Tag: #churchlife

In the mess of the world, how can I feel clean (Mark 7:1-23)

Sometimes this world can feel so dirty and so grubby that it’s impossible to feel clean. It’s not just the shady politics and the media corruption. It’s the hypocrisy in the people around us, the anger, the envy, the shallowness, the greed, the shameless self-promotion, the arrogance, the lack of empathy, the selfishness. It’s all around us, it invades us, it takes up real estate in our brains. It infects us, it sticks to us and it’s so pervasive that it’s impossible to see or feel anything pure.

This is not a new phenomena. Would you be surprised to know that Jesus raised against this very thing? In today’s passage (Mark 7:1-23) the Pharisees yet again accuse Jesus of blasphemous behaviour. This time it’s allowing his disciples to eat with unclean hands. We’ve covered this ground before in a previous blog (you can read it here when we looked at nor Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious). But this time it’s different.

This time Jesus hits back in the most personal way possible. He quotes the very scriptures they use to inflate themselves. “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites,” Jesus says. Isaiah. The great prophet. The mouthpiece of God, Jesus said prophesied about these Pharisees (and people like them). He prophesied their faithlessness. Their failure was so insidious, it was foretold.

These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.”

This is Jesus quoting Isaiah 29:13. What does Isaiah say after this? Verse 14 says “Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.”

This is quite a signal to the Pharisees, and when Jesus was speaking these words, those hearing him would have known exactly what he meant when he quoted these scriptures. Jesus explains further though. He gives an example of how inherently arrogant and hypocritical they have become.

You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) – then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.

Corban? Corban is from the Hebrew qorban and relates to setting aside a portion of ones possessions for God. In real terms this meant that in the surface one could be “obedient” in giving (or at least virtue signalling the intention to give). Then, having annexed that money, you could keep it away from the parents, and potentially keep it away from the temple and just keep it for yourself.

This is the epitome of hypocrisy and arrogance and selfishness. It’s using God’s own laws to work the system in favour of avarice and greed and breaking God’s laws.

This is where the world has come to. It’s dirty, grubby and grimy – down to the very core of society. It’s a dirt that won’t wash away.

When Jesus then focuses on food and cleanliness in his parables, he gets to the heart of the issueit’s the heart.

Eating without ritually washed hands does not make them unclean. What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.”

Focus on the outside and the heart suffers. Focus on the heart and everything on the outside improves – starting with ourselves.

The rest of the world will still be dirty and grubby. But we will be improved.

As prophesied in Isaiah, God has astounded us with wonder upon wonder. Jesus. His own son. God in the flesh. Perfect. Pure. Clean. The only place we can feel cleansed and purified is at the feet of Jesus.

Because of him, our hearts can be changed. Because of him we can change our world for the better, starting with us. And if world around us still stinks, we can go back to him to feel that sense of cleanness. We can re-calibrate and rest in his purity.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here.

The who, the what and the why (Mark 1:21-45)

One thing that I get terrifically irritated by is when someone hijacks my message. I choose my words carefully, I try and articulate myself thoughtfully and then someone willfully mis-communicates me. For example, you can be in a work setting and you present your opinion on solving a particular problem. Someone else chimes in enthusiastically “Yes, yes, I see! I think what you’re saying Julia, is that its all Eric’s fault!” Suddenly everyone is whipped up into a frenzy and there’s practically a hiring freeze on anyone called Eric or sounding anything like Eric.

This can happen in so many settings. At home, with school mums and teachers, and even at church. Sometimes its how the words are offered and sometimes it depends on what ears you listen with.

Note: This is a stand alone blog that doesn’t depend on any other piece. But it runs as part of an online Bible study in Mark and throughout there are links to previous observations. You can dip in and out or start at the beginning if you like. If not, that’s also fine – you don’t need to have started at the beginning to be able to get into this blog.

In today’s passage, Jesus knows what ears people are listening with and is careful to craft what he is communicating. Last week we saw it all started with a bang – like a big opening musical number. Jesus has been very publicly identified as the Messiah, and the Son of God. We saw that these two roles were not necessarily linked in the Jewish consciousness at the time. The Messiah was just someone to be sent by God – not necessarily his Son. They were expecting a prophet, or another David – a knight in shining armor who would arrive on flaming chariots and drive out the oppressive Romans.

