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?

A Straight Line with a Crooked Stick: How God works in broken people like us

Read Isaiah 45:1-11

The Old Testament tells us that certain special leaders were anointed with oil: prophets, priests, and kings. In addition to that sort of ‘anointing’ we read passages that refer to a coming ‘anointed one’, God’s promised Messiah (see Ps 72:8, Ps 18:44-48). This promised Messiah is the one whom the New Testament identifies as Jesus Christ (see Matthew 16:16).

What surprises me in Isaiah 45 is that this term is applied to Cyrus, a Persian ruler. Cyrus was a non-Jew. He was not a worshipper of the One True God. He was devoted to Marduk and other pagan deities. Had he ever presented himself to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship the Lord, he would not have been accepted as a worshipper with the people of Israel, and instead he would have been confined to the outer courts. So it’s pretty amazing that the Lord calls Cyrus ‘his anointed’. The Hebrew is even more challenging: the words ‘messiah’ is used.

History tells us that in the first year of his reign, Cyrus issued a decree which allowed all exiles to return to Jerusalem, worship the Lord, and rebuild the Temple (2 Chr 36:22–23; Ezra 1:1–3; 6:2–5). So this pagan king was used by God to bring his promises to fulfilment. God used a crooked stick to draw a very straight line.

We are all crooked sticks, but God does his work through us

But then, was Cyrus so special in that regard? Sure he was, in the historical sense, and by reason of the fact that he’s the only pagan to be called a ‘messiah’ in the Bible.

On the other hand, doesn’t God use all of us to bring his purposes to completion? Even if we were to regard ourselves as mature Christians and devoted followers of Jesus, isn’t it true that we are all failed and fallen people? Crooked sticks, all of us? For sure. Still, God promises to work through us, and bring his will to completion as he works through people in his world. Even through people who would not identify themselves as ‘his people’.

When our culture is so driven by self interest and cynicism, it is overwhelming to know that we are not left at the mercy of random and naked forces. In some mysterious and incredibly comforting way, God is at work in our world. We are not on our own, not left to our own devices.

Today, this day, with all the stuff you have to deal with, this God has chosen you to do his will. He will work through you. He loves to do that, and he wants you to love him and honour him in return. Your commitment to delight in this is called ‘obedience’ – your glad response to his overwhelming love, grace and power.

Q: How does this truth help you survive in a world where there is so much evil? Does this truth help you worship God, or make it harder for you to do so?

The Interference of Self

Read: Heb 13:1-6

Sometimes when I am met by a need or a context where I know I should move forward and respond, I push back and either procrastinate or simply turn away.

Why do I do that? Is it fear that my incompetence might be exposed Is it a sense that I might not be safe? Or is it prejudice? Or some combination of a whole raft of reasons? This passage speaks of ministering to prisoners (v.3) – do I fear their violence, and back off? We also read of strangers (v.2) – can they be trusted? Sometimes I am so prejudiced and governed by insecurity with moves me toward self protection and avoidance. Too easily, my fears blind me to what I really need to see. This is the interference of self.

Quite often the truth we need to hear is uncomfortable

Quite often, the truth we need to hear is uncomfortable. It interferes with the ‘realities’ we construct to protect ourselves from inconvenience. If one of these uncomfortable truths threatens my material wealth, my financial independence, or my leisure, I often try to push it away. Sometimes, I don’t even think I realise what I am doing. Yet through defensiveness or dismissal, or something as harmless as well directed humour, I persist in my denial. I would rather that people affirm me, and confirm the sometimes lesser story I have chosen to live at that time.

Well, there is only one affirmation that really matters. One reality worth living for. On Kingdom deserving the focus of my life, one relationship that brings love, peace, life and hope. And it is God (v.6). I don’t have to worry about what others may think, because living with God, or rather Him with me, I have all I need to survive the day.

Q: Does relationship with God really make that much difference to you? Leave a comment and tell us what you think.

Not much to look at…

Read: 2 Cor 4

I don’t like being weak, and I certainly don’t like being perceived as weak. So I engage in the stupidity of covering up. It is a clumsy attempt to project some other reality, one of relative strength and having it together.

I think I shortchange God when I do this. Paul was a man who was in touch with his weakness. I can imagine his CV saying ‘excellent education under Gamaliel, and later, Jesus himself, but I am not much to listen to, and i have several persistent and debilitating personal issues…’ Would you hire someone like that?

When I seek to give the impression of strength, the focus is on me, and the Gospel is masked. We have all seen mega churches which advertise their senior pastors with larger than life airbrushed images. What images might there have been outside Paul’s church (even though he was regional and itinerant, and not bound to a ‘church building’). A cross? A gallows and noose? A broken terra cotta pot? A picture of disability?

Weakness is God’s favourite work context

God uses weakness to reveal the beauty of his grace and character. This may unnerve us. Even so, that is how it is. He chose weak and underdeveloped Israel. Abraham and Sarah were old and past it. Moses was not a great speaker. David was too small for a soldier’s armour. Jesus was viewed as a reject, and gathered other rejects to himself. The cross is seen as foolishness. Jesus’ followers, small in number and uneducated, were given the task of making disciples of all nations.

Weakness is God’s favourite work context. Weakness is how he perfectly shows his power (2 Cor 12:9).

So I have my weaknesses and so do you. I should not feed them, thinking that a worse situation will end up being a context for greater power. That’s like sinning more to get more grace (Rom 6:1).

