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.”

Wisdom in crisis

cristian-palmer-718048-unsplashIt’s some time since I’ve been out in big surf. I don’t trust myself anymore. I’m certainly not as young or fit as I like to think I was. But there have been times in the past when I’ve been dumped by large waves, tossed and turned, struggling to find my way to the surface, desperate for air, wondering if I was going to drown.

Life can be like that. We can feel so tumbled and turned that we don’t know which way is up and which way down. It’s all too hard, too scary. Crises have the capacity to disorient and destabilise. Where do we turn when our world is falling apart around us, when the ground is shifting under us, when the sky is falling in on us?

James, in the New Testament, writes to his Christian brothers and sisters, calling them to have a joyful outlook as they face their fears. A nice thought, but when the trials come, that might well be the last thought to enter our minds. The darkness closes in and we struggle to find a glimmer of light. It’s seems easier to retreat, to curl into a ball, and to hope the darkness goes away. And so we will often miss out on what God wants to do in us doing in these tough times.

It’s no simple matter to find joy in the context of suffering and pain. It takes real wisdom to see the broader context and the deeper reality. So many time over the past few years, I’ve sat in a dentist chair while needles and probes and high speed drills have gone to work in my gums and teeth. It can be hard to focus on the ‘greater good’ when your gums are being stretched to splitting point and a high speed pain delivery device is doing its stuff. But there is a greater good. There is a genuine joy to be found in the midst of the suffering. The pain is short-term but the gain is long-term. And I need wisdom to remember this.

James writes into the the context of suffering…

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.
(James 1:2-5)

So often we lack wisdom. We can’t see the bigger picture. We are overcome by the circumstances we are facing, and joy seems an impossible dream, let alone a present experience. And into this crisis we are called to ask God for help.

It’s not humanly possible to find joy in the midst of all pain and suffering. Don’t waste your energy trying to lift yourself up by your shoelaces, to conjure up enough faith to carry on, to convince yourself that it will all work out fine. But do ask God for wisdom. The great promise is that God will give wisdom to those who ask him. He will. It’s a promise. This doesn’t mean you will necessarily feel wise, but God promises to give you wisdom all the same.

If…

That’s right, there is a proviso.

But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.
(James 1:6-8)

When you ask God for wisdom, be willing to receive it. Don’t be secretly working out your alternatives for when God doesn’t seem to give it. Don’t go through the facade of praying that God will give you his wisdom, but always planning to rely on everything else to get you through. These verses don’t mean that you have to be 100% sure of God, or that there is no place for confusion or fear. This isn’t about the power of positive spiritual thinking, or ‘name it and claim it’ word/faith mysticism. What they are saying is don’t be double-minded. You can’t have a bet each way. You need to come to God and rely on him to equip you with what you need. You can depend upon God. You don’t need your back up plan. That will only turn you away from God and keep you from his wisdom.

So if you struggle to see the greater good, if you can’t find the path to joy, if everything is overwhelming, then pray. Ask God to graciously open your eyes. Ask him to ease the pain in your heart and to find solace in him. Seek his supernatural help to keep on trusting in Him.

“Father God, please give me wisdom to see the unseen, to remember that you are at work in all things, to know deeply that you will never leave me nor forsake me, to grasp that there is real hope, to feel your comforting presence, to be reminded of your deep, costly, generous love in Jesus, and to keep my faith in you, now and for the future.”

Reflecting on suffering

aaron-burden-426280-unsplashJames, the brother of Jesus, opens the argument of his New Testament letter with these words…

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds
(James 1:2)

At first glance, this seems superficial—put on a happy face, smile, look on the bright side. At second glance, this seems a gloss or a pretence—things aren’t really that bad, there’s always someone worse off than you, you think you’ve got problems, luxury. At third glance, this seems to represent an asceticism or stoicism that’s detached from reality—pain is inherently good, no pain-no gain, harden up.

But if you only glance three times at this verse, then you will be ill-prepared to face the difficulties of this life, and you won’t have much that’s helpful to offer others.

I’m off to a funeral this morning. A young man, husband, father of two, son, brother, friend to many. Some will still be in shock. How could this happen? It’s so not right. Many will feel the pain acutely. Something tragic has taken place. Relationships have been severed. The grief will be palpable.

We will gather in a church—a building that many of us have gathered in many times. We’ve been there for weddings, baptisms, funerals. We’ve come looking for answers, searching to find hope, seeking to make some sense out of such horror. We will ponder two small children without their daddy. Not today, not tomorrow, not next year, not in this life. Our hearts will crumble as we listen to family sharing, friends praying, people crying.

What help does James 1:2 offer at such a time? Is it a verse for such an occasion? Will it only rub salt into our wounds? Is it best left for another time?

James 1:2 is a word for a such a season, because it is written specifically to brothers and sisters. Not flesh and blood, but spiritual siblings. Even though Jesus and James shared the same mother, it’s their spiritual bond that matters most. He writes for those who have been adopted into the God’s family through trusting in Jesus Christ. James has a word for Christians who call God their Father.

It’s a timely word for us today, for James is not saying to pucker up and smile. He’s saying first of all to think. That’s right, think. He doesn’t say ‘Be joyful’, he says ‘consider it pure joy’. He calls us to reflect, ponder, meditate upon, consider what’s really going on when we face trials of many kinds. When life is difficult beyond belief, when people are suffering, when there don’t seem to be answers, when it just hurts so deeply… at this time consider it joy. How so?

because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
(James 1:3-4)

A Christian funeral is not a place for platitudes. It’s not a place for wishful thinking, for simply hoping for the best, and least of all for glossing over the pain and hurt. Death is harsh. It’s unkind and unrelenting. It’s devastating and cruel to all who are left behind. And yet, for the brothers and sisters, for those who hope in Jesus, for the ones who trust that Jesus has conquered death and offers forgiveness and eternal life to all who trust him—death causes us to reflect again on what matters most. We are reminded to refocus, to maintain our hope in Jesus, and to persevere in trusting him.

