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!

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)

R U OK?

IMG_1281Today is ‘Keep a low profile’ day. Well, I expect it will be for many. It’s actually R U OK day – a day to remind us all that it’s important to look out for one another. The trouble is that many will cringe if the only time people care for them is on a designated day. Every day is a good day to ask R U OK. So let’s slow down sufficiently to keep an eye out for each other.

I know a good number of my friends aren’t OK. Life sucks sometimes, and sometimes often. I get this. Sometimes life feels like the walls are closing in on me and I need help to see the big picture.

So if you’re not OK, please reach out.

Beyond Blue  1300 224 636

Lifeline  13 11 14

(Original artwork by Liam)

Will you be my Facebook friend?

facebookSome books are long. Others are short. Don’t judge the value of a book by its size. Will you be my Facebook friend? Social Media and the Gospel is only 48 pages short. The font size is large and the lines are well spaced, but the message is profoundly important. Tim Chester asks us to carefully consider both the benefits and the pitfalls of social media. This isn’t a tirade against the internet, but rather a plea to use it wisely. Social media has the capacity to radically distort reality, and we need to be wise to the dangers. Chester doesn’t leave us with a call to be more self-disciplined, which will lead only to pride or despair. Rather, he reminds us how the gospel reorients our lives and puts them back in real perspective—God’s perspective.

Here are a few words to consider…

The genius of Facebook is that all your friends come to you and all your friends come to them. So we simultaneously all inhabit our own little worlds, each with me at the centre. (p20)

Is your Facebook self more attractive or successful than your real-world self? (p26)

Am I using Facebook to enhance real-world relationships, or to replace them? (p39)

Remember the medium is the message, and Facebook was designed by a teenage nerd. (p42)

The Facebook comments wither and the tweets fall, but the word of our God stands forever. (p46)

If you or your kids are into Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, spend hours in front of the TV, surf the net, scour blog sites, or the like—then do yourself a favour, turn off the computer, the TV, the X-Box, or whatever else, make yourself a coffee and read this book. It might take two cups of coffee, but I think you’ll find it worthwhile!

Growing yourself up

GYUThis book takes me back a quarter of a century to my times as a social worker. In the final year of my BSW degree, I focused primarily on studying family therapy and the writings of Murray Bowen were very influential. I loved this stuff. It was so helpful to see people as part of a family system and to explore the influences and impact of relationships, family members, experiences, and expectations. One time we saw an adolescent boy for counselling. He had been acting out at school and finding a multitude of ways to get into trouble. It wasn’t until we met with his family and discovered that his father had become dependent on a kidney dialysis machine, that we were able to begin understanding and helping him. It wasn’t his problem alone–it was a family problem.

I enjoyed reading through this book and discovered many insights relevant to my circumstances. I know others have found much benefit in this material, but one or two have commented to me that they’ve found it hard going, like entering another world with its own vocal and jargon. Perhaps, my earlier training made this book easier.

Jenny Brown has built heavily on the work of Bowen in her excellent book, Growing Yourself Up. You could probably describe this as a ‘self help’ book, but with a difference. It’s about helping the reader to gain an increased sense of ‘self’ to enable them to enjoy better relationships with others. We grow into personal maturity as we learn to more clearly differentiate ourselves from others so that we develop healthy personal relationships. This book draws on family systems theory to help us understand who we are in the light of, and distinct from, our relationships with others. Our families of origin have a profound impact on who we are—how we think and act and speak.

Brown’s underlying conviction is that it’s never too late for any of us do do some more growing up. Greater emotional maturity is at the heart of this goal.

This book starts with the big question: Are you willing to take a fresh look at your own maturity gaps, instead of declaring that another needs to ‘grow up’?  (p8)

Growing Yourself Up helps us to see and understand the immature part that that we are playing in our relationships with others. Instead of pointing the blame, we are helped to see our own contribution to the problems and impasses we find ourselves caught up in. Unlike much recent psychotherapy which focuses on finding our inner child, this approach is about growing our inner adult in all areas of our relationships. Moving beyond childhood to adulthood can be expressed by the following attributes:

  1. Have your feelings without letting them dominate; tolerate delayed gratification
  2. Work on inner guidelines; refrain from blaming
  3. Accept people with different views; keep connected
  4. Be responsible for solving our own problems
  5. Hold onto your principles
  6. See the bigger picture of reactions and counter-reactions  (p17-19)

It takes time to work through these things. We need to learn about ourselves in relationship with others. We need to learn not to let our emotions dominate our thinking. We need to learn how to take control of our anxieties. This is all part of growing our inner adult—slowly.

Relationships—close relationships, while remaining a distinct self—are at the core of adult maturity. Our experiences of relationship from our earliest times vary along a continuum of feeling isolated and abandoned, through to feeling inseparable or smothered by others. We are helped to understand more clearly the strengths and weaknesses of our previous experiences of relationships—especially those in our family of origin—and how they impact our decision making in the present.

This book takes us through various key life stages, circumstances, and changes. It looks at the threats to and opportunities for growing in maturity. Such areas include leaving home, single adulthood, marriage, sex, parenting, work, facing setbacks such as separation or divorce, midlife, ageing, empty nests, retirement, old age, and facing death. Pretty well covers it really! In all these situations there are issues to face in our quest to grow into adult-maturity. This book helps us to understand our part in navigating these changes and stages wisely.

One section in this book, I found particularly helpful deals with the temptation to triangulate our relationships, especially in situations of conflict. This is one of the major threats to adult maturity. A relationship triangle is where the tensions between two people are relieved by escaping to a third party. (p44) This may serve to dissipate tension and help families and groups to manage, but it also results in issues not being addressed and often placing the third person is a vary awkward position. It’s helpful to examine how we might have been (or currently be) involved in such triangles, and why. Such triangles are very common and universally unhelpful for dealing with conflict and tensions in families, churches, teams, and a range of relationships.

