INDULGENCES – a twenty-first century epidemic

 

Five hundred years after the Reformation, we need to be delivered yet again from the curse of indulgences.

 

 

It is a well-known fact of history that when Luther sparked a revolt among the churches of Europe one of the catalytic issues was the sale of indulgences. At that time, an emissary from Pope Leo X was sent to Germany to extract payment from people so that their dead relatives could be freed from the purgings of Purgatory. He even developed little songs to be sung along with his often-hyper-dramatic portrayal of how the rellies were suffering: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs.”  Payment of money instead of going to jail was a well-established practice in the legal systems of Europe at the time, so the church borrowed the idea as an alternative form of fundraising. The funds themselves were almost always used to pay for extravagant building projects or lifestyles for the bishops. Since Leo himself was a member of the affluent Medici family, he was good at spending money on himself.

If the sixteenth-century church had problems with indulgences, the twenty-first-century church also has problems with indulgences – more specifically, self-indulgences  Once again, it is an issue for the church because it has liberally borrowed values from the wider culture. This time it is not coming from the top down. It is coming from the bottom up. This time it is not about securing some comfort for the hereafter, but has everything to do with the here and now. The twenty-first century western version is not about indulgences, plural but indulgence itself – self-indulgence.

It seems to me that self-indulgence has become the highest priority for most people I know in the community and many people I know in the church. The matter of following Jesus is no longer about denying yourself, taking up your cross and following Jesus. It has become exactly the reverse: self-centred; self-preserving and self-determining. The question is, what kind of reformation do we need to deal with this form of indulgence? I’m not sure that if I go and nail up a list of complaints on the door of our church facility in Belconnen the ripples will be felt either in the lavish home entertainment rooms of people’s houses or the equally lavish resorts at Phuket.

The epidemic of self-indulgence in our part of the world has immediate and telling outcomes for all kinds of churches, whether large or small:

  • people are less willing to take responsibility for anything;
  • people are less willing to make long-term commitments;
  • the average church attendance of supposedly committed has dropped to 1.6 times per month;
  • parents are building their lifestyles around indulging their children rather than modelling loving self-sacrifice for Jesus and the kingdom;
  • using US based statistics supposedly committed Christians watch more than three hours of TV per day but have little time for reading the Bible or praying;
  • people are less and less accustomed to reading or conversing at depth – in a “twitter-sized” world we learn that even though the limit is 120 characters, most people don’t like reading more than 40.

My (possibly overgeneralised) observation is that the reasons for these trends are not just generational culture per se. We are not looking at something different, but something less. I am confident that the forces driving the change have much more to do with self-indulgence than with godly passion. That is, the shaping force comes from the kingdom of this world rather than the kingdom of God. If that is true, we need to push back against the trend consciously and develop lifestyle habits and traits that are the result of Holy Spirit transformation, not contemporary cultural accommodation.

 

HERE ARE TEN THINGS YOU CAN DO TO PUSH BACK:

  1. Go and read the Bible. Find something there that is inside the Bible but outside your current experience. Pursue God and fellow believers until this has become part of your life experience rather than something you read about. When you have done one of these, go and look for another one.
  2. Get connected to a Christian group or ministry who do kingdom advancing things that are way beyond your comfort zone. Make a commitment to hang out with them for at least three months, or as long as it takes to gain a genuine understanding of what they are doing and how they are doing it. When you have accomplished that, find some other people around you who will do something similar in your own church or sphere.
  3. Instead of going on a cruise or to a resort somewhere for a (self-indulgent) holiday, find a group who are responding to some form of direct human need and offer to spend your holiday time serving with them.
  4. Instead of reading, watching or listening to your usual restricted range of inspirational leaders (podcasts, video streaming, etc.). Talk with two or three fellow believers in your world whose commitment to Jesus you admire. Ask them who they listen to/what they are reading. Make a point of listening or watching what they have found helpful and seeing how it might relate to your world.
  5. Make a list of five well-known Christian leaders you respect. Look up their websites and search carefully until you discover what they are reading and who they are hanging out with. Even if you have to write four or five emails that they don’t answer – hang in there till you make enough contact to get your information and then spend time reading, listening and watching the stuff that tells you where they get what they have.
  6. Plan in advance to spend a day – or as much of a day as you can – in some place where you can pray, worship, read and reflect on the values that shape your life. Make a list of the things that you spend 80% of your time on in an average week. Ask Jesus to comment on what changes need to be made for you to become the person He has created you to be and to fulfil the purpose he has created, sustained, redeemed and empowered you for. Ask him specifically to show you areas where you are caught up with sterile self-indulgence and then listen hard enough and long enough.
  7. Decide to go on a TV/video streaming fast for a week or even two weeks. Plan in advance what you will do with the time that is available to you. Intend to spend at least a portion of that time doing something that meets the needs of someone else – if you can, outside of your immediate domestic sphere.
  8. When you have a day of a weekend free from other commitments, ask your spouse or someone close to you what might be something special they would like to do – or find out by other means what they love doing. Suggest that you would like to spend the day doing that with them. As you spend that day together, make sure you observe, ask questions and gain an understanding of why they like doing it.
  9. Who is the person in your world who represents the “least?” (cp. Jesus in Matthew 25, i.e. the least in your family, in your workplace, your neighbourhood or a community group. This will be the person who is furthest from the insider club in the group; the misfit; the difficult personality; the most arrogant or the one you would most naturally avoid). Decide that you are going to spend a month trying to reach out to them and get to know them well enough to be a blessing to them.
  10. Begin to learn and practice the principle outlined by Paul in Philippians 2:1-18. Make a list of the things that are described there as a way of developing a Jesus-like attitude to the people in your normal world. Make a deliberate attempt to consciously DO one and then two and then three of them. Explain to one or two trusted fellow believers what you are doing so that you can report your progress to them and ask them to pray for you and help you. Set a specific period for this experiment and measure your progress. See if you can make this to become a core part of your lifestyle.

