Category Archives: Christian Living

So Have You Heard The Rumour About…?

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News travels fast.

It only takes days, if not minutes, for the latest downfall or scandal or resignation of that well-known person in Christian ministry to hit our ears.

We’ve all been there.

And while our world and our Facebook and Twitter feeds delight in juicy gossip and rumours, we know from Scripture that gossip and slander are serious and damaging sins (Proverbs 16:28; Romans 1:29; 2 Corinthians 12:20).

I think there are four possible responses when we hear rumours about our brothers and sisters in Christ. Not all of them apply to every person. Not all of them are godly responses:

1. The rumour stops with me

Psalm 101:5  Whoever slanders their neighbor in secret, I will put to silence; whoever has haughty eyes and a proud heart, I will not tolerate.

Whether this rumour is true or not, you see that it’s really none of your business. The fact is, you’re not really close to this person. Your ministries don’t intersect in any way. There’s simply no reason for you to get involved in any deeper way. If there are people and organisations you trust who are willing to continue to vouch for this person, then you’re content with that and give them the benefit of the doubt.

So you step back. You stop talking. You’re wise enough to know there are always two sides to the story. But you’re simply not close enough to need to do anything yourself. So you let God be judge and trust his people to do the right thing.

2. I’m close enough to talk to the person directly

Matthew 18:15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 

This person’s well-being and spheres of ministry intersect with you and your ministries closely. Or they might actually be a personal friend – either now or in the past. So you do them the courtesy of making time to talk to them directly. Whatever else you’ve heard from others, you view with a healthy degree of scepticism until you speak to this person directly.

And once you do, you then make measured and wise judgements about who else you’re going to talk to. You might be content at this point to leave it. On the other hand, it may involve an unresolved conflict with other people or organisations, so you might decide to talk to them about it, to get the other side of the story.

When you’ve heard ‘the other side’, you’ve got a decision to make. To what extent do I need to make decisions about this person and justify it to others? To what extent do I need to speak further about this to others who may fall into the other three categories above and below?

The wise person would speak as minimally as possible and encourage others who have questions about this person to do what you’ve done – i.e. to talk to the person directly, or simply to stop talking and asking.

Proverbs 26:20 Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down.

3. I’m going to talk to others based on limited information

Proverbs 18:8 The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts.

The rumours don’t stop with you, you become a link in the Chinese whispers chain. Whatever information you have is second-hand. The rumours are simply too salacious or scandalous to be kept to yourself. You might even talk about it with a veneer of godliness and concern, but if you’re honest with yourself, you just like gossiping.

You need to repent. You need to stop. You will need to confess and apologise to the people you’ve talked to, and perhaps (one day) to the person you’ve gossiped about.

4. I’m going to launch my own investigation so I can be the expert on these matters

Proverbs 16:28 A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends.

You’re discontent with the limited information you might have heard in the rumour mill, so you decide you need to know more. But unlike person (2) above, you’re not motivated by genuine concern for the person; neither does your sphere of ministry really require you to get involved. However you decide to launch your own investigation by talking to the people or organisations you are closer to. But you’re not consistent or courageous enough to approach the person yourself.

During the course of your ‘investigations’, people turn to you for information and for your opinion on the matter. You tell yourself and others that since you’ve launched your own inquiry, you’re in a strong enough position to make a godly assessment of the situation. The truth is, of course, you’re not. But people pay attention to what you say because of that veneer of care and authority you carry.

You tell yourself that you’re doing the godly thing, but the reality is, you’re the most damaging of the lot. You should have had the wisdom of person (1) and just stopped the rumours when they hit you. You may need to repent of your idolatrous desire for power, influence, and approval. The fact of the matter is, you like being the expert; you like being ‘in the know’; you like to have people think well of you that you’ve done a great deal of ‘objective’ investigation. In reality you haven’t and all you’ve done and all you’ve become is another damaging link in the chain of rumours.

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Managing the Monday Morning Ministry Melancholy

Dear Pete, do you have any articles on post-ministry blues, especially after the output of a big Sunday service and its high? Definitely feeling it today and wonder if it would be helpful for others to know about it too?

I am four Sundays into a new church plant. I have an amazing launch team. They’ve been running really hard for the last couple of months. I got this email from one of them a couple of Monday mornings ago. And just to give you a bit of context, the Sunday afternoon just a few hours earlier, this ministry leader had been sharing how they were doing really well in terms of energy levels in spite of the mad sprint in recent weeks.

It’s the “Monday Ministry Blues”. Mark Driscoll used to call Mondays ‘Bread Truck Mondays’, because Mondays were the days he wished he drove a bread truck rather than worked as a pastor.

If you’ve ever had busy days or periods of intense ministry, then you’ve felt it. Whether it happens on a Monday because of a busy Sunday, or any day of the week after an intense period of ministry (e.g. a mission or conference), then you’d know exactly how this feels.

So here’s my attempt to answer this email from one of my church leaders, in the hope that it benefits others too.

