Sunday, July 16, 2017

Throwing Stones or Casting Lifelines

During the last Victorian state election we had the leader of one of the minor parties visit our local pastor’s network to promote his political and religious agenda to the churches. He brought along with him a Christian political analyst who passionately explained to us what he considered to be the greatest threat to Christianity and the church today.  As I sat and listened to his perception of this external threat from the world around us I found myself disagreeing with him for two primary reasons (even though we did agree on some issues):

1. Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18)
2. Jesus also said, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” (Mark 3:25)

According to my understanding of Scripture, the greatest threat to Christianity and the church today is not external forces but internal division!  In other words, it is not atheism or consumerism, secularisation or Islamification, homosexuality or gender fluidity that poses the greatest threat.  It is the deep division within the church that cripples the ability of Christians to effectively and biblically engage with these challenging issues in society that is our greatest threat.

From my observation of the way Christians interact with each other on social media I see the evidence of internal divisions play out almost daily.  Out of my 1300+ friends on Facebook from extremely diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, there are those from the far left who would consider themselves as “progressive” Christians and there are those from the far right who would consider themselves as “conservative” Christians; with the left labelling the right as “fundamentalists” and the right labelling the left as “liberals” in often very unloving ways.  When you watch both sides of the Christian spectrum interact publically about a number of current issues it is not difficult to see that we are a deeply divided church hell-bent on throwing stones at each other!

I picture this much like a group of kids from a neighbourhood building forts and engaging in a street battle with two sides bunkered down and throwing stones at each other's fort to see whose is the best.  What starts out as a bit of competitive fun between friends who live in the same neighbourhood becomes a battle of egos that crosses the line when a rock penetrates one of the forts and injures someone who is supposed to be a friend.  It's not the neighbourhood bullies that are the threat in this scenario but the friendly fire that is exchanged between neighbours.  So often, the way Christians behave in the public space is not that dissimilar to way these kids play in their forts out in the street.  Despite living in the same spiritual neighbourhood we bunker down behind our forts of theology and ecclesiology, engaged in a fierce battle to protect our respective worldviews. We share the same faith and fellowship as followers of Jesus Christ until we get stuck in the forts that divide and cripple the church.

Out of all the encounters with Jesus recorded in the Gospels, I want to suggest that this story has the potential to profoundly change the way Christians interact with each other and society!

At dawn [Jesus] appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them.  The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.  In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”  They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.  But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.  When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.  At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”  “No one, sir,” she said.  “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:2-11)

Christians are faced with comparative dilemmas today that challenge the way we respond to the issue of sin in the church and society. While the context may be a little less extreme, the religious conflict remains much the same. There are those who demand that the "righteous requirement of the law" be upheld because we "do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:4). Then there are those who insist that "there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" because we have been set "free from the law of sin and death" (Romans 8:1-2). Interestingly enough, these are two parallel yet polarised conclusions drawn from the same place in Scripture. Some pursue a legalistic adherence to biblical truth, while others promote a liberal application of the gospel of grace; and more often than not, one at the expense of the other. Despite the emphasis from either approach, a dualistic response to sin does not resemble the way Jesus responded in the original story. In fact, I would argue that any response that separates grace from truth or truth from grace is a false representation of the gospel. To understand why, we need to take a closer look at what Jesus actually did and didn't do or say in this story...
  1. Jesus did NOT disregard the law of Moses.  Instead, Jesus challenged those who assumed to have the authority to apply the law - “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  The only person in the crowd who fit that criteria was ironically the One whom the religious leaders were setting up "in order to have a basis for accusing him."  Talk about a monumental backfire!  What the religious leaders didn't understand is that "in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form" and "He is the head over every power and authority" (Colossians 2:9-11).  Their self-appointed authority misapplied the law to enforce condemnation of sin whereas the divine authority of Jesus applied the law to evoke conviction of sin.
  2. Jesus did NOT throw any stones.  As the only one present who had the divine authority to carry out what the Law of Moses required, Jesus instead exchanged the stones with a cross by standing alongside the accused in the face of condemnation. In that moment, Jesus demonstrated His Messianic purpose - "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him" (John 3:17).  This is an often overlooked and significant twist to this story.  Jesus, God in human flesh (John 1:14), exercised His divine authority from a posture of vulnerability as he stood alongside the sinful woman fully prepared to receive the same punishment of death intended for her! However, as the accusers left convicted of their own sin Jesus declared, “Then neither do I condemn you.”
  3. Jesus DID cast a lifeline of salvation.  Another often overlooked dynamic in this story is the self-condemnation that the woman most likely felt standing before a crowd with the shame and guilt of her sin publicly exposed.  It is entirely possible that the way she saw herself would not have been too far removed from the way the religious leaders viewed her.  Standing condemned in her sin by others or even herself imposed a punitive reaction but by becoming convicted of her sin by Jesus invited a response of penitence. Through the latter invitation, instead of throwing stones we see Jesus casting a lifeline of salvation when He said to her, "Go now and leave your life of sin."  Therefore, the transition from condemnation to conviction that rescued her from the crowd also rescued her from herself by providing her with a life transforming opportunity. 

