Category Archives: Spiritual Formation

Great Number of Expectations

I’m a fan of the 19th Century missionary William Carey – to the extent that we named our son after him. (I now realise that was a step beyond getting a tattoo of him – but the boy is such a fan of wicketkeeper Alex Carey that he doesn’t mind.)

Carey (the misho) was a doer. Not one one to swallow the “Only God can do things and it’s kind of an insult to try to do things that only God can do” pop-theology that is still too prevalent today. He got that God wants to work through us and not just around us and invites us to step up and get in the game. His famous motto was “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” If I was the tattooing type…

But if you carry that idea not merely on your skin, but deeper, you find yourself in a certain stance. The stance of a sacred agent. Looking both to receive a lot and to give a lot. It’s good. The down-side, though, is that in the looking for ‘great things’ to get and to do, you miss the little things. And God so often does big things through the little things.

So for a while I’m trying out a variation of the motto. Instead of “Expect much, attempt much”, how’s this: “Expect often, attempt often”?

This is the sacred agent’s discipline of being faithful with small things. It reminds me to expect our generous Father to be giving me things-for-others often, more than daily. In fact, for the grace of Christ and the power of the Spirit to be at work in and through me continually.

From time to time there may be a grand epiphany or an exciting project. But a simple word of kindness; glass to the thirsty; invitation to church, or lunch, or both; a quick encouraging text – am I ready for that kind of ministry? Are we?

Lord, how can I be of service today? is a great morning prayer. I’m sure it was Carey’s too, and for a lot of mundane mornings.

…Speaking of a great number of things, this is the 100th Sacred Agents post. Many thanks to all who have followed, commented, made suggestions, and taken the bad with the good!<AT>

Looking Down on Jesus?

They must have been difficult words for the Messiah to hear: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” They imply, “We thought you were The Answer To All Our Problems – but now we have more. We thought you’d blow away our enemies – but they still have it over us. We thought… frankly we thought you’d be more impressive.” The words must have hurt all the more coming from John the Baptist, one of the very first to point Jesus out as the Christ.

But John is stuck in prison, and he won’t be coming out in one piece. So a fair question, maybe? We’re familiar with Jesus’ reply: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” But his last sentence has always rocked me: “Blessed is anyone who does not fall away on account of me.”

Think about that: Blessed are those who don’t fall away because of Jesus. Because he is not enough for them. Because he is beneath them.

When Paul wrote to the Romans “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” he wasn’t merely saying that he wasn’t afraid to speak up publicly. The gospel was causing a lot of problems for the Roman church, bringing together ‘those Jews’ and ‘those Gentiles’ and all sorts of ‘those people’ – the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dying, the poor. That in turn meant layers of difficulty and tension. It certainly didn’t make life easy. Paul knew as well as anyone that Jesus can mess your life up. But he also knew this was the way God’s power works. It would bring salvation, upend an empire, change the world and lead to ultimate glory.

So I try to remember this when church is hard work, when ‘those people’ are frustrating, when progress seems slow and when God’s enemies seem to be winning. I hear Jesus saying “Blessed is anyone who does not fall away on account of me.” If those people and that path are not beneath him, they mustn’t be beneath me. Let’s keep learning not to look down on Jesus but to trust him and his way instead.

In Praise of Rosters

I love a good roster. There, I’ve said it.

I know many Christians disagree, seeing them as a necessary evil, a secret shame. “Rosters seem so artificial. Why have some people ‘on duty’ and others ‘off duty’ at a gathering? Shouldn’t it be more natural and organic? Can’t we all just follow the inner voice of the Spirit and be prompted into ministry in the moment? Isn’t ‘organised religion’ what puts people off the most, and what Jesus himself fought against?”

No.

If you think organised religion is ugly, have a look at disorganised religion. Everyone simply following the ‘inner voice’ of the Spirit sounds great but fails on two fronts: Firstly, we’re not good at distinguishing between the inner voice of the Spirit and the inner voice of ourselves. We can find ourselves only drawn to ministries and situations that we enjoy the most. We can confuse the way of Christ with the path of least resistance. Secondly, the Spirit also has an ‘outer voice’ – when He speaks to us through others. This is a massive way in which God works, but time and again we miss it because we think it’s just Helen asking us to help out.

A good roster helps us to be the body of Christ – all different parts, well co-ordinated under the Head. It reminds us to work together in harmony, to submit to one another, to take turns stepping up or resting while the whole body moves on. All of this can itself be a witness – by this will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

So a good roster requires a lot of love, and not just from the coordinator. It’s a spiritual discipline to communicate promptly, clearly and humbly with the poor soul putting it together. Signalling flexibility, willingness for others to have turns at your favourite roles, and willingness to fill in other roles if needed; are just as important as making clear when you’re unavailable and the limits of your sustainable service.

Jesus wasn’t fighting against organisation and coordination, so that everyone might be free to simply be themselves and do whatever they want. That’s not the Spirit of Jesus, that’s the spirit of the age. One of the most radical things a sacredagent can do is to commit to a local Christian community and ask “What needs doing? How can I help?”

