Forget the Rules

Beauty and clarity well worth sharing. Another immediate follow blog for me.

Twirling Girl

Stop trying so hard to follow all the “rules.” You can’t do it anyway. You aren’t made to be able, by sheer force of will, to do what is right. Stop beating yourself up for falling into the same trap over and over. There is a better way. I like to call it tap-root living. Like a dandelion keeps coming back over and over, so will your destructive tendencies until you stop trying to modify your behavior simply by plucking off the above-ground stems. Until you stop trying to look okay to the outside world, and start focusing your effort on the root of the issue, victory will be fleeting.

And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him.  Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the…

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Nearer my God, to Thee

I do love the wonderful words of the old hymns, which, alas, we are slowly losing. Language use is changing, has already changed, so that many of us are no longer able to relate to the message and the passion in those words.

For example, it must have taken me thirty years to realise that “There is a green hill far away, without a city wall…” does not mean that there is no wall around the hill, but that the hill is just outside the city wall.

One of my many favourites of what I think of as the classic hymns is
Nearer my God to Thee.

This post just tries to draw out some of my dearest thoughts on these words.

I am drawn to the trace of thought through the second line of each verse;
for me, this is the loveliest setting in which to place the jewel of verse four:

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me,
Oh, the wholeheartedness of this cry,
the hungering and thirsting for holiness!

darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
And can there be anyone who reads this
who has not known this place?

all that Thou sendest me, in mercy given;
Whatever trials You sent my way,
You gave out of Your love for me.

Then, with my waking thoughts bright with Thy praise,
out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;
so by my woes to be
nearer, my God, to Thee…
Now – now that I understand,
now that I begin to understand
where you are taking me through this
valley of the shadow –
Now I can begin to praise You!
Yes, I’ll take the very stones of my grief and
pain and sorrow,
and out of them build your house in me, my God!

sun, moon, and stars forgot, upward I fly
And when that day comes at last
that I leave this place to be with You in eternity,
how small will those griefs be
that are now such great rocks in my life,
when I am so full of You
that I forget such wonderful lights of Your creation
as even the sun,
the moon,
and all the stars of the heavens!

Background information:

  • “Bethel” means “house of God”
  • Sarah F. Adams was a Unitarian, and wrote this hymn based around the story of Jacob’s dream when he was, effectively, exiled from home (Genesis 28:10-22).
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If you’re thirsty, drink water!

What do you usually drink when you’re thirsty? Maybe it is water – but the chances are, these days, it’s bottled, not what comes out of the tap. Assuming, that is, that you have piped water.

I wrote an exam this morning where one of the questions was on the parable of Lazarus and the rich man and I guess this is where I wound up after chewing on that most of the day. Maybe because of where I spent Easter, in a widespread community north of Swaziland where there are about half a million people who have water pipes that have been dry for years; just not functioning.

There is, we all know, an enormous contrast between rich and poor, the wealthy West and the starving Third world. And I know that this is not all because the West is greedy and selfish (though some people are), and it is not all because Africans (and South Americans and Asians) are all corrupt or backward (although some are). It’s a complex problem that no one is going to solve overnight. Nor am I going to try to do that here!

But I want to make a suggestion.

You see, one of the issues is that the person who is comfortable prefers not to look too directly at the person who has their hand out towards them. Because then you have to deal with the beggar as a person.

If I am a Christian, though, then that is exactly what Jesus expects me to do, every time. Deal with that person as a person who is, no matter how poor or needy, just as important and valuable to Him as I am – if not more so, as the way the Bible speaks of the poor leads me to suspect.

So, how about this:

If you’re thirsty, drink water! (Yes, water from the tap.)

It is so easy to reach for a Coke, or a beer, or that bottled spring water, or whatever.
Just – stop.
Stop and think for a second about the choice we are making.

How about this:

I might choose to drink water to express solidarity with the poor of the world, who never get anything else to drink, and are usually grateful for clean water.

I might choose to drink tap water just to reduce my personal consumption, my carbon footprint, my share of the world’s resources.

How about engaging in a water fast for a limited period of time (or even for life). Maybe for Lent? Drinking only water, on principle. Or drinking only water whenever you are thirsty, and maybe still drinking coffee or tea, or juice on the side. Whatever works for you.