In complete contrast to the way many Christians would approach this story today, Jesus demonstrated two fundamental and indispensable principles in the way He interacted with the woman who was publicly shamed and condemned.  First, He demonstrated ABSOLUTE GRACE when confronted with the reality of her sin.  Second, He spoke UNCOMPROMISING TRUTH in response to her sin.  In that order!  The sequence of the way Jesus engaged with this scenario is no accident and as important as the two principles in discussion.  In fact, it is a manifestation of how John described Jesus in the prologue to his gospel:  "...the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). 

Why is it then that the 'left' (progressive) and 'right' (conservative) expressions of Christianity too often seem far from being "full of grace and truth"?

Maybe because both sides have been too focused on building forts to protect what they believe to be missing from each others faith perspective!

Jesus, on the other hand held the two – grace and truth – in redemptive tension to ensure the complete character of God – holiness and justice – was personified in the way He lived and interacted with humanity.  He neither condemned nor justified sin but convicted humanity, whom He loved so deeply, to abandon anything that would distort the image of God within them.

Instead of throwing stones, Jesus cast lifelines of salvation to fallen humankind so that they would be redeemed from their sin and shame!  

Instead of throwing stones at each other, the church "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14) with "the same mindset as Jesus Christ" (Philippians 2:5) has been commissioned by Jesus to cast the same lifelines:  "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations...teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20).





Tuesday, June 20, 2017

5 Songs That Challenge Me As A Husband & Father

Born in the early 70's, raised in the 80's, married in the 90's and a father in the 00's, I have lived through four decades that have produced some pretty amazing music!  From the Bee Gees to Billy Joel to Bruno Mars, I've developed an eclectic taste in music from a diverse range of artists. While my very favourite songs cross many genres of music I do tend to gravitate toward songs that are more easy listening in style.  Music not only soothes my soul, it also informs my worldview as I engage with the lyrics and the message conveyed by the artist.  At certain points in my life some songs have even transcended musical enjoyment by influencing me in a profound way, especially while navigating the space of marriage and fatherhood.

As a husband and a father there are a few trusted voices I've allowed to speak into my marriage and parenting; first and foremost, God's wisdom through the pages of Scripture. However, certain popular songs have joined this chorus of voices by challenging me through the power of their lyrics.  More than just emotional sentiment they have spoken words of truth that have stuck in my head and penetrated my heart in a way that only music can. While these songs have been personal to my own journey, I get a sense through my pastoral interaction with many men in my leadership and ministry context that the issues these lyrics confront seem to be common to other husbands and fathers navigating the same space.