LEFT, RIGHT, CENTRE or OUT OF THIS WORLD?

 

For years I’ve been involved one way or another in bits and pieces of the political process.  About ten years ago or so I began to support a young Christian person who wanted to serve God in the political arena;   first of all, in the ACT and then Federal.  As part of that process, I joined the political party to which he belonged.  It was my first formal brush with the political system.  Even though my passport says so, I am not really an Australian citizen.  When I started following Jesus I transferred my citizenship to the kingdom of God.  We have a kingdom and I have been working hard to see the loving purposes of my King extended. When it came to belonging to a political party I was initially shocked at the level of tribalism among my fellow party members.  I then became aware that I am not tribal when it comes to politics.  When this was noticed by fellow members, I explained that I was only involved in the party because of my commitment to the kingdom of God. That fact ensured that I never made it beyond branch president.  In the end, it made me a fringe-dweller – but I was able to serve my King and his Kingdom quite successfully regardless of my low status.

I admit to having a long-held rather low view of the political process.  I believe it is necessary and I have met some very wonderful, hardworking people whose motives are as pure as any others I have come across.  But the system is so deeply flawed that it can’t be trusted to produce much more than a policy merry-go-round.  There is one reason for this.  It is called the ballot box.  I realise that the only thing that has a telling impact on any political process is public opinion.  It is the holy grail of any twenty-four-hour news cycle for most politicians – regardless of what they say to the contrary.  What greets a politician or political party when they awake each day is the fact that there will be a definite number of cycles before the next ballot, whether it is a leadership ballot or an overall election ballot.  That’s what makes the system dysfunctional and self-limiting as a worthy agent of change for the better.

I, myself, have always had Anabaptist-leaning views about this.  At the time of the Reformation in Europe when all of the reformers were lining up behind the favour of their respective princes, the Anabaptists lined up alongside the Sermon on the Mount.  As the church found with Constantine, not many princes liked the idea of loving their enemies.  They mainly wanted to be free from Roman Catholic control and even more, taxes. The Anabaptists took Jesus’ words seriously when he said to Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 20) and Paul’s when he said, “Our citizenship is in heaven…” (Philippians 3)  I have always been suspicious of two things when it comes to the work of serving my king as an ambassador in a foreign country (i.e. Oz for me).  What is counter-intuitive for people who follow Jesus is the fact that serving this kingdom doesn’t mean separating ourselves from anything or anyone.  Quite the opposite.  Just have a read through one of the four Gospels in the New Testament and you will see Jesus totally belonging to the kingdom of God and totally committed to loving every person in front of him every day of his life.  Sometimes Anabaptists did withdraw, but those who took the Sermon on the Mount as the values parameter for a new kind of community did the exact opposite.  Those are the Anabaptists I admire and belong to.

I have always been suspicious of two things when it comes to the work of serving my king as an ambassador in a foreign country (i.e. Oz for me).  I am totally convinced that for the church to endorse any form of civil government is the signing of a death warrant for both.  It has, and always will, bring out the worst in both.  The second suspicion is the one I see happening today where Christians see the political process as an agent of kingdom transformation.  When this happens the narrative sounds as though the kingdom comes through legislation.  It is especially tempting to see things this way when our heritage has instituted things like prayer at the beginning of the day in the Parliament.  In Australia, this has been a particularly well fed, and well cared for sacred cow.  I can remember old people in Balmain (Sydney) telling me of the time when the tram drivers would take their foot off the throttle as they passed the church on Sunday morning just so that the people could worship without distraction.  But it is Constantinian to assume that the church has a right to tell the parliament how to do its business and is offended when its views are not valued.  We have not been called to be the moral police of the world either.  We have been called to offer redemptive love in such a way that people will get to see what a great bloke Jesus is and want to follow him like we do.