How about adding up what you are now saving in the soft drinks or whatever else you are not spending money on any more, and donating that to the Third World aid fund of your choice?

How about making this a campaign in your local church?

For the truly dedicated disciple, let me end with a real challenge!

If you seriously want to engage in an exercise in solidarity with the poor of Africa and elsewhere, do this:

Pick a nice hot day. (Most of Africa is nice and sunny!)
Get yourself an empty 20-litre plastic drum, and wheel it about 3 miles, or 5 kilometres, in a wheelbarrow, barefoot. Fill it from a public tap, and then wheel it home. See how long it lasts when that is the only water source for your whole family.
See how you feel about doing this again, tomorrow.
See whether you are now seeing the poor, face to face.

(If anyone actually does this, I would like to hear about it!)

“Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
And shudder, be very desolate,” declares the Lord.
“For My people have committed two evils:
They have forsaken Me,
The fountain of living waters,
To hew for themselves cisterns,
Broken cisterns
That can hold no water.”         (Jeremiah 2:12-13, NASB)

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Saying ‘Grace’

When we ‘say grace’ before a meal, what does it mean to us?

Is it just a habit, a liturgy for meals?
A Christian observance?
Are we asking God for His blessing upon the meal and the diners,
or perhaps just giving thanks for the food?

Have we realised that ‘grace’ is intended to invoke God’s presence,
to invite Him to share the meal with us;
that it is intended to be a doorway to an act of worship as we eat together?

The ‘grace’ we speak should be from our hearts, not our habits;
it should be our prayer to God, and
not merely performed as ‘the done thing’.

Our ‘grace’, offered to Him in this way,
might include a request for His presence and blessing,
thanksgiving and acknowledgement of His provision,
and adoration or worship of Him.

First, let us be grateful that God has simply provided food for us,
not forgetting that it is God who is our Provider in all things, and
not taking credit for providing by our own efforts
(however we may be tempted to think that way)
what is always God’s gift.

God created food – and tastebuds!
God created water, and wine, and cool drinks;
He made up all the tastes and textures and flavours that make nice food,
so that we enjoy many different kinds of food.

Whatever our favourite foods might be, God was there before us,
creating and making, designing and preparing – so that,
when we came to discover it,
He could have the joy of knowing that He had given you another gift.

I sincerely believe, for example, that God planned the combination
of cheese and tomato from the beginning of creation.

This seems a good place to mention that “the grace”
should also be a prayer against the temptation to gluttony!

If we recognise and appreciate His artistry,
beyond simply being grateful that we have food,
even as we enjoy a meal together, this is worship that pleases Him!

I must add, though, that there are always those who do not have
any choice in what they are able to find to eat to sustain life,
who cannot enjoy variety, and
who do not know when they will eat again.

We cannot worship God in enjoying the foods He has provided,
unless we have first shared out of what we have for those of us
(and yes, they are also part of our Body)
who do not have enough, or anything at all.

If we have already done all this, though, then let’s tuck in –
right after we’ve “said grace”!

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Dying to live

The Word of God tells us that those who keep their own life for themselves and to themselves; who hold their soul, their personality sacred and inviolate – they will die.

 Luke 9:23-24
And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.

John 12:24-25
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.                                                         (RSV)

It is integral to being human that we human beings are absolutely convinced that we are the owners of our selves. I love to see myself as the commander of my own destiny, the one in charge of my life. We value ourselves as uniquely precious: ‘I’ am a unique pattern, the only ‘I’ in the universe that will ever be me. I will never allow anyone to change who I am or to make me over into someone else. There can be no substitute, no replacement for ‘me’.

Unconsciously, we often feel that when eventually we die, the world will effectively cease to exist, because without us in it there is no purpose for it.
This is our natural condition, our natural view of ourselves and our world.

God sees the situation somewhat differently.

His Word tells us that unless we surrender our lives, our control, our precious and unique-in-all-the-universe selves, we will lose all that we are so desperately – and selfishly – clinging on to.

I have to surrender my territorial integrity. I have to let God in to where I am, and let Him go to work on me – yes, on that unique and precious thing that is ‘me’.

