In sickness and in health

sandy-millar-YeJWDWeIZho-unsplashThis week Fiona and I celebrated our 36th wedding anniversary. We thank God for bringing us through so many ups and downs, and we keep asking him to help us love each other whatever the future may hold. We don’t have a perfect marriage and we’ve got lots still to learn. But the promises we made weren’t conditional. They weren’t dependent on feelings or good circumstances. We went with the traditional options… you know… better/worse, richer/poorer, sickness/health. I suspect we made these promises without pausing to contemplate very deeply. We just knew we wanted to get married and we wanted to stay married. Still do.

Back then it was…

Richer? Who cares?

Poorer? I doubt it—we were both students.

Better? We’re about to get married. It can only get better, surely?

Worse? I hope not.

Health? Of course, we’re both young and fit and full of life.

Sickness? Everyone gets sick sometimes, don’t they?

Fast forward to 2019 and one promise stands out. Never would we have contemplated what this could mean, what it would mean. “In sickness and in health”.

On any count, the typical annual dose of the flu, occasional colds, a few broken bones, irregular migraines, four caesareans, bouts of labyrinthitis, recovery from a major car accident, and eight years of living with cancer, add up to a lot of time “in sickness”.

And what about all the sicknesses and injuries to our children? More than three months in the NICU, regular injuries from skateboarding, cycling, or rugby, catching the bugs from school friends (sometimes literally). And then there are ageing parents. And mental health struggles. And pregnancy complications. And, and, and.

Let me go out on a limb and say I reckon marriage for us has been at least 1/3 sickness, 2/3 health.

Marriage is not for the faint-hearted. It’s not for casual or temporary affections. Marriage is a covenant to love. It’s about putting your life partner before yourself. It’s about “we will work it out—whatever”. It’s about let’s keep asking God to help us.

It’s about learning to love, actively, showing the initiative, being the first to forgive, killing our selfish pride, overcoming our discontent, and rejoicing in the wonder of growing together in all the ups and downs of life. It’s about a love that grows in patience, and kindness, without envy, boasting or pride. This is a love that isn’t self-seeking, doesn’t get easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, and always protects, trusts, hopes and perseveres.

How can you learn to love like this? Two thoughts come to mind:

  1. Even though he never got married, Jesus shows us the kind of love that will make a marriage work.
  2. You know love when it gets put to the test. Seems like “in sickness” is a challenging place to grow real love.

We have dear friends whose marriages have faced the challenges of better and worse, richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, more than we will ever know—friends who have no relief from continual pain, perpetual fatigue, aching brokenness, chronic illnesses, and more. Please pray for friends’s marriages, pray for your marriage.

Now it’s time to seek God’s help to practice what I preach.

 

Preparing for marriage

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Waiting for the bride

I married a couple yesterday in the beautiful surrounds of the Old Butter Factory at Telegraph Point. God’s timing with the weather was awesome—we had clouds and drizzle then sunshine and storms—all at the right times. It was a thoroughly Christian wedding, pointing to God’s amazing love for us in the gospel of Jesus.

We enjoyed celebrating this day with the beautiful couple—but all the more because we’d spent a number of evenings over the past few months preparing them for marriage. Not simply preparing the wedding—but preparing for marriage. We’d have a meal together and then talk specifically about preparing for married life. More precisely, we’d get the couple talking together about their expectations, hope, fears, and dreams for life together. Fiona and I use the Prepare/Enrich material to gain insights into the couple and assist them to prepare for their life together.

It’s not enough to prepare a great day, we need to be preparing for a lifetime. Two previously single ‘selfish’ individuals need guidance and support with communication, conflict resolution, managing finances, preparing for intimacy and sex, encouraging each other spiritually, and much more.

IMG_0977If you’re looking to get married, then don’t sell yourself short. Don’t put all your focus on making the day just perfect, but take the time to prepare for what comes afterwards. For better and worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health. This is the important stuff. This is the tough stuff. This is where the deep and lasting joy is to be found. This is really what it’s all about. Marriage is for a lifetime together. Isn’t that worth a little serious preparation?

If you’re a pastor or Christian marriage celebrant, what do you do to prepare your engaged couples for marriage? Can I strongly suggest that you take a number of meetings with the couple to focus on what a Christian marriage is all about, and to explore the particulars of building a new family. Have some good books that you can share or give away, such as Married for God by Christopher Ash or What did you expect? by Paul Tripp.

Get trained in using the Prepare material. This gets the couple answering questions separately, collates their answers, and highlights strengths and work areas for their relationship. It gives you real data to work with and it gives them a workbook for now and later on. It moves you someway from idealism and starry-eyed dreams, to realism and areas for growth in relationship. It helps facilitators to pinpoint matters of specific relevance to each couple. Preparing for marriage is hugely important, so don’t sell the couple short. Let me encourage you to get well prepared, so that you can help the engaged couple to be well prepared.

