A quiet little street in suburbia, surrounded by many more like it. Wandering the streets searching for a friend, a playmate, a conversation, I would stray into my neighbours’ houses from about the age of 10. It was a window into the entire world for me.
Our next door neighbours, the James’ were in my top 10 favourites. I would pick their strawberries and snapdragons, hear stories and wisdom from their 70 years while they made me a tomato, salt and pepper buttered sandwich. I surely tested their patience when I found their kangaroo shaped money box and hopped it all over the house, clanging the coins and singing out loud.
Another friend, Michelle, born on the same day as me, with strawberry hair, we played with Care Bears and My Little Ponies and she always offered me an Uncle Toby’s muesli bar when I enquired as to what was in that pantry…
There were many other houses I visited, young girls who played shop and barbies, elderly ladies with a lolly jar; families from Argentina, Russia, Korea, Greece, Malta, Lebanon, Italy and Croatia. I ate their delicacies and drank their tea and listened intently to their stories while focussed on the character in their faces. Then… Dasvidaniya, we would say.
I spread my love of neighbour around the whole suburb, you could say. Not all my neighbours were a good influence, as my family can attest – but we’ll leave that for another post. There were also a few apparent protests about my visits from parents or siblings, but spoken in a language I could not understand; mostly I was given genuine and generous hospitality. I was that kid from next door, up the street, around the corner – coming through the front/back/side door.
Seldom set foot in your neighbour’s house – too much of you and they will hate you. Proverbs 25:17
One particular friend always laid out the welcome mat. She was a gentle and kind friend, an only child, her family migrated from South America. I’d watch her dance ballet, we’d play in her tree house, dance to ABBA records and make gnocchi. Even when she moved to another suburb far away she would visit and we’d meet and play. I marvelled at the melodious ring in her parent’s accents when they called out her name. We find one another online years later to discover we have a mutual love for Jesus. We are delighted, yet somehow it is no surprise to me.
Many claim to have unfailing love, but a faithful person who can find? Proverbs 20:6
It was pertinent for me to find a conclusion to this post in the writings of a ‘neighbour’ and faithful person…
…God gave his salvation for the world. In this sense, we must not seek to limit the command to love our neighbour by asking ‘Who is my neighbour?’ (Luke 10:29), but rather should seek to be a neighbour to all without discrimination (10:36-37)… Jesus teaches… that love must not be restricted only to those who love us in return: (see Matt 5:43-47). – from ‘The Good Life in the Last Days‘ by Mikey Lynch, p.60.
“Oh, look! They’re playing Arabic music!” I pointed to the field stage in surprise and wonder. The music had only just cut through the conversation to reach my ears and awareness, so deeply entrenched in the beloved company I kept.
“Nah, really??” one answered sarcastically.
Taken aback at the tone, I am filled with dismay. I recall my brother’s wisdom and say; “‘Sarcasm is the product of an unoriginal mind.’ That’s what my brother used to say…”
I pondered on whether these words chastised but felt defensive at the seemingly unwarranted change.
I reflected inwardly and quietly, all the while the hum and drone of music surrounded me. The friends left to find some cider and reappeared with one for me. I drank it quickly and bought another. It was one way to lighten the mood. The night turned cold and frivolous, like the sparkling cider in my hand, making me giddy and nonchalant.
That moment changed everything so slightly, like a clock suddenly no longer able to keep time. I gained insight into the naivety of years of mere acquaintance. I was ready, on the brink, to pull in close to share the rest of the story, the private details of my associations with the Arabic people – how I was one of them, they were my people, yet time revealed they were not. On reflection, this was a mirror of the past – will I see it clearly now, then walk away and forget?
The budding friendship denied warmth, light and feeding turns grey and dried up like Autumnal blooms displayed in a dark room.
Who can tell why I trust and devote myself to this man, who spoke Aramaic, whose image and touch are unknown to me – yet occupies all my waking thoughts. He is an endless ocean with unfathomable depths, yet he is my Brother in life and death.