We might not feel much joy on this occasion, but we have reason to be reminded of the objective joy of resurrection hope. My friend is now with his saviour. His wife, his children, his family, his friends, you and I, will one day be reunited for all eternity if we persevere in our faith. Death and funerals will test our faith. As we look to Jesus, this faith grow stronger.

“Dear Heavenly Father, as we mourn today, fill our hearts with the truth, enable us to trust in your good and loving purposes, enrich our faith in Jesus Christ, and remind us to see the joy in being with you for all eternity.”

Carry on baggage

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Independent churches tend to attract people with baggage. At least that’s been my experience, having pastored two of them and now attending another. I suspect most churches attract people with baggage, in the sense that everyone has baggage, but I think independent churches are especially ripe for the experience.

Why so? We live in an age of church shopping. People are seeking a church that’s just right for them. If they don’t like what they get in one place, then it’s not hard to shop for another. If you are living in the bush, where there is only one church for the next hundred kilometres, then this probably isn’t your experience, but it’s certainly common in cities and larger towns.

Some of our independent evangelical churches have arisen because of perceived needs in certain areas. Existing churches aren’t growing, or aren’t preaching the Scriptures, or aren’t reaching out to the community, or aren’t providing anything for children and youth, or keep stubbornly riding their ridiculous hobby-horses, or something. When a new church is planted it isn’t too long before people are leaking out of other churches. Drifters, who’ve left their churches some time back, dribble into the new church, aiming to give it another go. All these people bring baggage. They might recognise it or they might not, but it will surface soon enough.

The baggage comes in different shapes and forms. Firstly, there is the idealist. They’ve created a picture of what church is to be like. Sadly, their last church didn’t live up to the ideal. Neither did the one before, or the one before. There will be a honeymoon period where they give you time to impress them. You might even find that you are the best church they’ve ever been to. You’re a breath of fresh air; an oasis in the desert. You might start to hear stories of the horrors of the past, the problems of their previous church, the failings of the pastor. Beware—you might be next!

Secondly, people come with an attachment to how things have been done. They might have left their denomination, but they haven’t necessarily discarded what attracted them there in the first place. It won’t be long before you start hearing what you ought to be doing and how church should function. You see, there is a right way to do things. It’s stunning how often I’ve heard ex-Baptists tell us we must baptise for membership, or ex-Presbyterians insist we have a council of elders, or ex-Pentecostals tell us we need to be more open to the working of the Holy Spirit, or ex-Anglicans tell us we should follow a particular liturgical form, or ex-Salvos tell us we should all wear uniforms and play brass instruments. OK, I made the last one up.

People move because they are unhappy, but they may remain deeply attached to familiar practices, forms, structures, and values. The independent church is considered a clean slate to be filled. People with baggage cling to ways that things should be done and feel strongly about ways they shouldn’t. Transfer growth is usually accompanied by excess baggage. History is often the strongest predictor of the future, and discontent will likely lead to more discontent.

Thirdly, people move churches because they’ve had a bad experience with a previous church. More often than not, they feel hurt or grieved by things that have been said, or done, or not done. In reality, the pain is mainly about people—being treated poorly by someone, often in leadership. They’re likely leaving because they haven’t resolved the conflict or haven’t dealt with the pain. So if you are a leader, it’s possible that you will be tested. Are you going to be just like the perpetrators of previous pain? Can you be trusted? Will you repeat the patterns of the past? It’s too easy to get these things very tangled when we leave matters of the past unresolved. And maybe they tried to resolve things, and it didn’t end well, and they are broken, and seeking care and compassion. They are looking to your church to be a safe haven.

So what can independent (and other) churches learn? Here are a eight suggestions:

  1. If people come to you from another church, then have a conversation with them early. Listen to them. Where did you come from? What was it like? What happened? Have you worked through these things? Does the church know you have left? Have you spoken with the pastor or leadership? Do you think you need to go back and work on things? Maybe, let them know you will give a courtesy call to their previous pastor. Be strong, but gracious and caring. Don’t be bullied by people seeking a platform for themselves. Don’t become a bully to people who are seeking refuge and help.
  2. Communicate clearly what your church is on about. Speak to the things you value. Make clear what you won’t fight about and what you will. Share your theological convictions, your mission, and your vision. Don’t just tell people what you do, but how you do things, and why you do them. Excite people about gospel priorities. Aim for simplicity and clarity. Draw people into God’s agenda. Explain that your church is not a place for competing human agendas, but a place to draw together in the one Spirit.
  3. Invite people to become part of the church on the church’s terms. Tell them where the church is at currently and where you are hoping to get to. Let them decide if they want to go on the journey. Of course, this means you need to know where you’re headed and how to communicate it.
  4. Hold orientation meetings for newcomers where you can share the matters of importance. This might be an evening in the home of the pastor or a course over multiple weeks in small groups. Whatever it is, create an opportunity for people to know who the church is and who it’s not, so they can be clear about what they are joining. Some people will leave early, saving you and them the pain of breakup down the track. Others will join more enthusiastically because they love the vision and appreciate your communication.
  5. Have a clear website that outlines what you are on about. Websites are the noticeboards, the yellow pages, the advertising brochures of the past. The flavour of the church should be clear before someone visits. If people want to dig deeper then they should be able to find your beliefs, values, priorities, and other essentials. Or at least they should know where they can find out more.
  6. For those digging deeper, consider an FAQ page or link to position papers on matters that might divide. This is not shop window stuff, but it is what you keep on your shelves inside. If need be, spell out your beliefs about things like church governance, tithing, communion, baptism, spiritual gifts, roles of men and women, creation, predestination, or whatever hot button topics are relevant in your context. If you take a position, then explain why it matters, how much it matters, and what it looks like in practice. If you are inclusive of different views, then make it clear why you accept different views, and what this will mean for unity in your church. Most importantly, work out what you believe and be prepared to explain this to others. If you leave a vacuum, then someone else is going to fill it.
  7. Be clear on how people can get involved. If you need to be a ‘member’ before you can exercise caring ministries, then explain how and why? Some churches are quick to rope people into various ministries, either to make them feel involved or because they can fill a pressing need. If you need to join a small group before you join a serve team, then explain why and help people navigate the steps. Go slow. Not too slow, but go wisely and carefully. Take the time to get to know people. Let them know the pathway to involvement and walk with them.
  8. Most importantly, be motivated by love, not suspicion. Knowing that people have baggage that they carry around with them, gives you the opportunity to help them lighten their load. Everyone has a history and every history is burdened by pain. Remember that we are called to share one another’s burdens. It’s the gospel that frees us from every weight. So speak and act from the gospel of grace. Don’t add further burdens, but help people to find freedom that comes from Jesus.

