Pilgrim Espresso ArtFaith is both affective and cognitive.  Which is to say that we not only know about God, but we know him and are known by him.  He moves us.  He is close.  He is immanent.  Even (and especially) at those times when we are simply drinking coffee in the morning.

I need to remember this.  Because often I need to be moved, changed, shifted in perspective and focus – away from my own navel, and the things that would bind, and towards the God of love.  And then I can move, and bless, and do those life-giving things. Because of him.

When you move, you move all our fears
When you move, you move us to tears…

Because when you speak, when you move.
When you do what only you can do
It changes us, it changes what we see and what we seek



Two conversations have had me thinking about sin.  Or to be more specific, what happens when we use the word “sin.”  What actually gets communicated?

The first conversation was a wonderfully deep intelligent conversation in which I and my interlocutor were seeking mutual understanding on a whole swathe of issues.  The relevant part involved a hypothetical where I was asked, “How would I speak to someone in situation X?”   My response was, “I suppose I’d probably begin by saying ‘Well, we are all sinners.'”  The response to this was some genuine, well-hearted, dismay… “Oh yes, that’s where you lot start from…”

What I intended in my response to the hypothetical was an attitude that eschewed holier-than-thou-ness or condemnation.  For my part, “We are all sinners” is the great leveller.  It says “I am not better than you” and “I cannot condemn you, for if I did I would also condemn myself.”

It’s not like this was beyond the capacity of my conversationalist to understand.  The conversation delved into areas of a relevant common human experience: how we all wrestle with both the broken parts and healthy parts of our lives; how even the most well-intentioned relationships cannot hold selfishness at bay 100% of the time; how in our finitude (if nothing else) we each end up committing and suffering harm.  This is simple reality that we both recognised.

But somehow the word “sin” or “sinner” didn’t connote any of that…

The second conversation was with someone who has a Christian faith but lives in a non-Christian context.  She shared the evisceral reaction to the word, because that reaction has been part of her world: “‘Sin’ doesn’t work, it get’s turned off and tuned out.”

But, it was noted, there are words that do work.  “Brokenness” is one of them.  Everyone of us can acknowledge that we are broken.  “Darkness” is another, recognising the fact that sometimes we just want what we want, we do what we know is harmful and wrong.  Even the phrase “rebellion against the things of life” gets more traction.

idntimwytimThe conclusion of course, is not a new thought: The word “sin” doesn’t work as a word anymore.  It doesn’t do what words should do – encapsulate and communicate meaning.  It’s Christian jargon.  But it’s worse than that, from this perspective it signifies our self-justifying delusion, “sin” is our construct to justify our own existence and exercise power over others.

This is not hard to understand, but it something we need to emotionally appropriate.  An exercise for (the much  caricatured) Christian conservatives might be something like this:  You know how we feel when we get called bigots and hatemongers?  We not only find it derogatory and disconnected from the reality of who we are, and hypocritically hateful, we also consider it as polemical self-justification: if they can maintain the rage against the bigoted Christians, they can get more votes.  You know how that makes us feel?  On the flip-side, for them, that’s what happens when we use the word “sin.”

So what do we do about it?  Do we stop using the word?  Perhaps.  After all, our job is to communicate, and it’s not like the word is sacrosanct.  Are we not preachers, homileticians?  Our job is to connect the worlds and get the meaning across.  Just as I don’t quickly use jargon words like “eschatology” or “propitiation” (although I do try to communicate the substance of them) perhaps we should also be careful in how we describe our harmatology.

It’s not like there isn’t precedent.  In New Testament Greek “sin” is ἁμαρτία (harmatia) which connotes “missing the mark” or “wandering from the path” of God’s good ways; it speaks to a more fundamental wrongward inclination.  It is also παράπτωμα (paraptoma) which has more of the connotation of “trespass”, “wrongdoing” or “lapse”; it speaks more to specific actions that are wrong or done wrongly.

I think we are being lazy.  Rather than communicating our intent, we use an ineffective jargon word, in which we expect even our interested listeners to do some semantical gymnastics in order to keep up with us.  But even more worryingly, we end up lazy with our own thoughts, using a catch-all word where precision is necessary not only for mutual understanding, but for genuine expression that is also loving and caring.

Therefore, and to conclude, let us take a look at the pallid rainbow of the darkside of human existence.  To be honest, even in my current use I wouldn’t apply the word “sin” in all these instances.  But it seems, that when we use the word it may be taken that way.  It’s worth a consideration; after all, if we use “sin” intending to communicate something akin to “wrongdoing” or “mistake” and it is heard as “evil”, we can do immeasurable harm.

EVIL: “Sin” pertains to those things that are utterly antithetical to the things of life.  “Sin” reigned through the workings of Pol Pot and Hitler.  “Sin” is manifest at it’s highest in serial killers and torturers.  “Sin” is diabolical, demonic, irredeemably hell-bound.

CRUEL INTENTIONS: “Sin” pertains to those who delight in pain.  “Sin” pertains to sadistic abusers who are fully aware of what they are doing.  This “sin” is not so much a desire to win but a desire to defeat others, no matter the cost.  If it is not quite an evil lust for power, it is certainly a lust for control.

DELIBERATE REBELLION/HARD HEARTEDNESS: “Sin” pertains to those who manifest selfishness at its utmost.  “Sin” will cast others aside in order to get what is wanted. This “sin” is machiavellian in the extreme.  Others are means to an end.  Responsibilities cast aside, abandonment, and rejection.  All this is “sin.”

