Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Lord’s Prayer Revelation About Forgiveness

Forgive us our offenses as we ourselves forgive those who offend us.”
— Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:12)
The words of the Bible are basic, and, apart from interpreting them accurately, which pertains to an incredibly sophisticated world of scholarship, these words are simple for the reader.
Many times, as devotees of the Bible, we read the same words over and over, and then “boom!” God reveals something special. This happened recently with the above decisive piece of the Matthean Lord’s Prayer.
The words are simple.
Pray the Lord,
forgive us our offenses,
forgive me mine,
as we — no, I — forgive
those who offend us (me).
Suddenly the Lord made me realise what His Word was saying — what it had always said. He says nothing about praying for others to forgive us nor about others and what they’re due if they don’t seek forgiveness. This prayer of forgiveness is not really about others at all.
It’s about God and I, and my vertical relationship with Him, and not about my horizontal relationship with others. It’s about what I can do. It’s nothing about waiting for others to do their bit. It’s nothing about others reaching toward us in reconciliation, but it is everything about us reaching toward them, knowing we’re obeying God no matter how they respond. It’s an acknowledgement that we’re empowered to do what we can do to arrange the restoration of the relationship. Doing the forgiveness and knowing we’ve done all we can do is enough to experience the Spirit’s prevailing peace.
The words are simple.
If we forgive the offenses of others, God will forgive our offenses against Him.
Read that. Our offenses — done against anyone — are offenses done directly against Him.
Sins done against “the least of these” might as well be done against Jesus, Himself. Recall Jesus speaking about the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46. The sheep on the right are those who did what they could to show mercy and the goats on the left withheld mercy.
The forgiveness we withhold from another person is a mercy we do not show the Lord. For the Lord is in them, by His Spirit if they believe, and if not, they’re still made in His image. But the forgiveness we show is a mercy we freely share with the Lord, recognising they, the offending person/s, were known by God before they were conceived, and are dearly loved as much as we are.
And, besides, we would want to show ourselves as merciful, as if embodying the Spirit’s power, and not hard of heart, which reveals us otherwise as missing something vital of God’s transforming grace.
What can we deduce?
We should know how God feels about the offenses we do. We only have to feel what we feel when others offend us. Sure, God isn’t human, but those we offend are, and God is their vindicator. As much as He is ours.
Forgiveness is an interpersonal transaction between us and God so, in God’s power, we may enjoy personal transformation sufficient to hope for interpersonal reconciliation.
Forgiveness is a matter of faith in the Lord’s direction of obedience. It’s best, and only to be, kept that simple.
Reading the Bible, then, what choice do we have? We must forgive. What may not be easy is certainly possible, and when God’s power is in it, it becomes probable.
We ought to pray, as we forgive others their offenses, that God would change our hearts as much as His heart is changed toward us.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Unifying the Mind Divided In Christian Life

“A mind that is single and sincere is not interested in being good, in conducting relations with other people so as to live up to a rule. Nor, on the other hand, is it interested in being free, in acting perversely just to prove its independence. Its interest is not in itself, but in the people and problems of which it is aware; these are ‘itself’. It acts, not according to the rules, but according to the circumstances of the moment, and the ‘well’ it wishes to others is not security but liberty.”
— Alan W. Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity (p. 132)
In Christian life, we often find ourselves no farther along the journey of purity and piety than those mature would-be-Christians who have no allegiance to Christ, whatsoever. They seem as gracious as we are, peace-loving and wise, aware of their purpose, connected to people, morally adroit, and even better positioned for admiration because they’re not pigeon-holed as hypocritical or judgmental. They’re considered and called beautiful persons.
As Christians, we tend to fall for the trap of needing to be seen as set apart in our holiness rather than knowing we are set apart, as a matter of who we are and not for what we do or don’t do.
Christian conversion doesn’t solve the problem of the self.
It’s the acknowledgement of the sinful self in the benefit received through the acceptance of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice — the grace of God as the final restitution of the sinner to the restoring God.
Conversion highlights the problem of the self, and the need to depend on God if progress is to be made on the journey with God.
The journey to God made, which is conversion, the journey with God commences.
Now comes cognisance of the real problem within the problem. There is a barrier that must be overcome; we use our flesh to try to conquer what only reliance on the Spirit will attain.
In Watts’ language, we have to get over the “I” and that’s probably the revelation that humbles our spiritual pride most. This is the admission that we’ve not been as miraculously transformed as we’d liked to have been.
Sure, in Christ, we are new creations, but we’re not suddenly cured of sin. In fact, we’ve only begun the journey of reconciling that we’ll be fallen sinful persons for the rest of our lives. And what is against us are incorrect assumptions non-Christians make: “Well, he/she is not a very good Christian, are they?” That’s the point. There’s no such thing, and Christians more ought to know and accept this than anyone. The irony is it’s only the converted that understand, so it’s to hypocrisy we will continue to be judged.
If we’re to accept that the Christian life is not so much the negation of the self, but the affirmation of others within the purposes God gives us, then we would lose the prison in finding the key.
This is the concept that the self is subsumed always in something bigger than itself. Indeed, and ideally, the self has become nothing, and can see nothing of itself, for the everything that exists beyond itself.
This is what I think John the Baptist is getting at when he sees he is the friend of the Bridegroom, Jesus: “He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:30) John’s purpose had crystal clear clarity only when Jesus came.
When we arrive at this point in our journey with God, we don’t simply obey because it will go well for us if we do.
We obey because our lives are no longer about us; we see that our life is only “abundant” when others’ lives are, and when we’re lost in our mission that’s when we’re finally found. But we run off track if we don’t encompass this:
It’s not a service to others
to make us feel good.
It’s a service to others
where we think less about ourselves.
To this we’re called heavenward: the mind is one in passionate pursuit of everything it perceives of love for the people and problems of which it’s aware.
Serving others without thinking about what we gain, therefore, is freedom and, ultimately, Jesus’ abundant life.
That service, for the simple want of doing it, is what unifies the mind divided and exemplifies a mind integrated.
Serving unifies the mind divided, healing us, as God also heals those served.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Wisdom of Insecurity and Anxiety