Let’s see if we can get our heads around the way things really are.

God made me, I am His. (Have a look at Psalm 139)

When a potter makes a pot, to whom does the pot belong?
Why, to the potter, we would say.
That is human reasoning.
In truth, the pot belongs to God, because
He made both the potter and the clay;
he gifted the potter with talent and vision,
and the clay with malleability;
and the pot is, ultimately, His creation.

Even if we use this human reckoning, consider:
if the potter does not dig the clay himself, but
has another dig it for him, who brings him the clay,
and the potter makes two pots from it,
would we not consider it fair
that one pot should be the potter’s,
and that the other should go to the one who dug the clay?

(Who gave the one who dug the knowledge and understanding to find the clay, and the strength to dig it?)

What if the potter bought the clay from the digger?
Would not both pots now belong to the potter, as we humans reckon?
Of course so!

And has not God both created us and bought us with the blood of Christ?

We, in our precious independence and proud refusal to let down the barriers
which guard our ‘self’, which we think we own,
have failed to recognise
that the same God who made us by His careful, loving design,
also made that ‘self’, that person who so proudly refuses to yield to Him,
for fear that He will destroy His own design – yes, the unique pattern,
the only ‘I’ in the universe – which has become flawed by sin.

More, we fail to recognise or to acknowledge that the same loving Lord has bought us back from sin with His own blood (could there have been any higher price that was paid?),
so that He owns us, both by right of creation and by right of redemption.

And, most of all, we forget that He loves us with such a love that we cannot dream of measuring it’s height or depth, it’s length or breadth. Would such a One destroy His child, whom He hopes to save from destruction?

Cleanse and purify us, yes, drive the mark of sin from us, yes – but
that only so that we can be more perfectly what He made us to be:
more perfectly ourselves!

Never loss, but only gain.
And what glorious gain!

I must surrender!
Let me yield even my self to the Lord, for Him to make new again.

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Speaking the truth in love

I was thinking this morning about the difference between being in a relationship with someone, and relating to someone outside of a relationship. I mean being in a love relationship, not simply a relative standing. A mother and child, for example; a husband and wife (or boyfriend and girlfriend) or simply a close friendship, rather than a teacher and pupil, or colleagues at work, or the other people you usually sit next to at church. Unless, of course, you also have a love relationship with those people.

When you speak, within a love relationship, your words – or whatever communication, for that matter – carry a different and special weight in comparison to words exchanged between people outside of a love relationship.

Perhaps it is a child saying to her mother, “You never listen to me.” Or perhaps it is a lover’s quarrel, and one says to the other, “I hate you!” These words say what they mean, but it is understood that their negative freight has a limit determined by love. On a lighter note, a sister might say to her brother who has just scoffed the last of the pudding, “You’re such a pig!” and it is understood that this contains more affection than condemnation. Or maybe not. But certainly, it could.

On the other hand, for one colleague to say the same thing to another at an office tea would be insulting, and no two ways about it. For a pupil to say “I hate you!” to a teacher would mean only just what it said.

Conversation within a love relationship is privileged, in a way that ordinary conversation is not. There is a freedom to speak without thinking, without censoring whether what you are saying will be acceptable, without worrying about whether you might be revealing too much of yourself.

In just this same way a Christian in a love relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ may share a conversation that is privileged. When (I really have done this) I have said to the Lord, “I hate You!”, He has understood that that was my pain speaking. When I have spoken too familiarly with Him, in a way that some would see as lacking in the respect due to the crucified, risen Lord of the universe, He has understood that this comes out of how close I felt to Him in that moment. And He has rejoiced in my honesty and openness with Him and underneath that in the foundation of my trust in Him.

What matters most to God is that we are in a real relationship with Him, not in a pretend one. And when you are in a real love relationship, that trust that is founded in love will let you speak freely with Him, as He will then speak freely with you.

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A post that grips, challenges, cries out – and answers that heart’s cry. This is from the heart of God.
Go read it. Please.

speak peace always

They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they’ve laid Him.

Swinging censers, white red robes

Glowing mitres

Chants and genuflections

They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they’ve laid Him.

