Abiding in Jesus evidenced by love

Going through the fruit of the Spirit, which is the outworking and evidence of us abiding in Jesus and the Holy Spirit abiding in us; it struck me again the importance and centrality of love. Love individually and love corporately. There is just no getting away from it. God is love, and if we want to be filled by God then we must be filled with his love. On paper we might agree with that, but 1 Corinthians 13 makes it very clear what the practical outworking of that love of God looks like. When we read it, it seems like an impossibly high bar. God’s love is patient, it is kind, it isn’t envious of others, it doesn’t boast (counter cultural in our social media world). It is not rude, nor is it self-seeking, it doesn’t get angry easily, keeps no record of others wrongs against us. It always trusts (risk of trust being broken), it always hopes (for a better future), and it always perseveres.

Wow! How do we individually and as a church measure up to that? Just run your own personal life over those things and in your head give yourself a quick score out of 10. Then if you feel courageous maybe ask the person who knows you best to score you – see how they compare. Paul says that if we don’t love like this then nothing else we do matters or counts, no matter how “Christian” or supernatural they may be. Just as without abiding in Jesus we can do nothing, if we do not have this kind of love of God in us, what we do means nothing!

It seems a bit harsh but I think the reality is that if we do not love in this way then we are not abiding in Jesus or being transformed by his Holy Spirit. Both John 15 and 1 Corinthians say that this will be the fruit if we truly do abide in Christ. The fruit just comes naturally by being in the vine and it is unforced. So how can that happen without us just “trying harder” and failing and feeling miserable and guilty? I think there are two simple answers that will lead us to loving more and producing the fruit of the Spirit. Firstly we have to experience the overwhelming unconditional, complete, and pure love of God for us personally. It is only when we have been overwhelmed by and “undone” or set free by the love of God that we can then do that for others. Until we fully experience the deep love of our Father then we will always struggle to love others. Secondly we need to spend more time with Jesus, in prayer, in his word, in his presence, wasting time with him. The more intentional time we spend with Jesus and abide in him, the more he will abide in and change us to be more like him. Two very simple things that we as humans find incredibly hard to do.

Grace and Peace - Garry

Abiding and Illumination

We have just started a new series at church based out of John 15 and Jesus image of the vine and the branches. He is the vine and his call is for us as branches to abide in him. If we do then we will produce fruit. So what does it look like for Jesus to abide in us? The disciples find out pretty quickly what that is through the promise and coming of the Holy Spirit who would remain in them and fill and empower them. We read in Acts 2 that the Holy Spirit came and filled ALL of the believers, and that from this point on God through the Holy Spirit was abiding in each person. The outcome of this abiding was that they declared or revealed the wonders of God to the ordinary people around them in a way they could understand (their native tongue).

As believers today we are filled with the same Holy Spirit. When we abide in Jesus and his Spirit abides in us the Spirit empowers us to declare or reveal the wonders of God to those around us in ways that they can understand or that are noticeable to them. Of course some people in Acts made fun of them as they may of us, but many people were attracted to them and wondered at what they saw and heard. This gave Peter the opportunity to expound the good news to them.

When I was recently on retreat at Sevenhill, I went into the church one morning and was drawn to the brilliant pattern of light I saw on one of the walls. After marveling at it for a few moments I wondered where it was coming from and looked to the other side of the church to see the light streaming through the stain glass window. The window itself was not spectacular and the glass was old and dirty. Yet the light shining through it and illuminating it produced something attractive, spectacular, and beautiful on the other side of the church. It made me think again about this abiding thing. When the Holy Spirit abides in us and shines through us and illuminates us then just like the early church we hopefully reflect the love of God and reveal his wonders to those around us both individually and corporately. Not because we are special, but because of the power of the Holy Spirit at work illuminating us. Some may laugh, some may not pay any attention, but some will stop and hopefully see the gospel in us in a way they understand.

Abide in Jesus and ask the Holy Spirit to keep illuminating you through his power. If people wonder or ask you what is different, then like Peter, use the opportunity to share with them what Jesus has done for you.

Grace and Peace - Garry

Remain in Me

In John 15 Jesus is giving his disciples some final words before his departure. Jesus uses the analogy of a vine and says that the disciples must “remain in him”, and if they do then he will “remain in them”. He also says that without him, or without remaining in him, we can do nothing! If we do not remain in him then we are like a branch that withers and is cut off. The old Bible language uses the word “abide” rather than remain and this at some levels speaks of a deeper intimacy and tenderness. If we abide in Jesus then his Father the gardener will prune us and in time we will bear much fruit.

No matter how hard I try or how competent I am or how much Bible knowledge I have or how much I do in serving others, if I don’t remain in Jesus I can do nothing. Nothing that will last or be fruitful anyway. It seems that remaining in Jesus is a choice we make. If we take ourselves out of the vine and away from the life giving flow then we will wither and die spiritually. However, Jesus promises that through remaining or abiding in him we will naturally produce fruit without even trying. This may require some pruning and seasons of dormancy, but in season fruit will form.

