A word to Christian huddles

jeffrey-lin-706723-unsplashAre you at risk of having your whole life tied up with Christians so that you have no real engagement with anyone else? Does your week revolve around church meetings and activities? Does your sport, education, recreation, entertainment, socialising, music, and media all take place in a Christian bubble?

Well, Christian, God’s word calls you to be different from the world around you. Different, yes. But not detached. You are called to live in the world, among the world, in contact with the world. Your point of difference isn’t to be retreating from the world. Rather, you are to be marked out by your character, the priorities of your life, the way you treat people, the things you talk about. Your life should be a signpost, pointing to our gracious and good God. You need to care enough about people, and be close enough to people, and spend time enough with people, for them to notice your points of difference.

The Apostle Peter wrote, most likely to Jewish Christians in a Greco world, these challenging words:

Dear friends, I urge you as strangers and exiles to abstain from sinful desires that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honourably among the Gentiles, so that when they slander you as evildoers, they will observe your good works and will glorify God on the day he visits.
(1 Peter 2:11-12 CSB)

While all the words in these verses are important—God has spoken them all—I want to focus our attention on two: good and among. Our lives need to be different. We’re called to do good—what God calls good! And we’re called to live among people—not to remove ourselves into ‘safe’ Christian ghettos.

There are many implications of this. Firstly, let’s not waste the time we spend together as brothers and sisters. If we’re going to do church stuff—and we should—then let’s make it really count. Don’t just be going through the motions. Let’s make sure we spur one another on to live for God, to love and good works.

Secondly, let’s assess the balance of our lives. How much time do we spend with others from the school, socialising with work friends, inviting the neighbours over for a BBQ, serving in the surf club, helping the elderly neighbour with her garden, welcoming those who move into our suburb… insert your own opportunities. Again, let’s not waste the time we get to spend with friends or family who don’t know God. Are we always building bridges, but never crossing them? What would it take for us to inject a bit of this is what I believe into our relationships with others?

And what’s the motivation for living this way? Two things: that people will come to experience the joy of a relationship with the living God; and that God will receive all the glory!

Do you know what love is?

loveTrue love doesn’t start with us—it starts with God. God doesn’t love us because we’re loveable, or deserving, or especially worthwhile. He loves us because he is love. He loves us despite who we are and what we’re like. He loves us at great personal cost. God’s love is passionate—it shows itself in the passion of the Christ, on Good Friday, with Jesus taking the punishment of death in my place.

We won’t always feel loved by God. Sometimes our circumstances will cause us to doubt or question the love of God.

  • It’s hard to believe that God loves us when we are experiencing pain and loss.
  • We are tempted to believe that if God really loved us then things would always go well for us.
  • It’s impossible to feel the touch of God’s love when he seems so far away and disinterested.
  • It feels silly to speak of God being loving when there is so much tragedy and suffering in the world.
  • Saying ‘God loves me’ sounds so empty and powerless.
  • Who am I to say whether God loves me or not?

It’s all too easy to judge God based on our experiences. And it’s all too dangerous! God doesn’t have to meet my expectations, as though I know more about love than him. I have no right to stipulate the criteria for assessing whether or not God is loving.

External circumstances can always be understood from different perspectives. If it rains heavily then one person will thank God for saving his crops, while another blames God for ruining her holiday. Does this mean that God is loving to one and not to the other?

Don’t be tossed around by your heart, or your head, or the things that happen around you. There is clear, objective, defining, unchanging, historical, and eternal evidence for the love of God.

God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

Know that evidence and keep returning to it. Rely on God’s own word of truth when it comes to assessing his love. Remember…

This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
(1 John 4:9-10)

Do you know what it is to be loved by God? Have you experienced the love of God? I’m not asking whether you’ve had goosebumps or a mystical encounter. I’m asking have you put your trust in Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection, for the forgiveness of your sin against God? Have you received a divine pardon? Then you know what love is!

If you’d like to know more about the love of God, then please ask me, and I will be only too happy to share what I know.

Four dimensional love

A friend asked me on the weekend, what I thought were the marks of a good church. I answered—LOVE.

Now, that might sound a bit vague and wishy-washy, but it’s not. Love is primary. Love should be the noun, the verb, the adjective, and the adverb. Love is the mark of a healthy church. Sure, there are lots of ways a healthy church could be described, but I don’t think any church can be healthy without love. If you identify multiple marks of a healthy church, then please ensure that love is amongst them. Or perhaps even better, that love shapes all of them.