In the passage from verses 21-45, Jesus makes some very clear and pointed statements about himself which links him to deeper messages expressed in Old Testament prophecies.

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In verses 21-28, Jesus drives out demons. Now, we see in other places other people driving out demons (check out Luke 9:49) so this doesn’t necessarily announce Jesus as anything truly spectacular. The difference here is that the demons know Jesus. They know who he is. How would the spirits and demons know who he is? In James 2:19, James says to his audience “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that.” The demons are from the spiritual realm – they know the one who is from God and is God. While demons may be driven out by others, they do not know them.

Jesus however has authority. The people were amazed at his teaching (Mk 1:22) because he had authority. We would associate that with someone who has qualifications to teach. But Mark says the people were amazed because Jesus was not as the teachers of the law. The Greek, exousia which is translated here as “authority” carries more weight than we assume. It carries with it a sense of authority delegated by God. It means Jesus’ words were heard by the people and they knew this was no ordinary teaching. The words carried the weight of God himself.

So we had the big opening musical number that announced Jesus’ presence. Now we see he has the authority of God and demons recognise him. Could Jesus be the avenging angel of God come to save the Jews?

Here’s where it gets really interesting. Verses 29-40 remind us particularity of Isaiah 35:5-6. Here, Isaiah prophecies that “the eyes of the blind [will] be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.” These are the very signs of the Messiah in whom, Isaiah 35:2 says “they will see the glory of the Lordthe splendor of our God.” And here is Jesus in vv29-40, healing “many who had various diseases.” (Mark 1:34)

But healing people is not why Jesus came. In verse 28 Jesus says “Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” He came to preach the gospel. The healing is so people might know that he is the Messiah. It is so he might communicate that in him, people are seeing the very glory and splendor of God.

But in the same significant passage of Isaiah, the prophecy continues “your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” (Is. 35:4). This is what the Jews were expecting. Yes! A bit of vengeance and some victory on the battlefield. Some smiting and some slaying! Of course we, on this side of the cross, can read this from the perspective of Jesus’ sacrifice and God’s righteous judgement. But 2,000 years ago, Jews were looking for a Thor-type hero to come dashing in on a chariot.

This is what Jesus had to avoid. Because it was a very real risk that people, in hearing with ears of desperate hope, could hijack his message and his ministry. In the gospel of John, we read that “after the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say,Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” (John 6:14-15).

So, Jesus is communicating his messages, but he has to do it carefully – spoon feeding his hearers so they have time to adjust their cultural expectations to be able to hear and understand the truth of why he had come. They were expecting a prophet and a king. They were not expecting God himself, made human, to sacrifice himself for the world. That’s why, when Jesus heals the man with leprosy in Mark 1:40-45, Jesus told him not to tell anyone. Jesus needed to control the message as much as possible. He told the healed leper to present himself to the priests (for giggles check out Leviticus 14:1-32 where people cleansed of skin diseases had to be “cleared” by the priest to re-enter community). But the healed man was not to tell anyone else (which of course he did).

So the thread of this is:

  1. Jesus presence is announced
  2. We begin to see that he is from God by his authority
  3. His actions realise the prophecy of Isaiah 35:5-6
  4. Which leads us to realise that we are seeing the very splendor and glory of God (Isaiah 35:2)
  5. Jesus has come to enact God’s vengeance and judgement (Isaiah 35:4)
  6. But not in the way that the people think and so the message has to be carefully controlled and communicated. People need to be able to understand and follow along because –
  7. In Isaiah 35:8-10 Isaiah had continued his prophecy “and a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, and those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

Jesus is not just here to drive out the Romans. Jesus is here to preach the good news. There is a way, a journey. This is so much bigger than anyone could have anticipated. This is a heart journey.

At this point, Mark’s readers must have been asking each other “what the….?” and “what is this “way”?” Their minds must have been absolutely blown. They must have been on the edge of their seats trying to put it all together in their minds.

This is exactly where the disciples must have been. Everything they thought they knew is kind of right but sort of wrong. Who is this guy? And where is this going?