This passage also makes me reflect on Psalm 1, where another botanical image is used by the Psalmist. Here the analogy is of a tree planted or abiding by streams of living water. Through its location and remaining or abiding near the water source the leaves of the tree never wither no matter what heat comes. It flourishes and again produces fruit “in season”. No matter what season we are in individually or in our ministry areas or as a church, the invitation from Jesus is personal, and it is ongoing and active. Abide in me. Find your life in me. Trust the pruning of my Father. We can choose not to abide in Jesus. We can position ourselves away from the vine and away from the living water. But if we do that, in time we will wither and we won’t produce fruit. What does it look like for you to daily abide in Jesus? What can you do to connect your life directly into his? How can we as a church community continue to be Jesus centred and abiding in him so that through him we might see growth and life and fruit in season?

For me the answer is threefold. Firstly to spend time in his word, soaking in scripture regularly. Secondly to spend time in prayer, not just with wish lists or request, but in conversation and dialogue and thanksgiving and worship. And thirdly to take time to listen and invite the Holy Spirit to be speaking to us. Schedule times of solitude and reflection and adopting a posture of listening to God. All of that will help us Abide in Jesus.

Grace and Peace - Garry

The Fellowship of Believers

Having just come through Easter and imagining the rollercoaster ride the disciples travelled over that weekend we emerge on the other side of the cross and the resurrection. Everything had to be re-oriented in light of the new reality. And then things were turned even more upside down with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. After the dust settled what do we find the new community of God doing and what characteristics did they display as they began to live in the new reality of the Kingdom of God?

We read in Acts that a few things became the hallmarks of this new community of Jesus followers. They devoted themselves to the teaching of the Word, to the “fellowship” (that is to each other), to the breaking of bread (meals together in which they celebrated Jesus) and to prayer. And they met together daily in worship and praise. They were generous in sharing with each other, and the Holy Spirit was present in power through ongoing signs and wonders.

Now we know that the challenges of this new community came thick and fast as the reality of being “church” and a functioning body of Christ made up of people from all strata of society and religious education set in. Very quickly they were having to wrangle significant challenges and disagreements and lies. There were ethnic and money issues that could have easily derailed the work of God. However, they refused to be distracted from the core of what it meant to be the new people of God.

They continued to devote themselves to the Word and the teaching of the Apostles, to prayer, to regular meeting together for worship and praise, and to sharing fellowship and meals together in each other’s homes. We are a long way culturally and time wise from the early church community, however it seems to me the basic tenants of our gathering are, and should remain much the same.

We weekly create space for the teaching and exposition of Scripture by those gifted by God to teach. We meet weekly to praise and worship God (Father, Son and Spirit). We share around the Lord’s table, we offer up prayers thanksgiving and also requests on behalf of others, and we meet through our small groups and house churches to have fellowship together. If we neglect these basic practices then I believe we lose our way as a Jesus centred community. The early church was known for its love and I hope we demonstrate that too.

There is so much that distracts us in our culture and world. There is so much noise and “busyness” that hinders us living as the people of God. Each of these tenants and practices of the church through the ages requires intentionality and prioritisation, week in and week out. If we want to remain Jesus centred and Kingdom focused then we have no other blueprint. So from time to time it is good for us individually, as families and as a church community to check in with how we are doing with these disciplines. Hopefully if we are doing them out of a heart of love we will like the early church experience the joy of “glad and sincere hearts”.

Grace and Peace - Garry

God Doesn't Need Much to Work With

This sermon series we are looking at the question “what is the gospel?” and how we can become better equipped “bearers of good news” as individuals and as a church community? Often we feel like we don’t have a lot to offer or are scared or intimidated in sharing any aspect of God’s good news with others. We might fear that we will stuff it up, or that they will think we are stupid, or that what we are saying sounds so implausible in post-modern 21st century Australia. On the contrary, I think the good news in all its many facets actually is very plausible and would interest a lot of people if we found the right entry point.

The good news for us Jesus followers is that he doesn’t need much to do a lot, and all we need to do is bring what we have and offer it for him to use. Our story and our experience of God is just that – it’s our story and if God has worked in us then we do have something to share, no matter how insignificant or pathetic we might think it is.

Jesus did a lot with nothing; in fact, he spoke the world into existence out of nothing. The two examples we often turn to from his ministry life to draw encouragement from in this regard are the feeding of the 5000 and the feeding of the 4000 (many more including women and children). The disciples felt overwhelmed when Jesus asked them to feed the hungry masses – to give them some “good news”, hungry as they were. Maybe even more overwhelmed than we feel when we think about sharing the gospel, our story of God’s grace, with others.