As the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
(1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

A few years back, when I was a pastor at Stromlo, we focused hard upon the importance of love in shaping our church. We explored particularly four dimensions of love.

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  1. Love from God. A love supremely displayed in the death of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. This is an undeserved and powerful love. It pays for our sin and reunites us with our loving Father in Heaven.
  2. Love of God. We are called to respond to God’s love by trusting Jesus and loving God in return. Every part of our being is to be caught up in this love—a love with heart and mind and soul. This is our worship, every day, and in every possible way.
  3. Love one another. Jesus declared that they will know we are Christians by the love we have for one another. Sadly, the church has become something of a stench in the nostrils of our community with its stories of child abuse, corruption, greed, conflict and divisions, are all too common. God calls us to deliver a new story—a message of genuine sacrificial, affectionate love, lived out between brothers and sisters.
  4. Love our neighbour. True love of God will show itself in love for those around us. We are called to let God’s love move us to love others, to do good to all people. This love culminates in pointing people to the greatest love of all—not the love of self (sorry Whitney), but the love of Jesus in restoring people into relationship with God.

This four dimensional love was our focus for 2014. We regularly pointed one another to its importance. We dug into what it looks like. We encouraged one another to be putting it into practice. We evaluated our church, its ministries, programs and activities, in the light of how they help us to love. We explored the Scriptures in sermons and studies seeking to understand and apply this love.

I pray that God will shape our churches with this four dimensional love. I pray that we will live out this love without holding back. I pray for a new reputation for our churches—that people will recognise us by our love.

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
(Ephesians 3:14-19)

 

Transgender

bowieMy introduction to ‘transgender’ ideas took place in 1974, when I sat watching David Bowie on ‘GTK’ on our TV. My first album was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It’s still one of my go to and favourite albums to this day! But it was the appearance of Bowie that messed with my head. It was hard for me as a 12 year old to look at this man. Was he man or was he woman? What did it mean to be somewhere in between? I felt uncomfortable with the image, but I loved the music. It wasn’t really transgender, but it made me feel that something was askew.

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 10.01.04 amAnd there was Lou Reed with his mascara, high heels, stockings and the seedy haunting lyrics of Take a Walk on the Wide Side with Holly, Candy, Little Joe and the others. Like most people, I sang along: ‘Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo…’ Impossible not to, really! ‘Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side’. I find myself singing along today when I hear this song. Why would I be singing along to a song about transvestite prostitution? A disturbing fact of music is that it sticks in your head, even when the lyrics might be distasteful. (Just ask any parent or grandparent who has heard the Baby Shark song—don’t kill me for mentioning it.) Why would I be singing along to a song about transvestite prostitution?

Back then such images were brash, confronting, distasteful (to me), and yet sometimes curious and seductive. Fast forward to 2018. Transgender is a big thing. It’s become a growing cultural and political avalanche. People don’t fit in their own skin. Growing numbers of people transitioning. Isolation and oppression. Arguments over pronouns. Debates over the rights of children, parents, teachers, doctors, governments. Identity politics. Cries for freedom. Chaos in sport. Confusion over toilets. Parents out of their depth. Fears of speaking up. Religious oppression. Male/female/other/custom forms. What does the future hold?

transTransgender: A Talking Points Book by Vaughan Roberts is a users guide to transgender from the perspective of an intelligent, sympathetic, well-researched Christian writer. The Talking Points series of books is particularly designed to encourage Christians to understand today’s big issues with a view to encouraging meaningful, gracious, and intelligent discussion on a range of ethical matters. Tim Thornborough, the series editor, writes:

The world is changing. Fast.
And not just about politics, technology, and communication, but our whole culture, morality and attitudes. Christians living in a Western culture have enjoyed the benefits of being in a world which largely shared our assumptions about what is fundamentally right and wrong. We can no longer assume that this is the case. (p7)

Roberts suggests that there are two common responses to the issue of transgender: ‘an unquestioning “Yuk!” and an unquestioning “Yes!” (p18) He warns us to avoid both superficial responses and work to understand people and what’s going on for them. The first point of understanding for many of us, is to understand the language, terms, and ideas that are being used. He quotes from the Stonewall website to explain terms such as trans, cis, gender dysphoria, gender identity, transitioning, and more.

