Re-reading my intercessor’s weekly prayers brought me to my knees

Re-reading my intercessor’s weekly prayers brought me to my knees

It happens every Wednesday. Like clockwork. Reliable as ever. I get a text message from a pastor in Sydney with the prayer he has just prayed for me that morning. He’s been doing it for years. I’m not entirely sure why he decided to pray for me specifically. He had been an intern of mine when he was studying at Morling College, and we have served together in the establishment of a network of churches in Western Sydney, but his decision to pray for me, following the promptings of the Holy Spirit every single Wednesday for years, well, that’s pure grace. There are times that I genuinely question why God has been so good to me and why I have had just a blessed ministry, when I’m definitely not the holiest person or even close to being the most worthy of God’s special favor. I’ve come to suspect that the protection and unction of God’s Spirit upon me is in no small measure due to the selfless and unseen ministry of those people who have prayed for me so faithfully. Over the years, I have had many people say they pray for me regularly. I covet those prayers. I’ve come to rely on them. I need them. I feel like the Apostle Paul, the “chief of sinners” who begged his

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The Lonely Crowd: churches dying due to friendlessness

The Lonely Crowd: churches dying due to friendlessness

I’ve lost count of the number of Christians who’ve told me they either stopped attending church or left their church to join another one because they couldn’t make any friends there. They report that the church people were friendly enough. They were hospitable and welcoming. As one person told me, “They’re nice to you, but no one becomes your friend.” And it hurts when all that friendliness leads only to friendlessness. In the 1950s, sociologist David Riesman coined the term “the lonely crowd”, in part to describe collectives of people who live according to common traditions and conforming values, but who barely know or like each other. I fear the church is in danger of becoming just such a lonely crowd. I know pastors think long and hard about how to be better preachers and leaders, how to calibrate the church’s ministries to meet needs and serve others, how to be more missional, more adaptive, more innovative. These are all good things. But is it possible that all that leadership development, visioning, and ministry planning might be wasted if people can’t find friends and just drift away? Before hosting any more conferences or seminars on vision-casting, living your best life, or finding your spiritual gift, how about we start equipping people in friendship-making? Becoming and being a friend isn’t easy.

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Will the 10 minute homily be the new normal?

Will the 10 minute homily be the new normal?

There has been much discussion about the ways the pandemic lockdown has affected our approach to doing and being church. We’ve been forced to move our programs online and close any non-essential ministries that can’t be conducted remotely.  Like other areas of our lives, we’ve engaged with members of our congregation via Zoom or FaceTime or some other platform. We pivoted quickly and found ways to provide pastoral care, coaching, team leadership and Bible teaching all online or by phone. Sure, we’ve grown heartily sick of looking at faces in boxes on our computer screens, but we did it because we had to. And yet, while we’ve longed for things to get back to normal, we also keep telling each other that there will be a new normal, that in some ways things will be very different in a post-COVID-19 world. I’ve been in a number of conversations recently about what things will spring back to normal and what will be irreversibly changed by our experience of quarantine. One of the common responses I’m hearing is that a lot of church people have enjoyed just having a 10-15 minute sermon on Sundays. Their pastors have recognised that it’s challenging to listen to a typical sermon of 20-40 minutes online and they’ve shortened their presentations accordingly. Now some of their parishioners are

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Renounce your white Jesus

Renounce your white Jesus

You might have seen this recent photo of an anti-racism protester holding a sign that reads, “There are no white people in the Bible. Take all the time you need with this.” At first, you’d think no one would need any time to digest that news. Of course, there are no white people in the Bible, unless you count the Romans who crucified Christ. And maybe the Gentiles in Galatia. But even those with just a passing knowledge of the Bible would know the main characters – Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Deborah, Ruth, David, Isaiah, Jesus, and his disciples – were all brown, Middle Eastern people, not white. Except we don’t. It seems that the Western church’s beloved images of a white-faced, blue-eyed Jesus with his cascading treacle-toned hair have shaped our imaginations more than the very Bible itself. We keep telling ourselves that Jesus wasn’t white, but then, in 2001, a forensic anthropologist Richard Neave created a model of a Galilean man for a BBC documentary, Son of God, using an actual skull found in the region, and people were shocked to imagine Jesus looking like that! To clarify, Neave didn’t claim this was Jesus’ face. He just wanted us to know what a typical first-century Galilean man looked like. Note, the heavy brow, the broad nose, the swarthy skin,

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Launching rockets while Rome burns

Launching rockets while Rome burns

While major cities across America were aflame with race riots, a rocketship took off. On Saturday, May 30, a Falcon 9 spacecraft, owned by billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX project, lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida with astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board. For Musk, it had been 18 years in the making and that single launch cost billions of dollars. It was all part of his staggeringly ambitious grand plan to make spaceflight routine and affordable, and to make humans a multi-planet species. But as Behnken and Hurley sped away from Earth, cities like Minneapolis, Detroit, Washington, and Los Angeles were erupting into anarchy. Despite the best efforts of the organizers, the peaceful protests were overwhelmed by violence. Buildings were razed, cop cars were set alight, and stores were looted. And that was after months of lockdown in response to coronavirus, which has led to the worst economic downturn in recent memory. It feels like the US is lurching under seemingly insurmountable social and political problems. Nonetheless, President Trump, speaking at the Kennedy Space Center after Musk’s rocket launch, praised the American spirit “which powered our astronauts to the moon” and has “also helped lift our country to ever greater heights of justice and opportunity throughout our history.” The President continued: “…the United States has

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It seems racists don’t even have the decency to be subtle anymore

