A letter from lockdown (Philippians 4)

U tube“G’day, Dave here, and we’re looking at…”

That’s been my (almost) daily refrain during lockdown. I’ve worked slowly through Ecclesiastes. This is the end of Philippians. And now I’m beginning the book of James.

Philippians has been a huge encouragement to me to realign myself with the gospel. To see afresh the humility of Jesus and to give myself for the sake of others.

This final chapter of Philippians calls us again to work out our differences and be united. We are encouraged not to be anxious, but to seek God’s help. We are reminded that we need spiritual food to survive. And we learn the secret of contentment.

I hope you are encouraged by these Bible Bites from Philippians.

Recipe for reconciliation  (Philippians 4:2-7)

A spiritually healthy diet  (Philippians 4:8-9)

The secret of contentment  (Philippians 4:10-13)

Financial partnerships  (Philippians 4:14-23)

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Pastor, don’t panic!

jasmin-sessler-egqR_zUd4NI-unsplashWe’ve been told that things will never be the same again, and they won’t. The world has shifted. Massive movements of global social tectonic force.

Destruction, disease, death, disaster. People overwhelmed, unprepared, ill-equipped, devastated, helplessness, anxious. Panic, blame, fear, and conspiracy theories. The best of governance and the ugly, narcissistic, worst from leaders. Massive loss. Lives, futures, prosperity.

So much has shut down. Businesses, bars, clubs, sports, homes, schools, churches, parks, beaches, borders, transport and travel.

Everyone is buying phones, tablets, computers, and faster internet. Life has gone online. We compete for screen time. We cry out for more bandwidth. Zoom has become the new Uber.

Learn the tech. Use the tech. Master the tech.

We’re tired. And we don’t know when or where it will all end.

Our values are being challenged. People are three dimensional, not two. We crave touch and intimacy. We weren’t meant to live in isolation. We long to be together. And yet we fear what this will mean.

And now things are changing. Lockdowns are being lifted. We are peering out the window. We’re wandering down the street. People are starting to gather.

What will happen with church?

Pastors are anxious.

We’re being told this is the single most important moment in living history. The platform has burned down. Everyone knows it. We can’t go back. We get to rewrite the script. Lose the bad. Tweak the awkward. Hang on to the good. Create the new.

Unprecedented numbers of people visiting church online. Questions being asked about the meaning of life. New opportunities. Fresh vision. Now is the time.

You’ve got one shot. One opportunity. One episode in time. One opening. One responsibility.

Pastor, don’t blow it!

So much is riding on your shoulders. Your shoulders. This is your moment. God is counting on you. Get it right. God needs you. We need you. They need you. Your family needs you. Your neighbours need you. The community needs you. Everyone needs you.

Be strong. Be resilient. Be wise. Be clear. Be balanced. Be purposeful. Set a vision. Shape your future. Lead your people. Make every word, every decision, every move, every moment count. Don’t mess it up.

Read this blog. Listen to this podcast. Subscribe to this channel. Enrol in this workshop. Come to this conference. Buys these tools. Get this coach. Read this book. Join this movement.

Grab this opportunity. It will only come once. This is a Halley’s Comet moment of momentous magnitude. Don’t waste it. Don’t let it pass. Don’t blow it.

Lead. Manage. Counsel. Preach. Zoom. Visit. Train. Envision. Equip. Empower. Empathise. Change. Maintain. Motivate.

Go harder. Go smarter. Go faster. Go deeper. Go wider.

Are you ready? On your marks. Get set. Go.

Think.

Outside the box.

Design a new box.

Break free from the traditional constraints of boxes.

Create a new box.

Look inside the box.

Look outside the box.

Open the box.

Get into the box.

Close the lid on the box.

Curl up in the box.

Close your eyes.

Gently rock from side to side.

And weep.

Pastor, you are not God. You are not the Messiah. Everything does not depend on you. This is not your one chance in 100 years to make your mark for the gospel.

You may be a shepherd, but you never cease to be a sheep. You shine a light and send a message—not as a lighthouse, but as a flickering candle.

This is not the time to be relying on your strengths, your achievements, your experience, your talents, your gifts. It is not about you. Really. It’s not. This is not your moment.

This is God’s moment.

Do you feel ill-equipped? Do you feel everyone is watching you? Do you feel the pressure of your peers? Do you feel the burden of your congregation? Do you feel the urgency of the times? Do you long to make a difference, not blow it, not crumble, not give up?

