Back in January I shared this message to Carnoustie Community Church on Psalm 33. I hope you enjoy it as we see God the Artist, Planner & Rescuer.
Yesterday I read this verse in Hebrews whilst studying for a sermon I am writing at the moment on Jesus’ public humiliation before his crucifixion: “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority because they kept watch over you as those who must give an account” (Hebrews 13v17).
Over the last 25 years, I have served as both a person-in-the-pew and in church leadership at four churches. I have also had many conversations with people who had little if any confidence in their church leaders. I admit that I have not always followed this instruction, so I’m speaking to myself as much as anyone. Here are 10 lessons that hit me afresh when I read this verse:
- Leaders will shape the DNA of a church, company or organisation whether they realise it or not, as will our attitude to them leading us (for better or worse)
- Having confidence in our leaders is not something that comes naturally to most people, it will normally require a change in heart attitude on our part
- It is a command of scripture, so we would do well to obey it and will find a blessing as a result
- Submitting doesn’t mean we will always (or often) agree, but it does mean supporting them by our words and attitude as far as is biblically possible
- Our leaders will make mistakes, we should get used to it. Sometimes they will recognise these mistakes (publically or privately), sometimes they will not. This verse is not conditional on our leaders admitting their mistakes.
- Complaining and moaning to others does not resolve anything (it only hardens our heart), be courageous enough to gently address unbiblical actions or attitudes face to face, or cover over with love and be silent.
- If we think the best, hope for the best and act for the best we will make their lives a lot easier and our own minds a lot more contented
- Other passages make it clear leaders do not have unquestioned authority, be clear what areas really constitute disqualification from leadership and which don’t (see 1 Timothy chapter 1 & 6, 2 Timothy 2 & 3).
- In a world where leadership is constantly in the spotlight (and everyone is an expert) be gentle with your leaders, always keeping your own failings and faults at the front of your mind. They will one day have to give an account for their oversight.
- Forgiveness, forgetfulness and prayer for their blessing will defeat a critical and bitter spirit that is rising up in our hearts from past hurts.
Father, help us to appreciate those who give of their time, effort and gifts to lead us, often without thanks for all their sacrifices. May we be easy to lead amongst the flock, being both biblically discerning and relentlessly supportive as we all follow you. Help them as they keep watch over us to know your presence and wisdom in their lives. Amen
Recently I have started reading the bible in what I would call the Countdown style. 2 from the back, 1 from the front and 1 from the middle – ie 2 chapters from the Old Testament, 1 from the New and 1 psalm. It has brought up some interesting insight as I mediate on such a broad sweep of redemptive history.
This morning I read Genesis 21 & 22, Matthew 11 and Psalm 11 and found an interesting parallel. In Genesis Abraham’s love for his son is tested, in Matthew John the Baptist’s quest for the Messiah is answered, and in the Psalm David’s refusal to flee from his enemies is declared.
It struck me that each of these passages shows us an important but different aspect of obedience. Obedience in the bible is always in the context of relationship with the Creator. As our maker and father he instructs us in the best way for us to walk, he guides us towards the best pasture to feed on. The question is, will we follow?
Abraham’s obedience overcomes paternalistic love; John’s obedience overcomes nationalistic apathy; David’s obedience overcomes hostile attack. In each the test is different but similar. Do you love me more than your greatest love? Will you follow me if you are the only one? Are you prepared to trust in my protection?
Sometimes we are tempted to think of obedience as this impossible standard of perfection that encompasses everything we think, say or do…and that would be correct. On this level our every action is marred by our tainted motives. Much of this is innate and only slowly and painstakingly redeemed.
However there is another aspect of obedience which is the deliberate choices we make to either follow or reject God’s leading in our lives. This is conscious, deliberate, stumbling toward God in faith moment by moment. We will never defeat our every sinful motive (who can know all their hidden faults?), but we are expected to choose the path of obedience over family love, fear of enemies and paralysing apathy.
In this place if we are only willing to give God 95% of our hearts, then this is not obedience. Full and unreserved surrender is the currency of heaven. Yes we stumble in times of weakness, yes we have a backlog of bad tendencies to work through, but in the moment by moment relationship we are holding nothing back. This is the outworking of Jesus’ call to remain in him and bear much fruit.
