I believe in the church

Picking up the creed, Karl Barth speaks of the significance of the local gathering, the congregation:

[I believe in the church] means that I believe that the congregation to which I belong, in which I have been called to faith and am responsible for my faith, in which I have my service, is the one, holy, universal Church. If I do not believe this here, I do not believe it at all. No lack of beauty, no ‘wrinkles and spots’ in this congregation may lead me astray.

Dogmatics in Outline, page 144.

God’s surprising injustice

Shock & surprise – about God. Some detail to show the surprising thing in Romans 4.

Deuteronomy 25:1 describes judges: “they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked”.
In 1 Kings 8:32 Solomon prayed for God to judge just like that.

Isaiah 5:23 says, Woe to those who acquit the guilty for a bribe.

Back in Exodus 23:7 the Lord says “I will not acquit the wicked.”

Then there’s Proverbs 17:15 He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.

BUT Romans 4:5 calls God “him who justifies the ungodly”.
Grace & forgiveness is such a (beautiful) jolt, surprise & shock!

Christian thinking

There is no free thought, there are no free-thinkers.

The description “free thinking” is often used to praise those who are up-to-date, those who exalt reason as the hope for humanity. “Free thinkers” criticise others for having limits, but these critics simply do not understand their own boundaries.

Because everyone and every thinker has limits, boundaries they refuse to cross.

Here’s an example. Leonard Susskind wrote The Black Hole War about an amiable disagreement between physicists as they tried to figure out black holes. Susskind says this about Stephen Hawking:

Hawking’s logic was so clear … The reasoning was persuasive, but the conclusion was absurd. (p.212)

Susskind refused to accept the argument, even when he could not identify the precise problem. There was a limit to Susskind’s reasoning. His limit was right, and it turns out Hawking was wrong in this case. Without the limit, physics would be worse off, knowing less about black holes.

Limits to our thinking exist for everyone. So Christians should consider what our limits are – they’re much more important that black holes. Romans 3 is a great place to learn, because some opponents to the gospel argue themselves over the limit. They go too far, way too far, and into danger. They suggest God is a liar, or that he is unrighteous, or that he is not judge of the world.

What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar (Romans 3:3-4).

But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? (Romans 3:5-6).

Is God a liar, or unrighteous? Will God not bother to judge? Paul says: Your conclusion is absurd. Never! Don’t go near that, do not even think it. The ‘human way’ of thinking is a sad perversion of real thought.

Christian thought will never conclude wrong or evil about God. If our thinking does conclude that God is ‘wrong’ in any way, it’s a guarantee that our thinking is way off.

Public money, private values

There certainly is a silly ruckus about whatever legislation the Ruddock review into religious freedom will produce. Leaked recommendations, selective reporting, sensationalism beyond and evidence, and the usual subsequent social media ‘stacks on’. (You know, the, ‘Yeah, I’m sure I hate that too – and another thing  …’)

Right now, I want to pick up one line that I’ve seen again and again, but always without justification. People say it as if it’s obvious. It’s this:

If you choose a private school, you should get no government money. It’s your choice.

Superficially – very superficially – there’s an appeal to this. But really it’s baseless. I spent ten minutes wondering how many private groups receive public money, even though they hold contested positions. My quick list is below.

Just to be clear, these groups and movements gain money – sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly by tax concessions, easy access to politicians, etc. And they all have opponents within Australian society. That means the taxes of every Australian supports something they oppose.

For me, such generosity is both a compromise (I don’t want my money supporting that) and also a sign of a mature society (there’s space for us and for them).

Money goes to:

  • Political parties (Labor, Liberal, National, Greens, One Nation, …)
  • Private medical insurance companies
  • Private schools (religious or not)
  • Controversial medical procedures (abortion, vanity-style plastic surgery)
  • Solar energy & wind farms
  • Coal, gas, & mining
  • Public-private partnerships like city tollways
  • Bike paths
  • Research: animal experiments, etc
  • Owners of poker machines and other gambling businesses
  • Business and industry lobby groups
  • Trades unions

All of these groups and people have numerous opponents, including opponents of non-government schooling. To single out education as the one place to apply funding purity makes no sense.

I wish people kept away from this nuclear option (Nothing for you!), so the complex question can be asked and answered: what is a good or appropriate type of government support for education of all types?

Pointed preaching, broad theology

When studying a Bible passage – in preaching, for example – it’s time to dig into the specifics of the verses you have. Find the purpose of that text, the ‘why’, the angularity of that part of God’s word.

Don’t be easily distracted. Listen well, with all the time it takes.