However, Jesus was not concerned in the slightest with the amount they had to offer. He was looking for faith and obedience. He could do as much with 5 loaves and 2 fish as he could with 10,000 loaves and 5,000 fish. So when they limply and timidly bring the ludicrously small token of food to offer him he responded by saying – that is enough. Now tell them to sit down in groups and see how I will use your very small offering. We know the story, Jesus blessed the food and multiplied it and every person got a full belly and there was plenty left over.

Jesus can do the same with us in the little we feel we have to share with others in proclaiming the good works of God in us, in our church and in and through his life and death and resurrection. It actually really is good news! When we step out in faith as opportunity arises and share this with people we need to relax and let the Holy Spirit take over and use it to work in ways we can’t see or imagine. Not everyone will respond and immediately fall on their knees, however I believe that God will honour our courage and do what we can’t do in others. So keep your eyes and ears open and when opportunity comes, step out in faith and let God use your little to do whatever he wants with your story and our story and his story.

Grace and Peace - Garry

Learning The Score

God as creator is artistic to his very core – his essence is creativity and he delights in being creative. We are made creative because we are made in his image. We are his image bearers therefore, we are highly creative beings. Part of his creativity is music and dance and art. Many of the symbols and works in the creative world point us to who God is and bring us delight and joy in sharing his divine and creative life. God’s mandate for his image bearers involve three main areas; namely relationship, stewardship and worship. To be in relation to him and each other, to be stewards of the world and the creative abilities and gifts he has given us, and to worship him as we relate and create. Yet the distortion of sin has turned relationship into cheap sex, stewardship into the desire for money and things, and worship into a power struggle for self-edification against God and others.

Jesus came as the true image of the invisible God. In Jesus all the fullness of God dwelled and he came to live out for us the mandate that we had failed to live. To show us what it meant to relate to God our Father and to each other, to show us how to steward this good earth rightly, and to show us how to worship in Spirit and in Truth. In musical terms Jesus came and showed us the Musical Score that God had given us to ‘play and dance’ as his image bearers. However, we have distorted the score and written our own music, danced our own dance, and this has led to the destruction of our world, our communities and our image bearing selves.

Jesus showed us what God is like and he calls us back to being his children, to living life, playing the score and dancing the divine dance of life as we were created to be. There is only one divine score and our role as followers of Jesus and unique human beings is not to write our own score or dance our own dance. We are each called and filled with the Holy Spirit to learn to play God’s score in the context and family and community that we are placed. Being God’s image bearers is not a fact or a label – it is a vocation. To live our lives in a way that they will be salt and light and draw people back to the divine life in Jesus. To create curiosity and questions of others who are playing distorted music and destructive dance in a broken world where people treat the created good as either a gold mine or an ashtray. A ballerina was asked after her dance once what it meant. She replied that if she could have described it in words she would not have needed to dance it.

Jesus danced the divine score and he calls us into his kingdom as people who will learn the score and play it and dance it, not as a cold series of propositions, but as salt to a meal and as light in the darkness.

 

Grace and Peace - Garry

Nothing Changes in 2019

As we enter a new year we go through that familiar time when people try to implement new changes; either dietary to recover from Christmas, or related to some new goal they want to achieve. One thing we are certain of in 2019 is that there will be change. Someone once said that the three things you can be certain of in life above all else are taxes, death and change. We all dislike taxes and we all worry about death, and many of us are fearful of change.

However, although we know this new year will bring changes whether we like it or not, and that some of them may not be pleasant, there are some things that will not change. We can draw comfort from the truth that as we face another year with personal, family, communal and global uncertainty, God does not change. Scripture tells us that God is the same yesterday, today and forever and that he is faithful and his love remains. His kingdom is coming and his will is going to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

In this new year draw strength from the fact that your life is hidden with Christ in God, that none can snatch you from his hand. That no matter what comes God’s Spirit lives in you. We have a sure and certain future and we can draw comfort and strength from his presence in the now. There may be times that you will feel distant from God or even that he has forgotten about you or abandon you. But no matter what your thoughts and feelings, hold on to the truth declared by Jesus himself, who cannot lie, that he will never leave you or forsake you. Sometimes when God feels distant we experience him through his comfort and presence in others around us.

Jesus never promised us perfect health, no stress, no financial worries, no hardships, no challenges, no change. But he did promise that he would be with us till the very end, that he has gone to prepare a place for us, and that he will return to take us to be where he is. I hope this year brings you times of great joy, unexpected pleasant surprises, wonderful experiences and new areas of growth. But whatever comes I pray your foundation and roots will go deeper into our Triune God. That the foundation on which your life is built this year is Jesus Christ and your standing in him. May he draw you deeper into himself and may this year bring you closer to him rather than take you further from him. As the old hymn goes – “all may change but Jesus never”.

Grace and Peace - Garry

What Do You See?

We make judgements about people all the time; it is what we do as humans. Every time we meet with someone or even walking down the street, we are constantly making judgments even if it is subconsciously. We judge what people wear, what they do, how they look, what they say or even what they eat or what car they drive.

