Amazement

One of our family traditions during the Advent season is to visit a local church (St John’s Golden Church) which has a ‘Festival of Christmas Trees’, with trees decorated by both people in the church and various community organisations. The Christmas trees are all through the church auditorium, in the café, up hallways, and in other rooms. They’re everywhere!

When we visited last year Son#1, who had just turned two at the time, was amazed. He walked up and down the hallways stopping at each Christmas tree saying ‘That’s a pretty one… that’s a pretty one!’

I love how young kids can be so easily amazed by things. It’s a shame most of us lose that child-like amazement as we grow up.

Amazement and Christmas have always been linked. In Luke, after the angels tell the shepherds about Jesus’ birth, the shepherds hurry off to find this baby in a feeding-trough. After seeing Jesus, Luke says the shepherds told everyone and that all who heard were amazed.

The reason for their amazement? Here was the fulfilment of prophecies from long ago. Here was the saviour, the Messiah, the King. God arriving in the flesh as a little baby. Jesus was here, and that was amazing!

Maybe we all need a bit more child-like amazement in our lives. What better way to start than by spending some time this Christmas being amazed by Jesus. That he was born into our world to be our saviour, Messiah, and King.

Thank you God for sending your son: our saviour, our King.

May we be constantly amazed by this love that you have shown the world.

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Changing how we communicate the good news

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At a recent work team building day (which I missed, unfortunately) we had a guest speaker, Dr Paul McDonald, who talked about his research into sustainability and neuroscience. Paul is a lecturer at Victoria University and is due to publish a journal paper on this topic next year.

Talking with others in my team about what Paul presented intrigued me, so I managed to get hold of his paper and have a read…

In layman’s language, he’s basically saying that the typical way that we communicate sustainability and the need to be sustainable doesn’t work. Often it depends on the use of scare tactics to push people to more sustainable measures – in practice, he says, this just triggers a flight response and people tune out.

Also of issue is that we humans are an inherently stubborn bunch and not quick to accept change (often people know something to be true, but they don’t truly believe it to be true; there’s no emotional connection to the issue, so there’s no change).

He emphasises the need for a better way to communicate sustainability. Reframing how sustainability is communicated so that it’s in a positive manner (not focused on doom and gloom, fear and academic facts).

Reading this got me thinking about how often this is also the case for the good news and how we communicate it.

I’ve been reading a lot of Tom Wright recently – his presentation and communication of the gospel (or the good news) strikes a resounding note with me. It’s far broader and wide ranging than the traditionally taught ‘gospel’. I find myself in the same camp as whoever said this in reference to Wright’s book Surprised by Hope:

“If this book is true,” he said, “then my whole life has to change.” (link)

I can’t help but think we need to communicate the good news differently (and more fully, for that matter).

In Simply Good News Wright talks about how the good news is often watered down and communicated as about ‘me and my relationship to God’ or about ‘going to heaven’. He writes (bold emphasis mine):

Let’s be clear. The relationship each of us has with God is hugely important. It is also vital to insist that God will indeed look after his people following their deaths, all the way to his final new creation. But these are not the centre of the good news. We have placed the stress at the wrong point, like people putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable. The words may be true, but the way we say them gets in the way of that truth coming out clearly. The good news is about the living God overcoming all the powers of the world to establish his rule of justice and peace, on earth as in heaven. Not in heaven, later on. And that victory is won not by superior power of the same kind but by a different sort of power altogether… The kingdom of God, Jesus declared, runs on love.

Also, just like sustainability, how often are ‘scare tactics’ used as a proxy for the good news: we’re all sinners deserving death, Jesus died in our place, if we believe in him we’ll go to heaven. What Wright has shown me is that there’s so much more to the good news than this over-simplification. We’re ignoring or missing the broader context of Jesus’ death (and, for that matter, his resurrection)[1].

In his paper Paul McDonald also notes the importance of storytelling – saying that “neurological evidence supports the power of rhetoric and storytelling”. This has to be true for how we communicate the good news also – we need to tell the good news as a compelling story. Paint the picture of why it is truly good news. When that resonates with people, they will be more willing to believe it and make real and lasting change. Of course, we’re not doing this under our own steam – we have the Holy Spirit to enable us to do this work.

