Heaven, how I got here

heavenI miss Chappo! Yesterday I saw someone reading one of his books and I felt a pang of grief. He was so good to talk with, to chat to about real stuff. He’d always keep pointing me to Jesus. He loved Jesus and wanted nothing more than for others to love him too. Chappo might not be here—that’s because he is now with the risen Jesus—but I still have his books. My favourite is A Fresh Start. It’s clear, fun, engaging, serious, Biblical, and helpful, all rolled into one. It’s a great explanation of what a Christian is and how you can become one.

It got me thinking that we could do with some more books like A Fresh Start. It’s a while since I’ve read a simple and engaging book that explains the significance of Jesus and calls people to respond.

Last night, Good Friday, I sat down with my Kindle and thumbed through the books that I’d bought cheaply, but hadn’t got around to reading. Colin S. Smith’s book, Heaven, how I got here caught my eye. I decided to take a look, hoping it wasn’t another of those ‘heaven tourism’ books. My Kindle told me that it would take about an hour to complete. Just what I needed before I went to bed.

Heaven, how I got here tells the story of the thief on the cross from the thief’s perspective. Of course, we only have a brief glimpse of this man in the Scriptures and only a few of his words are recorded, so there is much that has to be ‘imagined’ in this account. However, I would describe Smith’s narrative as a ‘Biblically informed imagination’. The author draws all his important insights from the Scriptures themselves. Profoundly important theological insights are ascribed to the dying thief as he reflects on the significance of the innocent Jesus, dying at his side.

Why has he be condemned if he is innocent? How can God allow him to hang on the cross if he is the promised Christ? Smith highlights one reality that I’d only ever glossed over—that Jesus died before this man. He watched as Jesus died. He had time (albeit agonisingly brief) to reflect on what Jesus had said and done. The thief heard the taunts and attacks thrown at Jesus. He saw close up the injustice and horror. He witnessed the devastating words of Jesus, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” and his final cry “It is finished.” He experienced the total darkness in the middle of the day, the shudder of the earthquake, and the acclamation of the centurion, “Surely this man was the son of God.”

This book is tonic to those for whom the cross has become mundane. It brings us in, close and personal. We can almost hear and touch and see and smell the events as they unfold. But the real strength of this book lies not in reminding us of the horrors of crucifixion. It lies in the awesome significance of what Jesus achieved, not only for the thief, but for you and for me. Heaven, how I got here is good news to all who think they have no hope of forgiveness and a challenge to any who think that it’s what they do that will get them there.

Please persuade me

Version 2I’m a preacher. Something of a frustrated one currently. Most Easter Sundays see me preaching. And if you only ever hear me on this day, you might think I’m a one trick pony. The topic is always the same. Resurrection. Jesus coming back from the dead. The empty tomb. Appearances to the women. Dealing with doubting Thomas. The hope of eternal life. Why death is not all there is. Being prepared for your future beyond your future.

If you get along to church on an Easter Sunday morning, there’s a pretty good chance you know what you are going to get. And if you are the preacher at that church, there’s a pretty good chance you know what you should give. It will be about Jesus. The one who died is no longer dead. There is real hope for humanity. We can know our creator. We can receive his forgiveness. We can be adopted into his family. We can trust him in life and in death. Life can be better—not freedom from suffering, but genuine hope in our suffering. Life can have meaning—not simply protons, neutrons, electrons—life with God, shaped and transformed by God.

Easter is familiar. Like birthdays and Christmas are familiar. It comes around every year. We know what to expect, and we know what to give. It’s comfortable.

So, let me plead with you, preacher. Don’t just preach another sermon tomorrow. Don’t give me extraneous facts. Don’t show me how well you know your Bible. Don’t parrot out the same message you wrote for another gathering a decade ago. Don’t read your manuscript like any other lecture. Don’t make it about you—make it about Jesus. And make it about me, and how much you want me to know Jesus. Persuade me. Implore me. Urge me. Don’t give me reason to ignore you, to tune out, to scan my Facebook. Call on me to take this with deathly seriousness. Prove to me how much this matters to you. Show me how much you care—about me and your message.

Don’t you dare simply go through the motions. Preacher, if you’re not persuaded, then pull out now. Tomorrow you will have people turn up to listen to you. Please don’t let them down. Persuade them. Show some passion.

Stop now and pray. Ask God to speak through you. Pray that you will be captivated by the love of Christ. Call on God to fill you with the power of the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. Humble yourself and seek God’s help for your privileged task of declaring that Jesus is alive today.