Gracious living

I was introduced to the idea of ‘gracious living’ by some friends—time out, good friends, laughter, rejoicing, wine and cheese, sunsets and oceans, enjoying the blessings of God.

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, (1 Timothy 4:4 NIV)

kat-yukawa-754726-unsplashBut at church this past weekend I was reminded of another kind of gracious living—the grace of giving generously. I had to pause and think. Do I really know what that means? Not just in theory, but in practice? Have I ever truly given generously? Or do I merely give out of my surplus, redistributing what I don’t need anyway?

Take a look at how the Apostle Paul describes the Christians in Macedonia:

And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us.
(2 Corinthians 8:1-5 NIV)

A close look at these verses challenges me to my core. It turns upside down many of my assumptions and expectations about the grace of God.

  1. God gives his grace to his people so that they are able to give to others who are in need. This is the idea of it being more blessed to give than to receive. God does a supernatural, gracious work in the hearts of the Macedonian Christians and this motivates and enables them to give.
  2. God’s grace works to prevent needy people becoming greedy people. The capacity to give doesn’t flow from having more than we need, and then giving the surplus away to appease our guilt. It comes from the joy of knowing that God provides, so that even in their poverty the Macedonians gave to meet the needs of others.
  3. Gracious giving is costly. It’s sacrificial. It’s giving beyond our assumed capacity to give. It is generous, not because of the amount that is given or the percentage that is given, but because it gives away what we would normally keep for ourselves.
  4. Gracious giving is taking the initiative to give to the needs of others without prompting, pleading, special marketing campaigns, or end of financial year fund raisers. It’s common to give when called upon to do so, but unusual to ‘entirely on our own’ plead for the privilege of being generous.
  5. Gracious giving is giving first of all to God and then to others. And it’s way more than money—and nothing less than giving our whole selves.

Have you discovered this grace in your life—the grace that moves you to delight in giving your God-given time, money, and resources to him and to others?

There was an Old Testament pattern of giving called a tithe. I grew up on the idea of a tithe, literally a tenth. So every time I earned money, I would set aside 10% of what I earned and give it to church, or missions, or charity, or child sponsorship, or such like. And I thought I was generous. But it didn’t hurt because I still had 90% left to spend on myself. Now I’m all grown up and I know how much more complicated it is. Giving 10% doesn’t mean that I have 90% for play money. There are never ending bills and expenses. There are the weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly costs of groceries, fuel, utilities, insurance, education, clothing, housing, you name it. And it’s so easy to we consumed by these things.

It’s a rare thing for me to give beyond my ability. To be honest, I don’t know if I ever have. Have you? I’m missing out really—missing out on the gracious living that only comes from God.

Please God, lead me to give cheerfully, generously, graciously. Lead me to consider what I can give and then give more. And lead others who know your amazing grace to do the same. Amen

Muddled emotions

Recently I stumbled across a video clip of John Macarthur critiquing Joel Osteen. He read from his first book, Your Best Life Now, offering a harsh critique of his self-centred prosperity gospel. Macarthur went so far as to say that Osteen was making the same promises as Satan when he called Jesus to make the stones into bread and told him that all the kingdoms of the world could be his.

I have no problem with this criticism. It seems to me that Macarthur nailed it. The wealthiest pastor in the USA with the largest congregation in the USA, sadly has much to answer for. His massive TV audience, his millions of books, and his huge following, including the likes of Oprah Winfrey, make him a hugely influential figure. And I don’t believe it’s an influence for good or God. I believe our Christian bookshops should boycott his books and television stations should take him off air. They are my thoughts.

UnknownBut what disturbed me in the video, was the laughter of the audience when Macarthur quoted Osteen. There was much hilarity and amusement. Now, I’m not suggesting that Macarthur was using Osteen to whip up his congregation, or making light of what he was teaching, but is laughter really the appropriate response? Is what Osteen teaches funny? If it’s false and destructive, then shouldn’t it lead us to tears?

Many years ago, I gave a talk at a student conference and began with various critiques of false teachers. Some of the stories I quoted had been taken from a Macarthur book that highlighted the nonsense of what some had described as people claimed to have died and gone to heaven and back. Some of the stories were really weird. As I told these accounts, I had people in stitches. There was uncontrollable laughter at times. I found the accounts so bizarre and ridiculous that it was easy to generate comic relief. Even I had tears running down my eyes—not of sorrow but laughter.

After the talk I was taken aside by two young men I deeply respect, and by my wife. They had the courage to challenge me about what I’d said and done. Did I really believe this was false teaching? Did I care that it was leading people astray? Was I committed to the truth of the gospel? Then how could I make light of these things? How could I use them to grab quick laughs and build rapport with my listeners? They called me to repent. And I did. I asked God for forgiveness and I stood before the conference the next day and asked for their forgiveness.

