Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Essence of a Pastoral Response

PASTORS are shepherds of flocks; as evangelists are messengers of God, as prophets have a spiritual ministry of prayer, discernment and prophecy, as teachers are instructors, and apostles are delegates of the church on mission. But far too many people who are called pastors do not shepherd flocks — they are too often one of the other designates of Ephesians 4:11. But if we are ‘pastors’, in that we have “pastor” in our title, we ought to be just that; at least be capable of a pastoral response.
The pastoral response is simple: the ability to ‘see’ someone, where they’re at, to validate that position they’re in, and to respond with care, in facilitating healing. That is how we might expect a shepherd to act as he or she cares for his or her single sheep.
The pastor is a shepherd, first and foremost. But it doesn’t mean that he or she is not also an administrator, or an apologist or a teacher — indeed, Ephesians links the gift of pastor with teacher. Indeed, Paul may not be seen to be limiting the roles — we may bear effectual facets of all five — apostles (delegates of the church), prophets (spokespeople of the church), evangelists (messengers of the church), pastors (shepherds of the church), and teachers of the church. The church needs all five types of leaders.
But the pastor — if it is assumed that he or she is leader of the church — is foremost a pastor… by gifting, by direction, by purpose — or they ensure somebody else with pastoral gifting, and with similar empowering, is enlisted as support to them. The health of the Body is at stake. And the Lord holds the shepherd to account.
The pastoral response is inwardly driven and focused, even in the backdrop of perceptions to an overly internally focused church. (There are many church leaders, who, in seeking the lost, have lost sight of those already won to the Lord.)
The pastor is concerned, above all, for the one sheep. Their concern is not for the ninety-nine, if the ninety nine are happily grazing at pasture. The pastor goes out to seek the lost from their own fold.
The pastor, in this sense, is not an evangelist, though they are not precluded from evangelism in the general sense. But their first priority is the health, safety and welfare of those who are theirs not only by physical proximity, but by divine provision.
The good shepherd knows that there is no strength in the fold when the fold is restless. So, first and foremost, they ensure peace within the fold that God has given them to care for.
Jesus said there is “more joy over one sinner who has a change of heart, than over ninety-nine people who, by doing what is right, don’t need a change of heart.” (Luke 15:7) The pastor’s job is to look for the hurt sinner — in their charge — and do all they can to reconcile them to a change of heart.
The parable of the lost sheep is a pastoral parable, not so much an evangelistic parable.
© 2015 Steve Wickham.

Monday, May 25, 2015

When Forgiveness Requires the Acceptance of the Unacceptable

LIFE requires of us some pretty crumby responses at times — responses all the same that are set on taking us to higher levels of maturity.
We will need to forgive people who we have bitterness towards. And that will inevitably involve a wrestle. The wrestle is real, but it’s not without its purpose.
We might be aware that pure forgiveness is a relational concept i.e. that there are two parties involved and forgiveness can precede reconciliation. And reconciliation doesn’t have to mean the restoration of situations the way they were. Sometimes it can be about restoring the relationship to a better, mutually affable result.
But inevitably we land in a situation where reconciliation — the way we want it — is impossible. The other person has died, they have moved away, or the other party doesn’t want to go there, etc. Sometimes we are the ones who don’t want to go there; and the other person might be the one seeking desperately to be forgiven.
What are we to do?
Acceptance is what we need to experience. And that’s a miracle to pray for; to find ourselves accepting what we cannot change:
God, give me the grace to accept the ugly parts of my relationships I cannot change.
Give me the courage to plunge into those parts of my relationships that can be changed.
And give me the wisdom to discern the difference. Amen.
Acceptance is never easy. If we think we are particularly gifted to accept those ugly parts of our relationships we cannot change, we should dearly praise God. Few are so gifted with such abounding grace. But we can believe that acceptance becomes easier as we nurture softness of soul.
Accepting what we genuinely feel is unacceptable is accepting it for the purposes of wisdom and for the hope of something new. There is a step of faith envisaged to break the deadlock.
Faith will see us through to attitudes of the heart we previously didn’t think possible.
Faith procures the miracle — the miracle that was there all along, just dormant. It required us to step.
When we believe God can help us accept the unacceptable, so we might move on, and so others might experience our Lord’s grace, we can expect God to give us that acceptance.
Accepting what cannot be changed is the wisdom of persons with an eternal perspective.
It’s wise to accept an imperfect relational outcome if it’s the best to be hoped for at this time.
The more we move forward, arm-in-arm with God, the more he will take us beyond the present constraints of our bitterness.
© 2015 Steve Wickham.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Short Philosophy On Biblical Neighbourliness