So, as unconventional as this may be, I offer the five songs that have influenced my marriage and parenting to all the blokes out there wrestling with similar issues to me. Maybe through the unexpected ministry of music they may influence you also...


Tell Her About It (Billy Joel)

Tell her about it
Tell her everything you feel
Give her every reason
To accept that you're for real

Tell her about it
Tell her all your crazy dreams
Let her know you need her
Let her know how much she means



One of the many mysteries of understanding women for me has been tuning in to and responding appropriately to the need to be told, "I love you" or the like more than once in a day. Too often I have grossly underestimated the importance of expressing out loud, and often, how I feel and what I intuitively know to be true.  Whether or not I need to hear it is irrelevant!  If these three words or similar words of affection are important to my wife, and children for that matter, then why would I withhold this phrase of affirmation?  The uncomfortable paradox is that the more emotionally detached I appear to be, the more these words are needed!  And here is a free tip if you really want to build up the emotional bank account with your wife and children.  Don't just wait to echo back what they want to hear, throw in a few unsuspected and spontaneous "I love you's" every now and then.  As Billy Joel strongly asserts in his song, "give her every reason to accept that you're for real."


Cat's In The Cradle (Harry Chapin)
 
I've long since retired and my son's moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, I'd like to see you if you don't mind
He said, I'd love to, dad, if I could find the time
You see, my new job's a hassle, and the kid's got the flu
But it's sure nice talking to you, dad
It's been sure nice talking to you
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me
He'd grown up just like me, my boy was just like me


 
To be honest, this song has always scared the hell out of me as a dad!  I don't know how many times I have been so consumed by what I do that I have been inattentive to what my kids need me to be.  And that is simply to be fully present in their lives.  To be frank, this is as much about the quality of time than the quantity of time I spend with them.  No matter how much I justify to myself my busyness or tiredness, neglecting this space comes with an enormous price tag.  Turning off the TV, closing your laptop or silencing your phone is a much smaller price to pay to give your kids the time with you they crave.  As our kids grow up the dominant infuences in their lives shift from their parents to their peers.  We have a limited window to not only enjoy them but to engage with them. The pattern we set today will translate into how they interact with us and their kids tomorrow.  The scary truth is they will "grow up just like me."


She Believes In Me (Kenny Rogers)


While she lays waiting,
I stumble to the kitchen for a bite
Then I see my old guitar in the night
Just waiting for me like a secret friend,
And there's no end
While she lays crying, I fumble with a melody or two
And I'm torn between the things that I should do
And she says to wake her up when I am through
God, her love is true

 
When Kenny Rogers sings, "I'm torn between the things that I should do" I find myself in a place of conflict every time I see the gap between what I should be doing and what I want to do widened by the competing expectations in my life.  This is a challenging space to manage.  Every married couple needs personal time and space to pursue their own interests, which is as necessary as spending time together.  The problem arises when one is overshadowed by the other.  However, my own experience and observations would suggest to me that more often than not us blokes tend to lean a little too far towards fulfilling our own needs.  It has also been my experience that when I am more intentional in investing in "us" time my wife is more supportive of "me" time.  Try shifting your focus, you might be surprised the positive impact this will have in your marriage!


Better Man (Robbie Williams)



As my soul heals through the shame
I will grow through this pain
Lord I'm doing all I can
To be a better man





Interestingly enough, this song appeals to me at a spiritual level. One of my life verses from the Bible is Philippians 3:12, which says, "Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me."  The writer of this verse was on a relentless mission to rise above his inadequacies and failures by pursuing a righteousness that only comes through faith in Jesus Christ.  Therefore, I connect deeply with Robbie Williams' cry, "Lord I'm, doing all I can to be a better man"  because I too desire to be more than I am.  As husbands and fathers we must resist falling into a place of complacency or resignation that settles for our 'lot in life', which will cripple us from becoming the men that God intended for us to be.  Your spiritual headship in your family is not about power and control but about modelling a godly influence that comes from your own growth and contributes to the growth of your wife and children. 