Father, help us to submit our lives to your care, enable us to overcome our hesitation and fall forever into the ocean of your unconditional love. Amen
If you work for a large corporate company you will have probably started work with an induction session on your first day. You sit there getting told lots of things that you will forget a few hours later. Where the company is headquartered, who the CEO is, how the company grew to its current size…lots of great information but much of it of little use to your daily work. You sit there as a group of strangers wondering who among you will be still here in 5 years, who will leave first, and who will be promoted.
For many of us our first day marks the start of our sink or swim aquathon – our daily challenge to keep our head above water while we swim against the tide of work. Some of us find that swim easier than we expected as we discover that work can be interesting and fulfilling. For many of us however the current of repetitive mundane work threatens to emotionally drown us.
At what feels like annual intervals the busyness of work pauses momentarily and we ask ourselves some deep probing questions: is there a deeper purpose to my work? Am I a meaningless cog in a giant monolithic machine? Should I quit my city job in order to do something more meaningful?
If you have found yourself asking these deeper questions about life, the universe and the mysteries of excel macros then we would love you to join us as we unpack God’s big picture for our workplace. The Thrive Conference is designed to help you explore these issues through a reinvigorating training session containing great teaching, personal reflection and the encouragement of fellow swimmers. We look forward to having you join the Thrive swim lane!
For more details head to your favourite platform:
Linkedin: The Business Connection Aberdeen
If you are anything like me you will have started work with an induction session on your first day. You sit there getting told lots of things that you will forget a few hours later. Where the company is headquartered, who the CEO is, what the values are, lots of great information but much of it of little use to your daily work.
For Christians entering the workplace there is likely to be no Christian version of such an induction into the world of work. We are expected to jump in and swim, pick it up as we go, and enjoy the benefits of earning some money…at last. If we were to have an induction for every Christian starting their first day in the workplace, what would we say? How would we counsel them? We know God wants us to be good employees, but what does that look like practically?
I have been in the workplace for 15 years, and realise looking back that I was unprepared for the long hard slog that makes up the majority of my time in the workplace. In my new job no one was interested in my beliefs, my clever apologetic arguments or my lively church filled with young people. Well, almost no one, it certainly felt like that in the early days. Thankfully back then there was a ministry that organised lunchtime Business Alpha courses that was run by business people for business people. A number of my friends came along to this over the years, opening the way to a number of conversations about faith. So that is why I was there, to befriend people and help them see a relatively “normal” Christian in the world of Apprentice-like consultants?
If I could put on this induction for every Christian entering the workplace I wouldn’t start where I started. I would start with God. Strange as it may seem God invented work, and this was before mankind messed everything up. Work is not a result of the curse. Read Genesis and you will see that God made work a harder ministry after the fall, but the origins of why we work are wrapped up in the creative acts of God. We work because God works…that would be the first point.
The second is a natural follow on; work is good. Sure, there are jobs that harm people, destroy society or the environment, but on the whole work is a great benefit. We have warm houses, fast cars and healthy children largely because someone somewhere invented something and lots of people maintain the fabric of work. For one person in one job it is hard sometimes to see the big picture, but pull out enough of these jobs and eventually society grinds to a halt. Who knew we would have a milk-and-margarine malaise after three days of snow. Did we not appreciate lorry drivers that little bit more afterwards?
My third point on my induction (probably after a coffee break by this time) would be do your best. Simple as it may sound there are many people at work not doing their best. Over the years complacency, cynicism and apathy grow in many people and they mentally detach from their work. They turn up and do the job, but their heart is not in it. For the Christian this can never be an option. Colossians 3.23 calls us to do our best no matter what our job is or who our boss is. I have discovered that any credibility or respect that you may want as a Christian for the way you work will be totally destroyed if you are not competent. First be excellent, then everything else will flow from that.
My next point would be you are not alone. For many Christians in Scotland they will be the only Christian in their immediate workplace and the isolation can be debilitating. When I started working in my current role I was the only Christian I knew of amongst 400 people. I was wrong to think I was alone. But even if you are alone in your company, there are many fellow Christians facing similar challenges in similar companies. I have learnt that one person can make a difference…who knows, perhaps God’s purpose for your 30-year career was all because God wanted to reach one solitary soul? Would that be enough for you? Which brings me to my final points for the induction session.
