Building Preacher-Listener Connection – Part 5

connections2So we have thought about the personal life of the preacher, the pastoral ministry of the preacher, the preacher’s content and the preacher’s delivery. There is another important side to this subject. The listener. Are they responsive to both the message and the messenger? What can you do about it? Actually, you can implement everything we have suggested in the last four posts and still find some people to be unresponsive.

18.    Some sheep are dead. I don’t mean to be unhelpfully blunt, but there are people in our churches who are not spiritually alive. They do not have the Spirit. It is not our place to judge whether someone is genuinely saved or not, but when we have concerns about the lack of the fruit of the Spirit, then we should be both evangelistic in our content and prayerful in our approach. We should not expect those who are still spiritually dead to respond and function like believers.  And yet we so easily do.

19.    Some sheep may determine not to connect with you.  Every human is complex,  believers included. A thousand factors are at play in any life at any time. Just as you find yourself drawn to or negative toward others, so others will differ in their response to you. You might do everything you can to connect with your listeners, but there may well be some that simply refuse to connect. Perhaps they have personal issues they are working through and you are an easy target.  Perhaps you have unintentionally touched a nerve with something you have said or done that has grown into a big thing in their minds. Perhaps an unhelpful “mutual friend” has a deliberate or unintended ministry of spreading negativity and poisoning relationships. It takes far less effort to do damage to relationships than to build them up and perhaps others have been at work to undermine your connection with this particular individual.

Even if others in the church have not been at work, the enemy has. He loves nothing more than to turn believers against each other.  And there are some people that are personally wounded or carrying enough baggage to be an easy target for his machinations.

How can this reality not cripple your ministry? That could be a series in its own right, but Romans 12:18 has to be in the mix – inasmuch as it depends on you, live at peace with everybody. Sometimes peace is not possible and the issue lies beyond your reach. Pray for God to show you what is going on in you, and pray for God to change hearts as necessary – both yours and theirs.  And press on in your ministry.

20.    Only one person can change hearts. Whether we are talking about unsaved individuals who are not yet transformed, or whether we are talking about believers functioning in a fleshly and immature way – the only person who can change hearts is God.  Therefore our ministry can never be just Word.  We must be people of the Word and prayer.  If you are like me this might be a helpful reminder. It is so easy to forget to pray for specific people while focusing all my attention on preaching what they need to hear.  For effective preacher-listener connection there are many factors as we have seen. None is more important than prayer.

That is the end of the series, but we have really just scratched the surface. What would you add? What has helped you connect?

Building Preacher-Listener Connection – Part 2

connections2What can you do to build the connection with listeners? Let’s think about the wider pastoral ministry of the preacher.

8.    Pray for the listeners.  Never forget Acts 6:4. It was when the apostles determined not to be distracted by the business of running the church organization so that they could focus on two things: the word of God and prayer. Many of us today short change both. We can easily think that instant communication means we are the first generation to face the temptation to short change our two primary responsibilities. And how easy it is to focus only on one of them – typically that is not prayer. Our prayer matters. The enemy knows that. We need to believe it. Our churches need to want it (not just tolerate it as they wait patiently for us to be available and leading meetings, but they need to actually want it). It is not easy to promote the value of your own prayer life since there is a need for some secrecy, but I suspect if you just go for it, people will somehow sense it.

9.    Connect with the listeners. I don’t have the stats to prove this, but my sense is that the slight majority of preachers are introverts. Most would expect the opposite to be true, but introverts are able to gain energy in the long hours of solitary preparation, and they are typically more comfortable in a controlled environment (i.e. preaching) than an uncontrolled one (i.e. a party). Anyway, all that to say that you need to connect with your listeners. Model the increasingly rare skill of generating conversation by asking questions, be the leader in not turning every conversation back to yourself, and pray for ways to connect with people. You will be tempted to pull back, especially once people have bruised you a few times. It is hard, but it is important, connect anyway.

10.    Lovingly study the lives of the listeners. As a preacher you have some level of skill in studying the Bible and understanding the culture. Be sure to put in some effort to study your congregation too. If you are a visiting preacher then you have only very limited opportunities to learn about the people who will be listening. But if it is your own church, then by all means make it a goal to understand their lives, their struggles, their fears, their work situations, their family situations, etc. People will feel loved when they feel known – as long as you actually love them.

