Friday, August 31, 2007

Letting them in or keeping them out!


31 August 2007

Most Aussies are familiar with “The Rabbit Proof Fence”. Of course it’s a true story movie about indigenous girls escaping from forced separation by trekking 1500 miles through harsh country in Western Australia to get home to family. It’s also deep in the Australian consciousness because it expresses the determination to stop the spread of rabbits into West Australian farming areas! Rabbits were a plague that threatened to kill off viable farming and so were to be kept out at all costs.

Fast forward about one hundred years to the centre of good old Sydney, where in early September 2007 there’s a meeting of the APEC Forum (Asia-Pacific nations). It is high security so the authorities are erecting a 3 metre high, 5 kilometre long fence, made of steel and concrete. The fence will run through the CBD and nearby parks to establish a ‘secure zone’. It will keep ‘unruly elements’ out!

It was very clever, and no surprise, that some wag from the Press dubbed it “The Rabble Proof Fence”. How apt!

Anyway, that name for the fence got me thinking about a verse in “The Message” translation of John’s Gospel. It comes after the Temple Police have been told to arrest Jesus – who was standing outside the Temple – saying seditious things like “If anyone thirsts, let him come to ME and drink… (John 7: 37).

The Police came back empty handed! The High Priests and the Pharisees demand to know why they haven’t brought Jesus in. They reply: “Have you heard the way he talks? We’ve never heard anyone speak like this man”.

Now just note the answer”

The Pharisees said, ‘Are you carried away like the rest of the rabble? You don’t see any of the leaders believing in him, do you? Or from the Pharisees? It’s only the crowd, ignorant of God’s Law, that is taken in by him – and damned” (John 7: 47-48 – The Message).

Do you see it? The spiritual leaders of Israel had erected a fence to keep the rabble out! Not a visible wall to be sure, but real nevertheless, and their exposure in having such a wall drips with contempt and dismissal. The ignorant rabble certainly aren’t “in!”

Ignorant of the finer details of the Law the rabble might be. But the “rabbling” crowds flock to Jesus and hear his words gladly. His heart is open to them. Even though he is the original giver of the Law, the leaders won’t receive him, or accept any claim he makes. But in his presence and words, manner and actions the rabble discerns God’s true intention. It’s to embrace, not to exclude. To welcome and not to wall off. To forgive and not to flay way. To restore and not to repel!

Sometimes I wonder. I wonder, I wonder. I wonder if the way we have the truth, hold the truth, guard the truth and police the truth – well, whether it isn’t doing the exact opposite of what Jesus intended? Just as many of those who were drawn to Jesus didn’t have lives that were in order and beautifully sorted, so now, in our day, there are loads of people (rabble if you like) dialoguing with us on the edges, sussing us out, who are very sensitive to whether they are hearing Law or Grace.

Churches are famously brilliant at succumbing to a Law approach – full of judgement and criticism – and thereby repelling those who seek forgiveness and grace.

Please let’s not got there. Please keep the truth and Spirit of Jesus Christ to the fore – love those who seek God with sincere and repentant hearts. Love those who haven’t got their lives in order but who are searching earnestly.

But there’s more! There are also those in the rabble who actually hate Jesus, his cause and his name. And grace can get hold of them too. Think of Saul of Tarsus who became Paul the Apostle! History has many more.

Let’s not acknowledge any Rabble Proof Fence that Jesus wouldn’t acknowledge. Let’s not be part of building such Rabbit Proof Fences. If Jesus wouldn’t build them, we won’t either. In fact as Jesus the Christ sought to cross those fences in the “wrong direction”, well, let’s do the same! May our churches be a holy rabble.

Bless You


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Pickled Followers of Jesus Christ


22 August 2007

A dozen or so years ago, by odd circumstance, I found myself in attendance at a teaching seminar organized by a charismatic group. At one point the main speaker quoted from an ancient document, generally believed to date from about the time of Jesus. It was written in Koine Greek (Common Greek) which was in use in the first century after Jesus birth. It was from a letter a woman wrote to her sister about an ordinary daily event. It changed my thinking about how God deals with us.

The quote went like this. “This morning I went to the garden and picked a cucumber which I baptized (washed with water), and then I went inside and baptized it (immersed it) in the vinegar”. Simply, she picked and washed a cucumber from the garden, then set about pickling it in vinegar!

Try an experiment. Cut off a slice of cucumber, eat it and record the taste. Next take a pickled cucumber, cut off a slice and record the taste. What’s the difference? Is the pickled cucumber still a cucumber? Why does it not taste like one? Because its immersion in vinegar and spices has caused it to absorb all the qualities and taste of the substance it’s been bathed in.

