Sunday, December 22, 2013

Grace or Obedience?

This might sound like a funny question, but I recently spent time with a friend, and as we talked, this topic came up more than once.
One side of the argument was that as Christians, we are meant to live out our faith, going where God tells us to go, doing the things God tells us to do, abiding by the principles we know to be Godly.
Many examples were raised of people both recent and past, who have done amazing things simply by heeding God's direction and serving him faithfully in the way God directed. It was clear on this side of the argument, that grace is a vital part of our ability to obey and serve.
The other side of the argument was that we are totally unable to obey God, grace being the only connection we have with him.

I feel I should leave the argument as it stands.

But of course this is a blog, so I am going to give my opinion.

I will give it this way.

Paul, the Apostle was a great man. Well, we certainly owe him a lot regarding our faith. He went everywhere, and suffered in terrible ways, all out of his conviction of who Jesus really was.

At whatever point Paul is called to give account of himself (assuming that we agree that we all one day will give account of ourselves), what do you think Paul will say?

"Yes, Lord, you know how hard I worked for your gospel, all the years, all the suffering I endured for your Name's sake, now allow me into your presence'?


"Wretched man that I am, who will save from this body of death'?

Yes, it is wonderful when we follow God's law, the way of the Spirit, obediently, accepting suffering, and walking in the works that God has prepared for us. BUT, at no point in our lives, are we be able to say that now we have achieved something that grants us God's favor, God's acceptance, God's stamp of approval.
I know how my own heart and mind work (well I think I know). How selfish, how angry, how un-Christ-like. And especially when I am caught in sin, how I lose all concern for my "record" of obedience, all I want, all I need, is grace. God's wonderful forgiving, propitiating love poured out for me on the cross.
Yes, obedience is necessary. Actually without obedience there is no grace. The obedience of the only begotten Son, Jesus. Who humbly served us in his humanity, obediently going to the cross and bearing the sin of the world.
His obedience. His grace.
There is nothing else.

“Thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Romans 7:25, NIV.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

God Doesn't Fix Everything

I struggled this week.
I worried about facing an angry meeting at  work, I faced a violent patient, and struggled through a very busy schedule.
But beside all of this, I was sulking. last Sunday’s music (which I lead) was bad.
Maybe others didn’t think so, I didn’t ask. I didn’t feel I needed to, to me it was bad.
And this is despite the fact that every week, I, and others, pray that God would bless our music, our efforts, our practice, our sound system, and everything else, so that our music would be a blessing to us, our congregation, and be a fitting expression of gratitude to our wonderful God.
Last week in particular, we had extra people, who wanted to join in. As well as that, I had asked my son to play guitar and sing, sensing he has a gift in his musicality and wanting to foster it further. As a result, we had more mouths than microphones. It was tempting to lose my cool and order people around, as though I knew everything. The battery in the borrowed bass guitar was flat, so we spent time sorting that out, and then it was time to start. The sound levels were all so wrong. I couldn’t hear myself, and I certainly could not hear the congregation.
            I had specifically asked God to bless the music in the prayer prior to the service, explaining to him that we had extras and it could be tricky blending new people without a rehearsal etc etc. I guess, deep down, I knew what was coming, and I wanted a miracle to prevent it.
            As I said, the music was bad.
It was discouraging to me. I felt flat and felt like I had let the church down. I started thinking about retiring from music leading. If I want to look for bad motives, maybe I particularly wanted to impress the visitors we had that day.
            The sermon, by the way, was fantastic.
The music situation is already a bit tricky at the moment as we have added a new member to the band. Adding someone to an established situation is often tricky. As I get older, I cope less well with change. Experience has taught older people like me to stick to what "works". There is some wisdom in that attitude, but it is a wisdom that does not need faith. Youth’s willingness to give anything a go is actually a blessing, and sometimes leads to unexpected wonderful outcomes, as opposed to the consistency of older people, which sometimes leads to boredom
As Christians we are being renewed every day, (2 Corinthians 4:16) so we should be able to cope with changes, trusting God that he will use them for blessing.
            So, last night, after an emergency transfer of a patient in an ambulance, which had a good outcome, I had time on the way back in the dark quiet of the back of the ambulance, after midnight, to ponder our music situation at church.
            I asked God to show me the best way forward. How was I going to bring about changes that would help the music at church? Should I just give up?
            The answer was simple. It was my role, as the person in authority, to confront the situation with loving wisdom. It was time to take the team through a session of balancing sound levels. So this morning, an hour before our service, I addressed the gathered musicians, explaining what was important to me as a leader, and one by one we went through each instrument, with the aid of our sound technician, adjusting faders, carefully aiming for a level that would allow my voice to be heard above the other instruments and voices, and also allow the congregation to be heard. I then went through each instrument one by one, in order of importance, making them just loud enough to be heard.
            Practicing the songs became the lesser priority.
After spending 15 minutes doing this, respecting the opinion of each member of the band, we had the levels better than we’ve ever had them. We had room to get louder for the choruses. We sang a well known, rousing song at a lower level. Yet the power of the song was, if anything, greater. I enjoyed the music, I believe the congregation did too, though I didn't ask them.
The sermon was also great.