So much more could be said about the pastoral ministry of the preacher.  What would you add? Tomorrow we will focus on another factor in building preacher-listener connection.

Building Preacher-Listener Connection – Part 1

connections2In this post let’s think a bit about the personal life of the preacher. People can usually sense if you are not being genuine. So here are some suggestions to consider:

1.    Be genuine.  Maybe we are starting with an obvious one, but it is impossible to be genuine without actually being genuine. You can try to fake it, but why do that? The Gospel screams out that God’s grace is for you and so why choose to live inauthentically? And yet every preacher knows there is a temptation to hide yourself when preaching. You can do this by trying to be impressive. You can do this by trying to make your humility or vulnerability impressive. But if this is not genuine then it will show somewhere. People will sense it when they talk to you and find you are only vulnerable on your own terms. Or they will sense it when they find you to be less approachable, humble, personable, etc., in person than you seem to be when preaching. The best solution is not to try harder to pretend, but to instead be genuine. I will offer more suggestions, but this one surely should stir us to pray and lay ourselves out before our good God who sees everything and loves us still!

2.    Confess your sin. I could offer a list of possible sins that are choking some life out of you, such as unkindness to your spouse, harshness with your children, self-absorption, bitterness toward an individual, self-indulgence, private addiction to drink, to a food, to alcohol, or to porn (you may have your own “sanctified” version of porn too – a TV show, facebook surfing, or whatever). I could give a list, but actually, when you read the words “confess your sin” you may have had something immediately come to mind. Start there. Talk to God about it. If it is clinging on, talk to someone else about it too. When God’s grace cleanses another corner of our inner life our listeners will benefit, even if they are not sure what has changed.

3.    Develop honest relationships. Christian ministry presses us into isolation. Do not let that happen. You need people that are concerned for you heart. You need close friends who will tell you when you are out of line. You need other ministry people who will understand when you just need to vent. You cannot go it alone!

4.    Fan the flames of your love for God and His Word. Listeners sense when something is wrong, but they also will be drawn to someone who loves God. Fan the flames of your love for God and your delight in His Word. You will be infectious if you have a strong case of the disease! The blessed preacher delights in the law of the LORD and on his law he meditates day and night. Soak your heart in God’s Word so that God’s heart oozes out of your life.

5.    Be growing. It is so easy to stagnate. We can stagnate right after Bible school, or in our middle years, or as we grow older. Be growing. Read books. Read books in different areas. Take a class. Ask someone to teach you a new skill. Stretch yourself. The day you stop learning is the day you stop effectively teaching.

In part 2 we will think about the pastoral ministry of the preacher as we ponder how to promote preacher-listener connection.

The 5 Dynamics of Preacher-Listener Connection

connections2Preaching is a complex art. It requires the weaving together of exegetical skill, theological awareness, congregational insight, clarity of thought, structuring of material for the ear, etc. And yet even though the list of necessary skills  can seem endless, preaching takes more than technical skill. There is also the need for listeners to feel connection, to both feel and sense empathy. What is it that forges that connection between preacher and listener?

Over the next few posts I would like to offer small suggestions to generate big gains in this preacher-listener connection.

That there needs to be such a connection is lost on some who seem to assume their role is merely to inform, or to proclaim, or to pressure, or even to fill the time allocated for the preaching of a sermon. But I suspect there are many preachers who innately know that there should be something of a connection, but are not sure how to strengthen it.

So what dynamics work together for preacher-listener connection?

Here are the five dynamics that we will explore in the next few days :

1. There is the personal life of the preacher – this means looking at issues of authenticity and spiritual integrity.

2. There is the pastoral ministry of the preacher – is there an investment of loving prayer behind the scenes for those who will be listening, and is there interpersonal connection outside of the pulpit?
 
3. There is the content of the message – is it designed to engage the listener at the heart level? Is it marked by a contemporary focus and sense of purpose?
 
4. There is the presentational dynamic of sermon delivery – is the preacher communicating in the most effective way possible to achieve preacher-listener connection?