 

Post me your comments and questions and lets get some online chat going!! And if you want to follow along, I’ll post the next online Bible study about the same time next week 🙂

Take the time to feel the feelings

I’m English and we are commonly associated with the phrase “to keep a stiff upper lip”. This describes an implacable resolve, a refusal to show emotion and a stoic perseverance in times of trouble. We almost have a fondness for the phrase because it seems something so quintessentially English, especially with shows like Downton Abbey (because, you know, Maggie Smith = life goals).

The approach was drawn from Greek philosophy (Stoicism not surprisingly) and the phrase itself was first used in the early 1800s. It was the overriding philosophy in Victorian private schools and came to exemplify what was considered right and proper in a persons character.

In the west generally, there is an approach to emotions that is very private. We grieve privately. Our funerals are about individual closure. We read self-help books at home and see counsellors on sick days or in our spare time. And we soldier on with our stiff upper lip – whether we are English or not. A few years ago, another English classic from World War II was imported around the world:

That’s right. Keep Calm and Carry On was an inspirational poster from 1939 at the outset of the war. These days you see it on mugs and T-shirts and phone cases. The fact that this got such amazing up-take shows how this stoicism still infiltrates our culture, telling us how we should (or think we should) behave.

Our approach to emotions is also about efficiency. We seek to speedily move from feeling bad to feeling good again. Our goal is to process bad events as quickly as possible so we can return to normal functionality.

Partially this is a natural reaction. When we are hurting we want to take the pain away as fast as we can. When we are physically hurt, we put band aids on and we take pain killers. But we need to remember that those things only ease the situation – healing still has to happen.

The trouble is, we are emotional beings. It takes a lot of work to have a stiff upper lip. It takes an awful lot of effort to keep calm and carry on. In fact it does a lot of damage. We move too quickly from the pain before it has healed or, even worse, we suppress them for the sake of moving on quickly which means there was no healing at all. What would happen if we had a deep physical wound that we allowed only to partially heal, or not to heal at all?

In other cultures and in other times, processing negative emotions has been more communal. Mourning was public. Roman funerals could be quite elaborate and include up to five elements (a procession, a cremation and burial, the eulogy, a feast and commemoration).

Similarly in ancient Jewish culture. One of the best gifts we have for helping us to process emotional pain is the Psalms. This is God’s gift to us to have words to express how we feel, even when in anguish and despair – even when we want to shout and scream and protest and question God. Given our cultural discomfort with negative emotions, we tend to mainly focus on the happy Psalms. They’re good for inspirational posters and giving comfort to those in pain when we don’t know what to say. But that’s the beauty of Psalms. God did give us words to say when we’re in pain so we don’t need to jump straight to the happy Psalms to make things better. God taught us a different way.

Nearly half of the Psalms are lament psalms. These Psalms acknowledge the deepest pain and despair, confusion, grief and loss. They give us a journey to process our emotional pain. They allow us to acknowledge the pain and what fears we have. They name fears specifically for us – fear of attack, fear of loss, fear that God will not answer and so on. They acknowledge the feelings – confusion, emotional exhaustion, despair, longing and deep yearning.

Then, and only then, when the psalmist has brought our pain into the light and we have stayed in it a little while, does then the poetry move us to a more hopeful conclusion. This conclusion can only happen after the pain has been processed.

Have a look at Psalm 13 to see some of the things I note above:

Psalm 13

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;

    my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise,

    for he has been good to me.

What we can also remember is that many of these Psalms are good for individual lament and healing. But many are also communal Psalms of lament.

Our pain doesn’t need to be private and it doesn’t need to be processed quickly. Now obviously there is a line. If we swing the pendulum too far we’ll be parading our pain and could end up celebrating it. In addition, if we allow ourselves to stay in the feelings too long, we can end up wallowing and living there.

The Psalms give us a shape and a tempo to processing though. It acknowledges us and gives validation to our feelings. It allows us to stay in them for the purposes of healing. But then the words move us very definitely on to the next stage. And there are over 60 of these types of Psalms! Which means there are Psalms for a whole range of painful emotions, and for repeated use of them – because it’s not as though we just read one psalm and then we’re good to go. We would always have repeated counselling sessions, or GP visits. So we should stay in these Psalms for as long as we need to, allowing God to give us the words to speak and urging us to seek him when we are at our darkest points.

