Saturday, November 9, 2019

Not with wisdom and eloquence.

1 Corinthians 1:17 NIV For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel---not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
This verse is surprising. How much time do we preachers spend on delivery? This verse implies that the more time we spend on “smooth and clever”, the less power in the message, the message being the gospel. I suspect that Paul’s delivery was heartfelt, direct, personal and dignified, but not clever or smooth. His letters are strong, comprehensive, detailed and personal. A full reading takes time. I have no idea how long Paul would preach publicly for, though in his teaching amongst believers, he would go on into the late night, as I gather from the young man who fell asleep and fell out of the window in Acts 20:9.
 Most western church services have a time set for a sermon. This is a time of teaching, rather than preaching, yet it is appropriate, in my opinion, that the proclamation of the gospel takes place during this time, as this is an opportunity to call people into faith. Yes, our teaching ought to be clear, and a smooth delivery seems to be an expectation for both speaker and listener, but a great performance is not a mark of the Spirit. Hollywood has invaded the church. The west is so well entertained that we do not accept rough edges even in a sermon. Good sermon preparation is about seeking Gods will and submitting to his word in our own lives, as we meditate in the depths of a passage of scripture. Out of that, we will have something to share, something to confess, and a re-referencing of our thoughts and plans in the light of a God who sent his Son to bring us into the light of his great salvation. Power is a good word. It sometimes is translated to “dynamite”. But the power of the gospel is not an uncontrolled explosion. Moreover, it is the strength and wisdom to grapple with and domesticate the stubborn, unrepentant will and heart of any and every human being. The raging storm that caused the disciples to lose hope while Jesus slept in the boat, was calmed by a single strong word from our Lord. It is his word, not ours, that enters and subdues the rebel will. But he can and does use people like us.

Friday, October 25, 2019

But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.


Psalm 22:3 is a verse many of us turn to, to help justify the degree of importance we place on music in church.

So much so, that we drag out a song for 10 minutes or more, songs that do not have 10 minutes’ worth of content, repeating choruses and verses, single lines, hooks, until we reach an emotional climax, which is interpreted as the presence of God entering the building.
  
It becomes a formula. Play the right song, with the right degree of dedication and passion, for the right amount of time, and God will “turn up”.

It reminds me of Elijah and the prophets of Baal from 1Kings 18.
“They shouted all day and even slashed themselves with swords, but there was no response.”

And in Luke 18, the Pharisee who had a long and involved prayer about himself, that he offered with great skill in God’s temple, yet he was not heard.

If we pay more careful attention to psalm 22 we actually see that it is the psalm that most closely prophesies Jesus suffering on the cross. The verse that states that God inhabits Israel’s praises may be translated as; "Israel praises the Holy God who is enthroned." The bulk of the psalm deals with the author being in the midst of evil. Being forsaken. In fact, those deep, deep words of Jesus on the cross, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me” at the height of his sacrificial suffering for our sin, was not simply a cry of utter anguish as he bore the terrible sin of all mankind, but was also his quoting of this scripture, psalm 22, that he knew confirmed the reality of his key role in the salvation of mankind.

God does not need our praises to allow him to walk amongst us. Paul said he is not far from any one of us, and he was speaking to gentile unbelievers (Acts 17:27). The Tax collector in the temple did not even look up to heaven, he dared not, he simply beat his chest and confessed his need for mercy. It was not skilful or beautiful, but it was true, and God heard him, and granted him mercy, so much so that he went home justified.

I am a worship songwriter and a worship leader, I love many of the big songs, I long for the experience of hearing one of my songs sung by large congregations, I say this as confession, not because I think this is a good thing. But I am convinced that God is not honoured by techniques that are used to manipulate a crowd. And I believe that techniques are used deliberately in church for this effect. Many simply follow instruction and do only what they have simply grown up doing, it is part of their culture, others, like me, look on longingly, wishing my congregation experience would somehow transform into what I often seen on the worship videos online. But God cannot be manipulated. Even Job, in his suffering, realized his stupidity in trying to force an answer or action from God.

