“Master Class” Coming Soon

So much is written about spiritual growth. Anyone in a relationship with God wants to grow spiritually, yet often it can seem so complicated! We can feel pulled between intellectual approaches on the one hand and the pursuit of mystical experiences on the other. One expert tells us to look back into the mists of time, while another tells us to look within, or to look at their list of how-to steps. In the midst of the notice, somehow Jesus can get lost. In this Master Class we will consider some simple biblical insights that will help us grow spiritually in a straightforward, practical, and Jesus-focused way.

Saturday 29th January, 15:00-18:00 London Time.

This online event is free, but registration is required. Please click here to find out more and to register.

Love Your Neighbour! How?

I am hearing a lot about how we Christians should love our neighbour as people discuss the cultural issues of our time.  We are told to love our neighbours with respect to tolerance, affirmation of declared identity, or various aspects of pandemic response.  If our society declares that it is loving to praise any angry youth for venting their angst, should we automatically join in? If our society determined that good people always wear a glove on the left hand, would that make it so? Now, I believe we absolutely should be loving our neighbour, but it is important to think through what that really means.

The default view of many, it seems, is that loving your neighbour means expressing kindness in the way our culture and the media has defined kindness for us.  The basic idea is that Christians should be leading the way in expressing kindness as it has been defined.  But how is the world’s track record at defining what is right or wrong?  We know the world doesn’t do well with defining wrong, so why should it be any better at defining right?  What if loving our neighbour is more complicated than we are told?

This matters and if we don’t think carefully, we can easily let faulty logic slip into our preaching. This only reinforces the error.

Let’s take a historic example.  Imagine that we are living during the so-called sexual revolution.  “Love” was a big theme for many at that time.  What if Christians were to “love their neighbour” according to the cultural expectations of the day?

We always have the option of loving our neighbours and participating fully in their world as they have defined it.  That was true during the sexual revolution, just as it has been true in the more recent variations of sexual identity and tolerance, or today, in our era of disease prevention.  So, during the sexual revolution, perhaps some Christians participated in the “loving” according to the expectations of the day – or if not full participation, at least by affirmation.  I hope you can see how that would not actually be loving!

The counterpoint always seems to be a pendulum swing in the opposite direction.  If Christians are not going to love as they are told to love, then they must be anti-love and pro-antagonism.  So, the logic goes, the only alternative to loving your neighbour is to criticise your neighbour, to be all about truth, to be relationally clumsy, difficult, awkward and unkind.  (Some Christians certainly have taken this approach, sadly.)

Surely there is an alternative?  We must let God’s values shape our view of right and wrong.  We don’t have to look just like the world, but neither do we have to look like the world’s caricature of Christians.  We can seek to live out that Christ-like combination of true love.  We can love our neighbours, understand them, be kind to them, care for them, show sensitivity to them, etc.  And we can do so while still valuing truth, and reality, sharing the true hope that is found not in their pursuit of love, or safety, or whatever else, but the true hope of love and life and happiness found only in Jesus.  It is not loving to perpetuate a lie to those around us.  In those revolutionary years, the lie of “free love” hurt many people.  The lies of our culture always do.

In a similar way, as a parent, I want to show love to my children. Do I always give them love on their terms? If not, is my only alternative a harsh unloving approach? Not at all. I want to love my children and it often requires prayerful consideration to know what that should look like in a way that will actually help them.

Today we are living in a confused world.  Is the answer to be all in with the world’s plan for showing virtue?  Just love your neighbour and be essentially indistinguishable?  Or should we awkwardly proclaim the truth without love? Or is there a better way?  There is. It is a way that is sensitive to their fears and concerns, a way that goes out of our way to demonstrate love, but at the same time lovingly speaks the truth and points to real hope.

Let’s be sure to love our neighbours, and let’s pray for wisdom to know how to do it.

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7 Ways Church Helps Healthy Thinking

The last couple of years has created a whole set of experiences that were new to most of us.  Lockdowns, social distancing, virus testing, online church, and so much more.  Whatever we may think of the measures that have been taken by our governments, it is always good to evaluate the impact of circumstances on the health of the church congregation.

Last week I listened to a discussion between two scientists and a clinical psychologist.  One of them raised the issue of churches and “faith communities.”  In a society marked by social isolation, a widespread lack of meaning, lots of anxiety, increasing aggression and polarized society, he noted the potential benefit that participation in a church might have for the thinking of the congregation.     

Without getting “too psychological” – here are seven ways that church participation can help people to think well and live life in a healthy way:

1. Preaching: The Anchor – Preaching is not merely an educational exercise, although good preaching will help people learn, of course.  Regular Biblical preaching also functions as an anchor in the storms of life.  People are bombarded with intense messaging all week, but when the Word of God is preached, they are reminded of ultimate realities.  Everything else may seem upside-down, but that only reinforces the value of preaching as reminding.  God is still God.  God is still good.