‘Of the priest, Levite, and Good Samaritan, who do you consider became a neighbour to the person who fell into the hands of the robber?’ The lawyer said, ‘The one who took pity on him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do the same yourself’.”
— Luke 10:36-37 (USC*)
ALL it takes for evil to conquer goodness is for the goodness in people to remain dormant. When somebody is bleeding and motionless on the pavement, or blindsided by grief and cannot reconcile their pain or see any hope because of their loss, or betrayed by the maltreatment from a friend, and we stand by offering a token compassion, we have missed our neighbour.
Neighbourliness is central to faith. A neighbourliness that goes creatively further than anyone can copy. A neighbourliness that initiates with drive and passion and compassion, and will not dissipate when the heat comes on. A neighbourliness that acts without thinking of the consequences — which is very distinct from foolishness. Foolishness is void of love, thinking only of itself. Neighbourliness, however, in full instinctual flight, is love without thought for self.
Neighbourliness loves without motive for kudos, because it understands that the only kudos that counts for anything is the kudos of God. A neighbourliness gives and keeps giving because it’s right and can never be wrong. Neighbourliness is vouchsafed in God, and it has no need of fear.
The Good Samaritan was about as popular as a Jew in Nazi Germany. So it’s like a Jew with a star on his pocket, going across the road to help a Nazi SS agent who’s been accosted by someone in the Resistance. For a Jew to ‘love’ a person who could flay their whole family in frenzied laughter seems crazy. The Jew is a neighbour. The Jew is an example of what Jesus was referring to as Radical Love. In today’s terms it would be exercising love toward someone given to Jihad. It certainly worked for Rev. Wade Watts when he was instrumental in converting former KKK Imperial Wizard, Johnny Lee Clary (1959–2014) who came to be a powerful evangelist for the Lord. Love won over the hate.
But, in some ways, we are departing from simple neighbourliness — to help someone we don’t know who has been stricken somehow.
Real love comes to bear itself in action, unreasonable and unpredictable, always ingenious, eternally hopeful, spiritually resilient.
Jesus has a call for each of us who would call ourselves Christian; to work hard on our devotional life such that we are ready, willing, and able to help people in our daily going out and coming home.
© 2015 Steve Wickham.
Note: USC version is Under the Southern Cross, The New Testament in Australian English (2014). This translation was painstakingly developed by Dr Richard Moore, a NT Greek scholar, over nearly thirty years.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Praising God for An Earlier, Faithful Version of You