Prepare training is available throughout Australia. Check it out here.

Stepping down

fiecDear friends

I’m letting you know that I will be stepping down as FIEC National Director next year. It’s been a tough decision and a while in the making.

There have been a number of new stressors this year, most significantly declining health. My health problems reached a crisis point in June, when I was trying to function with constant pain, coughing, and breathlessness. Scans and biopsies confirmed that the cancer had been growing in my lungs and pleura. My poor health, fatigue, uncertainties, and stress, are among the factors behind my decision to step down. However, it’s not just the last year—it’s been eight years of living with the effects of lung cancer.

I now have reduced physical, mental, and emotional reserves, and I need to listen to my body and make some changes. While the pain and difficulties of the cancer have been reduced through the treatment, the side effects continue to limit me. I have increased fatigue, need more sleep, and yet often don’t sleep well. My stamina and durability have declined. I am still seeking to discover my new ‘normal’, but I am aware that it must be lesser than the previous normal. While I pray regularly for healing and relief, I must factor in continuing daily chemo for the remainder of my life.

A friend said to me this week, that not only have I had to drive the ship, but I’ve had to build the ship while driving it. It’s had its challenges, but I’d take the opportunity all over again. And I will miss it—that’s for sure.

This is not to say that I intend to stop serving within FIEC. Fiona and I have developed significant and supportive relationships among pastors, wives, and churches. We enjoy being able to offer practical ministry help, mentoring, and encouragement. It’s a joy to partner with churches to spur them on. It’s been a privilege to represent FIEC, as I’ve visited colleges, spoken at conferences, and exercised wider ministry. I will share with you more of our future plans as they become clearer.

I want to thank everyone involved with FIEC for the honour of serving you over the past three years. Thank you for your faith in me as I’ve sought to pioneer this role. It’s been a privilege to serve alongside each of you. I’ve appreciated your support and your fellowship. I’ve loved the opportunity to invest in the FIEC ministry, and to encourage men and women to work together in building God’s kingdom. Visits to churches and our annual conferences have been highlights for me over my time in this role.

As I’ve said, it’s been a tough decision to step down as National Director. I am stepping down from this specific role, not from ministry. I want life to continue to be about the service of God and others, it will just take a different shape. I understand that this will be disappointing news for some—we feel the grief ourselves. We would value your prayers and encouragement at this time of change.

Independent churches lack accountability

AccountabilityIndependent churches lack accountability! I’ve been told this for the past 24 years. And it’s true. Independent churches often lack accountability, but so do mainstream denominational churches. You only need to look at the terrifying accounts of greed, sexual immorality, false teaching, abuse, and cover ups within churches, to see the failures of our structures to ensure accountability.

Congregations must do their bit to encourage their churches and leaders to stay on track. Bishops, synods, and assemblies can draw lines and forbid their leaders and churches from transgressing. Codes of conduct, covenants of service, rules and conditions, can all play a part in keeping churches on the straight and narrow. And, ultimately all churches are accountable to God, and pastors and teachers are especially accountable for how they exercise their responsibilities of leadership.

The stark reality is that no rules or structures, authorities or procedures will produce righteousness. Never have and never will. But if you argue for church autonomy and leave it at that, you will be both naïve and dangerous. Let me recommend four processes for increasing accountability in independent (and other) churches.

  1. Keep focused on the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are sinners saved by grace and we are being transformed by God’s Word and Spirit into the fulness of Christ. Churches must keep shining a light on the gospel, preaching the gospel, refocusing their leadership on the gospel, growing their members in the gospel, applying the gospel to conflicts and divisions, setting budgets with gospel priorities, forgiving one another with the grace of the gospel. Literally applying the gospel to everything we teach and do. Accountability comes not through law, but through gospel.
  2. Seek out fellowship with other churches. Don’t stand on your independence from other churches and other leaders. God has called us to be his holy people and to be adopted into his family. We belong to God, and by his Spirit we belong to each other. We gather separately, with distinctive names and quirky cultural expressions, but one day we will be gathered together for all eternity with no divisions. Let that future shape our present experience. Independence is not a Christian trait. We are all dependent on God and one another. Interdependence should be a more accurate description of who we are as Christians and churches.
  3. Invite a number of mature respected Christian leaders to be on a Board of Reference for your church. If you’re a new church plant, then such people can provide credibility and support to your venture. If you’ve been around for a while, they can help you see your blind spots. Such a group doesn’t have governing authority. They primarily offer support, prayer, and advice. You can insert them into your church systems, such that they must be consulted on major matters and have the opportunity to speak into the circumstances. Changing a church’s theological beliefs, sacking or choosing a senior leader, accusations made against a senior leader; these are all issues that shouldn’t be covered up or go unnoticed. Ensuring that an independent voice gets to speak on these and other major matters can provide important checks and balances for churches and their leaders.
  4. Provide for your senior pastor (and potentially all your pastoral staff) to have an external mentor, coach, or pastoral supervisor. Be generous and pay for this if necessary. Invest in your leaders. The Royal Commission into Child Abuse has made recommendations that pastors have professional supervision, and some denominations already have this in place. An informed external perspective can assist leaders to look after their churches, grow their people, and watch themselves more effectively. Seek out someone with experience whom you trust and then make yourself accountable to them as you meet with them regularly. Without honesty, accountability means nothing. So speak the truth, seek help, and invest in your life and doctrine wisely.