As a church community, what percentage of people would you say are worried about how they will be perceived or judged each time they come to church? I actually think most of us carry a fear of judgment a lot of the time. Maybe you worry someone will judge you because of your past or your tattoos. Maybe you think someone will judge you because you don’t have much money. Maybe you worry someone will judge you because you have lots of money and that is how they see you. Perhaps you feel judged because of the way your kids behave or how you parent or how your family compares to others. You might feel judged as a single or as a single parent or as a divorcee. Maybe you feel you are not very good looking or maybe you feel judged because you are good looking but that is the only thing people see in you. You could feel judged for not singing, or for worshipping too freely.

The truth is poor people feel judged and rich people feel judged. Ordinary looking people feel judged and beautiful people feel judged. Both single and married mums feel judged, quite worshipers and expressive worshipers feel judged, and so it goes and so it goes. Men compare themselves to others in a whole raft of ways. I think deep down we all worry about something in who we are or how others see us or perceive us.

But the wonderful reality of the Gospel is that we are all made in the image of God and we all have equal status and worth in his family. We all are unique and loved deeply just as we are by our creator and saviour Jesus Christ. God loves you – the real you, just as you are and nothing will change that. If we could see ourselves in Christ as he sees us I think it would totally change our perspective of others and ourselves. Henri Nouwen wrote a prayer about being his true self:

“Take away the many fears, suspicions, and doubts by which I prevent you from being my Lord, and give me the courage and freedom to appear naked and vulnerable in the light of your presence, confident in your unfathomable mercy”.

 

Jesus in his ministry treated and saw everyone for who they were – dearly loved image bearers whom he came to save. It didn’t matter if they were rich or poor, wicked or good, slave or free, male or female, young or old, common or beautiful. He loved them and he loves and approaches us in the same way. So allow yourself to be loved and free before God and allow others to be loved and free that they might find their true selves in Christ. Then we will begin to have true communion as the body of Christ. Then we will testify to the world that God’s love is among us.

Grace and Peace - Garry

Give me Your Heart

Proverbs 23:26 – My son/daughter, give me your heart and let your eyes keep to my ways.

 

I read this verse during my nightly devotions this week and it has sat with me all week as I have pondered what it means for me to give God my heart. The surrounding context of the verse is a warning against prostitutes and adultery so it is quite an intimate call from God. What does it mean to give God my heart? We all “give ourselves” or our hearts to something or someone, whether it be work, money, possessions, fame, or a person. Our heart is ours to give away and we get free choice in who or what we give it to. If you don’t know what you have given your heart to, maybe ask someone who knows you best what they see, if you have the courage.

Life without someone or something to give us meaning is empty and we all seek to find meaning and pleasure. We are wired for intimacy and purpose because we are formed in the image of God. Yet so much of what we seek and so much of what our culture puts up as meaningful and desirable can in the end turn into empty wells that run dry when tough seasons come, leaving us parched and thirsty.

Our eyes are ever roaming and looking for new horizons or new “loves” or things that we desire or covet or are attracted to. God calls us as his beloved children to give our hearts fully to him; for our eyes to be focused on his ways rather than roaming in endless search of meaning and satisfaction. The woman at the well was thirsty, she was sick of having to come daily to collect water. Yet Jesus knew of her deeper thirst and her heart that she had given to many men in seeking to quench her thirst for intimacy. He quickly got to the heart of the issue and invited her into relationship with himself – the living God who could truly satisfy her deepest needs and rest her roaming eyes.

So how do I give God my heart? Well I daily make the choice to spend time with him, to reflect on him, to think about who I am in him and what my purpose and future is. I choose to focus on his ways rather than on chasing my covetous dreams and the “shiny” things my eyes are so easily turned to. I choose to spend time in his presence rather than run around madly all day, even if it is only moments here and there. Those moments anchor me in the busyness of my diary and deadlines, and bring my wandering eyes back to Jesus.

Grace and Peace - Garry

Is God Good and can he be Trusted?

This is a question that we will all face at some point in our lives, and for most of us probably several times. Sometimes it is one of those doubts that creeps in which the devil amplifies to get us to question God. At other times it is a normal human response to a crisis we face where we wonder where God is and why things have happened or not happened.

What if we open ourselves up to God about something and we find that his promises don’t seem to work? What if when I pray about my marriage or my kids who have turned away from God or my job that is slowly killing me, God seems not to care or is way too late? Why would God have allowed certain things to happen to me or to someone I love when he is supposed to be all-powerful and all loving?

If God is who the Bible says he is and if Jesus is the Son of God who rose from the dead, then there is no evidence or question, or experience or secret in my life that is too big for him to handle or redeem. Yet our experience of believing this by faith and holding on to it in the mess and brokenness of life with confidence, is at times very stretching. Can he be trusted with all things and is he good?

