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Failing by Faith

The concluding article in the Psalm 119 series …

It took me 8 attempts to get my driver’s license.  My Learner permit expired many times, and I had to go back and re-do the test. I failed once because I just didn’t bother reading the handbook and thought it would be a simple multiple choice. I failed the practical driving test at least twice (that I can remember) – both times I committed “immediate fail” violations. I ran the Stop sign outside the RTA car park and on another I sped through a School Zone – Each time the instructor told me even if I hadn’t committed the violations, my score was too low to have passed anyway. The end result: I was over 30 years old and did not have a full drivers license. I was a failure.

Most of my high school peers had their Learners in Year 12 and many had their Provisional license by the end of the year. I never even bothered taking my Learners exam until my second year of tertiary. I was heading to Sydney to live and couldn’t afford a car anyway so it wasn’t important to me… until I met a young lady to whom I later became engaged, who coincidently had a full license AND her own car! But even that didn’t motivate me. I drove away from our wedding reception in a car covered in cream, confetti, streamers and “L” plates. FAIL!

After considerable trial and much error, I managed to pass all the requisite exams and tests and was provided a driver’s license. Clearly this experience does not illustrate the  success of victorious Christian living. Does it? After all, if I had prayed before doing the tests, I would have passed. Wouldn’t I? God certainly wouldn’t want a junior pastor traveling around Sydney without his own car or a driver’s license. Would he? If your measurement or definition of spirituality or holiness involves, achievement, success and possessions than I was the most vile of all sinners. For that matter, so were several other prominent characters of scripture and history.

The Apostle Paul struggled with sin, was beaten up and lost at sea and then died in prison. John the Baptist, lost all of his disciples, was thrown into gaol and Jesus didn’t help him, then he was killed. Jesus, didn’t own a house, didn’t have an income during his ministry and had every single disciple forsake him before his crucifixion.

A Christian is not dependent on trial and error. Receiving God’s forgiveness is not subject to determination of an assessor who awards my merit or penalises my violations. Salvation in Christ is completely apart from my own efforts and abilities. We become presumptuous about our abilities, achievements, material success, wealth, possessions and health that as soon as any of these are threatened or shown to be uncertain, our theology crumbles. We reason that loss of these things must be God’s punishment. This is precisely how Job’s friends saw his predicament. They didn’t realise that God was proving the extent of his grace through the temporary suffering of his servant. They missed the chance to bless him and lift him up. Instead of seeing Job’s loss as an opportunity for them to be generous they saw it as an occasion to boast, attack and criticise.

Job friends, and many like them, don’t fully appreciate that Salvation now, is from the guilt of sin. Salvation later, is from the final penalty, power and presence of sin. Until then – expect to fall flat on your face to glory of God! This is what the Psalmist is concluding in his tome on the Word of God. Without the continual grace of God at work in my life, by the ministry of the Holy Spirit through the scriptures, I will always fail. Everything I do, that is good, comes from God not me. Everything I have, that is good, comes from God not my abilities or effort, and God is good, all the time!

I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands. Psalm 119:176 (NIV)

 
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Posted by on 23/12/2009 in worship

 

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As Giddy as

Continuing my series of articles from Psalm 119

We all have heroes. People that inspire us. Individuals, who, through performance or personality capture our attention, enthrall, entertain, and enthuse us. In an age when celebrity is more about an ability to generate commercial gain for corporate sponsors than achievement or contribution to society, heroes are usually actors, comedians or stage performers of some kind or another. In Australia, sport is the national religion, so sporting prowess is regarded more highly than statesmanship, more valuable than scientific discovery, and more respected than sacrificial service of the armed services, police, ambulance and fire fighters. That, as a nation, we vest disproportionate honour in boys and girls who make a fortune chasing a ball around on a piece of grass is evident in the public shame, horror and disgust felt towards several rugby league players that fell from grace in the last year due to a combination of charges and allegations of violence, drug use and public misbehavior. More recently the news of Tiger Woods’ infidelity has caused many to cry in angst and disappointment as another hero is revealed to be a less than perfect role model.

As a teenage boy growing up in Queensland I was no less enraptured in this mindset. In year 11 when Wally Lewis came to my High School to promote Rugby League he gave a talk about the sport during lunch time to an assembly hall full to the brim of teenage boys, me included, giggling like giddy school girls about getting the chance to see one of our heroes in the flesh. A couple of years later, whilst in Sydney one night serving in a City outreach street mission I saw Wally near the George Street cinemas and got to shake his hand. I was still the giddy school boy :)

My dad was a Labor man. He actually “whooped” when Bob Hawke became Prime Minister in 1983. So when I was working in an executive Security job in 1993 and noticed a “Mr Robert Hawke” on the list of guests to visit the CEO one day I was a little curious. Then, in walked former Prime Minister Bob Hawke. I was so excited I rang my wife and tried to whisper down the phone that I had just met Bob Hawke (hoping he wouldn’t hear me, because he was sitting about 2 or 3 meters away in the reception lounge). I was, once again, unwittingly overcome by the giddiness and excitement of celebrity fever.

