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Seeing the world from God’s perspective

Steve Jobs may have had a bigger impact on the spiritual formation of a generation than any other person in the last 50 years.

Steve Jobs may have had a bigger impact on the spiritual formation of a generation than any other person in the last 50 years.

The Smartphone Generation are growing up in a new normal

As we see the impact of the i-devices on our society I am starting to wonder whether Steve Jobs may have had a bigger impact on the spiritual formation of a generation than any other person in the last 50 years.

I used to joke that Jobs was the Anti-Christ, an image he did little to dispel by pricing the Apple 1 at $666.66 and shaping an apple logo with a bite out of it. Of course, I was never serious.

I fondly remember the day I saw the unveiling of the iPhone, and then the iPad. I was fascinated and excited by this new and seemingly magical technology.

While I am not really an “early adopter,” I do like to get in on new technology fairly quickly and it wasn’t too long before I had the first generation iPad and eventually traded my beloved Blackberry for an iPhone. At the same time, my kids started to get their own i-devices. First, it was little iPods, then touchscreen iPods and now, somehow, each of my kids actually has both an iPhone and an iPad.

I started to realise just how dependent I had become on my phone a few months ago when I was shopping with Leeanne in a large Canadian chemist. I don’t like shopping much, and I didn’t have my phone. I felt lost. I was surprised at how strong the frustration I felt was. I didn’t know what to do with myself.

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This is an important moment for the church to have a long hard look at itself and how it relates to same sex attracted people.

This is an important moment for the church to have a long hard look at itself and how it relates to same sex attracted people.

Up till now, I have been avoiding writing directly about the current same sex marriage and homophobia.

One glimpse at Facebook will tell you that this is an issue that divides friends and even divides families.

The reason this issue is so intense, is that on both sides people feel as though they are fighting a battle that goes to the very heart of their beliefs about themselves and the world.

For many Gay and Lesbian people, the question of whether they are able to marry seems like the final battle in the war to be accepted as full members of the society.

Things have come a long way in a short period of time. It is only 20 years ago that homosexuality was decriminalised in Tasmania. It is important for the whole community to acknowledge that same-sex attracted people have been treated in ways that have been blatantly dehumanizing.

We have heard a lot about “homophobia” in this debate. The word means “dislike of or prejudice against homosexual people.” While the term has been inappropriately extended to anyone who might want to vote “no” in the postal plebiscite, we need to acknowledge that there has been real homophobia in the Australian society and also in the Christian church.

For Christians particularly, who proclaim a gospel of love and grace, there simply is no excuse for dislike or prejudice against any category of people.

It is true though that questioning the nature of marriage goes to the heart of how Christians interpret the bible and understand their role in society.

The question of the Bible’s guidance for Christians who want to take their faith seriously is not a small thing, particularly for those of us who see the Bible as something more than a collection of historical manuscripts.

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The only kind of church that will actually work here is a Fair Dinkum one.

The only kind of church that will actually work here is a Fair Dinkum one.

Our family is orienting to church in Australia

We’ve been back in Australia for one month.

We’ve been surprised at how big the adjustment has been, however it does feel like we are starting to find our bearings.

Part of the adjustment has been the different place that the Christian church has in Australian society. The Aussie church is much more on the fringes here than it is in Canada.

Our church has a “men’s shed” program, which is pretty much what it sounds like: a shed in someone’s backyard that blokes get together in. In some places guys get together and build stuff or fix stuff… fortunately in our church the guys get together to eat, drink and watch footy.  (I’m not the most practical person in the world.)

It was at my first visit to the men’s shed and while I was there I had a conversation I have been thinking about ever since. One of the guys opened up with me about why he didn’t like going to church. He has shown up occasionally,  but found that the words people spoke were very different from the way they acted.

He spoke about his own personal experience of trusting a church leader who he invited into his home and spend hours with on the golf course, only to find out that all the while this guy was having an affair. He also spoke about the ongoing revelations of abuse that seem to get back to into the headlines every couple of weeks. There is no excuse for either of these things, and the fact that he was so disturbed by them are actually sign of his integrity.