I often think of Peter in the middle of the storm when he sees Jesus walking on the water and lays down the challenge to him, perhaps without thinking Jesus would take it up. If you are who you say you are Jesus, then let me come out to you and do the impossible. Let me walk on the water. Jesus said – ok come! Peter is now faced with a difficult choice. Does he trust Jesus? Is Jesus good and will he save him or let him drown? The only way to find out was to overcome his fear and every fibre of his body that told him otherwise, and to step out into the storm. Can you put yourself in that place? What would his heart rate have been? How big a knot would have been in his stomach? I’m not sure I would have had the faith and courage to do that. But he did. He trusted Jesus and he walked on water – even if just for a few seconds.

Even when he began to doubt and his brain caught up with his spirit and he looked around at the circumstances and began to sink, Jesus still reached out and caught him. So in our doubt and mess we need that level of faith in Jesus, sometimes just to take the next step. I can’t tell you what that looks like, but Jesus is still the same and that can only be tested by giving everything to him. And even when we do that and begin to doubt, we beleive that he is still powerful to reach out to us and save us – because he is good and our doubt doesn’t stop him saving. God is always greater than our fear, but learning that takes courage and faith.

Grace and Peace - Garry

Co-creators

Gen 2:7-8;   the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

 

God is a creative being. It is who he is. He creates and he is dynamic and creative. He takes great pleasure in making and creating things and then enjoying what he has made. We are made in his image and bear his mark; therefore, we also are creative beings who carry that dynamic creative spark. One of the beautiful gifts that God has given us is the gift of being co-creators. And like God, when we create things we can enjoy them and draw deep satisfaction from them and declare – it is good!

Sometimes in a narrow Christians view we limit co-creating to just having babies and multiplying. That is part of our mandate and it is a significant part of the human story. It is incredible to think that we have the capacity to create an eternal being! Yet that is not the full story and our co-creating with God is much broader than just having children. We are all co-creators with God, no matter if we are single or married or divorced or male or female. Human beings have created things of stunning beauty in the arts, music, construction, literature and so on. All of those things reflect God’s character and heart for creativity.

One of the most significant areas of being a co-creator is that of forming a dynamic community with other humans, and more specifically with fellow Christians. We need each other to create beauty in community that can then reflect and impact positively the world around us. We each have unique gifts and things to add to the collective and just like instruments in an orchestra we all add to the beauty of the whole.

Similarly as we live our out faith beyond our church in our varied roles we can be part of creating justice and goodness and love and compassion as God made, and Spirit filled co-creators. Yet equally we can use our creativity for destructive or selfish means. Sadly we see this in many of the dark places in our culture and even in our own lives. Jesus came to bring life and life to the full. God is going to create a new heaven and earth. We have so much to look forward to and enjoy with him beyond this life that we can’t even imagine. In the meantime, let’s co-create with God using the gifts and passions he has given us in a way that brings restoration and redemption and healing as the body of Christ.

Grace and Peace - Garry

Chastity

Chastity comes from the Latin word castus, meaning “morally pure.” Being chaste means a person is keeping their body pure sexually, however Jesus extended this to also our minds. We often confuse chastity with celibacy but they are not the same thing. Chastity needs to be correctly understood and its worth upheld before people in our hypersexualised culture will even consider it a noble state of being as it was in the past and still is before God. To be chaste does not mean one does not have sex, nor does it mean that one is prude. To be chaste is to be morally pure. That is whether one is married or single or divorced. It is to experience people, things, places, entertainment and sex in a way that does not violate them or ourselves. It is about reverence for what God has created and for others with whom we relate. To have “moral purity” in the way we engage with the world and people around us. Ronald Rolheiser in his book “The Holy Longing” (1999 Doubleday Books) says that when we are chaste we “do not let impatience, irreverence, or selfishness ruin what is a gift by somehow violating it.” We lack chastity when we overstep the God given boundaries for our lives prematurely or irreverently. When we violate a God given gift or another person either physically or in our mind, we reduce its value and degrade it in a sinful way.

Thus I can be faithful to my wife but not be living chaste if I think about other women in my mind or through pornography in a way that is irreverent or crosses the moral boundaries God has ordained for his good world. Similarly single people can be celibate but not chaste in their actions and interactions with the world or others around them. More broadly to be “morally pure” extends chastity to the way we treat others in business, in the way we handle money, in our slander or gossip, in the use of power, and of course our sexuality both physically and in our minds. Our culture considers the overcoming or mocking of old fashioned chastity as a moral victory. As Rolheiser says, this claim could be taken more seriously if “this supposed sexual liberation had in fact translated into more respect between the sexes and into sex that actually – builds lasting community, more stable souls, and results in less exploitation of others.” Our cultures abandonment of chastity rather than liberate humanity has further enslaved it. God has reasons for his call to live godly and “chaste” lives. If we want a true image of a fully chaste person, we need look no further than Jesus Christ.