When trying to grasp the big picture of all God has spoken – ‘doing theology’, we might say – that’s a good time to go broad. Get all the information that’s relevant, chase the links and implications.

Consider these two examples from the Psalms.

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me. (Psalm 51:5)

David, in confession, knows the depth of his sin. There was no time in my life, he concedes, that was ever pure. Sin is his constant. What a powerful observation of humanity’s problem before the Holy One! We need this in our preaching, Bible studies, individual reading, …

Upon you I have leaned from before my birth;
you are he who took me from my mother’s womb.
My praise is continually of you. (Psalm 71:6)

This is a less famous Psalm, so the contrast might not be well-known. But look how this Psalm has trust in the Lord from before the year dot. In utero praise! There was no time, says Psalm 71, when the Lord was not the only true refuge. God is what he has always been – our only hope. How we need this message in our preaching, Bible studies, individual reading …

If I was leading a study on either of these Psalms, I would not cross-reference the other one. It would kill the power of Psalm 51 to say, ‘David knew his sin, but of course we know also that Psalm 71 says …’ Don’t do it! In preaching, stay narrow, focus on the passage, and let its razor-sharp truth do the necessary surgery.

On the other hand, you might be thinking through what God teaches us about children and infants. Are they rebels? Or faithful? Or bank slates, waiting for maturity before choosing a ‘real’ status? I am not going to answer those questions! Yet both of our two verses need to be heard (and many others, too). For theology, go broad.

Now, an exercise. See if my idea works. Staying in the Psalms, take Psalm 73 and Psalm 74. Specifically, how do these passages speak to us of the temple. It seems such a relief, joy, and instruction in Psalm 73:17. But in Psalm 74:3-5 the temple is as hopeless as a clear-felled forest.

How is the sanctuary of God a powerful image in each Psalm? (That’s the preaching.)
How do these contrasting images build up a fuller picture of the Jerusalem sanctuary? (Our theology.)

Let me know what you think, and if you get anything from the comparison of the two Psalms!

Prepared prayer

At Albury Bible Church, we ran a workshop on praying together.

An exercise in the workshop was to write a prayer for a situation you would soon be in. I was about to go to a conference of the senior pastors’ of the FIEC churches. So I wrote a prayer that could have been used there.

Here it is.

Dear Lord of the church,
Thank you that we are all one in Christ Jesus, united by the gospel, and empowered by the Spirit.
Please be present in our discussions and decisions so that, as a group, we may be wise regarding the actions of the FIEC. And encourage us all also to press on in faithful ministry when we return to our own local churches and ministries.
In the name of our one Lord, Jesus Christ, Amen.

What kind of thoughtful prayer could you prepare right now for your life?

Protecting the kids

Australia has just received the report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, after five years of hearings. It’s been necessary but terrible. There have been awful accounts of institutional power used to cover up abuse and protect abusers – including a number of churches or ministries. The police referrals from the royal commission number in the thousands.

As a Christian minister, and also with some junior sports involvement, I have wondered what to do to improve safety. There are a number of good and widely-known protective measures: comply with your state’s Working With Children Check (NSW here); complete safety training; have nominated safety contacts; arrange groups so children are not left alone with an adult.

But here’s an idea I’d like to suggest. It’s a message for any adult-trainer-teacher to communicate to every child and family under their care. I’d like each adult to say this:

Make sure that you tell people everything you learn here. There are no secrets!

I reckon this statement has a few good things going for it.

  • Abuse loves secrecy.
    So many accounts of those hurt include things like, “It’s our special secret”, “If you tell anyone I will …” Let’s make secrecy explicitly against our ways.
  • It’s a great way to teach.
    A child who can communicate the lesson has learnt the lesson. It might be a Sunday School message about how Jesus’ death brings forgiveness of sin, or a cycling tip about how to hold the handlebars.
  • It can develop enthusiasm.
    “Guess what I learnt this week!”
  • It tells teachers and trainers that we expect kids to share all that happens.
  • It tells parents and carers to expect communication about our program.
  • It’s good promotion.
    If you’re teaching Sunday School, surely you want more families to join in and hear the good news. Similarly for a sports team, music group, art class, … Happy participants who speak up are a walking invitation.
  • It tells the whole church/club/group that we have a culture of openness.
  • Biblically, there are no secrets.
    God’s judgement is coming, and all secrets will be revealed. Christians especially should know and live by this. Jesus said, “For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.” (Luke 8:17)

This is only a small tip. But I think I will begin to try it out. I certainly pray for better protection of children in all sorts of institutions across Australia.