In 1996, while in the city to see a movie one afternoon, my wife and I accidently got involved as spectators to the Grand Opening of the Planet Hollywood Restaurant (now called The Star Bar). We stood against the barriers of the red carpet for endless hours cheering madly while the likes of Bruce Willis, Jackie Chan, Jean-Claude van Damme, Charlie Sheen, Danny Glover, Bill Paxton, Sylvester Stallone and a swag of Australian TV personalities swaggered  down the aisle.

How is it that we get so easily caught up in the excitement of just seeing people who have little to do with our daily lives and have next to no regard for us personally – aside from the income we generate for them by purchasing their books, movies, DVD’s and CD’s or attending their concerts (where they don’t even pay us the respect of singing live!)? It is not wrong to revere our heroes if they, through their influence, teaching or example lead us to grow and develop the gifts we have for the glory of God and extension of the gospel. But when we literally quake to the point of having our knees knock together and our stomach do weird nausea causing gyrations, we reveal our regard and respect for scripture, God’s very Word, is less than what we have for complete strangers – who do little more than prance on a stage or chase balls around on the grass. We need to repent and tremble before Him who is able to cast our body and soul into hell. His opinion counts!

Rulers persecute me without cause, but my heart trembles at your word. Psalm 119:161 (NIV)

 
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Posted by on 16/12/2009 in worship

 

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Totally Wicked!

Continuing my series of articles from Psalm 119

Recently a few American blog sites had some chatter about a fascination with the Australian use of the word “tragic”. e.g. “I’m a cricket tragic” means the speaker is someone who has an excessive interest in cricket. Apparently, that use of the word is not found outside Australia. Grammaticians, Etymologists, Linguistic purists and the like refer to this as some sort of reverse semantic shift. One of the most well known, more recent examples of this is how the word, “wicked” is used by English speakers. e.g. In the closing scene of the animated feature, The Incredibles, when the antagonist is defeated in an huge explosion, a boy on a tricycle exclaims:

Oh man… That was totally wicked!

meaning that the event was amazing, impressive, astounding and entertaining all at once.

Another popular, highly entertaining and clever use of this linguistic ambiguity is the stage play “Wicked”. Here the term is descriptive of the “Wicked Witch of the West” character of Frank Baum’s “Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. “Wicked” is a recounting of the life of the “Wicked Witch” after her death at the hands of Dorothy – a story that many are familiar with, most likely through Mervyn LeRoy’s 1939 Film Musical starring Judy Garland. Without spoiling the plot, “Wicked” explores the question, raised in the opening number, of:

“Are people born Wicked? Or do they have Wickedness thrust upon them?”

The clear message is, she was misunderstood, maligned and wrongly persecuted by the authoritarian establishment. (There’s actually a strong sub text of objective presuppositional morality in the play, contrary to popular post-modern relativism, worth discussing in another article.)

In any case, the use of the term “wicked” does not align with how the Bible employs it nor with the fate of those who are, in the eyes of God, considered “wicked”. Mostly, it is used in contrast to “righteousness”. The difference between the wicked and the righteous is not a social or cultural determination of acceptable conduct, rather, the wicked are those committed to contradiction of the laws, character and person of God. (Psalm 5) Such a commitment is not irreversible; it can be changed, via repentance and faith. (2nd Chronicles 6:37; Psalm 106:6; Daniel 9:5).

The Bible’s response to the stage play question is; not that which is unpopular; or not nice or otherwise deemed by majority opinion to be bad; rather, “wicked” is choosing anything other than God’s righteousness as a means of justification, redemption, forgiveness, restoration, establishment of identity, satisfaction and authenticity. Why? Because anything other than the perfect goodness and life found in God’s person will inevitably disappoint.

Hosea 10:13 But you have planted wickedness, you have reaped evil, you have eaten the fruit of deception. Because you have depended on your own strength and on your many warriors. (NIV)

The remedy for “wickedness” is not, “Stop being wicked”, instead, forsake your imperfect, incomplete, inadequate wisdom and cling to God’s grace and mercy.