If we are convinced that these things matter, then is no place for being flippant with the truth. False teaching is dangerous and should be no cause for hilarity. We’d do well to remember the example of the Apostle Paul when he speaks of those who oppose the truth…

For as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. (Philippians 3:18 NIV, my emphasis)

As he leaves the Ephesian elders to take care of the church, and to protect their congregation from false teachers, he reminds them…

Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears‘Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. (Acts 20:30-32 NIV, my emphasis)

I believe we are called to know the truth—the truth that sets us free—and to share this truth with others. This will mean opposing the post-modern nonsense that you can have your truth and I can have mine. There will be times when we must speak up for the truth and call out lies and falsehood. But when it comes to life and death, salvation and judgment, it’s not a game. It’s very real and the stakes are high. So let’s speak the truth, in love, and warn people of lies that destroy. And let’s remember what it cost Jesus to rescue people from hell and judgment. Jesus wept over Jerusalem because they ignored and opposed the truth. Will we weep over the blinding deceptions being propagated by the likes of Osteen and others?

The Friend who Forgives

forgiveNow that I’m a grandpa, I’m on the look out for great kids’ books. We’ve still got a few at home that our kids haven’t taken with them, but we’re keen for some new ones for when the grandkids come to visit. So I was pleased when the The Good Book Company sent me a new children’s book to review. It’s The Friend who Forgives: A True Story about how Peter Failed and Jesus Forgave, written by Dan DeWitt and illustrated by Catalina Echeverri.

Firstly, this is a beautiful book. The pictures are captivating—not just for kids, but adults too. They are lively, funny, colourful, and expressive. And the words, too. They’re written in a clear, simple, conversational style, that works for adults and children. The listener is drawn in with the occasional question. And most importantly, it’s beautifully theological. It introduces the readers and listeners to the wonder of Jesus’ forgiveness.

IMG_1171We tested the book yesterday with our nearly five year old grandson. He’s not reading yet so Nona read it to him. He listened intently, answering appropriately, and told me he enjoyed it at the end. We’ll read it to him again, next time he comes over.

But this is a review and not the ramblings of a grandpa. I need to mention the inside back cover. It helpfully reminds the readers that this is a ‘tale that tells the truth’. DeWitt explains that this story is taken from the New Testament Gospels. This is God’s revealed will. It’s anchored in history and it has significance for us. I think it would be worth reading the account from an easy-to-read Bible with the children from time to time, so they make the connection with the Scriptures.

I do have one concern about this book. It uses the words ‘forgive’, ‘forgave’, ‘forgiven’, ‘forgiveness’ without giving an explanation of what the word means. Not all words need explanation, but I think this one does. It’s central to the book and our grandson couldn’t tell us what it meant. When we thought about it, we realised that it is a difficult word to define simply. I recommend that you work out a simple explanation of forgiveness to share with the children who read this or have it read to them. Perhaps, you can think of an example or two they will quickly understand or identify with. Maybe, the author could add another page at the start or back, with a ‘For the reader’ section, defining and describing forgiveness.

For now, why don’t you make a comment or suggestion on this post. How would you explain forgiveness to a five year old?

Caring for One Another

caringWho of us wouldn’t want our churches to be genuine communities of meaningful, caring relationships? Perhaps this is your experience already. People invest in each other, they look out for one another, they show genuine interest, they seek help, they ask what they can pray and then they pray. They do more than offer support to others, they show deep empathy, compassion, and practical care. Maybe this is a bit of overreach, but you see glimpses of it and you want it more and more. Right?

If you’re a pastor or church leader, there is a danger of burning out due to the endless expectations that people place on you. Are you tired and weary from being expected to be the ‘minister’ to everyone? Do you wish that some other people would step up a bit, or that other leaders would share the load? Do you long for a community where everyone is looking out for one another?

Or are you getting disappointed that ministry has become more and more like social work? Are you worried that people’s health and finances and relationships are what seem to matter most? Do you lament the lack of spiritual engagement between people throughout the week, and worry that Sunday conversations rarely get beyond small talk?

Let me offer a suggestion for taking things deeper.

Ed Welch has released a new book called Caring for One Another: 8 Ways to Cultivate Meaningful Relationships. Get yourself a copy, read it, and start getting those around you to buy in. Following on from one of his previous books, Side by Side, he provides a simple and practical resource for equipping Christians for real interpersonal ministry. It’s a brief book—8 short chapters that get us thinking about how to encourage each other to live in the light of the gospel of Jesus. There are great ideas, Biblical foundations, practical recommendations, and each chapter finishes with questions for discussion and application.

This book is intended to be read with others. I can see it providing a good tool for one-to-one meetings with key leaders, or in small group leader training, or with a pastoral care team. It’s not specifically a book for leaders—it’s intended to mobilise everyone in the church to be encouraging and building each other—but I’d start by working these things through with leaders and then mobilise them to equip others.

Welch’s book is less of a ‘how to manual’ and more of a ‘keys to the heart’ guide—but practical and hands on nonetheless. He shows deep understanding of God’s part and our part in God’s work of changing people. Humility, prayer, understanding our weaknesses and sin, reflecting carefully on suffering, and knowing the power of God and the gospel are all critical. Caring for One Another moves well past the theoretical. It aims to grow intentionality and to activate us in relationship with each other. It’s grounded in a deep understanding of how people tick and it’s littered with great ideas and suggestions for making things happen.

I’ve read through this book quickly, but I plan to go over it again, and probably again, and again, by reading it with others. I recommend you do too.