2. Singing: The Crowd – After the disruption to congregations meeting, or being able to sing together, I hope that we have all recognized just how significant corporate worship is in the life of a healthy believer.  Whether the “crowd” is twenty people or a thousand people, it does us good to stand together and sing out our worshipful response to God’s goodness.  When that is taken away, believers suffer in numerous ways.

3. Fellowship: The Family – So many in society suffer from having no meaningful relationships.  The statistics are staggering.  Being part of a local church family is incredibly significant with respect to our sense of sanity.  The regular interactions, the sense of belonging, the familiarity of weekly connections, even the warmth of a handshake or hug . . . it all makes a difference.  During the first half of 2021, churches here were allowed to meet.  While others chose not to do so, our church continued to meet. I am sure this made the negative impact of lockdown far less significant for our church family, even if there were numerous inconveniences along the way.  Who can measure the negative impact of isolation psychologically, relationally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually?

4. Service: The Role – Healthy thinking does not simply flow from good teaching input.  Serving refreshments every third Sunday, greeting people on the welcome team, participating in church set up, hosting a homegroup, teaching the 3–6-year-olds, etc., all these specific roles in the life of the church make a difference in the life of those serving too.  When that is taken away for a season, some will struggle with a reduction in their sense of meaning.  It is personally healthy to be contributing to the life of the community.

5. Unity: The Conversation – When people are forced apart, they will tend to lose a sense of conversation and perspective.  Some may lose touch with anything outside their family unit.  Others will keep the TV news on for constant company.  Still, others will select a small set of voices to hear, or distractions to enjoy.  But the church is not a social club uniting like-minded people.  God has a way of bringing different races, different interests, different political views, etc., into one gathering of people.  We need to be engaging with and hearing from each other to help us have a healthy perspective.  Solitude is not God’s design for the primary context in which we should think.

6. Pastors: The Shepherds – Christians need each other’s gifts to stay healthy and to grow spiritually.  And churches also need the feeding, leading, caring, protecting and mentoring of the shepherds too.  The example, the teaching, the perspective, the courage, the gentleness, and the faith of the pastors all have a tangible impact on the members of the flock.  Sometimes this may be felt in a direct and personal challenge, but week by week exposure and encounter is also highly beneficial.

7. Weekly: The Rhythm – How many churches are struggling because the normal schedule was disrupted for too long?  Maybe for some people, the rhythm of life has shifted and they now need to reconsider how healthy it is to try and do life without meaningful church involvement.  Maybe for others, the fear of Covid is still keeping them away from the many healthy benefits of church participation.  After significant disruption, it might take some deliberate effort to re-establish healthy habits as far as the priority of church involvement.

I am making no comment here on what churches should do regarding safety in these Covid-sensitive times – that is another discussion for another day.  I am making a big comment that the church itself is incredibly important for believers to be healthy in every regard. 

The discussion I was listening to was focused on human thinking.  I hope that as we take stock after two years of Covid-19 disruption, we will see how local church involvement is critical for all aspects of a healthy life: mental, psychological, emotional, social, relational, even physical, and of course, spiritual.

What have the last two years taught you about the value of the local church?

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Join me for a journey through the Psalms! One detail to help us read the Psalms Today, and one detail to help us apply the Psalms Today. Hopefully, you will want to then read the Psalm and share your highlights with someone else!

7 Things the Prophets Might Say To Us

The Old Testament prophets are a fascinating collection of books. From the majesty of Isaiah, through the agony of Jeremiah, and the visions of Daniel, to the conversation of Habakkuk, and the brevity of Haggai . . . all of them are magnificent books to read, to study and to preach today.

But I wonder what they would say if they travelled through time and visited our churches today? What would they say to us preachers? Here are seven quick thoughts to ponder, feel free to add more.

1. Get something from God and give it to others. The prophets were burdened by God with a message that they had to share. For some of them, we only know about a small handful of those burdens. But what they had from God was so heavy, so important, it had to be communicated. Maybe they would be confused by our frequency of preaching, but perhaps our paucity of conviction in preaching? If you get to go before God and prepare a message from Him, based on His revealed word, for your listeners this week – then give it everything you’ve got.

2. Why don’t you grab attention and hold it? Assuming you have God’s message to communicate, why wouldn’t you do whatever it takes to make sure people are listening? These were messengers who smashed pots, buried belts, lay naked, bought back their straying wife, etc. I wonder if they would find our approach to preaching God’s word entirely too casual?

3. When did popularity become the measure of success in ministry? Speaking for God can mean being thrown in a well, imprisoned, even sawn in two. Surely the prophets would scratch their heads at a world where preaching prowess is determined by popular acclaim on social media? And what about preaching that is designed to keep our congregations happy so that we won’t stir upset among our listeners and “weaken the church”? Did Jeremiah determine his impact by the number of books sold?

4. When did now become God’s timeframe? While it would be simplistic to characterise the prophets as mere predictors of the future, we can’t get away from how much they did speak of the future in God’s plans. I wonder if they would be confused by how much we speak about today, and how little we speak of that day?

