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)

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.”

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.)

Great Work

In Luke 5, we see Jesus gathering his disciples.  He has already been doing impressive ministry before this point in the Gospel, but this is where we start to see the familiar faces being gathered into his inner circle.  When we look at two brief incidents, we can find real encouragement for today.  This is especially true if you don’t feel particularly impressive as a follower of Jesus.  (And if you do feel impressive, it would probably be good to pray about that!)

In the first verses of the chapter, we see Jesus call Simon Peter to follow him.  Jesus was teaching a crowd and ended up using Simon’s boat as a platform for his message.  Then he asked Simon to head back out to sea and to cast his nets again.  Simon and his friends had just worked all night and caught nothing.  That was not normal (if it were, they would have found alternative employment).   Now Jesus wanted the nets in the water in the middle of the day. Again, this was not a typical request, because everyone knew that fish go deeper when the sun is shining.  However, they did as Jesus asked, and soon their nets were so full they began to break – unusual.  Even their purpose-built fishing boats started to sink – very strange.

We all experience days interrupted by unusual or abnormal events.  It is not normal to have a flat tire on your car, but it does happen.  It is not normal to experience unusual weather, but we have a category for it.  However, this was different for Simon Peter.  This was not the typical kind of unusual event.  This was the kind of combination of strange things that suddenly sent a chill down his spine and caused the hairs to stand up on his neck.

Something bigger was happening, and Simon Peter sensed it.  This is what happens when you suddenly recognize that God is not just out there somewhere, aware of everything.  This is what happens when you realize that God is right here and he is looking specifically at you.

Simon Peter suddenly felt completely undone by Jesus’ presence, the weight of his sin overwhelming him.  “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”

Jesus knew that he was calling a sinner to be his disciple.  Jesus called that sinner to a greater work.  From now on, he would catch people instead of fish.  Simon Peter and his colleagues left their old life behind and followed Jesus to a new life.  Two thousand years later, we are still naming churches and places after them: from St Peter’s Basilica in Rome to St Andrew’s Church in Chippenham, from St James’ football stadium in Newcastle to St John’s in Newfoundland.  How many little boys have been named Peter, Andrew, James and John in the years since?   What an impressive legacy, especially when we remember that they were just sinful fishermen.

Jesus knows that the people he calls are great sinners.  And he still calls us to a greater work.

But then there is another incident later in the chapter.  Have a look at Luke 5:27-28:

27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.

There is no miracle story to set up this call, just a simple instruction.  And Levi left it all and followed Jesus.  But Luke tells us a little bit more – see verses 29-32:

29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Notice how Pharisees and scribes are in the scene, adding tension to the meal?  Their complaint was simple: Jesus’ disciples should not eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners.  This little group was not living up to their sinless standards.  Take note of Jesus’ response.  Jesus knew full well that he was dealing with sinners and that they needed healing.  These were works in progress. 

To put it simply, in the first story, we see Jesus calling sinners to a greater work.  In the second story, we see that Jesus knows those he calls need his great work. 

What an encouragement for us!  Before we are anything else in the church world, we are disciples of Jesus.  Whatever ministry we may be involved in, whatever position we may hold, we are disciples of Jesus.  And he knows that we are sinful and broken people.  He knows that when he calls us.  He has a far greater work for us to do.  And he knows that he will need to do great work in us. 

We Need Each Other

Some years ago, I was chatting with my future in-laws about their experiences on the mission field.  They mentioned a couple that they were close to during a challenging season of missionary work.  I asked if their very different denominational backgrounds were an issue.  The response was so helpful: “Secondary things do not matter when you are in the trenches.”

Back in the first century, the Apostle Peter wrote a letter to some believers in the trenches.  They had probably been kicked out of Rome by Emperor Claudius and transplanted to five regions in what we would now call Turkey.  These people had been unwanted back in Rome (troublemakers or guilty by association with others), and they were now unwanted in their new locations.  So Peter wrote his epistle to help them.

Today we live in cultures that are increasingly hostile to Christians.  We can certainly take on board the instruction Peter gave to those first-century believers.  In chapter 4, after the main body of his argument, Peter urges believers to live in light of their situation. God’s great redemption plan is in its final stage; they need to live with disciplined thinking for the sake of their attentive prayerfulness.  But then he gives a not-to-be-missed “above all” point:

“Above all, love one another earnestly.” (1 Peter 4:8)

He is not referring to casual and comfortable fellowship.  The word Peter uses here, “earnestly,” implies a full and sustained effort.  Think of the muscles of a thoroughbred horse working at full capacity as the horse gallops.  Or think of the strenuous and sustained efforts of an athlete in competition.  Peter is not just asking Christians to be pleasant to one another; he is speaking of how much we need each other.

In this paragraph, Peter gives us three “one another” instructions to help us understand how much we need each other:

1. We need each other’s grace. In verse 8, he urges them to “love one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” Of course, some sins should not simply be covered over.  Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to graciously confront the sin of a fellow believer.  Sometimes a sin is so significant that you should inform the authorities.  But here, Peter is speaking about ongoing, every day, frequent annoyances. 

Think about a group of children gathering in a minibus for a day at the seaside.  They will be full of energy and excitement.  They will probably tolerate annoying pokes and name calling from their friends in this state – every comment will be met with laughter and joy.  But fast forward to the evening when they all clamber back into the minibus, exhausted and emotionally fraught.  Now the slightest poke in the ribs, a crossed word from a friend, or another tiny thing might provoke tears and tension.  As adults, we are often more drained by life than delighted.  How easily Christians can aggravate one another.  That is why we need one another’s grace.

Eugene Peterson translated the underlying thought in Proverbs 10:12 like this: “Hatred starts fights, but love pulls a quilt over the bickering.”

 2. We need each other’s generosity.  In verse 9, Peter goes on, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” We tend to think of hospitality in the New Testament as an essential support to the church’s missionary work.  Travel inns were expensive and dangerous, so finding a place to stay with fellow believers was a vital feature of the Gospel’s spread.  However, in this verse, Peter is speaking of hospitality to “one another.” Maybe this is less about helping travelling missionaries and more about supporting one another in the local community of believers.

After more than a year of restrictions and lockdowns, some of us are appreciating the blessing of being in each other’s homes more than ever.  Let us never take for granted the gift that it is to share a meal with fellow believers.  It is not about the performance of the chef or the presentation of a picture-perfect house.  We are not auditioning for a magazine.  We are a family that needs each other.

Sometimes, the gift of time, practical support, and fellowship can make the difference between making it through a challenging season and not making it through.  We need each other’s generosity.

3. We need each other’s gifting.  In verse 10, Peter adds one more “one another” to the paragraph: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” God designed the body of Christ to be interdependent.  We need the gifts that others have.  Some gifts are more visible and up-front, while others are more behind-the-scenes and play a support role.  We need each other.

The gifting may be different for one who preaches and one who sets up the facility, but both are intimately connected to God.  The speaker speaks the words of God.  The server works with the strength God supplies.  And whatever type of gift we have, God is at work amongst us as we benefit from one another’s spiritual gifts.

Whether we are living in a time of relative comfort and ease or a time of growing antagonism and complexity, the reality is that we all need each other.  It is an incredible blessing to be part of a local family of believers.  As we love one another earnestly, we will benefit from each other’s grace, generosity and gifting.  And the impact of all this will be a blessing for us, a powerful witness to a fragmented watching world, and glory to God.

What would it look like if you earnestly loved the people in your church family this week?