Grace and Peace - Garry

Being a Tool for God

A couple of years ago I was on a weeklong silent retreat at Seven Hill and over the course of the week the retreat leader talked about our “Name of Grace”. That is, the name God has for each of us that taps into our true identity and character and calling. I have never been fond of my name so I was really keen to pray about my “Name of Grace”. Anyway over the week I felt God reveal parts of that to me and one of them was something related to being a “tool for God”! My wife sometimes lovingly calls me a “tool for life”! I take it in the spirit in which it is intended J

 

Being a tool for God might seem weird, but basically it was along the lines of God making me, and each of us, to be used by him for his pleasure and glory. Our total function is not just to be used; we are made to delight in God and enjoy him and his world above and beyond just being useful to him. However, there is a sense in which each of us are unique, and God uses us and our abilities and talents and gifts to help others to bring about God’s kingdom purposes in this world.

 

I own lots of tools and they all serve different functions and purposes and no two are alike or serve exactly the same purpose. Similarly, I am unique and God wants to use me in different ways at different times. The most important thing is to be available to him when he wants to use me. Just because I don’t feel useful or that God hasn’t used me for anything amazing of late doesn’t mean he has forgotten about me or won’t use me again for specific things. Each day we are to make ourselves available to God and offer ourselves and our lives to him to be used as and when he wishes. In the meantime, we are to love him and those around us and get on with whatever he has given us to do. At the very least, if we love him and others we will be fulfilling the two greatest commands. And he will use us for his good purposes as he sees fit. So be a tool for God and make yourself available to him each day. See what he will do.

Grace and Peace - Garry

The Mess of Life

In my reading through the Bible in a year I have just finished going through the book of Leviticus. What struck me afresh is how messy and practical it was to be a priest. So much blood, dealing with animal skins and stacking wood, clearing away ashes and burning offerings day in and day out. All the while trying to keep your holy garments clean and neat, and trying to avoid getting blood on the breastplate and its precious stones. And what do you do when it has rained for a week and the wood is wet and you have to burn a whole bull on the altar? What then? It seems hard work, extremely messy and fraught with challenges that had to be overcome. Nothing holy and clean and pious about it at all really. Then there were the lamps to keep trimmed and topped up with oil, the light was never to go out. Packing up and moving the tabernacle would have been a mammoth task and they never knew if they would be camping for just a day or a month or a year. So much uncertainty.

In some ways today as Christians, we are still faced with the same messiness of life as we try to follow Jesus. Life is complicated, relationships are messy, and nothing is neat or cut and dry. There are always challenges and obstacles to overcome, all the while believing that God is with us as he was with the Israelites. Yet some days it must have felt like a bit of a grind. A week, a month, a year is a long time in our lives personally and in the life of a church. Things can go from ok to very stressful in a very short time. It only takes a phone call, a conversation with your kid, an incident with an elderly parent, a blow up with your spouse. How do we live faithfully to God in uncertain times? Life has a way of getting us messy no matter how “clean” we try to keep ourselves and how diligent we seek to be in following Jesus.

Yet God is not outside of the mess of life. In fact he ordered the priests to serve in their roles and more than that he stepped into our messy world and got his hands well and truly dirty in the person of Jesus. Jesus embraced our mess. He touched the lepers, he ate with the outcasts, he listened to the stories of the hard done by, he moved into the neighbourhood and allowed its dirt to stick to him. He didn’t float above the ground impervious to pain. He cried, he got frustrated, he got angry, he loved, he mourned. And one Friday he walked up that hill beaten and bloody carrying his cross to take upon himself the darkest filthiest mess of humanity, that we might be made clean. That we might be made whole. That our relationships with each other might be restored. That the way to God might be blown wide open in his grace and abandon love. This Easter don’t try clean your mess up. Just invited Jesus into it and allow his grace to wash over you afresh as we come to the cross.

Grace and Peace - Garry

Baptism in the Spirit

As we read about the baptism of Jesus by John at the start of Mark’s gospel we read of the promise that the one who comes after John (Jesus) will “baptise you with the Holy Spirit”. Tom Write translates this as “he will plunge you in the Holy Spirit”. Just as water baptism is experienced so baptism in the Spirit must be experienced. So what does it mean to be baptised in the Holy Spirit as a follower of Jesus? Well here are some quick short points. For a great further read look up John Piper’s article - https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/how-to-receive-the-gift-of-the-holy-spirit

Jesus promise to the disciples in Acts 1 is that when the Holy Spirit came on them they would receive two things; power, and with that an ability to witness about Jesus. Throughout Acts when people are converted and receive the Spirit, some speak in tongues but this is not always included. However, they do always praise God and they do always witness boldly about Jesus. So although tongues comes at times for some when they are filled with the Holy Spirit, it isn’t the primary goal or major sign if we look at the whole of the NT.

Being filled with the Spirit however is always experiential, never purely cognitive. Baptism in the Spirit is never just a doctrine. It must be experienced and there are things that accompany that experience which go way beyond thought. You can think about having a baby or having kids, but until you experienced it and it changes your life it remains like doctrine – not reality. The Holy Spirit is a living powerful person in the Godhead who wants to fill us and that has to be experienced not just thought about. He must be experienced daily – keep being filled.