God is Holy. He is truly Holy. We are obliged, morally, and in every other way, to offer him all that we are, all that we have, all that we look forward to, our skills, our homes, our families, our relationships, our bodies, everything, as a gift of praise, recognizing that all that we have is from Him, and acknowledging all that He has done for us, not just in sending his dear Son, but even our day to day mercies, our being fed and housed and cared for, and our utter unworthiness, yet complete acceptance into his own precious family by the pouring out of his Spirit, the giving of his Son, and the resurrection that assures us that all of the promises he has made are true.

I realize this short word may offend some, even some I know and love.
I love music, I love my guitars, I struggle with all the trappings of music, in particular, the desire for recognition. I confess this with honesty.
But my heart is burdened with these thoughts.
May the Lord allow us to continue in fellowship.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Luke 16:9 How to win friends and influence people?

Luke 16:9 NIV
I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
New King James
“And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home.

I spoke on this passage this morning. It's a difficult passage, seemingly contradicting traditional, orthodox Christian teaching on many levels.
In this passage, Jesus is teaching with a parable of a rich master, who has a dishonest manager. The master hears about his manager, and gives him notice, with orders to produce an accounting of his work before he finishes. The manager uses this final part of his employement to fiddle with his master's accounts, allowing people who owe him money to alter the books, so that their debts are substantially reduced.
The master actually commends his manager for acting shrewdly, with Jesus stating that the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than the children of the light.

Then Jesus states what sounds like, "use your money or wealth to get friends, so that when it's gone, they, or somebody, will welcome you into heaven."

1. Does Jesus really mean that we should be wasteful, or careless with our wealth?

2. Does Jesus imply that this sort of action leads to salvation?

3. Who are these people we should win, with our wealth, into friendship?

I found this a difficult passsage to speak on, but I believed that if I sought God on this passage he would help me understand.

On the first question regarding squandering our wealth, it was good to simply look back on the previous chapter in Luke. There we see a clear story of someone who wastes their wealth on wild living. The prodigal son. Yes, this waste does lead to suffering, and that suffering does lead to repentance, so you could argue that wasting wealth and possessions can actually lead to salvation.
But clearly this is not a positive part of the prodigal son story. And then if we simply read on one verse beyond Luke 16:9, we read Jesus warning us that if we are dishonest in small matters we will be likewise dishonest in large matters. Trust and integrity are clearly valued by Jesus. Therefore Jesus would not himself commend the manager for fiddling with the accounting.

Lets look at my third question.
Who are the "friends" that can welcome us into eternal dwellings"? Do random people we are generous towards aid us in receiving salvation and entering God's kingdom? Or is it people that we know, or have known, maybe loved ones who have gone before us?

Later in this chapter, the story of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar explains how there is an uncrossable chasm between heaven and hell, and though the rich man only wants a drop of water on his tongue, Abraham is unable to send Lazarus to soothe him. And it is implied that the rich man could have aided Lazarus before both of them died, and maybe this would have changed the outcome. (see an earlier post about this passage)

But we clearly understand, from countless passages of scripture, that there is only one friend who can welcome us into heaven, and that is Jesus himself. No other person has atoned for our sin, died for the sin of the world, exchanged his righteousness for our unrighteousness. He is the only true unblemished lamb of God, who's blood speaks a better word than Abels.
And we also understand that this gift of forgiveness, faith and repentance, is unable to be earnt (addressing question 2), it is by grace we are saved, through faith. Not by works. But we gladly walk in the works that God has prepared in advance for us to do, and they may well include giving away vast sums of money for the work of God.
Jesus stated in John 14, that he goes ahead of us to prepare a place in his Father's house (with many rooms) for his disciples. Surely it is Jesus himself who will welcome us into our heavenly dwellings, and all of this because he himself has wasted all of his wealth, his health, his perfect obedience, his unswerving loyalty to God's good and holy will, on us!

So my restating of Luke16:9, is something like this:
Everything we have is from God, so let us "waste" everything he gives us on serving him, because, he wasted everything he had (his own dear Son) on us, so that he could welcome us into his wonderful heavenly home.