For these reasons, I remain anabaptist-ish in my views about the work of the church and its relationship to the work of the legislature. They need to listen to each other, but they should never trust each other.  The church should never be able to be trusted with earthly authority because it will always sully it’s calling to represent Jesus and the kingdom of God.  The church should never trust earthly authority because it will never be able to do what only the message of the church can do – that is, change a person from the inside out and then change a community from the inside out.  Another way of saying that is to repeat the Greg Boyd saying that the kingdoms of this world will always be exercising power OVER people, to control them. The kingdom of God will always be called to exercise power UNDER people, to lift them up.  Those two kinds of power will never be able to work together or truly serve each other.  The legitimate kingdoms of this world will always have to gain their credential from some form of ballot box and will therefore need a majority vote.  The kingdom of God will only work through the free and willing choice of individuals and needs only one vote – that of a person to lay down their life so they can serve Jesus.  The kingdoms of this world will always need to work through law.  The kingdom of God only works through grace.

In owning my anabaptist-ishness, I need to point out that I am not a one-hundred percent-er basically because the last thing I want to do is to be separate from every part of my community.  I (we) are the only group I know in the world who have been specifically commanded to love every single human person, indiscriminately and redemptively.  Other groups pick and choose on the basis of tribal preference.  We are charged with the task of showing twenty-four-seven indiscriminate redemptive love – and we are told to GO and do it, not just open the doors of our comfortable buildings and hope nice people come in.  Our citizenship is not tied to any ethnic group, nation or tribe.  We have renounced that citizenship and all of its trappings.  We hold a temporary transit visa in whatever jurisdiction we might find ourselves.  We do well to remember that and not try to live as if we had dual citizenship.  To use another metaphor, we forget that we signed up for battle.  We are soldiers whose weapons are cross-shaped love and Jesus-looking forgiveness. Paul counsels Timothy in this way,  “Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer.” (2 Timothy 2).  Jesus has provided us with eminent practical samples of what it is like to have citizenship “out of this world” but such citizenship drives us lovingly to those who have been captured and enslaved.

This is the people movement to which I have dedicated everything I am and everything I have – and consider it a privilege and a joy.

SHOULD WE PAY TAXES TO CAESAR?

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The article in the Fairfax-owned Canberra times by one of the ‘hard men’ of the media world is nothing new.  It’s exaggerated polemic vitriol suggests either extreme arrogance or some lingering bad experience with church.  There is nothing fair about this opinion piece, and I doubt that any reasonable person would argue that it is balanced.  It is state-of-the-art secular fundamentalism that we have become familiar with in recent times.  Freedom of speech being a high value for any society demands that such views be aired.

One of the idealistic ‘holy grail’ quests of the anti-religious part of the political left within our society has been to wrest one of the few remaining benefits afforded people whose work is deemed to be religious as well as charitable.  I am talking about the fringe-benefits allowance.  People like me who are employed by churches and religious organisations are able to allocate the portion of our income that is used toward our living allowance as being non-taxable.  It is a non-specific percentage that needs only to be justified because it is used for living expenses – not entertainment, nor holidays, nor luxuries.  Just living expenses.

I place rants like this in the Shimei category (2 Samuel 16).  If you read the story you will see that Shimei was a supporter of Saul, who, when David’s son wrested the throne from his father, cursed David and threw stones at him as he left the city in defeat.  It was David’s reply that makes this story special and creates the connection with Garry Linnell.  When Joab asks David for permission to go and kill Shimei for his rant, David says,

“No!” the king said. “Who asked your opinion, you sons of Zeruiah! If the Lord has told him to curse me, who are you to stop him?”  ……. Leave him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him to do it.”

Linnell has justification in his rant, not because of the fringe-benefit allowance to people who work in Christian organisations, but because many Christian organisations buy and sell without having to pay the same tax as everyone else does.  Some organisations make literal millions of dollars simply because they can legally claim this exemption.  Even though they are actually running businesses in competition with other businesses who do have to pay tax.  It may be legal, but it is unrighteous.  The ‘world’ picks this up quickly and can see the hypocrisy.  There are any number of reasons why the name of Jesus is shamed among the community and this happens to be one of them.

