Tweak the Terminology

Sometimes changing the label for something can make a big difference. A couple of examples before I introduce the one that I want to focus on in this post:

Example 1 – Teaching preaching over the years, I have shifted from talking about “illustrations” to explicitly describing what is needed: “explanations/proofs/applications.” Identifying what you are trying to do helps you avoid filler material that has the vibe of an illustration but doesn’t achieve anything specific. Why not call it what we want it to achieve? Even in our thinking, this can help our precision as communicators.

Example 2 – As parents, we want our children to learn to serve and contribute to the functioning of our home. It is good for the family, and it is good for them too. But the standard label used is “chores.” Oh dear. Who would want to do a chore? So, we grabbed a label we saw someone else using. “Contributions.” You have to do a chore, but you get to make a contribution. It is just a label, but it does make a difference.

Ok, so what terminology tweak am I thinking about in this post? Well, it is the strange world of Christian “disciplines.”

The language of disciplines gets used in quite different wings of the Christian church. There are the dutiful disciplines of the more intellectually shaped branches of the church. The disciplines here tend to relate to attendance, reading, learning, etc. Then there are the ascetic disciplines of the more experientially shaped branches of the church. Here you will find more focus on the disciplines that relate to self-denial, solitude, fasting, etc.

In reality, much can be said in favour of all the disciplines on both sides of the church. This is why much is said in their favour. But can we stop and question the label for a moment? “Discipline” is the language of the exercise class, the language of the academy, and the language of performance in work, sport or the arts … but is it really the language of relationship?

Discipline and Relationship

Undoubtedly, much effort is expended in a relationship, and that effort will look disciplined. If you were to spy on my marriage, you would see disciplined actions on my part. There are specific jobs in the home that I repeatedly do: locking the doors, putting out the garbage, etc. And yet, if you asked me about my practising of the marital disciplines, I would wonder what you are saying. I put the garbage out in a disciplined manner, but I don’t see it as a discipline. I spend time on dates with my wife, but I don’t see that as a chore.

Many spiritual disciplines are good things: reading the Bible, spending time with God, fasting in order to pray, getting away from the busy distractions of this world, etc. I don’t want to question these things, but I do question the label. Would you promote them as “Christian chores” in your church? (If you would, perhaps that says something about your view of the Christian life!) I would not. I prefer to remove the overtones of duty and effort from the label so that the label is free actually to describe the goal.

The Goal of Disciplines

What is the goal in performing a discipline? Relationships do require disciplined effort, but they rarely thrive under the language of discipline and effort. For instance, your spouse will not feel so warm towards you if you hand over the flowers or chocolate, while referencing your effort and discipline. “I hope you like roses. I needed to do my weekly thoughtful-gift-discipline, so I got you these.” Please don’t say that; it won’t help. And if you do say that, it will shape how you view the giving of future gifts. The goal of the “discipline” is not a have-to but a get-to. The goal is not your successful accomplishment of the “discipline” but the communication of love to your significant other. And as you lean toward this other person, you will find your heart warmed and drawn towards them.

So, what can we call the spiritual disciplines that will remove the overtones of “chore,” the focus on “self,” and the assumption that it is my performance that will lead to life change?  What can we call the spiritual disciplines if we are actually talking about growing in a relationship?

Finding An Alternative Label

It can be hard to choose an appropriate alternative label to replace a well-established one. My mind goes to several possibilities. Are we talking about spiritual reminders, encounters, re-introductions, heart-warmers, match-making, or exposures?  I am seeking a term that makes it clear that the activity is not an end in itself, but a way of inclining my heart towards Christ in such a way that my heart might respond in faith and love towards him.  I cannot control my heart’s responses, but the Bible does speak of guarding the heart from negative influences and inclining the heart towards God’s good influence.  Each term listed could have unhelpful connotations.  How about for now, until we agree on a better term, we use “spiritual heart inclination”?

I need spiritual heart inclinations in my life because when I spend time in God’s Word, worshipping, praying, or with God’s people, I am leaning into the relationship that I have with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. This “leaning in” will not be successful because I am responsible and repeat the exercise. It will be successful because my heart is warmed by the wonderful one I am exposed to in the process. 

Instead of starting my Bible reading with the thought, “I need to be responsible and get through my chapters for today,” I can start with the prayer, “I need to respond to a glimpse of your heart as I incline my heart toward you, O my God, and I so need to see you in your Son today – I want to see you, please….” The first is the self-concerned declaration of disciplined intent. The second is the inclining of the heart towards the One who can inspire that inside-out transformation I so desperately need.

It is not the discipline of reading a certain number of chapters that will change me any more than the regularity of simply visiting a restaurant that will achieve connection in my marriage. The  inclination of my heart toward Christ in his Word (or my wife in the restaurant) will allow a response to be stirred within me. 

May our lives be disciplined in our responsiveness to Christ, but may the label of discipline never again feel appropriate for our connection with Him. Spiritual heart inclinations, or a better label you suggest in the comments, that’s what we need. Because it is not about me but him. It is not about my responsible effort but my response to Him.  And spending time with the lover of our souls is no chore but a privilege.

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Walking Through the Psalms

During 2022 I have been enjoying a slow walk through the book of Psalms. I have been working through the book one Psalm at a time. I have shared the journey via YouTube and sought to convey a detail and a point of application from each Psalm to help others enjoy reading the Psalm. I will attach the playlist below this post.