Those of us in the business world will probably be familiar with the concept of mind-sets. People you meet have certain beliefs that shape the way they recruit and train staff and sell their products. Sometimes a mind-set reset is required due to vague or misguided thinking. We face a similar challenge today. For reasons folded within history Christians in the workplace sometimes feel that the primary value of their work is to evangelise the lost. I certainly started from this perspective. If I was having good conversations I was fulfilling my purpose, if I wasn’t I was treading water. It seems that we need to regain our understanding of how our work contributes to God’s kingdom work. While gospel witness is the most vital task the church faces, our daily work fulfils a much more subtle, broader role in the growth of Christ’s kingdom.
Playing our part in God’s Common Grace to society is a great thing. Using our gifts and abilities to help, protect and nurture others is a beautiful outworking of God’s provision to his creation. I would use my last 10 minutes to remind them that Joseph and Daniel are as much a worthy example to follow as Paul and Peter. Will they become the role models so desperately needed of Christians who have moved beyond the sacred / secular divide to work out what it means to seek for whole life discipleship in their job, family, church and community?
I would close with saying “Go out there and do you best, seek to enjoy what you do, do it with all your heart and see what God will do with years of faithful service. Some of it will be dull, mundane, repetitive and exhausting, but that too is part of the discipline of bringing every act under submission to Christ. Some of you will be led to take what you have learned into full time paid Christian ministry. For those that don’t, remember that work is no second best, if it is God’s plan for you. All of life is ministry, if done with the ultimate aim of bringing glory to God.”
If you never had an induction like that, a group of us are working on bringing a conference to Aberdeen in March 2019 providing an inspiring time of teaching and ministry to explore some of these areas further. We would love you to be a part of it. The event comes out of the passion of four Christian businessmen in Aberdeen who believe God is moving across the workplaces of our city. We have joined with a number of partners to put on an event that we believe will be challenging and stimulating and may well just be the best induction you never had!
The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the story of a young genius mathematician from India who can see formulae for incredibly complex theories as if they are simply colours in the rainbow. He explains (spoiler alert!) that these equations are given to him by the goddess he worships. Is it possible that the gods and goddess communicate with their followers? And if so can they help them find eternal peace?
This is the question that Augustine is wrestling with in Book 9 of the City of God. Perhaps a question unfamiliar territory for modern day Western minds, but maybe not so for Eastern religions. The issue Augustine is addressing is the problem of our separation from God. He is seeking to understand how a being who is infinite and spirit, can be known by those who are finite and physical.
In the ancient world (and still today in some parts of the world) this problem was attempted to be solved through the mediation of gods on behalf of people to the supreme being and vice versa. But does this solution withstand closer scrutiny? Augustine takes what their own philosophers have said about these beings and challenges the logic to see if there is any real possibility that they can help humans bridge the divine divide.
He starts by asking, are there good and bad gods? Followers of Plato saw all gods as good. So, how then to explain the things they do that we disapprove of? The bad ones some call demons, those who do evil activities and have degraded passions. These philosophers believed that gods have no contact with man, so gods are established midway, to carry men’s requests and bring back the benefits the gods have granted.
In order to more accurately define what we are talking about Augustine uses the definition of Apuleius, saying that these beings (described as demons throughout the chapter) are “animals in respect of species; in respect of soul, liable to passions; in mind, capable of reason; in body, composed of air; in life-span, eternal“. Some of these characteristics these creatures share with humans, some with the supreme being.
Humankind is described as having “a lowly abode, mortality & misery“, while gods are described by “the sublimity of their abode, the eternity of their life, the perfection of their nature“. Thus we can see three key elements that distinguish people, demons and God: i) their mortality, ii) their location and iii) their nature. People are temporal, earthly and unhappy, demons are eternal, ethereal and miserable, while God is eternal, spirit and forever blessed.