Isaiah 55:7 Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. (NIV)

Thus the proclamation of the psalmist is not just God’s sovereign determination, but a statement of resultant condition of all who reject the Lord: “Salvation is far from the wicked, for they do not seek out your decrees.” Psalm 119:155 (NIV)

 
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Posted by on 09/12/2009 in worship

 

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What a Bargain

This is the next in a series of articles from Psalm 119

Haggling for a better price if you pay cash, or even if you don’t, is one of the more enjoyable aspects of purchasing. In Australia a token gesture to haggling is given by a couple of well known retailers. “Everything is negotiable” or “pay cash and we’ll slash the price” are enticing catch phrases that have helped reap considerable profit for the retailers. Though you might get a lower price, you can be certain that neither retailer is jeopardizing their margins by giving you a hard deal. The same applies in poorer economies. Fox News Travel Advice tells us that it is a “sin” if you “haggle until a chosen trader turns to tears”. However, you can sleep well knowing that this is merely a technique to stop you further eroding their margin. Living in Kenya, we learnt that there are usually multiple price brackets for different customer types:

  • The tourist price: if you pay the ticket, you are probably giving the vendor anywhere from 500-1000% profit.
  • The tourist discount: around half the ticket, although if persistent you might get it a little lower, watch for the tears :) that’s an indication that you’ve hit the mark.
  • The local price: much lower than what a tourist will pay, still provides the vendor with a profitable gain on their merchandise.

    NB: I don’t begrudge them their ingenuity! It’s not like I couldn’t afford the “full” tourist version – it’s fun to haggle anyway :)

After being Africa for more than 6 months, speaking the language and being known to the retailers, I know I never paid less than a low tourist discount for anything I bought. The only way I could get a lower price was to stay completely out sight and send in a friend to make the purchase for me, but even then, it was customary to pay a commission to my purchaser :)

We had a similar experience in the Chinese community where we live at the moment. When getting prices for removalists, we were hit pretty hard with what the typical commercial carriers were going to charge. Two of the Deacon’s at our new Church, suggested that they contact some movers listed in the local Chinese newspapers. They were charging less than a quarter of the cheaper commercial movers – BUT not for Aussies, only for fellow Chinese residents! (Their words, not mine!) So, we stayed out of sight while a deal with a mover was negotiated via SMS. The movers were quite shocked to see me at the house when they arrived, however soon softened and relaxed when they found out I was the new pastor at a Chinese Church, and agreed to give me the Chinese rates.

When you are not a resident of God’s community of grace, and sometimes even though you are, you probably have found yourself trying to bargain and haggle with God in prayer.

“If you do this for me God, I will _____ (go to Church, give more money, say something nice to the Pastor after his really long sermon etc)”.

Alternately, we try to sacrifice ourselves up front and then expect God to act in obligation to our exorbitant generosity. We pray something like,

Now God I fast twice a week and give 10% of everything I earn … therefore you need to do this for me”.

As though God is in any way indebted to us by our proud, arrogant, infantile, wicked, miniscule attempts to affront his holiness and majesty. Then, when God doesn’t come through with the “goods”, we react as though to punish Him – we abandon our faith, we stop attending Church, stop praying, stop reading our Bible, start attacking and criticising Christians or we plummet into a deep and sometimes unrecoverable spiritual depression. As Christopher Ash points out in ‘Bible Delight’ (p176-8) we don’t focus on the promises God has declared in scripture, instead, we claim to rest in things that God has never said or promised – but rely on sanitised or pious reflections of our own desires. We persuade ourselves that God has promised a job (or a better paid one) or a marriage or a child (or a better behaved one). When it doesn’t happen, we think God has let us down and failed to keep his side of our bargain. Our prayer must be shaped by scripture. We pray, (because we get to, not because we have to, or because it will in-debit God to us), with a longing to experience his grace and, as a result of that grace, be transformed into his likeness with a new desire to please and honour him for his own sake.

I call out to you; save me and I will keep your statutes. Psalm 119:146 (NIV)

 
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Posted by on 02/12/2009 in worship

 

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Justice or Mercy

(Continuing a series on Psalm 119)