5. Why are you so afraid of speaking to the specific issues of today’s culture? Even though our preaching may lack the future perspective all too often, it is also a common feature to not really hear anything about today’s world in any penetrative and incisive way. The church pulpit has largely retreated from its civil function of providing conviction and clarity about contemporary culture. Too often sermons can feel like a presentation to a special interest society that deliberately does not target the world beyond its four walls. And if we claim that our society is no longer listening to the church? I can imagine an awkward raised eyebrow from a prophet, or a quizzical look from Jonah and Nahum and others who spoke to totally pagan cultures with God’s message.

6. Where is your confidence in what you are saying? Perhaps the prophets would be buoyed by centuries of celestial reflection and rebuke us for a total lack of confidence in God’s word to change lives and empires.

7. Keep going! Or perhaps they would remember their own struggles and sympathetically urge us to keep going. They knew what it was like to see little fruit and to feel like their efforts were wasted. Proclaim the word of God, muster a strong “thus says the Lord,” but keep going – it is worth it!

It would be interesting to study a specific prophet and do this post again. Specific points, rather than general reflections. What do you think they might say? Any prophet in particular, or all of them combined? Put your thoughts in the comments below.

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Join us for Psalms Today, a new series of brief videos from Cor Deo Online. Each video contains one detail from the Psalm, and one point of application for today. Watch the video. Read the Psalm. Share what encourages you with someone else in conversation, by text message, in the video comments.

Distinguish Details

One of the big differences between preparation and presentation relates to details. Every preaching text is made up of numerous details: nouns, verbs, adjectives, participles, grammatical notables, other Bible quotations, allusions, etc. It doesn’t matter what kind of text you are preaching, the building blocks of that text are details.

Sermon Preparation – When we prepare a sermon we should be like detectives with those details. Every detail is important and needs to be handled appropriately. We want to make sense of each detail in its context. What is there? What is missing? How do they work together? Our focus alternates between details and the big picture in and beyond the text. And as we study, it will become clear that there are some key details that carry significant weight in the passage. Every detail matters, but there are always some heavy lifters in a passage that we have to really wrestle with in order to grasp the meaning of the text. We have to work with all of them to figure out which ones are weightier, and then those weightier few should consume our energy for a season of preparation.

Sermon Presentation – When we present a sermon we are restricted in time and purpose. Our purpose is not to present every avenue of inquiry that consumed us at our study desk. Our purpose is not to download all of our acquired knowledge in a rapid-fire data dump. Our purpose is tied to our main idea and its application in the lives of our listeners. So for the sake of time and focus, we cut out unnecessary explanation of textual details. This is why it is vital that we identify the heavy lifting details in a passage – those that are necessary to feel the force of the text. As I have put it in the classroom, it is unlikely that the seven “ands” in the passage are the key detail to present.

So, in the study, diligently analyze the details. In the sermon, remember that some details need no more than a passing comment, while others might even be clarified simply by our tone in the reading. Other details, however, are critical and central to the passage. These call us to highlight them, clarify them, and make sure that our listeners feel the force that they exert within the passage to make it unique in meaning and unique in its potential life impact.

Back to Basics

Happy New Year!  As we head into 2022, I imagine we are more aware than ever that we don’t know what these next months might bring.  We may face worldwide challenges and global concerns.  We may face changes closer to home that we did not anticipate.  We may thrive, or we may struggle.  How should we head into the unknown?  It is always a good idea to check our foundations and get back to basics.

In 1173, they laid the foundations for the bell tower of Pisa Cathedral, Italy.  This freestanding structure took quite a while to complete.  Within five years, the building was up to the second level, and it was already leaning.  The foundation was the problem. Construction was delayed for most of the next century, but by the 1270s, the builders were up to the higher levels and were trying to fix the noticeable tilt by building one side higher than the other.  The tower was finally completed in 1372.  It has survived four earthquakes, and scientists believe it may stand for another two centuries.  But the issue remains – the building is tilted, and the foundation is the problem.

The same is true for us in our Christian life.  We tend to make tweaks at higher levels of our spiritual life.  Perhaps a sophisticated theological nuance, or maybe a clever new personal discipline will fix the issue?  The reality is that whether we have been a Christian for decades or for only a short time, the foundation is the place to make adjustments.  Whether our struggle is overtly spiritual or seems to be disconnected from our personal spirituality – I am thinking about marital issues, relational struggles, emotional stress, etc. – whatever the problem, we always do well to take a look at our foundations.

So what are the foundations of our faith?  We need to evaluate how we answer four basic, foundational questions:

1. Who is God?  The God revealed in the Bible, the Trinity, is different to and better than any other god that humanity has ever imagined.  And yet, how easily our view of God shifts from the biblical revelation of the unique glory-giving, relational, Triune God to a more generic power-God or a more mystical experiential-God.  Too often, we fall into inadequate views of God that diminish the impact of knowing Him in our daily lives.

Thankfully, we can remember that if we want to know what God is like, we need only to look at Jesus.  Jesus came to reveal God to sinners and to rescue sinners for God.  Our struggles in life should push us back to the fundamental reality of spending time growing deeper in our relationship with Jesus.  Making tweaks at level 7 or 8 of our life will not help us anywhere near as much as time spent with Jesus as he reveals God’s heart to us.