Proverbs 18:24 – One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
Image Credit: Anastasia Benko: Moody Autumnal dried flower arrangement with chrysanthemums and dried leaves.
God’s word is powerful, it spoke the universes into existence and all that is seen and unseen is held together by His powerful will and word.
We are created in God’s image and can act in accordance with His will or our own. We can act like we are the master of our universe and attempt to orchestrate the people and things in our lives for our own purposes.
All the things we say and do have consequences for ourselves and others. It is a basic right to be able to speak the truth freely without fear of retribution. When we are wronged, we would like to be able to say so, to be free to admit to our own wrongdoing without being shamed or humiliated for doing so.
Our speech and actions inform others about our values, our ethos and our purposes in life, whether directed towards the Creator of the universes, or as a master of our own making.
We hear the word ‘gospel’ used for all sorts of things, just as there is a ‘bible’ available for all sorts of hobbies and pursuits. These words try to impose an image of right-thinking or right-acting on the person or work when it ain’t necessarily so.
A ‘gospel’ that is holding fast to an outdated English version of the Bible, that aims its message towards less than half of the world’s population because of the gender they were born.
It ain’t necessarily so.
A ‘gospel’ that denies the legitimacy of young people, older people, frail people or ‘those people’ to a calling or vocation in the name of the ‘gospel’ because it was not first ordained by a crooked stick.
It ain’t necessarily so.
A ‘gospel’ that decides that all people who visit a certain type of building on Sundays (or Saturdays) are not ‘covered’ by God’s grace and mercy like those in a particular ‘chosen’ flock.
It ain’t necessarily so.
Perhaps those who wear fancy robes or speak in flowery prose are too old school to be considered part of the updated, renovated plan of the ‘gospel.’
A ‘gospel’ that excludes. A ‘gospel’ of conditions and revisions.
It ain’t necessarily so.
God’s flock is much greater than the people in your midst or on your friends’ list. The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, is the servant and sacrifice for all humanity. He calls us to follow His voice, to love and serve all people – especially the lost, the weak and the poor. Who do you serve? Who or what do you pray for? Is this God’s desire for our lives, is it God’s image we reflect, or our own to which we aspire?
Loving God, you are the author and sustainer of all things, including us. Help us to truly know your grace and mercy in our own lives and to reflect your image, Your glory, to others in all we do and say. Open our eyes to the worldwide fellowship of your church who acknowledge the Gospel truth. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit — fruit that will last — and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.
We are chosen by God to become friends with Christ. This is love with a purpose: to bear fruit by obeying God’s command to love one another.
The world greatly values love, but the purpose of love in the world is often for self-satisfaction. To love for our own sake, or a moral expectation to treat other people well is only a small part of the love story. God’s story of love for his people is told throughout the Bible and through generations of Christians for thousands of years.
We have not been able to demonstrate God’s love to others in our lives or in the church. We see the wounds and scars of this brokenness in our society, in our relationships.
When we commemorate special occasions like Mother’s Day, it can be a time of great joy mixed with feelings of loss and sadness. Even our closest family relationships can leave us feeling empty.
When our human family relationships are at their very best, they bring us a glimpse of the joy we will experience when we join God’s family for eternity.
God is a loving Father, yet he cares for us like a nurturing Mother and befriends us through Christ like a brother. We don’t feel we deserve such perfect love, yet this is God’s grace and mercy in fullness.
God’s command is to love others, but first, be filled with His perfect love—to fill the emptiness and disappointment that is sometimes caused by human relationships. God’s love is sufficient and brings us joy and hope overflowing. Out of this abundance of God’s love, we are able to demonstrate the love of Jesus to those around us.
Prayer— Like a river overflowing, Lord, may we know your great love for us, and know the grace and strength of Jesus Christ to love others; to love with purpose, for your glory, forever. Amen.
Today my husband found a baby bird in our backyard that had fallen from its nest. The bird’s family were noisily protesting against our dog sniffing the bird, as they watched helplessly from the tree above. As my husband used his large, strong, gloved hands to gently return the bird to its nest, it reminded us of the fragility of life and how helpless we can feel when faced with situations we cannot control.