SENSUAL PASSIONS:  “Sin” pertains to the idolatry of human passion.  This is the domain of the “seven deadlies” – from raging anger, to rampant lustfulness, the flesh is king.  Persons are reduced to animals, fresh meat, gold mines, for the satiation of appetite.

BONDAGE: “Sin” pertains to addictive behaviours.  False comforts that are destructive, but provide temporary physical or emotional relief.  Often in response to harms of the past, a destructive cycle becomes our own, and without consideration we ourselves become harmful.

NEGLIGENCE: “Sin” pertains to carelessness and neglect.  Sins of omission which overlook or diminish others.  Sins that refuse to see the image of God in the face of others.  Racism and xenophobia, at the very least, are “sin” at this level.

MISTAKES: We stuff up. We hurt people.  We harm them.  And whether it is intended or not, such mistakes are our responsibility.  We have done the wrong thing, and that is “sin.”

BROKENNESS: We are wounded, we are hurting.  And often this means we believe wrongly about ourselves.  We think we are evil, when evil has been done to us.  We root our very person into shames that have been wrought upon us.  At a very gentle level, this thinking about ourselves is wrong – and like all “sin” we must turn away from it.

As a final thought:  In writing the above, the usefulness of the word “sin” in covering them all is that there is one answer to all these dark things: Jesus.  From the defeat of evil at the top, to the gentle healing of brokenness at the bottom, he is the answer.

A moment of reflection from this morning’s drive while listening to Christy Nockels’ Healing is In Your Hands:

Amongst the lyrics are echoes of Romans 8:35-39

No mountain, no valley
No gain or loss we know
Could keep us from Your love

No sickness, no secret
No chain is strong enough
To keep us from Your love…

In all things we know that
We are more than conquerors
You keep us by Your love

Romans 8:35-39 reads:

35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (ESV)

IMG_20141028_085331It’s a passage that I know well.  It’s one of my favourites and has been a source of comfort for me when the emotions of the day feel like alone-ness, anxiety, or even abandonment.

The phrase that struck me today is this: “We are more than conquerors.”

It’s one of those phrases that has what I call “teleological significance.”  It speaks to our purpose, our ambition, our direction, our goal.  There’s two facets to this:

The first recognises that what we observe in and around us in the world is a form of conquering.  I see Islamic extremists beheading Christians; they are trying to conquer the world with their expression of Islam.  I see areas of my own society, the Western World, which is blindly slipping into intolerant impositions that gives little value to freedom of conscience; it’s another form of attempted conquering.  It has ever been the way of the world.  This should not surprise us.

The natural response is fear.  What does the future look like?  Will I and my children and my children’s children be safe?  To be safe, we look to win.  We fight back.  We use the same sword as what we perceive is against us: we spin and tear down, we demolish people as well as ideas, we demonise, we hound, we yell; we try to conquer.

The second facet recognises the reality: we are more than conquerors.  And our safety and security rests not on the ways and woes of what is around us, but upon the love of God in Jesus Christ.  The Kingdom of God is not headed by a weakened or sin-wracked king, but by the one who has conquered even death.  The foundation of our ultimate citizenship is sure, as is the certainty of it’s future.  God is the God of history, do you think he has abandoned this part of it?

And on that basis we face the conquering hordes (whoever or whatever they might be), not with fear, but in love-filled confidence.  We speak and act on truth with our confidence not in ourselves, but in the love of God.  We apply ourselves to his purpose.  We invest ourselves in his loving works.  We seek to capture every thought that’s floating through the social conscience and reimagine it in the light of the fact that God is actually real, and Jesus has actually risen and inaugurated the life of a renewed world.  He is so much more than any pretentious conqueror.  And we rest and work and have our being in him.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s time to announce it:  At the beginning of August I will be taking up the role of Associate in the Parish of St. Nicolas, Newbury, in West Berkshire, in the Diocese of Oxford.  In July, the Briggs Family will be moving to England.

There’s no doubt about it, this is a big move!  In some sense it has come as a surprise.  But mostly it clearly aligns with how God has led us, and is leading us, in ministry, as a family.

Tasmania is our home in many ways, where we have been formed by God, and learned to trust him.  Over the years he has given us a passion for discipleship and for growing church communities that worship God in every part, and so bless the world.  But at the same time as rooting us where we are, he has lifted our eyes.  And that same passion has had us looking, and now moving, to England.  God has called us to the other side of the world.  This is a step of faith, trusting that God will meet us in Newbury, and bless us to be a blessing.

2015 - 1 (1)IMG_20150307_120852We are looking forward to being part of St. Nic’s as the church acts in the vision of “being good news, and bringing good news.”  We have already visited the parish as part of the appointment process where we discovered a great affection for the church family, and for the town itself.  We are looking forward to putting down new roots and discovering the details of God’s purpose there.

familyThe next few months (weeks really) are all about our family making the transition.  Please be praying for us.  In particular:

  • Pray for our children.  Anna (who is now 18yo) will be coming with us, possibly after some gap year travelling.   The other three will be transitioning into a new school system.  We have already visited one of the local schools, and met some of the teachers and are encouraged by what we see.  Please be praying for Samuel, Ethan, and Miriam.
  • We are also in the process of applying for Gill’s spouse visa (I am a British Citizen, and so are the children, so we can travel on UK passports).  Please be praying for all the paperwork to go smoothly.
  • Please be praying as we dismantle our household goods and either sell them off or pack them up and send them.  There are lots of logistics, and plenty of hidden expenses that we will have to face.