When I turn up to church to hear what you have to say, please persuade me. Make me so glad I came.

Be like the Apostle Paul…

As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,’ he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.
(Acts 17:2-4)

Another author in the family

P1070341Over the past couple of years my father has been working on his memoirs. He’s been reflecting on more than eight decades of seeing God at work in and through his family, in many different locations. In the last few days these words have been delivered—printed and bound—to his home. Dad has called his book From Donholme to Nareen Terrace, and he has shaped the book around each of the places he has lived. I’m glad the book has a title, because otherwise I might be tempted to call it The Book of Norman! (That’s got that joke out of the way. It was bound to emerge at some point.)

I am eagerly waiting to get my hands on a copy—not least to reflect on my own life through the lens of my father. But more so, to read and learn from the experiences of my dad. It is a joy to see this book come out. Roughly six years ago, my father was diagnosed with cancer and we all wondered how long he would be with us. Then my diagnosis made it seem highly unlikely that we would have much of a future together. Tomorrow marks my father’s birthday, and how great it is to be able to look back and celebrate the goodness of God over 82 years.

Maybe you know my father. Perhaps you’ve shared a part of your life with him. If so, there’s a chance you might even get a mention!

Let me know if you’d like to buy a copy. Perhaps I can get a job as a promoter.

Then again, I should probably read what he has to say about me first!

Blindspots

FIEC-conference-2017-small
Planning is now well underway for the FIEC 2017 National Conference. It will take place at Stanwell Tops in NSW, from Monday 4 to Thursday 7 September.
 
This is the one time of the year when we get together with our brothers and sisters serving in FIEC churches across our country. It’s a time to catch up with old friends, make new ones, and encourage one another to keep serving our saviour, the Lord Jesus. 2017 marks 500 years since the birth of the Reformation, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg. We thank God for calling his people back to the truth of his word, and we are calling on God to keep us reforming. 
 
This year’s conference is based on the theme of BLINDSPOTS. Where do we need to be changing? What are the threats to the spread of the gospel? Why might we need shaking from our complacency? How will we persevere in bearing testimony to Jesus in an increasingly hostile world? These are some of the challenges we all face. And there are many more we probably don’t even see.
 
We will be asking what God’s Spirit is saying to our churches. I will be opening God’s Word from the book of Revelation, asking God to shine a light on our blindspots. Peter Jensen will speak in the evenings, and many of our pastoral staff will lead us in sessions designed to get us reviewing our ministries, planning for the future, and prayerfully advancing in the strength God provides. There will be seminars, workshops, and opportunities to connect with others doing similar stuff to you.
 
Whether you come from a small church or a bigger one, whether from the country or the city, whether you’re encouraged or struggling—this conference will be designed to spur you on in your service of God.
 
Please plan now to come. Set aside the dates. Budget for the opportunity. Consider who to invite.
 
Full costs, details, and registration will be available on our website soon.

Fellowship of Independent?

It’s been fun trying to explain to explain my new role in our organisation to people.

“I used to work for an IEC”, I say.
“But now I’m employed by an F.”

Each letter of our acronym and each word in our title is significant. I wouldn’t say that they each bear equal significance, but together they paint a picture of who we are and what we are on about.

Let’s start with independent. This doesn’t, or at least it shouldn’t, mean that we are a bunch of lone rangers. We’re not to be a motley bunch of mavericks who despise denominations, resent others having input to our decisions, or simply can’t get along with anyone else. ‘Independent’ mustn’t describe an unwillingness to fellowship with other believers or an isolationist mindset—this is profoundly unChristian. It simply affirms the fact that each church is self-governed, with its own constitution, leaders, and ways of doing things. I’d like to think that we are little ‘i’ independents!

So how do we function as a fellowship? While upholding the independent governance of each church, we share a vision for reaching Australia with the gospel of Jesus through planting and building healthy evangelical churches. We understand that together we can teach and learn, and give and gain, to and from each other. We can pool resources, encourage one another in our shared vision, share our joys, and carry one another’s burdens. We can seek to build one another through teaching from God’s word at conferences and courses, and commit to regular prayer for our members. Together, we can share ideas, learn from others’ experiences, cooperate in ventures, and provide help to those who need guidance and support.

Ours is a fellowship that is shaped by firm beliefs. We are unashamedly evangelical. We are persuaded that true Christianity is evangelical in its very essence. That is, people are reconciled into relationship with God, and churches are created and grow, through the work of God’s ‘evangel’—the good news that Jesus Christ was crucified for the forgiveness of sins and was raised physically from the dead to rule over God’s world. We learn this good news from the Bible—not people’s best ideas about God, but God’s specific revelation of himself.