And as a small footnote, when we are making financial decisions, let us make them with reference only to God's will for our lives, not to the potential monetary returns we might receive, nor to avoid monetary losses. If we make our decisions with profit and loss as our main concern, we are then serving money. And Jesus says clearly in this passage, that we can only serve either God or money.

It is my opinion that God allows us to suffer financial loss, and other losses, as well as victories, in order to rely, respond and be grateful to Him.




Friday, August 2, 2019

The Frustration of Music

Music is a great distraction. Done strategically, it has the ability to alter our emotions and transfix our attention, even directing our thoughts, transporting us to a place beyond our personal situations.
Like fast food, caffeine, drugs, video games, sex and money, music, or particular styles of music can be addictive. The "wrong" style of music for a particular person may also be abhorrent or repulsive.
Being creatures of habit, and of acquired taste, we may develop a love for certain music styles simply by repeated or early exposure.The repeated exposure may be the result of the influence of others we admire or who have influence over us, including the musicians themselves, but also our peers, family and friends and contemporary media.
There is a mystery in the music itself. The combination of notes, chord progressions, melodic phrases, repetition, rhythmic and percussive elements, the combinations of various instruments, and other textures, the rise and fall of melodies, the contrasts in volumes, tempo, keys, dissonance and sweet harmonies, and so many other elements, when used effectively, enter a persons conscious and subconscious mind. The music can unify both performers and listeners, and there is the potential for rapturous levels of pleasure.
But the correct formula is itself a mystery. Yes, songwriters, composers, producers, and various other musical artists appear to find the secret recipe that has millions tapping their feet and longing for more, but that “formula” sometimes seems too simple, and other times, beyond the reach of ordinary people. And those who at one time appear to have the formula, later seem to loose it. Yes, expensive advertising campaigns flooding as much media as possible, help to bring certain music to people’s attention, but sometimes, a simple melody from very humble and obscure beginnings triggers an avalanche of addiction from the music craving public, defying all rules of advertising and promotion.
The truth is that we are creatures of music. It is in us, in our DNA. Before we learn to speak, we are bobbing to the gentle melodies of our parents lullabies, maybe even in the womb. And that soothing sound can calm a child in pain, in hunger, in suffering. And we as adults, can be soothed in the midst of suffering and pain by the sound of a familiar melody. The right music influences our behaviour in lots of ways that commercial industry has tapped into.

During corporate worship, when a body of believers joins in song, the words and melody can have a powerfully uplifting and unifying effect. The experience of being one voice amongst a choir or simply being surrounded by voices in harmony or unison can be strongly uplifting. Being one violin in an orchestra has a similar effect.

It is accepted that to some degree, music is almost always part of the gathering together of Christians.

The New Testament exhorts us to share in spiritual singing.

Today, music has become a powerful stakeholder in the western church. The commercialisation of Christian music has raised the stakes of Sunday worship leading, and added a dimension that is in many ways unhelpful, and certainly a trap and a frustration.

The music industry has led to wealth for many stakeholders, and this is attractive to many, including Christians.

The perception that great performances, great songs, and swelling crowds leads to some form of success, including financial success, may divide the attention of worship leaders, faith based musicians and songwriters, including myself.
Envy, greed, anger and pride can muddy the crystal waters of Sunday worship.

Promising amateur musical Christians can become disheartened..;

"Surely my faith is genuine, my gift in music from God, and my dedication to the art sincere.
But what separates me from the “successful” artists or song writers?
Is it my equipment, my church, my style, my abilities, my geographic isolation, my attitude, my lack of financial support, my age, my gender, my appearance, my cultural heritage, my denomination, my relationships (or lack of- with the movers and shakers) or something else?


Are others making sure that I don’t make it for financial or other reasons?

Or is what i do simply not that good?"

So many frustrating possibilities.

And what of the recurring dream that just when you have the opportunity to share a song with someone “important” something doesn’t work, like a guitar lead, or a speaker or a microphone, and the opportunity dissolves before your very eyes.

Meanwhile people who are younger, much younger, less experienced, and less mature in faith become megastars and icons in the "church".

It is such a frustration and a trap.

