“When I was a stranger…”

This morning’s news reports Bernie Fraser, former Governor of Australia’s Reserve Bank, as saying, ‘For a long time I’ve thought Australia could become something of a special country, a demonstration of a country that was competitive, fair and compassionate and I’m afraid those hopes have been dashed…’ [ABC News]

One area where compassion and consideration could be brought to bear is how we receive asylum seekers.

At the outset, we recognise there needs to be expedient processing of claims and an even handed establishment of the bona fides of those who seek asylum. While around 90% of all claims are typically found to be genuine, we need not neglect due process because most seem legitimate. We do wonder, though, whether it needs to take as long as it does sometimes take.

Muddy

Jon Owen’s book, “Muddy Spirituality: Bringing it all back down to earth” tells the story of how one local Melbourne pastor collaborated with Hotham Mission to provide lodging for a group of asylum seekers:

“Aside form having to keep strong communication lines open, and with nearly daily cultural misunderstandings from a multi-national household, we also sought to make the house a home. When men live together the natural tendency is to shut off and make the place more like a boarding house, rather than a place where support can be found … it was a place where God was regularly sought, as we all learnt what it meant for people who were never meant to meet, to be forced by circumstances to live together. Regular common meals were the place where community was formed and relationships built”

They called it “The House of Hope” because they received people who have so few rights and so little protection, and they created a place where they received shelter, support and community. For the asylum seekers who stayed there and for those who oversaw the project, “The House of Hope” provided an opportunity to rediscover God’s compassion and the meaning of humanity.

“We got to meet many men from many nations and hear heart breaking stories of murder, torture and painful separation that left them scarred and traumatised”

See, all of us get to choose how we respond to the issue of refugees and asylum seekers. We can listen to the voices of fear and suspicion, and retreat into isolation and rejection. Or we can live in the values of mateship, a fair go, of justice, humility and peace that reveal the kingdom of God.

We can listen to the voices of fear and suspicion, and retreat into isolation and rejection. Or we can live in the values of mateship, a fair go, of justice, humility and peace that reveal the kingdom of God.

“Ministry begins with noticing the people who are all too easily overlooked. For those of us seeking to follow Jesus there are no invisible people. We need to pray that God provides us with the same eyes as Jesus. This vision begins when, instead of looking upwards, we look down at those who exist at our feet. The image of the Good Samaritan, getting off his donkey can truly become an icon for our transformation if we begin to allow the donkey of our culture’s hopes and dreams to stop driving us along the road, and we hop off for long enough, we will meet the people Jesus met.”
[Jon Owen, Muddy Spirituality]

On the night before one of the residents left to marry his fiancee, he spoke these moving words to everyone in the house, “thank you for helping awaken something within me what I thought was lost forever – the ability for my heart to once again love and trust, what I once lost has now been found, my heart thanks you.”

Read those words. Listen carefully, and you may be able to hear angels rejoicing…

Rethinking Refugees

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I have just had a vivid dream. And not being one who dreams a lot, I thought it was worth sharing.

I was at an outdoor venue listening to my daughter (@melodyjoyg) speak about Australia’s current treatment of refugees. Melody always speaks with passion and warmth, and this time was no exception. Except that I can’t remember anything she said. Toward the end, though, she said “I’ll now show you how we should welcome those who have risked all to come here…”

She asked us to close our eyes, and when we opened them Melody had transformed herself into a Old English Sheepdog puppy. I know. That’s pretty crazy. But think about it: what do you do with an old English Sheepdog Puppy? You walk up and pat it, cuddle it, play with it. You love a puppy like that, and you want to take it home, and make it part of your family.

So, how does all that work when we’re thinking about refugees?

Well, we all know that there are good processes to determine the bona fides of those seeking to be recognised as refugees, and we know Australia needs to guard her borders.

We should also know that over 90% of those who come to Australia in boats are eventually recognised as refugees. That is, nearly all have a valid case!

While not neglecting due process and assessment, my dream is that we can love and receive refugees warmly and openly and lovingly. As Australians, we need to learn how to ‘take them home and make them part of our family’. Like how we are drawn to embrace a puppy. We want to give them a home so we can care for them and provide shelter and safety. It may sound childish, and it probably should. Then again, children tell us a lot about how to treat people in need.