VISIONS are something I’ve been gifted with all my life, I think; visions of the imagination at times, and visions of the prophetic kind at other times. I’m comfortable that many of these visions are the way God works in me to make me to discern what I’m to do and not do.
One of these visions occurred when I was in my early thirties. I was standing at the end of my driveway when God spoke to me, as if to say, “You will thank yourself for your faithfulness to me later in life.” What was strange was, at the time, I was actually far from God. But within a few years I would again be nearer, and perhaps never nearer, as to make some decisions that would prove the manifestation of that prophetic vision.
The vision was of me, in my seventies, thanking the early 30s version of myself for his faithfulness to decide upon a path of living.
Two or three years after that vision I found myself at rock bottom; thoughts of ending it all a requiem for what my life had become; a vulnerable shell of a man who the Lord himself had undertaken to rebuild — if I would submit finally to his rule in my life.
For the first time in my life I submitted — not because I was strong and wanted to obey him who had control of my life for the very first time. It was because I was weak that I submitted. I was not only poor of spirit, I was thoroughly inept of spirit. Yet, as the Beatitudes says, I was blessed. A life run against the rocks, was now routinely shattered and then pulverized against those same rocks. But all this was necessary from the perspective of hindsight.
And, how was I to know that in my weakness God was using the mustard seed of faith I had left to give to sow into a future I could only hope for. Twelve years on, I live a life that is far from dreamlike, but it is a contented life, a life lived at truth, a life of integrity, and a life where I look back and thank God for that younger version of myself who did finally submit routinely and regularly enough to the will of God. It has become a pattern of discerning and doing the will of God that will stretch the rest of my natural life.
You may be in the same predicament. God is asking you to be faithful and it feels excruciating. You feel you are going around the desert, finding yourself in a circular pattern, for what seems like forty hard years. Don’t give up. Keep obeying him who calls you.
There is a time coming when all the sacrifices you’re making will bear the fruit that God has planned for you.
God compensates us so amply and abundantly for the costs waged in the battle of suffering. Step in his will and step, ultimately and eventually, into blessing.
© 2015 Steve Wickham.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Holy Spirit’s Inspired Daily Reminders

DAILY life in the Christian milieu is, at times, a fight — for the spiritual consistency of application that church sometimes implies is easy. Even though we are exhorted to “Consider it pure joy when we face trials of many different kinds” (James 1:2-4) we do verily struggle to submit to God so freely and willingly. So there is a place for a Holy Spirit infused reminder:
Daily I remind myself to be patient,
Though it doesn’t always work.
But daily I choose to be patient, especially on frustrating days.
Daily I remind myself to slow down,
And some days are more successful than others.
But daily I make myself slow right down; my speech, my pace, my schedule.
Daily I’m reminded to resist frustration,
By dealing truthfully with my goals,
And I’m occasionally frustrated despite these reminders.
But I then insist on dealing honesty with frustration by talking it through.
I remind myself weekly that,
I’m on the path of God’s purpose for my life,
And I just as regularly doubt that completely.
But I remind myself that my life is now at God’s entire disposal. His path for me is inevitably working out exactly as he planned it to be.
Weekly is the reminder to act graciously in the lives of others,
And I know I fall short just as regularly.
But I have the reparation of making things healthy again; I can say sorry, prove I understand what went wrong, fix the issue if that’s possible, commit to not doing it again, and I seek forgiveness.
Irregularly I need to be reminded of God’s covenant protection,
Because I wither in fear and discouragement at times — mostly, for me, the latter.
I remind myself that God helps me overcome fear and he provides timely encouragement, too.
Irregularly I need to be reminded of God’s eternal goodness,
Because there are occasional doubts.
I remind myself that God is a good and eternal God and that eternity is my reward for a faithful life — as faithful as I can give — and not to doubt.
Reminders are good, because they bring us back into the sweet spot of Christly allegiance.
The disciple’s walk is never an altogether easy one, nor is the walk of a nonbeliever. Life is a challenge in anyone’s terms. To make discipleship possible we must allow the Holy Spirit to remind us, to trust, to rely, to be patient, to slow down, to stop doubting, and to trust the sovereignty of God in and for our lives.
Holy Spirit,
Remind me,
Of God’s goodness.
© 2015 Steve Wickham.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Day God Gave You What You Don’t Deserve