Could it be that God himself frustrates every effort?

Maybe, like Cain’s offering, our musical offering is not acceptable to God?

All this is truly within the realms of possibility.

God has every right to lift up certain songs and certain people, and allow others to remain obscure. Yet, in my reading of the scriptures, it seems the people of faith are subject to many frustrations and sufferings, that ultimately God uses in unexpected ways, significant ways, important ways, that do not result in financial security or wealth, but rather spiritual security and peace.

Maybe it’s OK to sing the popular songs and overlook the meatier ones. Maybe it’s ok to be an excellent artist or songwriter, yet to never receive accolades. Maybe accolades and “success” lead to dangerous departures from faith, at least temporarily.

And maybe our most useful function in God’s world, occurs in obscurity.

There is a mystery in music, as well as a trap and frustration,

Yet it is in our DNA, and is to be celebrated and enjoyed along with all other good gifts that come from above.

Ultimately, music is a free gift from God like oxygen and water. Yes it can be bottled, labeled marketed and sold, with great success, but it is also available free, in large quantities, and at high quality. 

If people use our music, it is a privilege, and what is ours, is only borrowed from the Lord, and ultimately His.

Yes, artists have legal hold over their creations, and I am not here trying to justify illegal downloading. Stealing is a sin.

God knows how to provide for our needs, and in particular, for artistic believers. But he doesn't promise monetary wealth for anyone, in fact, the New Testament repeatedly warns against this trap. 

What we as Christian artists of any form should be seeking is simply contentment, and the good use of our skills, as well as the appropriate honing of our skills, as well as right relationships with our circle of friends colleagues, family and church family.

If we are writing or choosing songs for Christians to sing, we should be sober, mature, thoughtful, and selfless in this role. 

When Jesus asked Peter if he truly loved him, the outcome of this love was not to feed himself, but rather to feed Jesus lambs.

This is how we serve God with our various gifts.


And God himself is the source of all true music

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Relevance

Having just visited another small rural church in NSW, I was not at all surprised that my wife and myself, in our mid 50’s, even apart from our adult children, were the youngest people at the church service. 
Though I could have been, I was not disappointed.
As I mature in age and character, I am learning to accept the reality of most people’s situations.
I think it is likely that most average, main stream Protestant churches in outer suburban and rural locations are made up of smaller, ageing congregations, meeting in historical church buildings with many empty pews.

How significant is the lack of younger generations?

Does this imply a failure in theology, planning, integration, teaching, training, zeal, true (as opposed to nominal) faith?

Or is this the judgment of God now upon the church, for our secret past sins?

Is the current church simply a historical remnant of an ideology doomed to failure?

Could a new generation of fervent believers reverse or improve the state of a dying church?

Or is the reality of the future church in Australia to be the ongoing ministry of Pentecostal or para Pentecostal movements such as Hillsong, and the inevitable demise of mainstream denominations, some slower than others?

My honest answer is I don’t know.

But what I do know is that the elderly congregants at this mornings service were actively and joyfully involved in the celebration of Gods word and in the sharing of communion.

Their (our) age does not disqualify us from relevance in God’s family.
In fact it was elderly people who first recognised the holiness and true identity of Jesus as an 8 day old infant ( Simeon and Anna) in the gospel of Luke.

What if God is happy to “waste” the skills of thoroughly trained and gifted ministers on small, frail, elderly congregations?

Who can say that God cares more for young families than elderly people?

Does a large congregation made up of employed people with children deserve more faithful and theologically relevant teaching, as well as better sound systems and general use of technology, than older, smaller, dying congregations?

Society today would say yes.

But God, what would God say?

If we were to take the comparison across into offensive territory, we could suggest that these small, elderly, dying congregations should simply be closed, officially, after all, they “serve no useful purpose”, and they are clearly on the way out. Like euthanasia for the terminally ill, these geriatric meetings should simply have their life support turned off.

Yes, I have suddenly diverted to that morally loaded issue of euthanasia.

Is it even possible that a church would consider the case for mercy killing? Sadly, the answer in Australia at present is yes.