Then don’t panic! Truly, DON’T PANIC!

Come to God. See his grace. Hear his kindness. Trust him in your weakness. Listen to his voice…

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favour granted us in answer to the prayers of many.
(2 Corinthians 1:8-11)

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.
(2 Corinthians 4:7-11)

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
(2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
(2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

14 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
(2 Corinthians 13:14)

Amen.

Preparing for church online

austin-distel-gUIJ0YszPig-unsplash copySome of us go regularly to church. Fewer of us think about what we’re going to do when we get there. We’ve been on autopilot for too long. Our current crisis gives us the perfect opportunity to pause and think about what we’re doing, how we do it and, most importantly, why we do it.

Hebrews 10:24-25 gives us the following motivation to turn up to church regularly.

24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

These verses are an important challenge to all who think it’s sufficient to be a Christian who keeps to themselves. I hear people say, “I follow Jesus. I don’t need the church.” Problem is, that Jesus leads the church, so we are either following Jesus with his church or we’re really justing heading in our own direction.

Hebrews 10:24-25 is also a challenge to our consumer mindset. We’re used to shopping around to find something that meets my needs, appeals to my likes, or reinforces my interests. The emphasis in these verses is on what you give, not what you get. They promote initiative, looking to serve, and being there for others. “Ask not what your church can do for you. Ask what you can do for your church.”

The challenge of these words lies deeper still. Notice the first sentence. It doesn’t say, “And let us spur one another…”. Rather it says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another…” In simple terms, this means you should pause and think about what you go to church for. Consider how you will contribute. Consider what will be encouraging. Consider who you might encourage, who might be doing it tough, sick, alone, struggling, fearful, anxious, even terrified. Don’t make church about recharging your batteries for the week. Rather, make it about recharging one another’s batteries every week. And if we all do that, then your batteries should stay fully charged.

How will this work? You’ll need to pause and think before you drive off to church. In today’s terms, consider how to make the most of turning up to church online. If your online church tends to be a one-directional download experience, then you will need to consider how you can encourage others at other times and in other ways. And all the more as these days are difficult and dangerous, in spiritual as well as physical ways.

Here are some tips to consider as you prepare for church online:

  1. Tune in properly. Get prepared for church and turn up. Get out of your PJs (especially it you go to afternoon church). Arrange a place to focus on whatever is happening with church. Plan ahead. Will you put it on the TV or large computer screen and sit as a family or couple? Will you wear headphones with a microphone to increase the audio precision? Don’t plan to multitask. Give your time wholly to church for the 40 minutes, an hour, or however long you will be meeting. Don’t multitask. Get off FaceBook, unless that’s where you find your church live feed. Leave the dishes until afterwards. Don’t be surfing the net or checking emails. Most importantly, take a minute before hand to pray that you’ll be able to encourage others and be encouraged yourself.
  2. Participate properly. Have a Bible with you. Look up the Bible reading and references during the talk. Have a notebook and pen and take some notes during the sermon. Download the talk outline if there is one. If there are kids activities, videos, participation exercises, then supervise your children to get involved. Encourage the same habits you’d like to see when we get out of lockdown. If there’s a time for singing, then join in. It might seem a bit awkward, so mute your microphone. You will probably need to anyway, because everyone trying to synchronise singing over the internet just isn’t going to work well. I recently watched the recording of our zoom church from last week and very few people were actually singing. I was the number one culprit. So join in by singing along at home. At least lip sync.
  3. Join a small group. Connecting with others is difficult in larger churches, so it is a great idea to join in a small group for prayer, Bible, mutual encouragement, fun and maybe food. Hopefully, your groups can continue to meet online and connect through Zoom, Skype, or some other platform. If you’re not in a group, then let me urge you to join one. This might well be the best means to put into practice the call of Hebrews 10:24-25 to “not give up meeting together ” but “encouraging one another another”. If your church doesn’t have small groups, then ask your leaders if they will help you get one going, and offer some guidance for what to do when you meet together.
  4. Reach out to people during the week. Don’t wait for the Sunday meeting or online church to come around. Look out for each other. Have one another’s backs. Stay socially connected. Use FaceBook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram, FaceTime or some other social media. In fact, did you know smart phones can also be used as phones. That’s smart. There’s never been a better time to call and encourage one another than now. You can even read a bit of Bible together, chat about the message from Sunday, and pray together. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we came out of our COVID isolations better connected than we’ve ever been, just waiting to give each other a holy kiss, a hearty handshake, or a big fat bear hug.
  5. Keep on giving. If you go to a church where you support the ministry by putting money in the plate, then it might seem you’re off the hook now. And times will get tough. For you, for others in church, and also for your ministry staff. So if you can keep giving to support the ministry of your church, please do. The easiest way to do this is by setting up automated transfers from your bank account. Ask your church what they would find most helpful. And be generous.
  6. Come up your own ideas and share them with others.