5. And there is the heart of the listener – is there a responsiveness to both the message and to the messenger?

Stay tuned for a series of suggestions to help build your preacher-listener connection. It is my hope that implementing some of these suggestions, combined with prayer, will lead you to a greater level of connection with your listeners in the coming weeks.

Deep Questions

deepsea2Our family is soon to enter into birthday season as we celebrate four of our children’s birthdays in four weeks.  Lots of presents, lots of cake, and lots of opportunity to show our children they are loved.  One family tradition we have developed is to always tell the birth story on someone’s birthday.

They never tire of hearing the story of the long labour and sudden arrival, or the perfectly timed birth, or the emergency home birth after the midwife said we were not in labour, etc.  Why is this tradition so appreciated by our children?  I think it is because it speaks to two unspoken but deep questions within each child.  Was I wanted?  Do I belong?

Whether a child entered their family by birth or by adoption, these deep questions truly matter.  They are also important for all of us as Christians.  How did I come to be in the family of God?  Was I wanted? Do I belong?
In Galatians 4:4-7 we find two emphatic answers to these questions.  Paul was writing to new believers who were being drawn away from the true gospel to a non-gospel that put the focus back onto their own performance.  First, Paul answers whether God wanted us or not?  Was it an accident that we came to be in God’s family?  Absolutely not.

At just the right time, when humanity was fully exhausted in its efforts to self-save, God sent forth his Son into the world to redeem us and to give us the full rights of sonship!  We see that Jesus was born of woman, just as God had predicted back in Genesis 3:15.  We see that Jesus was born under the law – that is, he came to where we were.  Jesus was, of course, a Jew and so was under Jewish Law, but all humanity is under the law described in verse 3 – the elementary principles of this world.  We all live under a system where performance determines success.  It is the way of the fallen world.  Jesus came all the way to us.

Jesus came to us on a mission to pay a price.  He came to redeem us and buy for us the privilege of adoption as Sons of God.  There could be no higher privilege, and there could have been no higher price.  As Christians we must never think we have moved on beyond the glorious love revealed and proven on the cross at Calvary.  The fact of Jesus’ death for us is an objective truth that should grip us and reassure us.  Was I wanted?  Most definitely, yes.  The cross has proven that!

But this objective assurance is not the whole story.  Sadly, many Christians have allowed the Christian gospel to be reduced to just this objective reality.  God sent his son into the world to redeem us and to change our status, but God knows we need something more.

Think of the prodigal son for a moment.  He returned home knowing that his father was a better employer than the man he had been working for.  His plan was to get employed and work his way out of the situation.  But then his father rocked his world by showing amazing grace to him.  The father ran, embraced him and dressed him in the status of a son – the special robe, the sandals, the signet ring.  Oh how that son must have been amazed as he sat at the feast wearing the proof of his undeserved status!

But there was something else.  I can’t help but think he must have touched the side of his face and neck too.  “My father kissed me…”  The prodigal knew the status he had been given, but he also experienced the assurance that he belonged.  God knows we need that too.  God knows your tendency and mine to drift from that place at the table and revert to our old plan A – to work and perform so that we can earn what is already freely ours.  God knows that our flesh would prefer to have God as an employer than a Father, and that we will often trust the status change while drifting from the fullness of sonship.

So back to Galatians.  God sent his Son into the world to redeem us and to change our status.  And because we are sons, God also sent his Spirit, not into the world, but into our hearts, to change our experience.  How easily we diminish the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life.  Jonathan Edwards saw that tendency and wrote in A Treatise on Grace of the Trinitarian nature of salvation.  He wrote of how in a transaction the price paid must equal the value of the good purchased.  Here is the logic:

Since God the Father paid the ultimate price (His Son), and the Son paid the ultimate price (His life), then what is purchased must be of ultimate and equal value.  Yes our salvation is infinitely valuable, but salvation is Trinitarian, so where does the Spirit come in?  Too easily we fall into thinking that the Spirit is the mail man delivering the wonderful gift.  A postman?  A courier?  Surely not!  Galatians 3:14 tells us that Christ died so that we could receive the promised Holy Spirit.  Really it is only the Spirit that is equal in value to the price paid at Calvary.  And that is the blessing of Galatians 4:6-7.

God sent the Spirit into our hearts so that from deep within we could know the cry of the Son – “Abba! Father!”