“… when we try to understand the present by comparing it with memories, we do not understand it as deeply as when we are aware of it without comparison.”
— Alan W. Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity (p. 92)
“If you hold to my teaching… you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
— Jesus Christ, John 8:31-32
The wisdom of insecurity is a sagacity of God because, using it, we defy our cowardice.
Defying our cowardice — a cowardice which is essentially a turning away from the truth of the moment, when it’s uncomfortable — is remarkably simple.
But we must first embrace the trippy existential risk of being free to remain insecure.
Most believe that we’re revealed as insecure, which leads us to turn away from boldly staying in the moment, but recognising ourselves as insecure in those moments of insecurity is the key to choosing the better option of courage.
It has to be done via our awareness, consciously correcting the turning away, staying put.
Being of courage means we have to choose to stay in the feeling of insecurity, resisting running from it by some cover-up of fake bravery. Such falsehoods betray only ourselves. We know deep down we can fool everyone else, but we can never fool ourselves where our consciences care.
Watts says that, in fearful situations, we divert from present experience into the supposed safety of memory for a way to escape the harsh truth we’re encountering. But in that we slide away from being present, missing its depth, failing to appreciate its implicit value.
We can only respond poorly when we’re not present.
By not trusting ourselves to the truth, we do not trust God regarding the reality we find ourselves in, and we turn away from being true, accepting our own plea bargain by choosing a disguise. The crazy thing is we think we’re safer doing this. We actually deprive ourselves of the safety of the more reliable truth when we fashion for ourselves a lie to live within.
In not being present, we opt to escape into a memory of a similar situation in the past.
That’s dangerous, because even if that way of responding was appropriate, it can’t be appropriate for this new situation, as all situations are different. Besides, as we go by feel we genuinely miss the depth in the present moment; all the myriad detail, the authentic intel, that should otherwise inform our response.
Insecurity underpins anxiety, so it can be well assumed that anxiety is our cue to embrace and not avoid our insecurity. To do this, we will need to face something that’s horrid for a moment — a secondary emotion, to prefer a primary emotion. This is being honest through being vulnerable. That’s not usually a comfortable experience.
So isn’t it astounding and refreshing and bizarre that anxiety is good. That in trying to avoid it or overcome it, we’ve been doing the wrong thing all along. We more ought to make a home for it, which is about challenging our inner being to love the nemesis.
Might sound crazy, but the weakness we have learned to embrace is the tormenter we have learned to accept, and finally it has permission to go!
Regarding anxiety, giving up the fight is one way we win the fight. Regarding the insecurity that buttresses anxiety, instead of running from it we rise from within the midst of it.
Wisdom counterbalances life within the cherished irrevocable world of truth.
In anxiety, in insecurity, in them both, are rudiments for life, when we stay right there and resist running.
We overcome our anxieties and insecurities when we hear them knocking and we invite them in as cherished guests. Then we find courage rises, because, to accept such unwarranted guests, is in itself courage. And, as courage rises, we have less need for anxiety and insecurity, without forgetting the power available in being honest within weakness.
When signs of anxiety and insecurity are embraced, a wider, deeper, more functional and beautiful present opens up to us. We’re no longer occupied and consumed by resistance, and we’re freer to think and feel and act.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