God didn’t fix everything last week. He wanted me to work through it this week.
It was the right decision…

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Chaos and Creation

A few days ago my son and I broke up a concrete pathway at the front of our home. A few days later we loaded it up and carted it to our local tip. It took 3 loads to get the job done. For some reason, I enjoy the occasional trip to the tip, the piles of tires, old washing machines, building waste, furniture, and every other type of waste, along with the various mildly noxious smells. Not to mention the interesting characters you run into at the tip.
            It’s great not to have to dress for the occasion. And there’s a great “men’s feel” thing about it. Tips are definitely a man thing.
            As we were getting to the last few bits of concrete I noticed a moth had been caught under the rubble. It must have been in the trailer as we loaded the heavy broken chunks. It wasn’t particularly striking as an insect. Just a good sized, brown, half dead moth. I pointed it out to my son. We ridiculed it’s plight and hopeless state, and threw it off the trailer, along with the rest of the concrete.
            For some reason I started to think about the seemingly pointless end this creature had come to, after who knows what sort of life it had already experienced. I wondered about hopes and dreams being shattered, and the protracted suffering it may have endured prior to dying at a tip.
            I wondered about the plight of countless other creatures, large and small, that go largely unnoticed by humanity, and then wondered about the plight of countless humans who also have lives, hopes and dreams, and then also suffer untimely deaths sometimes due to natural disaster, but also due to illness, or violence, especially in war.

            I also thought about the abundance of creation as I looked at our tip.

Ugly piles of rubbish were quickly being overtaken by grass and wild flowers, as this years rainfall has been above average, bringing with it an explosive spring.

I thought about floods, plagues of locusts, giant schools of fish and flocks of birds, and generally a creation that is bursting at the seems with the sheer volume of life propagating itself.
And then I simply thought about God.  Knowing that he is not remote from his creation, but always present.

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
Matthew 10:29-31, NIV.

Nothing in creation is pointless. Everything points to our creator. Even this moth, ended it’s life, somehow reminding me that God is wonderful, and that his grace is ever flowing to me, sustaining me, giving me purpose.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Absorbing the Hurt

As I get older, I realize I am less worried about what others think about me, I'm a bit more assertive, and I am more likely than ever to bite back. Having been a kid that took bullying from kids half my size, often too scared to speak up about things, I have changed over time. Some of this might be OK. Honesty is almost always good, but mainly when it is motivated by love, silence is better than honesty intended to humiliate.
 When I reflect back on the times I've protested the loudest, I sometimes sense that I am behaving in a way that ignores God's presence and his perpetual action of working good in all things that come my way, no matter how big or small. In other words, I go into automatic mode, which is a mode that thinks and acts only on the horizontal plane, ie a Godless world where only the strongest/smartest/most-theologically-correct survive. In other words, my faith is out of action. Without faith it is impossible to please God. From the horizontal perspective, if someone insults you, and you do nothing about it, that opens the door for the next 5 insults. If someone hurts you, and you do nothing about it, anger simmers and brews internally. Eventually (after many nano-seconds have passed) you end up exploding with rage and hurting the nearest person to you, whether or not they deserve it.
 Depression is inward anger that has not exploded in other ways.
Pain is usually our body's awareness of injury. Without nerve endings, we would not feel pain, no matter what injury we suffered. Our emotional body is wired to respond to love, and I wonder if, likewise, emotional pain/hurt comes when we are injured by hatred/indifference/envy/etc.

