Yours are the hands

Christ has

No body now on earth but yours;

No hands but yours;

Yours are the eyes

Through which is to look out

Christ’s compassion to the world;

Yours are the feet

With which he is to go about

Doing good;

Yours are the hands

With which he is to bless now.

– St. Teresa of Avila

What is it about God, anyway?

Ever wonder why people believe in God? Or what it means to follow him?

Everybody seems to have a different opinion on this – so how do you answer the question? My suggestion is: listen to what God says about himself.

There’s a story in the book of Exodus about how God had a discussion with Moses. Or maybe it was Moses had an encounter with God. And Moses, who seemed to be able to put the point across when it suited him, is feeling narky because the Lord had called him to lead the people of Israel, and yet he had not shown Moses his glory. How Moses said this with a pillar of cloud guarding the camp, and having been led through the Red Sea on dry ground, I don’t know. I know it probably wouldn’t happen today, but maybe Moses just had a short memory when it came to God’s goodness.

Anyway, God decides to show Moses his glory. He does that by proclaiming his name. As with most ancient near east cultures, a name revealed one’s character.

And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (Exodus 33:19, NIV)

Lots of good things can be said about God, but what he says about himself tells us volumes. The core of God’s character is mercy and compassion. Deep seated care, grace and love for his people and for his world. That’s it, right there.

It’s no surprise, then, to see such mercy and compassion revealed in Jesus, who loved people who were his enemies and who befriended outcasts. He gave his life on the Cross to bring us back to this merciful and compassionate God.

And God’s plan is for his character, and the character of Jesus, to come to expression in his people. Christians, more than anyone, have the privilege to live mercifully, compassionately and humbly.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3:12–14, NIV)

Think of the people God has placed around you: who needs your compassion? Who needs your mercy? Who needs to see who God really is and what he is really like? Go. Do.

Church Health and the call to change

20140101-140758.jpg

My last post addressed the need to be clear about the Gospel: bringing the person and work of Jesus to expression in everything we do. This is not a new challenge. Church history shows how keeping Christ at the centre of public, corporate and private life has not been easy.

This was the burden of the protestant reformation in the 16th-17th Century. The church had become bogged down with theology, structures and traditions which, to put it mildly, did not help people know Jesus and grow in him.

People like Martin Luther and John Calvin sought to bring the church back to the centrality of Jesus, clarity in the Gospel, the supremacy of the Word. This sounds good to us, but it was not a popular move with the established Church hierarchy. Luther ended up with a bounty on his head. Calvin had to move several cities before his teaching base could be established.

But here’s the thing: These men never assumed that once they had corrected the emphases of the church of the time, once they had returned to a more biblical base, that their work was over. They knew it wasn’t possible to reform the church once and for all. They knew the human heart, even the redeemed human heart, was slippery and mercurial. So any effort to draw the church toward a more biblical base would never be a perfect work, and those men and women who strove to give good leadership knew the fallibility of their own perceptions and conclusions.

This is why we’ll often say ‘a reformed church is always reforming’: the work of reformation is ongoing.

we can be faced with a situation where we really need to change some of our established ways, but find it very hard because we love those traditions too much

This presents us with a challenge. Churches work with people, and are led by people. Over time churches develop established ways of doing things. These established ways become traditions because they work well and give people a sense of security. This is good as far as it goes, but it gets complicated because culture moves on, and our ways of relating change. At such times we can be faced with a situation where we really need to change some of our established ways, but find it very hard because we love those traditions too much.

So much of what we call the ‘worship wars’ would have been avoided if we all recognised that the Scripture’s call for us to effective Gospel communication requires the positive embrace of change to that end. Perhaps this is the biggest challenge to the established church today: to be both diligent in ensuring the biblical basis of the church is retained and vigilant in doing the best it can for Gospel transformation to take root in the lives of people.

Question: how do we strive for a positively cultural relevant Gospel without accommodating our culture, thus making the gospel devoid of power?

PS. All the very best of the Lord’s richest blessing for the New Year. And yes, I am on leave, but while on leave I still do the things I love and which energise me.

The Call to Growth: Business Method or God’s Desire?

Is the call growth a selling out to secular business method?

When discussions revolve around encouraging growth in Christians, or setting goals around church health, or setting any goals at all, some people will suggest the bible has been exchanged for the methods of Harvard Business School. I have never been convinced by those criticisms.

Leadership writer Ken Blanchard become a follower of Jesus following a career as a top level management expert. Blanchard’s The One Minute Manager has sold over 13 million copies since its release in 1982. The interesting thing is that after Blanchard become a Christian, he was surprised to find many of the basic principles he had written about were found in the Scriptures. That doesn’t mean the bible is a textbook on management or leadership. It probably just means that there is not much new under the sun. It might also mean that thinking about leadership and goal setting is not a bad thing after all. 