Welch writes in his closing:

Caring for One Another has identified ordinary features of person-to-person engagement. There is nothing new here. The purpose has been to remember and live out applications of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But in that, the very power of God is further on display, and the church is strengthened and drawn together. (p67)

Fellowship or denomination

helena-lopes-459331-unsplashSome of us have been on a date, a third date to be precise. It’s been a date of ‘fellowships’, or should that be ‘denominations’. The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches has gone out with the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches of Australia. We had three leaders of each group meeting, listening, talking, exploring, wondering what it might be like to be in ministry together. Two of their leaders attended our national conference, then two of our leaders shared in their conference. We’ve begun to explore matters of unity in the gospel and what matters are non-negotiable when it comes to getting hitched. There has been much to thank God for and there is much more yet to be considered.

There have been lots of questions in the mix, but I’d like to focus on one in particular. It’s an issue that has concerned both groups at different times and, in some cases, has led to a separation and parting of ways between churches. It has to do with whether our groups are ‘fellowships’ or ‘denominations’ and how that might be expressed in financial terms. The mindset of some appears to be that ‘fellowship’ is good, but ‘denomination’ is bad. Perhaps there have been fears of centralism, external controls, wasted resources, inertia, growing bureaucracy and the like. If so, then these are legitimate concerns and need to be taken seriously.

To put a sharp edge on it, if a fellowship gathered fees from its members, would that make it a denomination? Is giving money to the centre so as to resource the ministry of the fellowship a step too far? Does it boil down to taxation, socialism, control, establishment, or some other negative idea?

It strikes me that we need to renew our understanding from the scriptures. But we wont get very far searching for ‘denomination’ in the Bible. We’re better off looking in a good dictionary. ‘Denomination’ is literally concerned with naming things or designating something. It can be used of different categories. For example, when we speak of denominations of bank notes, we are describing notes with the same value and appearance. Likewise, a denomination of churches could be simply a collection of churches that share a name and the same values. Our government recognises formal denominations in this way, and affords certain privileges and sets obligations and expectations accordingly. The reality is that both the FIEC and the FECA are denominations.

What about fellowship? I grew up with a weak understanding of what ‘fellowship’ meant. Sometimes it meant having a coffee and biscuit after church. Other times it seemed to be a name given to a group that was more fun than work—a fellowship group rather than a Bible study. But the Bible offers us much greater clarity when it comes to understanding ‘fellowship’. The word for ‘fellowship’ in the Greek New Testament is koinonia. It appears in English versions translated variously as ‘fellowship’, ‘sharing’, ‘participation’ and ‘contribution’.

The book of Philippians is a good case study for the use of ‘fellowship’ because the word appears on six occasions. Each highlighted word below is a translation of koinonia in the New International Version:

In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now (1:4-5)

It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. (1:7)

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion,  then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. (2:1-2)

I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (3:10-11)

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength. Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. (4:12-14)

Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need. (4:15-16)

We discover some profound and powerful things about ‘fellowship’ in Paul’s letter. Fellowship is a unity in the Holy Spirit. It’s a reality of being Christian that we are united to brothers and sisters in the gospel. God’s work in us means that we arein fellowship together. All Christians are joined together in having received God’s grace. We are brought into partnership with others from day one of our new life in Christ. So fellowship is first and foremost not something that we create, but a gift from God in the gospel.

However, expression of this fellowship can be sought, developed, offered and maintained. It is to be given observable and practical expression. Paul seeks to share in Christ’s sufferings and he is united with fellow believers who are similarly focused. He was in physical need, not discontented, but definitely in need. And the Philippians showed him fellowship. Their fellowship with the Apostle cost them as a church. It meant giving gifts and aid to their brother. In other words, sharing resources was what fellowship looked like. It’s a fundamentally Christian attitude and behaviour.

It seems bizarre, therefore, to oppose churches giving money to each other, or committing together to provide common resources for gospel work, or ‘giving to the centre’ to help the gospel work grow and develop in health and numbers, or setting fees to share the costs of working well together, or taking up a collection to assist other churches. Yes, we are to be careful and prudent with our funds. No, we don’t want to throw money away or waste it on bad ideas. But sharing money doesn’t tip us into becoming a ‘denomination’—it’s simply what Christians and churches and fellowships do.

Resilience – A Spiritual Project

resilienceResilience and burnout are big issues in work and ministry at present. In the field of Christian ministry the statistics of burnout seem alarmingly high and the focus on building resilience is both urgent and important. Kirsten Burkett has provided a great service by sharing her research into these areas in her latest book Resilience: A Spiritual Project. This isn’t a popular level book. For a start it’s published by The Latimer Trust, as the 84th of their brief academic studies. While only being 46 pages in length, it includes another 9 pages of bibliography, comprising mainly of academic journal articles. But don’t let these things put you off. Resilience: A Spiritual Project is compact, yet thorough, and I found it engaging and easy to read. While much of her book is surveying and summarising findings in the literature, Dr Birkett draws us to practical conclusions with profound pastoral implications.

Dr Birkett writes as an experienced researcher, academic, author, and teacher. However, she does this in sync with her experience of grappling with burnout herself, and with an eye to equipping men and women in pastoral ministry. She understands the particular dangers and threats for those engaged in a profession where resilience is needed to fuel perseverance and endurance. Most profoundly, Dr Birkett draws on the wisdom of the research to argue that resilience ‘can be learned’ and ‘people can be trained against future stress’ (p17). She is also careful to emphasise that resilience is not a cure all. Sometimes people are simply tired and need to slow down, rest, or take time out. Other times people are overwhelmed by sadness, grief, or trauma, and just need time to weep and mourn. However, she writes:

If we keep resilience in perspective, as ways of helping healthy people stay healthy and of helping ill people recover, it seems to be an extremely useful construct. Human beings are resilient — we could hardly have survived this long otherwise. (p25)

Dr Birkett demonstrates in her book that there are significant overlaps between resilience research and Christian spirituality. Many features identified in the literature as important in building resilience, find expression in biblical expressions of Christian faith in action. She examines the following areas:

  • Adversity leads to strength
  • Sense of meaning and purpose
  • Transcendence
  • Hope and optimism and positive emotions
  • Altruism
  • Self-efficacy: God efficacy
  • Forgiveness
  • Social network

If you have a good understanding of the life of a Christian then you will hear the resonance already.