Recently I was insulted, indirectly, unintentionally. It hurt. I thought about how I should respond. I decided it would be best to absorb it. It was hard, and in some ways, it still showed. The way I played my guitar during the service probably altered subtly, my joy in being in the midst of God's people, was lessened for a while. But, with God's help, the hurt faded and I forgot about it, until something was brought up in conversation later that day, then all the feelings seemed to well up again, and I then shared my hurt with my wife. That seemed to be the end of the matter. But it could have been far worse. I could have thrown a tantrum, and stomped out of the service. I really did feel like it for a short time. Satan likes to sharpen any hurts we suffer, he reminds us to be angry.

As a rule, I think if I feel hurt by somebody, and I need to say something, it should be to that person, in confidence, and after prayerful preparation.

But it is also worth trying to simply absorb the hurt.

That is what Jesus did for us.

 Even though he didn't deserve to be arrested, accused, sentenced to death, mocked, tortured and crucified, he accepted it. He took it all, with hardly a word of retalliation. He accepted it.

Far above our ability to love, he knew that without his actions, we were lost, forever. Though he was innocent, he absorbed the guilty charge. And even while he was being crucified, he asked God, our Father, to forgive those crucifying him.

God sees everything that is done, especially that done in secret. Not a single sparrow falls, that he is not fully aware of.

If that is the case, we can be sure that he sees our suffering, especially our unjust suffering, and will intervene when the time is right. And that may be after we have died.

But God may not rush to defend someone who has well and truly defended themselves twice over, even if we are theologically correct.

If we trust God, that he is watching over us and cares for us, like a shepherd over his flock, then we don't have to retaliate when our enemies attack. Sheep are really no match for wolves. But the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus said more than once, that he would not lose a single sheep, and that he would leave the 99 to seek and find the one lost sheep.

Every insult, every hurt is an opportunity to learn true humility, and to practice love. The Holy Spirit can take the pain out of our wounds, and give us eyes to see each other through his eyes.

Especially in our congregations, and even more-so in our marriages and families, let us practice reconciliation, let us love one another, let us absorb the hurts, let us consider each others needs above our own, and let us honor our Lord in the way we love one another.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Doing Your Best

My son recently swam at a big meet. He did well, but not as well as we were hoping.
As a parent I think I get more nervous than he does.
What is it that drives us on to spend so much time, money and effort trying to reach high levels of achievement?
Maybe it's glory and notoriety.
Do we see ourselves as possible icons or idols, sporting or otherwise.
Are some people simply chosen for "greatness"?
It applies to many areas of life, academic, sporting, glamour, entertainment, etc. 
There is at least one connection to the limelight, amongst all these various categories. Publicity, and more specifically, media.
The media is the medium by which we all learn the names of our sporting heroes.
It is also one of the rewards for high achievers.
One comment my son made was; at least he made it on TV.

Yes it is one of the rewards for high achievement.

And as a song writer I dream of one day hearing one of my songs on the radio or TV.

What if there were no media?

How would that change our desire and effort?

What if we did things simply for the sake of doing them and had no underlying desire for glory?

Or better still, what if our efforts were to glorify someone else, specifically, God?

That is something worth considering.

And what does it actually mean to glorify God?

As a first thought, I wonder if when a creature displays the beauty/functionality that is designed by its creator, it both satisfies and points to the creator.

When I hear a fantastic song, I am often interested in who wrote it. When I hear a great bit of guitar playing, I am not just interested in the musician, I also want to know the make of the guitar.
It is not by chance that instrument makers often have their trademark clearly marked in places that can be easily found and often stand out in a photo or film.
We often look for the place of manufacture of goods we purchase, putting some value in the place of manufacture, eg "made in Germany".

God has placed his mark on us, more so "in" us. His Holy Spirit.

