Of the World, But Not In It?

I am writing a new sermon series (with Clinton) on the Sermon on the Mount. My first message is coming Sunday (Feb 07), and it comprises the whole Beatitudes passage – Matthew 5:1-12. “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”

I was reflecting about how Jesus calls his followers, broken as they are, to respond to the brokenness around them. One of the thoughts I had was that only a broken church can respond with blessing to the broken world they are in. This is how we reveal the kingdom of heaven, and show what it is really like.

Then I wondered about how does a church of reasonably comfortable suburban Christians start to enter into the brokenness in their community?

I was thinking we could email local MPs and local government people and ask them for guidance in where the greatest areas of need are. Then an uncomfortable realisation lodged itself in my mind, ‘why do I even need to do that? Why don’t I already know about brokenness in my own community? Why do we find it so hard to know what the greatest areas of need are? Why do we find it hard to see this?’

I think it’s because we get involved in our own lives, busy in our work, busy loving our families. We feel wronged when we don’t have any time to relax with our friends. Our churches are great, but there are so many things to do, so many programs, so many areas of ministry and service, that it’s just too easy to lose touch with the world around us. So we lose our connection with real people and their brokenness. We striving to get ahead financially, we want to make ends meet, become financially independent. We buy into the view that financial independence, comfortable living, owning the latest and greatest, brand-names-on-the-outside wardrobe, are the things that really matter. And as it turns out, we end up being of the world, but no longer in it.

Has the lifestyle of western suburban Christianity become a the new monasticism? Where Jesus’ people withdraw into their own virtual enclave and remove themselves form the world and its suffering? Is this why we do not perceive the brokenness around us?

Thoughts Occasioned by a Funeral

Last week we buried Eric. He was a fine person. A good man. A great follower of Jesus. And the first of my youth group generation to die. All that has got me thinking.

I met Eric in 1973 when I started attending his church in Blacktown. My parents had been solid in their faith for years, and had recently decided to switch churches. The church they chose was were Eric and his family attended. I was at a stage in life where I was making big decisions about life direction. I wasn’t being particularly principled about it. I was just in ‘default’ mode. When you are 15 years old, and your parents attend a church where there are no kids your age, there are always going to be more attractive options on a Sunday morning. I did not know it then, but I was at faith’s fork in the road. My parent’s decision to switch was a life saver. The life that was saved was mine.

Looking back now, I see how God used Eric, and a few others, to draw me into faith and followership. They helped me belong. They draw me into a small group who opened the Bible and sought to find its relevance for our lives. It was great. It was real. I came to see how following Jesus could be fun, exciting, and a rich broadening of what it meant to truly live.

At Eric’s funeral I remembered all this. I remarked how we shared a love for music, and great bass lines. He was into keys, I was getting into bass guitar. I remember now that he loved a good Monty Python line. And he loved his trail bike (he had a Kawasaki 250 or something). He let me ride his bike. He even let me ride his bike when I fell off it.

I don’t think Eric was my closest friend, and probably was not his closest friend either. Even so, it was the community, the friendship that Eric and others provided, that became the soil God used to nourish my faith. I am incredibly thankful for that. And I was blessed to have the opportunity to say so at Eric’s thanksgiving service.

Eric was the first of that generation of friends to die. Many of those present had made the same comment. It has given me reason, not only to reminisce, but also to consider life and death, and some of the important aspects of what it means to follow Jesus in such a time as this.

I hope my thoughts will be of value to you.



New Year’s Revolutions

Welcome to 2009

It may be nineteen days late, but I’ve been on leave for the last three weeks, so this is the first chance I’ve had to express some thoughts and prayers I have been working through for the two months. I have called these ‘New Year’s Revolutions’, because most of them I just want to keep rolling around, returning, reforming and reframing with greater focus.