Sadly this abuse of privilege by larger organisations taints the innocent ones with the same guilt.  The FBT allowance for individual employees is fair and reasonable.  It is there because the government of a former day recognised the fact that many Christian people were working for small incomes and were doing much to help and heal the community.  It is still the case.  But we need to get used to this kind of criticism.  I think God is allowing it for the same reason as he allowed the Babylonians to come a destroy the city of Jerusalem and its temple.  If the people of God who are supposed to represent the nature and purpose of God to the wider community set aside this calling and abuse their primary calling for the sake of personal or collective gain, then it leaves God without a genuine witness.  His testimony will come in the form of allowing all of this greed, wickedness and self-serving to be exposed and ridiculed.

Garry Linnell ought to be seen like David saw Shimei:  as an unlikely voice from heaven against corruption that has been going on for a long time and has more recently been exposed.  We should take it as a call to repent and search our own hearts and lament the error in the hearts of our brothers and sisters who have brought this shame upon all of us.

Having said that, it is also true that Linnell is also exposed as having an irrational antagonism for all things Christian (perhaps religious as well).  His passion is more religious than some of the sections of society he has been criticising.  He demeans his trade because he presumes that such a use of free speech will help build a better community.  If he is waiting for the time when Christianity is laughed from existence I fear he will not live long enough.  He needs to be reminded of the names of some of the famous people who have made fools of themselves in similar manner: Voltaire, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Bertrand Russell are among the notables.  To presume that an atheistic world will be a better place will put him in league with people who have been responsible for the deaths of more of their fellow citizens than any other-  Stalin and Mao Tse Tung for starters.

So we need to quietly thank Garry Linnell and others with the selfsame voice as we quietly repent, commit again to love our enemies and lay down our lives for the good news of redemptive love.

 

 

TOTALLY SELF-LESS and yet TOTALLY FULL[-FILLED]

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I am a heart-before-head person, for sure.  Whenever I am with another person, or even attending some meeting where there are numbers of people I am always much more aware of what the heart of it is about before I engage with the rationale.  I don’t tend to notice much about physical appearance.  Some years ago now, someone spoke prophetically about me and said that I viewed people from the inside out.  I think that is correct.

This is how I look at Jesus.  When I see and hear Jesus, I know I that the heart of God is being made tangible – what we are seeing is the heart of the Father.  Since God IS love, then it is the expression of pure selfless love.  That can actually be measured.  This love is willing to be beaten, shamed and then die on a cross as the worst of criminals. It was also measured by the things that happened during the three (or more correctly thirty-three) years of ministry.

One of the ways I read that is to watch Jesus’ responding to someone who butted in on an agenda that was in progress.  Can you believe that “love” doesn’t take exception to people who butt in?  There was a man whose friends busted up a meeting in a house by ripping the roof off to let their friend down.  There was a woman who pushed through a crowd while Jesus was rushing to save a dying girl.  There was a blind guy yelling and yelling on the side of the road leading out of Jericho.  And wait, there’s more!

The truth is that I don’t like it when I have something I want to do and someone butts in.  It happened to me today.  And the more salient fact is that what I was doing wasn’t critical and urgent.  And the people who butted in were in genuine need.  There was something pathetic in me that wanted to be with them and get it over with as fast as I could.  Being fulfilled seemed to associate with doing what I wanted rather than what they needed.  I quickly realised this was a very bad deal.  Not at all Jesus-looking.  I urgently called out to God to help me to BE his heart and then I could connect with them on that basis.  It took a few minutes for the old to pass away and the new to come, but it definitely happened. What is more to the point was the fact that it was much more worthwhile and personally satisfying.

It’s one of those funny things that identifies the presence of the kingdom of God.  When we set aside self-preference and self-indulgence in order to make the heart of God tangible, the result is a sense of fulfilment that is much greater than just doing what you want when and how you want it (my rough definition of self-centredness). It becomes the story that happens when we trust what Jesus said,  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.  Whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life will save it.  What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and yet loses his own soul.”  (Matthew 16)

LESS IS NOT NECESSARILY MORE

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We live in an age where the various forms of mass communication or social media have reduced the attention span of average people to smaller and smaller units.  Like all cultural trends, it has happened over a period.  As such we now assume certain things as fact which have never actually been proved.  They have just been placed before us often enough for us to presume that it must be so.  Add to that the appeal of personal convenience and you have a fully marketable product.  In this case, I am talking about truth.  It could almost be said that if something is going to have a chance at being accepted today it has to come in a thirty second to three-minute package.  It is even more preferred if it is in video format.

No a lot of this is totally understandable.  Because we ‘have the technology’ we can ram home a point in a slogan.  We can back up the slogan by a fifteen or thirty-second video clip.  We can produce a three sentence paragraph.  Not only so, but we can then work on a twenty-four-hour news cycle and create a series of add-ons so that every day for the next two weeks you will be getting our message as if it is something new.  It will be different enough to make it attractive, but it will be another dose of the same drug.