Our post-modern, post-Christian world has elevated subjectivism and the rights of people to define themselves, rather than be defined by others. This is certainly the spirit of our age and an undergirding conviction for those who define themselves not by the gender they were born with, or ‘assigned’ at birth, or the composition of their chromosomes, but how they feel inside. Facebook has gone with this view of individual personal autonomy, and now offers over 70 gender options for people to express their ‘authentic’ self. Huge debates rage over how to respond to gender dysphoria, especially in children and adolescents. Should puberty-suspending hormone treatment be provided to pre-adolescent children experiencing gender dysphoria? What if such dysphoria swings, changes, or disappears over the years that follow? Does a child have the right to seek such treatment against parental wishes? Does the education department, medical system, or another state body have the right to override parental permission? Such questions are highly charged, politicised, and deeply distressing to many. How are we to think through and decide on these things?

Transgender offers a Christian perspective on human identity, where it comes from, how it has been damaged, and some of the implications for human struggle and human flourishing. Roberts engages well with the teaching of the Bible and the implications of creation, fall, and regeneration. His book offers a framework for careful reflection on the matters of gender confusion: who I am, how I am, and what I can be?

I recommend this book for all Christians who desire to be better informed and equipped to understand people and society, who want to be able to engage on passionate matters without coming across as bigoted, unkind, or even hateful. It’s a helpful book for those who aren’t Christian, but want an insight into how Christians might be grappling with these matters. This book should be read by parents whose children are facing a world far more confusing than the one they grew up in. And this book is also designed to be read with others, and discussed together. If you are part of book club, then when your turn comes around, why not suggest a Talking Points Book, such as Transgender. You could read it one week and discuss it the next, and the next, and likely the next.

 

One tough marathon

B2B_North-Brother5-1-1030x413Over the weekend Bonny Hills, where we live, was filled with people and festivities. Saturday featured the Back to Bonny’s community events with market stalls, historical displays, music, dancing, surf carnivals, a gala dinner, and more. Sunday saw another lesser-known event passing through our village. A crazy event really—the Beach to Brother Marathon.

This is no ordinary marathon. It’s a combination of 5km, 10km, half marathon, team marathon, and personal marathon, all in one. But the distinctive of this event is the terrain. It begins at Town Beach in Port Macquarie and continues on coastal trails, on beach sand, around back streets, on single tracks, and ends by climbing a mountain.

That’s the crazy bit. If it’s not hard enough to complete a ‘normal’ marathon, this one finishes by climbing 500 metres in only 3.7km of track. That’s an incline of more than 13.5 percent. We’ve driven up North Brother a number of times because it affords spectacular panoramas from the summit. The drive is 5 kms and it seems like an endless incline. And that’s only 10 percent incline and in a car! The run is even steeper, and it’s the last thing people do.

Why do they do it? I don’t know! But I suspect that a win for all involved is simply to finish. To be able to say they’ve completed the Beach to Brother.

The Bible describes life as a marathon. The focus for Christians is to get to the end and receive the prize. I’ve been looking at the Letter of James lately, and we read this in chapter 1 verse 12:

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

In the context of persevering under trials, James says it makes sense to keep going. It makes sense to endure when things get really tough. It makes sense to keep going in the face of opposition and difficulty. And it’s the prize at the end that makes sense of it all.

If this life is all there is, and it’s too hard to keep going, and the pain is overwhelming, and the suffering relentless, then it makes sense to give up. Surely avoiding pain and difficulties and trials is the smart thing to do. Why struggle if you don’t have to?

But, if this life is not all there is, if Jesus has risen from the dead, if there is a judgment to come, if faithfulness to God counts for anything, if trusting in Jesus is our only hope, then stay the course, keep on going, endure until the end. This makes abundant sense. God has promised a crown of life to those who love him. Do you love him?

In ancient times those who finished the marathon received a crown, more like a wreath. It would be an honour to wear such a prize, but it wouldn’t last long. By contrast God promises a crown of life. Keep going until the end because death is not the end. It may be the finish line in this marathon we are running, but there is life to follow. And this life is eternal in nature.

There’s something else about the Beach to Brother that gives me cause for concern. It doesn’t get easier as you go along. It gets harder, and the toughest part is at the end. I suspect this too could be a warning for those who follow Jesus. If we are going to stay the course, not give in to temptation, and continue to put Jesus first, then the toughest paths may well be yet to come. Perhaps your life has been pretty easy until now. If so, don’t let the past be a predictor of the future. Maybe you’ve been doing it tough for some time, then stay focused, it’s not over yet.