In reality, Scripture calls us to growth, and to be purposeful about it. On the night before he went to the Cross, Jesus had this prayer for his followers: 

Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them. (John 17:25–26, NIV)

Did you know that? Even Jesus prayed that the love between the Father and himself would be fully expressed in his people. No doubt, Jesus’ heavenly prayer ministry (see Heb 7:25) also focuses on drawing us deeper into his life and likeness. It is hard to imagine Jesus’ prayers not flowing out of his divine desire to save us completely. 

In Paul’s writings, however, our understanding of the purposeful nature of God moves to an entirely different level. In almost every letter Paul wrote he expresses his desire for people to grow, and keep growing. Christians believe the Scriptures are more than Paul’s words. They are God-breathed, so when we hear Paul speaking, we hear God speaking. So Paul’s prayers reveal the heart of God for his people.

Here are some examples:

I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. (Ephesians 1:17, NIV) 

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 richese 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 (Eph 3:14-19)

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight… (Philippians 1:9, NIV) 

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. (Philippians 3:12, NIV) 

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God,… (Colossians 1:9–10, NIV) 

He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me. (Colossians 1:28–29, NIV)

The big question is whether the things that matter to God matter to us

See how these prayers reveal Paul’s strategy? His deepest desire was for Christians to grow to maturity. He agonised over the growth of the churches he pastored. This was not just because he was a passionate apostle. It was because the Spirit of Jesus drove his heart and mind into the very heart of God for the the church. 

It mattered to Paul that churches would grow. It mattered to Jesus that he would be fully revealed in his followers. It matters to God that Jesus’ followers grew to full maturity in his Son. The big question is whether the things that matter to God matter to us. If God is purposeful about his work in us, we better be purposeful in the work we do for him. 

The more we reflect Christ’s purposes and the more churches move toward the kind of maturity Jesus desires for them, the more healthy this churches will be. They will be places of grace, love, forgiveness, joy, restored community, deepening relationships, and loving, compassionate, transformational mission. 

A powerful, motivating, stimulating vision isn’t it?

Being a disciple: Growth is normal and natural

I’ve been working on material which outlines some of the big picture responsibilities of the church today. I thought this material might be of interest to a wider audience, so here it is.

This material has already been preached at Gateway Community Church, and while these posts won’t be in the form of entire sermons, you are free to use the material in any way that helps you. Please give credit where credit is due…

IMG 0189

Since moving to Perth a few years ago, I’m developing a new appreciation for the challenges of gardening. We’re trying to grow a few vegetables, and it’s proving to be more difficult than I thought. This is basically because growing things in Perth is like trying to grow things at the beach. The last time I went to the beach, I did not see too many vegetable plots or rose gardens. Our problem is that our suburb used to be an actual sand dune. Actually, it still is a sand dune. It’s just that we have covered the sand dune with places to live.

So, if you want to grow some vegetables you will need to develop some skills in soil improvement. There is a lot to do: Add bentonite to create a loamy consistency. Add organic matter: compost, sheep manure, blood and bone. Keep an eye in the pH balance. Don’t forget to mulch your vegetable garden with lucerne hay.

In addition, I have been trying to become a more biblical gardener.

The prophet Zechariah talks about life in the new heavens and the new earth, and says ‘In that day each of you will invite your neighbour to sit under your vine and fig tree,’ declares the LORD Almighty.’ (Zechariah 3:10, NIV)

I thought this was good advice, so I planted some a couple of grape vines and two olive trees. I know olive trees are not figs. But being olives, they are biblical enough for me.

Gardening teaches you patience. This is not an easy lesson to learn. So much is instant these days. Entertainment. Power. Hot water. Music. But this does not work with a garden. You plant the seed and wait. Nothing is fast. The fastest result will still be a few weeks away. Most of the time, you’ll be waiting at least two or three months to harvest some produce.

Growth is slow. I go out every other day and see how the plants have grown. I check the vines. Do they need more support? More training? De-budding?

I check the olive trees. I look for the tiny blossoms, sure signs that there will be a harvest. After a few weeks the flowers start setting to fruit, and things are looking positive.

Interestingly, one of our olive trees doesn’t have any flowers on it at all. This is a bit of a mystery. I go every other day, searching for those tell tale buds, but there’s nothing. Nada. Zip. And I think to myself: that’s just not right. It should have blossoms like the other one. It’s the same variety, it’s in the same stage of development, bought from the same old Italian man on the other side of town, propagated with the same arthritic hands, coaxed along in the same broken English. Identical contexts, but different result.

So I am wondering whether there’s something wrong with that second tree. It may have a problem. (You may even suggest that if I am going out there every other day to look for blossoms, maybe I am the one who has the problem!)