“… sin pays wages (you get what you deserve), but God gives a free gift (you are given what you do not deserve).”
— John Stott (1921–2011)
Remember the day, the day God gave you what you don’t deserve? Your salvation in Jesus Christ. Until then we got what we deserved; in our sin we were rewarded, but it wasn’t a reward we saw in the way we should have seen it, for the reward was a wage and that wage amounted to death.
In the whole section of Romans (6:15-23) there is this discussion about slavery, masters and payment. We get what we deserve when we go the world’s way. We get what we should always have expected. We get worse than nothing — we get eternal death; a life of death in this life (though it might seem like life) and a life of death in eternity. Yet, these days we hate talk like that. It’s offensive.
It’s also biblical.
Let’s talk in more palatable terms; about getting what we do not deserve.
Instead of being paid in kind for the fruit we produce (death for the dead fruit we produce) we are given something for free, for the good fruit we produce, that would not ordinarily attain for us anything on God’s stage. We cannot hope to come close to God in terms of relationship. But Jesus did that for us; on our behalf.
Responding to God in the acceptance of salvation is the first, the pivotal, and the only worthwhile work we may make.
From such a response there is a preponderance of good fruit produced. Every good fruit is an endorsement of the eternal life that is being sanctified from within us.
We do not earn wages by our good fruit, for we are on a ‘contract’ that sees us as heirs of a promise. But our good fruit is consistent in kind with the eternal life we are already enjoying; that which we did not and will never deserve.
Eternal life is a gift. We can only ever open our hands and receive it. We can only ever open our hearts and have this gift indwell our soul by love. We cannot receive anything more than eternal life, for eternal life is the ultimate reward.
Now here’s the crux: the acquisition of eternal life — the actual receipt of God’s free gift — is the once-for-all-time compensation for every hardship suffered and every coming persecution. We believe this by faith this side of eternity. We will more fully realise the completion of that reality on That day.
© 2015 Steve Wickham.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What Matters Less Versus What Matters More

What matters less: possessions, the past, and perfection.
What matters more: family, friendship, and focus.
Possessions come and go. They must be left behind when our souls leave our bodies behind at death. When there is a change of heart, relationship or fortune, there is an exchange of possessions, and so very often this can occur outside our control. So we would be best to hold our possessions lightly — they matter less than we think.
The past will continue to bear onerously over us if we aren’t careful. We all have regrets. We all have components of our pasts that we would gladly leave behind. But the past is both done and it cannot be changed. It is what it is. It is part of our history, but it needn’t be our platform forward without our say so. The past matters less than the future. This is an irrefutable statement when you think you have to live your future. When nobody else can.
Perfection is arduous and burdensome and few can attain to the level of perfection they set for themselves. Perfection is a waste of time and energy. It is a sad indictment on our fear for anything less. It only sets us forward on a journey of fatigue and despair. But there is life in accepting our and others’ best effort. Perfect standards and results matter less than good or acceptable ones.
What matters more is relationships and focus.
Family epitomise how well we love others. If we struggle to love our family members, what good is it that we love strangers? But if we can tolerate and enjoy our familial relationships we are grateful to who God gave us, principally, to love. Loving family, especially those who may be hard to love, matters more than loving those who are easier to love. Love really is not a mushy feel-good type of thing. It’s a rubber-hits-the-road type of thing.
Friendship matters. And it is such a broad relational concept. A friend will give themselves away for a friend. In that way, to be a disciple of Jesus is to be a friend; a neighbour, unconditionally. We may not be friends with some people, but that is no barrier to offering friendship regardless — a concept unrestrained and not relevant to time spent together. Friendship matters more than solo pursuits (not that solo pursuits aren’t crucial for many of us, because they are).
Focus matters. We cannot achieve the things that God has placed on our hearts — his call of us, personally — unless we discern what it is, and then deploy focus. Focus matters more than enjoying life, because we find that focus is enjoyment of life.
Family, friendship and focus will serve anyone well who is serious about the good life, to get it right.
© 2015 Steve Wickham.