As I write this I am sat on a plane returning from some special days with ELF folks in Hungary.  When I get home my almost five year old will experience something that reassures her that she belongs in our family.  Her status is certain right now, but in a few hours I will hold her and kiss her and squeeze her tightly in an Abba embrace.  This is not a continual experience, but it does happen and it does her good (me too!)

Likewise as Christians God wants us to know not only that we were wanted – the cross has proven that objectively.  God also wants us to know that we belong – the present tense change of experience that is ours because the Spirit of God witnesses within our hearts that we now have the Son’s relationship with the Father.

As we enter into another year let’s stop and reflect on Galatians 4:4-7.  Let us return to the foot of the cross and worship God for His love demonstrated so powerfully there.  And let us be sure to thank God for the Spirit too, that His love is spoken into our hearts.  We need both the reality of the cross and the experience of closeness to God.  Let’s be sure that we don’t reduce our adoption into a mere status change and then start to pressure ourselves to earn God’s favour this year.  How easily we revert to the prodigal plan, but instead may this year be a year where all our ministry flows out of our ongoing close relationship to God, our Abba.

You were wanted.  You do belong.  May life and ministry flow as we rest in the wonderful answers to these deepest of questions!

Share Scars Not Wounds

scar2Knowing how much to share of ourselves is a challenge for preachers.  Some tend toward over-sharing, others veer the opposite way.  When we share nothing we can give the impression that our lives are perfect, or that we don’t care about listeners because we treat them as recipients of our education efforts rather than the richer fullness of our preaching.

Preaching is so much more than education.  It is an incarnational ministry that involves not only the words we communicate but the fullness of our communication.  That is, we give of ourselves when we preach.  We should do so because we are speaking not only as information transmitters but as ambassadors of Christ.  How would he preach?  At arm’s length?  Dispassionately?  Surely not.

So when we speak for Him and of Him, we need to represent Him.  Part of that is to be real and give of ourselves so that when we have served in preaching we have expended more than the energy needed to simply stand and speak the words.

But when we decide to share from our own lives, how can we know what to share?  Here is one way to evaluate whether something is appropriate or not (the idea was shared by a friend, but it may well come from a book that I do not know)…

Is it a scar or a wound?

A scar is evidence not only of failure but also of healing.  Scars speak of the difficulty of life, but also of hope when life hurts.  Maybe the scars are from personal failure, or from personal suffering, or from opposition we have faced.  Every scar can be a source of hope and help to others as we speak with the credibility of the hope that they can find in Christ in the midst of their current challenges.

However, a wound is different.  A wound can be very small but will result in a strong reaction if it is poked.  Maybe someone is opposing you at the moment.  Maybe you are struggling in the aftermath of personal sin or failure.  Maybe you are facing a physical trial right now.  It may be possible to share from this as you preach, but be very careful that what is shared is not excessive or inappropriate.  If someone is making your life difficult at this time you may describe the situation unhelpfully or say something that you would better keep to yourself.  If you are in process in regards to some failure then you may not yet have the credibility to speak of hope for others in that struggle.

This is not a hard and fast rule.  Rather it is a helpful guideline.  What clarifications would you add?  Scars can be powerful preaching aids, but open wounds rarely are.

When the Gospel is All Past Tense

 

whiteclock5I grew up in a church tradition that diligently preached the Gospel every Sunday evening.  I heard faithful folks pray in prayer meetings that folks might “come under the sound of the Gospel” and I watched the weekly routine of preaching the Gospel message.  But something was typically missing.

Essentially the problem was that the Gospel message was preached in past tense.  That is, not only was it the preaching of a past event (which it is), but it was also past tense for most of the listeners.  They had heard it before, responded before and were saved already.

So more than once I asked what the point of this service was since guests were not a common feature?  I was told that it was right to preach the Gospel, and that those of us present who had already trusted Christ for salvation could use it as an opportunity to be thankful, and to pray for the unsaved who may or may not be present.  Essentially this meant that I was hearing a Gospel that was not for me.

Here’s the problem: it was for me.  Instead of simply being thankful and praying for others, I needed to learn that I needed the Gospel to live the Christian life too.  It is not just the way in – responding in trust to the Christ who gave himself for me is the way on too.  For years I sat and heard messages that seemed to be targeted at someone else (and often that someone else was not there).  What a wasted opportunity.