The Amplified and Extended 10 commandments

Shrieking mikes, pounding basses

PhDs, M.Divs, and Revs

They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they’ve laid Him.

Be very frightened of the Lord’s rejection

His whip is out for your correction

Examine your soul

Weep and mourn

Pay your tithes

Don’t question the shepherd of the flock

Churchanity has taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they’ve laid Him.

Families struggle to make ends meet

The worn and weary find no listening ear

Jesus’ loved sheep stand out in the street

Waiting for His bride to rise and draw near

Churchanity has taken my Lord away, and I don’t…

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Naomi, witness for the Lord

I recently had to do an academic exegesis from Ruth, which reminded me of the understated witness of Naomi.

I’m sure you are familiar with the story, but to review the beginning and set the scene, very briefly:
The family flees a famine by going to Moab. The boys marry Moabite girls, then all the men die, leaving the three women in penury. The famine has passed, and Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem to her own people.

Naomi tells her two daughters-in-law what she is going to do, and for their sake advises them to stay in Moab among their own people; their prospects (humanly speaking) are far better there. At least, they will have some prospect of a future, while in Canaan where Naomi is going they will have nothing. Orpah is reluctantly convinced, and, weeping, kisses Naomi goodbye.

Ruth, in one of the most beautiful passages of the Bible, will not be parted from Naomi, her mother-in-law. Her mother-in-law! One of the most clichéd unhappy relationships around!

Ruth 1:14c-17
“but Ruth clung to her.
15 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”
16 But Ruth said, “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; 17 where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you.””


How was it that Moabite Orpah wept in parting, and that Moabite Ruth refused to be parted from Israelite Naomi at all – their mother-in-law?

Clearly, Naomi loved her daughters by marriage and wished the best for them. Equally clearly, they had both come to love her. In Ruth, however, the bond was too firm to be broken. Not only would Ruth go into exile (from her point of view) with Naomi, but she would abandon her people and the faith she was raised in, to convert to Naomi’s faith.

To Ruth and Orpah in Moab, Naomi was the only remaining witness to Israelite faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Only through Naomi could they have had such a witness of the love of God that Ruth would come to the point of being willing – even eager! – to surrender everything to stay with the witness of His love. What love must Naomi have shown to her girls!

This heart-winning love is what draws Moabites to God. Not foreign religious rituals and church services. Not the laws of a foreign religion. Just love.

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There’s a woman in our pulpit!

Whether you would read this headline as an exclamation of alarm, or as an exclamation of joyous excitement, the chances are there will be someone who is not in accord with you. In fact, that’s just about a certainty.

Some (liberal church members) would regard the debate as history; that battle has been fought and won. Others (conservative church members) would retort that as far as they are concerned it was a non-starter, and they still don’t believe it’s right, and (perhaps) they will refuse to attend any church where there is a woman minister in the pulpit.

Forgive me for generalising; of course not all conservatives are against ordaining woman ministers, and not all liberals are in favour of it. If I generalise now and then, so as not to complicate my writing, bear in mind that when I make a general statement, it is only a general statement.

I will try to explain why I hold the view that I do, without necessarily setting out to prove that I’m right and everyone with another view is wrong, in the hope that this will be helpful to some.

I believe that women are called to the ordained ministry just as men are, and on an equal basis. There may or may not be a difference in the way in which a woman exercises her ministry, but the calling and the office are identical with those of a male minister. I look forward to the day when the Lord may call a woman minister to head our Methodist Church in Southern Africa!

So, why do I, as an admitted theological conservative, take this relatively liberal position?

Before we get to Saint Paul’s rules about women speaking in church, and Pauline theology on the role of women generally, which is what everyone runs to first (see, another generalization), let’s have a look at what the whole Bible has to say about women.

The Old Testament

In the Old Testament women were pretty much just property, had no say, no rights, and certainly did not exercise any authority over men. Right? That’s generally true, but…

Let’s have a look at a couple of these Old Testament women. When Pharaoh’s pursuing army was drowned in the Red Sea, it was Miriam, Aaron’s sister, who led the songs of celebration and worship before the Lord. In Micah 6:4 the Lord says, “I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” Three leaders are named, and one of them is a woman, appointed by God to lead the Israelites.