As we are now at the halfway point in the year, I thought I would pull together some reflections:

  1. Slowing down and pondering a Psalm allows you to appreciate the artistic crafting contained within a Psalm. For instance, if I look at the short five verses of Psalm 70, I notice the key terms repeated in the first and last verses: haste, O God, deliver me; O LORD, help me. Actually, while I knew that Psalms can give a sense of completion by using similar terminology at the beginning and end, I have been surprised by how often that occurs. And the use of inclusio, or “bookends”, is only one of many types of artistry to be found in the Psalms.
  2. Scribbling on the text of a Psalm allows you to notice the flow of thought more easily. Again, sticking with Psalm 70 as a simple example, there are two movements within the body of the Psalm. In verses 2-3, the repetition of “Let them…” shows David’s concern regarding those opposing him. He wants God to deal with them. Then verse 4 has the repetition of “May…”, which points to the positive request and anticipation. David knows that seeking God leads to good for his people. Judgment of them; the blessing for us.
  3. Study intensity does not preclude devotional impact. I remember Gordon Fee writing about the need for exegesis and devotion. He noted that just as a church does not need an exegetically precise pastor who is lacking in devotional warmth as he studies his Bible in sermon preparation, the people in the pew should not be devotionally warm while being exegetically imprecise in their personal Bible times. Sometimes we fall into the trap of separating technical study from devotional reading. But when I scribble on a printout of a Psalm, note the structure, the parallelisms, the imagery, and even when I turn to a technical commentary to probe a specific issue, none of this precludes the devotional impact of the Psalm. The end goal should be that the Psalm speaks to my heart, affects my life, and potentially gets shared as an encouragement to someone else.
  4. Simplicity in Psalm study is sometimes where we find the treasure. Some of us set the bar very high for our Bible engagement. We think we have to plumb the depths and find high-level technical insights in every study. But in Psalm 70, the bottom line is straightforward. David starts the final verse with an extra line before returning to the terms that bring the Psalm full circle as they repeat the opening ideas from verse 1. What is the additional line? “But I am poor and needy.” The enemies of David need to be judged. God’s people have reason to rejoice in God. David is poor and needy. So, hasten, O God, deliver and help me. The bottom line that we can take away? “I need God.” It is not high-level original thought, and I will not get a PhD for noticing it, but it might be just the thought I need as I walk with God today.
  5. Short Psalms do not have to mean brief study. Psalm 70 is just five verses long. It is essentially a repetition of the final verses of Psalm 40. So, with it being brief and recently studied, does that make it a quick cursory study? It does not have to mean that at all! God’s Word can always be a fruitful chew! I understand the benefits of a quick read and simple study – we all need those too. But there is nothing to say that a brief Psalm must not linger longer than a few minutes in our minds and hearts. Meditate on God’s Word, day and night – that even sounds like a healthy Psalms idea!
  6. Some Psalms point overtly to Jesus; every Psalm points to God’s character. Some Psalms clearly point beyond themselves to the coming greater son of David. In other Psalms, the connection to the coming Messiah is less overt. But every Psalm points to God’s character, which is an excellent focus for your heart. It is never too big a step from God’s goodness, grace, mercy, and blessing to the fulfilment of God’s great plan in the coming of Jesus. You don’t have to force a detail to make the link explicit. But do make sure you are enjoying the God who is revealing himself through this beautiful book.
  7. Say what you see – the Psalms ask to be prayed or sung. As you read through Psalms, you may find a tune already in your mind. For example, Psalm 34 and Psalm 68 seem to strike up several songs because of songs sung in my church growing up or today. Other Psalms may feel very unfamiliar in their wording. Yet, often they offer the very words my heart wants to be praying to God. That feeling of profound contemporary relevance is not rare when spending time in Psalms. So let the words work in your heart and then let the words work on your lips, whether you are singing God’s praise or crying out to God in prayer.
  8. Share what you see – the Psalms are asking to be passed along. There is something incredibly transferable about the blessing of Psalms. The simplicity of application, the power of the imagery, the brevity of the written context – it all means you have something to share with others in conversation or with friends via text message. Psalms is a book that joins you in the most secret place of suffering or struggle, and yet it is a book that can spill out to others in the everyday activities of life. Share what you are blessed to see.

What do you appreciate about the book of Psalms? What have I missed?

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Running on Fumes

When a car has very little fuel in the tank, we say it is running on fumes.  It is moving forward, but warning signs indicate the vehicle is in trouble.  It won’t go very far unless something changes.  And the something is simple – it needs fuel.

The same thing happens with Christians too.  They give the impression of keeping on spiritually, engaging with the church, and so on.  But there are warning signs, and they won’t go very far unless something changes.  Again, the something that needs to change is relatively simple – they need fuel. Simply being around Christians and using Christian language is not enough. Without a vital personal relationship with Christ, they are merely running on the fumes of Christianity.

Warning Signs – In a car, you have warning lights on the dashboard to alert you to an issue before it becomes a problem.  If you proceed far enough, the engine will start to sputter and make unusual noises.  What are the warning signs when a Christian is running on the fumes of Christianity?

  1. Loss of Joy – There are many reasons for a loss of joy, so do not assume that the spiritual tank is always empty when joy fades.  However, any warning light is a reason to investigate.  Indeed, when someone’s tank lacks the fuel needed, delight in the things of God and church life will only come in fits and starts.  The classic biblical example is Martha in Luke 10:38-42 – she was doing the right thing, but the joy was gone.
  2. Alternate Fuels – Is work or a hobby suddenly becoming more significant?  Are they starting to find motivation and purpose in something other than Christ in a way that was not true earlier in their Christian journey?  Alternative fuels are attractive because someone struggling will see the alternative as more readily accessible and the goals more attainable.
  3. Blaming the Church – It is very rare to hear someone drifting from church life and being honest, “Oh, I am staying away because I am not fuelling my soul, and so I feel awkward being around other Christians right now.”  It is much easier to talk about how the church does not meet their needs, and they don’t fit, the programs are not helpful, the other people don’t like them, etc.  Not every person being critical of the church is in a bad place personally, but many are.
  4. Verbal Paper Cuts – Sometimes it is not the full force explosions that hurt, but the subtle paper cuts.  Someone in a low place spiritually will often make little paper cuts with their words.  Little bits of gossip.  Little criticisms.  Little digs.  Maybe nothing significant enough to confront or challenge, but enough to leave you feeling that sting of an open wound when they walk away.
  5. Emotional Outbursts – Sometimes, things do come out in full force explosions.  And, like a cornered animal, someone feeling spiritually empty can lash out and attack rather than admit their need and open themselves up to help from others.