God the Holy Spirit is not an external mark that can be found in appearances.
He is seen more in a person's character and behaviour.

The fruit of the Spirit are not always obvious to us when we look at ourselves, but God can make them obvious at the right time.

I am suggesting that we bring glory to God not necessarily through high achievement, but more so through right behaviour. Honesty, integrity, kindness, humility, faithfulness etc.
Please look up the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians and 2 Peter and lots of other places. They are wonderful gifts from God to us that point back to him and to his wonderful character.

Failing to be the best at something may well bring more glory to God than being the best.
Being the best at something tends to bring glory to lots of other things, like various brands of companies involved in sponsorship, as well as to the individual themselves.

Don't get me wrong, I certainly wish my son had won his events.  And I certainly suffer a bit of disappointment when I think of the  "could have beens" .
But it is good to remember that God has a purpose for every experience of our lives and that he can and does bring blessing in and through them.

And we can trust that, at the right time, he will use us to bring him glory which he actually shares with us.

Our own glorification is a future promise. 

Praise him.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

"Hangers On"

In Australia, when a guest arrives with others, maybe a friend or two who were not invited, but came as a suggestion of the guest, we call them “Hangers on”.

Usual etiquette by the host of a barbecue or get together is to welcome all, including the “hangers on”.

But when you are one of the “hangers on”, you may not feel entitled to partake of all that is offered, in particular, food and drink. There may well be a sense of not really belonging, and other guests may avoid direct contact, we call that “snubbing”.

So what about Jesus, and us, and heaven, and especially judgement day???

Will we be hangers on to Jesus? Or to others that are better known by Jesus? Will we still partake of all that is offered? Will we get through the judgement?

Wouldn’t it be awkward to be in heaven, but to have to stick to the back-rows, in case God notices that we are there, and decides that hangers on are not welcome?

The woman who touched Jesus robe was a hanger-on. She just wanted to touch his robe, but didn’t necessarily want to speak with him.

(Un)fortunately Jesus realized someone had touched his robe, and wouldn’t let that pass.

With authority he enquired who the offender was.

Trembling the woman confessed her action, and the effect of her being healed.

But rather than chastise, Jesus blessed her, commending her faith.

Though she didn’t realize it, her faith made her belong. She wasn’t just a hanger on.

So it is with us, I trust. We who have faith, though weak, though insecure, though undeserving, though we feel like hangers on, we are adopted by God, cleansed by Jesus blood, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and are full members of his family. What grace, what love, what sacrifice!

Going through the motions

This is an interesting topic I think.

There are many things we do in life that are ritualized. I am a doctor, and I can tell you that every procedure has a ritual preparation, especially in the operating theatre. Sometimes we do these things because it is enforced standard procedure, ( eg routine patient name checking when the patient is well known to all involved) other times we know the importance of every step we take, eg sterile washing and gowning before surgery.
 As Christians, of all genres, we have our various routines/rituals, eg thanksgiving prayer before meals, prayer before service, prayer before everything really. Sometimes the family has to temporarily interrupt an argument to hold hands and pray. Then the argument restarts. Is this ritual valid in that circumstance?
What of our many other rituals such as communion (which every denomination does differently) passing of the peace, etc etc. if we are not in the right emotional or intellectual head space are these rituals still worthwhile? Does God still hear us?
Lets briefly look at the alternative.
We gather for prayer before a meal, but Johnny is angry at dad for some reason so he opts out of the prayer time on this occasion, the assumption being that the prayer is invalidated by the anger.

Is this OK?
Not if I'm the dad.
I would prefer we still hold hands and pray together even if Johnny remains deeply angry. The best scenario is to reconcile before the prayer and shared meal, but even if the reconciliation is delayed, I would prefer we still shared the prayer of thanksgiving. I believe there are times and places where we put our differences aside, and get on with the task at hand. As a father I expect all at our table to participate in the prayer. Ideally reconcilliation happens as part of the coming together.

The scriptures actually tell us to reconcile before presenting our gifts at the altar, and to wait for each other and be equitable at the communion table. (Matt 5:24, 1Cor 11:29)
In the particular case of communion, there is a strong warning from Paul, that we should do so carefully, recognizing the body of the Lord. In fact a flippant attitude towards communion brings on Gods judgement.