In Judges, after Othniel, Ehud and Shamgar, we come to the first of the notable judges of Israel, Deborah. Barak, the army commander, was so dependent upon her leadership that he refused to go into the battle without her at his side! (Judges 4:8-9)

In 2 Kings 22:14-20 I find Huldah the prophetess being consulted and interpreting God’s will for King Josiah; her word led to a great revival.

While it is certainly true that the Old Testament is overwhelmingly dominated by male leadership, it is instances like these, and a few others, that convince me that even in the Old Testament it was not invariably the case that women were not allowed to lead men or have authority over them.

The New Testament

In the New Testament, we have twelve male disciples (one of whom turns out to be unreliable, which reminds me of one of the common criticisms of the notion of woman ministers – inconstant, subject to hormonal mood swings, thus unreliable…).
When I compare the insight into and quick grasp of Jesus’ teachings which women generally (almost invariably) showed, as recorded in the Gospels, with the general lack of insight and slow understanding of the chosen male disciples, I cannot accept that a woman necessarily needs a man to interpret God’s Word to her, nor can I accept that a woman can have nothing to teach a man about the Lord.

In Acts I find woman leaders like Lydia, who was the first Christian in Philippi and in whose house that church was established. I think Lydia very probably led the Church in Philippi, at least at first.

I read of Priscilla, with her husband Aquila so clearly following her lead. We are told plainly that it was Priscilla, with Aquila, who taught the gifted preacher Apollos the right Gospel doctrine. While I must agree that we cannot say who was the author of the epistle to the Hebrews, I must confess that I personally believe that it was very likely Priscilla (which would explain why it alone among the New Testament letters remains completely unattributed), together with her husband Aquila (which would explain the infamous masculine participle in Hebrews 11:32).

Paul himself sends greetings to Phoebe as the minister of the Church at Cenchrae, and asks the Romans to assist her at her direction. I accept that Phoebe’s position was functionally that of the minister at Cenchrae: the same word, diakonos, is used of Paul himself with reference to church leadership. The literal meaning is “servant”, as is the literal meaning of “minister”. One might say, “Paul, the servant of God”, or one might equally say, “Phoebe, the servant of the Church”. Patriarchally-oriented translators have gone so far as to translate diakonos as “helper” only where it relates to Phoebe and as “deacon” or “minister” or “servant” (e.g. as in “servant of Christ Jesus”) everywhere else, in the same Bible translation! (The NCV).

The Pauline commands

Having introduced Paul, I had better get to the famous problematic texts. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 are the two texts which are cited most often.

In Corinthians, the verses basically say that women are not allowed to speak in church, but should ask their husbands for clarification at home. 1 Corinthians 14 is essentially a chapter that exhorts the church to do everything in worship in good order. In verse 33, just before the cited verses, Paul expresses the conviction that God is “not a God of confusion, but of peace” (he has just been explaining that a general uncontrolled babbling in tongues is not helpful and does not honour God). This is what seems to spark his comment on women talking in church, which is almost, in the context, an aside. He goes back to and concludes by speaking again and finally about the good order of a church service.
I understand these verses as addressing a local situation where women in the Corinthian church were misbehaving by discussing the teaching even while it was still being presented, to the distraction of other members.

Frankly, I find the 1 Timothy text much more difficult. One cannot simply dismiss what Paul is saying so unequivocally, nor is there the contextual mitigation which I find in Corinthians. However, what I do not find here (which is present in the Corinthian letter), is the assertion by Paul that what he is instructing is God’s command rather than his personal views. He does present a biblical argument to underpin his views, but again, whether the reader agrees with his argument and its application is for the reader to decide. Personally I am inclined to respond by reminding Paul that, as he himself told us in Romans, we are no longer under the Law, but are under the rule of grace.

When I also consider verses like Galatians 3:27-28: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is … neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”; and when I consider the well-established Biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, for myself I find no other recourse but to conclude that Paul, in the Timothy text, was expressing his personal view, possibly with regard only to Ephesus, possibly a view which he had only recently adopted, or a view which he later found reason to change.


The fact is that those like myself, who believe that God has ordained woman ministers, must wrestle with the interpretation of, particularly, the Timothy text, while those on the opposing side must find a way to explain Biblical equality of gender as disciples of Christ, particularly with regard to the Galatians text.