For discussion: (1) What was Jesus fighting against? (2) When some says they don’t like organised religion, what might they really be saying?

Responsibility Begins with Response

“In the unlikely event of an emergency, oxygen masks will fall from the ceiling.” If you’ve flown before, you know the drill. And the next part of the safety message: “Be sure to fit your own mask correctly before assisting others.” It makes sense, doesn’t it? The faster you get yourself sorted, the sooner you’ll be able to help others.

But it doesn’t seem to make sense to many of us sacred agents. When we share the gospel, we often forget that part. Calling people to a response – to ‘hurry up and get themselves sorted’ with God – seems a bit pushy to us. Aussies don’t like to be pushed. And Jesus isn’t pushy, is he? Is he?

Actually, the urgency of being reconciled to God is all through his teaching. “Reconcile quickly with your adversary, even on the way to the judge.” Won’t a king facing a stronger king “send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and ask for terms of peace”? And all those parables about being ready because we never know when we’ll face the Master.

Our news is not merely that God loves everyone. If our message can be met with “that’s good to know” or “that’s lovely to think about” then it’s much less than the gospel. Imagine Fred proposing to Helen over and over and getting that response … and then Helen’s agony when she sees Fred finally marry Susan instead! Jesus is not just the pilot announcing “It’s all going to be OK, go back to what you were doing.” He calls people to action – to come and belong to him and join his mission.

The people who do so – who emphatically and publicly say “Yes” to Christ in baptism,getting themselves quickly sorted with God – these are the ones who (masks fitted and breathing in the Spirit) will go on to help others also find life in Christ. For responsibility begins with a response.

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself in Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation … We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5)

The Justice of Evangelism

There’s two words you don’t see together very much: Justice and Evangelism.

Each of them is a buzz-word, a shibboleth (a word from the Book of Judges that helps you know who to kill and who not to).  If you go around using the “E Word” you’re this kind of Christian, and if you go around using the “J Word” you’re that kind of Christian. But sacred agents need to be savvy enough to rise above that false dichotomy.

Because the two are deeply, indeed perfectly, connected.

If you have plenty of water, and a neighbour is thirsty, is it justice to not give them some? (We get that, don’t we?) But if you know the source of plenty of water, the location of a Spring – is it justice if you don’t tell thirsty people where to get it? So with the Living Water we know comes only from Christ.

Justice calls us to evangelism. When we sit on the explosively great news we have, we’re not only doing the wrong thing by Jesus (who said “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory”), we’re doing the wrong thing by our neighbours and the wrong thing by the world, which will never thrive whilst estranged from God.

And as justice calls us to evangelism, so our evangelism calls people everywhere to true Justice. Like Paul’s message to the Athenians, ours points people to a coming Judge, and therefore to a real repentance and new life that goes far beyond sitting around with our friends in delightful echo chambers. It calls people to follow Jesus and join his ministry among the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed and the overlooked.

No one wants change more than Jesus does. But He shows us that the world is not improved through nagging, shaming and propaganda. These things perpetuate the ‘fight’ and bring a self-satisfying sense of struggle, but they don’t result in the lasting just-peace people claim to be fighting for. Real, lasting transformation, from selfish to responsible living, comes when people meet Jesus, find peace with God, and have their hearts and minds transformed by the Spirit. Have we not known this for some time?

So if you love Jesus, or if you are concerned for this dying planet and its suffering inhabitants, or maybe possibly even both, then live by the Spirit and give as freely as you have received: openly point others to the Source of life and Key to lasting change.

Slowing Down for Faster Roads

I’m a frustrated commuter. In Adelaide it seems that around every corner is a new set of road works, and the dreaded signs telling you to slow down to 40 (by displaying the number 25*). Sometimes it feels like you just can’t get anywhere. Traffic jams can reach back for miles and run thousands of people late.

Why all these slow-downs? Because we’re making our roads faster. Why is it so hard to get anywhere? Because we’re making it easier to get places.

It’s counter-intuitive. What would happen if we stopped doing roadworks? It would be wonderful … for a few months. But after that, increasingly disastrous. So I’ve been using stuck-in-traffic time to do some theological reflection.

Sacred agents can be the most idealistic of people. We have a vision for God’s kingdom and we want to see it now. But there are the road-works of disciple-making. The frustration of ministry development. We dream of having a church entirely made up of mature Christians. Wouldn’t it be heavenly … for a few months.

But God is choosing to pave the road to his fulfilled kingdom with future generations of sacred agents and given us the glorious job of being his road-workers. Churches need to be training centres and not just teaching centres. We should ask pastors to be star-players less and coaches more. And whilst it’s counter-intuitive, more responsibility needs to be given to those who aren’t quite ready for it.

But this will only pay off if we’re intentional about it. The most frustrating driving of all is when you slow down for road works and find that there’s no actual work taking place. Fines now apply for road crews who do that. And if we just delegate ministry without deliberately and efficiently building up others, we too should be fined rather than rewarded.

So next time you’re stuck in a roadworks jam, bless a road-worker. And prayerfully consider the wisdom in a slower ministry that intentionally prepares a holy highway for many others.

*That was a joke. Sacred Agents should never speed.

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