In The Ghetto (Elvis Presley)

 

People, don't you understand
The child needs a helping hand
Or he'll grow to be an angry young man some day?
Take a look at you and me
Are we too blind to see
Do we simply turn our heads, and look the other way?

   


This song challenges me at a social level. In my role as a Salvation Army Officer I am seeing the devastating effect that fatherlessness is having on children. Notwithstanding the extraordinary job so many single mums are doing on their own (often not by choice), children need their fathers! Even though the family unit takes on many different forms today, the dominant view still held by sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists  asserts that the role of a father in a healthy, nurturing environment is critical to the wellbeing of children and the family unit. Far from intending to criticise families where there has been a family breakdown, it drives my determination to be a good husband and father in my own family and my desire to invest in other men to the same ends in whatever family structure they find themselves.  We cannot afford to "simply turn our heads, and look the other way" any longer!


Given the diversity of our society, the complexity of family relationships and alternative tastes in music, it is inevitable that if you have read this far your response to my thoughts on being a husband and father will be equally as varied.  That's okay!  I don't even mind if you disagree.  I do hope, however, that what has challenged me in this space challenges you also to some degree.  I hope you sit awhile with being challenged and reflect upon why it challenges you.  I hope you have the humility and courage to explore what being a better husband and father needs to look like for you and your family; because there is too much at stake not to!


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

LEADING FROM THE TRENCHES: Letting Off Steam

Leading any cause or campaign with a high level of energy for an extended period of time to get the job done requires the willingness to wind down and relax when the job is done.  Read more...

 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Lest We Forget the Innocent Victims of War!

ANZAC Day is arguably the most significant public holiday on the Australian calendar, evoking a deep sense of national pride and gratitude for the generations of soldiers who have gone before us to defend our freedoms. Today, ANZAC Day also includes appropriate acknowledgement of a new generation of soldiers who are still actively defending our freedoms in recent and current military conflicts.

ANZAC Day is a day to commemorate the sacrifice of the fallen and to remember the high price tag associated with war.  Irrespective of the motives or causes, every war that has ever been fought leaves a trail of physical and psychological damage that inflicts permanent scars upon the soul of every nation engaged in the conflict.

Therefore, when we say "Lest We Forget" it is both a statement of RESPECT and LAMENT...

We respect the fallen and injured soldiers when we say "Lest We Forget"
We also lament the innocent victims of war when we say "Lest We Forget"
 
The hallowed phrase "Lest We Forget" should not only be a commemorative statement but a confrontational statement that reminds us of the consequences of war to strengthen our resolve to never again resort to armed conflict.  This means if we try to sanitise "Lest We Forget" by censoring the inconvenient and uncomfortable truths associated with war then we've already 'forgotten'.

So, when a media personality posted on social media the comment "Lest. We. Forget. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine)", drawing attention to displaced people as a direct result of fleeing from war zones, I'm a little puzzled at the level of offence this comment has provoked among so many Australians!?  Is it a misplaced nationalism?  Is it a denial of reality? Is it a prejudice against the nationality and religion of the person behind the statement? Whatever it is, I feel the offence felt by the alleged offensive comment is actually more offensive than the comment itself.  To be offended by a reminder of a reality of war when we stand together and say "Lest We Forget" is an unconscionable contradiction that reveals some deep prejudices that dishonour the ANZAC spirit way more than what was said!  

I'm intentionally refraining from naming the person behind the controversy because this raises some ugly issues in our nation that are much bigger than any one person.  We seriously need to take a good hard look at ourselves when we get so easily offended by anybody who dares to challenge our national conscience.  And we need to stop demonising people who do so and with whom we may disagree.