2. What is a human?  The Bible reveals to us the wondrous complexity of humanity.  From the beginning, it points to our image-bearing relationality, creativity, and diverse abilities.  It goes on to emphasize our inherent value and worth.  It also underlines our fallenness, as we will see in the next question.  One of our significant problems is that the cultural “water” we swim in every day seeks to blind us to the relational dynamic hard-wired into our very core.

Our world bombards us with the message that our value and worth come from accumulating wealth, knowledge, achievements, capacity, or influence.  So we play the game by the world’s rules and wonder why we struggle and burn out.  Yet deep down we resonate with the idea that our greatest joys and our greatest struggles all happen in the context of our relationships.  Don’t pursue a sophisticated solution to life’s struggles when getting back to basics often helps so much: invest in your walk with the Lord, love your spouse, play with your children, laugh and pray with your friends.

3. What is our problem?  We live after Genesis 3.  The world as we know it is a fallen world.  There is no single moment of our day that is not pulled down by the gravity of fallenness.  And yet, so often, we live and think as if the Fall didn’t make that much difference.  We spot sin in others but believe ourselves to be untouched by so much of it.  Sometimes we become experts at acting like the older brother in Luke 15, condemning the sins of our younger brother while not recognizing how deeply infected we are, too.

How easily we blame circumstances for our struggles.  If only my spouse would change, or the government, or the media, or my church.  If only, if only . . . and yes, there certainly are problems in all of these people and institutions.  But are we dreaming of changes at a higher level of the tower while missing the most profound issue of all?  Sin is the problem, and I am not immune to it!  When we stop to remember how desperate our need is, it drives us back to the foot of the cross, broken and needy.  That is actually a great place to be.

4. What is the solution?  If the ultimate issue in this world is sin, and it is far worse than we have ever grasped, then that means the solution must be far better than we tend to think.  Our problem is not only our guilt and shame but also a hard, stony heart that rebels against God, and the total absence of the life of God through the Holy Spirit.  In the Gospel, we have a complete solution!  By God’s grace and through the death of God’s Son on the cross, we have sins forgiven, a new heart bursting with love for Him, and the Spirit of God pouring out God’s love into our hearts.

May we never think ourselves too sophisticated to celebrate the good news of God’s love for us in Christ.  May we never lose the wonder of the cross.  And as we live the Christian life, may we continue to live it by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.  So make sure that you allow the Bible to be a relational nudge that leads you towards a deeper relationship with God.  Make sure that you allow church fellowship to be that relational nudge, too.

Whether we have been following Jesus for eight weeks or eighty years, it does us good to get back to the basics.  Instead of adjusting the building project at level 7 or 8, let’s get down to the foundations and make sure our view of God, ourselves, sin, and living in response to God’s grace is all as biblical as it can be.  We naturally drift away in all of these areas, so let’s be sure to invest in the foundations of our faith for greater spiritual health and ministry fruitfulness this year.

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The Shepherd-King

It is almost time for Micah’s annual mention.  For a seven-chapter book, Micah probably does not get as much attention as his book deserves.  He was a contemporary of Isaiah and his writings overlap nicely with his more renowned prophetic colleague.

Micah’s seven chapters begin with a bang, end with a symphony of God’s goodness, and progress through three cycles of justice and hope.  He spoke of justice because his society, and its leadership, were dangerously unjust.  He spoke of hope because that is how God’s heart of kindness manifests itself to sinning humans.  And throughout this little prophetic book, with a powerful prophetic punch, Micah keeps pointing to God’s good Shepherd-King.

The first cycle of justice and hope takes the reader through chapters 1 and 2.  Micah begins with a powerful theophany to launch the book – a description of God stepping into the world and everything melting before him.  The overwhelming impression is that we must take God seriously.  This thought continues as Micah lays out how this awesome God judges sin.  He judges the sin of not taking Him seriously, not taking His people seriously, and not taking His truth seriously.  And after two chapters of divine justice, we are uplifted by two verses of divine hope.  God will gather his people with the heart of a shepherd, and he will lead his people with the strength of a king (2:12-13).

The reference to God as the leader moves Micah into his second cycle of justice and hope in chapters 3-5.  Again, he begins by condemning the injustices of his society, focusing now on the leadership who abuse their position, proclamation, and privilege.  Micah was surrounded by corrupt speakers who spoke according to their paycheck.  Micah, in contrast, was filled with the power of the Spirit of God to speak against the sins of his society (see Micah 3:8). Almost three millennia separate Micah’s culture from ours, but the similarities only demonstrate the consistency of human fallenness.  We cannot expect human leaders to be all we need, and we should not be surprised when human leaders are profoundly corrupted.  What we need is God’s good leadership.