 

 

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

IMG_4919
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.

screen-shot-2014-04-30-at-1-45-01-pm

  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)

 

Assisted Suicide

Assisted-SuicideThis book was hard to read. It wasn’t difficult to understand or even poorly written. In fact, it was clear, logical, and helpful. I found it hard because the subject matter is personal, heart wrenching, and has at times been too close to the bone. It brought to mind a conversation in our home a few years back. A friend was arguing that not only should voluntary euthanasia be legalised, but that doctors should be legally bound to offer it when asked. My wife, being a doctor, was horrified by the thought. Whatever happened to the Hippocratic oath? And I, being a terminally ill cancer patient, wasn’t feeling too comfortable with the intensity or insensitivity of the conversation either! And I still find this book a difficult topic to wrap my mind and heart around.

Assisted Suicide is another book by Vaughan Roberts in the Talking Points series. It introduces the reader to terms and ideas to build their awareness of the topic. But it also engages with the emotion that drives these discussions. It’s no small thing for someone to want to take their own life. And it’s no small thing to contemplate assisting another person to do this. The issues are very deep and very raw. Over the past few years I believe that I’ve increased in empathy for people who might contemplate such a step. The world of cancer, overwhelming pain, harsh treatments, no hope of a cure, massive financial burdens, impact on wider friends and family, the ugly reality of feeling like there is no point living, and that you are only a burden, takes people down this route. I’m not describing my own personal feelings, but I sense the deep angst experienced by others.

The arguments for assisted suicide are complex. They cross relational, psychological, medical, moral, philosophical, theological, economic, and human rights boundaries. Most significantly they cannot remain theoretical and intellectual matters because they impact people’s lives and deaths. This alerts us to some of the problems talking with one another about the topic. One person may be driven by the pain of a loved one, while another is concerned about precedents and dangers, another with the ethical implications, or another the pragmatics of an ageing population with increasing health issues. We must listen and listen carefully to each other as we grapple with the issues. It’s to easy to talk across each other without any real understanding.

Our religious beliefs will necessarily come into play. If I believe that death is not the end (as I do) and that there’s a resurrection and judgment beyond the grave, then I must consider more than eu-thanasia or good dying. If I believe in the propensity of people to act selfishly (and I do), then I must consider how to protect the vulnerable elderly and terminally ill from selfish decisions to ‘remove’ an inconvenient burden. If I believe in the inherent worth of every human being as one specially created in the image of God (as I do) then I will not measure the value of a person in terms of their utility or costs to society. And I am persuaded that my life is not my own to dispose of, as I see fit. If I believe in the limits of human knowledge and our propensity to act on impulse (and I sure do), then I will be very cautious before making such a massive decision as to take my own life, or ask someone to assist me, because of a terminal diagnosis. Remember, I was given around a year to live and I’ve now lived for nearly seven. Doctors and others only make predictions. They don’t have crystal balls.

When people are dying the issues are complex and deeply charged, so it’s worth thinking through what you believe, and why, in the cool light of day. This book offers talking points, but before that it offers thinking points. I recommend thinking over them. It’s a brief book and only an introduction to a massive topic. This will be enough for some. Others will want to delve more deeply into the issues. Assisted Suicide offers a Christian framework for the journey. If you are a Christian then I suggest you read it, preferably with others. If you’re not, then I believe you will still benefit by considering the issues raised by Roberts.

Personally, I believe it’s a massive mistake for a society to legalise, support or promote assisted suicide. There are plenty of options for helping people to die well, without helping them kill themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.”

 

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.”

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?

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)

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.

Black Box Thinking

blackboxYes, I’m trying to get my writing mojo back. People say the way to start writing is to start writing. People are profound sometimes! So back to reviewing a few of the books I’ve been reading. This book was recommended to me by a friend who suggested it might be helpful to leaders in our network around the country.