Most entrants to the Beach to Brother do the race as a team. There are transition points along the course where you can pass to another runner. A smart move, I reckon. The team runs for the prize together. That sounds more my scene—so long as I could get a flat stretch of beach! Another lesson for Christians: Don’t try and navigate life’s trials on your own. God gives us brothers and sisters. Following Jesus was never intended to be a individual event. We run together, support each other, and draw our strength from God who gives us the power of his Holy Spirit. Stay in touch with your support team and don’t stop until you reach that finish line.

The Gospel Comes with a House Key

9781433557866_grandeInspirational. Provocative. Enticing. Raw. These are some of the words that quickly come to mind as I reflect on Rosaria Butterfield’s new book, The Gospel Comes with a House Key. Let me confess, I didn’t read this book. I listened to Rosaria read it. She kept me captivated from the minute I left Canberra until I drove into my street in Bonny Hills. Eight hours of ‘radically ordinary hospitality’.

If you haven’t come across Rosaria Butterfield, let me introduce her briefly. She grew up in an atheist family and went to a Catholic school. She found herself attracted to the lesbian and homosexual communities at an early age, pursued studies in literature, and eventually became a professor in English and Women’s Studies at Syracuse University. Rosaria was a influential radical and a leader in LGBTQ rights. In an earlier book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Rosaria describes how she set out to write a book critiquing Christianity, and how in the process she became a Christian herself.

The Gospel Comes with a House Key is a book about the importance of hospitality. Not the hospitality of tea parties and lace tablecloths. This is a long distance from ‘entertaining’ others. This is radical and ordinary, and it is motivated and shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s about welcoming strangers and turning them into neighbours. It’s about welcoming neighbours and inviting them to become extended family.

Rosaria’s conversion came about over many months of dinners at the home of a Presbyterian minister and his wife. They demonstrated to her the deep difference between acceptance and approval. They accepted Rosaria for who she was. Her beliefs, lifestyle, aspirations, and politics were no barrier to real welcome, hospitality, acceptance, and friendship. Her experience of God’s grace through the hospitality of a Christian couple has radically shaped her desire to pass it forward. Together with her husband and family, they welcome anyone and everyone into their home, and they do it not occasionally, but on a daily basis. Their modest and functional home provides a safe haven for many in their community. They share meals, discuss current affairs, explore what it means to be a follower of Jesus, assist the needy, provide a refuge for discarded and abused, provide warmth, and model genuine love and friendship to others.

It’s a costly process. They give time and love in spades. Their food bill each week is double or triple what they would spend on themselves. Rosaria is making extra food literally every single day. When a family is in crisis, she is out delivering homemade meals. She makes regular offers on a social media app to the entire local community of 300 homes to assist the needy. All this on top of caring for her own family, supporting her husband in the ministry of their church, looking out for wider friends and family in need, studying the Scriptures, praying for many people, and even writing books. It’s a family lifestyle. The children consider it normal to reach out to others and invite people into their home. Her husband takes this attitude of hospitality to the jail, where he provides support for men who society has rejected and forgotten.

The Gospel Comes with a House Key is a gripping read because it is so real and raw. Rosaria tells story after story. We learn of her mother who absolutely hated Christianity and made life hell for the family. We meet the bloke across the street, his pit bull, and his drug addicted girl friend, and the account of the DEA raiding the house to dismantle his crystal meth lab. And we learn how God worked through the patience and love of Rosaria’s family to introduce these people and many more to the saving love of Jesus.

There is nothing showy about this hospitality. The regular menu revolves around rice and beans and the occasional chicken. Chairs are optional. Dogs are welcome. It’s barebones, rough, honest, and unpretentious. It’s attractive and daunting at the same time. Rosaria doesn’t have all the time and resources at her disposal, but she finds them and makes them. It’s costly and sacrificial.

There’s a warning too. Those who will find it most difficult to offer hospitality to the stranger, the sinner, the outcast, the unloved and unlovable will more than not be the rich—people like me, and maybe you. Those who have the most, fear they have the most to lose. They can’t risk their carpet, or their dining setting, or their polished reputation, or their safe, self-contained lifestyle. It’s hard following Jesus if you’re well off. Jesus had meals with ‘sinners’ and prostitutes. He met with lepers and social outcasts like the tax-collectors. He didn’t care about his reputation. He was willing to be waylaid and interrupted. He taught us what hospitality should really look like.