The Gospel is not just past tense, it is what I need present tense.  Why?  Because I need Christ and the grace of God that is offered in Christ – I didn’t just need that once.  I need that now.

Fully Known, Fully Loved

fully-known(This post was first posted on www.cordeo.org.uk)

Human beings tend to default to a self-at-the-centre mindset in everything.  We even bring this predisposition to our understanding of Christianity and end up with variations on the same theme.  We are the seekers, we find Jesus, we commit to Jesus, we live for Jesus, etc.  If we are not careful we can paint our own self-at-the-centre approach in the colours of Christianity and assume all is well.

Perhaps we have heard counter arguments against our being the seekers.  After all, the great initiative surely rests with Christ in this regard since he came from heaven to earth, from the throne to the manger, from God’s side to ours.  As one of the great punchlines of Luke’s Gospel tells us, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:10) The story of Christmas and the first Easter are conclusive, “while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Accepting that Jesus moved toward us before we could ever move in his direction, let’s ponder what we might call the encounter.  In John’s Gospel we get the stunning opening prologue that introduces us to the Word of God who is at the Father’s side, but who pitches his tent among us, comes to reveal the Father, full of glorious grace and truth, who comes to his own but they do not receive him, and yet is able to give the right to become the children of God to those who do.

After this prologue, the introduction really continues for the first four chapters or so as we are introduced to great themes that will continue to develop under the intense pressure of the tension between Jesus and the authorities.  In these opening chapters, we are introduced to themes of belief, of glory, of signs, of witness and more.  And in these opening chapters we get incident after incident of people encountering Jesus.

John the Baptist comes as our first witness to Jesus, declaring that he is not the Christ, but is just a voice preparing the way.  He declares that he is just baptizing with water.  But he points to the coming Christ who is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and the one who will baptize people with the Holy Spirit.  The focus is well and truly on Jesus when he finally walks into the action and starts to meet people.

After a couple of John’s disciples follow Jesus, one of them brings his brother to Jesus.  Jesus seems to already know him.  As soon as they meet, Jesus renames him.  Next verse we have another person being brought to Jesus by the witness of another, this time it is Phillip bringing Nathanael.  Nathanael is understandably skeptical about the idea that the Messiah could come from Nazareth, but as he approaches Jesus he also finds that Jesus already knows him.

What Jesus says to Nathanael seems to stir an extreme change in Nathanael.  Jesus makes one comment about the lack of deceit in Nathanael and he suddenly declares that Jesus is the Son of God and king of Israel.  That is a big shift from his skepticism about Nazareth.  Looking at the clues in the text at this point it feels like Nathanael may have been pondering the story of Jacob as he sat under the fig tree, maybe he was praying about it.  Jesus knew Nathanael.  He knew what he had been thinking or praying and proved it with his deceit comment.  He reinforced it with a reference to angels ascending and descending (but notice who is the connection between heaven and earth – it is Jesus!)

In the second chapter, Jesus starts to reveal his glorious kindness, sensitivity, and power at the wedding in Cana, before heading for the temple in Jerusalem.  He created a stir there and people started to trust in him at some level.  But interestingly we are told that Jesus did not entrust himself to them.  Why?  Because he knew what was in man.  So we are introduced to an example man – Nicodemus.

Jesus and the teacher of Israel have a conversation in chapter three that again begins with Jesus revealing that he does indeed know what is in man.  Nicodemus comes to Jesus with kind words and Jesus seems to rebuff him by stating that unless he is born from above, then Jesus can’t chit chat with him about the God subject.  Jesus knows that this great teacher is actually still spiritually dead on the inside.  Nicodemus is confronted not by a Rabbi come from God that he can approach, but by someone who sees to the core of who he is and what he lacks.

In chapter four we get another person encountering Jesus.  This time it is a troubled woman shunned by her own peers who meets Jesus at a well.  Not surprisingly it soon becomes clear that Jesus knows what is going on in her life too.  While she is still thinking this is just another man trying to make a connection with her, Jesus tells her about her five husbands and live-in lover.  She is undone.