This thought is developed in the hope section, now not just two verses, but rather two chapters long!  Micah paints a glorious picture of a future golden age.  Opinions differ as to when that age fits into the timeline of history and eternity. Still, it reveals God’s desire as He leads: He plans to unite peoples, to transform them by His teaching, to reconcile them to end their fighting and to love the weak and broken.  While the immediate future looked bleak, with a prophecy of exile in Babylon to assure them of God’s longer-term trustworthiness, Micah then comes to chapter 5.

If what we need is God’s good leadership, then who will be God’s good leader?  God promised His eternal ruler to the little town of Bethlehem.  Micah 5:2 is quoted every Christmas as King Herod tries to work out where a new king would be born.  But we should keep going beyond that one verse.  A couple of verses later, we get some description of this coming King.  He would be a strong shepherd, strengthened by God.  He would bring global security (something never achieved in our world even up to today).  And He would be their peace.  Back in Micah 3:5, we read about false teachers offering a message of peace only if they are paid for it, but this coming Shepherd-King will bring genuine peace to the world!

Micah’s third and final cycle of justice and hope stretches through chapters 6 and 7.  Again he returns to the corruption of the city and its leadership.  God had only required that they do justice (in their dealings with one another), reflecting the loyal kindness of God’s heart, and do so in humble dependence upon God.  (Micah 6:8 is the other verse that gets a mention now and then!)  But the leaders, and the people, lived out a non-Micah 6:8 kind of lifestyle that was worthy of God’s discipline.  The whole of that society seemed rotten to the core, but Micah, in contrast, looked to the Lord and waited for his saving God to hear him (see Micah 7:7).

Micah’s first cycle urges us to take God seriously.  The second cycle encourages us to see our need for God’s good leadership.  This final cycle underlines that our hope is in a God who is faithful to His promises.  As justice yields the stage to hope, Micah calls for God to “Shepherd your people . . . as in the days of old.”  He looks back to how God shepherded his people out of Egypt and in the wilderness (see Micah 7:14-17).

Micah began with a bang as the awesome God stepped in and mountains melted like wax.  But now, he ends with a symphony celebrating God’s goodness.  We live in cultures that are often as unjust as in Micah’s day.  We live with national leadership that is often as corrupt as those that Micah renounced.  We also live in a sinful world that deserves divine justice, so we need to look up for the divine hope – hope promised long ago, hope that broke in that first Christmas in the person of Jesus, and hope that can see us through whatever still lies ahead.  So, as 2021 draws to a close, let’s allow Micah’s climactic symphony of God’s goodness to resonate in our hearts and lives:

18   Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity

and passing over transgression

for the remnant of his inheritance?

He does not retain his anger forever,

because he delights in steadfast love.

19   He will again have compassion on us;

he will tread our iniquities underfoot.

You will cast all our sins

into the depths of the sea.

20   You will show faithfulness to Jacob

and steadfast love to Abraham,

as you have sworn to our fathers

from the days of old.

Pleased To Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation is a great read in the build-up to Christmas. 24 short chapters make for a healthy heart preparation during the days of Advent. To get your copy in Europe click here, or in the USA click here.

Christian Living Reoriented

There is a well-worn path in evangelical Christianity.  It begins with the presentation of wonderful news – that God has done everything necessary, in Christ’s death on the cross, to make it possible for us to receive salvation.  All we have to do is trust in Christ and we are saved.  To put it another way, we don’t have to do anything, because Christ has done it for us. 

The path then makes a surprising turn.  Having trusted in Christ for salvation, we soon find the path turning steeply uphill as we discover that living the Christian life is another matter entirely.  Living as a Christian is presented as a list of disciplines, activities, new habits to start and old habits to kick.  The sunny days of gospel invitation give way to storm clouds of pressure and obligation.

A superficial reading of the Bible only seems to reinforce this idea.  After all, there is plenty of instruction and lots of commands directed at believers. 

But a more careful reading of our Bibles will yield a more helpful set of directions.

The gospel is by faith from first to last (Romans 1:17).  That faith is both pioneered and perfected by Jesus (Hebrews 12:2).  And as Paul puts it in Galatians 2:20, “the life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

The Christian life begins by faith, and is to continue by faith.  The way we “get on” is the same as the way we “got in” – by faith in Jesus.  (See Galatians 3:1-3 for Paul’s critical evaluation of the idea that we are to grow to maturity by our own flesh effort instead of by faith!)

I would like to illustrate what this means and then suggest three areas where we may need a reorientation of our perspective.

Illustration – An actively engaged faith. Imagine a couple dancing at their wedding.  We are the bride of Christ, he has won our hearts and we are his.  And now we are invited to live by faith, with our gaze fixed on him and our every move lived in response to his loving leadership.  Just as in a dance, there are three options and two of them are bad.  We can imagine that living by faith means being uninvolved – hanging like a dead weight as he leads the dance.  That will never be a pretty sight.  Or we might assume that we must play our part and fight to express our own leadership on perhaps 50% of the steps.  Again, not pretty.  The beautiful way to engage the dance is 100% active, but 100% responsive.  We fix the gaze of our hearts on him and follow his every lead.  Fully involved, but completely responsive.  That makes for a beautiful married dance.