All of this targets one thing. It appeals to human convenience. Human convenience is just another form of self-indulgence.

What if there are truths that cannot be embraced by this process?  What if some things will not be grasped without deeper engagement, more thorough discussion and then practised.  Imagine trying to teach piano students in this manner.  How many people exist whose lives have been transformed in a good way have been able to do that on a diet of thirty-second grabs.  Would you like to submit yourself for brain surgery to a physician who had gained all his understanding and expertise by watching adds and door-stop interviews with other great surgeons?  I don’t think so.

It is true that more is not necessarily more.  Long-winded treatises and never-ending sermons don’t automatically qualify you for more.

But I would be just as suspicious with the “less is more” theory as well. I would be happier if we measured a presentation, training or teaching by why and how it challenged the aspects of my personhood that need to become different.  Then we could measure the same process by the fruit.

By the way, that’s what Jesus said.  “You will know a tree by its fruit,” not its thirty-second ad campaign or extra offers.

@Kindomlookingchurch

 

@Kindomlookingchurch

God is calling people to plant the seeds that will restore the church as a living proclamation of the kingdom of God.

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Ephesians 3

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if we are to look to the new testament information about what a kingdom looking church would look like, here are some of the answers.  They are a summary of two small pieces of new testament research.  The first list is from the sermon on the mount and the second is a summary of the specific teaching, given by Jesus, about the kingdom of God – as applied to a group of believers (we).  The summary in each case is a description of what the value might look like if a group of people adopted it as part of their collective calling.  In essence, it becomes something of a “confession of faith.”  It may also be viewed as a “pictur” of how God sees you and your fellow believers.

KINGDOMSNAPSHOTS                                        (Matthew 5-7)

  • We need to depend on God every day for everything (5:3)
  • We grieve for everything that is separated from God. (5:4)
  • We fulfill our own calling by helping others fulfill theirs (5:5).
  • We want righteousness only as a gift from God (5:6)
  • We show mercy to everyone whenever they mess up. (5:7)
  • We are more concerned about the purity of our heart than how we look to others. (5:8)
  • When people are separated together we work to find the way to bring them together in oneness. (5:9)
  • We don’t care what unjust or hurtful things other people might say about us or do to us as long as we get to be more and more like Jesus. (5:10,11)
  • We are determined that people will know about God because they know about us 5:13-16)
  • We want to discover God’s intentions so we can embody them and serve them (5:17-20)
  • We don’t stay angry with anyone or allow divisions to remain. (5:21-26)
  • We only have sexual desires for the person to whom we are married. (5:27-30)
  • We hate divorce and will do all we can to strengthen marriages. (5:31,32)
  • We honour all our spoken commitments (5:33-37)
  • We find ways to bless the people who give us a hard time. (5:38-42)
  • We find ways to love people who are against us. (5:43-48)
  • We are generous without any need to be acknowledged. 6:1-4)
  • We pray and fast to relate to God not to impress others (6:5-18)
  • We want the kingdom of God to come much more than caring about money or possessions. 6:19-34)
  • We are always more aware of our own failings than those of others.(7:1-6)
  • Our first priority is to ask and seek God and trust what comes from him. (7:7-11)
  • We treat other people the way we would like to be treated. (7:12)
  • We don’t care how difficult something is. What matters to us is going after more and more of the life God gives. (7:13,14)
  • We measure leadership and discipleship by its fruit, not by its words. (7:15-20)
  • Knowing Jesus better is more important to us than any other relationship. (7:21-23)
  • We discover what God has said by doing it, not just by hearing it.(7:24-27)

KINGDOMWORX

  • We are prepared to set aside what we currently think in order to trust what God says (Mark 1:15 Jesus begins ministry )
  • We depend on Holy Spirit power not human ability, even if it is consecrated ability. (John 3 Jesus and Nicodemus )
  • The transformation we seek is that which begins inside a person when they choose to follow Jesus as King. (Luke 17:20 religious leaders ask when the kingdom will come )
  • We want our personal and corporate lives to reflect more of what is happening in heaven. (Matt. 6:9 Lord’s Prayer )
  • We know how to challenge every different kind of incumbent earthly kingdom. (Matt. 11:1ff Jesus and John the Baptist )
  • We have authority over demonic presence and influence (Matt 12:22ff Jesus accused of using demonic power )
  • We want God’s word for become our life experience (Matt. 13:1ff the sower )
  • We want to be different to but not separated from every part of our community. (Matt 13:24ff weeds in the crop )
  • We start with what is small and unseen but with an irresistible capacity to influence the whole (Matt. 13:31ff mustard seed )
  • We are willing to trade what we already have in order to gain what we have never experienced from God (Matt 13:44ff treasure in a field )
  • We take complete responsibility for doing our part, but completely trust God to do his part – and know the difference. (Mark 4:26ff the farmer sowing seed )
  • We serve the highest cause from the lowest human status (Matt 18 the greatest in the kingdom )
  • We work on the basis of forgiveness, rather than blame and guilt. (Matt. 18 unforgiving servant )
  • We treat everyone among us with the same honour and receives the same reward (Matt 20, workers in the vineyard )
  • We do the work with those who are the most committed, not the most talented (Matt 22, the wedding banquet )
  • We are looking for and ready for God to make his presence known regardless of how it impacts personal preference or convenience. (Matt. 25, ten bridesmaids )
  • We only gain more authority by fully implementing what we already know and understand from God. (Matt. 25 the talents )