We believe that God works to strengthen and transform his people through adversity. Suffering is not to be sought after, but it is to be expected. ‘What people need, it seems, is not a stress-free life, but the framework to treat stress well; to use it as a stimulus for growth, rather than buckling under it’ (p33).

We believe that we have been created for a purpose, essentially for Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:16). We are not the product of chance and time. There is meaning, purpose, significance, and eternity. We may not always understand our suffering but God, in his wisdom, uses it to produce good (Romans 8:18,28).

We believe, not in some external transcendent force, but in a God who is accessible and invites us to come to him in our times of need. God has come to us in the incarnation of Jesus. God dwells in and among his people by his Spirit. We have access to God through the death and resurrection of his Son, and so we are invited to come before him in prayer, and present our requests to him rather than staying isolated in our anxiety.

We believe there is good reason for hope. Our faith is built on hope in the promises of God. God has shown he is faithful in Christ Jesus and because of this we can have joy even in the midst of suffering (1 Peter 1:3-7).

We have deep reason to love others. We did nothing to deserve it, but God has loved us, at enormous cost, through the atoning death of Jesus. This leads to a purposeful altruism, motivated by God’s work in and through us. At the heart of this is power and willingness to forgive those who have wronged us. We can shed our anger and avoid bitterness.

We believe, not in self-efficacy, but in the efficacy of God. There is honesty in Christian understanding that we are not equal to all tasks. We don’t need to be demoralised by our continual sub-par performances. We’re not required to grow super powers. Our sovereign God knows our needs and will accomplish his purposes for our good. This is stress-relieving.

We believe that God has given us a community. We are adopted into his family and called to love our brothers and sisters. Hospitality and care are part of the fabric of our relationships.

You see, in other words, God is in the business of building resilience in his people. How then should we train Christian ministers for resilience? Dr Birkett nails it with her insight:

It would seem we do so by training them to be Christian. (p38)

Read that again! Building resilience comes from Christian discipleship.

Building resilience in Christian leaders isn’t simply the domain of Christian psychologists, as important and as helpful as they can be. It should be the fruit of putting a deepening understanding of God and his ways into practice. It should come as we soak ourselves in the Scriptures and turn to God in prayer. Resilience should be the outworking of good doctrine and faith working itself out in love. There are no silver bullets, no secret elixirs, when it comes to avoiding burnout. But, as God’s children, we have a Father in heaven who knows us, loves us, guides us, equips us, heals us, and sustains us. Let’s turn to him in our hour of need.

Resilience: A Spiritual Project is a word in season.

Returning to the scene

IMG_8551It’s been an anxious week as I’ve anticipated returning to the exact place and the same event where I first noticed the symptoms of my cancer. It was the Geneva Push church planting conference and I was speaking on leadership, church planting, and the vision to reach Australia with the good news of Jesus. It was the end of November in 2011 that I climbed the three flights of stairs at Scots Church in Melbourne, stopping on each landing, completely breathless, not knowing that within a few days I’d be in hospital fighting for my life.

Fast forward six and a half years and here I am at Scots Church, speaking on ministry, team work, and persevering as a Christian, and listening to others teach about the urgency of sharing the message of Jesus with those around us. I walked the same stairs to get to lunch today, pausing on each landing and reflecting on the amazing kindness of God. Wow! Who’d have thought I’d be remission? But more than this, I mean the wonder that God cares so much as to reach out to us, send his Son to die for us, welcome us into his family, gather us together in unity, transform his children into the likeness of Jesus, and equip us to work together to build something that will last for eternity—the church of God. Not human institutions, but the gathering together of people belonging to him.

We’ve been reminded once again that God’s vision for this world is to restore broken relationships. Primarily our broken relationships as sinners to a holy God, but also our relationships with one another. In days where the church seems out of touch and past its use by date, we are encouraged to understand our world, to listen to others, to show kindness, love, and patience, as we seek every opportunity to share the amazing news of Jesus Christ. No, not religion—Jesus!

davemaccaIt’s a joy and honour to be able to gather with men and women, young and old, to spur each other on to reach Australia with the life transforming, eternally consequential message of Jesus. People are getting jaded by the endless cycle of meaninglessness promoted by our society. People are searching for meaning. Surely there has to be more that work, sleep, eat, over and over again. Or are we just caught up in an endless Groundhog Day?

Our scientific materialism has ripped us off. It can’t deliver answers to the questions that matter most. It doesn’t offer meaning or purpose. It leaves us rudderless, lost, and unsatisfied. No, the truth is there is much more to life. The transcendent, living, almighty God has entered our world in Jesus Christ. Jesus has shown us what it really means to be human. He’s taught us what life is all about. More than this, by giving his life for us, and through rising from the dead, he has placed God within reach. He’s made peace with God possible. He’s gathering people to himself. He’s planting, growing, and building churches—gatherings of weak, ordinary, forgiven people. People who deserve nothing but are given everything. That is such good news.

Thank you God for bringing me back—not simply to Scots Church and another church planting conference—but to you, to Jesus, to your family, to a certain hope for all eternity.

Endings and beginnings

thanksToday marks the end of another chapter of our life—a significant chapter that in many ways has felt like a bonus. Less than five years ago, I believed that my ministry days were done and dusted. I didn’t anticipate preaching again, far less leading a congregation or pastoring a church. Today we received special thanks from our brothers and sisters at Stromlo Christian Church for the past three years of serving among them. I preached my final sermon as lead pastor at Stromlo and later this week we will head away for a few weeks leave before commencing a new role in 2017.