Emergency Measures – What do you do when someone is running on empty and about to run out of fuel and grind to a halt? 

  1. Re-Fuel – To be blunt, they need to be in the Word of God and allow Him to minister to them.  But they may struggle to feed themselves if they have let their tank get too low.  Perhaps a friend can help them get into the Word and start back into a healthy pattern. 
  2. Recognize the Emergency – How often do we pridefully persist on our path, ignoring all the warning signs?  Many a stranded motorist thought they could go a little farther before stopping for fuel.  Part of solving the problem will be humbly admitting the problem.  As long as pride continues to stir excuses and explanations, the fuel cap remains in place.  They must humbly acknowledge how they have allowed themselves to drift, how they have arrogantly felt they did not need to be in the Word personally, or how another sin has built a blockage between them and God.  Whether that is a giant skeleton in the closet or the “respectable” sin of personal pride, confession will be like a doorway to help for the struggling believer.
  3. Reach out for Help – These are in the reverse order.  We need to be fuelled again, but often that won’t happen until the nature of the problem is recognized, and often that is hard to achieve without first calling out for help from another.  If you see the warning signs in a friend, encourage them to face the reality of their situation.  If you are desperate, you could point them to this post and ask if it resonates with them because you are concerned.  If you see warning signs in yourself, then get a friend immediately.  We tend to think that a renewed effort in my quiet times, or perhaps some alternative, will fix the issue.  A thimble of fuel won’t get you too far.  Call a friend and walk through it with someone. 

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Check out a Psalm from this week for your encouragement:

Navigating the Mess

Everything looks lovely down below when flying 10,000 meters above the earth. The land is green, the mountains look stunning, and the sea is bright blue. But real life is not lived from 10,000m up; it is lived down here in the mess of real life. We feel this messy reality, especially when it comes to relationships.

Every engaged couple looks forward to their wonderful married life to come. It is loving to help them prepare for marriage knee-deep in the mess of real-life challenges! The anticipation may be eighteen years of joy and giggles when the first baby comes along, but reality will be much more down to earth. The same is true of friendships, church fellowship, ministry teams, etc. Genuine relationships are much messier and need more guidance than a simple “love one another” or “be kind” (although these instructions are essential, of course).

If only God had given us a little note to offer some guidance in the messy confusion of real-life relationships. He did. For almost two millennia, God has placed a little personal note in his collection of inspired documents. It is a personal letter of twenty-five verses from Paul about a runaway household slave. We call the letter Philemon.

Paul’s Little Letter

Philemon was a relatively wealthy man from Colossae. We know this because his home was large enough to host a church, and he had slaves working for him. He had encountered Paul at some point in time – perhaps while visiting Ephesus. Paul had told him about the good news of Jesus, and Philemon was turned upside down on the inside. With this new fire burning within, he became a crucial person in the new church in Colossae.

At another point in time, Onesimus, a slave working in Philemon’s home, had decided to start a new and illegal life for himself. He stole whatever he could carry and travelled far away to Rome, hiding among the swirl of criminals and runaway slaves who wanted to hide their crimes there. Somehow, in God’s goodness, Onesimus was introduced to Paul. Paul had told him about the good news of Jesus, and Onesimus was turned upside down on the inside. With this new fire burning within, he became a crucial helper to Paul, living under the constraints of house arrest in Rome.

Eventually, the story came out. Onesimus had stolen and run away from Philemon, Paul’s old friend in Colossae. So, Paul urged Onesimus to return and make things right with his owner. Despite Onesimus’ fear of arrest and possible capital punishment, Paul wrote his short letter to Philemon. Onesimus would have guarded that letter closely, treasuring the truth it contained. We should do the same.

Why? For Onesimus, it made a way to do the right thing with hope. For us, the epistle to Philemon gives us hope as we try to navigate the messy realities of interpersonal relationships in the Christian community. Let’s consider briefly two critical realities and then three additional features revealed in this letter:

1. Such a great debt. Paul appealed on behalf of Onesimus, making it clear that Onesimus had become a follower of Jesus and a very useful companion to Paul (v8-11). But did Paul know about the crimes committed back in Colossae? Yes, he did. And he promised to pay that debt in full (v18-19).

When there is sin, there is always a debt. When someone hurts you, even if they did not steal something tangible, they leave behind a debt of hurt, shame, or whatever. Everything in us wants to make them pay. Everything in us wants that debt made up to us in some way. Onesimus’ debt could have cost him his life, but Paul charged it to his own account.

What Paul did for Onesimus, Jesus had done for Paul. Like every one of us, Paul had a debt with God’s eternal justice that he could never repay. But Jesus died to pay that debt in full. If Jesus has done that for us, then it makes sense that we will start to look for ways to do that for others. We can never make the atoning sacrifice Jesus made for us. Still, we can accept the cost of hurt and release others from our desires for revenge or our need for compensation. A Christian community navigates the mess of relationships with plenty of forgiveness – the acceptance of interpersonal pain costs that we no longer hold on the accounts of others.