Still, going back to the original issue, going through the motions in-spite of spiritual/emotional harmony is still worthwhile, in my opinion, but I believe it is important that there be faith in the motions.
What I mean by this, is that, at some point, we have examined, and have decided there is value in the set of Christian rituals we partake of. Finding that they are a meaningful expression of faith which may help us refocus on our Saviour, maybe in-spite of current "out of sync" state of mind.

Anything we do outside of faith is sin.  But going through the motions is actually an act of faith.
Simeon was going through the motions when the angel appeared to him to announce the gift of a son to be called John.
The people in the temple were going through the motions when they listened to Jesus read the famous passage from Isaiah. The high priest was going through the motions when he prophesied that it is better for one man to die for the nation.
It is important to reflect on our routines and rituals. Are they Godly?, Are they a reflection of the faith handed down to us by the Apostles? When we read the scriptures, are we fulfilling the strong instructions given there?
Are we going beyond the teaching of scripture?
Are we putting more faith in the ritual, than in God?

Sometimes simply going to church is a ritual, people do it for years. Maybe we feel it gives us a higher moral standing in society, maybe we are in the habit but not in the Spirit. Satan goes to church, I'm certain of it. He certainly knew where the highest point on the Jewish temple was.

But the reason we go to church is because of Jesus. The church is the gathered children of God. He wants us to meet together and celebrate and witness to the great gift of his Son, Jesus. 

The motions themselves do not have power. They are not a ceremony, that, when performed just right, invoke God's power. God is not like a complicated and touchy computer that needs just the right programme/software version to make it work. God is the Mighty One, The Creator, His actions are determined truly by his own character, and none other. 

But he calls us to fellowship with himself and each other and has given us wise and lasting teachings to guide the way we relate.

If our mindset is not right, sometimes it is good to opt out of things, but it is better to take a litte time, pray for guidance, be reminded of the tsunami of grace that was generated by the death and resurrection of the Holy One, and allow the Spirit to realign our mindset back to reality, the reality being that God is truly good, my sins are truly forgiven, and I am free to serve, and free to resist and turn away from sin, over and over and over again. And yes, do reconcile with your brother, or sister.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Sense of incompleteness

None of us are complete.
We have not yet reached our goal or ended our mission.
Some of us have more pressing needs; money, food, shelter, health, relief from suffering, relief from loneliness.
Others have desires;
success, riches, a partner, fame, children.
Sometimes we do feel complete, as though nothing could be improved, for example, a beautiful evening watching a sunset over a beach with loved ones. But this situation is temporary.
What is our response to incompleteness?
As followers of Jesus Christ, we look to him for comfort, peace and patience, pouring out our hearts, confessing our needs and desires, and receiving from him.
Trusting that he hears us and cares for us gives us security.
Sometimes we look for short cuts or cheap replacements.
Not only do we look for these, but they also look for us.
Not just the well known stuff like drugs, alcohol, sex and gambling, but hobbies, interests and other crazes can become idols that seem to complete us for a time, giving us new goals and a sense of achievement.
But in reality they suck the life out of us, affecting all of our relationships. with loved ones and with God, and instead of filling us they make us hungry for more, and draw from us adoration and worship, which belongs only to God.
They do not promote Godliness, rather the opposite.
These are the idols which are always inhabited by the hosts of satan, ie demons.
There is no real cure for this. If we are captivated by an idol, it will keep us unless someone stronger can defeat it and release us.
The Holy Spirit is stronger.
It is He who opens our eyes to reality.
He can so flood us as to make us see these precious objects of our love for what they really are; ugly distractions sent to stifle our lives in Christ.
The Holy Spirit can and does redirect our devotion. He opens our eyes to the beauty and wonder of our Heavenly Father.
But not without applying the cleansing of the conscience, otherwise our devotion would be more of an attempt at self redemption.
Yes we have been forgiven and yes we need to continue experiencing the reality of that forgiveness because we are weak and we are continually called by these enemies to find completion in anything but the Day of The Lord.