It has been a privilege to exercise this ministry and we thank God for equipping and enabling us to do his work. Two years of juggling the impact of chemo around preaching, leading, pastoring, equipping, outreach, and other ministry commitments. It has been hard—at times very hard—but God’s grace has been sufficient. We’ve been blessed my people’s understanding, encouragement, and response to his word. We’ve been spurred on by many people, generously offering their time and resources, and using their gifts to build the church.

We are thankful to have had godly leaders to serve alongside, who have invested in our lives and the lives of others. I have not felt pressured to meet others’ expectations—it has only been my own that I’ve had to manage. The decision of the Stromlo Admin Committee to provide me with extra ‘Chemo Leave’ has helped refresh my body, but also my spirit, as I’ve worked to do what I can. God has enabled me to do more than I imagined, with the help of others’ support and the prayers of many.

We believe this is the right time to hand on the reigns of leadership and spiritual oversight to others. We thank God that Dan Evers has been appointed to become lead pastor in the new year, and Paul Avis to support him as associate pastor. We also thank God that Sarah Rootes will continue her wonderful work with the children and youth.

So what does 2017 hold?

In February 2017, God-willing, I am taking up the inaugural position as National Director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC). My role will be to help define and shape the  manner in which our churches ‘fellowship’ and work together, and to lead both in strengthening our churches and their leaders for the long haul, and in developing and driving strategies for extending the reach of the gospel through church planting in Australia and beyond. This will be a full-time position. I will be accountable to the FIEC board, and will work together with Jim and Lesley Ramsay, FIEC pastors, and others.

We plan to remain based in Canberra as we explore what this role will involve. Canberra seems a logical place from which to lead a national organisation—I seem to remember it being built for this purpose some years back. Our hope is to continue involvement in the Stromlo church community, but there will be times when we are away with other churches around our nation. Our youngest child has now finished school, so Fiona and I are moving into new territory as parents and grandparents. We are keen to share some aspects of the ministry within FIEC together, and for Fiona to help provide support to ministers’ wives.

As we reflect back on our lives, the experiences God has given us, the churches we’ve been involved in, and the struggles of life and ministry, we think that God has equipped us in so many ways for the challenges that lie ahead. But we are also very aware of our weakness and inadequacy. We will need to rely on God’s strength to do this work.

Please partner with us in this next chapter, asking God to strengthen and sustain us, and provide us with everything we need to lead with humility, integrity, grace, and wisdom. We approach the future with a mixture of excitement and enthusiasm, but also fear and trepidation. It will be very different not leading a church. I expect to miss the weekly preaching and teaching of God’s word. We anticipate feeling a little isolated and we feel pulled in many different directions. So please pray for us and encourage us in this new role. We will not be able to do this alone—and nor do we want to!

Too much, too little

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-2-45-24-pmMy new year resolutions for 2016 included reading a book a week. The plan was to finish 52 books before the end of the year. I wasn’t following a recommended reading list, but there were a few books that I was keen to knock over. Someone had suggested mixing things up with a range of genres and topics. There were issues I was interested in researching and their were numerous new books that piqued my interest. During this time I also discovered audio books and bought myself a kindle. So my list represents an eclectic mix of styles, difficulty, issues, media, and… quality. Yes, I also discovered that some books had done little more than steal my time.

Here is my list:

1. Forever, Paul Tripp
2. The Story of Everything, Jared Wilson
3. Why Trust the Bible, Greg Gilbert
4. Ordinary, Michael Horton
5. Seven Practices of Effective Ministry, Andy Stanley
6. The Martian, Andy Weir
7. Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, John Piper
8. The Rider, Tim Krabbé
9. The Churchill Factor, Boris Johnson
10. The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
11. Sex and Money, Paul Tripp
12. Side By Side, Edward Welsh
13. Dangerous Calling, Paul Tripp
14. Lectures to my Students, Charles Spurgeon
15. Creating Community, Andy Stanley and Bill Willits
16. Knowing God, J.I. Packer
17. Do More Better, Tim Challies
18. Teaching Isaiah, David Jackman
19. Organising love in church, Tim Adeney and Stuart Heath
20. Mission Drift, Peter Greer and Chris Horst
21. Why bother with church? Sam Allberry
22. The Cross of Christ, John Stott
23. Taking God at his Word, Kevin DeYoung
24. Zeal without Burnout, Christopher Ash
25. Living Forward, Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy
26. Seeking Allah Finding Jesus, Nabeel Qureshi
27. Praying the Bible, Donald S. Whitney
28. Word-filled Women’s Ministry, Gloria Furman and Kathleen Nielson
29. Living in the Light, John Piper
30. What’s Best Next, Matthew Perman
31. The Ideal Team Player, Patrick Lencioni
32. Who Moved My Pulpit? Thom Rainer
33. Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch
34. Big Blue Sky, Peter Garrett
35. Wild at Heart, John Eldredge
36. The Life You Can Call Your Own, David Aspenson
37. I am a Church Member, Thom Rainer
38. Unashamed, Lecrae Moore
39. Autopsy of a Deceased Church, Thom Rainer
40. The Gospel, Freedom, and the Sacraments, Barry Newman
41. Fool’s Talk, Os Guinness
42. How to Read Proverbs, Tremper Longman 3rd
43. Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
44. Shattered Shepherds, Steve Swartz
45. Canon Revisited, Michael J. Kruger
46. What is a Healthy Church Member? Thabiti Anyabwile
47. Center Church, Tim Keller
48. The Gospel and Mental Illness, Heath Lambert
49. True Friendship, Vaughan Roberts
50. A Model of Christian Maturity, D.A. Carson
51. Why Your Pastor Left, Christopher Schmitz
52. Independent Church, John Stevens

I’m not planning in this post to a comment on each of these books, but rather to share some overall observations, and in no particular order.