I reckon it helps to understand why we get the Monday blues. Here are three reasons:

1. You Have An Enemy

1 Peter 5:8 Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

The Bible tells us to be constantly vigilant because we have a spiritual enemy who is determined to undermine the work of God and his people. If the devil, our enemy, is as clever as the Scriptures say he is, then he would know how to bide his time to hit us when we are weakest.

And more often than not, ministers of the gospel are weakest on Mondays.

It’s not surprising, then, that it’s on Mondays you get the voices of doubt and discouragement. Your sermon wasn’t as good as you wanted it to be? You’ll feel that acutely on Monday. Your difficult conversation with that church member that didn’t go so well? You’ll hear it replay in your head on Monday. Your personal godliness was pretty good up until now? Monday’s often the day that the temptations come like a tsunami.

Let’s not be naive. These can’t just be explained on the natural realm. We have an enemy and he not only knows how to go for the jugular, he knows when to do it.

Our battles are ultimately located in the supernatural realm. Be alert. Be watchful. Be prayerful. Put on your spiritual armour (Ephesians 6:10-17). Especially on Mondays.

2. You Have A Body

While the ultimate reasons are spiritual and supernatural, let’s not forget that there are physical and natural reasons for the Monday blues as well.

You and I aren’t in glory yet. Neither are we just free floating spirits. We are embodied beings. And these bodies? Well, they’re nothing like the bodies we’ll one day inherit.

The Apostle Paul writes on many occasions of his physical and mental weariness (e.g. 2 Cor. 7: 5 and 10:27). We have bodies, and these bodies are a complex interplay between the physical, emotional, and psychological.

When we exert ourselves in Christian ministry, don’t be surprised that the adrenalin high will eventually give way to a low. Those who have never experienced the intensity of preaching one to four times on a Sunday, led multiple people in groups or ministry teams, run music ministry, led Sunday worship, taught kids or youth, run leaders meetings, met one-on-one with people for discipleship or counselling etc., won’t understand how these activities have an intensity that is disproportionate to the hours you spent doing them. You’re going to feel tired after this kind of intensity. Mind, emotions, body – all of these will  feel on the verge of collapse after particularly big days (or weeks).

We therefore need to recognise this physical dimension of ministry life. And recognising this will help us manage our tiredness with simple but vital solutions such as relaxation and exercise; mental and emotional refreshment; music, art, creativity, hobbies and the like.

Until we get our new creation bodies, our outer persons will waste away day by day even as our inner person is renewed day by day (2 Cor. 4:16). And that brings me to my final point…

3. You Need The Gospel

It’s so easy to be frantically ministering to others with the gospel and forget that you and I need the gospel just as much as those we love and serve.

The Monday morning blues are a great (and sometimes painful) reminder that we never move beyond our great need for the gospel. The more we feel weak and melancholy and down, the greater is God’s reminder to go back to the gospel we’ve spent so much time and energy to give to others.

Here are some ways we especially need the gospel on Mondays:

(i) We need the gospel to remind us that our identity and self-worth don’t come from our ministries.

This is because doing Christian ministry is uniquely satisfying on the one hand, and particularly discouraging on the other. We can be tempted to find our identities so caught up in what we’re doing to serve God and others that we forget that our relationship with God is not grounded on what we do for him but what he’s done for us.

(ii) We need the gospel to remind us that the power of God is in the gospel and not in us.

How tempting to think that the church I serve will stand or fall by my ability or inability in ministry! The same gospel that saves me from pride will save me from discouragement and defeat on a Monday when I feel that my sermon wasn’t as great as I wanted it to be. It’s the gospel that is the power of salvation (Romans 1:16-17), not me. I can rest and entrust the fruit of my ministry to God.

(iii) We need the gospel to remind us to worship.

Many Christian leaders would know the principle that all theology leads to doxology. All of our thinking and leading and preaching and teaching should lead people to the praise and worship of God. After all, this is where the whole of creation is heading.

And yet, this is the one area where Christian ministers and leaders are most likely to neglect when it comes to their self-care.

Christian leader, how is your personal worship going? How are your quiet times? How is your personal Bible reading? Do you meditate on the Word of God? Do you spend time in personal praise and song? Do you confess and repent of your sins daily?

If we don’t value the importance of personal worship and adoration, personal confession and repentance, personal reading and meditating, then perhaps we’ve forgotten the gospel. For it’s the gospel that reminds me that my service of God doesn’t come from my power or my initiative or my talents or gifts. It comes as an overflow of my life of worship. I must be filled before I can fill others. Anything less is ministry by works, not ministry by grace.

Spiritual refreshment is even more important than physical, mental, and emotional refreshment. We must never neglect our great need for it and how much greater that need will be after an intense period of ministry.

So take heart dear brothers and sisters who labour in the Lord. Though Mondays may feel more melancholy than other days, it’s also a day where God has more grace to give us in the gospel. For our times are weakness are there for the greater display of and experience of God’s wonderful power in the gospel (2 Cor. 12:10).

I think it’s a good time for me to go to the gym now.

Keen On Full-Time Ministry? Beware Of Your Brave New World

I believe there are unique dangers in the social media age we live in; dangers that young men and women keen on full-time Christian ministry face in particular.