Just as we cannot take credit for seeking Jesus, nor can we take credit for getting to know him first.  When we meet Jesus we are meeting one who knows all about us.  Maybe this is an aspect of evangelism that we have let slip over the years?  Perhaps we are proclaiming a gospel that focuses too much on the person, and too little on Jesus?  Perhaps as people encounter Christ they will be undone as they come to discover that he already knows them, and yet loves them still!

Maybe this is an aspect of our own relationship with Christ that has slipped from our awareness too?  How easily we can slip into presenting ourselves carefully to Christ as if he does not know all the gritty reality of our inner lives.  How easily we can pray wearing a mask.  How easily we forget that Jesus really knows us, and fully loves us.  We are totally vulnerable before him, whether we know it or not, he knows us.  We are fully known, and yet fully loved!

Journey in the Dark

darkness2God delights to transform lives.  There are many ways to depict this journey of transformation, but let’s focus on one example from the Old Testament.  In Psalms 130 and 131 we have a three-picture portrayal of a life transformed by God’s goodness.  In this progression of pictures we can find a helpful perspective as we care for the souls of others, and as we take stock of our own spiritual state too.

These Psalms come in the collection known as the Psalms of Ascent (120-134). These were probably a collection of songs used by the Israelites as they journeyed up to Jerusalem three times each year for the pilgrim feasts.  When we think of pilgrimage we tend to think of a difficult journey with a spiritual goal – typically the idea that there is some merit in taking the journey and therefore some benefit. However, the Jewish feasts were actually celebrations of a salvation to which they had contributed nothing.  It was not about earning anything, but about celebrating God’s goodness.

When we focus in on Psalms 130 and 131 we can notice a repeated phrase introducing the conclusion in each Psalm, “O Israel, hope in the LORD!”  Intriguingly this phrase is only found here in the whole book of Psalms.  This at least opens up the possibility that these two Psalms work together in some way.  Then recognition of the progression of imagery underlines the idea that thesecan be read together.  So let’s look at these three images and what they show us:

1. Our desperation for the forgiveness God gives.  In Psalm 130 the writer begins with the terrifying image of being swallowed up by the sea.  He describes the cry of desperation from someone as they sink below the waves of the sea into the darkness of the depths below.  This isn’t a literal situation (unless you are Jonah, of course), but it is a description of what it feels like to realize your guilt before God.  It is a cry for mercy that reaches upwards.

Most people don’t live constantly aware of the gravity of their situation.  Nonetheless, without God’s mercy, all are sinners living in anticipation of horrifying judgment.  Sometimes a glimpse will peak through and the fear will grip them before they distract themselves again.  Without God’s mercy things may not feel bad, but the reality is there nevertheless.  If God were to watch out for our sins in order to keep track of them, if He marked iniquities, then nobody could stand before Him.  But there is great news for the sinner – God forgives.

God forgives sinners, the first step in bringing great peace to the guilty.  He forgives fully, finally, freely and forever.  And when the wonder of God’s forgiveness grips us, we live wide-eyed in awe of God’s remarkable kindness toward the undeserving.  Fully forgiven, forever, really?

2. Our hope is in God himself.  The second half of Psalm 130, from verse 5 onwards paints a second picture.  No longer is it the overwhelming darkness and terror of judgment, but it is the darkness of night that is portrayed.  Having been gripped by God’s forgiveness, the next stage in the transformation of the believer is to discover that we are given so much more than an offer of forgiveness (amazing as that would be).  God gives us His Word (v5), He is a God who makes promises and keeps them.  God gives us Himself (v6).  And with God comes not only forgiveness (v4), but also steadfast love (v7) – the committed self-giving love of God that is ever and always loyal to the undeserving.  He loves us for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, etc.  And with God comes plentiful redemption (v7).  This is forgiveness-plus!

As we grow in relationship with God we discover that He forgives, and He gives so much more – ultimately He gives us Himself.  So we still live in a dark world, but we are like watchmen who have learned over the years to watch for the light of dawn.  Morning always comes.  We live in darkness, but we live with hope.  And our hope is God Himself.

3. Our growth to find peace in the presence of God now.  As the believer matures in the transformation that God’s love brings, we come to the final picture in Psalm 131.  The mature believer is not caught up in their own significance, or in their own ability to make sense of everything.  Almost strangely the image pictures the believer as a child.  How can this be the picture of greatest maturity?