With that image in mind, let me suggest three wonderful gifts that God has given us for living the Christian life.  These are three gifts that perhaps we need in order to reorient our perspectives and enjoy them to the maximum:

Gift 1 – The Bible.  The Bible is a relational prompt, given to us by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  But we tend to view the Bible as a book about us.  We read it looking for the instruction or the encouragement that we need to live our lives.  We settle for the idea that it is an instruction manual for life and then read through it looking for something that will help us.  Our unspoken feeling is often that it is not a very well-organized manual for twenty-first century living.  Our disappointment can lead to us neglecting this wonderful gift from God.

In reality, the Bible is so much more than a manual for life.  It is primarily and ultimately a revelation of the heart of God, culminating in the mission of Christ. (See John 5:39, for example, where Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders for daily Bible time spent pursuing life for themselves, but neglecting the revelation of God’s Son.)  When we sit down with a cup of coffee to read the Bible, or listen to it on the way to work, or take a few minutes at lunch time to ponder a few verses, we should come to it with a simple prayer, “Lord, please show me your heart as I read this now. I need to know you. Please show me you.”  Coming to the Bible looking for God’s heart and character, looking for God’s plan that leads to Christ, looking for Christ himself – this is the best way to engage with this relational prompt given to us by God.  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The Bible is a fantastic gift from God to help me do exactly that.

Gift 2 – The Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is a relational prompt, given to us by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  We tend to view the Holy Spirit as being there for us.  We might focus on the Spirit as a means to experience excitement and miracles for our own sake, or we might reduce the Spirit to a mere source of power as we strive to live as we are supposed to live.  Again, our disappointment with either the miraculous or the empowering work of the Spirit may remain unspoken, but may also lead us to neglecting this wonderful gift from God.

In reality, the Holy Spirit is able to work miracles when he chooses, and he is gloriously empowering.  But the primary passion of the Spirit is to point our hearts to Christ (see John 14:26, John 15:26, John 16:14, Romans 5:5.)  When we wake up in the morning, why not begin the day by greeting the God who has not slept, but has been keeping watch over us, “Good morning, Father – thank you for your good heart and your love for me.  Good morning, Lord Jesus – thank you again for all you did for me on the cross, that you are alive today interceding for me.  And Holy Spirit, make me sensitive to all the ways you point me to trust in God’s good heart today, help me to keep my eyes on Jesus today.”  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The Holy Spirit is a glorious gift from God to help me continue to do exactly that.

Gift 3 – The Body of Christ.  The Church is a relational prompt, given by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  We tend to view the church as being there for us.  What can I get out of it?  Is it serving my needs?  How easily we become consumers of services offered by the church, reducing our participation to that of a critic posting our negative reviews for others to browse.  Our disappointment with the church is often not kept hidden, and too easily we can neglect this gift from God.

In reality, the local church is a God-given gift, a community where believers can love and be loved in a way that is different from the world around us (see John 13:34-35).  Instead of looking to church as a consumer, ready to evaluate and offer a negative review, let’s see church for what it is.  Who can I love, encourage, and pray for today?  Who can I serve in practical ways?  What responsibility can I take on that will give me the opportunity to point people to Jesus?  When I preach, how can I point listeners to the goodness of God in Christ (instead of pointing them to their own failure and their need to try harder)?  When I teach the children’s class, how can I point them to Jesus so that they might find life to the full?  Who can I send an encouraging text message to today?  Who can I love, and serve, and encourage?  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The local church is a community of faith strugglers like me, encouraging each other to look to Jesus day by day. “The life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”

How Do You Respond to Your Greatest Fear?

We live in a world of fear.  Deep down, most people live with a fear of something happening to their health or their loved ones.  Many people live in cities with soaring crime rates.  Geopolitical changes in a country on the other side of the world can raise the fear of terrorist attacks.  What we see on the news makes us afraid, or else what we don’t see on the news does.  Some are afraid of the cultural shifts that are rocking the moral foundations of society.  And for the last eighteen months, the fear of COVID-19 has been at the forefront of everyone’s thinking.  Either people fear the illness itself or fear the response from governments.  Fear is a feature of life in this fallen world.

I know that logic does not necessarily mix easily with fear – it never helped much with shadows at night when we were children!  But still, logically, it would make sense to fear most what is most significant or powerful.  Why worry about hay fever if a third of your village has died from food poisoning in the last month?  So, what is the most important, significant and potentially life-changing person or problem facing each of us today?

In Luke 8, we find Jesus on tour.  In the previous chapters, he has gathered his disciples around him and begun his ministry.  From the end of chapters 9 to 19, he will journey to Jerusalem and all that waits in store there.  But in chapters 8 and 9, Jesus is on tour in Galilee.  He is teaching and helping people.  The chapter starts with one of his more famous teaching moments – the man sowing seed on four kinds of soil.  The different soils lead to different responses.  But the bottom line of that story is that our hearts can be good soil for the seed of God’s word.  Good soil does not provide the seed, nor the sun, nor the sprinkling of rain.  It is just churned up mud, ready to receive God’s word.  And Jesus promises a multiplied harvest: a hundred times what was sown.