We watch scenes of natural disasters on the news and feel compelled to send money and goods to those affected areas. We hear of friends suffering relationship breakdown or health problems, we often do not know whether these situations can be healed. ‘God knows’ the dangers we face and the future that lies ahead of us. In Matthew’s gospel, we catch a glimpse of Jesus’ concern for the wellbeing of His followers and His advice for how to live their lives in the face of uncertainty and even hostility.
Jesus sends the first twelve disciples out with plenty of guidance, warnings, instructions and wisdom, couched in words of comfort of God’s presence, promises and protection.
Prayer and discernment are required for Jesus’ followers to make good decisions about how to spend their time and energy, and with whom. As fellow bearers of God’s peace, we do not hold back our blessing on others, but simply offer it to those who are willing recipients.
To spend our time and our lives with those who are willing to harm others is not in accordance with God’s purposes for His people. Just as a dove would not be wise to nest in a lion’s den, we must protect ourselves, so that God’s word might be faithfully proclaimed to those who have ears to hear. We guard our hearts and minds, our time and energy, we watch our lives and doctrine closely – but rather than sacrificing significant relationships or putting ourselves in physical or spiritual danger needlessly, we must invest in relationships wisely so that we can sharpen one another and be united in our faith in Jesus Christ.
To be faithful followers of Jesus, we cannot be faithful followers of the world or its barrage of messages preached in the media. Those members of God’s family who seek to know the world and learn its ways for its own sake, are in fact denying God’s ways and His name. This is the type of conflict – a war of two worlds – that we are likely to encounter with our friends and family. We are asked to hold ourselves and one another accountable, with the life of Christ as our standard for faithfulness – that is, faithful until our death.
The smallest and simplest test of a generous spirit is given to us, as offering a cup of water to those who have open minds and humble hearts to receive God’s forgiveness, grace and mercy. The cup of living water is what Jesus gives to everyone who turns their lives to Him, ours is a smaller gesture, yet no less significant in God’s view. For to bless those who love God is to be a part of God’s Kingdom family.
Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
Matt 10:16 – ‘innocent’ (ἀκεραιος) has a sense of not destroying others, moral innocence, harmlessness, and purity – not to be tainted by sinful motives and ambitions. (Strong’s Greek #185)
The message of many Christian evangelicals is one of personal salvation by faith in Christ. This is perceived to be the essence of our belief in the one true God, who sacrificed His Son so that ‘I’ may be saved. This message, while correct, is only a portion of the message, yet it appeals to our desire to be seen as acceptable – in God’s sight and in the sight of others. It comes with a bitter pill of accepting that without God I am unacceptable, I am a sinner, my life before Christ was full of sin and I must repent of my former ways and become completely new.
This is an uncomfortable message of a mini-gospel – The evangelist who first shares this message with a non-believer earnestly wishes to see whether their persuasive words take effect in that person’s heart and mind so that they can imagine another notch on their belt of salvific works in partnership with God. They have thrown another soul into the lifeboat of which they are at the helm. We look out onto the sea and there are so many souls bobbing around if only they would accept our offer of God’s help and be saved. If they do not, they are not wise, but foolish and will deny it at their own peril.
We can look out to a sea of lifeboats, all of various shapes and sizes and colours, with completely different people at the helm. Some will make the lifeboat as comfortable and attractive as possible, knowing that passers-by will simply climb onto the rope ladder hung over the edge. Others do not allow just anyone in; they must be tested and drilled for their knowledge and beliefs first. Some make the soul survivors recite special words, like an entrance test before they can be deemed acceptable to join the lifeboat. While some will not accept anyone who has been in a different lifeboat and jumped out when they were starved or mistreated – such people will be treated with suspicion as to why they ‘jumped ship’.
This analogy is not at all biblical. Yet it is such a common lived experience of the Christian life that perhaps it has become normalised and is no longer challenged. Its prevalence has been growing steadily for the past 500 years, though it is as old as the Church itself.