         
Lest we forget the innocent victims of war!!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

When Politics Cloud Vision

Few things frustrate me more as a leader than when politics cloud vision!  Regardless of the context, a vision worth pursuing deserves the unified commitment of a leadership team to pursue it passionately without being distracted by popularity or discouraged by opposition. The power struggle of politics usually emerges within a team when there is a misalignment of leadership ethos shifting the focus from the end goal to the obstacles encountered along the way.  This misalignment will ultimately undermine a strategic approach to vision and get bogged down in trying to manage or mitigate the tactical challenges that are an inevitable part of pursuing any clear and compelling vision.  

The further a vision extends people beyond their present reality to where they could be or should be, the higher the cost is for leaders who cast such a vision; a leadership dynamic affirmed by Bill Hybels who says, "The grander the vision the greater the price tag."  Purpose driven leadership will always pay the price necessary to achieve the vision whereas people-pleasing leadership will only seek to manage the conflicting politics that emerge at the expense of the vision.  For a vision to become reality, leaders need to remain united and focused as a God-ordained vision is a precious commodity not to be compromised by bowing to the dissenting voices among the crowd. Speaking at a Global Leadership Summit, Hybels is clear about where this responsibility lies:  "If God has given you a Kingdom vision, if you see it clearly and feel it deeply, you had better take responsibility for it." 


When a vision is put to the test, and it will be, a leadership team has two choices: allow the politics to cloud vision or actively pursue a clear vision. The latter will take conviction and courage by both the leader and the leadership team.  Once again, Bill Hybels speaks practical wisdom into this space...


"Leaders should never apologize for the strength of feeling that accompanies their God-given visions. God designed leaders to experience their longing, their desire, and their drive deeply, and to express it fully. And when they do, they energize others.”

Keep the vision clear, the politics at bay and the leadership team united; because "if people can't see what God is doing, they stumble all over themselves." (Proverbs 29:18 MSG).

Friday, March 17, 2017

5 Principles for a Successful Red Shield Appeal

Around this time of year Salvation Army Officers all over Australia are either engaging or avoiding the mammoth task of organising the annual Salvation Army Red Shield Appeal Doorknock in their local community, which is held at the end of May each year.  While the Red Shield Appeal is still widely supported by very generous Australians it tends to evoke a love/hate relationship from those tasked with the responsibility to recruit and mobilise an army of volunteer collectors. This is largely due to competing demands on the Officer's time, complacency by a growing number of Salvationists and community fatigue from a continuous stream of fundraising events by other worthy charities.

Still, the necessity of the Red Shield Appeal to funding the mission of The Salvation Army is inescapable and deserves the very best effort from ALL who consider themselves as "Salvos".

As somebody who shadowed my parents from my earliest memory as a collector, who graduated to an area captain at age 14 and as a colleague who has coordinated the Red Shield Appeal as a Corps Officer for the past 20 years in four very different communities, I offer these five principles to recalibrate our collective attitude and approach to the Red Shield Appeal...
  1. The Red Shield Appeal is EVERYBODY'S responsibility.
    Irrespective of rank, appointment or position in The Salvation Army we all have a vital part to play. Even if you do not have a direct role in organising the appeal you need to ask yourself, "Am I a servant or steward of the mission of The Salvation Army?"  A servant of the mission will do their bit to participate in a good cause but a steward of the mission will take ownership of the same cause. The difference between the two is the degree of resolve you have to do whatever it takes for the mission to succeed!  As a servant, the overall success of the appeal is not my responsibility, but as a steward I am a stakeholder in its success.

  2. The Red Shield Appeal is an OPPORTUNITY not a distraction.
    I don't know of any Salvation Army Officer who doesn't want to engage their community to advance the kingdom of God through their respective appointments. The Red Shield Appeal provides a powerful platform for this type of engagement with community groups, local businesses and other organisations. Despite recent challenges for The Salvation Army we are still blessed with a high level of community acceptance that provides an open door to build relationships and invite the public to participate in our mission.  Once people step through that door, we have an opportunity to cast a 'grander vision' of the 'why' behind the 'what', which can provide life changing pathways for further dialogue and volunteerism beyond the Red Shield Appeal.