2. Such a great welcome. Paul offered to pay the debts of Onesimus. He also urged Philemon to welcome his runaway slave as if he were his dear brother, Paul himself (v16-17). Suppose it had just been a promise of debt repayment. In that case, Onesimus could have headed back to the servants’ quarters or, in a non-slave setting, be free to walk away. But Paul asked Philemon to welcome Onesimus as if he were Paul himself. The guest room, the seat of honour at dinner, etc.

What Paul did for Onesimus, Jesus had done for Paul. Like every last one of us, Paul had no business being welcomed into God’s family and home. But Jesus makes it possible for us to be welcomed into God’s family, home, and table of feasting as if we were Jesus himself! Accepted in the beloved Son – what a privilege!

If Jesus has done that for us, then it makes sense that we will start to look for ways to do that for others. So the Christian community because a place that is uniquely welcoming in a world of simulated tolerance. Hurt and broken people can find the welcome of a true family when they meet Jesus and join a healthy local church. And it is not just at the moment of conversion, either. Continually we forgive one another, and we express genuine love and acceptance toward each other. We navigate the mess of relationships by remembering the Gospel – what has Jesus done for us? And then we look to spill that same goodness toward one another.

If Philemon only pointed us to the beautiful truths of forgiveness and acceptance, it would already be a treasure. But there are at least three more features to notice as you read it. Three more ways that the Gospel shapes us to navigate the complexity of life knee-deep in the mess of relationships:

Connected – Meeting Jesus and joining his family gives us a sense of connectedness that we could never have outside the church. The world strives to achieve self-serving networking. We are brought into the extended family of God. Look at the connections described in verses 1-2 and 23-24. And be sure to pause on the level of connection described in verse 12 – Onesimus: “my very heart.”  We can mean so much to each other because we first mean so much to God!

Refreshing – Look at how Paul thanks God for Philemon’s faith in God and love for others in verses 4-7. As we grow in our relationship with Jesus, we almost imperceptibly grow in our impact on others. In a world of people who feel like their existence makes essentially no difference to anyone, we discover that our participation in the body of Christ is a source of refreshment to others!

Giving – Paul would have benefitted from keeping Onesimus with him in Rome. After all, “Useful” (the meaning of the name) had become very useful to Paul. But healthy Christians are marked by Christlike generosity. The Gospel makes us givers, not grabbers. In a world full of grabbing and self-serving, it is beautiful to become part of a family of givers.

How can we navigate the mess of human relationships in the church? None of us lives at theoretical heights of 10,000m. If we are involved in church life and ministry, it is messy. The answer to the question is not a pragmatic suggestion or a simple how-to guide. The answer flows from the reality of who God is and what he has done for us. Let’s allow the book of Philemon to become a treasure in our lives – treasured because it reminds us that the Gospel speaks of how we can be saved and how we can navigate the messy complexity of human relationships.

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Brief videos on the Psalms . . . a great book for the mess!

An Incredibly Close Connection

In 1922, Howard Carter discovered and then entered the tomb of King Tutankhamun, the first tomb of a Pharaoh to be found.  It is hard to imagine the feeling of entering a tomb filled with priceless golden treasures that has been sealed for 3,300 years.  It is hard to imagine, but we have something greater.

Paul wrote to the church in Colossae, a church he had never visited, with a letter designed to point their hearts to Christ.  Whatever specific false teaching was influencing the church at Colossae, it faced the same great temptation found in every church: that is, to be busy with Christianity, but to let Christ drift from his position of preeminence.  We all face that temptation every day.  So, it is never a bad day to reread Colossians.

Christ Supreme In the first chapter, Paul offers a hymn of Christ’s supremacy that is about as high a Christology as can be found anywhere in Scripture.  Adolf Deissmann famously stated, “When I open the chapel door of the Epistle to the Colossians, it is as if Johann Sebastian himself sat at the organ.”  So, Paul celebrates the supremacy of Christ over all creation, and also over our salvation.

Servant Ministry – As he proceeds beyond the great hymn, he writes of his own ministry.  He was a servant of the gospel, that Christ might be proclaimed to every creature (v23).  And he was a servant of the church, to present all the Word of God (v25) and to present all God’s people fully mature (v28).

What was the message that Paul proclaimed to this church in ancient Turkey?  He proclaimed God’s glorious plan for them to enjoy an incredibly close connection to Christ.  Twice he writes about his own suffering in ministry, before proclaiming the wonder of the mystery.  In v24 he rejoices over his suffering as he participates in the mission of Christ (not because Christ’s suffering on the cross was insufficient; it clearly was), but because his servants get to participate in the afflictions necessary to the spreading of the gospel in this age.  In 1:28-2:1, he again returns to his ministry, this time writing about how he was strenuously contending for these believers whom he had never met.

Revealed Mystery Notice how after each of these ministry descriptions, we get a glorious glimpse into the mystery – God’s now-revealed plan.  (By the way, we tend to think of the word “mystery” like we do a murder mystery – that 50 minutes of being in the dark as to who committed the crime as we watch our favourite TV drama.  Instead, when Paul uses the word mystery in Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, etc., he is referring to something that is now revealed.  We are now living in the age of A-ha! at the end of that drama – only much better!)

Close Connection – The first part of that formerly hidden but now revealed mystery is just seven words long, but infinitely profound: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”  Notice three things. 

First, God’s plan, formerly hidden but now revealed, is not just for the Christ to be a king and a deliverer leading his people from the front.  It is for Christ to dwell in his people.  That is as close a connection as it is possible to have. 