Before I head into the warnings, just a bit of background, so you know this isn’t just a baseless rant from a middle-aged pastor who’s out of touch.

In my role as a pastor and church planter, and a leader in the RICE youth movement, I am constantly in touch with young adults. Some of these are young men I am personally mentoring and walking with towards full-time ministry.

One more thing: I myself headed towards full-time ministry as a young man (I was 23 when I started Moore College; 21 when I started MTS). And while what I have to write below in terms of warnings for young men are equally applicable to the 20-year old me (from the late 90s), I believe there are unique challenges and temptations in the ever-changing world that our young men and women find themselves today.

Almost all of them have to do with the social media phenomenon of Facebook, Twitter, WordPress and so on.

1. Greater opportunity to indulge in narcissism

Yes it’s an over-used word nowadays – ‘narcissism’, but I can’t think of another word for now. We are all, in our sinful natures, narcissists to a certain extent. However, with social media, it’s much easier to feed that aspect of our old selves.

While your friends post up endless selfies, the keen young person wanting to head into ministry is tempted to self-obsess in other ways.

You have a blog? How important is it to you to track how many people read it? You have a social media profile? How important is it that you present the perfect image, have that perfect DP – you know, the one that balances your fun-loving casual youthful self with your desire to be taken seriously as that up-and-coming theologian or pastor?

When the Apostle Paul tells Timothy to ‘flee the evil desires of youth’ (2 Tim. 2:22), I wonder if what fleeing our narcissistic selves might actually look like in this day and age?

2. Over-inflated sense of influence and importance

People reading and liking your posts, subscribing to and sharing your blog posts can create an illusion that you are more influential than you actually are. Before this brave new world of social media, if a young person wanted to influence others, the most he or she could hope for is an itinerant speaking gig somewhere. Not now. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, could be liking and sharing your posts, giving you the illusion that you have a group of others (mostly peers or teenagers) who are hanging on your every word.

It’s easy in this situation to get a big head. Your writing started off being less assertive because you’re not as sure about yourself and what you’re writing. But as you pick up more followers, likes, and shares, you soon gain more confidence, make more certain pronouncements about life, the Bible, and ministry. You start getting into endless arguments on your page or others’ defending your point of view. And why? Because deep down you’re beginning to think you’re more important and influential than you are.

3. The Shallowness of “wiki-theology”

Now more than ever, keen young leaders have open access to theology and sermons online. That’s mostly a wonderful thing. But we must remember that wiki-theology tends to be shallow; like getting your news from your Twitter-feed.

It grieves me that some young men wanting to head into full-time ministry talk about formal theological study as some sort of outdated hindrance to actually getting your hands dirty in ministry. I wonder if a lot of that is due to the prevalence of “wiki-theology”.

Don’t be fooled in thinking that reading lots and lots of stuff online is a substitute for serious theological study. That’s why I’m encouraged by Joshua Harris’ recent decision to do just that – to take some time off and study theology formally.

4. Devaluing the local church

The world-wide-web-“church” (if we can even call it that) seems far more exciting than the local church. Your ideas of church growth, church planting, church ministry, theological discussion and education comes more and more from ‘out there’ than from your local church (or local denomination or training college). It’s easy to develop an insatiable appetite for that which is ‘bigger’ and ‘better’ somewhere else in the world. And so you begin to slowly (and sometimes unconsciously) devalue the small, struggling, one-pastor congregation you’re part of. You begin to see churches and pastors simply as those who will aid you or hinder you in your personal growth as a young man or woman heading into full-time ministry.

5. Devaluing personal mentors

Related to the above, it’s easy to think that podcasting Tim Keller, reading R.C. Sproul, and following David Platt is enough to guide you into becoming the Christian leader you want to be. And so you devalue the vital mentoring and training that can only happen when a local older man or woman in full-time ministry walks with you over the course of years, in the context of a local church.

Conclusion

The last thing I want to do in this post is to discourage young men and women from heading into full-time ministry. I love that one of my roles is to walk with some of the best and most gifted young men I’ve ever met in this crucial stage of their lives.

Neither am I without guilt when it comes to some of the very things I’ve identified. I’m tempted – even as I blog – to indulge in narcissism, and develop an over-inflated sense of my importance and influence.

I write this because I believe it is a different world for keen young leaders than the one I grew up in. You’re immersed in this online social media-saturated world in a way I wasn’t. And so it’s more likely that you’re less aware of its dangers and deceptions. Call me old and old fashioned, but I’m hoping that a word of caution from someone in your world but a standing a little outside of it, will be helpful for you.

Signing off so I can go meet with the saints at my local church.

Why I Won’t Date You (an imaginary letter to a non-Christian)

Dear …

I am writing this to let you know why I won’t date you. It’s not because I don’t like you. I do. I really do. And it’s not because I don’t care about you. That goes without saying. In fact, it’s because I like you and care about you so much that I would like you to know why I can’t and won’t date you.