Yesterday I heard one voice that breathed a little light into the refugee question. Foreign Minister designate Bob Carr, almost as an aside in his press conference with the Prime Minister, said he was passionate about the plight of refugees. That’s what we need here: the language of heart, instead of the fear driven three word slogans of ‘Stop The Boats’.

Truth be known: Melody doesn’t work with refugees, although in her position with Compassion Australia, she has a great opportunity to bring the plight of the broken and the needy into our lives.

And really, I still think the whole sheepdog puppy thing is a little weird. But I know this: refugees need safety and care. They need love and friendship. They need to know there is a place where they can live without fear, where the nightmares can be stilled, and where they can breathe again.

Australia, we can do this.

Q: what are your thoughts about how we treat refugees?

Next: one inspiring example of how this has been done

Following and Sacrifice

At first thought, following Jesus seems easy. It seems a matter of changing your mind about who Jesus is, recognising and accepting him as Saviour, and acknowledging him as King and Ruler. I suppose it is easy, relatively speaking, to see ‘following Jesus’ as a ‘decision’. Western Christianity often focuses on people making ‘decisions’ to follow Jesus, or to accept him as Saviour. In some places, these decisions are pretty much the only thing that matters. So, evangelism strategies and even services are focussed around getting people to make those decisions.

Many people who operate from an atheist or agnostic point of view will sometimes ‘the decision’ as the major battleground: with the focus being on the intellectual arguments as to why someone should follow Jesus, or whether there is a God, or an afterlife, or whatever. This makes some sense, because the primary battleground is the inner realities of human life: the heart, the mind, the will, the soul. People do need to assess who Jesus is with their mind, they do need to yield their will and bow before Jesus’ supreme and majestic authority. People do need to offer themselves – to give their heart – to this King as worshipful subjects.

Even so, if all I give is my inner realities, as significant as that may be, I don’t think I have begun to follow Jesus the way he intends me to follow. The inner realities are the starting point, sure, but those realities are connected to my behaviour and my attitudes. Here’s the rub: Jesus wants the change in your inner reality to come to concrete, consistent, continual expression in a changed life. Behaviour. Values. Attitudes. Talk. Generosity. Relationships. Business ethic. Lifestyle. Eating habits. Sexuality. Yep, pretty much everything.

This is why yesterday’s thought was so challenging: ‘think of those areas where you are not obeying Jesus, and start changing them now.’

See, friends, it is easy to ignore the call to changed behaviour and attitudes, and just concentrate on the ‘inner life’. We’re OK with change, as long as we can ‘spiritualise’ it, and restrict that change to comfortable areas like ‘growing in knowledge’, or ‘having a stronger faith’. Stressing ‘inner change’ while neglecting behaviour change is like paying attention to the safety features of your car, but still driving like a maniac. It makes no sense. It endangers to your life and the life of others. James the Apostle reminds us that the Devil has excellent knowledge of God, and that inner faith without outward expression is nothing but death.

So, God is calling you and me to change. Real change. Change that will be difficult. Jesus, in Luke 9, says that following him is like losing your life (9:24).

Are you up for that?

Are you prepared to change those things in your behaviour and in your attitudes that you know really do need to change? Are you prepared to put to death your love of wealth? Or your proclivity to gossip? Or your thirst for influence? Are you prepared to step into the compassionate lifestyle God calls you to have? Are you prepared to reduce your personal comfort to maximise your engagement with God’s mission? Are you committed to loving the people as an expression of the love for God in you?

Jesus gave his life for you on that terrible torturous cross. He counted his heavenly glory as nothing. But is following him actually costing you anything?

True. There are burdens that come as a consequence of truly following Jesus. They are felt when you start working out what God has worked in you (Philippians 2:12-13). And while it’s not a popular thing to say to comfortable western Christians, these burdens hurt and they chafe and they are weighty. This is what Jesus calls your cross (Luke 9:23).

You want to follow? Then take up your cross. Take it up daily. And, knowing he has called you, this cross, his cross on your shoulders, becomes easy, and light.

One last thing: Jesus never calls you to do this work on your own. Through his Spirit, he is present with you. He will give strength and endurance. He will give you all you need to follow, to change, to carry his cross.

