Tuesday, August 01, 2017

CP 280 The hide! Asking Christians to do better...

CP 280 The hide! Asking Christians to do better…
The other day I came across a headline on the ABC News website which really caught my eye. It was this: “Asking Christians to do better by domestic violence victims is not an attack on Christianity.” It was an opinion piece penned by Dr Steven Tracy, who is professor of theology and ethics at Phoenix Seminary, and founder of Mending the Soul Ministries. Dr Tracy was reflecting on the savage response directed at two journalists, Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson, who had themselves written an essay entitled, “’Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God.” One of their assertions was that many women did not experience the Church as a sanctuary. Having read Dr Tracy’s article, I felt a strong nudge in my spirit to add my tuppence worth.
Now there are a few things I know about the Christian Church all over the world at this time of history. One is that the Christian Churches have been caught up, often for centuries, in the glory and honour that goes with being enmeshed in the power structures of our various cultures. Now that these privileged positions are being aggressively challenged on many fronts, as institutional power and status appears to be slipping away, there is both pain and humiliation. Not only that. There are also potent temptations to fear and panic, let alone victimhood and aggression. And because we have for so long identified ourselves as key institutions in secular society, we have a traumatic identity crisis on our hands.
A second observation is that far more often than we would like to admit, Christians, and the institutions they represent, have given their enemies, and their friends, plenty of justifiable reasons for public condemnation.
Third, the Apostle Paul was right when he nailed the truth that husbands have a particular vulnerability to harshness. He wrote, “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.” (Colossians 3:19)
There is a fourth obvious thing which needs to be faced. Christians, both Evangelical and Catholic, are prone to be outraged when someone questions their biblical assumptions or pastoral understandings. We are so, so sensitive to criticism. Which brings me to my urge to write about that headline. When I read it and digested it, three circumstances rose up in my memory with some force.
1.      As a school kid, being acutely aware of situations where the Parish Priest insisted that Mrs X must return to her marital home regardless of how she was treated by her often drunken husband. The marriage vow had to be upheld regardless of the shame, humiliation and brutality. Part of the shame was that the honour of the Church was at stake! At the time, as a loyal church member, I agreed with the priest.

2.      During my training as a Pastor of the Lutheran Church one of my mentors made me aware of a couple who worshipped every Sunday, yet the husband beat his wife almost daily. There was no thought of intervention because the dominating thought was that, above all, the marriage must be preserved. The Pastor’s only comment, which has stayed lodged in my spirit, was this: “Imagine what it might have been like if he had not been a Christian.”

3.      I was made aware, as a younger Pastor, of a scenario where a dominating husband regularly hit his wife, and on occasion even took to cracking his whip near her ears if she was in any way non-compliant. In that particular case, neighbours who were aware had assured her of support if she wanted to get out. I blessed both her and the neighbours in their resolve and endeavour. She finally escaped 25 years later! Yes, that’s right, 25 years later. It took her that long to find the freedom to get out. Partly that was due to the hold he had over her, but it was also the fear that she would be doing the wrong thing and therefore bring shame on the family and the church.
Those are my three anecdotes. There are many more. Nowadays, in situations of domestic violence, I have little hesitation in telling an assaulted person that there is no requirement to stay. I know that it’s rarely easy to get out, but if necessary I will help. What I want to highlight now, though, is that the Churches have to acknowledge that we were absolutely part of the problem these women had. It’s so easy to be doctrinally right and morally wrong. We needed to lift our game and we still do. We have come a long way. We have a way to go. If we are to love as Jesus loved, then we will have his compassion, and we will be safe people and our churches will be safe places.


Friday, July 14, 2017

CP 279 Don't mention the power...

CrossPurposes 279
Don’t mention ‘the power’.
Hello friends, trust you are all well. Whatever happens, just hold one thought in your head which Adam and Eve chose to disbelieve. The Lord God Almighty is good, does good, and works things for our good, and has good plans for us, and makes good promises to us which cannot fall to the ground. All of this is underwritten and guaranteed by Jesus’ ‘good’ life of obedience and utterly unrelenting trust, followed by the ‘good sacrifice’ of Good Friday. Wherever you are in Christ, whatever your circumstances, whatever your need, your heavenly Father knows about it, knows you, and is always for you. Faith in Christ is gift, and also a work of continuing trust. As the Ad had it, ‘Get with the strength!’
The rest of this simple CrossPurposes is handing on some related truth, partly from a devotion entitled, “Grace is Pardon – and Power!” which someone passed on to me. It was penned by John Piper. It’s followed by some scripture verses. In some circles it's not thought 'proper' to speak of power as a follower of Jesus... So? Enjoy!