After the teaching comes a couple of stories where fear is a feature.  In the first story (Luke 8:22-25), the disciples cross the Sea of Galilee when a terrifying storm hits.  Even the experienced fishermen are scared of this storm, but Jesus woke from his sleep, and he rebuked the wind and the waves.  Immediate calm descended.  But their hearts were stirred up.  They were afraid.  Notice their response – they ask, “who is this?” and continue to follow him.  That is the correct response.  Jesus has overwhelming power and authority.  The proper response to someone so significant?  Fear.  And the desire to know more about him, to follow him, to be with him.

In the second story (Luke 8:26-39), the disciples arrive with Jesus in the region of the Gerasenes.  I suspect they may have been a little nervous in this foreign territory.  Perhaps they would tell stories about this region over the campfire late at night with the orange glow of the fire flickering on their faces.  This visit did not serve to change their prejudices!  As soon as they arrived, a man with many demons approached Jesus.

Many of us live in a time and place where demonic manifestation is not the preferred strategy of the enemy.  Many of our societies like to think of themselves as too sophisticated for this kind of thing.  Nevertheless, in this one man, we see classic features of evil.  For instance, evil always pulls towards death.  For this man, that meant nakedness and not living in society, but among the tombs. 

Today we see the same pull towards death in anyone struggling with addictive behaviour and its impact on their life.  We see it when we consider the impact of gangs and crime in a city or watch the news and ponder the march of evil on a grander scale.  Stripping away life, civility, community, and fellowship is always a feature of evil, and we see it all too much in our world.  If we look back in history, we see this in the concentration camps of the Nazis, the work camps of Communism, or the destruction of terrorism.  We may not see many demon-possessed men in our local graveyards, but there is plenty of evil in the world today.  Evil pulls towards death, and in Luke, the mass suicide of the pigs only underlines that truth.

This story presents the fearful reality of evil, and it also shows us another aspect that we must recognize.  The multitude of demons in this man greatly feared Jesus!  They didn’t negotiate,  certainly not as equals.  They begged.  They recognized his authority both in the present and in the future judgment.  The greatest evil in this world cowers in the presence of Jesus.

I can imagine the disciples at this moment.  They would not have been fanning out through the crowd offering their expert commentary on Jesus’ actions.  I imagine them squeezed in behind Jesus.  Nervous.  Awkward.  “Me? Oh, I am with him!”  We must remember Jesus’ authority over all evil and lean in close to him.  We are with him!  Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

This story does not just present us with evil and its fear of Jesus.  It also shows us that fear in the response of the local people too.  As they came and found the impossible-to-contain man dressed and in his right mind, they were afraid.  This Jesus is too powerful, too significant, too much of a life-changer.  He made them feel uncomfortable and afraid.  Like many people, even today, it is too scary to let someone turn their world upside-down.  Much better to live with the evil we have gotten used to than to have everything changed.  So they were afraid (compare verses 25 and 35), and they sent Jesus away.

The rescued man wanted to be with Jesus.  He begged that he might be with Jesus and get in the boat too.  We know from reading the Bible that he would eventually get to be with Jesus, as we all will, but first, he had work to do.  Jesus had churned up that region like ploughing mud in a field.  Now he was going to plant this man as a single seed into that mud.  I am excited to imagine what a hundred-fold increase might look like for him!  Maybe we will meet the Gerasene contingent when we get to heaven!

I wonder, did he look jealously at the disciples?  “Why do they get to be with you when I get planted into this fear-churned world?”  Again, we know from reading the Gospels the answer to that too.  The disciples would need a longer apprenticeship, but after three years with Jesus, he would also plant them into this evil world.  Jesus planted them with a promise.  “All authority has been given to me, therefore go and make disciples . . . baptizing . . . and teaching . . . and don’t miss this: I am with you always, until the end of the world!” (Matthew 28:18-20)

We do live in a world filled with fear.  One day we will be with Jesus, away from all evil.  But for now, Jesus is with us as he multiplies a crop from our apparent insignificance.  May we not only see the evil around us that causes us to fear.  May we remember that evil cowers before Jesus.  May we respond to his greater significance in the right way – pondering who he is and leaning into him and his plan for our role in this world.  Fear Jesus, for he is more powerful and significant than any evil, or all evil!  Let us trust him as he places us in the mess of this world and see how he transforms lives through us!

Lockdowns & Online Church: Time to Evaluate?

There are few subjects as controversial as Covid-19.  Many churches are feeling the stretch of a full spectrum of views within the congregation. It certainly feels safer to not venture into writing about this subject, but I feel it is important that we evaluate what we do in church world – whatever our view of the actual issue may be.  Obviously, each context is different.  What my church was allowed to do will be different than the rules in your country or state.  What my church decided to do may have been inappropriate for another church in the same town because of different facilities, congregational demographic or local context.