 

SEE WHAT YOU HEAR

Mass-Advertising

Good communication is in the ear of the listener

 

Communication is a universal issue and one that has challenged humanity for as long as there has been humanity. I don’t know whether cavemen and women traipsed off to the local marriage counsellor for lessons in how to communicate better, but I’m sure the problem existed. One distinctive of the era in which we live is the incredible means of communication we have developed. My own lifetime has seen unbelievable change. I can remember the time when our fragile phone lines would go down, and we would have to hop in the truck and go over to the neighbour’s house if we wanted to talk to them.

Now we have so many options: mobile phones, wifi, computers, television that enables you to look through the window of a house in Syria where a rocket has just exploded. The fact is that more and more people don’t even have regular phones anymore. They are fast becoming outdated technology. It doesn’t mean we are better at communicating of course. It proves the point that the “medium is not the message” (cp 1964 book by Marshall McLuhan) That is as much a problem now as it was for the cave men and women.

I had a funny experience of this a few years ago when I was travelling on the tram that links Glenelg with the Adelaide CBD. I was involved in a conference held in the city. I used to catch the tram during the early part of the peak hour. The first day I found myself sitting in a carriage with people sitting with their backs to the wall of the carriage looking inward at each other as they travelled. Then I noticed that every single passenger had earphones in their ear and was listening to music (or something) on their mobile phones. Lots of people but not the sound of a human voice could be heard. Only the rattle of the tram on the tracks. Now I am a country boy. It was, and remains part of my personal culture. I like talking with people. Not so much talking as listening. I like engaging with other people and listening to their stories. I became slightly annoyed. Here I was in a small temporary pocket of humanity and everyone entering the carriage had already or immediately built walls to avoid communicating with anyone.

Eventually, I decided to take a preemptive strike in the cause of maintaining the dignity of basic human recognition. I bumped the man next to me on the arm and said in a sufficiently loud voice, “Hey mate, would you mind giving me your phone number so we can have a conversation?” Fortunately, he had a good sense of humour. He pulled out his earphones, and we laughed together and then had a great conversation for the rest of our journey. I still remember that journey, just because I had a conversation rather than it being just another soul-numbing example of the pathetic individualism spawned by Western cultural values.

Our culture has created another communication problem. It comes from the fact that we have made a virtue out of self-centeredness. The challenge for anyone who would venture to communicate in our society is that we have loaded up either the communicator or their means of communication with the largest part of the responsibility. If some communication happens, it is because the communicator has said something creative and interesting enough to grab our attention or has used a method of communication that has caught our attention. I am told that people in western societies like mine will be attacked by between 4,000 and up to 10,000 messages each day. It seems that we will notice less than a hundred of these. It is the primary challenge of marketing companies to offer people wanting us to identify their products to attract our attention. That problem is escalated by our growing capacity to build an “attention wall.”

In the light of all this modernity, it is interesting to hear something that Jesus said. It is a funny statement when translated literally from the original Greek. In Mark 4:24 he says, “See what you hear.” He is saying, “pay careful attention to what you hear.” Instead of laying all of the responsibility for communication on the speaker or the medium of communication, he is challenging those listening to take responsibility for what they have heard. In the twenty-first century context, he could well have said, “Make sure you pull down your attention wall and, among the four or five thousand messages you year today, make sure you listen and think carefully about what you are hearing from me.”

As much as at any time in history we need to step out of the mainstream of our culture and make some deliberate choices about what we hear. There are so many options. It is so easy to opt for the message that entertains us when we should be opting for the one that produces quality of life. There is a crisis in the church and therefore an even greater crisis in our community. People inside churches have made the mistake of being passive hearers. We only hear things that grab our ever changing palate for passive entertainment. We sit like blobs in front of TV screens and allow unworthy messages to sate our appetite. We hear everything that won’t matter tomorrow and won’t build anything of value for anybody. We similarly set aside the opportunity to hear from Jesus – not only hear but be careful to think and consider what we have heard. We can also treat what we hear from God in the same way as we treat rubbish that comes to us through mass media.  It becomes the next fix in a dependence that will ever be wanting to hear but never receiving anything of value.