The Holy Spirit is not a non-active influence in Christians lives, rather when he fills us he moves us. When Jesus was baptised and the Holy Spirit fell on him, the Spirit immediately moved or compelled him to go into the desert to be tested. In Romans 8:14 we read that “all who are led by the Spirit are sons of God” – this is an active experienced reality. Being led is an experience not a doctrine. The Spirit wants to lead you in your life in a real way.

As Piper and the Scripture point out, the experienced outcome of being filled with the Spirit and then being led by the spirit are the same for us as it was for the early disciples. They praised God (he became the object of their worship), and they testified boldly about Jesus in obedience to the Holy Spirit’s leading. Why do we need to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit (baptised – plunged in) to live as effective followers of Jesus? Because as we read on in Mark’s gospel, the kingdom of God is in conflict with the kingdom of this world. We can only overcome evil, lust, the desire for power, being able to truly love those we are repulsed by, in the power of the experienced reality of being filled with the Holy Spirit. Ask him to fill you afresh today and every day with his power and presence.

Grace and Peace - Garry

The Last Word

Ecclesiastes 5:1-2  Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong. Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.

 

Words – there are far too many of them now days. They are often used without thought, or to fill space, or to make us feel better, or someone else worse. There are some people or media platforms or “voices” that you would rather not hear because of their lack of substance, constant dribble or hurtful or unfiltered commentary. Similarly there are those people or “voices” that you pay attention to every time they use words because you know it will be wisdom that is thought out and worth listening to. We note in Scripture the crowds hung on Jesus every word.

When we speak to God I wonder how he views us sometimes? Are we hasty in our prayers and words before him, pouring out ill-thought questions and requests and demands or comments? Don’t get me wrong, God loves us to pour out our heart to him, but the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that when we come to God we should come to listen more than to speak. We should not be hasty in our utterances, and that we should look at our “steps” or examine our hearts when we engage him in conversation or in worship.

Listening is an art that doesn’t always come naturally to us. For me and I am sure many others, it was something that had to be learned and still needs to be refined and thought about regularly. The art of listening needs to be developed and grown and valued. It is a gift to the “other” and also the way to know God better and to hear his still small voice. Yet in our culture everyone wants to have the last word, as if somehow that makes what they have said “right” or that by having the last word they have somehow “won” the argument or discussion. This is clearly seen in debates, panels on TV, social media, online conversations and in our own daily relationships. It is a scourge and it is a false narrative.

Having the last word is not a Godly character. A much better posture is one of listening, to others and to God. God always has the last word anyway and we will be much more effective in ministry and relationships if we spent more time listening than trying to ensure we have the last word – in anything. So don’t be quick with your mouth, but be quick with your ears. And resist trying to have the last word either with people or with God.

First Nations Christians

The first week in January I travelled to Port Augusta with a team from Adelaide to run the kids program at the National Aboriginal Evangelical Fellowship Congress. This congress is run every two years and gathers Aboriginal Christians from all over Australia. Every morning we ran a kids program from 9:30-12:30 and had about 30-40 kids attend each day. In the evenings, we joined the whole congress for worship and to hear various speakers. It was a great experience and an honour so serve our Aboriginal brothers and sisters in Christ. Our team was a pretty “rag tag” bunch from many nationalities and we all were imperfect people. It reminded me of Jesus disciples who were also a pretty mixed bunch that you would not necessarily think would be the best selection for a team!

A few things stood out to me from sharing with our Aboriginal church communities. Firstly they love Jesus and understand probably much better than we do that they are made in God’s image and are deeply connected to the land and to creation. Secondly, they do community much better than we do and talking to each other is more important than running a slick and “polished” program. Thirdly, they do carry deep scars relating to our shared history and we need to listen to them and support them firstly as fellow Christians over and above as “fellow Australians”.

Their art and the way they portray God and the gospel through their art is incredible and very powerful. Several decades ago there was a revival that started at Elcho Island and spread around Australia. My hope and sense is that for God to reconcile the deep hurts in our national psyche relating to our first nation people, it should come through and be led by our Aboriginal Christian brothers and sisters. We have all been reconciled to Christ and it is only through him that true reconciliation can happen between white and black. There is something truly significant in our first nation peoples gathering from across the land to worship God and pray for his Spirit to be at work in this land – their land, our land.

As an extra treat, we also got to baptise one of our team members from Westcare Baptist under the Port Augusta bridge toward the end of the week. That was an extra bonus to see God at work in her life over those few days. Let’s continue to pray for the work of God among our Aboriginal communities and may that work flow over into our nation through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Grace and Peace - Garry

Being Formed

I read recently that the best artists whom we hold as the most “talented” are actually the ones who often work the hardest and have crafted their skill over many years. They may have talent, but to refine that and harness it takes hard work and dedication. Painting a masterpiece or carving a piece of furniture or creating a beautiful score of music takes hours of training and dedication. An artist was asked “how long” it took him to paint a particular piece or work that someone was admiring. His answer was “sixty years” because that is how long he had been learning his craft which led to him being able to paint this recent piece.