Australians don’t have an issue with Jesus, they do have an issue with His church.

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If we are not continually seeking and learning and changing, we are not actually followers of Jesus, and we are certainly not seeking first the Kingdom of God.

If we are not continually seeking and learning and changing, we are not actually followers of Jesus, and we are certainly not seeking first the Kingdom of God.

Last week’s induction service was very encouraging, but now the real work starts…

It is Saturday morning and I am preparing for my first “normal” Sunday as the Senior Pastor of Citywide Baptist church.

As I was reflecting on what my first sermon should be about, I realised that it needed to come back to what has been the central question of my life since Leeanne and I were married: What does it mean to seek first the Kingdom of God?

Regular readers of Faith Reflections will know that Leeanne and I had Matthew 6:33 engraved on our wedding rings after deciding that we wanted that truth of that verse to be our point of orientation for the rest of our lives.

Only 11 months ago, as I was ordained in Canada, Leeanne gave me a plaque with the verse on it, kind of as a re-affirmation that we are still on the same journey we started in 1994. As I sit here on our bed tapping away on the keyboard, the plaque adorns the wall opposite our bed, as a daily reminder.

Eugene Peterson (the author of The Message and a bunch of other books I appreciate) believes that every preacher who has been at the task of preaching for a while, really has only one sermon. He believes that each Sunday they just find a different way of delivering the same message, because that message is the core story of their lives.

I think I understand what he means. The wrestle for faith, the wrestle to seek God’s will above my own, the wrestle to seek first the Kingdom of God, has been the defining question of my life. I started Faith Reflections as a way of expressing the wrestle, and every time I get up to preach I am basically covering the same ground.

My dream for Citywide Baptist church is that we would be a bunch of people on the journey to put Jesus first in every area of our lives, and because we are doing that, we are learning to love each other, love our neighbours and change the world.

This Sunday I will quote Jaques Ellul who wrote:

Christians were never meant to be normal. We’ve always been holy troublemakers, we’ve always been creators of uncertainty, agents of a dimension that’s incompatible with the status quo; we do not accept the world as it is, but we insist on the world becoming the way that God wants it to be. And the Kingdom of God is different from the patterns of this world.

That’s the kind of church I want to be part of.

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I know that God has a plan for my life, however I also know that my understanding of that plan is extremely limited

I know that God has a plan for my life, however I also know that my understanding of that plan is extremely limited

This Photo was taken a couple of weeks after I started this website… our family has changed so much

In a little over a week I will be giving my last sermon at St. Albert Alliance church.

When I started Faith Reflections in 2010 I knew I wanted to find a way to reflect in an ongoing way on the journey of faith. I remember sitting in the living room of my house in Poatina writing my very first reflection.

At the time I was feeling as though I had endured quite enough change, and in many ways Faith Reflections was an attempt to find my bearings.  I was still reeling and trying to process all the events that had resulted in my Dad finishing as the leader of the mission movement I served with.

As I wrote, I found myself working with three friends, trying  to hold the organization together across the world. I remember feeling overwhelmed but confident that we were going to be able to navigate all the complexity.

I really thought I knew what my future would be. I had a clear sense of calling and thought I had a clear sense of direction. Little did I know what lay ahead.

I had no clue that things would get so complicated in the mission organization I was working with that it would be right for us to pull back.

I had no clue that I would write a book that would be launched in the U.K.

I had no clue that 18 months later we would be sitting on a plane heading to Canada as a family.

I had no clue that I would start and graduate from a Master in Theological Studies course.

And I really had no clue that I would start work as a Pastor in Canada. At no point had I ever considered the possibility of serving in a church.

It was with this all in the background that I first stood on the podium at St. Albert Alliance church in August 2013, looking out at  sea of faces, feeling a little daunted at the thought of getting to know so many people, and having a minor identity crisis every time someone called me. “Pastor Matt.”

