It is often said that God is a God of surprises.
Every once in a while I find myself in a situation that I could never have expected or predicted. A month or so ago, I found myself in a dugout canoe, with an outboard motor travelling along the Irrawaddy river, in a rural and remote part of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. I had to pinch myself; how did I end up here?
The simple answer is that my jungle journey has its origins with the Karen congregation that meets at Uniting Church in the City (UCIC), Ross Memorial West Perth, and the movement of the Spirit.
The pastor of the Karen congregation is Rev S’Win Shwe, who trained in the Uniting Church’s theological college in Sydney (UTC). Last year, he invited me to have dinner with the president of the Pwo Karen Baptist church of Burma, Rev Mahn Benson, who was visiting Perth.
Fast forward four months and out the blue comes an invitation to speak at the 100th year anniversary service of the Pwo Karen Baptist church in Myanmar and at the opening of their renovated church in Yangon. Continue Reading
One of the greatest English rock bands, Pink Floyd, has a line in one of their songs that has always intrigued me: “we’re like two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl, year after year. Wish you were here.”
These lyrics suggest, rather cynically, that living today can feel like living in a fishbowl. The more I thought about life being like a fishbowl, the more it seemed to me that there is some truth to the idea.
Water magnifies every action we take, making it look way bigger than it probably should be. Life in a fishbowl means that small things appear much bigger. A rather innocuous comment can be seen as a massive put down; a flippant remark can be taken as a serious rejection of a person; a mild, gentle criticism can be misunderstood as a character assassination.
In the world of the fishbowl, many things are exaggerated or magnified causing a distorted view of reality. Fishbowl thinking over scrutinises, dissects and then replays over and over again the same unbalanced view of reality.
Every now and then, I think I suffer from this condition and I am not alone. Others in the church are also unconsciously affected by a fishbowl mind-set. Sometimes when I am in conversation, I hear a grievance. They range from the trivial, to the important, to the very serious. Discerning which category they belong in is a prayerful, pastoral art. To reinforce the petty is not helping anyone. To minimise the serious is pastorally neglectful. Continue Reading
Recently, I had a bad dream; I woke up suddenly believing that I had been attacked by a large army of cockroaches. Thankfully, when my eyes were fully opened, there was not a cockroach in sight.
No doubt, a good therapist could work out why I had such a nightmare. Maybe it was just the curry from dinner taking revenge on my psyche. Sometimes, thankfully, dreams don’t come true. They are usually the product of anxious living.
Does God have dreams? Probably not the kind we have. Some Christians, however, think that all the talk in the Bible about ‘the kingdom of God’ is really talk about God’s dream for humankind. Pick up on most of the Old Testament prophets and you will get this drift. If you read through the long and winding Isaiah or the short and abrupt Haggai, you will catch a glimpse of the hopes and dreams God has for humankind.
Jesus was captured by these Godly dreams when he began his ministry with the words, ‘the time has come, the kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the good news’ (Mark 1 v 15). Notice how Jesus connects kingdom with the words “now” and “arrived.” The waiting was over and it was time for the kingdom to arrive.
It wasn’t, however, what most of Israel expected. They thought kingdom equals a king, land and citizens. The king meant ditching Caesar or the corrupt local king (Herod Antipas) and replacing him with a Messiah. This new king would sit on the throne in Jerusalem and rule the land. The land would flow with milk and honey and everyone would follow the Torah (the Law). The citizens would love and serve the king and the kingdom would expand. Continue Reading
Some years ago, I went to a Peter Scazzero seminar. He said something that has stayed with me: “You can’t be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature.
“Spiritual maturity is holistic; it involves the mind, heart, will, spirit and body.”
Much of my early training in ministry emphasised an intellectual maturity, growing in thinking and understanding; read lots of books, write smart essays and you will slowly get there. I soon discovered the poverty of this narrow-minded focus.
I began to realise that John Calvin was right when he wrote, “Our wisdom consists of almost entirely two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”
In other words, we need to know ourselves that we may know God. Augustine prayed, “Grant Lord that I may know myself that I may know thee.”In the early days of my faith development I was taught that feelings are unreliable and not to be trusted. They go up and down like a yoyo and therefore they are the last thing we should be attending to.
Daniel Golemen, author of Emotional Intelligence, defines emotions as, “Referring to a feeling and its distinctive thoughts, psychological and biological states, and range of propensities to act.” Continue Reading
A friend of mine spent a few years away from church. She was burnt out. Eventually she decided it was time to return to a worshipping congregation, but wondered which one. She decided to go visiting congregations on a Sunday morning in the hope she might be welcomed beyond a handshake at the door and a copy of the news-sheet.
She worked out a ‘cup of tea’ test. The plan was to hold her cup of tea after the service, very slowly sip it, and smile at everyone who walked past, hoping that someone might be interested enough to pause and talk with her.
Sadly, several churches failed the cup of tea test. Thankfully, at least one church passed the test when someone noticed her, engaged her in conversation and seemed genuinely interested in her wellbeing.
Too easily we conclude we are a friendly congregation, when it may be the case that we do not notice or go out of our way to look after the newcomer or the stranger. We may have created a place of welcome for the regulars, but not so much for the hesitant visitor.
In congregational ministry I regularly encouraged our leaders to follow the ‘two-minute’ rule. I would suggest that straight after the benediction every leader resist the temptation to gravitate towards their friends. Rather, in those two minutes they should cast a careful eye around the congregation for the visitor or stranger and go straight to them with welcoming words and see where it might lead.Continue Reading
Sometimes we stand and we know what we stand for. Sometimes we fall and we are tripped over by our lack of attention and focus.
Sometimes we just wobble.
We wobble when we celebrate God’s awesome creation and then add to the pollution of God’s world. We wobble when we claim to follow a Jesus who was poor while we chase a dream of luxury and affluence. We wobble when we speak about being inclusive while we ignore people who are different to us. We wobble when we talk of justice for others while we can so easily become self-absorbed and self-interested. We wobble when we preach the timeless gospel and do it in outdated and irrelevant ways.
Maybe this side of the full kingdom of God, we will struggle to run the race of faith and walk the way of Jesus without some wobbles.
This edition of Revive reminds us that Jesus did not wobble when it came to loving, serving, advocating and acting for others. Scot McKnight reminds us that Jesus as a Galilean prophet had a job description a bit like this. Continue Reading
I recently watched the film ‘Suffragettes’, the early twentieth century story of the struggle of women to win the right to vote in the UK. It powerfully reminded me of the cost, courage and persistence that is needed to make a stand for something you believe in.
History is full of examples of people who stand up and speak out for what they believe to be true. Often it is in the name of justice, truth and God. They may be whistleblowers at the workplace, activists in a street protest, artists who defy totalitarian regimes, or just people of compassion and conviction that are not afraid to voice their beliefs in a hostile environment.
I was very privileged recently to visit Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town where Nelson Mandela and other prisoners were brutally held for their stand against the evils of apartheid. Solitary confinement, hard labour, daily humiliation, cramp and the loneliness of separation from family and friends was part of the heavy price Mandela and his followers paid for their defiance. For more on my trip to South Africa, where I attended the International Fresh Expressions Conference, click here. Continue Reading