I know a decision like this is open to so much misunderstanding. I sincerely hope and pray that you won’t misunderstand me. I’ve thought hard about this and would like to share with you what are not the reasons why you and I can’t have a romantic relationship:

1. It’s not because I am judging you as a non-believer. 

I know it may seem so judgmental that I would exclude you as a potential partner over the issue of belief or non-belief. But please hear me that I don’t think less of you because you’re not a Christian. This is because being a Christian doesn’t make me or anyone superior in any sense. We recognise that we are all hopelessly broken before God and it takes the generosity and grace of God for anyone to be a Christian. I can’t judge you any more than Jesus judged those who were considered by his contemporaries to be on the ‘outside’.

2. It’s not because I don’t think you can change for me.

I do believe that a degree of change and compromise is possible and necessary in any intimate relationship. However, to expect you to change the most fundamental orientation of your heart to embrace Jesus as a believer is something that takes more than just superficial adjustments. It’s neither fair nor loving for me to put that pressure on you or to give you the impression that you have to become someone you’re not in order for our relationship to thrive.

3. It’s not because I’ve been pressured by my Christian friends.

The Christian community (church) I belong to has lovingly taught us about the kind of relationships that God wants for his children. However, I have not been pressured or guilted to make a decision like this. My Christian support network are there to help me and I am glad that they are doing what’s most loving, both for me and for you, in helping me make a decision like this. But this is no cult. It’s not brainwashing. It’s not control. It’s simply my wonderful church family giving me the strength to make a decision I am personally convinced is the right one.

I hope that clears up some of the potential misunderstandings. Those are not the reasons why I won’t go out with you. Let me now share with you what are the reasons why this decision is important for both me and you:

1. Dating is not an end in itself. Marriage and family are my goals for a romantic relationship.

I’m not going to date anyone just because it’s a bit of fun. That would be selfish of me and unloving to you. No. My view of dating is on the road towards something more permanent and more wonderful: God’s gift of marriage and children. For me to date you with the condition that I would marry you only if you became a Christian would be a way of ‘using you’ in the meantime for my own romantic indulgences. You need to know that for me, dating is the beginning that has an ending.

2. There are choices that you won’t want me to make when we are married.

As a Christian, Jesus isn’t just a part of my life: he is my life. He is my first love, my greatest joy and the source of my identity and happiness. Were we to have a successful and happy marriage, either I would have to put Jesus beneath my love for you, or I would have to put you beneath by love for Jesus. Unless we both share a love for Jesus, it cannot be both. I take it that you don’t want me to have to make a choice like that every single day of our lives together as husband and wife.

3. While you may be happy just being supportive of my love for Jesus, I want more than support to make a family work.

I have no doubt that you won’t get in the way of my faith. In fact, I know that you’ll even make the effort to occasionally come to church with me. I have no doubt that my Christian friends will love and accept you as one of their own. But consider this: one day we will have children. As a family, I don’t want my children to be confused about the importance of Jesus in our lives. I can only be a good parent if I am lovingly leading my children to share in my passion for Jesus. As any parent knows, children know how to ‘divide and conquer’. If our children know that Jesus is important to me but not to you, they will use that to their advantage. I don’t want to fight you every Sunday when the kids don’t want to go to church and cite our difference of beliefs as an excuse. I want us to work together for the growth of our children: not just physically and educationally, but spiritually as well.

I know that perhaps from where you’re standing now, these aren’t going to seem like insurmountable problems. It’s because you like me and are attracted to me. And nothing seems insurmountable at this stage. But I want us to take a longer-term view of our relationship. What happens when the attraction wanes and the grind of making a marriage work sets in? What happens when your willingness to go along with me to church now is tested by busyness, career, tiredness and hobbies? I don’t ever want to have a niggling sense that my spouse wishes I were someone else or had different beliefs or was less passionate about Jesus. Conversely I don’t ever want you to think that I would love you more if you had different beliefs or could be more accommodating to my beliefs.

In the end it comes down to something I already mentioned: Jesus is my life. He’s more than a religious conviction; he is everything to me. If I am to grow in my passion for him when he isn’t your all-consuming passion, we will necessarily grow apart. How can I lovingly and knowingly subject my future spouse to increasingly occupy the fringes of my affections? I can’t do that to you and won’t do that to you.

So please understand why I’ve decided as I have. I would love nothing more than for you to one day share in my love for Jesus, but I don’t want to make that a condition for our future life together. That is a decision that you have to make independent of any pressure from me. That’s why it’s a decision you are most positioned to make if we weren’t already in a romantic relationship.

With love and prayer,

….

My thoughts on unmarried Christian couples holidaying alone together

I’m going to get straight to the point: unmarried Christian couples holidaying alone together is a really bad idea.

Before I go on, let me clarify. I am talking to Christian couples. I assume that Christian couples are committed to sexual purity before marriage. If you are reading this and not Christian, this isn’t a word for you (though by all means keep on reading). I am also talking about unmarried couples. That includes engaged but not-yet-married ones. Furthermore, the issue is holidaying alone. I have less of an issue if they are with other Christian couples and definitely no problem if they are holidaying with one of the couple’s family, or if there’s a chaperone. No problem there.