I’m not sure what I would have done if I knew what was ahead of me when I wrote my first reflection in 2010. 

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Good Friday is a reminder of a completely different approach to life… a life that actually produces life by being willing to die…

Good Friday is a reminder of a completely different approach to life… a life that actually produces life by being willing to die…

It’s Good Friday.

Today we celebrate the execution of a young Jewish man who made some startling claims.

Very few serious historians doubt the historicity of the death of Christ by crucifixion, and one of the peculiar things about this moment in history is that his followers came to claim that his execution was actually a victory, not only so but they also claimed that one of the most common things this young Jewish man said was that his followers were to follow his example and be ready to suffer in the same way he had.

The gospels record the 33 year old carpenter as saying we must take up our own crosses in Matthew 10:38, 16:24, Mark 8:34 and Luke 9:23 and 14:27.

Not only had Jesus suffered horribly, he told his disciples that to follow him meant also being willing to suffer.

No-one wants to suffer, and yet Jesus claimed that suffering was actually the path to life. It is hard to imagine a more counter-cultural message.

N.T. Wright, in his latest book The Day the Revolution Began (which I wrote about here) said:

The victory was indeed won, the revolution was indeed launched, through the suffering of Jesus; it is now implemented, put into effective operation, by the suffering of his people.

This is the strange secret of the Christian faith that I (unsurprisingly) don’t hear lots of people talking about. Yet whenever the Christian church has been at its revolutionary best, it has been full of people who were willing to sacrifice their lives in the cause of love.

This kind of behaviour isn’t normal.

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Thank God for heroes like Rod Hoople who remind us all what the point of life really is.

Thank God for heroes like Rod Hoople who remind us all what the point of life really is.

Rod’s life stands as a challenge to us all

I, like so many others, wanted a miracle. I wanted to hear from Cheryl that Rod had opened his eyes and confounded the doctors.

It had only been two weeks ago that Rod was with us on Sunday morning, helping prepare our team who would be travelling to Mexico in late July.

Rod and his wife Cheryl are heroes in our church. Rod had been a librarian for a few decades. Cheryl had been part of YWAM, and for her the idea of travel and engaging cross-culturally was normal.

It took a while for Rod to understand his wife’s heart. He shared with me the profound impact of his first trip to Mexico and what happened when he shared his story of faith with people. The experience changed his life, Cheryl’s life and our church.

Rod and Cheryl didn’t fit the normal mould of missionaries with the Christian and Missionary Alliance (our denomination). They didn’t want to spend four years studying, they knew God was calling them now… so they went. They found a small mission organization called YUGO based in northern Mexico. They sold their house. They packed up their little family, and they moved. This was not normal behaviour in our middle class, suburban church.

It was my job as the Pastor of Community Engagement and Mission, to help the people of our church find their place in what Jesus was calling them to. It didn’t take long for me to realise that Rod and Cheryl had been doing that in our church for more than a decade.

For the past 13 years Rod and Cheryl have trekked back to Canada once or twice a year to see friends, share news and invite people to join them on the adventure of mission. Their faithful and quiet persistence  began to have a big impact. By the time I turned up at St. Albert Alliance church, a number of people had already travelled to Mexico to see for themselves why a librarian would leave the comfort of St. Albert for the very different life of a missionary in Mexico.

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is the church the moral compass for the world? I hope not.

is the church the moral compass for the world? I hope not.

Last week I wrote about pornography and received a lot of feedback, some of which focussed the question of whether the church should be trying to be a moral compass.

In a world where we see different wings of the Christian church lining up against each other on  almost every issue you can name, it is an obvious question.

That question though, leads to another… what is “the church”?

I think what most people mean by “the church” is the organizational structures that are represented by personalities we see on the television or at events in out local communities. When we get most frustrated with the church, my guess is, it is that structure we are getting frustrated with… and often with good reason because the people we see representing that structure often seem to be out of touch with the reality that most of us experience on a day to day basis.