This is the type of book that you benefit from reading through completely and then returning to digest the most relevant sections in more detail. As a pastor who deals with people all the time, I found this book offering many helpful insights. It is especially important to understand people in the context of their relationships. And it’s in these relationships that we grow ourselves up.

Faith, hope and tears

The shortest verse in the Bible is filled with empathy. Jesus, the author of life, understands what it feels like to experience grief and loss when a loved one dies. It hurts. It aches. We cry tears of sadness. We grieve in death. There’s a time for mourning, a time for weeping. As it says in John 11:35…

Jesus wept.

Some might question whether it’s necessary or appropriate for Christians to mourn the loss of a fellow believer. Don’t we believe they’ll be raised? Aren’t we confident they’re now with Jesus? Doesn’t our faith in eternal life make such sorrow out of place? Surely, a Christian funeral should be a celebration, not a time of grief and sadness?

Look again at John 11:35…

Jesus wept.

Jesus believed in resurrection. In fact he spoke of himself as the resurrection and the life. He knew that his good friend Lazarus would be raised from the dead. He knew, because he would raise him!

And yet, John 11:35…

Jesus wept.

If you’ve experienced the loss of someone you love, let the tears flow. Jesus did.

No comment? On reflection, comment!

In my recent post on A pastor’s pride I initially finished it with a request for people not to make comments. I wrote much the same thing on the Facebook link. It wasn’t that I was seeking to stifle comment or engagement on the topic. It was more that the post was raw, the subject was deeply personal, and I probably felt more vulnerable than usual. In particular, I didn’t want people stroking my ego or denying my analysis. I just wanted it to sit there and be heard.

However, it’s not hard to get around my request, and I received a number of comments via Facebook messages or email! Many of these included appreciation of the candid honesty of the post or statements about how they had been moved to reflect on their own pride. Two comments stood out from the rest. One suggested that I shouldn’t stifle comment because it would confirm that I or the church (I’m not sure) was ‘controlling’. I certainly didn’t want to promote this perception, so I removed the last sentence from my post. The other was a comment on the phone by my father, who suggested that allowing comments was fundamental to the nature of my blog. I was seeking engagement on the issues I wrote about, and commenting was a good way to get people thinking and acting.

P1010221My father sent this to me via email as a personal letter and invited me to determine whether I’d post it on the blog as a comment. I’ve decided instead to include it as the centrepiece of this post. The last 2 years have been seen important developments in the relationship between my father and I. Mid 2011, he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma following the discovery of a large tumour in his throat. This led to a series of successful chemotherapy treatments that have removed any evidence of the disease. About the same time my father was going into remission, in December 2011, I was diagnosed with an incurable lung cancer. I know how shocking this has been to both my father and my mother.

One of the blessings of this experience is that we have grown closer, having a deeper awareness of what we’re both experiencing. I think this has strengthened our relationship in a range of areas. Not that you want to have both of us suffer from cancer to nurture the relationship, but it’s not a bad side benefit! My father will often discuss issues from my blog with me over the phone and sometimes post a comment on the blog itself. Sometimes he’ll make suggestions, sometimes he’ll share how it’s got him thinking, and he regularly forwards the posts to others. Here’s the comment he sent me today:

Dear David my beloved son,

When you first posted “A Pastor’s Pride” you concluded with the sentence “And I think I’d prefer that you didn’t write comments on this.” I note that you have now removed that request. As your father, I had chosen to ignore your preference on this occasion, and I think my decision to comment is supported by the comments now appearing from others. There are several reasons, but let me comment on just one.

Over the past year you have shared your journey with cancer with us in a very public way. Macarisms have included the pain and struggle, the ups and downs, the challenges and the changes of so many aspects of the personal, medical, emotional, relational, social, spiritual dimensions of what it has meant to learn that you have a terminal cancer. It is evident that the macarism has become a significant part of the new ministry which you are discovering and which God is growing in you. It is also evident that macarisms have been fulfilling the hope that you expressed in the very first post – “that people will be blessed as they read and think about life.”

One of the important additional ways in which people might find that blessing is by themselves giving expression to what they have learned or what has happened to them as they have read the macarism and thought about life. That has been evidenced again and again in the comments written in response to the diverse range of subjects that you have covered in your blog. Dealing with pride is one of those subjects upon which we all might do well to read and think and respond.

It is likely that I was participating in a prayer gathering on Saturday morning considering future directions for our congregation at the same time that you were writing your blog. An issue that greatly influenced my thinking and shaped my praying was so close to your writing. Given my many years as a pastor and wide experience, part of my praying was seeking guidance on what is the best contribution I can make to my church’s ministry in this place? It is not an easy question for one who is retired, and our denomination has some expectations about how retired pastors might support but not interfere in the life and current leadership of a congregation. A sense of pride about past ministry can very easily stand in the way of hearing what God is saying about the here and now of his word and call for today.

I noted, too, that whilst you were with your oncologist on Wednesday being reminded that you still have a terminal illness, I was at the Cancer Clinic having my sixth cycle of post-chemo “booster” Mabthera treatment. I, too, have been enjoying the congratulations of people for looking and being and feeling so well in remission. How easy it is to neglect the goodness and grace of God when things are going well for us.

I rejoice in the experiences that you have had during the past week, tough though they have been, and thank God for those persons who have been ministers of his grace to you in this recent encounter.

May God’s grace continue to minister to you, as you minister to others and as others minister to you and to us.