Okay, now that’s settled, let me keep going…

I know all the arguments for this practice. And it seems to me that it’s growing in popularity among young adults in churches. Some of the reasons I’ve heard are: “It’s not like we’ll be sharing a room.” “Don’t you trust us?” “I know couple x and y and they did it and they were okay.” “Where in the Bible does it say we can’t do this?” etc. etc.

Here are some reasons I would still strongly advise against it: (And at the risk of sounding harsh, I may actually remove someone from leadership if, against all advice, they still went ahead and did it.)

  • Don’t trust yourselves. Friends, the heart is deceitful beyond all things (Jer. 17:9). The devil, your flesh and the world are against you. 1 Peter 5:8 tells us that ‘your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.’ In sum, no, I don’t trust you and neither should you trust yourself. Don’t trust yourself that, in a place of no accountability, under some beautiful starry moonlight night, when you’re both tired and maybe had a few drinks, you’re not going to seriously compromise your sexual purity. Don’t trust yourself.
  • God doesn’t want us just to be minimalists in obedience. The ‘how far before I cross the line’ mentality behind these kinds of holidays is flawed to begin with. This is what the Pharisees did. In contrast Jesus called on them to go for maximum heart-obedience. You might set all these artificial lines for yourself, such as: ‘If we were sharing a bed/room, then that wouldn’t be okay; but if we’re not sharing a room, then it’s okay.’ Jesus said, ‘If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out.’ (Matt. 5:29-30) Elsewhere, we’re called to flee temptation (2 Tim. 2:22). Friends, don’t be a legalist and a minimalist. Figure out the kind of life that pleases the Lord and pursue that maximally.
  • We are called as Christians to be above reproach (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 2:7-8). This is a call for church leaders in particular (and that’s why I may remove someone from leadership over this). Our reputation with outsiders matter… a lot! When your unbelieving friends hear that you’re holidaying alone together, their assumption is that you’ll be sharing a room, having a ‘romantic time’, sexually compromising in all sorts of ways. Now of course you can take the time and effort to explain: ‘No, we’ll be sleeping in separate rooms; we’ll keep our hands off each other; we’ll have a curfew; we won’t get drunk…’ But are you going to be able to explain that to all the outsiders you know? Furthermore, is it going to be convincing, or just sound to them like you really want to do what everyone else does but want to save a little bit of moral integrity? Again, why not aim for ‘above and beyond reproach’? Your Lord Jesus’ reputation is on the line. Why not instead give no one any cause to whisper or doubt?
  • You can wait. You really can. Our generation is particularly bad at ‘delayed gratification’. My fear is that God’s people are, on this issue, just becoming more and more like the world. Why can’t you wait for marriage to have that holiday alone? It really is much more gratifying then, believe me! You can share a room, share a bed, share lots of romantic moments, and (sorry for the crassness) ‘go at it like rabbits’… all for the glory of God! Is waiting a year, two years, however long, really that much of a problem given you might have a lifetime together?
  • Fight the idol of pleasure at any cost. Yes we Christians are being sucked into the hedonism of our world. And we need to actively fight the idolatry of pleasure, which in recent decades, because of wealth and cheaper airfares, is this thing called ‘travel’. Travel isn’t wrong. There are lots of good and pleasurable things about it. But any good thing becomes a ‘god-thing’ when you are willing to sacrifice more important things for it. What are you putting on the altar of this false god? Your reputation? Your purity? Your example and model to younger Christians? Friends, it’s not worth it. Know that there is a greater pleasure in waiting and pursuing God’s will for you with all of your heart.

Okay, over to you. Comments?

Sorry but…

I came across two unrelated articles in the Herald this morning. Both of them got me thinking about the nature of apologies and how often we say we’re ‘sorry’ but try to protect ourselves in the process.

The first relates to a series of racist tweets fired off by a South African model (here). After the remarks on Twitter that cost her sponsorship and an award, she tweeted back her ‘sincerest apologies’, but stated that it was ‘not in her nature’ to be racist. However, according to the Herald, this incident was not isolated and the twittersphere erupted with the discrepancy as soon as she tweeted it.

The second relates to a slanderous tweet by writer Catherine Deveny about Cardinal George Pell (here). The context was the Q&A debate where Cardinal Pell had paused between saying “We were preparing young English boys”, and, ‘for Holy Communion”. Deveny pounced on that paused and insinuated in a tweet that Pell condoned pedophilia. As a result, Pell threatened to sue Twitter, at which point Deveny issued an apology. However, her apology seems to me to be loaded with hidden barbs. Read it for yourself:

“Clearly it was significant enough hurt and embarrassment caused for him to lawyer up and spend the Catholic Church’s money to pursue defamation action against Twitter and me,” she wrote.

“There must have been deep deliberation over the decision to spend thousands of dollars of parishioners’ money on legal fees.

“Spending money that could have been spent feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless or alleviating suffering, instead of on defamation litigation, clearly illustrates how serious the breach I allegedly committed was in the eyes of Cardinal Pell.”