Some of the most personally painful experiences we had whilst serving in Kenya involved the theft of our personal belongings. After our arrival we were feeling isolated. Riamarabu, the village where we were living, is about 10 km from the closest post office in the township of Ogembo. The nearest public transport to the village involved, in the dry season, walking 3 km (we didn’t have our own vehicle). In the wet, we had to walk 10 km out to catch transport into Kisii Town which was a another 20 km away. This made getting mail quite an involved task. (We had PO Boxes in both Ogembo and in Kisii). A local recommended we hire one of the boys to run into Ogembo each day and check the mail. All it cost was the price of a soda (about 30c Australian). It took him less than 2 hours return trip cross country – rather than the 6 it would take us fat westerners :) However, we thought it odd, after being there almost 6 weeks, we had not received anything from home. Then one afternoon a local pastor discovered the mail-runner had been stealing the mail believing it would contain money or valuables. Each time he collected our mail, he would open it, check the contents then destroy it. The next week, we received a letter from Rachel’s Mum, which she had numbered #6! The first 5 were lost forever. We felt violated and betrayed about this abuse of trust. We wanted justice! The chief was called to administer a penalty. He whipped him with a stick and forbade him from entering our compound. Did we get justice though? It didn’t feel like it. There was no way to fairly compensate our loss of personal letters from family and loved ones. Our desire for restitution went unrequited.

In another incident, while returning from a difficult and dangerous trip to Tanzania, we stayed overnight with a family just north of the Kenya/Tanzania border. Transport complications and a cholera outbreak had made us quite tired. The wife offered to wash all our clothes before we continued the 2 day trip home. We bathed, changed into our only clean clothes and handed over everything else. The clothes were washed and hung to dry, by the time we left the next morning. But by morning, everything was gone: All my trousers, shirts, my wife’s dresses, our underwear and socks. Two hours later a village Elder dragged a boy into the compound shouting at him. The boy had taken the clothes during the night and sold them. Despite the Elder’s protesting and berating and others attempts to track down the clothes, all was lost. No restitution, no recovery, and, as far as our experience was concerned, no justice.

More recently, back in Australia, I overstayed my time in a car parking spot and was fined. Now, rather than craving justice, I was keen for mercy. I wasn’t being malicious or violent, so why should I be penalised? We demand justice when wronged, but cry for mercy when we receive a due penalty. A sense of justice, fairness and right-ness comes from the law of God written on our conscience. The law, due to our impotence and inability, drives us to seek a functional saviour that will excuse our conscience, relieve our guilt and grant us a reprieve. We achieve incomplete justice and experience insufficient and inconsistent measures of mercy. Affliction gives an imperfect glimpse of the absence and inadequacy of our justice and right-ness. In Jesus we find mercy in the only saviour that meets us in our desperation and freely dispenses forgiveness and justice through his death on our behalf. In Jesus, God was both just, in punishing sin, and merciful, to those who have faith in Jesus. God made Jesus who had no sin, to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. In Jesus we have justice AND mercy. We delight in God’s law and his commands, because they display His character (righteous, true, trustworthy and everlasting) and drive us to find perfect justice and a full measure of mercy in Jesus alone.

Trouble and distress have come upon me, but your commands are my delight. Psalm 119:143 NIV

 
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Posted by on 25/11/2009 in worship

 

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Following Directions

Back to Psalm 119.

Since moving into a part of Sydney I had never lived in previously I have gotten considerable use out of a GPS Navigator in our car. Prior to purchasing the GPS device, I was out one evening visiting a new family that had started attending our Church and got lost. What should have been a 15-20 minute trip turned into a very stressful 70-80 minutes. Getting home was no less an adventure, and took about 50 minutes. The following pay period we invested in a GPS device and travel has been considerably easier.

As I have become more familiar with the area, I rely on the GPS less often. This doesn’t lessen it’s value, as I still use it to map out the location of variance in speed limits, safety camera locations and School Zones. When traveling home from the office of an evening I have a choice of about 4 or 5 routes that I take depending on the time and traffic conditions. However, the GPS is insistent on taking the same single route each time regardless. I usually ignore it, and after a few commands to “turn a-round” it recalculates the route from my new position. Occasionally, when I go somewhere new, and I know how to get to the area but not the specific address I will leave the GPS off until the very last minute in the hope that I haven’t gone too far in the wrong direction. After all, men don’t like asking or taking directions, even from machines :)

The tendency to not follow directions is something that is prevalent in most of us when it comes to spiritual guidance. Like the owner of a new GPS, a new believer is often keen to read as much of the Bible as often as possible. They find, within the scriptures, a light and a guide that leads them in the way everlasting. They relish the time spent reading, praying, listening to sermons, participating in Bible Studies, small groups and conventions because in each of these they are increasingly exposed to Christ in his Word. They literally hunger for it, exactly as a new baby craves milk. Yet after a while, it is not altogether uncommon, for this enthusiasm to wane. Instead of being a daily source of spiritual nourishment, the Bible is relegated to the “Open in case of emergency” box. Soon afterwards, it is simply not consulted at all, even in times of crisis.