One Simplest, Most Powerful Faith

Faith is remarkably simple, but life is complex, and we think our problems require equally complex solutions. All our problems are met best in the simplest of ways.
Our complex contexts are not to be understood, for complexity overwhelms us, but a two-pronged approach to one simple, integrated faith is the way forward.
Indicators that we need this approach are anxiety, depression, anger, impatience, and a general dearth of the fruit of the Spirit.
The two-pronged approach is tried and tested, and an almost boringly well-known formula. To the Word of God, we add prayer, which brings God’s Word alive in us via His felt Presence; simplicity for life. See, I told you it was simple.
As we read God’s Word more, we find God enables our capacities of meditation, which is where our mind ruminates on the words of the Bible, consciously and subconsciously.
The more we keep our life simple by filling our minds with God’s Word, the more God helps us block out unworthy distractions like worries. Filling our mind with God’s Word means we ruminate worthy things.
Read God’s Word.
Meditate fully on its meaning.
Pray accordingly.
Meet with God.
Enjoy life simply.
That’s the process. Make it no more complicated than that. Especially when you’re struggling. For faith is in the simplest surrender that trustfully obeys a simple formula.
Simplicity is gorgeous, because, like joy, it occurs mysteriously when we’re simply grateful. Faith is meant to be kept that simple, not a childish faith, but childlike. When faith is simple, hope is experienced, and love is easy, the way God designed life to be.
How does it work? I don’t know. All I know is it works. God makes the mysterious plain, and that’s the miraculous for us. What we cannot explain is simple and effective. The simpler, the more effective.
Fill your mind with God’s Word and prayer will pour out of your heart as you meet with God’s Presence.
Read God’s Word. Meditate fully on its meaning. Pray accordingly. Meet with God. Enjoy life simply.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Left or Right – Who Are You?

It came before Trump, so he cannot be blamed for it. I’m not sure what can, but the divide between the Left and the Right has now come into lounge rooms, workplaces, not just the public squares, and especially through social media platforms everywhere.
In a world where compassion fatigue is showing, and where we can no longer tell quality news from fake news, it cannot be escaped.
The world and its issues is forcing people to decide which side of the political agenda their allegiances lie. And choose either side, it isn’t pretty.
In fact, we’re ripping each other apart, and that’s an enigma given both sides are so ardently for democracy.
The political issues are not in themselves the main thing. But attack seems to be everyone’s most consistent defence, and the vitriol in many quarters is incredible. Social media allows people their say, through ‘comments’ of aggression, to ‘reactions’ of adherence, to ‘shares’ of allegiance.
A few years ago, the critical mass was moving to social media — it was social media’s win, making it mega powerful. Now, empowered by their social media of choice, the critical mass is taking to the streets to design a ‘better world’… through the misplaced justice of anger, an advocacy that shoots itself in the foot.
No one has told them that two angry poles don’t make for a better world. Nobody having their one-eyed say has realised they’re not happier for it. Anger is not the way to contentment, though, I concede, contentment must not be their goal. It’s victory. It’s a tug-of-war and only one side can win at any one time.
The point of creation is cooperation, not competition, so anytime someone makes a point for justice using dog-eat-dog competition tactics rather than conciliatory cooperation, they fool themselves, but others can see right through them.
People have forgotten what a democracy does in enlisting change. Maybe social media in a postmodern age has killed any chance of democracy. It’s a runaway train.
The world is asking you… who are you… you need to choose. Are you Left or Right?
Of course, it’s not that simple. Not many of us are on one side. But every day we’ll still be asked — “So, who are you for?” “What are your principles?” “Ballsy enough to stick to them.”
Wise people will not enter that arena.
The trouble is we’re partial creatures. We cannot stand not having a view. It will cost us our freedom.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Repentant Brokenness and (Finally) God’s Glorious Power