So here’s what I am looking at

  1. I want a more prophetic and challenging ministry. That means I want to listen to what’s going on in my life, the lives of people around me, the culture in which I live, and hold that up to God’s call to be a people implementing and anticipating new creation. I want to speak to and expose our blind spots and the complacencies of my own culture. I want this to be decisive, incisive and breathed by the Spirit. Please understand: I do not want to suggest that we are all slacking off. The truth is, there are lots of people at RCRC who are great servants in great ministry. But we do have a tendency to favour what like and want, rather than true needs around us. I 2009 I would love to see that change
  2. I want to see more spiritual passion. I could be wrong, but sometimes I sense that we’re wary about a rich expression of following Jesus in life and worship. Whether it’s a lavish gift, some outward expression of heartfelt joy, or a rich sense of community and acceptance when the community of Jesus followers gather. For this reason, I think it would be good to ask a few questions of ourselves:
    1. Is my celebration of God as expressive as my celebration of great exam results or the victory of the team I love? Which one is better? Which gives me more hope?
    2. Is my welcoming of Jesus followers on Sunday as warm, expressive and heartfelt as the meeting of a best friend I have not seen for a long time? Does our expression of community say something about the wonderful transformation Jesus has brought and is bringing?
    3. Is God really the centre of my celebration on Sunday? How could I give better expression of this with his new community?
  3. I want to lead and preach toward full commitment and Christ centeredness. We all know perfection only comes when Jesus returns so I’m not thinking of dividing us into business class Christians and the economy variety: some Christians who have ‘made it’ and others who haven’t. But let me ask you – and let me keep asking you:
    1. Are you in top spiritual condition? Where do you rate yourself on a scale of 1-10 where 1 is ‘not at all Christ centred’, and 10 is ‘as Christ centred as I think I can be’. Let’s say you give yourself a 6/10. Do you think God is satisfied with that? If not, what do you have to do to move up a notch? What attitudes have to change? What do you need to put to death? What needs to come alive?
    2. Is RCRC in top spiritual condition? What needs to change? What do we need to do more, and what should we be doing less?
    3. Are you in a context where you are being stretched theologically? Where your desire to know God and serve him is really being deepened? Are you seeking greater opportunity to grow? Have you made a goal to nurture your faith significantly in 2009? Have you signed up for Foundations? (watch this space)
  4. I want to see RCRC truly embrace a healthy outward focus. We’ve talked a lot about this: serving our community, being salt and light, being an agent of hope for Redlands. Now we have take it to the next level. I know we are all busy. Me too. I probably can’t do more things than what I am doing at present, so I need to think of the following:
    1. What can I drop or do differently? Letting something go doesn’t mean I no longer agree with it, or that it’s become bad. It may just mean that as I change and meet new opportunities being a good steward means I need to do things differently
    2. What will I do to specifically serve the outward mission of the church? Jesus has given his transforming love to me minute by minute – so how will I implement something of his transformation in my life? You may not be Mother Theresa, but here are 10 suggestions (as distinct from commandments) to start you on your way:
      1. visit some lonely people
      2. cook a meal for the single mum a few doors away
      3. ring/email school chaplains to let them know I’m praying for them
      4. offer to mentor a child at a local school
      5. get involved in something like the Matthew Stanley Foundation or the Melanoma Awareness Foundation – two causes that have been too close to home for many
      6. help Meals on Wheels
      7. pray for the Missional Communities group at RCRC
      8. send regular encouragement to those involved in RE teaching
      9. support RCRC specifically engaged in evangelism ministry
      10. just pray daily for my church to move from ‘in here’ to ‘out there’. Pray for Ministry Team people like Dan Neville, Geoff Hughes and Rod McWilliams as they seek to lead us into this

And then, a wish: I would love to see some healthy creative ministry develop, specifically for powerful communication at Sunday services. I am not talking about ‘skits’ so much, as well produced, well presented, dramatic presentations that support, add texture, and harmonise with what preachers like me present. These can be so powerful!

I wouldn’t mind betting that there are a few people in the RCRC family who could run with this – speak to me! What a great way to use your talents and gifts to bring God’s message of grace and hope to people!

Friends, I know this year will have its share of challenges. We all, by God’s grace, need to pull together and in the same direction. Ours is the rich privilege of taking the blessings God has so richly poured out on us, and using them to bless those who have no hope, or power, or love. God has blessed us with life in Jesus, and this year we get to celebrate it afresh with one another.

What we need to understand it that the purpose of that life and blessing is to carry it to the community around us, so that the world may know there is a God who is transforming His world through His Son, Jesus.



When your system meets Jesus

Sometimes we just have to realise that Jesus upsets our systems

An uncomfortable thought, but it’s true. It’s uncomfortable because we are so good at creating systems. We like them because they help us organise our world and develop a sense of normality. We go to school on regular days. We get up in time to catch the train. We have regular habits and routines. Not everyone does the system thing to the same degree, there are some people that seem to hate systems. They have little routine. They sleep in. They miss the train. They seem to be OK with that. But they still want systems in place. They want the pay cheque in the bank when it should be, and they want the bank to accurately and securely manage their money. They want the driver in the other lane to stay in his lane and not cut them off. They want to be able to go through a green light without getting t-boned by some idiot running a red light. It’s true: even the most disorganised people still want some systems, or actually a lot of systems (i.e. the ones they like), and they want them to work and work well.

Churches also have their systems. They help people get connected, they allow for good ministry to happen, they support pastoral care, the help leaders lead with diligence. Most of the time these systems work well. And when they don’t work, people like me have a bad day, and sometimes people get hurt. I think we all realise that.

Today I am thinking that sometimes poor systems get exposed when they try to be more than what they should be. Maybe I should say it like this: you can tell when systems aren’t working when they start colliding with people.