If we were to take a bird’s eye view of this scene, how does this look like a family, a Kingdom of God, a bride prepared for her groom, a body consisting of many parts?
Many evangelical Christian faithfully rote-learn passages from the Bible, especially from Romans, but it takes regular prayer and reflection to examine the context. Here in Romans 12:1 we are given what can be perceived as a ‘do or die’ message. This is the way many live their faith, it is honourable, we make sacrifices, and we sacrifice our own wellbeing and sometimes our friends and families for the sake of the ‘gospel’. Yet, this is also a message fed to us by the world – that our own plans and purposes (for work, for achievement, for accolades) are more important than relationships with others. I contend that God’s will is – good pleasing and perfect, and our will is not. The will of the world is one of selfish ambition and it can creep into our lives, our faith, our ministries and families on a daily basis. Our personalised mini-gospel is too small for God’s kingdom purposes.
A Living Sacrifice
1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
God’s View of Gospel Church
It is no accident that the following verses of Romans 12 set out exactly what God’s will for the Gospel church looks like (ps. there is no notion of individual lifeboats floating on an ocean of drowning souls):
Humble Service in the Body of Christ
3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. 4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your (the) faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, (or to provide for others*) do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
What is the image of a Gospel-shaped faith that seeks to love God and one another in all of our lives? A chorus of voices proclaiming the Gospel to every nation in many languages, inspiring hope in salvation for all God’s people for His purposes for eternity. A lived faith in God as our Creator, Redeemer and Helper for the sake and salvation of the world.
Rom 12:8 – the one who leads (προιστημι) has a sense of direction, protection, ‘to care for’, ‘to help’, ‘to assist’, ‘to join with’. – Strongs Greek #4291
Living in rural Tasmania for the last eight years has been a wonderful experience – character building, invigorating, inspirational, isolating and also communal. It is fascinating to be an insider in this rural culture that is so rich with generations of family life, and so diverse with a multitude of migrants and mainlanders. One aspect of rural life that has been quite pronounced is the desire for an egalitarian ethos in all that is said and done. To hold a position of influence in these communities is extremely difficult, being held to the highest account by a wide variety of people whom you live closely alongside.
One of my favourite Australian bands from my youth, The Simpletons, had put this observation of rural life in Lismore, into a song called ‘Tall Poppies’.
‘Please help me cut the tall poppies down… they’ve grown too high… let’s cut ‘em down and watch ’em die!’ – Cheyne Gelagin.
It was their most popular song, perhaps because it struck a chord with the Australian ethos and our lived experience, it is possible that this is derived from our past as a penal settlement. Aside from this cultural analysis of rural Australia, this is not meant to be a judgement on our rural neighbours – who are, in fact, wonderfully hospitable, generous and hard-working.
Instead, I have been examining this Tall Poppies syndrome in light of Scripture and wanted to set out some suggestions as to how Christians, both as members and leaders of their community, can be inclusive of all people and encourage one another to prosper in the life of the church and the local community.
Many local churches have a strong shared oral history among the congregation and their long list of leaders are painted in gold on an honour board and remembered by long-serving members. This signifies that endurance in the faith is demonstrated and honoured through long tenure, stability, commitment and endurance in a particular place, position or role. It has been noted by cultural commentators that rural churches (arguably the majority of churches in Tasmania due to our small population size) operate in a similar way to a ‘Country Club’. The longest-serving and most dedicated members are given positions of influence and newcomers are given ‘L’ plates for a considerable time or prevented from serving at all, unless they have a strong connection with the leadership through social circles, family or work relationships.
This experience is a stark contrast to serving in a church elsewhere, where all members, whether new or long-serving, feel an ownership to welcome and encourage all new people to serve in the capacity that God is calling them toward. Once, upon walking into a church service for the first time in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, my husband and I had arrived early and were the only ones sitting in the pews. The youth leader stood up the front and called out to us, ‘does anyone know how to play drums?’ I raised my hand and was inducted into the music team immediately upon first meeting; this church became our beloved spiritual home for the next three years and nourished our faith and desire to serve God both as leaders and members of our church. Such fond memories of being openly welcomed into a church family upon first meeting have remained with me the past 18 years, as I have since served in eight churches in three states, and attended dozens more as a visitor, with mixed experiences.