So, about that change: what will it be for you? Make a commitment now: write it down, share your change with a friend, and ask them to keep you accountable.

God wants you to flourish

It is no secret that from within the general camp of what might be called Reformed Evangelicalism there are a number of people who view God as a stern master whose primary interest is to impose rules, expose sin, and generally fume about how bad the world is.

Make no mistake: humanity is deeply and profoundly impacted by our rejection of God and our fall from grace. Call it what you will, but no one has to work too hard to prove total depravity. Have a look at what’s happening in the UK right now and you’ll see what I mean. Thinking about all that, we recognise that God is serious about dealing with crime, wrong, injustice, and sin. His commitment to answering the ills of our world, however, is borne out of his greater commitment to good, right, justice, compassion and love.

The Cross of Jesus is an historical reality not simply because God had to punish human sin, but more so because he wanted to bring people a life and an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. It makes sense, then, that the cross is followed by the resurrection. The death of Jesus is the unexpected door to eternal life.

But here’s the point: what happened on calvary had its beginning, not only in the fall, but in creation itself. God’s core desire that his world should thrive. He causes life to abound. He wants you to flourish. I love the way Eugene Peterson’s ‘The Message’ interprets John 10:10: “I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of”.

‘I have came so they may have life and have it to the full’ – Jesus

Once you see this core desire of God in Scripture, it’s everywhere:

• God’s act in creation is the first great statement of what He wants to do: he is all about expending himself to cause his creation to thrive

• He draws Abram into his covenant, blessing him that all nations of the earth might be blessed through him

• He chose Israel so they would show the world around them his design for life, as expressed in the ten commandments

• Jesus came to reconcile people back to God, to remove the sin and rebellion that separates people from God, and to bring them into life that can never end. Is there a more poignant illustration of God who gives (of) himself to bring flourishing life to others than the cross and the rising again of Jesus?

• He pours his spirit into his church and into the lives of his people so they grow well into the life he has for them, bearing fruit that honours him and brings his plans to exression

• He sends his church into his world to carry his good news of life and hope to people in darkness, and that their death and fallenness can be overcome by his grace

• His people are called to live as salt and light, bringing to expression the sort of world that God delights in. At our very core, we will find ourselves longing for this world. And God wants that world to flourish.

• When Jesus returns, he will reunite heaven and earth, and bring to full and perfect expression the world God delights in. It will be wonderful, beautiful, full of life, and safe – more wonderful than anything we could ever hope for or imagine

Simply put: God wants you to flourish in him. This is not a narrow and selfish preoccupation with getting what you want. It is being consumed by striving for what God says our world needs.

Ultimately, this is not a human centred endeavour: our single minded focus is on the glory of Jesus and the honour of God who is bringing all this about.

God wants you to thrive in this kind of life, and being one who is redeemed and owned by Jesus, I cannot think of a more stimulating day to thank him.

Q: what is your primary mental picture of God? Does it bear any resemblance to the above?

Test yourselves… what?

Read: 2 Corinthians 13:5-10

I have often wondered about this verse: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith.” I mean, wouldn’t I know whether I am in the faith? Don’t I know my own motives, whether I really do entrust myself to Jesus?

There will always be some who will say that ‘looking for evidence of faith in myself is man centred and therefore a false confidence. If this is where you are at, your problem is that Paul commands such self reflection. And if your view of Scripture is that it is God breathed, then you have to say the God commands it. So it seems to me that if God commands it, it is a very good thing to do. And perhaps any protestations about it being man centred are just duck shoving.

Who are you when no one’s looking?

Tom Wright helps us understand what is in view here:

“[Paul] suggests that they … should submit to a self test. Before he arrives, they would be well advised to run through a checklist of the signs that indicate whether Messiah’s life, his crucified and risen life, is present. For Paul, that is the very centre of what it means to be a Christian (see Romans 8.9-10 and Gal 2.20). When you look at yourself in the mirror, do you see someone in whom King Jesus is living and active, or someone who once knew him but now seems not to? When you listen to the sort of things you yourself say, does it sound like words that might have come from King Jesus himself, or are you simply talking the same way everyone else does? When you find yourself with your brother and sister Christians, do you respond to them as brothers and sisters, as people in whom you see King Jesus also living, or are they just ‘other people’? And when you settle down and quieten your mind and heart, to pray and wait for God, do you know and sense the presence, the life and the love of King Jesus close to you, within you, warming and sustaining, guarding and guiding, checking and directing you?