50 words

Here’s my entry into the 2017 Write Around the Murray Nanostory competition.

The task: write a 50 word (exactly!) story. This year, the theme word was shadow. The title is not included in the word count.

I’m sure you can see what I’ve done. It’s far more obvious that last year’s obscure effort!

We trail.

Penelope is my boss. ‘Pen Umbra Undercover Protection,’ she answers the phone. Dark and dim are our daily duty. When trust clouds, business shines. The faithless fog their indistinct way, yet we follow. Murk and dusky paths mark our way of gloom.
I’m Hue.
My employment is under a shadow.

 

God and refugees

At Albury Bible Church, we hosted a meal with discussion – called Serious Eating – on the topic of God and Refugees.

The format included a short talk, about five minutes, as a thought-starter. Then, on each table, there was a menu for further discussion. For a lighter conversation, you would choose the entree. For more depth and difficulty, go for the main course.

I had a request to write up what I said. So here it is, expended from my brief written notes to make some sense on its own.

There’s a refugee problem right now. For example, quoting last week’s news, 10,000 people every day are fleeing Mosul. The stories we hear on the news are heart-breaking.

We care because of our common humanity. Common humanity is a biblical idea, but now so widely accepted we do not think of it as a ‘God idea’. But that’s OK, because there’s more to say about God and refugees.

When he was a child, Jesus became a refugee. In Matthew 2:12-15 we hear about the real risk to Jesus’ life. Herod then murdered of Bethlehem’s boys, and Matthew 2:18 could describe the TV shot of any modern refugee mothers in grief.

Furthermore, the Bible’s confronting message is that we all are refugees – though of another kind. We are refugees from God, running away not because he is bad but because we are. The way people respond to modern refugees does show positive humanity in compassion, but it also demonstrates our dark and evil side. As individuals and as a nation, we are far from perfect.

The real mind flip about God and refugees brings together these two points, about Jesus and about us. Jesus became a refugee to save refugees. We see this on the cross.

Jesus died as a Jewish man executed by the Roman empire – typical political oppression. Jesus’ death was also spiritually oppressive: his own national leaders abandoned him, as did the empire, and his disciples. Even God the Father was silent when Jesus called.

In his death, Jesus became the most excluded man in history. He said this was in order to include us with God. Jesus became the oppressed outsider to welcome outsiders to God. Romans 5:6 fits the idea that Jesus became a refugee to welcome refugees.

So to understand God and refugees, we need to take seriously God’s works to offer us salvation. Do we know and trust Jesus? All refugees have basic needs. Forgiveness is our basic need before God!

Within this huge overarching good news story, it’s clear also that God is all for refugee care. By looking at Jesus’ own cross-shaped love, we see the principles for refugee care – it is service that’s difficult, costly, patient, and not selfish.

What does that mean for you and me? I don’t think there are direct biblical political policies to apply to the world. I don’t see there’s a ‘Christian politics’ – but there should be action. Inaction and apathy just don’t fit what we see of God’s passionate love for the helpless.

Quick review: 40 Rockets

40 Rockets40 Rockets by Craig Josling

“40 Rockets which, when translated, means 40 short and punchy tips on sharing the message of Jesus with people at work.” (With apologies to verses like John 1:42.)

Lots of good tips. And easy quick read, but not designed to be read quickly. Each tip is for thought and reflection. Preferably with someone else.

This is not a theology of the message of Jesus, nor of the reason to share Jesus’ gospel. It’s not a listing of all the blessings Jesus’ death for the world. This is not an academic treatise. But none of these things are a problem – for 40 Rockets does not aim to be any of these things.

So what is this book? Words from an experienced, but far from perfect, Christian to help us all do better at promoting the news of Jesus.

Here are some chapter headings to give a feel for the topics/rockets: Be convinced that the workplace is a great place to share Jesus; Be gracious in conversation; Don’t let work define your value; Memorize Romans 6:23; Give honest and sincere appreciation.

I’m thinking how to use this book, because it strikes me as totally usable. Some ideas:
* pair up, and have a 5 minute phone chat each week to discuss that week’s tip
* give a copy to every member of a Bible study group, spend a few minutes each week at the start of your group looking at that week’s rocket
* for two months of Sunday church, pick a rocket a week for someone to summarise
* include a rocket a week in the church bulletin
* read a chapter each day with housemates (in a share house, with family, whatever)
* read a chapter on the bus to work, and summarise it in an email for fellow believers in your business

Undoubtedly there are many more.

And I want to get on with using 40 Rockets when I am. From Matthia Media.

View all my reviews