Augustine says these demons are worse than men, “older in wickedness and incapable of being reformed by the punishment they deserve” and so they are tossed about on “the raging sea of their minds“. He says that “only truth and virtue can offer a centre of resistance against the turbulent and degraded passions” if we are not to be carried along with them on the path to destruction.
To all this Augustine poses the question, can such beings that share our misery help us acquire the eternal blessedness of God? Can they aid us to achieve that which they are unable of accomplishing themselves? No, says Augustine, we need a mediator that has the opposite characteristics to demons, something, or someone who is mortal, earthy and perfectly blessed:
“all men, as long as they are mortals, must needs be also wretched. If this is so, we must look for a mediator who is not only human but also divine, so that men may be brought from mortal misery to blessed immortality by the intervention of the blessed mortality of this mediator. It was necessary that he should not fail to become mortal, equally necessary that he should not remain mortal“.
In order to bridge the gap between two worlds a mediator must share common ground with each side of the divide. In theory it may seem that demons could do this as “they are immortals, like the gods, and wretched, like men“. However, their desires are corrupted and even if they could help humankind reach the divine, they would not want to unite people with their sworn enemy. In fact they would do everything in their power to separate them from their eternal home.
In Augustine’s time they did this through creating a counterfeit religion which attempted to divert people from worshiping the true God. In our day they do it through covert means of maintaining the illusion that the only reality is the visible realm. Hiding behind the curtain they use their power to filter out the ripples of real supernatural activity, and hide their true nature from prying eyes.
These days we would never ask the same questions Augustine does of these beings. The average Westerner would claim they couldn’t care less about whether such demons exist, they are the thing of reality TV shows in haunted houses, and gory Hollywood horror movies. Our fascination is less about salvation and more about sensation – helping us escape from the real world for a few hours in our imagination.
We would do well to reconsider our limited view of the supernatural if we would avoid the twin errors of a counterfeit religion and a covert deception. We must find our refuge in the one true mediator who truly has our best interests at heart and has once and for all bridged the chasm between the divine and the debased. God the Son fulfilled the criteria perfectly by demonstrating that “the mediator between God and man should have a transient mortality, and a permanent blessedness“. And he invited each of us into that blessedness through his atoning death on the cross.
Lord Jesus, help us to rest fully on your mediating work, the one and only rescue to bring us safely to our eternal home. Thank you for taking on our frail humanity and weak nature to join us with you for all eternity. Amen
In Psalm 86 David is crying out to his God for help. He is facing enemies who seek to destroy him and have no love or fear for God. David reasons that since he does love God he will cry out to him for help.
The psalm is a beautiful example of the struggles of the faithful heart in the midst of turbulent waters. One the one hand praising and worshiping a God who is unchangingly merciful and relentlessly compassionate, while on the other experiencing the day by day pressure of being pursued by those seeking our harm. One the one hand surrounded by peace & rest, on the other contempt & hatred. For anyone who has known opposition in their life this psalm is an oasis of hope in a inhospitably desert.
Right in the middle of meditating on this psalm I was struck by one phrase in verse 16. I had been reading the psalm for many days but never read this phrase as I read it now. David is crying out to God to remember his life of service to him and using this as a reason for God to save him. Then there comes this throw away phrase that struck my profoundly – just as my mother did.
David is here remembering how his mother served God, how she loved her children and her husband Jesse through her service. In his moment of heartache David’s mind goes back to his mother. Remember her Lord? Remember how she served you, as I now serve you? Remember that from generation to generation we are a faithful family? Would you intervene to rescue those that are seeking with their whole heart to follow your ways?
One of the things that hits me about this text is how it deepens the intimacy of the final plea to God. In the final few verses David cries out for God’s visible manifestation of his strength (v16). He asks God to be God in his circumstances because David is his servant, who serves him and seeks to glorify him in each moment of his life (v12). He thinks of the most visible expression of that servant attitude in his life and his mind instinctively goes to his mother, rather than his father. Then he immediately thinks of his enemies and their absolute absence of a humble servant heart. This extreme contrast compels him to cry out to God for the invisible pleasure of God upon his people to be made known to shame his opponents into submission.