God also is the business of shaping and crafting and forming people into his image and the fullness of all we were created to be. Yet this formation takes time and there are no short cuts. Most of us lead unremarkable lives that have seemingly little impact of any real significance, yet God is shaping or wanting to shape us uniquely for his glory and purposes. However, we often want to race to the end or shortcut the process and get to the “glory” bit (often our glory) without going through the formation.

Many people in the Bible took years to be formed by God. Moses (40), David (at least 13), Joseph (2-5 years as a slave and imprisoned).. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t use us in the formation process, but sometimes we down play the formation and just want to be at the end when we look back and make sense of it all. But God is the potter and we are the clay. We need to allow ourselves to be softened in his hands and trust that the pressure that is applied to shape us is done in love. We can trust the pressure and direction of his hands because they hold nail scars that tell us he loves us and he is forming each of us as he sees best to be used in the unique purpose he has, no matter how unremarkable that might seem to us or others.

So being formed and shaped by God through the ups and downs of life is vital to becoming the person he wants us to be. But we must remain soft and not hard hearted toward him and we must trust that he knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows whether we should be a “plate” or a “jug” or a “bowl” and how he wants to use us in his Kingdom work on earth. Don’t look at someone else and wish to be like them, just be open and allow God to form you.

Grace and Peace - Garry

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Bored with the Bible?

I have been reading Eugene Peterson’s book on his journey as a pastor (second time through) and was struck by his view of the Bible growing up as it was somewhat similar to my own. For me being in a Christian family and missionary environments, I was always surrounded by Scripture in one way or another. Yet often it seemed people used it to contest their factions or push their views. It seemed to often be reduced to rules and principles and a guide book that was there to ensure I avoided terrible moral potholes that others kept telling me about in hushed and stern terms. It could also be simplified into clichés and various slogans or sayings about sentimental god talk that was intended to motivate others but mostly had the opposite effect.

But the Bible is so much more than this – it is a collection of stories of how God encountered people and radically changed their lives and their persons and their world view. These were normal everyday people like you and me who were bumbling along trying to do their best and were surprised by God when they encountered him. They wrote their stories to try and communicate their encounters so that other people would be able to engage with this same God who had met them.

The Bible is a series of books written by humans for humans but conveying deep truths about God and directed by his Holy Spirit. Reading it is a bit like reading a newspaper in that there are many parts. There are the front page headlines, the feel good stories, the horror stories, the poetry and arts section, the funnies. Each of these needs to be read appropriately and cannot be boiled down to boring clichés and moral slogans. God is so much more real and connected and engaged in the worlds mess than my experience of him growing up.

So next time you pick up the Bible ask God to encounter you as you read the way he encountered the people of old and reveal more to you about this amazing life and kingdom that he has saved us into. This transformed way of living that reconciles us to God and us to each other. Once we truly understand it the Bible becomes anything but boring!

Grace and Peace - Garry

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Prayer

Every faith has some form of prayer. Even communism in Russia in the 1950’s told people if they were struggling or doubting or tired then they should think of Stalin, and work would go well and they would find strength. That is a form of prayer and meditation. Prayer is often entered into by those struggling; the word “prayer” comes from the Latin root precarius – a linguistic cousin to “precarious.”

Thomas Merton said “prayer is an expression of who we are… We are living incompleteness. We are a gap, an emptiness that calls for fulfilment.” But in much of our Postmodern world, scepticism taints prayer and we live in an atmosphere of doubt. The need for prayer (precariousness) is also diluted by prosperity and time pressures and in “busyness” crowd out the slowing down that prayer seems to require.

Prayer is also somewhat confusing and a wrestle in my experience. Martyn Lloyd-Jones sums up this confusion in this way: “Of all the activities in which the Christian engages, and which are part of the Christian life, there is surely none which causes so much perplexity, and raises so many problems, as the activity which we call prayer.”

And so as like Philip Yancey states in his book on prayer, I come to this practice as a fellow pilgrim rather than an expert or guru. We have many questions. Is God listening? Why would God care about me? If God knows everything, why should we pray? Why do answers to prayer seem so inconsistent and random? If more people pray about an issue, does it increase the chances for the prayer to be answered? Does prayer change God or does prayer change me?

And yet despite all this prayer is vitally important in our relationship with God and partnering with him in building his kingdom in the world. Prayer is the place where God and human beings meet. It has many features in common with all other important relationships. These include dullness, ecstasy, distraction, acute concentration, joy, irritation, doubt and great faith. In this mix, God meets with us and we encounter him in the way that he reveals himself.

Philip Yancey says two of the important wrestles of life are: why doesn’t God act the way I want him to, and why don’t I act the way God wants me to? Prayer is the place where these two great themes converge. Let us pray without ceasing.

Grace and Peace - Garry

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