Second, God’s plan, through the indwelling Christ, is for his people to have the hope of glory.  Whatever we may be facing right now, this is not the end of the story.  And if Christ would choose to live in us now, then we can be confident that he will want us with him in the future too. 

Third, this mystery is made known among the Gentiles, it is not just for the Jews.  “Race relations” is not a 21st-century invention; God was there way before any of us!  Gentiles equally brought into the body of Christ with Jews – a formerly hidden plan now revealed through Paul in Ephesians and Colossians!

Close Connection II – The second part of that formerly hidden but now revealed mystery is just one word long, but is the most profound statement of all. Just as Paul revealed God’s plan for Christ to find a home in you, so Paul also revealed God’s plan for you to find all you need in Christ.  His objective was for all God’s people to be presented fully mature in Christ (1:28).

So, they needed to realise that the full riches of complete understanding were theirs if they would know the mystery of God.  What is this infinite treasure trove of wisdom and knowledge?  Is it a training course, a degree program, an online seminar, a special edition book?  No, everything they could ever need was theirs in knowing God’s mystery now revealed – Christ! (See 2:2-3)

Conclusion – They would be assailed by impressive alternative versions of Christianity, but they should never allow the supremacy of Christ to diminish and drift in their faith.  Later in the second chapter, Paul would remind them of the supreme victory of Christ on the cross – they should never lose sight of that.  Neither should we.  What difference would it make to our confidence if we pondered anew the wonder of Christ in me, the hope of glory?  What difference would it make to our maturity if we investigated afresh the riches of knowledge and wisdom in Christ himself? 

God’s plan was for Christ to find a home in you, and for you to find all you need in Christ.  God’s plan was for an incredibly close connection between you and Christ.  Our union with Christ really is the chief of doctrines.  As Paul went on to write, “just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith (in him) as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness” (2:6-7).

What is God’s plan for each of us as we head into another new month, and another annual celebration of Easter?  It is that we would be continually more marked, shaped, stirred, and matured, as we fix the gaze of our hearts on the wonder that is Christ himself!

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Recent short video in Psalms Today series:

You Preach to Ordinary People

It is good to remember that your church is not a unique collection of hyper-spiritual elite super saints. Nor is it the strangest and most bizarre collection of people either. You preach to ordinary people.

Ordinary people have doubts that they don’t think they’re supposed to have.

Ordinary people generally feel tired and short on motivation.

Ordinary people often have fears that may be unfounded but still feel ever so real when they lie awake at night.

Ordinary people are anxious about “little things” and distracted.

Ordinary people think they struggle, but assume that everyone else has it all together in life.

Ordinary people don’t think they are particularly significant, or influential.

Ordinary people sin.

Ordinary people are oblivious to some of their sin, but painfully burdened by other aspects of it.

Ordinary people, even after responding to the gospel of grace, still feel that their standing before God depends on their own effort and spiritual “success.”

Ordinary people already feel guilty about several things, not least their lack of proactive witnessing.

Ordinary people are very ordinary.

You preach to ordinary people. You are also one of them. It would probably be good to prayerfully consider what this might mean for how you present yourself, how you present the message, and how the message is supposed to intersect with their lives.

Hints of Fallenness

The events of Genesis 3 have a continued impact on us every day.  I think it is good to continue to study it closely.  We know that the Serpent engaged Eve in a conversation that led to disaster.  He started by introducing doubt about God’s word – “Did God really say…?” But let’s consider the Serpent’s second statement to Eve.  Remember how he discounted the promise of death and offered an alternative that captured her heart, “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Her response to that offer, along with Adam, was not just a one-time thing.  Yes, that moment was critical.  But the temptation lingers for us all.  Humanity continues to pursue some corrupted form of godlikeness to this day.  We see it on narcissistic social media and in competitive work environments, and if we are honest, we can also see it in the mirror.  It is helpful to notice how easily Christians still fall for this temptation, and yet we do it in a sort of “sanctified” or “Christian” way.  Here are four variations that pull on us:

Be like God, knowing – Humanity has a hunger to be “in the know.”  We don’t easily feel settled in a position of humility, even as Christians.  Knowledge is compellingly attractive, especially when others don’t have it and we can feel superior.  Is there not some of this “insider knowledge” permeating the gossip addiction in many churches?  And what about the tendency many have to hold untested and uninformed positions as strong convictions?  Some people find personal security in their black and white views on various issues rather than having the courage and faith to grapple in the grey zones of complexity and humility.

Be like God, controlling – Humanity inherently hates the notion of a God on the throne.  This tension is clear in the moral rebellion of society, but it can still be there subtly in church world, too.  We humans dislike being out of control.  Whether it is sickness, or earning an income, or church decisions (don’t say “change!”), or whatever, don’t we tend to seek control?  And sometimes, while we are striving to control situations, we seek God’s endorsement on our situation management by praying for his blessing.

Be like God, ruling – Humanity longs for God’s position.  Pyramid climbing is the norm in the business world, academia, social gatherings – it is everywhere.  Perhaps you have experienced conversations where the other person vies for position and seeks to establish their superiority through various tactics.  Jesus has demonstrated our God’s self-emptying and humbling nature, and calls us to have the same attitude.  Yet we can jostle for position and engage in “Christian” rivalry.  We easily sanctify the act of climbing up our pyramids as long as it is for “godly influence” or “ministry.”

Be like God, alone?  The world’s way of pursuing the “be like God” dream always includes getting rid of God in some fashion.  It’s almost as if they know that there isn’t room for two “gods” and so must competitively dismiss all others to take their position.  Perhaps it is this move to aloneness that is most sad to behold.  We know that God is jealous of His unique position and glory.  And yet God is not self-absorbed and glory-grabbing – He exists in a communion of loving glory-giving.  He doesn’t pursue the subjugation of every person for the sake of His personal sense of security.  Rather, He gives His very best to win the hearts of a corporate bride for His Son.  He doesn’t exercise authority or dominion rashly, or selfishly; instead, He humbly pursues those who hate Him that His love might capture them.