5Ms, 4Es, CGS2, and clarity of purpose

When you join with a group of people, a club or an organisation, it’s helpful to know what they’re on about. Join the surf club so as to save lives in the surf. Belong to the P&C to raise money for the school. Sign up with the library so as to borrow books or get free internet. Join the church so as to…

churchWaste your Sundays? Dabble in religion? Make God happy? No. No. No. If you don’t go to church, then there are far better reasons than these to consider. Church is intended to be a gathering of Christian people and people who want to check out what being a Christian is really all about. Ideally, you will meet real people who’ve become convinced that knowing God and having a genuine relationship with Jesus is the most significant thing there is. They will engage on real issues in a real way. It might even surprise you. You could find your life changed in a positive way for ever. Many have.

But again, sadly, you will find some who are simply going through the motions. The same ritual week after week, and no-one has paused to really consider why.

For those of you who are Christians, what’s the answer? What is the church on about? When people visit your church website, what does it look like? If you visit a church, what do you expect they will they be doing and what will they expect of you? If you ask the minister, what will he say is going on, and will it be the same as what the regular members say? Do people know why they belong? Do they know where the church is going, what it values, what’s most important? And if you choose to do more than turn up, do you know how to get more involved? Does the church want your involvement? Do they have a spot for you? And is it obvious?

There’s lots of talk among the churches I know about mission and vision and values. Sometimes it can sound a little corporate and crass. Other times it can seem a bit like applehood and mother pie. And sometimes it reminds me of a little girl wanting to dress up in her mother’s clothes—they look good on mum, but they’re ridiculous on the little girl. But sometimes they help. They really do.

Careful, clear, thought out, simple expressions of who we are, why we are, how we are, where we are, and where we’re going. Clarity, visibility, simplicity, logic—these are powerful things when it comes to getting people on board. I wonder how many church transfers, church shops, and church disillusionments happen because they can’t work out what the church is on about or how to get involved.

One model that has been growing larger on the church landscape in recent years is the 5Ms. Adapted from the Rick Warren, Purpose Driven Church, the Ms stand for Magnification, Membership, Maturity, Ministry, and Mission. This approach sees the Christian life expressed in magnifying God for his glory, welcoming people into the membership of Christ’s body and this church, growing one another into maturity in Christ, equipping one another to serve our brothers and sisters, and to reach out to our world in mission. It’s a continuous and repetitive journey. Every part belongs to the Christian life. There’s a logic in the flow. It’s anchored in the Scriptures. It provides shape and direction for the ministry of the church. It creates pathways for people’s participation. There is nothing sacrosanct about the 5Ms, but they help to keep focused on what matters matter most.

My early ministry years were spent shaping a ministry around 4Es. We were committed to Evangelism (introducing Jesus and calling people to turn to him), Edification (building each other into Christian maturity through the word of God made active in love), Equipping (training one another in Christian service), and Exporting (encouraging people to go into the world, literally, with the message of Jesus).

CGS2A few years back, having read Simple Church by Gieger and Rainer, we decided to align our church mission around CGS2 (though we never reduced it to CGS2). Connect, Grow, Serve, To the glory of God—that was our plan. Our church existed to build connections—connections into our community, connection with God through people responding to the gospel of Jesus, and connections with one another through regular fellowship. We existed to grow in spiritual maturity—through people responding to God’s word, coming before God in prayer, building one another in small groups, and applying the word in their lives. We existed to serve one another—to take the corporate and ‘one another’ language of the New Testament seriously, by actively investing in each other, serving the church in specific ministry teams, and reaching out to love our neighbours. And we wanted to do all this 2 the glory of God—not to us O Lord, not to us, but to you, be the glory forever and ever.

What’s your church on about? Is it clear to people? Are people consumers or providers? Are they passengers or participants? Do you know what you’re doing and why? Does it flow from the Scriptures? How is your church shaped? Does it make it easier to get involved? Are people working together in alignment? If you don’t know, then start a conversation.

 

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!

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)