Throughout this whole journey there is one thing that is certain: God is good.  And he is kind to us.  We have never known such blessing and assurance.  We have been aware of his presence and his deep peace.  Where we have had financial needs, he has provided for us through the love of his people.  Where we have faced fears and anxieties, he has blessed us with words of comfort through the love of his people.  We will have more need of such things before this journey is through; but we remain convinced of God’s trustworthiness and that, in the words of Psalm 27, we will see the goodness of the Lord, here and now in the land of the living.

One of the tasks of my job is to preach sermons. I enjoy this ministry. It is both analytical and creative. It involves dwelling upon the deep things of God and his word to us in Scripture, and also upon the deep realities of the people whose faith, community, and lives we share.  A preacher must allow the text to preach to himself first, and this is a deepening devotional exercise.

1043405_40777795In recent times many of us preachers have had our sermons recorded, turned into mp3s, and placed online.  It doesn’t make us “internet preachers”, but it is the “tape ministry” of a previous decade in current form.  It also means that, for better or worse, our homiletical efforts are recorded for posterity.

I’ve recently had cause to review some of my past and present sermons.  It is quite the educational experience!  There are times for both cringing (“I said that?!?”) and delight (“Wow, I’d forgotten about that, that speaks to me now.”).  I’ve learned a lot from doing it and thought I’d share some thoughts:

For example:

Here is a very recent sermon from St. David’s Cathedral.  It is something of a “topical” sermon, as opposed to an strictly “expositional” one.  It was part of an advent series on the “Signs of Faith” and drawing on the response of Mary to the announcement of the angel.


Like all Cathedral sermons, it’s an “aim for 15-20 minute” timeslot and this went a little over.  It is preached from within the confines of rather towering pulpit.  There is no data projector or any other easily-appropriated form of visual aide.  This means that the structure of the sermon hangs on oral cues.  That’s something I had to “re-learn” when I came to the Cathedral.  Here’s another example, more expositional in nature, looking at the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:


A Cathedral is an interesting place to preach.  Sometimes up to 20% of the congregation are only there for one week, being tourists or short-term visitors to the city.  There needs to be a balance of speaking to the regular congregation and the awareness of ongoing contact, with ensuring accessibility for those who are only there for the one experience.  On some occasions, particularly the big Christmas and Easter services, you have to be almost like a “visiting preacher” and avoid over-familiarity.  The next example is from a Christmas midnight service a couple of years ago.  It had to be shorter, speak to a very very general audience, and definitely be on message about Jesus:


But I have not only preached in a Cathedral.  I have also preached in the “rural town” context of North-West Tasmania.  And not in a pulpit, but in a school hall, a surf club room, and sometimes even outside in a park!  In this context much longer, meatier “teaching times” were the order of the day.  It was a more intimate setting with more assumed familiarity of both congregation and preacher.  The homiletical structure could be communicated through visual cues on a data projector, and through peripatetic movements and gestures as wireless microphones allow.  Here’s a typical example from 2009, preached in the West Somerset Primary School hall.  The slides that were used are here: pdf


Photo credit: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/1043405

695214_86728097Just a short reflection from one of those mornings when God seems distant and despondency seems close.  I have learned over the years that such moments are cues to run towards Jesus, no matter how much you don’t feel like doing that. And so I turned to where I’m up to in my readings, which happened to be Hebrews 12.

Hebrews 12 is all about how God in his love disciplines his people.  It applies to times of trial, adversity, difficulty, despondency. “Endure trials for the sake of discipline,” it says, “God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?” (Heb 12:7 NIV)  Which, in and of itself, can feel of no great immediate encouragement.  Although I have come to know over the years that it is true, that “discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb 12:11 NIV), what does that mean for the immediate moment?  That I should just wallow until it’s over?

But Hebrews 12 does have an imperative in it, a true exhortation that hadn’t really seized me before.  It’s in verses 12 and 13.  Let me quote it using the Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) version, because it makes it very clear:

So, strengthen your drooping arms, and steady your tottering knees; and make a level path for your feet; so that what has been injured will not get wrenched out of joint but rather will be healed. (Heb 12:12-13 CJB)

This is an exhortation that looks towards the fruits of the discipline: Strengthen yourself, steady yourself, level off your path.  These are both self-caring exhortations and looking-ahead and keep-moving exhortations.  They are exhortations that recognise that the hurt and the injury of the season is real.  Something has been injured (the NIV talks about that which has become lame) and now the task is to move forward in a way that will allow it to heal and not be wrenched out of joint and possibly permanently damaged.

The chapter then goes on to talk about avoiding bitterness and living in peace with one another: the exact sort of thing that would cause an injury to fester.

Today this is encouragement.  Despondency can be real.  But by God’s grace it is not devoid of purpose.  And there is a constructive task which is both valid and graspable: to steady myselfmove forward and so embrace healing.  God is good.

Photo credit: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/695214

I guess there a bunch of ways to define a “movement.”

From the broad point of view, not every organisation or gathering of people is a movement.  Some groups simply exist to achieve a task, they are functional or operational.  Some groups simply exist for the sake of the members, they are therapeutic or social.  Some groups simply exist around a common point of interest or way of seeing the world, they are esoteric or idealist.

Using language with which some will be familiar, some groups focus on “OUT” (functional), some groups focus on “IN” (social), some groups focus on “UP” (idealist).

But when a group can incorporate all three aspects, and combine them with a sense of innate direction, then you have a movement that not only achieves a purpose, but moves itself, and those around them, towards a goal.  It’s UP-IN-OUT with DIRECTION.


It’s these sort of groups, these movements, that change the world.