Finally, we are a fellowship of churches—evangelically persuaded and independently governed churches. We don’t view FiEC as ‘our church’, ‘the church’, or even ‘a church’. Rather, we are a network or ‘denomination’ comprised of many churches who voluntarily take steps to fellowship with one another in various ways. It is impractical for all of our churches to meet together—we are scattered across this vast country. However, we seek to gather members of each of our churches together at different events during the year so as to encourage personal and practical fellowship. The official representatives of each church—usually the senior pastors—meet together at formal meetings of the FiEC to review, plan, and pray for our fellowship.

Gospel DNA

gospeldnaDNA is who we are. It’s you and I boiled down to our most basic fundamental parts. It’s our point of difference, our unique identifier. It’s the building block of our health and biological integrity. DNA gets passed from generation to generation during reproduction. Zillions of pieces of code are transmitted intact so that new things grow. Occasionally there are mistakes in the code. Sometimes things go wrong—like in me! I have a genetic mutation. My second chromosome has flipped around, fused with the fifth chromosome, and created a genetic short circuit, thus producing cancer of the lungs.

What about other bodies? What about the body of Christ we call the church? How is it reproduced? What keeps it healthy? The answer is Gospel DNA. The gospel gives spiritual life to churches. People respond to the gospel in repentance and faith, are thereby incorporated in Christ’s body, and knit together by his Spirit. Healthy churches reproduce this gospel DNA without allowing mutations to develop.

Richard Coekin’s new book Gospel DNA is a spiritual health manual for evangelical churches. He focuses on what he calls an ‘electrifying training seminar’ for church leaders. You and I might know it as the Apostle Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders recorded in Acts 20:17-38. In a handful of verses, Paul condenses the essence of what it takes to grow and reproduce healthy gospel-shaped churches. He identifies the matters that matter to God, responsibilities of leaders, the convictions that must shape all we do, and the threats to healthy church growth and reproduction. Richard Coekin spends 22 chapters exploring 22 verses of the Bible that are nothing less than a masterclass for gospel ministers.

I’ve long turned to Acts 20 for encouragement and inspiration for the work of gospel ministry. Simply being reminded that the church belongs to God and has been purchased by his blood, is enough to call me back into line. Paul’s words refocus my lens when I’m pulled here and there by the pressures and challenges of leading a church. They retune me to the matters of first importance to God. They remind me what the church is, why it matters so much to God, what will see it grow bigger and stronger, and warn me to stay alert to attacks.

This book isn’t so much a commentary on Acts 20:17-38 as it is a reflection on the Apostle Paul’s ‘ministry values’. No doubt Paul had more to say to the Ephesian elders, but the message that Luke records takes us deep into his core values of gospel ministry. Richard Coekin works off Paul’s script to explore these values in greater detail, by taking us to other parts of the Bible that expound each value. He explains their significance for promoting faithful and fruitful gospel ministry, often illustrating from his own experience with the Co-Mission network of churches in the UK.

I’m keen to get multiple copies of this book so that I can start reading it with others. In fact, I recommend the churches and leaders in our FiEC network make use of this book as a training manual. It’s a book to read slowly, chapter by chapter, pausing to review, discussing how we can apply its lessons, and making plans to change for the better. Gospel DNA is an excellent resource to use in personal ministry, training our leaders, enriching our elders, inspiring our potential missionaries, and preparing our future church planters.

(Richard Coekin, Gospel DNA: 21 Ministry Values for Growing Churches, The Good Book Company, 2017)

New job

Many of you will know that I’ve recently taken on a new job. I’m now over 3 weeks into working as the National Director for the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches in Australia. This is a ‘start up’ role and I’m currently working out where I need to get to, checking my bearings, and mapping out the routes I will need to take.

A big part of this role will focus on communication. Sharing the vision for who we are and who we are seeking to become. It will be my job to be the CRO of the organisation—what Patrick Lencioni describes as the ‘Chief Reinforcement Officer’. It’s easy for us to grow forgetful, get distracted, experience mission drift, live off the past, or get tired and merely go through the motions. God’s word calls us not to grow weary or stop caring.

Our vision under God is to grow healthy gospel-shaped churches throughout this land (and beyond). We need to keep one other on target, on mission, and focused on what matters most. I pray that God will use me in a small way to keep reinforcing his message.