“The smouldering wick he will not put out and the bruised reed he will not break.”
“Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there”.
Does God write-off the elderly, the feeble in mind and/or body?

The scriptures (God’s word) sound a resounding “no”, to those who willingly and faithfully look for His answer.

For even from frail and feeble hearts, God receives true praise. And this sacrifice of praise is acceptable to him. While ever we have life and breath, let us honour the name of our wonderful Saviour, as well as the faith of our brothers and sisters, no matter what age.

May God flood our land with a hunger for righteousness, drawing all people to himself.




Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Measuring Stick

You can only measure to the accuracy of your gauge. You can’t measure fractions of a millimetre if your ruler only has centimetre markings.
A hair’s width does sometimes make a significant difference.
At other times it makes no difference at all.

Purity in manufacturing calls for high degrees of accuracy in measurement and discernment. For example, the silicon crystals in electrical semiconductors must be greater than 99.9999% pure (and the impurities are very specifically added.)

But what about purity in our moral beings.

What gauge or discernment do we use for these measurements?

To measure centimetres accurately the markings on a ruler need to be accurately and evenly spaced. What if only some of the markings were accurate but not all of them?
Though some measurements would seem correct on our ruler another ruler would read differently. Which one could be relied upon?

This is the problem with our sin, our moral compass, and our bias.

Jesus said to the Pharisees, who believed their moral compass was precise and finely tuned, that they would strain at a gnat yet swallow a camel.

In other words, their judgement of sin and purity was simply to their own liking and they were blind or indifferent to the weightier matters of the law.

Others of us know clearly that our moral compass is basically non-existent, but we take refuge in the knowledge that others have committed what we believe are far greater crimes, and that if anyone were to call us into question, we could pull out our knowledge of their failings and somehow nullify their argument.

But when the Lord, the Holy Spirit appears and acts in our lives, our biased, inaccurate, weak moral compasses are consumed by holy fire.

Suddenly we are undone, as we are convicted of guilt, judgement and righteousness (Gods holy, utterly pure and impeccable moral standards) and we can only cry out; “who will save me from this body of death?”

Thanks be to God, who so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

Monday, June 3, 2019

The scum of the earth.


What if I suggested that there was an apostle, one of those godly men, hand-picked by Jesus, that everyone hated, not only in his own time, but even down through history, and especially today, especially amongst the modern church?

Who do you think I would be referring to?

Well there was a man named Judas, who was chosen by Jesus, and who, we know, in the end betrayed him, and later, out of uncontainable remorse (but not repentance) killed himself.

Despite the fact that Judas did not become an apostle, he is not the one I am referring to. 

(An apostle refers to one of those significant people, who were part of the initial formation of the church at Pentecost, were eyewitnesses of Jesus, and upon whose teachings the whole church is built. The best example is Peter.)

Yes, Peter is probably the most famous apostle.

But who is the most infamous, the most controversial, the most hated, even in his own time, even by the church, then and now?

Of course, I am referring to Paul of Jesus (Saul of Tarsus).

As I re-read the book of Acts, I am again transfixed by this man chosen by God. Chosen not because of his faithfulness, or abilities, as he is first introduced as a key enemy of the Christian church, and all who believed in Jesus. He was passionately on a mission to find and arrest, and even kill Christians for their offensive seeming irreverence of Moses and everything Jewish, and their delusional belief in a self-acclaimed religious charlatan called Jesus. This cult was labelled the “Nazarene cult”. How could anything good come from Nazareth?

Yet, Saul, of all people, was stopped in his tracks by a blinding light, the Lord Jesus who clearly identifies himself. And Saul was left blinded, with specific instructions for his future. From this point forward, Saul, who later became known as Paul, was single minded, and unswervable in his mission to give witness to, and preach the foolish, offensive yet powerful message of forgiveness of sins that comes through trusting in the name of Jesus, the chosen one of God, who will soon appear to judge the living and the dead.

Paul was willing to suffer hatred, humiliation, imprisonment, stoning, slander and even shipwrecks in order to go where he believed God was leading him. Even with repeated warnings from his dear friends that he would suffer imprisonment and death, he stubbornly returned to Jerusalem, where he was quickly arrested and falsely accused.