As I said at the beginning, my purpose has been primarily to explain my position rather than to convince others to change theirs. I would suggest that whether or not women are generally accepted as ordained ministers, what matters is that the Church should continue to share the Gospel of Christ, and that the members of Christ’s Church should be good witnesses to the new life that is in Jesus Christ.

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The Age of the Slack

In The Witness newspaper on the 14th of March, I read an interesting article by Sibusiso Tshabalala, entitled “The Age of Slack”.

What he was writing about is the increasing tendency for people to be passive observers, lax about responding in constructive ways or moving to action when they encounter even serious problems.

I quote:

“Exposing the slack is pretty easy in South Africa. Wake up each morning, find a latest brewing saga, and then engage in cheap moralising frolics. Do this on a social network preferably, and you’re more likely to get a stream of mentions and retweets signalling approval. High-nosed and clear in your mind, do this day-in, day-out. Sooner than you know it, the slack which you so candidly live to expose engulfs you.”

Tshabalala goes on to describe the videoed response to a recent incident (atrocity) where Mido Marcia was dragged behind a police van in public. The video shows some onlookers cheering, most doing nothing, and, after a while, a few questions. But no action. Marcia was found dead in a police cell a few hours later.

I agree wholeheartedly with Tshabalala’s point, as I understand it. We South Africans (and, it seems likely, most of the rest of the world) are becoming a nation of passive observers. We are becoming so conditioned to being given the news on television, to responding by talking about issues and incidents, especially through social networking, that we are becoming accustomed to doing nothing in reality.

I would hesitate, the way the police are currently behaving in South Africa, to suggest that any bystander should have tried to interfere. They might well have been shot themselves.

But, when we hear of schoolchildren with leaking classroom roofs, who goes down with some tools and some waterproofing membrane to fix the roofs, when we can “bring attention to the problem” by tweeting about it? It is important to note that, having “done” something by tweeting, we feel better, and dismiss the issue from our minds.

Or, when we hear that patients at the local hospital are going without food, because the catering contractor has not been paid, do we get together as a local church and get some food down there, until the crisis is past, or do we just circulate some sms’s (texts) or emails until we feel we’ve done enough?

Whose responsibility is it to show our friends and neighbours that talking about problems is not the same as actually doing something?

Yesterday I had a chat with a wonderful woman whom I will call “Sally”, about practical ministry. She shared how she had met another lady, a complete stranger until that day, and been able to stand by her. When she later heard that this lady’s house had been burned down, ‘Sally’ immediately fetched clothes for this lady and her children from her sister’s house, with some food, and took them down to her. There was not a thought of tweeting about the issue. Nor did ‘Sally’, in telling me this, even realise how well it reflected upon her (that was not the focus of our conversation).

‘Sally’ is a good example. People who spend their time circulating emails bewailing the state of the world and “sharing” concerns via social networks, without also doing something themselves, are fooling themselves.

Matthew 5:13-16

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.  (RSV)

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Bible section headings

I know this is not a big deal but I wonder whether I am the only person that is bothered by this.

Many – most – modern Bible translations come with pre-printed section headings which prescribe how to divide the text, and which, I feel, prejudice the reader’s understanding of that text. In many churches I hear these section headings being read out as if they were part of the Scriptures.

Does it really matter? Well, yes, I feel that it does – sometimes. On many occasions and in many places it may not matter, but there are places where it makes a big difference. One example is Matthew 22:15-22, from which I am quoting verses 18-21 below. The section heading in the NIV reads, “Paying taxes to Caesar”.

“18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” “


Not surprisingly this passage has been used by conservative churches and leaders to promote civil compliance. Jesus, they say, taught that it is right to pay the taxes we are supposed to pay.

Unfortunately, for me that is not what the passage is about and it is not the primary message of the passage. I would suggest that the primary message is, “Give… to God what is God’s.”

Ask yourself, what belongs to God that must be given to God?
Ask yourself, what is it that has God’s image stamped upon it?

I doubt you need my help to answer those questions!
But do you think that a heading of “Paying taxes to Caesar” is the right one for this passage? What about other such well-intentioned but misdirected headings?