I asked myself a couple of questions after finishing this book:

  1. How much of my hospitality is merely catching up with friends, rather than reaching out to care for the needy or the alienated? How much of my hospitality is literally the philoxenia—love of strangers—that we find in the New Testament?
  2. We have a nice home, fairly new, matching furniture, close to the beach. Will I ensure that our home is for people? Will I care more for the welfare of those around us, than the welfare of our couches and coffee machine?

“Please God, help me to love others before myself. Help me to love people more than things. Help me to be generous with my time, gifts, possessions, and particularly our home. Teach me to become more and more hospitable. Teach me to delight in the love and care of those around me. Move me to share the great news of Jesus Christ with strangers and neighbours as you give me opportunity.”

 

Gospel economics

rawpixel-741658-unsplashWhen we’re hit by the trials of life, we face the temptation to look immediately to our own resources. We’re taught to do this—to be resilient and strong and resourceful. We draw on our experience, our education, our networks, our finances. And we should. If a nail is sticking out of the wall, and we have a hammer, then we knock it in. Problem solved. If an unexpected bill arrives, and there’s money in the bank, then we pay it. If we lose your job, and we have the right qualifications and experience, then we look for another. We can overcome adversity, we’ve done it before, we’ll do it again, and it’s all good.

On the other hand, sometimes we don’t hold the winning cards. We’re short-suited because we lack the resources that we need to face our crises. We despair because we lack the money, or training, or relationships, or optimism to carry on. The trials overcome us. We’re left troubled and weak and ashamed.

And it’s easy to envy. Some people never seem to face any trials. Their lives are endless pleasure cruises. They’re handed everything on a plate. Or so it seems.

Jesus warns us to beware the deceitfulness of wealth. Money, investments, financial strategies are dangerously deceptive. They seduce us into trusting in them. More than this, they have the audacity to call themselves ‘securities’. They promise everything, but they can’t ultimately deliver. We don’t have to look far to see the how empty such promises can be. Remember the GFC.

Every night as I watch the news, there are stories of war, crime, drought, corruption, drugs, disease, and new political leaders. And every night we are drawn to focus on finances. What is the dollar doing? What’s happening with the housing market? What’s rising and falling on the stock exchange? How is our economy comparing to yours?

It’s hard to escape the viewpoint that whatever problems we are facing in this world, the solutions are economic. If we’re wealthy, we’ll make it. If we’re poor, then we’ll struggle and fail. That’s how we’re measured and valued. It’s just the way life works. Except it’s not.

James knew this, and he tackles our warped perspectives as he shows us how to face trials of many kinds. He writes to Christian brothers and sisters with these words…

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.
(James 1:9-11)

The deception of wealth is that the more we have the safer we feel. We look to our possessions as the source of our satisfaction and security. But they’re not. They’re like a mirage in the desert, or a chasing after the wind. Money can buy us lots of things but, as the Beatles said, it can’t buy us love. And more importantly is doesn’t buy security. How many of the multi-millionaires of the 19th century are still secure in their wealth? None of them. How much of their hard earned wealth and their clever investments did they lose when they died? Absolutely all of it. If we don’t waste it, or lose it in this life, then we will most certainly say goodbye to it all when we die. And we’re going to die! And death will make a complete mockery of our claims to be secure.

Do you feel rich? Or do you feel poor? My guess is that most of us feel somewhere in between. We move between confidence and fear, based on the measure of our cashflow, assets, and  savings. We get tossed around by the seduction of our society and the deception of our hearts.

If you know Jesus Christ, if you have been forgiven by the loving Heavenly Father, if you have received God’s Spirit as a down-payment on eternal security, then you have a far better hope. You have different economic values—gospel economics. You might not have much to lay claim to in this life, but you have an eternal home that is kept secure. You might be very comfortable, even wealthy in this life, but it would be a massive delusion to rely on what you have to get you where you ultimately need to go.

When the wealthy face trials of many kinds, they should humble themselves and remember their need for God. When the poor are troubled and overwhelmed they should remember the treasure that is theirs in God.

“Thank you Jesus Christ, that though you were rich beyond measure, you became poor, that in you we might become rich.”