David’s mother is not named in the bible, but according to the Talmud it was Nitzevet. We know very little about her, but she must have been some woman. Not only did she exemplify a life of service to God, but she raised seven boys. Sometimes in parenting our enthusiasm is overcome by apathy as more and more children arrive. The youngest one can sometimes be the most ignored and left to get on with things themselves. It is to her credit that her witness did not wane with age, but rather deepened and sweetened.
Until this little phrase hit me this week I had not appreciated how much of an influence David’s mother would have had on his ministry, leadership and reign. The example of this godly woman helped shape the man who “shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skilful hands he led them” (Psalm 78v72). What an impact her life made, what a difference had she not been the faithful servant in her private home as a mother, wife and friend. She was a visible sign of God’s goodness to David which lasted his entire life and impacted the entire Israelite nation. Thank God for faithful, godly, servant hearted mothers!
On the 25th May 2018 a new law hit the UK that changed how organisations held people’s private date such as their name, address, email etc. It was called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and sought to ensure that there is greater transparency over what information is held about us online and in databases.
In preparing for this day I got a load of emails from organisations asking me to verify that they could keep sending me their marketing materials. Hopefully this new regulation will mean fewer spam emails and phone calls over the coming years as there is a greater penalty for misuse of personal information.
All this focus on personal data made me think about three important lessons for learning more about how the gospel impacts our daily lives in this area:
We are more than our data
In this day of social media and everything being online, it is sometimes easy to forget that even through you may know all about someone from their Twitter or Facebook feed, you don’t really know that person until you meet them and spend time with them. All of us whether we realise it or not present only a certain side of our personality online, the real us is much too complex, contradictory and cautious to bare all online.
We are so much more than the bare statistics of our life, what our name is, where we live, who we are married to, our waist size, our iQ, our job title. All of this data is a representation of the person behind it, and can be copied by others to try and steal our identity, but the real you stands distinct and separate from all the numbers and characters.
Our data is not our own
GDPR says to us that we control the data about ourselves, and can have it removed and deleted if we so wish from any UK organisation that holds information about us. While it is theoretically possible to remove every digital copy of our data there is an infallible and never-ending record of not only ever online transaction, but everything we have said, done and thought being recorded right now.
This is the story of our life as recorded by an infinite, all-knowing God who is the one who really does own all of the information about you and me – the God who created time, the universe and human history. All of life is logged away in his memory banks, a perfect record of our lives, for better or for worse.
He owns this data and no amount of hitting “unsubscribe” will remove it from this database. It is permanently etched onto his memory for all time by every person who is alive now and has ever lived. God knows us inside and out, and has it all on file!
Your data will destroy you
As this data repository grows throughout our lives it shows us for who we really are, not the photoshopped version of ourselves, but the real you. All of us fail at some point or another, all of us leave traces behind us of weakness or corruption. We seek to move on and forget the bad stuff and hope that no one ever pulls up that file or views that video, but it is there like a silent depth charge waiting to explode at the first contact.
None of us can claim to have a totally pure hard-drive. Our personal data is private but not hidden. On the final day everything will be laid bare and the private will become public, and the hidden things revealed. Unless we act now, it will then be clear that the viruses were not the only reason our files were corrupted.
Data cleansing is for real
The good news is that the record can really be swept clean. Although in this life every online action leaves a trace, by the power of the one who made us he is able to destroy our records once and for all – through the cleansing that comes from the death of his Son.
Then we will find that there is really only one piece of information that is really important and we are happy for the entire world to know – whether we are his disciple or not. It will be this piece of data that will split mankind right down the middle, and it will be this tiny piece of data that restores and refreshes our systems totally and completely one day.
So feel free to unsubscribe from following this blog at any point, and let me know if you want your email address deleted, but just make sure you don’t opt out of GDPR – gospel driven personal renewal!
As I write this the UK is reeling from the use of chemical weapons on its home soil. It was a deadly attack and left two people in a critical condition and injured a third. We are rightly appalled at the blatant disregard for public safety and national sovereignty. It makes us thankful for our scientists who seek to ensure that should something like this happen we have the right antidotes to treat people who have been exposed.
As I have studied Book 8 of Augustine’s City of God this week I have been struck by its profound relevance for our contemporary situation. We are deep into the study now, and Book 8 is a masterpiece in unravelling the deepest desires of the human heart. As I have studied Augustine’s reasoning, it has forced me to wonder whether our modern UK society has been exposed to some sort of spiritually engineered soporific.