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Churches that go out

Do we have churches that are rotting on the vine? So many of our churches (I’m speaking of South Africa, but it might well be true elsewhere as well) seem to be dwindling in membership, but, even more importantly, in zest for life. They seem to be turning inward, rather than outward. The members know and associate only with each other, and there is almost no contact with the community within which the church is placed.

Some responses that I have observed include launching what are called “outreach” programmes, by which members mean going out to bring people to the church (often, to let the minister’s preaching convert them!). A desperation tactic is to propose merging with another dwindling congregation – say, a Methodist church merging with a nearby Anglican or Presbyterian church. A popular one is to try to revive the congregation by holding teaching workshops such as an “Alpha” course, or “Disciple”. Sometimes this actually works, for a while. But the fundamental inward-facing attitude may not have changed.

We as the Church of Christ are not placed in the world primarily to comfort one another (although we are called to encourage one another in the work of God). We are not called to cling so exclusively – and fearfully! – to the Vine that we forget to bear fruit in the world. Out purpose in abiding in Christ (John 15) is to bear fruit, and the fruit that we bear is not to refresh ourselves, but to refresh others, to draw others nearer to the source of love of Whom we are but a reflection.

I have a vision of a new approach to church, one that goes out from the building. I see a pastor leading the flock, not inside to the altar but out and into the community (by personal example first). I see church members whose service is not pouring tea for the members after the service, but “washing the feet” of the hoboes at the soup kitchen, members who are offering their homes (rather than the church buildings!) as places of safety to abused women and children, members who are speaking with prostitutes and convicts, not in their own righteousness but in love and concern for the well-being of those who are different, desperate, and often despairing.

After giving yourself to Jesus Christ comes giving yourself to others for His sake.

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The Gospel foremost, and also

In conversation with a couple of fellow Christians in the laundry early this morning, we agreed on a couple of things which I believe are important. Christian ministry is far broader than preaching on a Sunday, or sharing my experience of Jesus Christ with someone I meet. We are encouraged and called and perhaps even required by our church to engage in a Christian ministry which frees those who are trapped and imprisoned, which confronts injustice and transforms the conditions under which the marginalised and oppressed have to live, which reaches out to heal the sick, to empower the unemployed, feed the hungry and visit the lonely.

Experience of secular development has shown that the desperation of the poorest can destroy the very efforts to help them – when aid is given without Christ.

Neither is anyone able to hear the Good News, whose empty stomach is gripping their whole awareness; nor one whose addiction is forcibly drawing him or her back to its source; nor yet one who is in mortal fear for the life of their child or their lover.

Talking about these issues together, we agreed that Christian ministry must work by bringing the Gospel in the right hand (left hand, for those of you who are lefties!) and constructive help with the other. In mission, of whatever kind, put the Gospel of Christ foremost (not necessarily first), that the spiritual need be provided, and together with it, neither afterward nor beforehand apart from the Good News, give whatever is needed to help, in love from the heart.

Giving food for the hungry, read also from the Word. With prayer for the sick, give a loving touch – and bring medicine! Visiting the poor, share Christ, and share a way to earn money to live. When praying for an addict, also offer a place of retreat from the world of temptation. In addressing the spiritual desolation of one who is lost, also show, and wherever possible provide, a way of escape from a desperate physical situation. To the oppressed, preach the gospel of liberation – and take a stand against the oppressor. To the repentant criminal, bring the gospel of forgiveness – and find someone who will give an ex-con a job. You get the idea.

Who do you know in your own life, who needs you to minister the Gospel of Jesus to them, and also…?

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Sit, Walk, Stand

A little book by Watchman Nee which has made a big difference to me and to many other Christians. It is an essential exposition of the major themes of Ephesians: Nee points out how we are, even now, seated in Christ by the grace of God; how we are called to walk in faith and to stand upon the ground that Jesus Christ has won. Which is why my blog subtitle is “seated, walking, standing” – and why the first of these is in the passive form.

In Christ we who are His own have been seated in the heavenly places:

4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God— 9 not because of works, lest any man should boast.” 
(Ephesians 2:4-9, RSV, my emphasis).

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