Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Profound and Disturbing Conclusion!

“For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them.” ― Thomas More, Utopia

This provocative statement by Sir Thomas More challenges a society where class distinction is perpetuated to the point where people are oppressed and disadvantaged and then penalised for their circumstances.  

As I look upon the current immigration policy in Australia, More's conclusion seems to be very apt for the plight of asylum seekers today...

For if you subject a people to armed conflict and economic sanctions, and then punish them for fleeing from the circumstances that your political agenda has caused, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make refugees and then punish them for seeking asylum.

A profound and disturbing conclusion!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Israeli Palestinian Conflict

Like the rest of the world I have been looking upon the escalating conflict in the Gaza Strip with a great deal of concern.  War in any language is not so much an exertion of sovereign force, as it is an expression of social failure; a lesson that seems to have been long forgotten from the war that was supposed to end all wars!  Therefore, it troubles me deeply to read the polarized views, especially among Christians, about the Israeli Palestinian conflict on social media that seem to justify one cause over the other.

I don't pretend to understand the origins or complexities of the current crisis and I choose not to get into the history of this long standing conflict, not to remain ignorant, but as an attempt to remain impartial and indignant about war as a means to resolve any conflict by any nation. I do not want to allow the politics or ideology of one side or the other to distract me from the more fundamental issue of God's children - Jew and Arab - engaging in a conflict that has nothing to do with God's will or intended purpose for His most precious creation - human beings!  

Through Jesus Christ, God established a new kingdom order that redefined conflict by stating, "You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven"  (Matthew 5:43-45).

In Paul's letter to the Galatians he declares, "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28).  While this was written for a different context, I believe it speaks a relevant truth into this conflict.

In Christ Jesus there is no such conflict!  In Christ Jesus there is no such division!  In Christ Jesus there is no such hatred!  The tragedy on both sides of this conflict is that they confess a faith that shares a common ancestry but devalues a common humanity!  They confess a faith that seeks to honour their god but dishonours God's people!  They confess a faith that calls upon a divine authority to justify a human agenda!  They seek to advance the fulfillment of a messianic prophesy but reject Christ Jesus as the promised and anticipated Messiah who has already come to restore kingdom order on earth...without taking up arms!

It seems to me that the elevation of one cause over the other misses the fact that the victory both sides ultimately struggle for has already been won through Jesus Christ by His death and resurrection.   To the Christian community, rather than seek to defend either cause, let us speak justification through Jesus Christ into this conflict instead of justification through war!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Maturity In Prayer

This week I have enjoyed the privilege of meeting with the combined churches of Cranbourne for our annual Prayer Summit.  For four nights we gathered at a different church in our area for united prayer and worship for our community and its leaders.  

I love it when Christians come together in prayer and I get excited about the possibilities when we pray for community transformation!  I was enriched by the unique styles and expressions of each host church.  I was blessed by the warm fellowship and generous hospitality.  But I remain somewhat perplexed as to why the Church, which has been in existence in one form or another for 2000 years, continues to pray the so-called 'Lord's Prayer'!?  You may have heard it recited by many congregations - "Our Father, who art in heaven..."  It is staggering to me why a simple model of prayer recorded in Matthew 6:9-13 that Jesus used to instruct His disciples how to pray remains the standard as what to pray in so many church gatherings.

When our children were able to structure simple sentences, my wife and I taught them a very basic model of prayer to teach them how to pray.  It went something like this:  "Dear Lord, thank you for today.  God bless Mum, Dad, Rebekah and Adam."  Our children are now 14 years old and it would be very concerning to us if they continued to pray the same form of prayer today!  As they have grown up, their experience of God and perception of the world has grown also.  This development is now reflected in how they communicate with God through prayer.  In Paul's letter to the Corinthians he wrote, "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me" (1 Corinthians 13:11).  At the risk of overstating my point, I think it is time for churches to put childish ways behind them and progress beyond reciting a model of prayer in their services and encourage their congregations to engage in mature prayer that better reflects the depth of their relationship with God and concern for the fulfillment of His kingdom on earth.  

As a church leader I am occasionally asked by some congregation members why we don't say the 'Lord's Prayer' anymore.  This is the reason why!

"Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity" (Hebrews 6:1)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Our Plan, God's Plan

Life is a culmination of experiences that derive from our calling, culture and choices. We are each created for a divine purpose, born into a particular cultural setting and given the freedom to make a series of choices along the way that either cooperates with or frustrates God's plan for our lives.  From the creation story through to the birth of the early church Scripture reveals how God's plan constantly collides with human will, causing unintended speed humps and detours along the journey towards God's intended purpose for His people. 

God's plan for Adam and Eve was to live in the perfection of the Garden of Eden, but they chose the tree of knowledge over the tree of life resulting in their banishment from the garden and the curse of death.