But from a closer point of view, they are also the groups to which motivated individuals choose to belong; and that’s a belonging in a very deep sense.  When people belong to a group they simply attend, contribute, and enjoy.  When people belong to a movement there is an alignment of purpose and place by which that person offers a certain degree of investment and allegiance, and receives collegiality, formation, and opportunity to achieve.

This can also be expressed in “UP-IN-OUT” language, but this time in terms of the interplay between these aspects.  And so:

  • The interplay between “UP” and “IN” provides a context for collegiality where ideals and values interplay with the inward-life of the group.  In other words, the movement is partly a dynamic of “family.”
  • The interplay between “UP” and “OUT” provides a context for opportunity where functional tasks are guided by the ideals and values.  In other words, in the deepest sense of the word, the movement is partly a dynamic of “work.”
  • The interplay between “IN” and “OUT” provides a context for formation; part of caring for those within is to help them to grow to participate in the achievement.  In other words, the movement is partly a dynamic of “school.”


I see such a dynamic is at work in a variety of “movements” – from activist groups, political parties, through to football clubs and artistic collaborations.  It’s why they are precious to people.

In my own experience, the movements that my family and I have belonged to have been Christian.  Jesus is our direction, and therefore the focus of our “UP”, the centre of our “IN”, and the exemplar of our “OUT.”  It’s the stuff of “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

We can map out our life-experience by the movements that we have belonged to.  On the outside they are mission agencies or dioceses.  On the inside, we have experienced “family” dynamics within Christian community; we have experienced formational “school” dynamics, and rejoiced (and struggled) in the seizing of opportunities in the “work” dynamics.  When you belong to such a movement it is life-giving.  And it’s really hard to leave.

Sometimes movements don’t live up to the name.  The “school” dynamic drops away and people are left unformed, un-nurtured.  The “family” dynamic drops away and people are trained up, dropped in it, and left alone.  The “work” dynamic drops away, and you have nice mature people who do not do anything, or have the opportunity to do anything.  Others throw in the towel and lose their sense of direction.  Such movements need revitalisation, reformation, or perhaps to simply fade away.

For those of us who are looking ahead at the moment: it is a movement that we are looking for, to join or to grow.  The process of growing/changing/starting a movement is the stuff for more thought.  But I suspect this is true: it can’t be done alone; and it must be sown within a Christward direction.

cherries-70810_1280In an article on churchleaders.com Thom Schulz talks about the growing numbers of those who are “Done with Church.”  His insight is the distinction he makes between this cohort and what we normally mean by the de-churched.  These are not those who have simply drifted away out of boredom or a sense of the church’s irrelevance.  They are not consumer-Christians, takers-not-givers, dissatisfied with the product and unwilling to ask-not-what-your-church-can-do-for-you.  Rather, these are active, involved, motivated leaders and contributors who have thrown in the towel when it comes to the church machine.  They retain a strong faith, and even a strong call to ministry, but find, for some reason, that their involvement in a church organisation is no longer tenable.

As an employed pastor, whose very livelihood and expertise is dependent upon the organised church, who has invested time, money, health, and youth into the organised church… this is a scary thought.  It’s scary for two reasons:

1) What does this say about the the organisation(s) to which Gill and I belong, and depend upon, not only for our bread-and-butter, but also for the way in which we seize the depths of life’s purpose and aspirations? and 

2) I often want to join their ranks, for I share much of the disillusion.

The second of these places me at the beginning of my thoughts into the question of what is wrong.  The first of these forces us to the heart of the matter.

The question of what is wrong is a problem with two-sides, the self-referential church:

Here’s one side of the coin:

You know it when you see it: when the organisation becomes its own ends.  There is a caricature: the highly-institutionalised bureaucratic husk in which the performing of sacred rituals is the centre of life.  Mission is reduced to the maintenance of those rituals and, apart from acts of service that maintain the necessary infrastructure, only passivity is expected.  The time, focus, and energy of individual members, and of the collective as a whole, goes into the maintenance of the organisation’s own existence.  The self-referential church.

It is a caricature of course.  While some may readily apply it to churches that are further up the candlestick than most, that is not the marker that I’m using.  There are traditional churches who have avoided this plague.  And there are many, many evangelical seeker-sensitive churches that have not.  These involve a functionalised “evangelism” aimed at getting bums on seats in order to listen to a weekly monologue and give their tithe.  They are served by many hours of volunteers and staff devoted from everything from the building to the entertainment of youth, from the music and sound desk to the morning tea roster, and everything in between and surrounding.  These churches can just as easily fit the caricature.

The self-referential church: when the spiritual journey becomes a sterile lurch from Sunday to Sunday.

No wonder the motivated ones are leaving.  These are the ones who have DNA grounded in the stuff of a life-changing gospel.  They often have had experiences in, with, and through the gathered people of God that have been life-changing encounters with their Saviour and Lord.  They have gifts that have been tempered through some fire.  And they long to be part of God’s mission – to build the kingdom, change the world.  They invested in the church with this in mind, even as they were aware that it wasn’t all glitz and glamour and breakthrough, it was often about serving in season and out of it, and times of self-denial and menial work.

They leave, not because of the type of the labour, but the nature of the seed being planted by the well-oiled machine. When that seed is found to be church-shaped and not Jesus-shaped, well, it’s either time to break the machine and fix it, stay in the machine and be broken by it, or leave.

Many leave.

Here’s the other side of the coin:

Jesus loves his church.  The church is the point, for Jesus is about drawing people to himself and making them a people that reflect his truth and his love.