In both incidences, “sorry” does seem to be the hardest word (thanks Elton John). Why couldn’t the South African model just apologise unreservedly? If racism wasn’t it her nature, then where did it come from? It’s not good enough to assert, as she did, that it happened when she was frustrated and angry. I would have thought that it’s in times of stress that our true nature comes out. Clearly, racism was in her nature and she should have just stopped with a repentant ‘I’m sincerely sorry and I have no excuses.”

In the other case, why couldn’t Deveny just swallow her pride and say an unreserved ‘sorry’ without simultaneously taking a swipe at the Catholic Church once again? To me, her apology was so passive-aggressive that I commend the graciousness of Cardinal Pell even to accept it.

All of this turns the question back to us: do we apologise with a series of ‘but…’s and excuses? How many times have I apologised to my wife only to subtly (or not so subtly) defend myself in the process? In so doing, not only are we undermining the sincerity of our apology, we’re also heard as saying “it’s your fault”, or, “you (or the situation) made me do it”.

Those who have been liberated by the gospel to receive God’s grace don’t need to make excuses. As Tim Keller is often quoted: ‘We are more wicked than we ever dared believe but at the same time more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope.” When we sin, whether against God or others, we ought to come with unreserved apologies: “I’m sorry. I have no excuses. This was in my nature and my broken nature needs God’s grace and yours. Please forgive me.”

Jesus calls that spirit of mournfulness and brokenness ‘blessed’ (Matthew 5:3-4).

Five Most Challenging People You Will Minister To

The longer I’ve been a pastor, the more I find that not everything nor everyone is as it seems. Call it naivety or inexperience, but my view of people in earlier times tended to be far more black-and-white. Now I find that layers of complexity tend to lie beneath almost every person that I meet and minister to.

However, if I had to put into categories, these five kinds of people below are the ones I find most challenging to minister to. They can be vastly different to one another, and yet simultaneously, a person can fall into more than one category. What’s common to each of them is the fact that all of them are more than they appear to be. In each case, there’s the person you meet and perhaps even come to know, but there’s something more that lies beneath the surface. And in each one of these cases, what lies beneath the surface tends not to want to be addressed or ministered to or challenged.

Ok, it’s getting a bit too conceptual so here are the five types of people I’m thinking of:

1. Religious but unregenerate

There are loads of these in every church: those who appear to be Christian, have been baptised/confirmed, receive the sacraments, confess the right creeds, are church members, active in church, and yet beneath it all, they’re simply not born again. The difficulty with this group is that they will deny that they are unregenerate. In fact, when put under pressure, they will gladly give the right answers and cite their Christian resumes to demonstrate that they are ‘really Christian’ but show little or no evidence in changed hearts, behaviour or lifestyle.

2. Converted but undiscipled

By this I don’t mean the newly converted who need to be followed-up on but those who have been Christians for years, perhaps decades, but  have never really ‘grown up’ in the faith. And almost always, they’re still immature because they weren’t properly discipled when they were first converted or first understood the gospel. These Christians may have drifted from church to church, with prolonged periods of absences between churches. They will be semi-regular in their attendance and you will see some latent desire to be godly, but because they’ve never known anything but spiritual immaturity, in all sorts of ways, the Word of God will more often than not be choked out by the worries in their lives. Their thinking, feeling and doing have never been properly shaped by Christian discipleship, the church community and healthy modelling. And it’s more difficult because these spiritual babies are really hard to motivate and encourage years down the track to form discipleship relationships, because by now, they are busy parents with young or school aged kids, and spiritual immaturity and laxity in church involvement have become hard habits to break.

3. Hurting but hiding

These Christians know the church too well to be honest with their pain. Theirs is the ‘stained glass masquerade’, often because they’ve tried to be vulnerable and have been shot down with judgement or moralism in the past. They’ve become resigned to the fact that no one will understand, no one will still accept them if their secrets were shared, and in fact, they’re the only ones struggling the way they are. It’s very difficult to identify who they are, let alone gain their trust in order to minister to them, because they’ve become so adept at hiding.

4. Keen but conniving

These are seemingly mature and zealous Christians, probably in leadership, whom you only find out later have been at it with their own agenda in mind. Because they’re keen and want to serve (and often have leadership gifts), they are sought after and placed in positions of responsibility. Only later do the pastor or elders find that that they are anything but servant-like. They’re proud, unteachable, don’t submit to loving authority, have their own agenda, gather their own followers, are great at talking behind people’s backs, and basically undermine the unity of the church when the decisions made or directions taken don’t suit them. What’s difficult about this group of people is that you often don’t know until it’s too late.

5. Busy but barren

Finally there are those who are busy serving in many ways, sometimes in leadership, but have been in a spiritual desert for years. They are the reliable and dependable people you keep turning to, and you turn to them because they rarely say ‘no’. But all the while, they’ve been serving out of duty without any delight, and their spiritual journey is like a car without fuel rolling down the hill towards a brick wall. A spiritual car-wreck is on its way but no one – not they, nor those who ask them to serve – is willing to pay the price of pulling them out of ministry and ask the hard questions. Usually these people will give out subtle ‘cries for help’ or send signals that things aren’t well, but their busyness and yours keeps them going ‘for just a little bit longer’ until the ministry they are serving in is in a better place and they can take a break. By then, it’s too late.