Monday, May 18, 2015

A Future Transcending That Ugly Past

ONE thing many children brought up in the church don’t have is an ugly past. I wasn’t brought up in the church. Many people who were brought up in the church departed and do have an ugly past — these prodigal sons and daughters. The church is no guarantee that we will live clean lives forevermore, but it is a place where those with an ugly past can go for solace, healing, redemption, and restoration.
That term, “ugly past,” can fit so many of our situations. Sometimes ugliness was brought on by ourselves. Other times it was brought on by others. Occasionally it’s brought on by life. So, an ugly past does not in any way equate to ugly personhood.
But, notwithstanding all this, God has a future for anyone who would choose to transcend their ugly past. There are some who will read this who will say, “Yes, I cannot help but agree with you; from my direct experience… (or) through the experience of somebody else I’ve observed.”
Anyone can turn their life around.
It takes tenacity and persistence. It takes vision and determination. It takes sacrifice.
It takes situational awareness. It takes on a journey context — moving further and further away from the epicentre of destruction into peace-lit lands of contemplation.
It takes everything we have, and that’s because it requires everything we have. But when we have very little, and what we have is worthless, we see what we want of the good life, and we’re prepared to grasp it with both hands.
There is a child involved; children, perhaps. There is a partner in need; a partner to be loved. There is a home to restore. There are lives to be reclaimed. There is peace to be had. There is joy to be experienced. There is hope to be imagined.
Simply put, nothing else matters now than to focus on the simple things of life. The dark life put behind us, the light of life beckons through and we are content living with our very simplest needs met. And God is good. He provides.
There is hope if we aspire toward that life of simplicity in a complex world.
Nothing can be taken away from such a life and certainly nothing of value can be added.
The best life prevails with profound simplicity for the blessings incumbent in, through, and for us.
When darkness is gone we are so thankful for the morning. There is a future that transcends all the ugliness of the past. Believe and it will become true.
© 2015 Steve Wickham.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Same Saving, Sanctifying, Sacrificing, Setting-Free Grace

SUCCESS in life is not what we often think it is. It’s not the acclaim or the acquisition of acumen or achievement or assets. Success is not what we get but what we give. Success is the extraordinary life lived. Success is what we all dream of but it’s the paradoxical road that gets us there.
Grace is success. The person imbued by grace is successful. They have contentment. Whether they have plenty or they lack means little — life abounds in them and to them.
Here are four aspects of life-giving, life-abounding grace:
Grace saves us. God, through Jesus, stooped down from heaven, by the Holy Spirit, and saved us. It is undeserved. We don’t deserve this mercy from God. But we have been lavished with it. Grace saves us not only at our salvation. It saves us continually. To be blessed like that is to live the vibrant life that Jesus Christ came to give us access to.
Grace sanctifies us. It renews us miraculously. We are cleansed and purified by the Holy Spirit’s impelling. We don’t even know why or how, but grace makes it easier to live a holy life. Our interest in sin wanes, yet we still have a great time without judging others. Grace sanctifies us without us insisting others be sanctified. We are simply grateful that God has taken such an interest in us. We pray for such a gift to be realised in others, too.
Grace enables us to sacrifice. Grace (Greek: charis) is the exemplar that leads us in how to love life, people, situations, even hardships, such that getting our own way is no longer the point. If charis is “a favour done without expectation of a payback” then we know it’s about sacrifice, and we know that sacrifice is always about faith. And wherever faith shows her face we can rest easy that hope isn’t far off. Sacrifice enables us to ply faith hopefully — and grace is the actual empowerment.
Grace sets us free. Whoever is free is free, indeed. Grace has disinhibited us. We are set free from the chains of this worldly life that bind us. Fears might be ever-present, and limits of self-concept might drive us from doing what we could. But grace negates the negative by giving it no attention in our lives.
Grace saves us, it sanctifies us, helping us to sacrifice, so we are set free. Out of grace we can love others.
© 2015 Steve Wickham.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Only Freedom Ever Worth Having