“These are searching tests, but they are the kind of thing Paul has in mind

[Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians, p.142-143]

Q: When no one is looking, does Jesus still rule your heart and dominate your thoughts?

Why you (still) need the church…

(Apologies that my posts have been a little irregular these last weeks. Leonie and I have visited a few churches, as well as ReCharge – The CRCA pastor’s conference, we have considered a few calls from churches, we’ve decided to accept a call to Gateway CRC, and this last week we’ve out our house on the market, and it appears to have sold. I am hoping that I can now maintain a little more regularity…)

It’s tough being church these days. You have to wonder how even hi-tech and well managed church ‘productions’ compete with easily accessible forms of entertainment. Or why people attend a local community when they can access Driscoll, or Piper, or Ortberg on their smartphone or computer. How can local church ‘Pastor Bob’ compete with all of that? With these choices so readily available, it seems more people are staying away from church, and managing their own spiritual development.

Do we still need the local church?

Ephesians 3:14-20 says we do. If we’re mapping out our own DIY spiritual growth, we are selling ourselves short, as well as dishonouring the community that Jesus gave his life for.

Your local church community can teach you things that the world’s best preachers and writers never can

Paul prays that we may grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. He prays that we might know the full dimensions of Christ’s love. All its texture, every nuance, every subtlety and variation. The surprising thing is that this does not come from the world’s best preachers, or the Christian book of the year, or even the work of the world’s most erudite Christian scholars. Instead, it comes ‘together with all the Lord’s people’. It comes as the Christian community does new life together. That doesn’t mean preaching or scholarship is not required. It just means that when it comes to you growing into the full dimensions of Jesus’ love preaching, scholarship, and books have considerable limitations.

Your local church community can teach you things that the world’s best preachers and writers never can. Yes. Your church. That failed and fallen group of people, with all of their quirky and irritating aspects. These people are the very means by which God draws you into the full dimensions of his love.

How does that work? Here are a few suggestions:

• Only your church can love you with all of your faults and failings

• Only your church can express the forgiving grace of God when you fail

• Only your church can draw you into reconciliation and bring the grace of a receiving and welcoming God to full expression

• Only your church gives you a context to use your gifts and to serve others. Stay at home Christianity is basically self worship

• Only your church can express the hope of the New Heavens and the New Earth to the people of your neighbourhood

• Only your church can bring healing and restoration to the broken lives and the troubled families that live in your local community

All of this comes as a loving and sovereign God does his work in his people, through the power of his Spirit, to the glory of Jesus. Without him, we can do nothing, but as he works in us, his people express the truth that Jesus is the hope of our world.

Sure, it can be tough, and not church is perfect. But don’t give up n your local church: it’s God’s means, God’s personally selected context to bring you into the full dimensions of his love.

Q: How is God calling you to renew your love for the local church today?

The God Who Implores: Can we contemplate worshipping a God who would beg for anything?

Read 2 Cor 5:11-21

Try and remember the last time you begged for anything. I mean, seriously pleaded and entreated anyone for something. After we get past the trivialities of begging as a child for a puppy, or pleading with an adolescent son to get out of bed and go to school, we start to struggle. Perhaps the more common examples of serious begging are in situations of life change: a cancer, unemployment, relationship breakdown. No doubt, we’ll find a few examples of serious begging there.

As I read 2 Cor 5:16-21, I find myself challenged by the images in v.20

“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. ” (2 Corinthians 5:20, NIV)

Or as it read in the Authorised Version

“Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. ” (2 Corinthians 5:20, AV)

Can we conceive of God as a begging God? As a God who implores?

Some time ago I tweeted the same thought: If God would beg for anything, what would it be?

My fiend Wid responded: I find it so difficult just to imagine how God can beg for anything…

Me too.

But that does not change the fact that this passage opens our eyes to the God who begs. We read of God ‘making his appeal through us’ (v.20).