What a fantastic analogy for the life of a follower of Jesus. Our life in him begins with a washing of cleanliness. And from that moment, having declared us clean, he sets about the task of transformation, of creating a new heart in us, of making our whole life holy. How does it happen? By our being immersed in the Spirit! Does baptized in the Spirit sound familiar?

The newly picked followers of Jesus find themselves immediately the subject of pickling by Jesus Christ as he immerses them in all the things of the Spirit. How does it happen? The Christ based loved of parents. The soothing joy of Christ’s song. The drawing of a young child into the story of Jesus Christ. Love and truth in Sunday School. Reading the Scriptures, especially with Jesus Christ, new covenant focused glasses. Joyful parenting and other adult mentoring. The fellowship of the Holy Spirit in worship and community.

Immersed in the Spirit – baptized in the Spirit – in this way we find ourselves taking on the qualities and nature of Jesus Christ. This is expressed in the fruit of the spirit, (love, peace, joy, nature, gentleness, kindness etc), and the gifts and capacities the Spirit gives (giving expression to the gifts and capacities of Jesus himself). It also causes our walk to be within the walk of Jesus himself – where our story becomes his story, our vision becomes his vision, our mission becomes his mission, our cross is actually his Cross, all infused with and constrained by his love and compassion, holiness and truth. Along the way, he’ll be nailing away our sin, shame and guilt!

(Man the last paragraph was a mouthful!)

That doesn’t happen in a day just as Rome wasn’t built in a day. Pickling doesn’t happen because you share a cucumber in some vinegar and pull it out a moment later, a day later, a week later or even a month later. It’s about constant, long-term immersion in the things of Jesus Christ, actually in Christ and in his Spirit, over a lifetime. It’s especially about the sheer joy and discipline of swimming in the Word of Jesus Christ, the Word of the Cross, the Word of the Lord raised.

Guys when that happens, as it happens, you begin to smell like Jesus! Think the aroma of the gospel. You know, we talk about drug addicts getting stoned! We talk about drunk people getting smashed! But God sets out to pickle us. And I’ll promise you this – your walk with Jesus, which is by faith, will also become a walk with experiences to boot.

Bless you all


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The filing cabinet in my heart

Cross Purposes # 94

15 August 2007

Over the last six months or so, I’ve heard a couple of people put forward the idea that inside each human spiritual heart there is a filing cabinet with three drawers, which contain our spiritual convictions. The top drawer is for those things we’ve been able to file as “Truth”. The bottom drawer is for those things we’ve come to understand as “Lies”. The in-between drawer is labelled “Unsure”.

Most of us are people of good heart and good intention and therefore are innately inclined to live out of our Truth Drawer. We wish to build our lives rightly, and form our views and convictions correctly and honestly. We sense and know that a lot of life and harmony revolves around getting it right. That expresses the beginnings of holiness.

The way we are, the way we live, the people we become is just as much decided by the fact that we don’t want to build our lives on a lie. Instinctively we sense that to do so is going to get us into trouble. The Lies Drawer is therefore also an important reference point for us.

The Unsure Drawer has on file those things we haven’t yet come to clarity and conviction about – and since people are at different stages in life, maturity and spiritual awareness, what’s inside may vary from person to person.

To have “Truth” in the truth drawer and “Lies” in the lie drawer is to have healthy spiritual foundations. Problems arise, however, and massively so, when we happen to have genuine ‘truths’ filed in the lie drawer and falsehoods filed in the truth drawer. I was going to say ‘when this happens’ but I believe that it’s true that every human being, including Christians, are in that actual situation. The only outcome possible is confusion, pain and destructive behaviour.

How do we establish what is ‘truth’ and what is ‘lie’? For the followers of Jesus Christ there is only one way. If he is “the way, the truth and the life” then he is the touch stone, the straight stone by which we can check the alignment of the things on which we build our lives. It’s in him that we see as clearly as ever revealed “what God meant and intended” for human beings. The behaviours God seeks, and the heart stance he looks for, are set out in the Law of God. However, if you were looking for “standards” then we need to know that in Jesus Christ God raised the bar. Compare:

Love your neighbour as you love yourself. Torah OT

Love one another as I have loved you New Covenant.

The New Testament tells us we have the mind of Christ, the Spirit of Christ (of Truth), the meekness and gentleness of Christ, the love of Christ – and on and on. It’s not that we aspire to get or have these things. We have them! We do aspire to live these truths out in daily living. Now that’s the real challenge.

So what are some of these truths in the lies drawer and lies in the truth drawer which stuff up our lives? Here’s some to think about.