“Grace is Pardon – and Power!
By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)
Grace is not simply leniency when we have sinned. Grace is the enabling gift and power of God not to sin. Grace is power, not just pardon.
This is plain, for example, in 1 Corinthians 15:10. Paul describes grace as the enabling power of his work. It is not simply the pardon of his sins; it is the power to press on in obedience. “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
Therefore, the effort we make to obey God is not an effort done in our own strength, but “by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified” (1 Peter 4:11). It is the obedience of faith. Faith in God’s ever-arriving gracious power to enable us to do what we should.
Paul confirms this in 2 Thessalonians 1:11–12 by calling each of our acts of goodness a “work of faith,” and by saying that the glory this brings to Jesus is “according to the grace of our God” because it happens “by his power.” Listen for all those phrases:
To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The obedience that gives God pleasure is produced by the power of God’s grace through faith. The same dynamic is at work at every stage of the Christian life. The power of God’s grace that saves through faith (Ephesians 2:8) is the same power of God’s grace that sanctifies through faith.

Just putting some of the ‘Power’ verses before you…
Luke 9:1
When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases…
Acts 1:8
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
Acts 4:33
With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all…
Romans 1:16
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.
Romans 15:13
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
1 Corinthians 1:17
For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel – not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
1 Corinthians 1:24
…but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
1 Corinthians 4:20
For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.
2 Corinthians 10:4
The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.
Ephesians 1:18-20
I pray that… you may know… his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms.
Colossians 1:11
…being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience.
2 Timothy 1:7
For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.
2 Peter 1:3
His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.

And finally, a full prayer from Paul…
A prayer for the Ephesians
14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family[h]in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

CP 278 The reverend learns to read

CrossPurposes 278

The reverend learns to read.