Something happened in a man I once knew that convinced me that one event changed his entire life. Brokenness gave way not to despair alone, but it gave him cause to revere the truth. A truth that set him free in a way he had always wished to be free.
Totally crushed by his own selfish circumstances — utterly abandoned — God gave him one last chance of redemption, and this man took that opportunity with both hands, though it would cost him dearly. He knew it would. He knew he really had no choice.
The prayer of his heart, answered. The course of his life, changed. The destiny of his being, sealed. The purpose of his life, realised. But, broken.
He realised a painful process was, in an absurd way, to be the catalyst to his dreams.
For the first time in his life he was a real human being, feeble and vulnerable. And for the first time in his life, he was not only a man of God, but a man. At his most broken rock-bottom moment.
What a gargantuan paradox. At the moment of his repentance he is blessed with brokenness. He wasn’t used to being blessed like that. None of us are. Indeed, he had never experienced blessing through brokenness before. But, finally, he knew the most cherished of blessing.
For, immediately a breakthrough occurred, but not before he dropped his guard completely, and surrendered all his pride and pretense when he was confronted with the truth.
He realised that day that God cannot use a liar. He learned that it was far better to be broken by the truth so he could repent, and that day God taught him what being Christian is all about; a relationship hid with Christ in the living God, knowing God sees, hears and knows all.
That day God taught him something of priceless value: you have nothing when you think you lack nothing, and you have everything when you accept you have nothing before Him.
It is not a tragedy to be exposed by the truth and need to repent in brokenness, but it is a tragedy to continue a masquerade. The person who faces their inevitable humiliation is quickly forgiven by God. Their place, through brokenness, is power through God’s glorious Presence, because they were humble.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Democracy’s Fall, the Day of Déjà Vu