Would you trust someone who doesn’t seem to understand the reality of your life to be a moral compass?

This weekend I am preaching from the last couple of chapters of a pretty confronting book of the bible called Galatians. The author, Paul, was writing out of deep frustration because the little bunch of Jesus followers had started to focus on rules and regulations, and on systems and structures, rather than on the heart what he tried to teach them which was to live their life only in and through faith in Jesus. In fact he says “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love.” (Galatians 4:6)

My guess is that part of the reason people have pushed back against the organized expression of the church is that they have hit the kind of things Paul was hitting with that little church. Rather than experiencing a radical kind of faith expressed in real love, they experience systems and structures, rules and regulations.

One of the regulations that the religious people were trying to put in place was that followers of Jesus should have a painful operation where they cut off the foreskin of the penis off (called circumcision).  Out of complete exasperation he finishes his tirade by saying “I wish they would go the whole way and cut the whole lot off….” (Galatians 5:12) Who says there isn’t humour in the bible?

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Self Sufficiency is the great lie of Alberta (and the Western World).

Self Sufficiency is the great lie of Alberta (and the Western World).

This is an article I wrote for todays St. Albert Gazette. You can see it here:

John Lennon wrote “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans” in the song Beautiful Boy. It is a lyric I don’t like because it is a little too close to home.

As Human beings we really want to believe we are in control of our own destinies. Here in Alberta we place a high premium on the idea of the “self made” man or woman. We put a lot of pressure on each other in Alberta, and particularly in St. Albert.

As the poet John Donne reminded us “No man is an island, Entire of itself.” As a pastor in this city, I believe the lie of self-sufficiency is one of the big reasons that we have so many mental health challenges.

Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his book “Outliers” that no-one truly is self-made. We are all a product of our experiences and particularly, the community in which we grow up and now live.

For those of us fortunate enough to have grown up in Alberta, and more specifically, St. Albert, it is easier to maintain the illusion that we can control our own lives. Most of us grew up in families where money was not a big issue and our education equipped us to go even further than our parents did.

For a significant percentage of our lives we can pretend the steering wheel is in our hands, and we can look down on people who don’t have what we have, or who can’t make the decisions about their lives that we can. Too many of us living in St. Albert are living our lives in a way that is just setting us up for a painful fall.

Eventually, something will go wrong, and we will have to face the fact that our life is actually not our own. It can be a painful and disillusioning realization.

At the heart of Christianity is the understanding that we are not in control and that all of us have two fundamental needs: the need for a relationship with the God who actually is in control, and the need for relationship with others.

The bible’s version of John Lennon’s lyric is Proverbs 16:9: “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.” Reading the bible regularly is a good recipe for humility, and humility is a good recipe for mental health.

Another good recipe for mental health is real community. In the same way we need to recognise that we are not God, we also need to recognise that we need others, and others need us.

In this remarkable city, that is continually in the top 10 places to live in Canada, we have two antidotes to the Albertan lie of self-sufficiency.

The first antidote is that every weekend local churches open their doors to anyone who has reached a point of realization that they are not God.

The second antidote is that our city leads the world in encouraging people to get to know and build relationship with their neighbours (see goodneighbourproject.org) through block parties and other initiatives.

You are not an island. Please consider engaging with a local church and getting to know your neighbours. I promise you won’t regret it

Are you ready for another trip around the Sun? #HappyNewYear #Plansfor2017

Are you ready for another trip around the Sun? #HappyNewYear #Plansfor2017

2016 has been a big year.

I love this time of year.

I love it for two reasons, the first is that it’s not a normal time, it’s kind of a twilight zone, an in-between time where one year is really over and another hasn’t properly started. In a moment like this there is the opportunity to spend some time reflecting.

The other reason I love this time of year is the chance to sit down in front of the cricket (I know its not a very Canadian thing) or over a jigsaw puzzle or board game with family in a very relaxed kind of way that doesn’t seem to happen in the frenetic pace that most of us seem to sustain.