The Psalms give us so much more than just celebration and praise. The next time you are seeking to comfort someone, read lament Psalms with them. Sit with them in their pain. Help them to access the tempo of processing our hurt provided to us by God himself.

And the next time you are seeking comfort for yourself, go to these Psalms. Know that God sees your pain and knows your most negative emotions. He wants you to acknowledge him in the darkness and speak your pain into the light, but he doesn’t want you to stay there. He wants you to trust and move forward, even an inch at a time and for as long as it takes.

You are his and he will never leave you in the dark. Give yourself permission to feel the feelings and let God lead your healing.

I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.

An important diagnostic for us, and a gentle challenge for our churches

When I meet ministers or visit a new church, I have three questions that give me an immediate insight into the leadership, direction and culture of that church. These questions aren’t designed to give me ammunition, they are purely to give me insight. That’s the beauty of diagnostic questions – they reveal the state of play. There is no moral weighting attached to the answer, it’s just to establish fact.

The first question is “What is your theology?” This is to make sure I’m going to get good, bible-based teaching. This does not query quality, just foundation. I need to make sure the church is founded on Reformed Evangelical theology.

The second question is “Who is in charge of pastoral care?”. If the answer is “Everyone” that may sound good, but is actually concerning to me. Because if everyone is in charge of pastoral care, then nobody is. Pastoral care needs to be headed up by a minister (paid or lay minister doesn’t matter, as long as it’s one person with responsibility and authority). Someone needs to have overall oversight to make sure pastoral care is a) happening, b) is happening effectively, c) is proactive and not reactive and c) that ensures that the people doing the pastoral care are trained and coached and supported and have the resources they need.

If pastoral care has no minister in charge or proactive leadership, if pastoral care is delegated to small group leaders, this is a concern. Small group leaders and congregational leaders will undoubtedly do most of the care, but it needs to be led by a minister. If it isn’t, the message it sends is that pastoral care is not important. That may well not be true, but that’s the message it sends. And if it is not led by a minister, it may not be part of the culture. It may lack focus and direction, it will lack communication and effectiveness. If we want a church where pastoral care is cultural, it is important for us to know who leads this.

As my first gentle challenge to our churches, I would like ministers to know that this is important to us parishioners. I would ask ministers to consider leadership in this area and recognise the perception (and reality?) that if everyone is in charge of pastoral care then nobody is. Maybe it’s time for a stocktake. Are your people really ok? Is the pastoral care proactive? Is it cultural?

My third question may be the most controversial. It is “How much does the church give?” That is not how much do your parishioners give. This question is about how much does the church give – specifically, give away. Now, bear with me on this because it sounds like a desperately unfair question. Our churches barely have enough to keep themselves afloat without giving anything away.

But let’s look at this another way. Generosity is rarely “caught” by being taught. Generosity is usually caught and spread by being modelled. I spoke to a Presbyterian minister in Sydney’s outer suburbs and he answered “We give about 10% That’s not a deliberate number, it just generally adds up to about that.” I spoke to an Anglican minister in Sydney’s inner suburbs and they also give a substantial amount – enough to pay for additional part time member of staff if that’s what they wanted to do. But they don’t. They want to model generosity by donating a part of their parishioner given income to a variety of Christian charities and missions.

It’s also important for church integrity and authenticity. Churches want (and need!) parishioners to give and to give generously and joyfully. Given that that is the case, it feels as though it would be right and proper for the church to also give sacrificially. To ask others to sacrifice, but not do so as an institution feels lacking in generosity. If we are to exercise generosity of spirit, and engender a generous and joyfully giving church, then I would gently challenge churches to start giving.

This is a gentle challenge because I understand the financial pressures that churches face. I believe a challenge is warranted however because the parishioners who are asked to give, are also facing pressures. What would we say to a parishioner who wants to give but feels they can’t because of the financial pressure they are under? First of all – grace. We don’t know a persons (or a church’s) story. But if we would encourage the person to step out in faith and if we would motivate them to give what they could – then I would direct these responses to our churches also.