So while I work on my weaknesses, I will simply pray that God’s grace and power will be at work despite my weaknesses. I will pray that God’s work, God’s character, and God’s grace might be more clearly seen. That my work, my character or gifts might not be the focus.

I am a jar of clay. A cracked clay pot. So let the treasure of grace and the wonder of Christ be more clearly seen.

Q: How might God use your specific weaknesses and frustrations to reveal his power today?

If you’d like further encouragement to be open about your weaknesses, check out Michael Hyatt’s excellent piece, published yesterday: ‘Tell Your Story, The Good and The Bad’

The Audacity of Grace

Read Ezekiel 34:11-16

I am struck by the contrast between the abusive shepherds of Israel and the Lord, who is the good shepherd. A context of the shepherd’s self interest and abuse we are drawn to the breathtaking faithfulness of the Sovereign Lord. He knows all, and decides to do all to change this ugly pastoral picture into a one of peace, tranquility, protection and blessing.

More amazing is that God does this despite the terrible situation before him. He could have sold the farm, written off the loss, and done one huge cull. His lavish grace draws him to do something else: he took on the shepherds job himself and got to work changing the situation.

What he promises here: to search to restore, to care for, to rescue, to bring to pasture, he has done in Jesus, the Good Shepherd (John 10), and Jesus continues this work through his church (Matt 28:16-20; John 21:15-19).

When people fail, God will find other ways to bring his purposes to fulfilment

God takes our failing and rebellion upon himself. God steps in and brings restoration and hope to our brokenness. This is the audacity of grace. And we have to learn from his undying commitment to his own saving purpose. When people fail, God will find other ways to bring his purposes to fulfilment. Jesus’ death and rising is all the proof we need.

Q: What do these verses say about your own style of leadership, or about the challenges faced by your own church?

Fuel for the fight…

Read: Leviticus 26:1-13

The book of Leviticus is a challenge at the best of times. One writer says ‘The contents of the book, perhaps more than any other book of the Bible, see so removed from the daily life of the contemporary Christian that one is tempted to avoid the effort.’

Even so, maybe today’s reading is a cameo of the book’s purpose, and perhaps God’s purpose, too. These 13 verses rock between the ‘I’ of God’s action and the ‘you’ of our response.

As they affirm the Lord for his blessing and grace, and call us to specific behaviour and attitudes, they also present a powerful reminder that the capacity for people to respond and obey starts with his work in our lives.

I know some Christians think differently about this, but I have never been able to accept that we initiate faith and belief and spiritual movement, and only then will God love us. It seems to indicate that God is somehow waiting for us, or dependent on us. I don’t think a God like that is much of a God, really. God is not waiting for us to act: He has acted. He has drawn us into grace, and we get to respond. Sometimes it seems as though we have come up with the idea, but God has always seeded that thirst and exploration in us. And the fact we think it started with us just shows how creative and gentle God can be.

Leviticus teaches us these truths. The central plank of the book, amongst all the other detail, is the Day of Atonement (Lev 16). God graciously acts to forgive rebellious and sinful people. In Lev 20:26 God says ‘You are to be holy because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my very own.’ So our motivation to obey find its source in his lavish grace.

Have a look at the passage again, and notice the rhythm: ‘I have acted’ and then ‘you will do this in response.’ The story of Jesus fits this same rhythm perfectly: while we were still sinners, enemies of God, and rebels, Christ died for us.’

God’s lavish grace is the fuel I need for life’s fight

I find this reality of God’s lavish grace is the fuel I need for life’s fight. Isn’t this the wonderful ‘resource beyond myself’ that enables me to give even when I am at the end of my rope? For sure.

Truth be known, this truth is not well enough known. Is it any wonder that I tire so consistently of doing what God calls me to do? Is it any wonder that sometimes it feels as though God is far from me, even though I know he never is?

And then, no wonder that I am surprised when God answers my tardiness with even more love and grace.

“I will put my dwelling place among you and be your God, and you will be my people. I am the Lord your god who brought you out of Egypt, so that you will no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.” [Lev 26:11-13]

Q: What makes it so hard to believe that God just keeps giving grace, even when all we give him is brokenness and failure?

It’s tough, but…

Read: Acts 18:5-11

Paul encounters great opposition as he preaches the Gospel in Corinth (18:5-6). In the context of this abuse, the Lord spoke to Paul and said “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city” (18:9-10).

It is such an encouragement to know that despite opposition, God still has work for us to do. This is good reason to keep our eyes firmly fixed on God’s mission and his priorities. I need to remember this, because it is too easy to become distracted, restricted and constricted by my circumstances. It is just too easy to engage in self pity, to brood on my problems, lick the sores of my discontent, and continue to feed my pain. You know what? Jesus is worth more than that. And His Kingdom and mission are worth more than that. I must make a commitment to focus on His grace, and to carry my gripes lightly.

despite opposition, God still has work for us to do

Lord Jesus, let my vision be defined by your calling and your mission. May your grace and power define my circumstances and how I respond to the challenges around me.

I love Psalm 121, and how The Message communicates the shalom that comes to those whom the Lord surrounds…


I look to the mountains Does my strength come from mountains?

No, my strength comes comes form God, who made heaven and earth, and mountains.

He won’t let your foot slip, he won’t let you stumble,

Your Guardian God won’t fall asleep. Not on your life! Israel’s Guardian will never doze or sleep.


Q: What makes it so hard for us to really trust God when the going is so tough?