Since Christmas I’ve reading back over my journal from 2016 and reflecting on all that has happened over the past 12 months.

At the start of the year I set myself some goals.

I think goals are a very good thing. Without goals it is easy to get thrown around by life and never really getting anywhere.  It is encouraging to see that some of the goals I set myself on January 1, 2016 are now memories and there is significant progress on others.

I have to acknowledge though that there are a number of things I said I wanted to do that I haven’t done, and there are lots of other things that I couldn’t have even imagined in January that I am now grateful to have experienced.

Increasingly I am coming to a point where I can relax and trust that God knows what he is doing, even when things don’t make sense.

I have a plaque on my desk which helps me get perspective on a regular basis. The plaque features two verses from the book of Proverbs chapter three: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”

As I look back on the past year I see God’s hand at work, guiding me, challenging me, encouraging me and ultimately, carrying me. I also see that some of my plans that didn’t eventuate were because of His work in my life.

Tomorrow, after church, I will set some goals for 2017, however I am grateful for the truth of Proverbs 19:21 which says: “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.”

God’s plan will not always fit your agenda, and it won’t always be comfortable. However as you learn to let go and to trust, you will find that somehow a pattern will emerge that is only explicable through God’s supernatural care and work in your life.

As we all begin another journey around the sun, I wonder whether 2017 might be a good time to discover in a new way that God actually does have a plan for your life?

When I saw the Toyota commercial I had to write something. This Christmas, lets not settle for the imitation.

When I saw the Toyota commercial I had to write something. This Christmas, lets not settle for the imitation.

Many of the words that we use around Christmas time are actually placeholders, attempts to name experiences that no word can adequately capture.

Words like hope, peace, love and joy that sound simple, are actually anything but.

Our church has been journeying through the advent season and week by week looking at these words. This past weekend I was speaking about love and on Christmas eve I will be speaking about Joy.

As I reflect on my own life, and as I talk to others,  one of the constants is that all of us have different moments we can point out where we have experienced things we would call real hope, real peace, real love and real joy, but for most of us those moments are fleeting.

I think John Elderedge hit the nail on the head when he said, about Joy in particular:

“Joy seems more elusive than winning the lottery. We don’t like to think about it much, because it hurts to allow ourselves to feel how much we long for joy, and how seldom it drops by.”

Love, Hope, Peace and Joy are not just fleeting experiences, they are things we deeply long for.

I think that is why, long after the real meaning of Christmas has gone missing for many, our culture hangs on to this one holiday. We might have all kinds of intellectual arguments against God, but part of us knows there is much more to life than our intellect can make sense of.

In 1985 Canadian singer Bryan Adams had a worldwide seasonal hit with the song ” Christmas time”. Some of the lyrics are:

There’s something about Christmas time
Something about Christmas time
That makes you wish it was Christmas everyday

To see the joy in the children’s eyes
The way that the old folks smile
Says that Christmas will never go away

We’re all as one tonight
Makes no difference if you’re black or white
‘Cause we can sing together in harmony

I know it’s not too late
The world would be a better place
If we can keep the spirit
More than one day in the year
Send a message loud and clear

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It is important not to sentimentalise the baby born in Bethlehem, but to recognise him for who he is: the instigator of a revolution of love.

It is important not to sentimentalise the baby born in Bethlehem, but to recognise him for who he is: the instigator of a revolution of love.

Dressing up as Mary and Joseph in 2002

The front yard is blanketed in snow and there is extreme cold weather warning for this part of the world for the next 24 hours.

Christmas must be coming.

As we come to the end of a year in which politics and power seemed to dominate every news bulletin, we find ourselves again being reminded of a little baby born in Bethlehem who gained more followers than any politician in history, yet never grasped for power.

That wasn’t how the Messiah was supposed to act.

Lots of Jews had been waiting expectantly for a baby to be born, but not this baby, not this way.