God's plan for the Hebrews was to deliver them from slavery in Egypt so they could take possession of the promised land, but their disobedience left them wandering in the desert for 40 years before the next generation received their inheritance.

God's plan for Israel was to love the Lord God with all their heart and soul and to be obedient to His commands, but they rejected God as their King and asked for a king like the other nations to rule over them, ultimately leading to the division and exile of a nation.

God's plan for the early church was to go into all the world to make disciples of all nations, but they remained in Jerusalem provoking an outbreak of persecution that scattered the disciples throughout Judea and Samaria to advance the Great Commission.

It seems to me that God's plan for our lives is far more direct than we give Him credit for and any deviation along the way is more often than not to do with human attitudes and actions than divine arrangement. Whether that be the impact of our own choices or the choices of others or the influence of our culture, our divine calling is diverted when our humanity obstructs God's intended pathway.

I was therefore interested in a diagram I saw recently on Facebook that suggests our plan is a direct pathway to our chosen destination, whereas God's plan takes us over and through many obstacles to reach His desired destination. The second part of the diagram (b), supposedly representing "God's Plan," may indeed be more closely aligned to the reality of life than the first part (a), but I'm not convinced that it reflects God's intended REALITY or plan.  To do so would suggest that it is God's plan for us to take the long and hard way to accomplish His will on earth and infers that He intentionally puts obstacles in our way or makes the way unclear!

In contrast, the psalmist prayed, "Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies - make straight your way before me" (Psalm 5:8).  The wisdom literature exhorted, "In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight" (Proverbs 3:6).  The prophet declared, "In the desert prepare the way for the Lord, make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God" (Isaiah 40:3).  The gospel records Jesus saying, "I am the way and the truth and the life.  No-one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). The apostle writes, "Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure.  For if you do these things, you will never fall" (2 Peter 1:10).

It seems inconsistent with God's plan for humankind for Him to make the pathway so difficult and uncertain.  However, it is entirely consistent with God's pattern for Him to use the difficulties and uncertainty, caused by the fallenness of humanity, to demonstrate His grace and mercy.  Despite ourselves God's plan cannot be thwarted (Job 42:2, Psalm 33:10-11, Proverbs 19:21) and "we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28).  Scripture also tells us that these speed humps and detours in life can be used by God as a laboratory for learning and growth (2 Corinthians 4:7-12, 2 Peter 1:3-8).  

So, when we experience reality that looks a little like the pathway in diagram (b), let us be careful not to accredit to God something that is more likely to be the result of our choices and/or circumstances.  Let us instead acknowledge God's presence within that reality and realign ourselves with His intended REALITY (Romans 12:1-2).  Let us pursue the plan God has chosen for us (Philippians 3:13-14) and remember that it is "the thief [who] comes only to steal and kill and destroy" but Jesus has "come that [we] may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10).

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."  (Jeremiah 29:11)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Place To Belong

One of the joys of being on holidays is the opportunity to worship at other churches as a participant rather than a leader.  I love the local church and enjoy the diversity of the body of Christ while engaging in a variety of expressions of worship.  It also enables me to experience church as a visitor, reminding me what it feels like to enter into an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar people.  As a church leader I cannot help but to evaluate the experience, not to be critical of the church we visit, but to assess what it feels like to be an outsider.

Over the past two weeks we attended two very different churches and had two very different experiences.  Both churches offered God-glorifying worship and sound biblical preaching, despite their different styles and theological emphasis.  The difference for us was in how we were greeted and made to feel welcome before and after the service.  

One church had a very welcoming foyer that led into a cafe area with a team of greeters who went out of their way to introduce themselves to us and ensure we were comfortable and found somewhere to sit.  Congregation members who saw that we were visitors got out of their seats to greet us and welcome us to their church.  It was clear by our reception and the atmosphere in the church that visitors were expected and valued.

When we arrived at the other church we walked straight pass two greeters at the front doors who were preoccupied with other things and we stood in the foyer for a few minutes by ourselves to work out where to sit.  Several people walked past us, yet nobody stopped to say hello.  When we found a seat at the back of the church the only interaction with us was from an older man turning around to express his disapproval of my son wearing a hat in church and a polite good morning from a lady excusing herself as she shuffled past us to her seat.

Despite these different experiences we valued the opportunity just to be worshippers instead of worship leaders outside of our usual church setting.  

Far from wanting to be unfairly critical of other churches, this reflection causes me to look critically at how well our church is doing to ensure we provide a welcoming environment where visitors and people searching for a church home have a life changing encounter with God through the body of Christ.  It is so easy to forget what it feels like to walk into a church for the first time and to be so comfortable with the familiar that we are unaware the church is foreign for many.  Stepping into a foreign social or spiritual environment on occasions allows us to remember the feeling of being out of place and to respond by creating a place where people can truly belong.