The question is: why am I thinking there might be something wrong with that tree?

I am asking that question because it is natural to grow, to be healthy, to be fruitful. Isn’t this the basic direction of life? Vegetables should grow and be fruitful. Olive trees should get buds and produce a delicious crop.

Growth is natural and when it is not happening we have to ask some important questions.

Same with people. We expect little ones to develop and thrive and grow and learn. Parents rejoice when their baby takes that first step, when they utter their first word. This is growth. It is natural. And it is very good.

It’s the same for people who follow Jesus. For Christians. For churches. Growth and development is the most natural thing. I’m not necessarily saying a church which grows in number is automatically healthy. I am pretty sure that a church which offered free beer every Sunday would probably experience some good growth. Doesn’t mean it would be healthy.

It is true, though, that healthy churches and healthy Christians grow.

As far as this post is concerned this is still an unproven statement. The next posts will build a case for growth. I hope they will challenge us into it. For now the lesson of the olive tree is probably enough. Growth is natural, and when it’s not happening, we have to ask some important questions.

Enough… Money & Wealth

Enough

Over the weeks of June I completed a short four week series at Gateway called “Enough… Money & Wealth”. The idea for the series title came from Compassion Australia “The opposite to poverty is not wealth… it is enough.” What does “Enough” mean? And would we be really satisfied if we had “Enough”? I find these troubling questions.

So, the series looked at how wealth and possessions shape our lives, the formation of our values, and consequently, the expression of our faith and the witness of our church.

I found this series challenging to preach. It’s always a challenge to preach, of course. But this series nailed me a little more than normal. More than other times I was aware that my own life was out of step with what God called his people to in his word. So, to keep myself honest, to let this conviction settle into action, I decided to serialise this series in some blog posts. As I rework them, I am praying that God will drive me to live them more determinedly.

I’d be really happy to have your interactions with these posts, and to engage in discussion via the comments. Let’s see if we can deepen our individual and corporate witness through this series.

I hope you find them as challenging as I did, and it’s my prayer that God will change us all through his word. May he depend our desire to follow him radically, and may his name be praised as we live to his glory.

Grace and peace,

– Dave

PS: It may be that occasional posts finish a little abruptly. This will be because I am trying to follow the basic text of my messages, where each point followed the other, instead of being punctuated by several days. So, I’ll try and make the transitions work as best I can for the blog format.

God is with you – whatever is happening

A middle aged man grieves the loss of his father. Confused and confronted by some family reactions, he prays for peace among his siblings so they can honour their father’s life.

Two young people are prepare to marry. Their ‘right now’ a juggle of plans for a wedding breakfast, settling a guest list, a honeymoon, and their day to day lives.

A middle aged man sits in the morning traffic, mind blank with the yawning sameness of his daily commute. His mind flickers between being free from the grind, the financial reality of a mortgage, the boss’s expectations, and uncomfortable relational realities at home.

A young woman plans a community event, desktop stacked with schedules, memos, invoices. Under pressure. Phone rings. Plans change. Again.

Another walks home, weary from an early start. Thinks about her lack of love, and ponders shallow friendships. She doesn’t like to think about it, or where her life is headed. Or whether.

Some people say that God is only with us when we’re doing the right thing, when our lives are heading in the right direction, when we’re honouring him with right living and acceptable behaviour.

Others will say that God is really only present when were doing spiritual stuff. When we in ‘quiet time’. We read our Bible regularly, we use the right version, we pray in a humble spirit, we worship in spirit and truth, witness regularly.

Ask them, and they won’t have an answer for the people in the grind of life, except that faith is probably not strong enough, and that it’s no surprise they are doing it so tough.

The God of grace is not impressed with the musings of the comfortable, who believe their responses somehow make him present. Scripture reveals a God who is present and who is there, whatever is happening.

When the people of Israel gathered on the promised land’s fenceline, the Lord reminded them that if they were faithful to him they would be blessed in the field. He would protect them fro the enemy. Their sons and daughters would be strong, healthy. Their harvests plentiful.

Best of all: The Lord will dwell with them. He would be with them. He would be their God, and they would be his people.

Scripture reveals a God who is present and who is there, whatever is happening.

Later, when the Lord points out the implications of any future disobedience – and they are awful, horrible things – he never says ‘and I will not be with you, I will forsake you and leave you alone forever.’ Whatever happens, and whatever path his people would tread, whether faithful or rebellious, God would still be with them. Yes, he would despise their behaviour and hate its outcomes. But he would still be with them because of his covenant. His promise to be their God would never fail, because he is faithful, even when they were faithless.

Whatever is happening in your life today: whether it brings a cheer, or whether you are overcome with pain and grief, God is with you.

He knows your life is broken. And he gently whispers that his plan is to heal, and mend, and make right. He is with you. Trust him.