authority about the salvation made available in Jesus. These are the days of salvation we live in today. Should any one turn their face to the Lord, and call to him, they will be saved. Not if. Not maybe. This is not some kind of insurance policy just in case it’s needed. Calling on the name of the Lord guarantees salvation. We can put our hope in the name of the Lord. In the salvation revealed to us and made available in Jesus.

            So how do we call in the name of the Lord? How do we know we’ve done enough to get God’s attention and earn his favour? This is where the second Scripture, written by David, comes in. David had a profound faith and had much to say about God. David wrote these words concerning God when the Old Testament sacrificial system was in full swing, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:16-17). This was a radical thing to write, seeing how God commanded his Old Testament people to make these sacrifices. But what David was driving at was outward actions don’t carry a whole lot of weight with God. It may well be nice today to have all manner of ritual, or be exposed to volumes of knowledge as surely I have been privileged to be, but these things just don’t carry weight with God. Oh, David knew that these sacrifices in his time were an expression of faith, just as ritual and knowledge may be an expression of faith in our time. But these sacrifices were of no intrinsic value in themselves. They didn’t do anything to change a person, or their standing before God. For the writer to the Hebrews says, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:4). What really mattered was what was going on inside a person. What carries weight with God is when a person has nothing to be proud of, or to boast about, and is sorry for their sin. When a person realises they haven’t done enough to mark one merit against their name, and all they can do is cast themselves upon the mercy of God. It is precisely when a person realises they haven’t done enough, that they have done enough. For this is the sacrifice God will never reject. One may think of the thief who was crucified next to Jesus. He had no opportunity to make amends for the crimes and sins he committed. Yet with a humble and contrite heart, he called on the name of the Lord, and was granted eternal life by Jesus (Luke 23:42-43).

            God has promised to save those who call on the name of the Lord, and he has also promised not to despise those with a humble and contrite heart. Let us not forsake the love and mercy of our gracious God by pretending that by our weak and feeble hands we can work to please him. Instead, let us honour and praise God by declaring his goodness to us in casting ourselves upon his mercy with humble and contrite hearts.

  

Thank you for your prayers and support throughout the year. As I have reiterated, it has been a crazy time for me, and I don’t think this craziness has past just yet. Still, God’s blessings have been abundant. And for these I am truly thankful.

December 22, 2007 Posted by | Newsletters | Leave a comment