But what about the throne?  He will, after all, not share his glory with any other god, right?  Right.  But the Bible also gives the stunning expectation that those in Christ will get to rule, to sit with Christ on His throne.  We will never be “gods,” for there is only one God.  Yet He has reached down, humbling Himself, that we might be lifted up to reign with Him, to know Him, to love Him.  The moment we compete with God, we push Him aside and find ourselves alone on our own throne.  We move away from such riches for so little.

The issue underlying Genesis 3, in one sense, remains our issue today.  Do we really know what our God is like and trust Him?

Let’s continue to read His Word and be gripped by who He really is and what He has done.  Then perhaps we wouldn’t need to “christianize” and “sanctify” a worldly pursuit of power, status, influence, knowledge, and godhood in our mini-kingdoms.  Instead, we could rejoice in the reality that far surpasses all our dreams yet inherently opposes all our fleshly pursuits.  The difference?  We are called to trust with humility, rather than haughtily grab. Be sure to keep your gaze on Him, even in church world!

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Burnout Warning

I was asked by a friend why so many people are burning out these days.  Whether it is a moral fall, a mental breakdown, or a ministry burnout, the frequency seems to be increasing.  Why? 

I remember speaking with several friends some years ago.  They had all gone through a ministry burnout in the previous years.  Their circumstances were different, but they had some things in common.  One spoke of two particularly stressful issues in the church that hit at the same time.  He said that one would have been hard, but survivable, however, the two together created a perfect storm that took its toll on him.

I suspect that right now many are living with half a perfect storm already raging.  This means that many are susceptible to the impact of another stressor that, if faced alone, might not be so damaging.

Let’s imagine that Pastor A was recently bereaved, or had a child with cancer, or some other significant emotional weight that was taking its toll.  He might seem to be handling a difficult situation well, but any friends with sensitivity to his situation would want to protect him from a second heavy load hitting at the same time.  Now would not be a good time for him to also face new and persistent criticism in his ministry, false accusation, a crisis in the church leadership team, or whatever.  We certainly cannot control circumstances and often the second or even third weighty stress factor will combine.  And sometimes we watch men and women serving God who somehow, by God’s grace, are able to weather the worst of seasons without some form of burnout.  But many do not.

I think we should be realistic about contributing factors, sensitive to underlying stressors, and proactive in our care for one another.

Contributing factors – people involved in ministry may well be more susceptible to burnout.  Why?  Because there is a unique pressure not to be.  After all, if Person B is hit by a perfect storm of stressors, they might go to the doctor, get a prescription for something, and get signed off from work.  When they recover, they can go back to their job.  If they lose their job, there is usually another similar one out there for them.  But for Pastor A, there are some unique pressures of ministry – the person in ministry is expected to have unique access to God’s sustaining power, plus they don’t want to let others down (often because they love the people they are serving), they feel they are not supposed to resort to medication, also that the church will suffer if they stop doing their job for a season because the church is not prepared for a sudden “sabbatical,” and if they do burnout there may be no way back into the vocation to which they have given their life – and then how can they provide for their family?  Plenty of people in ministry carry stresses in life that we humans are not created to carry alone.

Underlying stressors – some stresses are more obvious.  When a church is filled with division and tensions, that can be obvious.  When a family member is suffering from a serious illness, people tend to be aware of that.  When an ageing parent has had to move into the family home or a difficult season is entered with a teenage child, or the person is diagnosed with a serious health condition, etc., then others tend to know.  Some stressors are more obvious and the person carrying that load might receive some extra support and help (although I am amazed how often churches expect ministry folks to just carry the extra load and press on!)

But there are also underlying stressors that tend to be less obvious.  Some have always been in the ministry mix: financial anxiety (who cares enough to ask the questions, because the person in ministry will tend to feel unable to raise it), marital tension (again, those in ministry can fear opening up about struggles because of multiplied consequences), private sin struggles (same again), ministry team tensions, chronic health concerns, parenting challenges, etc.  Any one of these can weigh on the soul of the minister and become half of a perfect storm, just waiting for another stressor to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, as it were.

And currently, there are new underlying stressors that we cannot ignore.  In the last five years or so, we are experiencing a hyper-fast change in our culture, as well as two years of Covid-19, of course.  Many are living with an ongoing, underlying weight of stress.  There is anxiety from a culture that no longer needs to wait for a mistake to pounce – the preacher is already on record over many years for believing things now considered “hate speech” that can lead to being cancelled retroactively.  There may be anger at the injustice of the new morality that is taking over society (academia, the media, social media, etc.) – a new morality that determines what can and cannot be believed, spoken and shared.  The loss of free speech and the death of healthy debate weighs heavily on some: if you disagree, then there are many ready to label you with the worst labels and who might also seek to eliminate your opportunity to express your opinion.  And when people in our own churches are trained to act in this destructive manner, more and more people will be carrying growing anxiety and/or anger within.

Covid-19 has been ongoing stress for those in ministry.  There was initial uncertainty about the virus. Then there was the government interference in church world that most of us have never experienced before.  Where we can work, what we must wear, whether we can gather to worship, if we can sing, even when we can walk outside and workout, what medical procedure we must receive, who we can welcome into our homes, etc – these are unprecedented measures.  We have had to adapt continually in ministry: going online, in person with restrictions, changing rules, etc. while trying to lead congregations that might hold very different views on what is happening, and what should be happening.  Many have lived in fear of the virus, others in fear of the government response, and far too often, in fear of each other. 