  3. The Red Shield Appeal begins BEFORE it starts!
    I cannot overstate the importance of networking and nurturing community relationships ALL year round. Waiting until these relationships are needed diminishes the level of engagement that comes from more reciprocal relationships formed before they are necessary. Also, there is a significant difference between approaching warm contacts for assistance than cold canvassing strangers. The energy you invest in this space before the Red Shield Appeal will pay dividends during and after the appeal.  You indeed 'reap what you sow' when it comes to building community relationships.

  4. The Red Shield Appeal MOBILISES an army.
    There is no other time of year when large numbers of Salvationists and supporters are united around a common cause and mobilised to saturate the community of a local Corps, with the backing of a PR driven media campaign.  Even though the goal of the Red Shield Appeal is to collect money the motivation is to resource mission; and our mission is ultimately to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.  The Red Shield Appeal gets us out of our Corps buildings and into the community with an extraordinary message of hope that is manifested through our social programs that serve the most vulnerable people in Australia.  Who wouldn't want to be a part of that?!

  5. The Red Shield Appeal rises and falls on YOU.
    Leadership expert John Maxwell is often quoted as saying, "Everything rises and falls on leadership."  A brief overview of biblical and church history, corporate successes and failures, and social and political revolutions, prove this statement to be true! The uncomfortable truth is your attitude towards the Red Shield Appeal will set the tone for the engagement of others. While there is much about the Red Shield Appeal you cannot control, your attitude is on you. It is a choice.  It's a choice that will influence the participation of your congregation and community.

I get the tiredness that comes from coordinating such a large fundraising campaign and I understand the frustration of not having enough collectors. But I cannot help to remain optimistic about the possibilities! It is my genuine hope that these five principles will serve as a challenge and motivator to harness all the opportunities that come with organising and participating in the Red Shield Appeal. 


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A Culture of Dishonour

In the wake of two significant election campaigns in both Australia and the United States I am becoming increasingly disturbed by an emerging culture of dishonour towards people who carry a mantle of leadership. More than ever before, leaders from all sectors of society are confronted with complex issues and diverse worldviews that significantly raise the stakes of leadership and increases hostility towards those who dare to lead.  

I hear some of you retort, "We have a responsibility to speak out against bad leadership!" To which I reply, "Yes, but..."

Ideological conflict over critical issues is essential in any healthy functioning society.  However, when that conflict descends into personality bashing or character assassination, we destroy any foundation of trust that is absolutely necessary to dealing with the issues at the heart of our conflict.

In recent days I have read so much dishonouring name calling and have seen too many demeaning "memes" on social media by leaders toward other leaders that is far from constructive and does little to address very real issues.  Irrespective of which side of politics you align with or what religious views you adhere to, effective leadership demands a level of honour that transcends opposing points of view to engage in respectful and robust dialogue with those in authority who view the world very differently to yourself.  

I am not talking about blindly following a leader into darkness.  Nor am I suggesting a mediocre tolerance of all policies or ideologies.  Neither do I think leaders should never be challenged.  In fact, “I want to argue that the solution to ideological discord is not “tolerance” in the post-modern form we frequently find it, the bland affirmation of all viewpoints as equally true and valid but an ability to profoundly disagree with others and deeply honour them at the same time” (John Dickson, "Humilitas").  This is not simply agreeing to disagree under a facade of political correctness but a depth of character that demonstrates humility and honour in the face of fierce disagreement.

I appeal to leaders from all walks of life...

Let us rise above the petty politics that attack the person instead of addressing the issues.
Let us see through the media biases that manipulate the truth to promote a hidden agenda.
Let us resist demonising conflicting worldviews and create safe environments to debate those views.
Let us commit to nurturing a posture of influence rather than perpetuating a pattern of insolence.