True to form, I didn’t read many novels. It’s rare for me to read fiction. But, on reflection, it would do me good to read more. Sitting in a hammock, reading The Martian, took me to another place! This book, together with Boris Johnson’s riveting biography, The Churchill Factor, were my most relaxing reads of the year. They both helped me to forget about my life for a while.

Audio books have been a great find. They’ve made long car trips pass effortlessly and they’ve redeemed so much wasted time in daily commutes. Some books are more suited to this media than others. If you’re grappling with a new topic and need to take notes, then it’s probably not the best approach. I’ve found great reward in using audio books to ‘re-read’ a few important books that I have been deeply influenced by in years past. Packer’s Knowing God, Spurgeon’s Lectures to my Students, Stott’s Cross of Christ, and Tripp’s Dangerous Calling had all previously left their mark on me. Hearing them over again was an excellent way to refresh.

Much of my reading has focused on thinking through ministry, mission, and leadership matters. Life Together is a classic that I come back to regularly. What’s Best Next is full of wisdom, but way way way too long. Zeal without Burnout is a simple book that I anticipate revisiting over and over.

Center Church has been sitting on my shelf for a few years. It’s been too intimidating to start, but people keep referencing it, so I decided to dig in and give it a go. This is Keller’s magnum opus on church and his philosophy of ministry. I haven’t digested everything as yet. Much was stimulating, but some parts were just annoying. Maybe I will attempt a serious review sometime in the future.

I will offer three awards:

  1. Diamond Award—a small and precious gem.
    Shattered Shepherds, Steve Swartz.
    A must read for those who’ve been devastated by their ministry going wrong.
  2. Kodak Award—for under-developed and over-exposed ideas.
    Wild at Heart, John Eldridge.
    A best seller that is more pop culture than biblical wisdom.
  3. Orange Award—fresh and healthy, but could sting if it comes into contact with an open wound.
    The Gospel, Freedom, and the Sacraments, Barry Newman.
    A very fresh socratic-style approach to revisiting what the bible says about baptism and the Lord’s supper.

Overall, I think I’ve probably read too much too quickly and taken too little in. I don’t remember much about some of these books and I haven’t allowed sufficient time for important discoveries to take root. Unlike previous efforts, I’ve neglected to annotate most of these books, failed to record important ideas and quotes, and not written summaries or reviews. For these reasons, some of these books are going back onto the desk for another go next year—a little more slowly, and a lot more carefully.

Guidance on guidance

There seems no end to books on divine guidance and discovering the will of God. How do you know what’s worth reading? Proverbs says to seek advice before making a decision, so let me offer mine. I’d steer clear of books that claim to teach you how to listen to God’s voice outside the Bible. The assumption of these books is that Scripture is insufficient and you need to discover additional messages, directly from God to you, in order to discern his will.

My contention is that God doesn’t contradict himself. So his words in 2 Timothy 3:15-16 that “all Scripture is God-breathed” and will make the person of God “complete and thoroughly equipped for every good work” must be taken seriously. The Bible gives us everything we need for life and godliness. This must be our framework for approaching guidance and seeking God’s will. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek the counsel of others, read extra books, or weigh up the options. The Bible itself affirms the necessity for using wisdom in making decisions. In fact, we have whole books devoted to helping us do this—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job—and parts of many others.

If you want to read books on guidance, and I recommend you do, then read books that will point you to understanding God’s revealed will in the Scriptures. This means that the best book on guidance and for guidance is the Bible itself. And every other book must be measured against how faithfully it represents Scripture.

Here are a few that I’ve found helpful…

decisionI first read Decision Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen in 1982, when I was grappling with where my life was headed and what God wanted me to do. It revolutionised my thinking, pointed me to the freedom God has given us to make decisions, and lifted the burdens of guilt and insecurity from my shoulders. It’s a large book, but very easy to read. My only warning is that you must read past the first section of the book. No more spoilers.

limgres-22_2The person who has given me the most direct guidance about guidance is Phillip Jensen, who was the chaplain at UNSW where I studied Social Work in the early eighties. He helped me to love and trust the Bible, and I went to more than one conference where he taught us the importance  and relevance of the Bible for understanding God’s will for our lives. Much of what I learned during this time is in included in an excellent little book called Guidance and the Voice of God by Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne. This book addresses an important matter that many overlook—and this is where God guides. To understand what God wants us to do with our lives, we must first understand where God is taking history. A clear grasp on salvation history and the purposes of God in Jesus give the essential perspective for understanding God’s will for each of our lives.

justdoLet me also recommend a third book on guidance that, I suspect, has been deeply influenced by both books above. Just Do Something by Kevin de Young is another short, clear resource for grappling with questions of God’s guidance. Some people get paralysed, wondering and confused, because God doesn’t seem to have revealed his specific will for their life. Every little decision becomes a blockage rather than an opportunity. This book aims to overcome the inertia of people waiting for God to reveal which step to take next. We have the Bible, God has revealed his plan for us to love him, to trust and obey him, and to enjoy the abundant freedom that comes from living this way.

Finally, any book on guidance is only as useful as how it gets used. A map may include the best routes and most precise details for getting from A to B, but if we don’t follow its instructions it becomes functionally useless. Let’s not render God’s word obsolete in our lives. Rather, let’s unfold the map and follow where it leads us.

 

 

Hope when your child has cancer

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 10.45.28 AMThis interview by Dominic Steele with his friend, Andrew Barry, is deeply moving and profoundly encouraging. Andrew’s son has very serious cancer. His situation has moved me to pray for him regularly. In this heartfelt chat Andrew talks about suffering, marriage, family life, work, treatment, salvation and what it means to have an eternal perspective. Take the time to watch it all and grab the tissues! Click on this link to watch the conversation.