They expected a baby who would eventually force the anti-Jewish powers to bow to a stronger political force. They expected a baby who would reinstate the political might their nation had once enjoyed under Kings David and Solomon.

They expected a powerful king.

The baby born in Bethlehem had indeed come as king, but of a wholly different kind of Kingdom. He had come to institute a kingdom based on love and not coercion.

Coercive power and love are opposite forces.

As I wrote in my book 6 Radical Decisions, sociologist Willard Waller has demonstrated what he calls the principle of least interest. This rather disturbing but obviously true principle states that the person who cares the least in any relationship is the person who has the most power.

The more you love, the more you are willing to put aside your agenda for the sake of the other person. The less you love, the less likely you are to sacrifice for the other person.

While it took a sociologist to give the principle a name, it was Jesus who first made the truth of the principle of least interest clear when he said:

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:12-13)

Jesus defined love as the willingness to die for the sake of another, something which he of course would ultimately demonstrate on the cross, but something he was clearly asking his followers to be willing to do as well.

We are used to people grasping for power. We are not used to people demonstrating selfless love, but perhaps we should be. After all it is self-giving love that is always the key that breaks the curse in the blockbuster movies (think Darth Vader disposing of the Emperor in Return of the Jedi or Leonardo DiCaprio freezing in the icy Atlantic waters in Titanic or Sigourney Weaver sacrificing herself in Avatar). It is self giving love that gave weight to the words of Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandala. It is self giving love we hope for in our leaders (but often find ourselves disappointed).

At one point in “the Hobbit” Gandalf is asked why he chose Bilbo. He nailed the difference between a kingdom of power and a kingdom of love:

“Saruman [another wizard] believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. That is not what I’ve found. I found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I’m afraid, and he gives me courage.”

It is not a stronger coercive power that contains an evil power, it is the power of love. As Martin Luther King wrote;

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Love is a wholly other way of living. When you love you allow your needs  to not be the primary filter through which you see the world, and as a result you are actually able to see the world. N.T. Wright wrote:

When I truly love, whether the object of my love is a planet or a person, a symphony or a sunset, I am celebrating the otherness of the beloved, wanting the beloved to be what it really is, greater than my imagining or perception, stranger, more mysterious. Love celebrates that mystery: in that sense, it is truly ‘objective’; but it is also of course delightedly ‘subjective’

In the 80’s the rock group Foreigner had a hit with the song “I want to know what love is.” Some of the lyrics were:

In my life there’s been heartache and pain
I don’t know if I can face it again
Can’t stop now, I’ve traveled so far, to change this lonely life
I want to know what love is, I want you to show me
I want to feel what love is, I know you can show me
I want to know what love is, I want you to show me
(And I want to feel) I want to feel what love is
(And I know) I know you can show me
Did you notice that the most common word  was “I” followed closely by “me?” Foreigner will never know what love is, when the reason they are reaching for love is their own needs.

The only way to understand love is to learn to love. Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote:

“Love can only be perceived by love.”

When the Messiah actually did appear, he appears as love incarnate. The longing of Jewish people for political power was understandable after centuries of subjugation, however God was wanting to establish a kingdom of love and not political coercion. This actually was not news, he had made it clear 400 years earlier:

Zechariah 4:6 Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.

In fact, God had told them that the Messiah would be almost the exact opposite of the powerful political figure they were longing for:

 2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Isaiah 53:2-3

Jesus came as a tiny, helpless baby, born to a teenage mother amongst the fecal stench of a barnyard. Jesus came as the perfect demonstration of self giving love.

I love how Bono puts it (in describing a moment of realization at a Christmas church service):

The idea that God, if there is a force of Logic and Love in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough. That it would seek to explain itself and describe itself by becoming a child born in straw poverty, in shit and straw…a child… I just thought: “Wow!” Just the poetry … Unknowable love, unknowable power, describes itself as the most vulnerable. There it was. I was sitting there, and it’s not that it hadn’t struck me before, but tears came streaming down my face, and I saw the genius of this, utter genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this.”