All religions are the same in that they are all equal tracks to God.
God rewards all people with eternal life if they live good lives on earth. (check out what is said at almost any funeral)
The only way to handle depression is to get psychiatric help and medication.
All behaviours are okay if they cause no one physical harm.
I can be a Christian without worshipping.
There are no consequences for promiscuous behaviour.
Modern people know that abortion is not an issue anymore.
Baptism and Confirmation mean I’m guaranteed to be okay with God.
There’s no place for a human ‘spirit’ in the modern understanding of people and life.
The devil doesn’t exist.
Hell doesn’t exist (except as a town in Norway).
Yoga, Buddism, and the Christian faith are not in conflict with each other in any way.

I could go on with such examples. Even as I write this I realise there are many who’d disagree with what I’m suggesting. However the two basic commands of the New Covenant are the truths which can and need to inform our lives for salvation, let alone health, harmony and safety.

Here again are the great truths of the New Testament:

Truth One
What must we do to the works of God? (Jews question to Jesus John 6: 24-25)
His answer? “Believe in the one the Father has sent”. ie believe in and trust Jesus Christ. This is the primary command of the New Covenant.

Truth Two
How shall we live? “Love one another as I have loved you!” Jesus Christ to his disciples on the night before Good Friday.

He is truth folks. All else is smokescreen! And he forces us to consider that fundamental question – Is he a lunatic making idiotic claims?
Is he a liar making false claims?
Is he Lord, and what he says and does is revelation of truth and therefore to be trusted?

Happy digestion, or indigestion as the case may be.


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

“No loans from Jesus – just a gift”

8 August 2007

Hi Guys, another contribution from Rene

Earlier this year I found myself thinking back to a sermon I heard quite a few years ago by an Anglican priest. He had been a schoolteacher earlier in his life and he told a story about a particular experience he’d had. Not long after starting in his new appointment an older more senior teacher approached him for a loan of £10, which he promised to pay back next payday.

The senior teacher promptly did pay back the money, but a couple of days later approached him again for another loan, another £10, which he again promised to pay back next payday. Only this time the loan wasn’t paid back on time. It eventually was, but the priest told of how much he had anguished over it and wondering if he would ever get his money back, so much so that he decided he would never again lend money, but would give it away if he had it to give. His reasoning was that if he gave something away, it was a gift, and therefore he had no reason to expect it back, and therefore no cause for anguish.

I loved that story, and decided it would become my principle also. Over the years God has blessed me with the means to give to others in need, and that Anglican priest is absolutely right. If you give it away, you have no thoughts of expecting repayment, and consequently no anguish about any outstanding debt owed to you. I’ve followed that principle ever since hearing his sermon, except once – just once.

Someone came to me a few years ago – someone I like, a good bloke – asking if I could help him out. He could no longer service a loan and was faced with repossession. Now, I like this fellow, but from what he had told me about himself, and the opportunities it seemed he’d been given during his life, I formed the opinion that he had not been as financially responsible as he might have been. It’s a big thing for me – financial responsibility – organising your life so that you can pay your bills on time, pay your taxes, your rent, your mortgage, or whatever. So I decided I wouldn’t give him the money, but rather, I’d lend it and he would repay me in monthly instalments over a period of two years.

Well, not long after, he fell behind in his repayments. He’d catch up, but then fall behind again, first one month, then two, then three, and all the while I anguished about what was owed to me, and I thought some very uncharitable things about this fellow – whom I liked and counted as a friend. In the end we renegotiated a repayment schedule of smaller instalments to be paid over a longer period. But I was determined the loan would be repaid in full – not so much because I needed the money, but because I believed my friend needed to learn financial responsibility. There was a principle involved, wasn’t there?

Then I read some notes in relation to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion – notes about Jesus not accusing his accusers, not demanding his rights, not protesting about his mistreatment, not anguishing over what others owed him, but instead calling out “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

A little voice was saying to me, “René, look at how much you have in your Super Fund. Look at the investments and assets you have.” “Yes Lord, I know – you’ve been very good to me. The balance sheet shows lots of assets and no liabilities. But Lord, with respect to my friend, there’s a principle involved here, isn’t there?”

“Mmmm”, said the little voice. “Yes, principles. But what about the principles you’ve failed to live up to over the years, René? What about the principles you’ve disregarded – and we’re not talking about a piddling little loan repayment are we?” Ouch!

“And, by the way, your friend hasn’t actually disowned his debt to you, has he? He’s never walked away from it; he’s committed to paying it back – he’s just a little behind, that’s all. And those assumptions and conclusions you’ve drawn about your friend and his situation, are you sure they’re correct? Are they fair?” Ooh! Double ouch!