You should see it when it works!  A crisis happens, and the community rallies – people are supported, embraced, loved, helped.  A lost person is encountered – and they are welcomed, and fed: supported, and embraced, and loved, and introduced to Jesus who does all that also, but in the deeper parts, as exhorters, intercessors, truth-speakers, carers, and leaders speak life, life and more life.   The church must exist, and needs to exist!

It is necessary for a healthy life-giving church to be self-referential in some sense.  A healthy community is one in which the members deliberately invest in themselves, who choose to spend time together, who are honest with one another, and seek to fix whatever fractures appear.  Mission and church go together: “by this shall all people know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another…”

I know of a missional community meeting in a large city.  A good church community of this sort should have a clearly defined “out” – an outward looking missional activity.  They do some of that sort of of stuff, but in the main they have realised that a lot of their “in” is also their “out.”  In a large city full of disconnected people, their cohesive community, an “extended family” of sorts, speaks of the love and life of Christ and reaches out as much, if not more, than any outreach program.

It can be a joy for a church to come together weekly, and for people to serve one another in that gathering.  Sundays can be a highlight, a time of celebration and thanksgiving; and a true way of being fed and resourced and lifted up for life and the work of life.  God bless those that help this weekly machinery turn, to bless their brothers and sisters in this way.

Why would you want to leave?

But they are, and we must get to the heart of the matter:

Two sides of the “self-referential” coin.  What is the difference?

It’s not “mission.”  The first generation of the “Done with Church” left many years ago.  They formed or joined parachurch organisations and mission agencies.  They promoted evangelism or social work.  And this blesses and has it’s blessing.  But “mission” is also its own self-referential coin.  The organisation that lurches from outreach program to outreach program fits the problem with it’s “mission” as much as another organisation fits with it’s Sunday formula.

It is partly bureaucracy.  Sometimes bureaucracy serves, and sometimes it demands service.  The organisation that is unable to reform its bureaucracy and hold it loosely and flexibly ends up conforming reality to its own shape.  This almost defines negative self-referentiality, and those leaders who are unable to fix it, flee.

It is partly traditionalism.  Sometimes tradition serves, and sometimes it demands service.  The organisation that throws out everything disconnects itself from motivational currents and beaches itself.  The organisation that clings to all hides in the lee of a self-made rock and goes nowhere.  Leaders who look to where the river runs may end up searching for another boat.

It is most definitely about discipleshipThis is the heart of the matter.

Gill and I have been in full-time ministry for 18 years or so now.  We’ve seen some fruit.  And very little of it is in the church organisation.  Whatever outcomes have existed within the organisation are fleeting – congregations come and go, groups band and disband, structures are built and fall – and this is good, because these outcomes are not “fruit”, they are gardening tools or garden beds that have helped the fruit to grow.  They work for a time, and then they wear and have had their day.

No, we have found that the real fruit is in people:  Relationships that now transcend continents.  Lives that have gone from a broken A to a delightful B in a way that can only be the work of Jesus.  Strangers welcomed, and life shared, even if only a little bit.  Leaders raised up.  Cruel people resisted.  Broken people embraced.  Authentic community formed, sustained, enjoyed. Family as team, and (in different but related way) team as family.

Church organisations are good at investing in programs: outreach programs, growth programs, educational curricula, administrative efficiencies etc.  We have processes and procedures.  But these are nothing without investment in people, as persons.

You can send someone off for theological education (or bring it to them), but unless you disciple them and walk alongside them you will have, at best, a lonely theological clone; at worst an arrogant know-it-all with knowledge but little of the spirit, correct but rarely right.  You can assess someone for ministry, and give them regular reviews; but unless you invest in them, pray with them, mentor them, and walk with them as they seek the path of their obedience to God, all you have done is make them a cog in the machine, not a member of the body of Christ.  You can introduce a new program to church; but unless you raise up the leaders, invest in them, help them to see the vision, seize the reigns, and grow in their own gifting, you will only burn your people out and grow bitterness and dissent.  You can teach from the pulpit; but unless you also help people to worship and thirst for the things of God, the best you will do is build your own preaching pedestal and further divide Sunday from Monday in the lives of those that matter.

You see, the self-referential church does work, but only when it references itself in, with, and through its people.  When it references itself by its organisation, or its structure, or any other ecclesial tool, it is fruitless and those who are motivated to see real fruit may, eventually, leave.

It is why we are tempted to join their number.   But it is also why we currently stay: while the fruit of God can be found in with and through us in our current context – the real fruit, of God at work in real lives including our own – of investing and being invested in, of forming and being formed.

That’s the call of life.  That’s the purpose.  That’s the task.  Whatever happens next, wherever we find ourselves, we’ll never be done with that.

ShalomSalamPeaceIsraelisPalestiniansIslamophobia has been the phrase used to describe those that attack, belittle, and generally vilify Muslim people and the Islamic faith.  In this last week, in response to the terrible events in Sydney, we have seen plenty of real islamophobia.  I’ve seen everything from Pauline Hanson quotes on facebook to my Iranian friends (who are actually Christian, but fit the physical middle eastern stereotype) feeling scared on the streets and in the shopping malls.  The #illridewithyou impromptu movement has been a worthy, albeit imperfect, response to this real xenophobia.

The response from the Islamic leadership and the Muslim community to the siege in Sydney has been appropriate and right.  The evil actions have been absolutely condemned.  Condolences have been offered.  Again, I have seen in my Iranian friends (including those who are Muslim) the collective sense of shame and betrayal that they feel about this man.  Not only has he dishonoured his compatriots, he has betrayed them, who have escaped the trauma of their homeland, by bringing such trauma to their new home.