It seems racists don’t even have the decency to be subtle anymore

Those three videos. You saw them. First, the blatant murder of Ahmaud Arbery by two white men as he jogged through suburban Georgia. Second, the blatant use of deadly force by a Minneapolis police officer, leading to the death of George Floyd. Third, the blatant racially-charged accusations of a white woman toward a bird-lover who asked her to leash her dog. All of them blatant. Blatant (adjective) /ˈbleɪ.tənt/ very obvious and intentional, when this is a bad thing.   Yep, blatant, as in flagrant, glaring, unconcealed, overt, brazen. The white police officer who buried his knee in the back of George Floyd’s neck as he lay handcuffed on the road was oblivious not only to Floyd’s pleas for mercy, but also to the many witnesses who begged him to release Floyd. He even looks directly into the camera of the bystander filming the incident. He doesn’t direct the witness to move away. He doesn’t appear to be panicked. He doesn’t shield his face. Blatant. Likewise with the death of Ahmaud Arbery. It wasn’t captured on film by a shocked bystander, but was blatantly recorded by Roddie Bryan, a friend of the father-and-son killers, Greg and Travis McMichael. In fact, so complicit was Bryan in the killing that he has since been charged with felony murder along with the McMichaels. Blatant.

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Death Becomes Us: why getting death right helps us live better lives

Death Becomes Us: why getting death right helps us live better lives

Harvard scientist Steven Pinker recently wrote a strange opinion piece in The Washington Post in which he claimed that belief in an afterlife is a malignant delusion, since it devalues actual lives and discourages action that would make them longer, safer, and happier. The specific object of his attack was those conservative evangelical Trump supporters who are demanding the reopening of the US economy. In Pinker’s odd logic, evangelicals don’t care about those dying of COVID19 because they are so focused on life in the sweet-by-and-by. The fact is, though, that study after study proves the opposite – religious people appear to live healthier, happier, more fulfilled lives. There is no evidence that belief in the afterlife makes you careless about life in the here-and-now. In fact, belief in the afterlife might do the opposite and give you a greater clarity about what’s truly important in life.   I’ve been thinking about this recently as I’ve studied what has become known as “plague art”, the great paintings depicting life during Europe’s bubonic plague from 1347 to the late 17th century. At that time, Europe was stalked by the Black Death, and yet surprisingly, art and culture flourished. Artists like Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Tintoretto worked in the knowledge that contagion could take hold of their city at any moment. Some, including Hans Holbein and Titian, died

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Where are the true prophets in a time of coronavirus?

Where are the true prophets in a time of coronavirus?

Remember that old Bible story about the death of King Ahab? He was itching for a fight with the neighboring nation of Aram, so he enlisted the help of Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, to march on the city of Ramoth Gilead and recapture it from the Arameans. But Jehoshaphat first wanted to be sure that God would bless such a venture, so he and Ahab dressed in their royal robes and sat on their thrones by the entrance of the gate of Samaria and had all the prophets of Israel – about 400 men – brought before them. The kings enquired of them, “Shall we go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or shall we refrain?” And the prophets answered as Ahab had hoped, “Attack Ramoth Gilead and be victorious, for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.” But Jehoshaphat demurred. “Are there any other prophets we’ve overlooked?” he asks. Ahab’s answer is telling. “There is still one prophet through whom we can inquire of the Lord, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah son of Imlah.” It makes you wonder how the other 400 prophets got their job, doesn’t it? True prophets are annoying. They don’t offer words of comfort to kings and rulers. They speak

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Bible teaching can happen at the table not just the pulpit

Bible teaching can happen at the table not just the pulpit

I’ve written a bit lately about dinner churches, house churches, fresh expressions and other new types of churches emerging around the world. And it’s easy to see why they’re increasing in popularity. They’re lean, nimble, local and cheap to run. And they embrace all the great stuff of life like commonality, conviviality, the sharing of life and the valuing of all voices. But I’m also aware of the criticism that dinner churches don’t do Bible teaching very well. I’ve heard it said that their emphasis on conversational sharing is a kind of groupthink that just results in a pooling of existing knowledge. Theologian Letty Russell disagreed with this. She liked to refer to ‘church in the round’ and she claimed such churches are better able to do the important work of discipleship than larger, more traditional churches. That’s because, as Russell saw it, church in the round fosters deeper conversation, deeper sharing, and deeper learning. She wrote: “The metaphor of the church as a round table speaks of people gathered around the table and in the world in order to connect faith and life in action/reflection (the round table), work for justice in solidarity with those at the margins of society (the kitchen table), and to welcome everyone as partners in God’s world house (the welcome table).” It’s only when

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35 ways to love your neighbors right now

35 ways to love your neighbors right now

We’re socially isolated. We can’t gather in groups. We’re working from home. We can’t even go to church. How are Christians meant to express their faith in these strange days of COVID-19? It’s tough, I agree, but there are plenty of ways to love your neighbors, even during lockdown. Here’s 35 simple ways to love your neighbor as yourself, even at a distance.   PRAY 1.  Do a regular prayer walk in your neighborhood, praying for each household. 2.  Pray in general for those infected, those at risk, and for decision makers. 3.  Offer to pray for your neighbors. 4.  Host a front yard prayer meeting (appropriately distanced, of course).   ENCOURAGE PEOPLE 5.  Chalk messages on the sidewalk at night so it surprises people in the morning. 6.  Set up a chalkboard in front of your house and write messages for passersby. 7.  Talk to your neighbors as you walk (keeping your required distance, of course). 8.  Join or launch a front window bear hunt for the local kids. 9.  Begin podcasting or blogging to share your thoughts and encourage others. 10.  Leave a note for your local postman. GIVE TO OTHERS 11.  Launch a street Facebook or WhatsAp page to share needs, ideas, and encouragement. 12.  Deliver gifts (hampers, toilet paper bouquets, cookies) to your neighbors’ doorsteps. 13. 

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