I had the privilege of sharing the message with my church last weekend as part of the service where the kids put on their Christmas production. As an aside, it was my first time preparing and delivering a sermon – I really enjoyed it! I took this opportunity to begin to communicate the good news differently. Using the passage about Anna the Prophetess celebrating Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:36-38) as a frame, I had a go at telling the story of the good news in its fullest sense: starting with God creating the world, through to Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden, God’s promises to Abraham, the prophecies of a coming rescuer and king, Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection, and what it means to have Jesus as king.

This was all condensed into a very brief sermon and would benefit from the various aspects being teased out more in future sermons, however hopefully it gave people a taster of what the good news truly is.

It feels strange to have been a Christian for so long but to only now discover the good news in this way. I’m looking forward to exploring this more – further reading, study, prayer, blogging and application in my life (and hopefully those around me). After all, it is the good news, and it should be central to my faith and my life.

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[1] The Distorted and Competing Gospels chapter of Wright’s Simply Good News explains this way better than I could – recommended reading!

Loving our neighbour

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My son has a great book by children’s authors Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen called Favourite Parables from the Bible. One of the stories from the book is The Good Stranger, based on the famous parable from Luke 10:25-37.

The story of the Good Samaritan has got to be one of the most well-known of Jesus’ parables. It focuses on what it means to love our neighbour and who our ‘neighbour’ is. This parable speaks directly into some of the most topical issues of today’s world, including how we as Christians respond to the refugee crisis.

The wave of refugees flooding out of Syria, Iraq and northern Africa has been incredible this year and at the forefront of world’s attention. Initial public response to the refugees, particularly following the tragic story of Aylan Kurdi and his brother, tended towards sympathetic, with people seemingly supportive of providing homes for these people who had risked much to escape a terrible situation. However, ever since the more recent terrorism events linked, either directly or indirectly, to ISIS (notably Paris and San Bernardino), the public response seems to be changing, with people like Donald Trump, a large number of states in the US, and a number of countries (particularly in eastern Europe) starting to tar all refugees with the same brush, with calls for closed borders and bans on Muslims.

It is becoming an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation – something that should be abhorrent to Christians. We are called by Jesus to love, and this call isn’t restricted to those that are similar to us, those that we’re comfortable being around. We’re called to love everyone.

The scandal of the Good Samaritan parable is that it is the Samaritan man who aids the wounded Jewish traveller, not the priest or the rabbi – aka the fellow Jews. Brian Krum, teaching pastor from Greenlane Christian Centre, was invited to preach at our church last Sunday. His sermon was on the woman at the well (John 4) – another famous passage that involves a Samaritan. Brian made it clear that the Samaritans were despised by the Jewish people – they were the worst of the worst, complete outsiders, people who any self-respecting Jew would have nothing to do with. What a shock it must have been for the religious scholar for Jesus to turn around and say that we are to love everyone, including the Samaritans.

To see people and countries start to turn their backs on refugees because they are different and out of fear is awful and isn’t something we should tolerate. It’s not an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation, because that is not how Jesus calls us to see people. Jesus says love our neighbour as ourselves, not make our neighbour like ourselves. I read a great blog post the other day about how the Bedouin love people through hospitality. Chad ends the post by saying:

Love just loves.

This is powerful and is what Jesus is calling us to do. Our response as Christians to the refugee crisis shouldn’t be ‘keep them away, leave them to fend for themselves’. We should be actively seeking to embrace these people who are struggling, hurting, longing for a peaceful life. We should be extending mercy and hospitality to them.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan finishes with the following dialogue between Jesus and the religious scholar:

36 “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbour to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.

37 The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”

Oh that we would take this to heart and go and do the same, both towards the refugees and everyone else in the community around us.

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Ambitions, hopes and plans

The song All for Jesus has frequently been in my head this year (after singing it occasionally at out previous church), particularly the lyrics ‘All of my ambitions, hopes and plans, I surrender these into Your hands.’

These lyrics are a reminder for me to test my intentions and to be aware of my ambitions and plans. I find this particularly to be the case when it comes to trying to figure out where God intends for me to serve once the pastoral search committee (to find our new senior pastor) process is over – which will hopefully draw to a close soon.