Santa is much safer than that baby. Santa makes us feel happy while promising to meet our desires for stuff. The baby asks us to give up our agendas and to learn to love. He invites us to step into a wholly other way of living, a way of living that actually is the only way to a whole life.

It is important for us not to sentimentalize the baby born in Bethlehem, but to recognise him for who he is: the instigator of a revolution of love.

A healthy church doesn’t fit into business as usual… it sets an agenda that changes every aspect of life.

A healthy church doesn’t fit into business as usual… it sets an agenda that changes every aspect of life.

Introducing Erion at Taylor Seminary
Introducing Erion at Taylor Seminary

I like to read. I’ve read lots of books about church history and moments when it seemed like God was working in a special way. It often seems that these moments all happened long ago. This week I was reminded that is not always the case.

This past week I had the opportunity to reconnect with my friend Erion for the first time since we spoke together at Palm Beach Atlantic university.

Erion is one of my heroes. Together with his wife Melodie and his two partners in leadership, Lorena and Lucy, Erion has been at the forefront of what can only be described as a remarkable movement of young people in Albania.

According to the 2011 census, Albania has a population of 0.14% Christians who are not Catholic or Orthodox. Erion believes that in total there might be 30 healthy protestant churches in the whole country. By far the majority (over 56%) religion is Islam.

As I sat down with Erion this week, I was challenged by the reality he was describing.

In this country where by far the majority of people have no Christian history, God is at work in a way that sounds a lot like the early church.  A movement that has primarily started amongst young people is seeing hundreds of people come to faith and impacting whole cities and towns.

Erion estimates that over 500 young people have come to faith over the last 8 years, and most of them have become members of a team who are serving their city in lots of different ways. Each summer they run numbers of camps and day trips for local young people. They spend hours cleaning streets. They put on highly professional musicals that tour the country. They run festivals that build bridges in highly divided communities.  Over the last 12 months 100 of them have been taking turns to travel the 2 1/2 hours to the massive refugee camp on the Greek/Macedonian border and simply serving there. They do so much more than turn up at a church on a Sunday morning.

Since I last met with him, Erion had left his hometown because the size and competence of the team had grown to a point where life was just too easy. He wanted to plant a church in a neighbouring town where the team had been running festivals and day trips for a few years. His church started 12 months ago with four young men. Now that church averages between 90 and 120 people each Sunday.

Leeanne and I sat down with Erion for a couple of hours on Monday night. Catching up with him this time was different, because I am now a pastor and I am continually wrestling with how to build a church that is healthy and growing.

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The seeds of destruction were planted in the American declaration of Independence. You can thank the founders for Trump and Hillary.

The seeds of destruction were planted in the American declaration of Independence. You can thank the founders for Trump and Hillary.

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24 hours after an acrimonious debate, the candidates were sitting down to dinner together

I, like many people, have been watching what has been unfolding in the American presidential debate over the last 12 months with an increasing sense of bewilderment.

In July I wrote that, sadly, we have seen christians on both the left and right-wing, being more influenced by their culture than by the gospel.

As I wrote in July, at the very foundation of the American dream, the seeds of this tension were sown. The American declaration of independence established core values that shape American consciousness more than the bible does, and it is the clash of these extra-biblical values that we see being worked out today.

The core American value is individualism and  captured in the “inalienable rights” of  “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Christians and non-Christian Americans seem to assume that these words have an authority that is unquestionable.

These sentiments, however, run directly counter to the gospel.

The idea that all men have a right to life is intuitively true. We are all created in the image of a creator, and murder is wrong, however the core image at the heart of our faith is that death leads to life. In fact, seeking first your own life is the biblical recipe for death. ( I wrote a little bit about this back in March).