Charlie Chaplin (18891977) in his depiction of The Great Dictator
HARDLY does the issue need to be named, yet many in the church today are falling for something that was only eradicated seventy years ago — the rise of a fascist threat on the global stage that promises clandestinely (at this stage) to take no prisoners; the church in its wake, ensconced.
It is appalling that people within its structure cannot see segments of the church go so easily to a potentially despotic regime. Yet, none of us should be surprised. It’s happened before, and it will happen again. These cycles shouldn’t astonish us, for they’re clearly visible in God’s Word, and these events litter humanity’s short history. Not being astonished, however, such a history-repeating-itself should be abhorred.
A day is coming — a day humanity should all fear — and it’s not the Day of the Lord.
The Disgustingly Redolent Day the Church Fell, Almost as One, to a Dictator
Hear this echo in the words of church historian, Justo L. González:
“Hitler felt that Christianity, with its teachings of universal love and turning the other cheek, was antagonistic to his ultimate goals of conquest and domination — but he sought to use the church to support those goals.”[1] (emphasis, mine)
Can anyone alive today possibly recall what that era was like? Only those who lived through it. Experience is the greatest teacher. Despite the history lessons, we’re destined the temptation to disbelieve what we never experienced. (How many people believe the Holocaust is a myth? Six million Jews murdered — systematic genocide — and some people still prefer a conspiracy theory.)
I see church leaders, lobbyists and Christians, some from unlikely sources, falling. You can stink the ignorance from years out. The key test is a political one: if a President sanctions one or two policies that church leaders, lobbyists and Christians believe so ardently in, those church leaders, lobbyists and Christians may throw their entire lot in with him or her, as if our innumerably diverse world could be reduced to an issue or two. Since when did the entire world revolve around one or even a few ethically-loaded issues?
And what is the price for flattery, one to another? Flattery is its own blank cheque sanction. Flattery, propagating a bloated façade, demotes all who partake, swooning them into the enemy’s arena of treason. More on flattery later.
Any discussion about Hitler leads to contemplations on the scourge of Fascism.
Fascism for Dummies
Fascism: (noun) a form of radical authoritarian nationalism. The term has roots from 1924, as a despicable era developed.
British Fascisti emerged out of the shadows of an Italian movement from 1922–1943 giving rise to Mussolini’s power, and features nationalism in the tones of ultra-royalism, social conservatism, and anti-socialism.
I want to show that, for us Westerners, who may erroneously think that we’re above falling for the evil of authoritarianism, that the roots of fundamentalism as a pathology are ever present, even in our culture. Perhaps at some point even a country’s constitution may not stop it. Fascism is not just a concept of Nazism. Enter the narcissist through international power and watch Fascism be fanned ablaze!
Any ultra-or-anti-anything should raise heckles. Such movements are set on control of every institution, carte blanche, through fear and monocracy.
The Merging of Church and State
Among the freedoms being eroded in our bipolar day is that of free speech within religion and without.
Another Justo L. González quote:
“Hitler’s own program included the unification of all Protestant churches in Germany, and then using them in order to preach his message of German radical superiority, and of a divinely given mission.”[2] (emphasis, mine)
Hitler’s regime used unification, by getting them all under possession of the Third Reich, to weaken not only the Jews.
Don’t forget that Germany was at its zenith as a zeitgeist for theological thought. And with all that theological might in their tenure these leaders, one by one, denomination by denomination, were still duped and/or coerced into capitulation. We should not imagine this time was easy to resist for any leader or person of faith. It must have been seemingly impossible to resist.
What should strike us like a Tsar Bell is the amount the state controlled the church. The Third Reich controlled the German church years before war broke out in 1939.
State control over the church doesn’t need to be overt. There are already rumblings that ministers and churches have been required to hand over their sermons to have them vetted by bureaucrats. State control over freedom of speech and religion is at a volcanic change point — even bureaucrats are confused where lines are appropriately drawn. One moment there is an abuse of human rights, only for a response of political correctness (read, overreaction) to ensue. One response is an abomination, the other an assault on good sense.
An element that confuses all of us even a little more is the fact we live in a postmodern world where truth has fluid relativity. In ethical settings, division is the predictable outcome. At a time when we’re most unified globally, technologically speaking, we live in a world never more divided. That is because everyone has a voice, and revolutions occur daily, not least through social media. Such tipping points into chaos are inevitable.
The world is seeking direction more than ever, but more than ever there’s so much noise. And less than ever people are looking to God, when they need Him most.
God’s Prophecy From One Source, One Only
I searched my mind and will for what the Lord would wish to say. He directed me to the Source, His Word. One prophetic utterance from Daniel 11:29-35 (HCSB):
“At the appointed time he will come again to the South, but this time will not be like the first. Ships of Kittim will come against him, and being intimidated, he will withdraw. Then he will rage against the holy covenant and take action. On his return, he will favor those who abandon the holy covenant. His forces will rise up and desecrate the temple fortress. They will abolish the daily sacrifice and set up the abomination of desolation. With flattery he will corrupt those who act wickedly toward the covenant, but the people who know their God will be strong and take action. Those who are wise among the people will give understanding to many, yet they will die by sword and flame, and be captured and plundered for a time. When defeated, they will be helped by some, but many others will join them insincerely. Some of the wise will fall so that they may be refined, purified, and cleansed until the time of the end, for it will still come at the appointed time.” (emphasis, mine)
These are the signs of the times that could be coming; times that call us all to high alert, but times when some in key areas of influence, could be many, will perceive as high attraction. Could it be that some notable church leaders and lobbyists have already abandoned the holy covenant?
Even in a way that appears to be obedience to the holy covenant.
Hard to tell, exactly, but suspicion rises, as it has to in this Day. The church must watch for an autocrat who is not only prepared to punish naysayers, but who flatters supporters. Oppressors do that. With tyranny, they show disdain for a flouting audacity of a resistance that they, themselves, in their audacity, flaunt through provocation. Because they have power, as if power were a thing to appropriately abuse — where such abuses are not considered an abuse, but a right, for the fact that power’s residence gives them, they feel, unequivocal though self-assigned rights.
The Seventy Years
There is something very biblical about the seventy-year timeframe.
I simply wonder if there’s anything in the period 1946–2016, which, from a global viewpoint, we could call the dormant years. 2016 seemed like quite a remarkable year; the end of something, perhaps. Time will tell.
2016 highlighted more than ever a transition in the way our political world works. A latent toxin emerged, one that has always been there, one waiting for its stage to arrive.
The Toxicity of Today’s Political Environment in the Social Media Age
One reason the Despot thrives is he flourishes well in a toxic environment, even exacerbating and enchanting the trolls against him or her — paradoxically, it takes one troll to joust with another, for the way they bludgeon each other with murderous orotundity is bewildering.
Fury has words that should never be publicised, and yet with light-speed regularity Joe Public as well as Well-To-Do Celebrity eat away the middle ground of politics when they spray their venom. Their respective rancour contributes a volley of blows, as the extremities that crouch in the trenches convince the other ninety percent of the world by their behaviour (don’t go there; you won’t come out alive!) not to bother entering the bloody arena so inanely sordid and scornfully alien to fecund goodwill.
The very unfortunate trend is good people are not entering politics, or do not survive, but the bullies are and do. The bullies are winning and they will rule over a world that buckles to them, because they confound reason.
The signs of trouble are obvious. Take three salient examples, for I’m hardly a politics-watcher: the rampant intolerance with the media, the egotistical use of social media, where the word “me” is so regularly used, and the nationalism of Make-America-Great-Again-and-to-hell-with-everyone-else-not-with-my-agenda, particularly with separatist overtones. Calling some News organisations “fake news” because they are anti should ring warning bells of déjà vu. Can a President of the United States use Twitter like he has?
Let us watch for signs of intolerance, national seeking of and striving for perfectibility, the undermining of minorities, and the type of groupthink that underscores humanity’s resemblance to sheep. The church has folded as one before. It may happen again before the end.
It may take years for this to occur, recalling that Hitler’s fascist rise took place close to a decade before World War II was in full swing.
Where are the Dietrich Bonhoeffers and the Martin Niemollers of our age — those who gave their lives for the truth they, by God, could see? Those Christian leaders who heap a surfeit of flattery on a dictator will not glorify God but will earn for themselves an infamy of ignominy.
One test of the thesis presented is direct sanction and punishment as a result, like prison or conscription, as happened to those who resisted in World War II and at other times. Can we see the signs in others who have resisted? I think we can.
George Santayana (1863–1952), philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist, once said:
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Whatever happens, we can strap ourselves in for one hell of a ride.
Postscript: I pray that these words make a fool out of me in future years to come; that a certain Presidency is vaunted for its fruit.