Jesus doesn’t have any problems with loan repayments. He’s cancelled all debts. With his blood he has paid out all that was owed. He, who had done nothing wrong has compensated for our wrongdoing. When he was numbered with the criminals, he didn’t demand his rights or call a lawyer to set him free. He didn’t accuse his accusers or point out how foolish it was for them to think him a lawbreaker. He didn’t protest that he was being mistreated or judged improperly. He didn’t call down the wrath of God to punish those sinners. Instead he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

When others took away the few possessions Jesus had and sorted through them before his eyes, he didn’t fight to hold on to what was his. He didn’t prove they belonged to him by waving receipts, or identification numbers, or loan agreements in their faces. Instead, he called on his Father to forgive them.

His response to those who mocked and insulted him was to purposely turn aside their anger with a softer answer: the only and ultimate answer for sin – a word of forgiveness. It put my attitude towards my friend’s debt into proper perspective and I was able to cancel his debt.

The effect was immediate; the Anglican priest was right. The anguish associated with wondering if I would ever be repaid evaporated. You see, if it’s not yours to expect back, there is no reason for anguish. A gift is a gift, after all, with no conditions attached.

Such is Christ’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life. He doesn’t anguish over debt, because he knows what he has to give can never be repaid. That’s why grace is a gift, not a loan.

René van den Tol
Sydney Lutheran Parish

19 July 2007


Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Annoying Heaven out of God


1 August 2007

Our Men’s breaky guys have been reading a Philip Yancey book on prayer. In a chapter entitled “ASK, SEEK, KNOCK” he gets into two stories Jesus told about a persistent friend who needs help and a persistent widow who needs justice. Jesus’ point is that our Lord is telling us he’s surely listening.
Here’s some of the text:

“Older versions of the Bible apply the little-used word ‘importunate’ to the widow and the borrower in Jesus’ stories. Sometimes our requests will seem annoying, as that word implies. I think of William Wilberforce submitting the same bill, year after year, before Parliament as he argued, importunately, for the abolition of slavery. Or of Senator William Proxmire giving a speech every day on the floor of the Senate – 3211 speeches delivered over nineteen years – until his colleagues finally passed a bill outlawing genocide. I think of Sister Helen Prejean, portrayed in the movie Dead Man Walking, who tirelessly crosses the United States pleading against the death penalty. And of Martin Luther King Jr as he addressed the bloodied Selma marchers from the steps of Alabama’s state capital, voicing again and again their question about justice: ‘How long?...How long?...How long will it take?’
Activists who take up a cause – third-world debt, AIDS in Africa, homelessness, abortion, sexual trafficking, racism, hate crimes, drink driving, health care, unjust wars, the environment, pornography, prison reform, terrorism, human rights and a hundred others – will doubtless grow weary and may be tempted to give up the fight. To them, God must resemble the callous judge or the crotchety neighbour in Jesus’ stories. Jesus insists otherwise. Unlike the judge and the neighbour, God has infinite tolerance for our requests and demands, especially those supporting the cause of God’s own kingdom. Why else would the Bible include so many importuning psalms, so many prophetic laments?
In his sermon ‘The Parable of the Importunate Widow’, Helmut Thielicke notes that ‘God is doing nothing less than offering to his praying church a part in his government of the world’. The giants of history, Thielicke says (thinking of his contemporaries Hitler and Stalin), stride across the stage under the delusion that they are directing the drama of the world, whereas in reality they are only bit players permitted on-stage for a moment. Real power rests in those who perceive history as God’s own drama, who tap into a power accessible only to those who ask and seek and knock. Prayer sets God loose. As we revolt against the world’s disorder in our actions and in our prayers, refusing to resign ourselves to evil, we demonstrate that there remains, in Jesus’ phrase, ‘faith on the earth’.
Generations may pass before persistent prayer receives its answer. How many soldiers died before Thielicke’s own prayers for peace and justice in his homeland Germany were answered? How many Jews died praying for a future at a time when it seemed the entire race was being incinerated? Filipinos prayed, importunately, for relief before People Power brought down a corrupt regime. Millions languished in prison camps before the Iron Curtain fell to the ranks of peaceful protestors. How many Chinese Christians still suffer imprisonment and torture while outside the prison walls an unprecedented spiritual revival continues to gather steam?
On a more personal level, how many abuse victims plead for healing and still wake up every day feeling wounded and ashamed? Addicts pray for deliverance and then rise each day to fight the same relentless battles. Parents grieve in prayer over children who seem determined to live self-destructively”.

Go on! Annoy God. Be very annoying! Be importunate. Get on his case. Tell him he’s promised to do things, to listen, to respond. Remind him he cares! Let there be faith on earth! “You promised… Your kingdom come”.

Be Blessed friends