I have admired the response to the response.  Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders have moved towards each other with shared prayer times and other expressions of unity.  To the extent that we can stand united, as Australians, and as fellow human-beings, this is the right attitude to have.

BUT, and there is a “but”, I have some skepticism when it comes to the level of populist engagement with it all.

1) “Unity” at the expense of distinctives is actually divisive.

I have heard on the radio a montage of last week that has John Lennon as the backing track (“…and no religion too, imagine all the people, living life in peace…”).  While nice and sentimental, it is unhelpful on so many levels, consider:

  • It misunderstands the role of religion.  It presumes nominalism – that people are religious in name only, and religious adherence is merely a facade.  Facades can be discarded for the sake of something deeper.  But this is not the reality.  For many, their religion is already about the deepest depths of who they are.  This is true of both Christians and Muslims, and of the Secular Humanists too!  At a personal level, “religion” and “world-view” are coextensive – it defines and informs a person’s, and a community’s, identity, purpose, morality, ethics, relationships, self-worth and view of others.  It is exhaustive and is not something that can be flipped on and off at whim.  It’s why changing religion is called a conversion – it is a total realignment.
  • It presupposes that tolerance only comes from the transcendence of religion.  It was wrong in Lennon’s time, and it’s wrong now.  It’s actually a politically-correct form of xenophobia.  Real peacefulness seeks to overcome fear of the different.  This “transcending” philosophy actually seeks to eliminate the difference altogether.  “You all worship the same God after all, right?  It’s all about loving each other, right?” actually causes an elimination of identity through the elimination of distinctives.  It is progressive humanism doing what it always does, failing to recognise itself and thereby imposing itself on others.  It is the opposite of pluralism.

So when I stand in unity with my Muslim neighbours, it is not because we have been able to transcend our differences, it’s because we have found within (informed, shaped, and bounded by) our world view a place of common ground.  And so the Christian doesn’t stand with a Muslim because “we’re all the same really” – no, the Christian stands with the Muslim because the way of Christ shapes our valuing of humanity, our desire to love our neighbour, and even our “enemy” (for some definition).  I can’t speak for the Islamic side of the equation, but I assume there are deep motivations that define the understanding of this same common ground.  Take away that distinctive and you actually take away the foundations of the unity, the reasons and motivations that have us sharing the stage right now.

2) What on earth is a “religion of peace”?  Depending on how you define it, I’ve got some big questions for Islam.

We all love peace.  None of us love violence.  Except that that is not true in an absolute sense.  Sometimes we need to fight injustice, and sometimes we need to punish bad people by doing “violence” to their life or liberty.  All it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.  And so even Christians have the doctrine of the “just war” motivated by standing against tyranny.  But then again, the whole point of exercising justice is to bring about the peace that was removed by the injustice.  In an imperfect world, peace sometimes rests on ethically bounded acts of violence.

In this broadly brushed sense, Christianity is a “religion of peace” and so is Islam.  We want peace, but we don’t like injustice either.

Most of us have peace as the loftiest and deepest of goals.  And because these goals are informed by our religious depths (see above), ultimate peace and endpoint-of-religion often go together.  This is basic eschatology.  Christians believe that the return of Christ will usher in the fullness of rest; the triumph of the Prince of Peace is the advent of a time when tears are wiped away and lions lay down with lambs.  Jews, as I understand it, are awaiting their Messiah, who will lead them out of exile into the shalom of life perfectly shaped, inwardly and outwardly, by Torah. Muslims, as I understand it, associate ultimate peace with all humanity united in Islam, perfectly faithful to shariah and living in perfect submission to Allah’s way.

There are differences but clear similarities in these eschatologies.  Again, in these broad eschatological brushtrokes Christianity is a “religion of peace” and so is Islam – but we mean something different about the focus and shape of what that peace is.

The sticking point is when it comes to seeking to “advance” the religious cause.

Christians, for instance, are keen to see their neighbours “come to Christ” and convert.  In doing this, ideally, they are motivated by a constructive belief that the way of Christ is the way of renewal, restoration, and reconciliation, that brings life and freedom.  Ideally, the method of the Christian is persuasion and example.  The gospel is proclaimed, and the life of Christ is witnessed through the Christ-imitating ways of Christ’s followers.  Violence is not only avoided, it is explicitly prohibited.  Jesus commands the sword be put away, even at the cost of his own life.  It is grace, not force, kindness and welcome, not compulsion, that leads to the proclamation of truth, the furthering of justice, and reconciliation with God and others in Christ.

In this methodology the phrase “religion of peace” is clearly applicable to Christianity.  Yes, there are extremists who have used violence in the name of Christ – from the crusades to Westboro Baptist.  But the way of these extremists do not accord with the way of their founder, the heart of their supposed religion.  The answer to any Christian extremism is not whether or not the extremist is supported or rejected by fellow Christians, it’s whether or not that extremist is supported or rejected by Jesus.  “Jesus never did it that way” is the answer to any Christian warmonger.

But I am skeptical about Islam.  The more I learn about the way of Islam’s founder, Mohammed, the more I worry about his methodology.

On the one hand, I can affirm it: I can see the vast majority of Muslims, particularly in the Western World, following the peaceable ways of Mohammed during his early years in Mecca.  At this time Mohammed did not have political or military power and preached harmony and non-violent engagement, particularly with other “people of the book.”  The “higher jihad” speaks of the war against the destructive passions of the human person.  There is much common ground with the Christian here for sure.