So there they are, and here we are. If you’re reading this and you fall into one (or more) of these categories, please know that nothing would please your pastor more than for you to allow him to minister to you, beneath the surface. This hasn’t been written out of frustration or to shame you. It’s just one pastor sharing to others about his desire to minister better to people like you, but being honest about what prevents it from being done as well as he would like.

But if you’re reading this and you’re a pastor or a church leader, I guess like me, you know how it feels to want to love and serve these people but feel helpless along the way. My encouragement would be to (and I need some of this encouragement too): pray more for them, persevere in ministering the gospel to them in the context of relationship, recruit and train others to look out for people like them and help you in your ministry towards them, and trust that the gospel can reach down deep enough to transform them.

What I Learnt From My Social Media Fast

So after 40 days… I’m back. Back on Instagram, back on Twitter, back on Foursquare, and of course, back on Facebook. Maybe it was a bit of a weak way of doing ‘Lent’. After all, giving up meat or coffee (in previous years) was way more difficult. But since this was the course of action I took, I thought I might as well do some reflecting on what staying away from social media for a month and a half taught me.

1. Power was more addictive than I thought

It’s strange to think about accessibility to social media (SM) as power, but it wasn’t until I went without that I realised just how much it had to do with power. SM gave me the power of knowing what people were up to almost all the time. When it was suddenly taken away, I realised how power-less I was compared with everyone else who was still connected. SM also gave me an extensive reach into lots of different networks: a power that could be used and harnessed for good when it comes to ministry. That too was now unavailable.

But as already noted, the power itself wasn’t the problem since it could be used for good. However the addictive lure of this power was something I was surprised with. I missed having this power, not because of the good it could achieve, but “just because”.

2. People’s approval was more addictive than I thought

Another luring and potentially addictive aspect of SM I didn’t think I was in such need of was the ego-massaging nature of SM. Put simply: I liked being able to write stuff on my Facebook wall or post a tweet or a photo and have people ‘like’ it, comment on it, and interact with it. I had no idea how much that mattered to me until I went without it.

3. I’d forgotten how important it was to focus on the ‘here and now’ and just enjoy it

I’m a notorious fidgeter and multitasker. I used to type quietly on the keyboard answering emails whilst on the phone with Karen. I’m the kind of guy who used social media wherever I was to endlessly check in, take photos, post comments etc. etc. Not being able to do that for 40 days was initially difficult, but after a while, it dawned on me how ‘nice’ it all was. It’s like when someone switches off that endless dripping tap that you’d almost forgotten was there because it became part of the background noise. But suddenly once it’s off, you begin to appreciate its absence. It’s amazing to think how SM has only been with us for a few short years and yet, I had forgotten how wonderful it is just to be where you are without caring about letting the rest of the world know where you are, who you’re with and what interesting food you’re eating.

4. My use of time became more intentional

This is a no-brainer. SM was an incredible time-waster. Seconds here, minutes there… it all adds up. Not having a default boredom-relief in SM helped me be far more intentional with my use of time. I read more, conversed more, played more music and listened to more music.

So in summary, a SM fast was a pretty good experiment. You don’t really know how much you needed something until you go without it. And it’s easy to deny you’re addicted to something when it’s always there.

So now that I’m back, I’m hoping that I can take some of what I learnt to temper my usage of SM. I know that’s easier said than done, so perhaps another time I’ll have to unplug and switch off again. Until then… see you on Facebook!

 

Are you an online coward?

It’s been interesting to follow the recent controversy dubbed ‘Yumi-Gate‘, where hosts of The Circle Yumi Stynes’ and George Negus’ comments on air about war hero, Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith, has met with a barrage of backlash. Extreme vitriole was levelled against Yumi Stynes in particular, and most of it online. Certainly what they said was silly and insensitive, but as this opinion piece in the SMH notes, enough is enough. Given that they had apologised personally to Corporal Smith and were forgiven by him, it’s equally amazing just how unrelenting the hate-campaign has been.

We certainly live in a different world now. Social media is an instant, constant, global, and permanent way of expressing one’s opinion and creating a ‘mob-mentality’. Witness the hate-campaign against former Masterchef contestant Joanne Zalm, or the backlash against Kyle Sandilands. Or a little closer to home, any time a Christian expresses a view in the public forum, scroll down to the comments section and you’ll see just how angry, irrational and excessive the comments are from those who disagree.

Why is it that Twitter, Facebook posts, comments and blogs open the proverbial Pandora’s Box when it comes to hate-speech? Quite simply it’s because we are cowards. It’s easy to shoot a verbal arrow at someone when you’re hiding behind an online wall of safety. Most of what’s said would not be said if it were a face-to-face confrontation or debate. Social media has given a whole bunch of cowards a voice, and the democratic nature of publishing nowadays has ensured that all opinions are treated equally, even if they are cowardly, irrational or hate-filled.