Quoting Harry Blamires, Kent Hughes in his “Disciplines of a Godly Man”, mentions a “religious anorexia, a loss of appetite for growth in Christ” as attributable to Christians dogged refusal to regularly read the Bible.

God calls us in His Word to a massive and positive discipline of the mind. This can only happen through a profound exposure to and continual immersion in God’s Word, accompanied by the illumination of the Holy Spirit -” (p. 76)

Refusing to read, Hughes adds, is “in effect “editing God” and [you] will never have a fully Christian mind”. (p. 78)

When the Psalmist is seeking guidance and stability, he looks to the scriptures; not to subjective experiences, inclinations, impulses or other dubious phenomena, but to the objective, declaration of Jesus Christ and the will of God found in the Bible. Christians often lament and become angst riddled about making decisions concerning marriage, study, career and ministry. God’s wisdom is readily available to us in the Bible, if only we would pick it up and read it and allow that to influence our thinking instead of anxiously waiting on the advent of a special impulse or blinding vision. Praying and asking God to “direct your steps” whilst making lifestyle decisions is a prayer that he will definitely answer. You won’t know to pray like that if you don’t read the Bible though. Tolle Lege!

Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me. Psalm 119:133 (NIV)

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    Posted by on 17/11/2009 in General

     

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    Sustaining Faith

    Continuing a series on Psalm 119.

    Australians ‘Stop’ each year on the first Tuesday in November at around 3:00pm AEDST to watch the Melbourne Cup horse race. Workers are given time off to gather in front of the television, students, if still in school, pause to do the same. In some parts of the country the entire day is a public holiday. All, so we, in unison, can watch the outcome of this race. I have attended corporate banquets put on in celebration of the race, others will spend a small fortune to don formal wear and play the ‘toff’ for a day at the racetrack. It is in many respects as much a public institution as some of the national religious and public holidays. Throughout workplaces and schools, sweeps are run, where, usually, by way of random allocation, entrants are given a horse for a small fee of maybe $2-$5. If your employer is particularly fortunate with their winnings, it is not unusual to be given the rest of the day off, to celebrate!

    Sadly, or amusingly, if you’re so inclined, the condition of patrons at the race courses throughout the country later in the afternoon, differs considerably from earlier in the morning. What was at 11:00am, a beautifully adorned lady in a formal dress with accompanying hat or fascinator assembly, is at 5:00pm, a disheveled, crumpled, stained, torn, staggering embarrassment frequently accompanied by an equally uncouth, stupefied, lecherous lout. This from either over indulging whilst celebrating their win or from over indulging while commiserating their loss. Considerable stakes are paid in what is, in most cases, friendly one-up-man-ship, with punters trying to outdo each other in their betting on the horse racing. Hopes, quite literally, are “dashed” when another horse crosses the finish line ahead of the one they had ‘invested’ in. The Sydney Morning Herald estimated that the takings from punters yesterday exceeded $143 million in Victoria and New South Wales. The only clear winners are the State Government departments that profit from gaming and gambling. Everyone else comes out worse off.

    The premise of gambling is an attempt to get something large for a disproportionately small price. The idea is that you make a bet, rather than have to work to earn the same amount. What might take several days, weeks or months to otherwise earn or cultivate, can be gained in a matter of seconds, simply by placing a well timed bet on the right horse (in the case of the Melbourne Cup). It doesn’t take much to argue yourself from there into the position that by increasing the bet, you could increase your winnings, and if you win enough, you might never have to work again. Obviously, not everyone is consumed with, or tempted by, an addiction to gambling. But for those that are, even a sweepstake entry can prove to be a deadly distraction. So, in wisdom, we must be careful how we represent and participate in the good fun of our nation’s (arguably) favourite past-time. If, by entering a sweep, you communicate that your sustenance and hope for provision is elsewhere than in what God has provided, you may find it difficult to convincingly discuss your faith in Jesus and why he is exclusively sufficient for spiritual salvation.

    What would you truly prefer? That God dealt with us randomly by way of spinning a wheel, drawing lots, or let the roll of a dice determine our eternal fate or via his deliberate intention to set his love upon us and reveal his grace to us via Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection? Gambling is emotionally charged controversy that provokes passionate advocates both for abolition and enjoyment in moderation. I hope you consider carefully how you will “profit” from a little flutter compared to finding your passion in Christ.

    Sustain me according to your promise, and I will live; do not let my hopes be dashed. Psalm 119:116 NIV

    Deal with your servant according to your love and teach me your decrees. Psalm 119:24 NIV

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    Posted by on 04/11/2009 in worship

     

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