SLAVES we come into this world and slaves we shall leave, but not every kind of bounded slavery leads to hopelessness. We can be slaves to stimulation and boredom is our punishment. Or we are slaves to leisure and work is our penance. But, just the same, we can be slaves to service and our ‘punishment’ is blessing for the fact others are blessed. Or we might be bonded to telling the truth and so our ‘penance’ is peace.
It’s not a hard choice to become a slave for the good things for others in life.
Many non-believers are enslaved to the sins of greed, envy or addiction, etc., given that they see nothing wrong with those vices. They rather glory in those things than become subhuman and have to worship a ‘god’, as if a believer needs their crutch.
But the non-believer has no idea how far the Christian’s spiritual freedom extends.
The Christian is freed to growth; the fruit of their faith is sanctification via growth. But the non-Christian is hemmed in to the fruit of their denial, which breeds shame.
The Christian has a fruitful life welling up to eternal life, but the non-believer has a hard time avoiding death, for their fruit of shame is condemning on the one hand, yet their lack of guilt on the other hand is glaring.
The fruit of either life shows itself eventually. We would do very well to consider our payment in kind for the life we’ve lived is at one of two poles — and never the two shall meet.
Eternal life is a concept rich in our day let alone its richness beyond this life. But death in this life reveals to us the calamity that we know is now to come upon us.
On the one hand, the greatest hope for life is also a free ticket over the cusp of an eternal hell. Yet the other hand, a non-believer’s lack quickly overwhelms them.
The contrast between the free and wholesome grace of eternal life versus the imminence of death that sin’s deeds mete out is compelling.
Who chooses to forego a free gift of eternal life for a wage that pays mortally?
Lord, thank you that you made me free,
Thank you that you made me to be me,
Thank you that Christ set me free to live,
Thank you that he came here to give. AMEN.
© 2015 Steve Wickham.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Slave to Sin or Slave to Righteousness – What Kind of Choice is That, When You Have to Choose?

REALISM is the kicker of life.
We really must laugh at that. We rail against the world when we are having a bad day, and, guess what, we might as well laugh. The reality is God owns the rules. It does us no good whatsoever to protest. We might as well say, “Okay, God, have it your way,” because he will. Always has. Always will.
Now is your choice to find yourself in a giddy smile. You have less control than ever.
But there is some good news in all this. We do get one choice. Do we live to suit ourselves and end up riled and frustrated or do we live to glorify God and get blessed? It really makes no difference to God. He sees us as foolish or wise, but always with the potential to be wise.
We might respond that we don’t live a life of sin even though we don’t call Jesus our Saviour. This is a thing that bamboozles many Christians — “but [the name of their non-Christian friend] lives such a good and loving life.”
Think of someone like this: a non-Christian who lives a ‘good’ life. Let’s test their attribution of goodness. Are they always good? Do they never disappoint, fail, betray, or hurt anyone? Are they so committed to goodness that they will suffer willingly for someone, anyone? (Yes, a lot of this is a challenge to us Christians, isn’t it? It should be.)
Because we can never be perfect — and yet we have the yearning to be perfect because we are made in God’s image — we are destined always to fall short. A good self-esteem might help us. But we are still not good enough on the scale of holiness. We might reason that away. “What does it matter?”
This is how it matters.
We are geared and purposed to align to a perfect and holy standard, and, because we can’t, of ourselves, we need a model, a Saviour. This is how it works: on the one hand our perfection is not the issue, so we have a way of reconciling matters of failure, in truth — i.e. we own up. On the other hand, we have holiness to aspire to; not a judging holiness that creates pressure for others, but a sanctifying holiness that we ourselves apply to ourselves. We are impelled to grow. The Christian life is a life of discipleship — being a slave to righteousness — and it’s nowhere near as scary as it sounds.
The premise of our life could be this prayer:
“Lord, help me to do better whilst helping me to not expect perfection of myself.”
We are slaves to something or other.
Should we be slaves to something not wholly good or to Someone holy good?
Lord, thank you for the presence of your peace,
The glorious irony: I’m your slave,
Now, because I’ve experienced your release,
Help me be yours till the grave. AMEN.
© 2015 Steve Wickham.