Collisions to remember

Sue was a young woman, a faithful follower, and she formed a relationship with a guy called Adam, who at the time was not a follower of Jesus. Adam wasn’t opposed to Jesus or the church, but in the eyes of those who were looking he wasn’t showing a lot of interest either. Looking back now (and it’s about 15 years back or more), I think with a bit of effort I could have reached this guy. I could have got together with him and shared a bit of life. I don’t know why I never did that. I also think that people in my church could have been more open to Adam, but my guess is (and I’m ashamed now to say it) that because he was not a ‘regular’ there was no major effort to draw him in. Perhaps because he was not a believer he was seen by other young people as some kind of threat. Man, who knows how people would ever come to know Jesus if every Christian acted like that! Anyway, the church leadership decided not to allow their wedding to take place with the blessing of the church. As pastor of the church, I supported that decision. I never should have. We allowed the system to collide with these two people, and the inevitable drift away happened.

Don’t get me wrong: I think the Bible is pretty direct about followers being ‘yoked’ to those who do not. I also believe this addresses more contexts than marriage. It applies to business partnerships, contractual arrangements, and other contexts where people are ‘bound’ together. The reality, though, is that we could have done a whole lot more to really open the door for Adam. We could have expressed selflessness in extending friendship. We could taken a real interest in his life. We could have invited Sue & Adam over for a BBQ, or shared a coffee. We could have celebrated their love and led them into an expression of transformed community. But we did none of that. We didn’t even try. And we allowed the system to squash a Gospel opportunity. I am ashamed to say it was my call, and I got it wrong.

A second occasion: some years ago one of my roles was an ecumenical visitor to another denomination very closely related to our own. In short, the church I work for had done some study on an issue and had come up with what I believed were quite sound, but yet unpopular conclusions. There are always debates about these things, and I guess some readers may remember the issues, and perhaps even disagree with what I say now. That’s OK. There have been disagreements before and the world is still spinning… So, the other church protested very strongly to my own denomination. Personalities got involved. Theological discussions became polarised. Various statements were issued by Synods and Assemblies. In all of this, church structures were used to apply intense pressure to tender parts of the body of Christ. It was ugly. People got hurt. People left churches. Teachers and educators became demoralised. It was a dark night of denominational soul.

I think about those days, and acknowledge quite openly that sometimes my own pain and confusion did not assist in clear, rational and humble communication. Even so, I believe that systems were used to exert pressure, to force decisions, and ultimately – though perhaps unintentionally – to hurt people.

Today I find myself wondering how Jesus feels about that debate. I wonder whether he is still to meet my gaze on The Day, and rebuke me for my part in a church dispute which hurt people, not to mention the church, so badly. I wonder how Jesus feels about all that energy devoted to some disputable point, which really has added no value to the mission of the church or done anything to bring people closer to Jesus. I think the only things advanced in that whole deal were personal egos – one of them was mine. And that is just plain sinful.

On the other hand…

Maybe you’ve read all this and thought there are still some times where you really do have to draw the line. You’re wondering whether people just get their way every time. I wouldn’t want you to get that idea. Jesus never worked that way. When people listened to him, they always changed for the better. So, sometimes we do need to sit down with people and in all humility do what we can to help them see what’s really going on. The Bible is pretty clear about that: ‘If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you.’ We need to understand that this action is never the application of a system, it is the loving counsel of a follower of Jesus. This is not about mechanisms and procedures. It is about common relationship in Jesus and the ongoing commitment and support of the body of Christ as we walk with someone toward restoration and reconciliation.

Transforming the system

So how do we know if the discomfort in situation is being caused by a poorly applied system or the Gospel of Jesus? That’s a pretty important question. Perhaps the whole ‘what would Jesus do?’ has been a little overdone, but I also think there’s something in it. Think of it this way: Can we picture Jesus standing in an interchurch meeting and waving an angry finger at representatives of another denomination? Can we imagine Jesus ignoring a guy like Adam, just quietly going soft on him, and not seeking to draw him into fellowship? Can we imagine Jesus not wanting to meet with Adam and talk about life, and what life in its fullness might mean? I don’t think so.

I can picture Jesus going to see a friend who is making some unhealthy life decisions and really seeking to speak to his heart, and doing that in the context of relationship and trust. This is how things get worked out. And more often than not, the result is not a parting of the ways, but a meeting of the minds. Psalm 133 reminds us that when that happens it’s like the Spirit’s oil of blessing being poured over people and into their lives. Nothing better, really.

A few helpful questions

I am no outstanding voice of wisdom, but I have been thinking recently that there are a few questions we can ask that might help us make better decisions when our systems start to hurt people.

One: Will the path we are taking ultimately help people to see Jesus more clearly, or will our path hurt and confuse them?

Two: Will the path we are taking help grace increase and grow? Will it deepen our awareness of who Jesus is and what he came to do?

Three: If we follow this path, what will the impact be on weaker Christians and the young in the faith? Will it draw them closer to God , or push them away?

People are more important than rules or procedures

I think the most important thing to remember is that people are always more important than rules and procedures. This is true every time. This was one of the main points of contention between Jesus and the religious legalists of the day. Rescuing people was more important than Sabbath obedience. Forgiving people was more important than throwing stones. Giving grace to people was more important than expectations and prejudice, even if the person was a tax collector, a Samaritan, or a thief on a cross. Jesus shows us that people matter. Every time.

When your system meets Jesus, your system will change.

…Thanks for listening