As we move forward we are now in a different and divided world.  Many in ministry are living with some combination of underlying anxiety and anger (at the injustices that are either flagged or suppressed, the lack of transparency over pandemic decision-making, the apparent disintegration of civil liberties in western countries, etc.)  We will be ministering in a context that is becoming increasingly antagonistic to the Christian faith, with increasing controls on information, communication, thought, etc.  Then there are new chronic illnesses that we are told have always been there.  And just to add to the stress – lots of people are ready to dismiss any concerns because they are reliably informed by the media that everything is normal, and every fear is irrational (apart from the officially sanctioned fears, of course). 

Be Proactive – What should we do to help prevent the rising levels of burnout, breakdown, and flame out in ministry (and other spheres too)?  This post is already far too long, so perhaps I will just say this: be proactive.  If you suspect your pastor is carrying underlying anxiety, tension, or even anger, then be proactive.  Pray for them, but also talk to them.  Make sure they are not carrying burdens alone.  They tend to be ever ready to draw alongside others in the challenges of life.  Make sure someone draws alongside them too. 

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Desperate Places

In English, we have a phrase, “on top of the world!” It describes someone flying high because of some success or good news. Perhaps they got engaged, passed their driving test, earned a promotion, or won a prize. 

What is the opposite of “on top of the world”? Perhaps it is “carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.” Another very English phrase, but also easy to understand. It’s when someone feels so weighed down by trouble that they are almost crushed. They feel desperately small and hopeless. All it takes to go from being on top of the world to having the weight of the world on your shoulders is one phone call. 

One bit of bad news can crush our lives. And that is why it is essential to know how Jesus treats people in desperate straits. Let’s look briefly at a story in Mark 10. It comes right at the end of the chapter, and that is important. Let me explain.

Jesus was on a mission. He was headed for Jerusalem. Back in Mark 8, we see Peter’s great confession of Jesus as the Christ, which was immediately followed by Jesus predicting his death. It becomes clear that you cannot have Christ without the cross. Jesus repeated the prediction in chapter 9, then again in chapter 10. In 10:32, we read that “They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid.” Jesus was marching out ahead – he was on his great Easter mission. His disciples were astonished, perhaps because of how boldly Jesus was walking towards trouble. And the entourage of followers felt fear as they anticipated whatever tensions would face them once they arrived. 

Again, Jesus repeated his prediction that he was going to Jerusalem to be condemned, awfully mistreated, and killed. Next, we read that James and John decided to stake their claim to positions of prominence in his future kingdom. It was an awkward moment. But it did allow Jesus to give the key verse in the whole Gospel. Mark 10:45 – “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

With the great line delivered, the natural next verse would be Mark 11:1 – “And they approached Jerusalem . . .” The most significant verse in the book, and then the big arrival in Jerusalem – Easter week! 

But, instead, we get one more story. An interruption. As they left Jericho to climb the long road to Jerusalem, someone started crying out to Jesus. The man could not see, but when he heard who was passing by, he began to shout. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 

Throughout Mark’s Gospel, the identity of Jesus has been gradually revealed. Now we hear a great Messianic title echoing through a crowd who immediately rebuked the shouting man. Perhaps the Messianic language felt too risky, especially this close to Jerusalem. Maybe they feared the authorities, who could be in the midst and ready to hit back against this famous troublemaker from Nazareth and his supporters? But the rebukes failed. He just shouted more.

We watch Jesus’ reaction to this interruption in the last four verses of the chapter. Remember that he was on a mission, and the next stop: Easter week. Now a blind beggar is shouting at him. A nobody, especially in those days. But he was a somebody to Jesus. Notice the three things that Jesus does for this man:

  1. He calls him. In verse 49, we see Jesus calling the man. What an honour! Jesus is effectively saying, “You are somebody, you matter, you have value, and I want to speak with you.” Dismissal, further rebuke, even rejection, could all happen from a distance, but Jesus called him close. Isn’t it wonderful to pause and reflect on what this shows us about the heart of Jesus, and therefore, the heart of God? Yes, God sits on the throne above everything that is. He is high and exalted, in charge of the cosmos. Yet time and again, the Bible shows us that God humbles himself to reach down to the very lowest of the low, to people like this man, crushed under the weight of the world, but important to God.
  1. He asks him. After coming quickly to Jesus, the man is met with a question, “What do you want me to do for you?” (see v. 51). It seems like an obvious question. After all, he is blind. But we shouldn’t judge a situation so quickly. Jesus asked him a question and effectively communicated, “You are a full human, with dignity; let me not assume anything.” After all, we do not know this man’s story. What would he answer? Would he say something about needing to provide for his family? Would he ask something for a family member suffering from an illness? We cannot assume to know his answer, and Jesus didn’t assume to know his answer. 

It only takes a moment for the weight of the world to roll onto a person’s shoulders, but Jesus still honours him as a human with dignity. Naturally, we should do the same for others. And let’s not forget that we are a phone call away, a car crash away, a circumstance away from having our whole life turned upside down. And even if that happens, Jesus will still treat us with dignity too!

  1. He heals him. The man’s request was about sight. And trusting Jesus did lead to him seeing again. Jesus had underlined the man’s value, then the dignity of the man, and now we know that he has a new future too. What a powerful moment for all around! Actually, perhaps the powerful moment is found in the last few words of the story. He “followed Jesus along the road.” The astonished disciples and the fearful entourage were joined by this newly seeing man – a true follower of Jesus.