Well this is a weaned child (v2).  That is, a child that no longer screams and grabs for the sustenance they need.  Rather, it is a child that is at peace in the arms of their mother.  We’ve all seen a child who leaves the pile of toys to go and peak in the other room to make sure mother is still there.  We’ve seen a child who wants a story read not so much for the thrill of the tale, but for the security of the embrace.  A weaned child can be in the dark, but all is well, because the mother is there holding them.

A mature believer grows to not only hope for deliverance in the future, but also to enjoy the peace that is found in God’s presence now.  Not self-focused and grasping for things, but content to know that they are safe in God’s embrace.

From the terrifying darkness of despair, to the hope-filled darkness of anticipation, to the contented peace in the midst of darkness – this is the progress of God’s transformation work in our hearts.  God gives great peace to the guilty, because God gives Himself to us!

Uncorrupted Crowns

wreath2Many Christians feel slightly awkward about the idea of receiving a crown or reward from God.  For a quick check, take a look at James 1:12, 2 Timothy 4:8, 1 Peter 5:4, and Revelation 2:10.  Crowns for loving God, for loving the appearing of Christ, for serving as an elder, for remaining faithful to the point of death . . . crowns, for people.  Awkward.  Surely crowns should only go to God?

One of the great challenges we all face is extricating ourselves from the brine in which we are pickled in this world.  Actually, we can’t do it.  We are so immersed in the glory grabbing ethos in which we live that we can’t see any other way.  This world has become our home and we need someone from outside to come in and rescue us.  God has done that in Christ.  Without that rescue we have no hope of understanding how heavenly crowns work.

So we are here, in a fallen world where power is corrupted, where power is abusive, and where power is always linked to clambering over and suppressing others.  If someone is at the top of the pyramid, then they must have stood on others to get there.  In this world it is hard to see how power can ever not go hand in glove with corruption and selfishness.  That’s this world.  What about in another and better world?

We should take the angst we feel about crowns and rewards and then let that energy drive us into the Bible to explore what God is like.  How does God wear His crowns?  Why would He ever give any away?

The Bible’s presentation of God gives to us the fact of three persons within the one God.  The Father is ever the initiator.  Surely He has the right to demand His position, the worship of everyone else and an exclusive right to eternal preeminence.  Indeed He has every right, but what does He do?  He elevates, honours and glorifies the Son.  He gives everything to the Son.  He puts all things under His feet.  He gives Him the name above every name.

Alright, so the Son is the ultimate pinnacle of the heavenly pyramid.  Fine, all crowns to Him then.  But what does the Son do?  Ultimately the Son will subject everything, and be subject, to the Father.  In the most humbly glorious way imaginable we find the heavenly interchange to be “to me, to you” as the Son receives and reciprocates the totally giving and selfless nature of the Father.

Fine, but what about the Spirit?  Is there not tension within the Trinity because the Spirit is never crowned or elevated like the Son is?  There would be if the Spirit was from us.  But the Spirit is also forever proceeding from both the Father and the Son, so His nature is like theirs, so He too is humbly preferring the other – the Holy Spirit is the humble Spirit because that is a key feature of the holiness that is uniquely God’s.  No clamour.  No grabbing.  No “me first.”  Glorious divine humility.

So, what about us then?  Surely we can’t come into that world and do anything but corrupt it, can we?  We certainly would if we entered unchanged from this world.  If God gave me a crown right now I know I would make a mess by immediately feeling the powerful impulse of my rebellious flesh to honour myself.  God is wise enough not to give us crowns too soon.  Once the transformation of our life, in full heavenly sanctification is complete, then we can receive crowns and rewards.

In that day we won’t consider elevating ourselves.  Neither will we bring with us a false humility that rejects the crown.  Instead we will handle crowns and rewards in a way that befits the heavenly world of God’s love that we have entered.

Crowns, for people.  Awkward.  Surely crowns should only go to God?  Ultimately they will.  Surely the heavenly way is to take off the crown and give it away as we see in Revelation 4:10.  And in casting our crowns at His feet we will have joined in the love-driven glory-giving life of the Trinity.