[1] The Story of Christianity – Volume II – The Reformation to the Present Day, HarperOne, 2010, p. 308.
[2] The Story of Christianity – Volume II – The Reformation to the Present Day, HarperOne, 2010, p. 462.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Cosmic Order of Things Speaking Into Reality

“Everything in Christianity is some kind of anticipation of something that is to be at the end of the world.”
— John Wesley (1703 – 1791)
Reality. What does that term mean to you? For the purposes of this little piece I want us to focus, initially, on reality being the physical life we live in: the world, the universe, everything we can touch or see.
Reality is a marvellous thing, transcending mere concept. It breaks through the nebulous and convinces us it must be believed in. Our senses testify to what we cannot deny!
And, yet, despite the incontrovertible nature of reality, we know there’s more. Our hearts tell us, for God set it there.[1] That there is more than reality, however, is a reality we must believe by faith, for we cannot perceive it with human senses. When belief surpasses doubt and we bring God into matters of ‘reality’ then we really do start to live what Wesley said above.
Our faith can be envisaged as our desire to meet with the cosmic God, because we see that reality is not all there is.
Indeed, the more we believe, the more God breaks through past the distractions of this world, impressing His loving faithful Self on us through His Spirit.
God may be thought of as the cosmic order of things. And that reality at the end of the world — whether by death, rapture or some other meeting with God — speaks ever more urgently into our reality.
Death compels us to think of what’s coming, and faith reconciles difficult matters for us. The more we follow Jesus, the more the Father moves toward us by His Spirit. And our lives are enlivened and enriched as a result. This is the abundant life.
God reaches down and through into our lives. Eternity beckons. The end of the world. Now, next Thursday or five million years away matters little. The point is it’s inevitable. God wins. And in God winning, every believer, too, wins.
And still there is great sadness, for the reality we’ve been blessed to enjoy is coming to its end. Or perhaps it’s an all-surpassing joy, finally peace.
A bittersweet prospect. Who can comprehend it? Fortunately, comprehension is not the point. Which is: living now and hoping for then.

[1] See Ecclesiastes 3:11.