Black Box Thinking: The surprising truth about success and why some people never learn from their mistakes by Matthew Syed identifies some important blind spots. People are always telling us that we should learn from our mistakes, fail forward, and change the way we go about things so that we keep on improving. The problem is that we so often repeat our mistakes, get stuck in ruts, and fear making changes.

This book takes its title from the little black boxes fitted to aeroplanes. I understand that planes are fitted with devices to record the electronics of the aircraft and to record the interactions of the pilots. These devices are stored in ‘indestructible’ black boxes that can be retrieved in the case of accidents. Apparently these black boxes are now orange, not because orange is the new black, but because orange boxes are easier to locate when rubble is scattered far and wide. What a great example of black box thinking!

Going back to 1912, plane crashes were considered normal and inevitable. Half of US army pilots died in air crashes, even during peacetime. Fast-forward to today and plane travel is one of the safest means of transport. There are very few deaths and the accident rate is about 1 in 2.5 million flights. There are many reasons for this tremendous improvement, but at its core there is a mindset in the aviation world that says, “We must learn from our mistakes.” The black box is a tangible expression of this attitude. When something goes badly wrong, it must then be examined with a fine tooth comb to make sure such mistakes don’t happen again. This is a life and death imperative.

This mindset is not seen everywhere else. People are reluctant to own up to their mistakes. We’d prefer to rationalise things, pass the blame, gloss over what has happened, and avoid scrutiny or accusation. Human pride gets in the way. Syed contrasts the slowness of the health profession to learn from mistakes with the progress of the aviation industry. When doctors make mistakes they get hammered by litigation, public shaming, deregistration, increased insurance costs, and the like. So who wants to admit fault? In both arenas, people’s lives depend on learning from mistakes and making changes to avoid things being repeated.

I depend greatly on the proficiency and safety of both the medical and aviation sectors. Both these areas matter to me. But there are other lessons I am interested in. As one who now leads are network of churches, or denomination, I am concerned about the systemic failure of churches to learn from their mistakes. The recent Royal Commission into institutional child abuse, has reveal some appalling accounts of denials, cover ups, and codes of silence. Black box thinking requires the truth to be revealed, serious questions to be asked, and future problems avoided.

We need to learn from our mistakes. Even more so, we need to repent of our blatant sin. The problem with sin is that it leads to shame and so we cover ourselves. We’ve been doing it since the beginning. God calls us to confess our sins, to be honest with one another, to take heed of our failures, and to spur each other on to love and good works.

But it’s not simply in the areas of heinous sin that we need to develop black box thinking—it’s in the day to day of our ministry. It seems that many churches are trapped in patterns of mindless repetition. Q. “Why do we do what we do?” A. “Because that’s what we’ve always done.”  And we wonder why people have stopped coming!

Whether it’s church, school, business, club, or whatever, we need to keep thinking about what’s not working, why it’s not working, what needs to change, and how we can change it. Review should me commonplace and regular. Action—reflection—reaction should be our normal pattern. Failures should be seen as opportunities to make changes for the better. Mistakes should be valued as triggers for improvement. You’ve probably heard the Michael Jordan stories of countless missed shots, errors of judgment, lost games—all viewed as opportunities to learn, grow, succeed, and become arguably the greatest basketball player in history.

Syed challenges the popular view that success is primarily based upon innate qualities such as talent and intelligence. He describes this as a Fixed Mindset. He argues that we need to develop a Growth Mindset, where success can be achieved though dedication and hard work. People are capable of achieving more if they are willing to learn and make changes and if they are willing to practice until perfect.

In my world of Christian ministry I want to make a plea for black box thinking. Let’s learn from our mistakes and failures. Let’s ask the difficult questions. Let’s normalise reviews and feedback. And this will require humility from everyone, and especially from pastors and leaders.