The song also emphasises the need to be intentional about sacrificing own ambitions for God’s kingdom – he may have plans that don’t necessarily line up with our own. So often in life we cling to our ambitions and plans as they can give us a sense of security.

But Jesus wants us to give him our all – everything, including our ambitions, hopes and plans. In Luke 9 he says “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me.

This doesn’t necessarily mean those plans we thought we had aren’t what we’ll end up doing, but we have to be willing for Jesus to have other plans for our life.

This song and Luke 9:23 make me seriously ask myself these two questions:
1. What are the ambitions, hopes and plans that I’m holding onto?
2. Are these getting on the way of me fully surrendering to Christ?

Being a disciple of Christ isn’t meant to be easy. However I take solace in the last words Jesus speaks before ascending into heaven at the end of Matthew 28 “Be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Jesus recognises discipleship is difficult – however he is always with us and loves us, no matter what.

Jesus, all for Jesus,
All I am and have and ever hope to be.
Jesus, all for Jesus,
All I am and have and ever hope to be.

All of my ambitions, hopes and plans
I surrender these into Your hands.
All of my ambitions, hopes and plans
I surrender these into Your hands.

For it’s only in Your will that I am free,
For it’s only in Your will that I am free,
Jesus, all for Jesus,
All I am and have and ever hope to be.

All for Jesus – Robin Mark

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Learning to pray

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Our son turned two today – he was very excited, especially about the birthday cake and candles, which he has been anticipating since we went to a birthday party a few months ago.

He’s been making amazing strides in his language over the past month, and we’ve begun to teach him how to pray, which has been lovely.

Ever since the day he was born we’ve been praying with him. The first blessing he got was from his Nan in the delivery suite, when he was only a few minutes old. Later that night, I vividly remember holding him as Kim slept in the hospital bed, bringing his face close to mine and praying that he would grow into a strong man of God.

Prayer is a part of daily life for our family, something he has been, and always will be, exposed to. We pray with him at least a few times during the day; grace at dining table (he’s always reaching out to hold our hands once he’s in his high chair (probably because it means dinners almost ready!) and once he’s in bed.

More recently he’s been asking for prayer, especially at bedtime and sometimes more than once. He’s been sick quite a bit (for him) over the last month, so when we ask him what he wants us to pray for he says ‘peace’ in his cute little voice. I find that our prayer with him definitely gives him comfort – he almost always will be peaceful and fall asleep after we pray.

Kim has been teaching him he doesn’t have to have wait for us to pray, that he can talk to God all by himself; he just needs to say ‘peace Jesus’. I think he’s starting to get the hang of it.

This has got me thinking about how we learn to pray. I’ve always felt some sort of deficiency in this space, like I’m not very good at it. But over recent years I’ve become more intentional, learning new ways to pray and spiritual disciplines, attending a course that our church in Dunedin offered a few years ago, and studying the Bible more.

It heartens me to know that even the disciples seemed to struggle with prayer, asking Jesus to teach them how to pray in Luke 11. What followed was the Lord’s Prayer, which I’ve often overlooked in the past. During our church’s week long prayer vigil this year, I spent some time reading NT Wright’s commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. It gave me a much deeper understanding of what this particular prayer is really about, and helped me think more about how I pray in practice. NT Wright likens the Lord’s Prayer to a framework, scaffolding rather than the whole building. It made me realise in particular that I have a tendency to spend a lot of time praying about my needs or the needs of my nearest and dearests, but not nearly enough time praying for God’s kingdom, asking forgiveness, and just genuinely honouring and praising God. A new perspective I’d overlooked, but am trying to focus more on now.

I’m never going to be a perfect pray-er – I, like my son, will always be learning (who isn’t?!), but who better to learn from than Jesus!

9So this is how you should pray:
Our father in heaven,
may your name be honoured
10may your kingdom come
may your will be done
as in heaven, so on earth.
11Give us today the bread we need now;
12and forgive us the things we owe,
as we too have forgiven what was owed to us.
13Don’t bring us into the great trial,
but rescue us from evil.

Matthew 6:9-13 (as translated by NT Wright)

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