We are in an age where people live transitory lives moving from place to place to find work, affordable real estate, a new start, education, a place to raise a family. The church must seek to become a spiritual haven for newcomers and strangers, or as one Chaplain put it:
Jesus came for ‘the last, the lost and the least’. – Luke Campton
All people who claim Christ as their personal saviour are part of God’s plan and purpose to build up His church.
Inclusive church practices. From my positive experiences – there will usually be a conversation between the newcomers (as individuals, couples, or families) and the leadership, usually at the Minister’s home or a home visit is made, or for larger churches a welcoming session is held where each person is encouraged and the particular values and goals of that church are shared. This welcoming ritual is not just a tool for ensuring greater numbers attending a church; or for sussing out their theology and making an assessment of their suitability to become a serving member. It is not an appropriate time to assert the leaders’ authority or try to find out the state of their marriage, mental health, financial status, or employment prospects.
We must lovingly welcome others into the wider church family to love and serve God and one another.
Offer newcomers an opportunity to be known and loved by God and His people in your place. Validate and encourage that person’s journey of faith, their gifting, stage of life, opportunities and willingness to grow and learn in the Body of Christ.
Pray with them. Christians should pray with and for all members of their church community to shine the light of Christ in all aspects of their life. If Christians do not pray together regularly, the Body is not communicating with the ‘brain’ who holds us together.
Ask them what God is doing in their life. God is the author of our salvation and is also the director for all our lives. Avoid imposing pre-conceived ideas upon a person about how they should or should not serve based upon their ‘newness’, age, stage of life, or denominational background.
Church leaders spend a considerable amount of time inspiring passion in others to serve God in their community. Yet those who are passionate to serve can sometimes be viewed as over-zealous or disrespectful of church authority for seeking to do a work that was not authorised at the last Synod, Parish Council or elders meeting. Passion to serve God is like a fire that cannot be quenched, if you try to control or suppress someone’s desire to serve in a capacity, it will likely consume them – they will seek to serve elsewhere to follow God’s leading. Consider the ways that each person can serve based on mutual prayer, discussion, and openness to the many ways that God’s word can be proclaimed.
The people are not pegs, and the ministries are not ‘holes’. The Body of Christ is a living being that has many parts and must be joined in unity to the head, which is Christ.
Discipleship involves journeying with a person in prayer and searching the Scriptures so that we might model ourselves on the champions of the faith. Self-sacrifice in the church is giving up our own selfish desires to serve God and others and proclaim God’s word in our area of influence. Self-sacrifice is not about giving up a ‘calling’ or work because it does not ‘fit in’ with the plans or programs of the institution. The limiting nature of Tall Poppies syndrome chokes the opportunities for new ministries, the raising up of new leaders, missionaries, influencers, teachers, encouragers, evangelists.
Jesus himself was seen to be a Tall Poppy threatening the long-standing values and cultural practices of the Pharisees and paid the ultimate price for it, for our sake and for our salvation. We must keep our eyes open to the mercies of God in His provision of people, gifts, resources, and opportunities in our community – without choking out new ideas because we ourselves did not conceive them, or they were not considered a priority by the ‘board’. For surely, God is able to do much more than we can ask or imagine, and He graciously gives His people the desire and capability to serve Him in ways and means that we would not consider possible.
Tertullian famously said, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of church’. The martyrs of the early church gave their lives for the proclamation of God’s word, they were cut down in their life and ministry by those who would persecute and oppress Christians, because they did not obey the governing authorities. Let us not cut one another down, like a house divided against itself, but let’s water and nourish the seed of faith, growing a ripe harvest for God.
As we venture into another year of our lives, consider what direction God is calling you toward. We need to make time to reflect and pray each day to consider His word and His work around us, and ask for His grace, mercy and forgiveness to allow us to be open to His divine work within us and in our midst.
‘to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.’ – Jude 1:25