But on the other hand, I question it. When I hear about the ways of Mohammed in his later years in Medina I hear of conversions by the sword, the dhimmitude servility expected of Christians, and oppressive enforcement of shariah law.  I cannot ignore this.  This picture of Islam seem to be in accord with the general vibe of Muslim majority nations, particularly in the Middle East: the denigration of women, and the oppression of freedoms and other religions.  Furthermore, I cannot ignore the testimony of my brothers and sisters who have converted from Islam, having experienced firsthand, spiritual and physical violence in the name of Islam.

There is little, if any, common ground here for me to find. The end problem is that I do not see how to find it. It’s not enough to point to the thousands/millions of Muslims who eschew such ways, if that doesn’t tell me how to say to a violent jihadist, “this is not the way of Mohammed.”  Because it does look like his way!  It seems like peace only in the sense of the “pax romana” – peace when Islam wins, peace through subjugation!  And I cannot agree that that is peace at all.

In fact, it looks like an injustice.  And an injustice is something I can’t be peaceable about.  And I would “fight” it in some sense.  In the very extreme, many of my brothers and sisters in recent months have “fought” it by dying for their faith in Northern Iraq and Syria.

So there’s a complexity within Islam.  It’s a complexity within the life of Mohammed himself.  It’s a complexity that, if I am to respect distinctives, I must engage with.  Finding the common ground on one side, questioning deeply on the other.

And of course, my engagement must be in accord with my own methodology: declaration of God’s truth, persuasion, demonstration of God’s love.

In embracing truth, I must question whether “religion of peace” language is helpful.  Does it actually help us get to the truth, to real respect for distinctives and motivations, or is it just another way of glossing over?

In embracing persuasion, I must ask questions.  They are not unanswerable and I may learn something, but they also make a point:  “Islam is a religion of peace” must be met with “What do you actually mean by that? How do you embrace this foundational teaching, or this behaviour of the devout, that appears to contradict the way of peace?”  I can even put my own perspective: “Let me tell you about the truest peace I have ever known, I have found it in Jesus Christ.”

In embracing demonstrations of love, I continue to welcome.  I recognise a fellow human.  I recognise someone wrestling with the deep things of life, and empathise.   In particular, in my context where I am the “majority” I use that position to stand against xenophobia.

Do I want to get rid of Muslims from my country? No!
Will I associate a nutcase who takes the name Muslim with the essence of that religion? No!
Will I refuse to share common ground, particular in times of national emotional unity? No!
Will I ride with them, and speak up for those who feel mistreated?  Yes! Absolutely!

But I’ll still have some big questions…

In 1993, at the age of 18, I obtained my first ever email address.  I had joined the internet age.

In 1994 I was introduced to my first online pornographic image.  Someone had downloaded it at a uni lab from usenet, transferred it on a floppy disk, and displayed it on their computer when I was in the room.  For a wet-behind-the-ears not-yet-a-full-adult like myself it was a smack between (and through) the eyes.

This was before the “world wide web” had caught on, and the “Netscape” browser was less than niche, and even further from mainstream.  I am nearly 40 years old now, but I can tell you, I am one of the earliest members of the electronically pornified generations.

For us Gen-X’ers, it wasn’t ubiquitous.  The seedy stops on the “information superhighway” could be reasonably easily avoided.  Unless you got hooked – but we didn’t know about that back then, and many of us weren’t prepared.

For the digitally native Gen-Y’ers and younger, a sexualised internet is part of the background noise.  It is not an inevitable trap, but it is ever-present.  For those of us who have struggled and for those of us who have hoped and prayed and wrestled with ways in which to protect and care for a younger generation: the context has been daunting, and the message and method unsure and seemingly untested.  To speak about it, or not to speak about it – and how? – that is the question!

There has been moralising, and therapising, and agonising as to what to say and how to say it.  The ethical evils – objectivisation of women and corruption of men – have been expounded by everyone from radical feminists through to bible-beating conservatives.

But slowly over the years, a useful approach has taken shape.  In the Christian sphere, authors like Allan Meyer and books like Wired for Intimacy and many others explored the psychological and neurological effects of pornography: the dopamine kick, the addiction cycle.  Here was a explanation with practical implications.  Here were doorways to effective tools for those who struggled: the well-known tools for addictive behaviours.  From support groups (“Hi I’m … and I’m a pornoholic”) to accountability partners, awareness of limits and situational avoidance, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, spiritual direction (“My brain is broken, Lord, please help”), and self-talk.  Among these were the things that worked (and work) for me.

tumblr_static_ftnd-black_transparent-letters_Until recently, however, I had not yet seen much in the “secular” arena.  What I have seen has mostly been about unhelpful guilt-avoidance (“there’s nothing to be ashamed of, go ahead, it’s healthy curiosity” type stuff) rather than actually about dealing with the objective reality.  But I have recently come across a website, even though it’s been around since 2009.  It’s called Fight The New Drug and while it’s not perfect, it is very very good.

It has focussed its purpose.  It’s not calling for censorship.  It’s not about pontificating.  It’s about educating. It declares it simply: Porn is harmful: Pornography affects the brain; Pornography affects relationships; Pornography affects society.  It is backed by research.  Articles unpack the issues anecdotally.  It is useful, and very very relevant.

It also provides a tool for response.  It’s symbolic, but meaningful.  It’s a pledge that goes like this:

As a Fighter I am…

STRONG: I have joined an army of supporters and will rely on their strength as well as my own to adopt a new shouldering of obligation in helping others understand how pornography is affecting their lives.