Could it be that our spiritual senses have been numbed into a Candy Crush-induced coma? Could our emoji expressions and 140 character limit be trivialising our soul? Like bodies that are weakened by an endless diet of donuts and Danish pastries, we have been feeding our souls on what is neither nourishing nor natural.
If Augustine was alive today I believe he would stand at the highest point of our nation and sound a clarion call for us to reclaim our souls. In this section of the City of God he explores what is the true food for our souls, he calls to us to feed on the right substance, for our souls were not made to consume, but to admire, to aspire, to adore. But what should we adore? Nothing that is of less worth than our soul, he says, for “the homage due from the soul cannot be due to something which is inferior to the soul”.
Throughout this section Augustine is seeking to find the true purpose and calling of our soul worship. To what do the wisest men of his time say we should direct our soul? If we ask people today, many may say that our greatest good is to be happy and to be true to yourself. But is this the right approach? Are we ourselves more worthy of the praise and adoration we give ourselves than anything else in the universe?
To answer these questions Augustine plunges into the philosophy of theology – the study of the divinity. Augustine wants to understand what we can learn from those thinkers who share a belief in a supernatural being. He works his way through the history of philosophers, until he reaches Socrates and Plato. They strived to answer this question by seeking to find the highest good, for when we know what that is, it is only right that we should adore only that which is worthy of adoration. Like a compass pointing to north, our souls will naturally turn towards it.
Socrates was the “first to turn the whole of philosophy towards the improvement and regulation of morality” as his predecessors had focussed on the study the natural sciences. Moreover, Socrates “saw that man had been trying to discover the causes of the universe”. He believed it had its “first and supreme cause in nothing but the will of the one supreme God, hence he thought that the causation of the universe could be grasped only by a purified intelligence”.
“He thought it essential to insist on the need to cleanse one’s life by accepting a high moral standard” in order to “behold, thanks to its pure intelligence, the essence of immaterial and unchangeable light where dwell the causes of all created things in undisturbed stability”. If only we could rid ourselves of our corrupted thinking and deeds, reasoned Socrates, we could as a clean mirror more clearly perceive the mind of God. A noble aim no doubt, but is it possible? Can we lift ourselves up to this spiritual level?
If Socrates was clear on the process he thought would work, he was less clear on what we would discover behind the veil. He sought to understand and identify the Summum Bonum – the Highest or Final Good. “Everything else we desire for the sake of this, this we desire for itself alone” as it alone conveys blessedness. But his approach of refuting various hypotheses and countering every argument left his followers with different opinions on what this Final Good was – was it pleasure or virtue or something else?
Where Socrates brought questions, Plato brought structure. Up until Plato philosophy had been conducted along two lines, one concerned with action, the other with pure thought. Or in other words, practical and speculative philosophy, the former dealing with the conduct of life and establishment of moral standards, the latter concerned with the theory of causation and nature of absolute truth. Plato “brought philosophy to perfection by joining together these two strands”. He then divided philosophy into three parts:
- Moral, relating to action (i.e. ethics…the Summum Bonum);
- Natural, devoted to speculation; and
- Rational (logic) which distinguishes truth from falsehood
Augustine summarises these three elements as relating to questions about:
- “the blessedness of life” – ie how do I live a good life?
- “the origin of existence” – ie why am I here?
- “the truth of doctrine” – ie what is truth?
When the Christian views these three categories we get a deeper appreciation for how our divine creator fulfils and satisfies each question in turn. As Augustine says, the Christian finds in God “the rule of life (moral), the cause of existence (natural) and the principle of reason (rational)”. He then goes on to say that if we have been created to attain to the knowledge of God then “we should seek him in whom for us all things are held together, we should find him in whom for us all things are certain, we should love him, in whom is found all goodness.”
Is this not the true north of our souls? Finding the greatest source and fountain of goodness, the reason for our existence and the source of all truth can only lead to adoration, thankfulness and worship. Only by centring our souls on this spring of life can we avoid the temptation for self-love and discover the satisfaction of all our souls could ever desire.