Here is the full text from Mark 4.

He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.”

“Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”

CHRISTIANS – THE REAL, THE PHONEY AND THE DIFFERENCE

Counterfeit Fifty Dollar Notes

We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.

First John 2:3-6

As with all things that have intrinsic value, Christianity has its share of fakes and counterfeits. What is more interesting than the fact is the motive. I know why someone would go to the trouble of making a real-looking hundred-dollar note, but why would anyone want to pose as a Christian? Well, there are a few well-known suspects. Some people as old as I am might remember the Oscar-winning performance of Burt Lancaster in a movie called “Elmer Gantry.“  It was the story of a slick car salesman falling for a lady revival preacher and discovering that there is money to be made as well as a girl’s heart to be won in small town revival meetings. It was Hollywood’s sad comment on the many revival preachers who combed small towns, especially in the southern states of the US.

It is evident from the words written by the apostle John (above) that fakes were not a late inclusion in Christian history. In the Roman world of the later first century, there must have been people who showed up among Christians whose commitment to Jesus Christ was false. What is notable is the only test he puts forward to tell the fake believers from the real ones was the degree to which they were Jesus-looking. If you have a closer look at what he says, it is obvious that a Jesus-looking process doesn’t happen just because someone wakes up and breathes. Becoming more like Jesus depends on two things: loving Him and therefore obeying his commands. Many will have had some exposure to books that talk about different “love languages” (The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman). He lists the following:  gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service (devotion), and physical touch. Jesus also has a love language. It is obedience. Three times within the one discourse he says, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14-16). It’s not just obedience, it is love and therefore obedience. I think the reason for this is because there are many things that we need that don’t come naturally, but are necessary for our hearts to be transformed.  Obedience gets us from the place of no experience to some experience. When we obey it is not just a dutiful act, it is an action that gives expression to faith. Based on that faith we are supernaturally changed by God.

Getting back to fakes and phonies, if John is telling the truth, then being a Christian is not just about a momentary commitment any more than marriage is just about what you say in a ceremony. When we see people who may well belong to churches, speak Christian language and even be involved as leaders but who are not lovingly obedient to Jesus, we can only assume that they are not Christians at all. We have no authority to be judges (i.e. draw final conclusions), but we are entitled to be fruit inspectors. I think we need to be very clear that not everyone who claims to be a Christian IS a Christian. Genuine believers will be those who, when observed by others, demonstrate their faith in Christ by the fact that they are lovingly committed to obeying what Jesus has commanded (e.g. in the Sermon on the Mount) and who are therefore actively and deliberately becoming more and more like Jesus. We must expect that there are people who want to tell us that they are Christians, but their lifestyle will simply declare that they are not. We are not talking about a state of perfection; we are talking about a journey and a direction. Most of the people who want to claim Christianity but don’t have the lifestyle aggressively avoid any form of accountability. Those whose commitment to love Jesus is genuine are glad to know about things that need to be transformed and will foster their own ways of being accountable.

Churches in western culture places like Canberra, where I live, not only foster disobedience but encourage it by the pathetic way they produce never ending programs that are devoid of moral standards and geared to satisfy self-gratuitous consumers. When we encounter false disciples, it is not our job to judge them, but to lovingly expose and challenge them – as Jesus did with the Pharisees, Sadducees and teachers of the law during his three years of ministry.  This confrontation was entirely motivated by redemption, as ours should also be.

 

WHAT WOULD IT TAKE?

Dog jumping for joy

This is a doggy version of the way I want to serve Jesus !

 

I am not a righteous person, but I want to become righteous without comparing myself to anyone else but Jesus.

I am not always right, but I want to know what is right without noticing that I know.

I can’t yet do the things that I want to be able to do, but I want to learn how to do them.

This is the reason why I read the Bible a lot and try to embrace fully what it says. I read the Bible just because it connects me with Jesus and Jesus is the only person I know who shows me what God is like so that I can worship him, please him and help fulfil his purposes for the world that he loves. It is the reason I pray a lot, because if I don’t, I will not become different. It is the reason I hang out with other people who want to serve God because I get to see things that come from God in them and get encouraged to go after what I see in them and learn from them. I hang with a particular team of people that I do life and ministry with because they are the ones who lovingly keep me accountable to the commitments I have made. I can make mistakes without shame, and I can open my heart without fear.