Can we say he was a true follower of Jesus? After all, maybe he only followed briefly? Interestingly, this is the only healing in Mark’s Gospel where the person healed is named. Why would Mark tell us his name (and his father’s name)? Why would Matthew and Luke not include the name when they told the story in their Gospels? There is a good chance that the reason was that Bartimaeus was known in the church for whom Mark wrote his Gospel. “Bartimaeus? The older guy in the third row?” Yes, him. “Oh, I didn’t know that had happened to him.” There are probably people in our churches today who have a personal history with Jesus we don’t know about. After all, it doesn’t take much to find ourselves in a desperate place. It can happen at any time. And we know how Jesus treats people like that.

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A Psalm written in a desperate place, Psalm 13:

Politics? Oh, We Don’t Go There!

I suspect we need to give some more thought to this oft-stated contemporary wisdom: “We should just focus on the Gospel and not get political.”

We live in a society that seems to be increasingly divided and polarized by political discussion and media misrepresentation of opposing views on a variety of topics.  It is understandable that many will automatically agree that in the church, and in preaching, we should simply focus on the Gospel and not get dragged into the political tensions of our time. 

Here are seven preliminary points for us to ponder:

1. Politics is no substitute for the Saviour.  It is easy for some people, preachers included, to get swept up into current affairs and to put their hope in politicians or political parties.  We live in a sinful world and the world of politics tends to highlight human sin and the futility of godless solutions.  Anyone who puts their hope in a political solution to our greatest needs will be deeply disappointed.  Our church and our world need us to preach Christ and him crucified, not a party manifesto.

2. Silence can be highly political.  While we can easily see the problem if our pulpit shifts into a soapbox for a particular political agenda, merely exorcising any hint of a political opinion from our preaching is not the solution.  Sometimes saying nothing about something is really saying something.  In fact, there are times when silence is actually saying something quite strongly.  Saying nothing about gender, sexuality, morality, etc., can serve to reinforce the cultural narrative – especially as the younger generation grow into adulthood.  A lifetime of one message from the media, from social media, from educators and from peers may be affirmed rather than countered by a silent pulpit.

I recently read Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.  It is well worth reading!  He wrote, “So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.”

3. We must define what we mean by “political.”  I hear people referring to “political” as if such a label automatically confirms that the subject must not be touched.  What do we mean by the term?  A dictionary definition is “relating to the government or public affairs of a country.”  So, does this mean the church should have no voice on slavery, racism, human rights, poverty, crime, corruption, etc.?  I think we tend to all celebrate the political stand and achievements of past believers like William Wilberforce, George Muller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, etc.  But we also forget how many churches remained silent on the slave trade, on child poverty, or on Nazi tyranny.

4. Why do we retreat – does the Bible have nothing to say?  So, does the Bible have nothing to say on matters that could be labelled political?  Of course, it does.  The prophets were not typically the “popular preachers” in their era.  They spoke out for God about real issues in their society, whatever the cost.  Today, God cares passionately about the poor, the unborn, the marginalized, the vulnerable.  God hates the damage done by racism, or abuse, or trafficking, or crime, or unjust laws, or human rights violations, etc.  None of these issues is greater than the need for the Gospel to be preached, but let’s not claim to proclaim the whole counsel of God while refusing to address injustice or any other issue that might be labeled “political.”

5. Why do we retreat – are we living in fear?  Today we live in strange times.  We don’t have to go back to the era of the prophets to sense the change.  It was not that long ago that people would disagree and then have a conversation about it.  They might even take onboard the perspective of another and do some genuine personal research in order to understand that position better.  We were all bettered by that approach.  Today we live in a culture that increasingly models “triggered grievance and cancellation.”  If someone does not say the right things and openly affirm the sacred cows of our time, there are plenty of people ready to declare deep grievance and instigate a public take-down and cancellation of the offending party.  This can feel crippling to the Christian in the workplace, to the Christian on the campus, and to the preacher in the pulpit.  I hope we are all learning to speak wisely and avoid unnecessary problems, but we cannot afford to retreat into a silent fear where our salt loses any saltiness, and our light is extinguished by darkness.

One more quote from MLK’s letter: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

6. The church should be diverse.  The church is not supposed to be a group of people that are identical to each other.  The church is strengthened by its diversity.  This is true ethnically, as well as educationally, or materially, or demographically.  A church is blessed to have senior citizens fellowshipping with teenagers, or the surgeon praying alongside the cleaner.  And the same is true politically.  There is a blessing that comes from being able to not just tolerate people with different views, but to really know and love one another – no matter how they might vote when the next election arrives. 

7. There is a difference between addressing political issues and being “party political.”  I think this is the distinction that we would do well to introduce into our discussions about whether or not something is political and therefore not to be mentioned among believers.  There are countless issues that are political in nature that we should be talking about.  But, generally speaking, we should think very carefully before equating one particular political party with “the Christian position.”  On specific issues, some parties do hold abhorrent views.  However, maybe we would avoid some unnecessary angst if, as a general rule, we avoided promoting our preferred political party.  After all, our hope is not in a particular party, which brings us full circle back to point 1.

I recognize that different countries and cultures have differing dynamics on this issue.  I also recognize that it takes real wisdom to handle controversial issues carefully and to lead a diverse congregation humbly.  I am not suggesting we become bombastic or blunder carelessly around complex issues.  What I am suggesting is that we don’t just settle for a simplistic “rule” that will silence us when we should be speaking.  It is easy to say we should never discuss politics or religion in polite conversation.  Actually, I hope we see that we may sometimes need to do precisely that.  May God give us humility and wisdom, as well as clarity and boldness, when we do!

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(Westminster Photo by Deniz Fuchidzhiev on Unsplash)