Monday, January 16, 2017

If the Preacher Doesn’t Impress You…

This is a sermon I wish to preach one day… if a church would let me…
My aim today is to convince you that my work in preaching is done, here, today, even if you don’t enjoy it or aren’t inspired by it. Even if you don’t like it. And I warn you, you may not like what you hear me say today. I accept that up front.
I want you to know, in 30 minutes’ time, that just because I’m not a charismatic speaker doesn’t mean God isn’t using me; that if I’m unimpressive on this occasion it’s not that the Holy Spirit isn’t speaking through me. Indeed, I’m wanting to say the opposite — that the fact I’m here today means the Holy Spirit is using and will use me.
Further to that, I want to suggest that God will use me today to show you that it’s an acute idolatry to come to this or any other church simply to hear a particular sermon or speaker, and to laud that person for their oratory brilliance. There’s no problem with compliments for your thankfulness, we just need to keep it at that. Say it, then leave it, for the person, themselves. Don’t go on about it. Going on about it serves nobody, and it nullifies the Kingdom effect.
God can and does speak through anyone, because most of what God has to say has to happen in you. This is a biblical fact. If you have ears to hear you will hear. And hear well. If your mind is piqued and curious, your cognitions will stimulate your thinking. You’ll be contemplative, both here and for days afterward. If your heart is prepared to receive, it will receive today, and we trust the Spirit for that. If your will is strong in the Lord today, you’ll leave with your spiritual hands readied to do some hard God work.
Besides, I’m only a little part of your experience here today. The words you hear me speak are only a tiny component of what you think as you hear me speak the words. All your life context, your experiences, personality, pastimes, your spiritual gifts, and many other components of you come into play as my words hit you.
Whilst listening, you’ll analyse my words for truth, for instance, checking to see that they’re true, and when that box is ticked in your subconscious thinking, then, because you’re seeking a performance, you’ll begin to rate me; but a performance I’ll not give you, for the truth in all its unadulterated splendour is all you need. It’s all God wants me to give you. I know you want a performance, because I want a performance out of me, just like I like a performance when I’m sitting in a pew. But God’s thinking is not our thinking, just as His ways are not ours, as it’s said in Isaiah 55:8-9. God wants His message spoken plainly, for willing ears to hear, for incisive minds to contemplate, for hungry hearts to receive, for hard working hands to apply.
It’s taken me twelve years of occasional preaching (I’ve preached only about one hundred times) to realise this: 
God doesn’t want you pampered by my winsomeness,
He wants you piqued by His Word.
All I would need to do would be to read fluently from His Word and His power should work through that spoken work, and if it doesn’t, that’s not my fault. His Word says that that would be your issue; a mirror back to you and your relationship with God. Of course, we want to contextualise God’s Word for today.
Just because I read from notes doesn’t mean God doesn’t have something profound to say through me. It doesn’t mean I’m not anointed to speak here. The very fact I’m here for this purpose says something powerful about God and His mighty church. I was chosen to give this sermon today, just as the person was last week, and the person next week is. I’m hoping you’re thinking about those who preach here.
Just because I don’t use much humour, as if God’s Word and His Kingdom were funny, doesn’t mean my delivery is getting in the way. Could it just be that preachers who use lots of humour are compensating for something? I mean, are you here to be entertained? It’s a serious question. Because church in our world has become that way. Not only are we required to entertain people, we’re indulging them in the process. Sure, some preachers are naturally funny people. It’s great if that’s who they are. I’m more your serious kind of guy, so God is happy for me to be me.
Just because I don’t tell lots of interesting stories, which, where there are lots of them, or a lot of narrative content, really are fluff for little kiddies, doesn’t mean I’m not presenting well. Are we mature enough to hear the Word preached plainly without mollycoddling you with stories?
I want to suggest that well packaged entertainment is milk when what all of us need, as Hebrews’ says, is more solid food. In the Holman Christian Standard Bible, Hebrews 5:11-14 reads like this… it’s heading is…
The Problem of Immaturity
11 “We have a great deal to say about this, and it’s difficult to explain, since you have become too lazy to understand. 12 Although by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the basic principles of God’s revelation again. You need milk, not solid food. 13 Now everyone who lives on milk is inexperienced with the message about righteousness, because he is an infant. 14 But solid food is for the mature — for those whose senses have been trained to distinguish between good and evil.”
When we seek to be placated by entertaining messages what we’re really saying is the sermon needs to suit me. Rather, it should be the other way around; every sermon suits me — it actually does — for, through its words the Holy Spirit will reach me and usher into me a cherished Word all for me, alone. The Holy Spirit, and not the preacher, will speak powerfully about where our faith is at, how we’re getting on with others, who we need to forgive, about our sin, and how we’re relating to God, Himself. All that goes on as we bathe in the Word during any sermon at all. But, if we listen to a sermon with derision because we dislike the preacher, their delivery, or their material, God is speaking to us… derision, really?
So, it’s not about entertainment or eloquence. It’s about the Holy Spirit’s engagement and energising of us.
As a speaker who cannot claim eloquence, and who refuses to entertain, I want to explore for a moment two key figures in the Bible who, too, were not regarded as eloquent:
Paul as Preacher
Paul felt this sense of not being impressive enough by the Corinthians when he said in verse 1 of chapter 10 of his second canonical letter… I who am humble among you in person but bold toward you when absent.” Nothing about being a bold preacher from his own nib. He preferred to boast in Christ, and indeed would refuse to boast in himself or anyone else. Paul reinforced this when he quotes them as saying, “His letters are weighty and powerful, but his physical presence is weak, and his public speaking is despicable.” (2 Corinthians 10:10) Such a person should consider this: what we are in the words of our letters when absent, we will be in actions when present. The Greek word for “despicable” can be read as “pathetic” and to be “considered of no account,” and even “contemptible.” And to be counted as “weak” in person, no wonder the Corinthians couldn’t regard Paul’s preaching ability — they were already convinced!
Yes, the apostle Paul!
If anyone was a super-apostle of the Lord, Paul was. And, even though Paul conceded he wasn’t professionally trained as a speaker (2 Corinthians 11:6), he counted all worth in his presentation to be the knowledge he presented, not in its delivery. Somehow, we forget this. That barring nobody, the most famous and influential Christian to live, Christ’s very apostle, leant not on his delivery, but on the knowledge he imparted — if only those there before him would listen. Many churches, of course, did. But not as recorded in Corinthians.
Paul faced criticism about his speaking when other apparently more eloquent Judaizers (leaders trying to bring Jewish principles back into the Christian faith, who were said to be super-apostles) received rave reviews.  Yet, isn’t it amazing the faith of someone so “unimpressive?” And yet the last word is that Luke depicts Paul in Acts as a bold and powerful rhetorician. Earlier, in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he responds to the fact that the Corinthians are impressed by Apollos (chapter 3) and he apologises sarcastically that he did not come to them “with eloquent wisdom” (1:17), when he says that “Christ did not send me to baptise but to preach the gospel, and not with the cleverness of human eloquence, so that the cross might not be emptied of its meaning.” (1 Corinthians 1:17) Cleverness in this context is not a good word; it’s a worldly word. Do we hear Paul’s words here? Human eloquence empties the cross of its meaning — it shines the light not on Christ, but on the gifted speaker. Yet, Paul’s point was that it is spiritual immaturity to have partiality with men when we need to be impartial followers of Jesus, alone. And it is entirely possible that Paul suffered stage fright (a form of public speaking phobia), at least in some situations.
Moses as Leader and Speaker
What about other reluctant speakers in the Bible? Well, we know Moses (Exodus 4:12) was less than impressive, or at least he didn’t rate himself. What Paul was for the New Testament, certainly Moses was for the Old Testament.
If we analyse Exodus 4:10 and 6:12, where Moses laments in God’s Presence why he cannot accept the calling that he ultimately does accept. Moses says he is not eloquent, nor a skilled speaker, nor fluent. At best, Moses had a fear of public speaking; at worst, he was actually impaired in some way.
Some historians postulate that Moses was incredibly knowledgeable and gifted in speech, and Stephen in Acts 7:22 says it in plain words. Moses, these historians would convince you, was an Israelite who, because of the time he spent and the education he gained in Egypt, possibly found it hard to relate and communicate with his own people. He possibly fought for acceptance. Either way, God still used him to lead the people out of Egypt toward the promised land. He was still a capable enough orator to get the job done — an historically massive job at that.
Back to the Humble Preacher
As ministers we work hard at increasing our preaching skills. It’s our craft. It’s where we spend a fair amount of our time in professional development. It’s where we’re likely to make the broadest and biggest impact in church life. There’s no excuse for incompetent preparation. One pastor in his 80s who I knew told me about preaching, “it is and it’s always been 99 percent perspiration, one percent inspiration,” inferring not only the hard work that went into it, but the lack of savvy eloquence. There’s also no excuse for impassionate delivery. Many ministers, myself included, practice their sermons before they preach them, to hear the words as they come out, to refine the message, and to train the mind and mouth connection to say parts of the message that need to sound seamless.
I once heard Tim Keller, the famed New York pastor, say that he still puts in twenty-five hours into each of his messages. I’m not embarrassed to say that I usually spend that much time on my messages, praying, contemplating, reading, writing, practising delivery, re-writing, honing, praying some more. Most ministers I would venture to say would take at least ten hours to go through the same process. At least. Some are able to get up with less preparation, but these would be the significant few-percentile minority.
None of what I’m saying means I’m not responsible for preaching a sound Word faithfully to you. I must do that. Only if I don’t do that am I what they said of Paul — despicable, but for other reasons. And I trust you to let me know. But I’m sure, with the training I’ve had and the preparation I’ve put in, that this is a worthy Word for you to ponder upon, albeit an unusual message.
I want to challenge you to see your preachers and the preaching you receive in a new way. See them and it as God speaking to you through them, and not as them performing. It’s not about the preacher or the preaching. It’s about the capital-M Message.
I want to say it again, in finishing, that:
God doesn’t want you pampered by my winsomeness,
He wants you piqued by His Word.

God knows we all need to grow up and expect less entertainment from the pulpit, and receive more truth about grace. Because truth about grace that abounds in love is all that really matters… not personalities, goose bumps, rating scales, and the rest.