Allow me to illustrate with 7 suggestions for black box thinking for pastors:

  1. Pastors would benefit from professional supervision. Taking timeout to reflect and learn from our practice will improve our ministries. Find someone who can speak into your circumstances and help you to develop black box thinking.
  2. Pastors should seek feedback on their sermons from people they trust. I’ve heard depressing tales of ministers unwilling to provide support and feedback to their trainees because they won’t accept critique themselves.
  3. Pastors can build a culture of learning from mistakes by reviewing what they and the church do on a regular basis. Go with the natural rhythms. Monday is a good time to review the services on the weekend—what worked, what didn’t, what could be done better next time? Once a quarter would be a good time to make adjustments to our regular programs. Why not introduce a major annual review, such that every year things change and grow for the better?
  4. Pastors could organise to get together with peers from time to time to share successes and failures. Being open with one another builds a culture of humility. Iron sharpens iron. You can learn from one another’s mistakes and avoid falling in the same traps. Go to a conference or two where you can learn from others.
  5. Maintain the discipline of reading books that will keep building your competencies. Begin regularly with the Bible and ask God to deepen your love and understanding of him. Read a commentary to enrich your understanding of the Scriptures, something on leadership to challenge your practice, a book on culture to evaluate how well you understand your world, and so on. Ask others you trust what they have found useful.
  6. Become more thoughtful. Think about your thinking. Keep some notes and look back over them. Journal lessons you have learned. Set goals for change.
  7. Pray. Ask God to shine a light into your thinking, feelings, emotions, relationships, decisions, plans. Look into the ‘black box’ of God’s word and make the necessary changes.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25)

My Donkey Body

It’s a small world, sometimes. Last weekend Fiona and I were camped in the shearers quarters at Lake Menindee, together with the members of Saltbush Church from Broken Hill. We hadn’t been there before and it’s quite a while since we were anywhere so remote. Over breakfast I met John Wenham, and I jokingly said that I had a few books written by him at home. Turns out that I had read books by his grandfather of the same name, also a few by his dad, and a couple by one of his uncles. I’ve since read a book by another of his uncles, Michael Wenham, called My Donkey Body: Living with a body that no longer obeys you. Wow, so many books in one family!

donkeyMy Donkey Body recounts Michael Wenham’s journey with a rare form of Motor Neurone Disease (MND). If you’re unfamiliar with this disease, think Stephen Hawking. The motor neurones that transmit instructions from the brain to the muscles deteriorate and cannot replace themselves. The brain keeps working but it becomes unable to get messages to the muscles to do their work. The person becomes more and more debilitated and eventually the muscles that keep you alive stop working. MND is a terminal illness and there is currently no known cure.

Michael Wenham is a Christian, who tells his story of discovering and living with this disease from the perspective of faith. My Donkey Body is a sad, gripping, and often humorous account of one man, together with his wife and family, coming to grips with weakness, disability, frustration, pain, and ultimately mortality. As a preacher, whose voice was his tool of trade, he recounts what it’s like to lose control over your vocal muscles. He shares about the humiliation of being picked up out of the gutter by strangers and relying on his wife to wipe his backside. There’s nothing romantic about MND.

I checked with Google and discovered that Wenham continues to blog, write articles, and he has done some very moving video interviews. Wenham has now been living with this disease for many years. While his physical abilities have declined, his mind has remained sharp. He engages with real issues of relationships, health, religion, dependence, living and dying. Wenham has engaged with Stephen Hawking and provided informed and sympathetic rebuttals to Hawking’s dismissive critiques of any afterlife. He has written against legalising assisted suicide for the terminally ill like himself.  He opposes the creation of human stem cells for the purpose of experimentation, even if it should provide the cure for MND. His arguments aren’t a bigoted bias toward regressive religion over against progressive science. Rather, they arise from one who knows suffering and mortality, but who deeply respects that all persons are made in God’s image. He demonstrates powerfully that people are not valuable according to their utility and value to society (however that might be measured), but because God has made them human. Every person matters.

Wenham argues for the importance of knowing God and having faith in God’s power and goodness. He’s prepared to ask the hard questions and admits to not having all the answers. Being a Christian doesn’t take away the pain or the suffering. He argues with CS Lewis:

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect you don’t understand.
(quoting CS Lewis A Grief Observed p23) in My Donkey Body p128

I am grateful that Michael Wenham took the time and made the effort to share his thoughts. Much of this book resonates with my experience of receiving a terminal diagnosis, coping with physical and mental pain, losing things that have shaped my identity, and asking questions of faith and doubt. Yet my circumstances have taken a turn for the better. Many of my disabilities have been replaced by renewed abilities. And that brings it’s own dangers and threats—especially the risk of forgetting how much I need God.

There is something about weakness that drives us back to our Father in heaven. I need to be reminded that this life is a gift from God. Every day is a day for rejoicing. Nothing should be taken for granted. The less I remember my dependence on God, the bigger an ass I become.

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