Hello friends, this CrossPurposes is about the ability or freedom Pastors have to do the reading without which they cannot properly do the job they are supposed to do. It is not about how much time a pastor puts into preparing a sermon, nor is it about his (her?) ability to read English well. The thoughts I’m expressing in this blog are the end product of a reflection process that began in the months after I began work in that far away Parish of Eudunda in 1979. It’s about a personal journey.
I flew out of the starting gate, preaching/teaching all that wonderful knowledge which had been mine to absorb during the years at the seminary. It was only a short time later that I realised that sharing someone else’s hard-won insights without truly digesting the text myself was to deliver, often at least, stale bread to my hearers. It clearly had to be more than information, more than simply quoting the ‘Confessions’ and citing important people like Dr Martin or Doc Hebart. My insight and conviction then, and still is now, is that it made the world of difference if the message I was delivering on Sunday morning was to have impact, it must first be straight out of the scripture. I knew that, of course, but one week early on in Canberra, around 1984 I had an ‘ahah’ moment while working on a text from Mark’s Gospel. It changed the way I read the scriptures.
Something prompted me to ask, ‘What is this Gospel telling me about the Kingdom of God?’ That question has driven much of my searching in the scriptures for over 30 years. It became cosmic clear that it was not only about ‘reading the Bible’, but also how I read the Bible.  It makes a world of difference when I read the OT as having just one purpose, which is to prepare us for ‘The kingdom of heaven’ at hand in Jesus the Christ. I have been a relentlessly annoying ‘New Covenant in Christ’ person ever since. So that is the first text to read before I get to the pulpit.
Another awareness developed. I found I could not freely preach the message to the congregation on a Sunday unless it been preached to myself in the preparation. It was then, from the congregation’s point of view, that my preaching came across as a living word. What I’m saying is that there was a second text to read each week, quite apart from the scripture. That text was my own heart. I often felt conflicted, and Saturday was always stressful, because each week the apparent hypocrisies of my life got a painful fresh-airing. Not only did the Law give me a bruising each week, but the sheer wonder, grace and holiness of my Lord and his journey often sat me on my backside as well. It took me years to snap the pressure of that tension. It came when I finally saw, slow and obtuse learner that I am, that as a Christian I have two hearts. Yes, two. I have the heart of the first Adam, which betrays me at every point. I also have the new heart of the second Adam, my Lord Jesus the Christ, who loves me at every point. The two are at war. I have come to know that the reality of that never-ending war is a sure sign I’m in a good and right place.
At some point down the track it dawned on me that there was a third text to read, and, surprisingly, I’d been reading it for a number of years already. I’d had significant training in how to read it as well. My Vicar-Father was an Englishman named John Sims who freely admitted that his entire time of ministry had been transformed when he started to ask the Kennedy-Biesenthal questions as he visited his people. The more he asked those two questions the more he realised that he needed to ask those questions. And so he did. In every home in his parish. The result was, as I’ve said, transformational. In-home discussions switched from being a nice cup of tea and hasn’t it been dry weather, (or hot, wet, cool, windy, nasty – take your pick) or about the footy, or the crops, or whatever. Suddenly his people were speaking of grace, and ‘no condemnation now’, and forgiveness and Jesus Christ, and joy and hope, and the Kingdom, and a heavenly Father who loved them.
I learned so much from him about reading that third text, the hearts of my people. I had to know my ‘sheep’ and their journeys. I copied him in asking those two questions. I have asked them in each home, often sitting around the kitchen table, in each parish where I have been a Pastor. I was hearing their stories, mostly unedited and unembellished. These are the stories of grief and sadness, joy and hope, pain and rejection, yet keeping faith in the Lord’s promises. Many lived with a sense of constant failure and unforgiven sin, all the while longing to be clean and drinking fresh water. Long years of bondage and times of despair interspersed with seasons of encouragement. They did not know what to do with their unasked and unanswered questions, all mixed with thankfulness and somehow also knowing they were loved. Almost all simply longed to be heard from the heart. I learned to question my clever pastoral assumptions. I needed to.
So, I had three texts to ‘read’ each time I prepared a message. First, the scriptures, secondly, my own heart, mind and will before the Lord, and thirdly, the hearts and minds and lives of my people. There is, of course, a fourth text to read, and reading it is part of knowing why Jesus the Christ came in the first place. It took some time to put it into words, but when it did it was obvious. I had to learn to read the text of the world in which we live, especially so because all of us are enmeshed in it, usually without knowing it is so. It is now almost 39 years since becoming a pastor. Hardly a day goes by without my becoming aware of some other way I have danced with the world. I’m glad the Spirit shows me these things in the context of a merciful Father under the Cross. I deliberately listen to the undercurrents in the news, in the culture and in the global environment. I don’t shy away from knowing about the very worst that the human race is capable of, either communally or personally. Often it’s disturbingly depressing, but my sense of marvel and awe about my heavenly Father’s holy love, and the majesty and magnitude of the gift delivered in and through Jesus the Christ, and the insight, conviction and power the Spirit gives, knows no bounds.
Strange feeling…
Writing this CrossPurposes feels strange somehow? Maybe it’s because we assume all Pastors have always known these things. But that is an assumption too easily made. Especially in regard to the text which is in the hearts of their people, I’d challenge every single Pastor I know to regularly sit with their sheep over a kitchen table and love them enough to let them share what is really in their hearts. Now that would be something…