Probably the biggest heresy at the heart of the American ethos is the second inalienable right of “liberty.” America and freedom are almost synonymous words. For Americans Freedom and Personal Autonomy are one and the same thing. For the Apostle Paul, freedom is not about you at all. He writes:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.  For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14)

If personal autonomy is your goal, then it will be impossible to love. In fact, unless you are prepared to sacrifice your personal freedom, you will not achieve much in life at all. (I wrote about this back in 2010).

The final “inalienable right” is the “pursuit of happiness.” This is possibly the most dangerous of the three American myths, because it leads to short term thinking on the basis of emotion. As Victor Frankl pointed out:

“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

Paradoxically, it is the pursuit of something bigger than happiness that actually produces happiness. An article in the Atlantic magazine points out:

By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.

It turns out Jesus might have been on to something when he declared we were to seek first the Kingdom of God. (Matthew 6:33)

Toss into the mix a statement in the declaration of independence that says that if the Government interferes with these inalienable rights, then “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it”, an organisation that promotes gun ownership as part of the remedy, and you have the seeds of the current political climate.

People divide on issues where they perceive “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” are being violated. For Democrats, we see this myth in  hot button issues like abortion (it is about a woman’s right to liberty) and marriage equality (people’s right to happiness). For Republicans it is gun control (liberty and lack of trust in the government), immigration (people taking away my opportunities) and taxes (government making my decisions for me). Neither party wants too look too closely at what the bible says.

It is true that it is almost impossible to justify abortion and gay marriage from the bible (although some have tried), and so some Christians have grabbed hold of these issues as the litmus test of who they will vote for.

Because of Trump’s promise to promote pro-life justices to the supreme court, people like James Dobson continue to support him despite his bewildering lack of a moral compass. In fact White evangelicals are one of his strongest power bases. Check out this graph:

 

What is happening?

On the other side of the coin though, it is also impossible to justify the love of guns (I wrote about that on July 22) and hate of the outsider from the bible. In these things Democrats generally are much more in line with the heart of the gospel.

An American Christian who wants to be true to the gospel and still vote is left with a real challenge. Because life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the dominant values as opposed to the bible, they are having to choose which biblical values to overlook.

People like Ben Carson, Jerry Falwell Jr., James Dobson or Tony Campolo are not telling the truth when they make comments that the choice of who to vote for is simple. It’s not. All of these issues are real, and they all matter. These leaders lose their moral authority when they ignore the moral reality.

Americans need to stop pretending that America is a Christian nation or was founded on Christian principles.

American Christians need to open their eyes to the difference between their founding values and the values of the bible… and if they can do that then perhaps the best of America might be free to emerge.

Our thoughts and our actions are not the main game…the story we believe we are living in… that is the most important thing…

Our thoughts and our actions are not the main game…the story we believe we are living in… that is the most important thing…

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Our church at sunrise

I’ve moved my family all the way around the world to try to develop a model of church that frees every one of it’s members into mission.

I’m still processing a book I’ve just read called Imagining the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith. It is challenging.

Smith starts by pulling apart any notion I might have had that my teaching was going to produce the outcome I am hoping for. He writes:

We don’t think our way through to action; much of our action is not the outcome of rational deliberation and conscious choice.Much of our action is not “pushed” by ideas or conclusions; rather, it grows out of our character and is in a sense “pulled” out of us by our attraction to a telos.

That word telos is one that he uses regularly and its one that I am seeing more and more clearly is actually the central question of what it means to move a church into mission.

Telos is the word where we get “telescope” from and it means “the long view”, the “purpose” or the “end” to which we are working. Smith’s central assertion is one that I am increasingly coming to see the truth of… There are lots of systems out there that define purpose for us, and the central question for me to move a church into mission isn’t the mission, or the “means” but the “end”.

People (including me) need a very tangible picture of what the Kingdom of God is, and that picture needs to be more attractive than the other pictures that the world invites them to work towards (primarily money, sex or power).

No matter how much we dress it up, the world’s agenda is re-enforced everywhere we look, and the real reason the church isn’t moving into mission is that most of us are working towards financial security, relationships or influence rather than the Kingdom of God.

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