So I just don’t really get the lifestyle that I see around me. So many Christian people I know don’t seem to need to read the Bible, don’t pray very much, are not really accountable to anyone and don’t take responsibility for much that relates to the advance of the kingdom of God. I don’t get people who show up to the weekly meeting of the church, on average, one and a half times per month. I just don’t get that. I don’t think I am judging them; I just don’t understand how that works.

What would it take for people to feel deeply the need to connect with the Father and the Son that they were hungry for his Word and desperate for his presence? What would it take for people to just obey what Jesus said rather than be selectively obedient? What would it take for a congregation to love worshipping together, praying together and going out with a determination to obey and bringing back stories of what God did and what didn’t work?

I don’t want to belong to church in the way that people belong to the Ainslie Football Club. It is a football club, but not many people join to play football. They join because it offers them lots of ways of being self-indulgence. I hate self-indulgence. It steals from the people who need our love, our patience our support and our resources. I don’t want to run a church like the managers of AFC run their club. I want to lead people to be passionate, selfless, risk-taking followers of Jesus.

So I want to find out what we need. Then I want to run to God because we need to be there so we will run to do things because we have been there. I was with a pastor of a large church recently. It had a membership of about ten thousand people. He told me that the church had been built on two things: persistent prayer and passionate obedience. That’s the kind of church I want to be a part of.

ANTI-ACADEMIC or PRO-REPRODUCIBLE?

many_rabbits

I have just had an argument with myself.  I’m not going to tell you who won because I don’t want to sound either arrogant or depressed.  It has to do with the mountain range that has been built in western Christian culture through academic study.  My argument was to question whether something I was writing was going to sound banally anti-academic.  I wouldn’t be able to say that I am tribally anti-academic.  By that I mean, I don’t like reading or studying, so I belittle people who do.  I spent seven years in theological training before my ordination.  Three different institutions.  I reckon I read a new book every fortnight.  Then there are audio teaching, podcasts and the like. I would say that would put me to the right of centre on the spectrum.

What I am critical of is the idea that more study and greater learning will make a person a better follower of Jesus.  More to the point, that academic work will enable a person to be better at reproducing disciples or exercising kingdom ministry in general.  I am not convinced of that.  I see all of the places where Christian people go to learn how to serve God and find that many of the people doing the teaching are hardly serving God at all – apart from gathering, analysing and representing information.  I know, I know, it doesn’t apply to everyone who does academic work as part of their training.  I just notice that academic training, in and of itself, does not necessarily equip a person for reproducible ministry.  It often just makes them academic experts.

There is a branch of philosophy that studies epistemology.  It is researching the theory of knowing, or how we come to know things.  Its original meaning was made up of two Greek words, one referring to “justified belief” and “knowledge.”  So it studies how we know things and come to conclusions about what is true.  This is a crucial issue for Christians of course.  We are people who are convinced that Jesus is the “way, the truth and the life.” (John 14).  We also have a book that we believe is revealed truth.  My problem is that I am not sure that the epistemological process is the same for embracing Christian truth as it is for mainstream academic truth.  For example, I am not convinced anyone can discover the truth just be gaining a body of information.  My observation of the regular academic world (and I may not have done sufficiently extensive research) makes me conclude that it is possible to do academic study in a particular field nd then spend the rest of your life teaching about that area without any involvement in actual practice.

I am convinced that this is not possible when it comes to Christian revelation (knowledge of God).  At the risk of oversimplification, I would offer Jesus’ quote on the subject of epistemology:   “So Jesus said to those Jews who believed in him, “If you live by what I say, you are truly my disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31,32).  This is my proposition. I think academic research is helpful when the researchers are willing to put into practice what they have discovered and present their findings by telling the stories of their implementation.  Until then I think academic research has limited value and can often get in the road of best practice Christian living.

The same goes for background study or elaborate philosophical speculation about the simple message that is represented in the stories contained in the Bible.  It is even worse when someone comes to read a particular incident or section of the Bible with a rigidly presumed systemic view (e.g. Calvinism, pre-millennialism, etc.).  The stories in the Bible are meant to connect us with Jesus.  When we get connected to Jesus, we gain the life and liberty that comes with truth.  When we decide to live by that life and liberty, we will know things.  The most important issue here is re-producibility.  That simple process is re-producible.  Everyone is in, and no one is excluded.  It works the same for everyone no matter how old, young, educated, uneducated, rich or poor.

So I am only interested in theories that have become practices.  There is no such thing as theoretical  Christianity.  And there is no such thing as a Christian truth that is not able to be reproduced in anyone, anywhere no matter who they are and what their capacity.

And I don’t need to tell you who won the argument.  My great humility makes it impossible.