Monday, March 27, 2017

CP 277 Vietnam Report March 2017

CP 277 Vietnam Report March 2017
What could fifteen or so farmers have in common with a fisherman, a builder, a game hunter, a barber, a couple of motorbike fruit-sellers, a man who milks rubber trees, two woodcutters, a factory hand, a motorbike-taxi driver, a former orchardist and a former watchmaker? They are Pastors or preparing Pastors of the fledgling Evangelical Lutheran Church of Vietnam (ELCV). Throw in a couple of other fulltime pastors, an English language translator, a specialist in collecting and reselling junk, a wedding caterer, a beautician, and a couple of other occupations and you have this amazing mix of 36 participants at the 3 day Vietnam Australia Lutheran Bible Institute course (VALBI) held in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) from March 14-16. I was privileged to have been the teacher on this occasion.
You can gather that the vast majority of these pastors work at other jobs to stay alive. That is why Asia Focus commits to completely cover the cost of travel and food and accommodation. During the time they attend the course some must forgo their regular income. Simple as that. Last month many of you contributed almost $4500 toward the running cost of the March VALBI. Brilliance which honours our gracious Father.  
The Bible Institute meets every second month, and brings together Pastors and trainee Pastors from all over Vietnam for intensive teaching. The teaching is provided through Australian Pastors, and the course is organised by the leaders of ELCV in conjunction with Asia Focus Australia, headed by Pastor August Fricke from Gympie in Queensland.
On this visit the bulk of my teaching was about Jesus Christ in Isaiah. My driving passion is to enable people to know how to read all scripture, especially the Old Testament, through the lens of what has been established through the coming, life, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Christ. I don’t have the words to describe the moment when the eyes and face of a pastor reveal that a ‘truth connection’ has been made. Teaching about the gracious righteousness of our Lord, knowledge of Him, faith and trust in Him, and of the Spirit, was pure joy in this scenario.
Also included in the teaching time was a segment on being a Pastor, and another on the first 15 Articles of the Augsburg Confession. There is a real challenge in sharing with a group whose background is cultural Buddhism, and who know practically nothing about Popes and Europe, let alone Germany and Wittenberg. But, for heaven’s sake, did they ever cotton on to, ‘Justified by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith.’ My hearers had no trouble ‘getting’ that the God who reveals himself as Father has provided something that no other faith can or has provided, that is, a Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! No other faith system has such a grace mechanism which allows forgiveness to be extended and righteousness bestowed.
We also had a great time thinking about Luther’s catechism material on daily bread. This was so good because many of these Pastors live close to subsistence level and know perfectly well what it means to trust our Father for essential needs. We had a great laugh too when we ended that session with an acknowledgment that a good clean toilet is part of daily bread too! (One soon discovers that you can’t be precious about toilets over there, especially in outlying areas.)
Before we commenced teaching for this VALBI class I had offered to oversee a prayer time on Wednesday evening for course participants. Every single person attended. More than 30 came forward for prayer. Their needs are not so different from ours, but I had a far stronger sense of their ‘receiving’ than I usually get at home. Next morning they began to share what had happened to them. Unashamedly they stood up and spoke of physical healing, of fears stilled, of encouragement received, of the Lord’s speaking to them in the night, of worry overcome, and being able to trust the Lord for a way forward, of an infilling of the Holy Spirit.  I’d lead such prayer times again at the drop of a hat.
My Vietnam friends do life and ‘church’ in the raw. I spent my last full day in Vietnam in the Mekong Delta going to the locations of small, village churches. In each case it was the Pastor’s own house. No airs and graces, no smugness or bragging. The church building is usually the nearest room to the front door. (Can you even imagine up to 30-40 people meeting in your lounge room with part of it open to the elements, with the dogs and chooks coming in and out?) Food hospitality was amazing. Cooking was done over open fires inside the kitchen, and in some places most floors were bare earth. But the joy! I know it’s just my comment, but I could sense, even almost touch, the glory of God in these humble and lowly circumstances. (Yes, I know. I should expect that given that our Lord specializes in shining in situations like this.) In each place there came spontaneous requests and prayers for blessing and healing.
It was a joy to return to the orphanage at Phu Ly and see the rooms your support built. Our support was sufficient so that money was available to begin a second building and an inspired donor from Italy (I think) enabled them to finish that and do some more, Just as well because there are now more than 80 children in residence.
Your support enabled so much to happen. There is now a dedicated fund to help resource strapped pastors and churches to access Study Bibles. The orphanage has been blessed. There are funds available for translation work. And more than $4000 was contributed to underwrite the course.
What now? First, I have been asked to teach another week in November this year and I will be going. Humanly speaking, I know in my heart before the Lord that I have done some good stuff in my ministry over the years. These teaching stints in Vietnam are way up there in my experience. It is an open-door, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of setting in the hearts and minds and spirits of pastors, in a new, young, uncluttered church, a way of reading, knowing and interpreting the whole of scripture through that remarkable grace-filled lens of the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. (I’ve been thinking about why Vietnam tugs so strongly on me. I think it’s because I have known so many men of my age who spent a good part of their early 20’s in that country!)
Second, your support for the VALBI course, not just for the weeks I teach, but for all of them, is welcome. Other teachers going over this year are Chris Reardon from Cairns (May) Pastor Peter Steicke (July) and Pastor David Christian (September). Any help is appreciated. If you feel a call to make this a priority of it then get in touch with me or Google ‘Asia Focus Australia’.
Well, the Lord Jesus bless you, the Father embrace you in hard-won grace, and the Spirit reveal more of the Glory of the Kingdom to you.