I think we get that: God as paraclete. God who comes beside to encourage. God who urges us forward. God who draws us close, and into his own grace. We can live with that.

But God begging? A mendicant God? An imploring God?

Luke tells us of a man, covered with leprosy, who fell with his face to the ground and begged Jesus to cleanse him (Luke 5:12). He tells is of a father, desperate for his son to be relieved of his demonic oppression, begging Jesus intervene (Luke 9:38). And he tells us of a demon possessed man in a graveyard, begging Jesus not to torture him (Luke 8:28)

This is the word, the image, Paul uses in our passage: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. ” (2 Corinthians 5:20, NIV)

Could this be one of the most astounding images of God we find in the Scriptures? The creator God, the Sovereign Lord, the everlasting father, the omnipotent one … imploring, begging, entreating people to be reconciled to him?

Could this be one of the most astounding images of God we find in the Scriptures?

John Calvin says:

[this passage is] an unparalleled commendation of the grace of Christ, inasmuch as He stoops so low, that he does not disdain to entreat us

Think of a few other Scripture passages:

In Luke 15, the parable of the prodigal god, the younger son has returned, there is a glorious reunion with the father, there’s a celebration, but the elder brother is so angry that he refused to go in and join the party. But the father went out and … pleaded with him (15:28).

As Jesus draws near to Jerusalem (Luke 19:41), making his way to his own death, he looks on that city, the geo-spiritual heart of Israel. This is the city where he will die. It is full of people who will bay for his blood. They will prefer Jesus Barabbas to Jesus, Son of the Father. He pictures the thorns, and the nails, and his own disgusting death. And he weeps for that city, beseeching them, that they may still change.

Even in the OT we hear this gracious Lord pleading with wayward, rebellious, adulterous Israel:

““Therefore, you Israelites, I will judge each of you according to your own ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live! ” (Ezekiel 18:30–32, NIV)

Are these words of anger? Or do they reveal such a depth of grief that has our Covenant God imploring his hard hearted people toward grace, forgiveness and life? Isn’t this the heart of our gracious Saviour, our loving Lord, for the lost? The rebellious? The broken? Those far from him?

And could there be a more poignant illustration of the God who begs for people to find life than the Cross, upon which the Prince of glory absorbs, for all eternity, the sin and punishment of his people?

See how much God loves us? O how he loves us!

Thinking about my ministry, and yours, the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ God has entrusted to us, would we say the priorities, behaviours and actions of our ministry reflects the heart of this imploring God?

Does my congregation image this God, and beg for the life of sinners?

Is it a place where God implores people, through us, where we implore people, for God?

Is our denomination an imploring denomination?

Can our communities hear God imploring them in our words?

Can they see, and feel, this God imploring them in our actions and our ministry priorities?

Perhaps the more challenging question is this: Are God and I actually interested in the same things?Do we really share the same heart for the lost?

Despite the strength of these words, it is not hard for us to think these thoughts as we read them now. It is harder to act on them beyond this moment. And to keep on acting on them. And to lead from them, and to serve into them.

Around one year from now, the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia will be meeting in Synod. God forbid that all our discussion, planning, and decision making be reduced to one or the other theory, or view, or approach, or process.

Think of all the discussions we have had and are yet to have about
Mission. Whether fourfold task, or some other strategy, whether we should lean more into church planting or not.

Think of our discussions about developing leaders: What leadership models should we be looking at? How can we build an ethos that develops leaders and trains others?

Think about all the discussions we have had about worship: should we be progressive? Traditional? Conservative? Ancient? Emerging?

I sometimes wonder if all our discussions about such things amount to little more than an annoying squeak in the ears of this God whose passion is to implore people to be reconciled to himself, through us.

These few verses put all our efforts into stark perspective.

And I am challenged to lean more into this mendicant mission and ministry, into the heart of the God who begs.

Prayer: God, let us be deeply moved by how you implore rebellious humanity to be reconciled to yourself.

May we reflect this same divine passion as we gladly embrace this ministry of reconciliation!

Q: Identify one thing that would change in your church as a result of God’s passion to implore people to be reconciled to himself. What will you do to better reflect the ‘God who begs’ in your own life and ministry?