At the beginning of the global crisis in early 2020, most churches saw the situation as a no-brainer.  We were confronted with a new virus and we did not know the extent of the risk (although early predictions were anticipating hundreds of millions of deaths globally).  What we did know was the importance of everyone pulling together to save lives. To illegally meet as a church during those early weeks could easily have been the talk of the town (and it would have made Jesus look very bad).  So for us, and probably for most churches, it was time to get creative and adapt to this unforeseen and temporary lockdown.

Now, 18 months later, we are in a better position to look back and do some evaluating.  In our context we had a long first lockdown, followed by a summer of restrictions, then a shorter lockdown in October/November.  The third lockdown, for the first half of 2021, did not apply to churches (although there were plenty of restrictions). 

Our church experienced the sudden move to “meeting” online without a budget for setting up a high tech studio.  When we were allowed to meet again, we experienced meeting in different venues because our normal venue would not rent to us during the pandemic.  We met in a place where our numbers had to be limited way below our congregation size.  We met in a field, actually two different fields, a large English garden, and as guests of a very kind Anglican church in our town.

Every church will have its own story.  Every church situation is unique.  I am not writing to criticize anyone.  But we should all evaluate.  We are so thankful for the way our congregation responded with flexibility and enthusiasm to the constant changes. As leaders I am sure we made mistakes during these months.  We probably all did.  None of us ever took a seminary class in how to do lead a church during a never-before-seen global health crisis!

So as we look back at online church under various levels of lockdown, let’s take stock of both the costs and the benefits.

There have been benefits – I have spoken with many church leaders and church members who have spoken of learning to be flexible.  Having to adapt to new technology and changing circumstances is probably healthy for all but the most fragile Christians.  Many of us are now as capable of hosting a Zoom call as a business executive, or as familiar with streaming live on YouTube and “speaking to camera” as a social influencer (even if we are still not as comfortable with it!)  Perhaps the reach of your church has extended to people who would never have stepped into your building.  Perhaps, moving forward, the blessing of your live-stream will also be felt by church members at home with a sick child or travelling for work.  

And it is not just about technology and livestreaming.  We have had to think through how to shepherd people that we don’t see in person multiple times each week.  We have had to think about unity more than ever before since Covid has scattered people across a spectrum of responses and perspectives.   We have possibly been given greater clarity on the spiritual condition of many in our churches than was obvious under “the old normal” of predictable church routine.  We have hopefully been pushed to our knees to recognize that we rely on God alone for the health of the flock and not that predictable structure of church life. It is right to recognize the benefits and thank God for His faithfulness during these challenging months of change.

There have been costs – Some people will only speak positively of the impact of lockdown on their church experience.  Perhaps there is something in the air these days that makes it feel forbidden to critique any aspect of Covid response?  But we must evaluate.  Our calling is too significant to do otherwise.  What has been the cost of the loss of fellowship?  What has been the cost of loneliness for believers living alone or as the only believer in their home?  Have people grown to see church as merely watching a sermon and perhaps singing?  What value does corporate worship have in the spiritual life of the believer? What about the relational dynamic at the heart of biblical Christianity?  What about discipleship?  What about serving others?  What about unplanned conversations, warm greetings, handshakes, smiles and hugs?

Have people thrived spiritually with online church, or have they just survived?  There is a cost to not meeting for weeks, or even months on end.  Remember how we would be very concerned pastorally about people who stopped participating in the life of the church for extended periods of time before Covid-19 came along?  That concern still applies.  As churches come out of existing online to meeting in person, they discover that they have lost people.  Some are lost to “pajama church” while others are lost to no church connection at all. Sundays have taken on new rhythms for them.

And what about the loss of opportunities?  We can and should celebrate the people that found church online, but what about guests that never came to church, never experienced believers worshipping together, never experienced the love of a community of God’s people welcoming them warmly?  What about the loss of in-person communion and group prayer?  What about the loss of other opportunities: childhood friendships and life transition moments, mission trips for teens at that key stage of transition to adulthood, youth group heart-to-heart conversations after youth group adventures, and so on?

What do you think? Personally, I believe that online church and lockdown has had far more costs than benefits.  If we had to do it again, what would we do differently?  And are we now happy to switch to online church whatever reason is given for future lockdowns?  Are we really settled with the idea that the authorities can mandate what we do as a church, who we meet with, what we wear, etc.? Is the plan to do what is commanded, or what is culturally popular, whatever the reason? Or are we making different plans to handle what may still lie ahead of us?  Whatever your perspective, it is vital that we all take stock and evaluate. 

I want to recognize that it has been a challenging season to be in church leadership. Thank you for all you have done where you are. It has not been easy. Hopefully, your congregation have expressed their gratitude for all that you have done to make it work in these strange times. Hopefully, you have seen God at work despite the challenges. Jesus promised to build his church!

Our contexts are different and rules seem to be constantly changing everywhere.  How vital it is to think it through, pray it through, and learn lessons in the late summer before another winter comes (whatever that may look like where you are).

(I have sought to gently provoke with questions in this post. I am not looking to stir a political debate, but prayerful reflection. Please do share in the comments anything that could be helpful for others.)