Paul was even willing to go and preach to the people that no-one in their right-jewish mind would go to. The gentiles. That's us. To Jews in those days, the gentiles were unbelieving pagans, not worthy of true religion. It would be like throwing pearls before swine. Thankfully that did not stop him.

What was his motive?

Was it money?

Yes, he was eager to collect provisions for the church in Jerusalem which, by implication was suffering poverty. (But not for himself)

Was it fame?

Yes, he was willing to refer to himself as the top of the pile. The chief of sinners.

Was it sex?

Yes, he was quick to point out to young men that it was better to marry than burn with passion. But for those that were like him, it was better to stay single, and be single minded in serving the Lord. Because having a wife or a husband seemed to allow in the worries of the world.

It was Paul who wrote the majority of the new testament. Probably much of it from time imprisoned.

His most beautiful writing must be the chapter on Love, in the 13th chapter of 1Corinthians.

His most deeply theological writing must be the book of Romans. (Even Peter admits that his writings are hard to understand).

And his most hated writing today must be that of the role of women in the church, followed closely by his specific warnings about the sin of homosexual acts. (He never highlighted homosexual acts above other sins such as dishonouring of ones parents)

Why is it that this man suffered as he did?

Even when he was arrested in Jerusalem, it seems as though the church there abandoned him, having his own nephew come to his aid and help avert an ambush that would have killed him. Though they celebrated his mission to the gentiles, did they ever really get over his persecution starting with the death of Stephen?

Did they feel his sins had finally caught up with him, and it was his turn to suffer what he himself had inflicted on the church previously? (This is pure conjecture on my part)

God had plans for, and reassured him that he would witness before Caesar himself.

Did Paul ever become disillusioned?

My reading of Acts as well as all of his letters suggests no.

The closest we come to is Paul’s words that he pleaded with God three times to have his “stake in the flesh” removed, a messenger of Satan, something that caused him continual suffering. What this was, we don’t actually know, but he found acceptance knowing that God’s grace was more than enough, and that this pain was actually a blessing that would prevent pride. Paul could so easily have had pride in all he achieved even in his own life time.

His own words were “To live is Christ, to die is gain”.

In other words, while ever he had life and breath, he would gladly witness to the truth of Jesus crucified, risen, and glorified at God’s right hand.

And this he did.

And what of the signs and wonders?  At one point after he healed a cripple in the name of Jesus, the crowd wanted to worship him and his companion Barnabas as the gods Hermes and Zeus. But Paul and Barnabas refused, tearing their clothes. (That went quite badly leading to a near death experience. Was he dead or not, after being stoned?, you be the judge.)

Even his shadow and his aprons and handkerchiefs had power to heal.

How unbelievable it is that today, our modern church scholars so easily dismiss this precious instrument of Jesus.

How sad it is that many in today’s western church ridicule his teachings.

What if we, in raising ourselves above this humble, diligent, committed, obedient and loving servant of our Lord Jesus, experience what those seven sons of Sceva did, taking on themselves the ability to pronounce the name of Jesus, whom Paul preached, independent of Paul’s and Jesus authority?

The demon they were trying to cast out said it clearly; “Jesus I know, Paul I’ve heard of, but who are you?, and they were beaten badly.

I worry that some of our theologians, teachers and leaders of today believe that one day they will stand before the Lord and be rewarded for “sorting out” the “erroneous” teachings of Paul.

Instead, their work will be burned up, and they themselves will escape but only just, like someone escaping through the flames.

Paul himself warns us about building carefully on the foundation that he laid, which is Christ, that he too, is Holy Spirit filled, and that he himself carries the marks of Christ.

Yes, Paul referred to himself as the chief of sinners, the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world, and never allowed himself to forget that he once persecuted the church, which by default, according to Jesus’ own words, was persecuting Jesus himself.

And Jesus did show Paul how much he would suffer for his name.

Yet, if there is one man to whom Jesus would say “Well done my good and faithful servant” I believe that man would be Saul of Tarsus, Paul of Jesus., the Apostle to the gentiles, the Apostle to us.