OPEN-MINDED: I recognize that mine is not the only opinion. I will respect others points of view just as I expect them to do the same towards me.

ACCEPTING: I know that judging others actions is not my place. I will respectfully promote my opinions but in the end allow others to choose for themselves.

A TRUE LOVER: I seek real relationships and shun their hollow counterfeits. I will not be that lone ranger looking for love from behind a computer screen.

BOLD: I am not afraid to speak openly about the effects of pornography.

A REBEL: I refuse to follow the status quo. I will do what needs to be done and say what needs to be said regardless of what is popular.

REAL: I do not pursue false imitations or masked presentations. I am confident enough in myself to be genuine.

UNDERSTANDING: I am aware of the difficulty some may face in ridding their lives of pornography. Rather than condemning actions I will help relieve shame.

ENCOURAGING: I will not turn my back on those that need my help. I will commit to helping them overcome the effects of pornography.

It’s not perfect, of course.  And from my own point of view, a recognition of Christ (and his strength) would deepen and strengthen the words.  But in terms of broad edification and taking the right track, this is brilliant.  The final lines are right: Relieve shame.  Provide encouragement. This pledge is an articulate accountable approach.

Generationally, the movement and the pledge are aimed at the millenials.

Fight the New Drug is a movement. A cause. A campaign. A group of young, passionate, and creative people with the simple mission to spread facts on the harmful effects of porn.

No religion. No political agenda. Just spreading the word through science, research, and personal accounts.

But, generationally, mine was the first to encounter electronic porn.  I was there in that insidious beginning.  I will not leave it to the younger ones to stand up alone.

I am now a middle-aged man, a father of teenagers (one just about to be an adult), and, yes, I am a pastor.  In the rest of this post I am going to share something of my story and what I have learned.  It’s a story that I’ve shared off-and-on and to greater-and-lesser extents in a number of places.  But it hasn’t been written down. It is intended as encouragement.  For teenagers, young men, and even men of my own age and older:  For those who feel bound, and hopeless.  You are not alone.  And there is always hope.

My story:

My wrestle with pornography has two parts.  I have mentioned the first in my initial exposure in my university days.  I didn’t know it at the time but the effect was amplified by some of the pain and problems of my own life.  When the pain reared it’s head, so did the cycle: the dopamine kick would provide false comfort against the pain, and the subsequent low would increase the pain.  I would never have done drugs, or turned to alcohol.  But in a very similar way, I was allowing my brain to be rewired through the abuse of the pleasure centre. I was hurting myself, and I brought hurt to my new marriage. Damage was occurring and it was heading towards out-of-control.

It was through counselling that I not only started to become aware of the cycle, but of the underlying psychological pain.  With lots of help (personally and professionally and spiritually) I was able to face that pain and find healing and resolution.  By this time I was in my mid-20’s.  The result was confidence and strength that I had never known before.  I consider these a gift from God.

The second part of my story began:  Even with a new-found strength, my brain was still wrongly re-wired.  Old habits continued as ongoing weaknesses.  Times of depression, loneliness, and other situations became trigger points.  I had to learn to protect myself.  For me, there are three things that help me do this.

The minor one is this: Building boundaries and “fences” back from the edge.  There is no technology that I cannot circumvent, but I can make it so that I don’t quickly slip.  I learned these things by trial and error.  I use OpenDNS for my entire home network.  I flick every safe-search switch I can find.

The intermediate one is this: I look for accountability.  This isn’t always easy because it needs someone else who is willing and able to ask the “How are you doing?” question without fear or favour, nor condemnation, but with seriousness.  My accountability has sometimes been, by agreement, with my wife, who is the most gracious and loving person I know.  At other times it has been with a prayer partner, a member of a retreat group, a close and unconditionally-accepting friend.  Sometimes it hasn’t been easy to find the right person for accountability, but I value such a person greatly.  The Bible talks about “provoking one another to love and good works.”  This form of provocation is one of the greatest gifts a man can give his friend.

The major one is this: I have learned to listen to myself.  I have learned to recognise signs of depression, both emotionally and physically.  I don’t pretend I’m strong when I’m not.  Honest self-awareness can become the stuff of accountability in supportive relationships that build resilience while you’re still a long way from “the edge.”

I am now almost 40 years old.  And the wrestle with the drug that is porn is part of my story.  Am I free of it?  The truth is that while the draw of it does dissipate, I cannot pretend I am strong when I am not.  My brain is still broken and assuming it isn’t is to choose an unwise path.  The protections must still be in place.

There is regret and sorrow.  How can there not be?  The Fight the New Drug site is correct: porn causes damage. I must own my damage.

And there is a certain amount of trepidation and wariness, and that is good.  Down the end of the porn road is self-destruction and utterly severe consequences for life, family, work, ministry, relationships, right-thinking, and all that is good and godly.  I have felt the dread of this road.  That’s the right thing to feel, and to the extent that I feel it, I know something is working correctly.

But I have come to a place where I do not fear it any longer.  I think this is because whatever strength I have I still consider to be a gift from God.  He has gifted me with a wonderful loving forgiving wife.  He has gifted me with wise counsellors and accountability friends.  He has gifted me with his own internal workings of his Spirit.  It is in Jesus Christ that whatever pledge I, personally, make has force.  It is he who loves me without condemnation, and it is his love, and his truth, and his heart, that is the best antidote to my own broken desires. It is his strength that I have found at work in my own life.  And because it his strength, and not mine, I can share my story, make my pledge, and even call myself “fighter” and confidently assert:  there is hope, and you are not alone.