Churches are under immense financial pressure. But I believe that churches should challenge themselves and step out in faith and give what they can – even starting with a few dollars a week. My apologies to any minister reading this and thinking its patronising. I certainly don’t mean it to be. I also don’t mean it to be remotely judgemental. I am merely describing what is important to me in a church and what (for me) reveals where the heart of a church is. I do not believe that generosity can be delegated to an external body. For example, encouraging people to give directly to CMS or Anglicare or BaptistCare or Compassion does not count. As worthwhile as that is, it is not generosity. Churches cannot abdicate responsibility for generosity. Generosity is a non-delegable duty.

I have noticed that the churches who give away resources, tend to have the strongest cultures of generosity. Because culture comes from the top and if the church gives and models generosity, the people are more likely to give and be generous more quickly, more instinctively, and more joyfully. This doesn’t mean those churches are devoid of financial worries. It’s just a noticeable difference in churches I’ve seen.

For any ministers reading this who’s churches do give, I want to thank you and appreciate you for the sacrifice and the hard choices. If you are a minister reading this and your church has not felt in a position to give, I want to thank you for reading this far! My gentle challenge to you, brothers and sisters, is that this is a step out in faith. But it will be one that throws ripples throughout your church.

If you are a church-goer reading this, these diagnostic questions are important – but they should never be used to judge. That is not our job and it’s not healthy, productive or helpful to point fingers or complain. We need to be gracious and understanding. We need to be proactive, positive and helpful. A church having the capacity to self-reflect on these matters should be nothing but praised and respected.

I also think it is important to ask these questions though. We are sheep and Jesus is our good shepherd. But that doesn’t mean we are mindless followers in our churches. It is important to review where the heart of the church is.

We want our churches to be strong, vibrant and teeming with a generosity of spirit that is so visible to our communities that it is shocking to them – shocking in all the best and most wonderful ways.

What “real” Christianity looks like

You know what? I’m a Christian. A big one. I know I may well lose half my followers with this but I feel like it’s important to say. I think I am representative of a lot of Christians and I wanted to put a big shout out to all those who are sitting in the middle of the pressures of our crazy world, and just trying to do life.

If you are not interested in this, please do feel free to scroll on by. If you are Christian, I hope what I am about to say resonates with you. If you are not Christian but are faintly amused and intrigued, please take the time to meet us.

Real Christians are messy. Some of us are messier than others. But what I mean is we are not perfect. Far from it. Our lives are full of the same struggles as everyone else. We have the same troubled relationships and work place issues. We have failed marriages and kids who are going off the rails. We have gay family and friends and people close to us who are chronically ill and dying. We are married, we are single, we are divorced, we are widowed. We self-medicate with pills or alcohol or shopping or social media. We have mummy guilt and self-doubt. We have messy houses and crazy time schedules. We are scared and overjoyed and stressed. We love ourselves and hate ourselves. We lie awake at night worrying, just like everyone.

What props us up is knowing God loves us. In the middle of the mess and fear, God loves us. There is nothing we have done or could do that could earn the outstanding grace he extended to us. He doesn’t love us because we loved him – when he sacrificed his son for us – us small, messy, fragile people – we know for sure that he loved us first.

And we struggle. Oh yes we struggle. Being a Christian isn’t a magic bullet. We didn’t just join the Perfect Club and start blissfully ignoring everything that doesn’t fit the perfect picture. We do life in community. We belong to each other and hold each other up. In all honesty, it’s how a lot of us are still standing.

Why am I writing this? Because I am a Christian. And I have a voice. I don’t want to pretend that Christianity is just a lifestyle choice, or something nice to do on a Sunday. Being a Christian is a life choice. It’s not just life changing, it’s a whole new way of living.

But I also don’t want to pretend that it is license to become a sanctimonious ass. And if your experience of Christians is this, I am truly sorry – please know that they don’t represent the majority. We were given grace. Grace is what we need to live. That doesn’t mean we have to like or agree with everything, or be a doormat. But living by grace is the goal. Respectfully disagreeing with someone in no way compromises that. You don’t have to hate on someone to disagree with them.

Grace. That’s what we strive for. We may screw it up, but that’s the intent and the motivation.

I am a Christian and I have a voice. So let’s hear it for us little guys, us normal messy Christians struggling through life but loving Jesus, loving the bible, and loving God.