I’m not here to change all of that with this post. I just want to challenge God’s people to be different. It’s easy to ‘vent’ on Twitter and Facebook. It’s easy to post a thoughtless comment or a blog-post, knowing that people are going to read it, but not realising that we might hurt someone in the process. It’s far easier to post a comment or a tweet rather than give a personal and gentle rebuke, if rebuke is actually necessary.

This is a challenge for me as well as for you: don’t post anything critical against someone unless you have explored other means of giving them that feedback. If you really feel like someone on Facebook needs a piece of your mind, why not privately message them? I’ve received a few of these in the past and have been grateful to be able to consider them. Sometimes I’ve posted thoughtless words and have had people private message me about that and was then able to pull the messages off the wall.

Just because we’re not using our literal ‘tongues’ doesn’t mean that God cares any less about how poisonous our words can be (James 3:6). Let’s not be cowards and hide behind technological walls.

Thinking Theologically: Counselling and the Sufficiency of Christ

A friend of mine studying Christian counselling is working on an assignment that is asking them to come up with an integrative approach to psychology and counselling in light of this quote by John Macarthur Jr:

‘Any counsellor who desires to honour God and be effective must see the goal of his efforts as leading a person to the sufficiency of Christ. The view that man is capable of solving his own problems, or that people can help one another by ‘therapy’ or other means, denies the doctrine of human depravity and man’s need for God. It places the Spirit’s transforming power with impotent human wisdom’. John Macarthur Jr., “Our Sufficiency in Christ” (1991).

Late last night I spent about 15 mins typing out an ‘off the cuff’ way in which I might approach it. Since I’ve been trying to teach my youth leaders how to think theologically, and because I think there’s no greater discipline for anyone in Christian leadership than to be able to think theologically about any and every topic, I thought I’d post up my rambling response. The content isn’t very important (and may have lots of problems with it). However, it’s the method and the way of going about it that I would like for those who are seeking to think theologically to be able to apply. Here goes:

The integration part is what I struggle with as I have no idea how to tackle that side of things. I also can’t think of many readings/papers off the top of my head that would help. But this would be the direction I’d be thinking (very tentatively):

1. Explore the doctrine of human depravity. What is meant by ‘total depravity’ in the Reformed (i.e. Calvinistic) understanding? Total depravity means that humanity is thoroughly corrupted by the fall in every faculty and completely unable to help himself. That includes psychological, emotional, physical, mental fallenness as well. It doesn’t mean we’re as bad as we could be, but it does imply helplessness, particularly in relation to living the kind of life that God created us to live. This impacts: firstly, the client seeking help; secondly, the counsellor giving help; and, thirdly, the discipline of psychology (apart from Christ), which, being a product of human understanding, will never be sufficient in itself to truly help.

2. Explore the sufficiency of Christ in terms of ‘salvation’ in the fullest sense. Salvation is not just saving our souls. It is the total and eschatological renewal of our entire fallen humanity. Christ is the first fruits of that new creation and by his death and resurrection has secured for human beings the only access we have to that renewal and restoration. This is ultimately an eschatological reality. But because Christ has risen, the future is brought into the present by the gift of his Spirit, so that united to him, we begin to experience this renewal from the inside out. That certainly includes renewal of our minds and emotions.

3. Explore the doctrine of ‘common grace’. That is, there is still wisdom ‘in the world’ apart from Christ that is wisdom precisely because it reflects some of God’s residual and orderly goodness as discerned in the world, even in spite of the fall. So though human wisdom cannot save and bring ultimate renewal (for only Christ can), it can be used as a basis for some limited and temporary relief of human ailments (just take medicine for example). Total depravity does not mean that God leaves himself completely without witness in the world, nor does it mean that everything is as corrupt as it could be. By God’s grace, he still allows his image bearers to do good by seeking and implementing worldly wisdom in order to hold back the full effects of the fall. Secular psychology and other medical professions fall into that category.

4. Explore the tension that this creates for the counsellor (and this may be where the integration lies). On the one hand, your hope will need to be in the power of Christ to renew and regenerate sinful people. Only Christ can bring ultimate healing and restoration. But even for born again believers, that’s something which is only going to be completed in the new creation. In the meantime, counsellors need to apply God’s ‘common grace’ in all its forms as it is available to them, in order to help people ‘cope’ and receive limited forms of healing and help, in the prayer and hope that God would ultimately enter into their lives and work from within. A Christian counsellor will recognise the impotence sin renders their discipline in the ultimate sense, and yet understand that God has given them a task to do until Christ returns to do as much limited good as possible. A Christian counsellor knows that he or she cannot heal and restore in the way that only Christ by his Spirit can, and will always be praying that the person can experience a hope and healing that psychology and counselling alone will never bring. However, (especially) for the person who has the Spirit, counselling techniques and wisdom from the realm of psychology can definitely be used by God (and by his Spirit) to unlock areas that would otherwise remain locked within a broken person’s psyche. A Christian counsellor will always see his or her job as helpful but not necessary, as God can and does heal brokenness completely without psychology with a good dose of Spirit-led renewal and grace.

What other theological categories or avenues of thought would you add to this?