Turning from and Waiting for

Over the past 50 to 60 years the church in Australia has certainly faced many challenges, and those challenges still persist today. We face growing scrutiny and increasing critique from many directions, even as our churches experience declining attendance and aging facilities. Often we are left bewildered and lost as to how we should live in this changing and challenging environment.

Map of Mcedonia, including Thessalonica
Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica relates well to the description of Paul’s ministry and movements in Acts 17-18.

Writing to the church in Thessalonica, Paul speaks encouragement from reports he had heard about them. He writes of “how [they] turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath” (1 Thess. 1:9-10).
Paul praises them for two things: for no longer worshiping idols but only the Creator God; and for waiting for Jesus to rescue them from God’s impending judgement. I wonder if the example of the Thessalonians could be helpful for us in working out how we should live.
We don’t talk about idols much today, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
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Hope for the Church

There are many things that can cause us to despair the shape of the church today. Declining numbers, aging congregations and growing hostility can tempt us to think all is lost. However, there is reason to hope. 

child labour
The youngest workers  crawled underneath machines while in operation to gather up loose cotton. Many died when they got caught in the machinery.

In Britain – at the height of the Industrial Revolution in 1740 – poverty, social injustice, child labour, harsh living conditions and long working hours were rampant. Children aged five or six worked 14 to 16-hour days in mines, people were executed for petty crimes such as stealing a loaf of bread, drunkenness was rampant and gambling extensive. It lead philosopher Bishop Berkeley to lament that morality and religion had collapsed “to a degree that was never known in any Christian country.”[i] At St. Paul’s Cathedral London on Easter Sunday morning, 1740, only six people were in attendance for communion.
Jenny and I visited St Paul's Cathedral in 2012
Jenny and I visited St Paul’s Cathedral in 2012

It was in this context that God did a new thing: George Whitefield began to preach to coal miners in 1738. He in turn inspired the Wesley brothers, who turned Britain around.
Over the next five or so decades God transformed the lives of people and the society of Britain. Thousands upon thousands accepted Jesus as Lord and Saviour, slavery was abolished, child labour laws introduced, trade unions established, and prisons reformed.
Reflecting on the history of the church over a century later . . .
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[i] Introduction to the History of Christianity, Dowley, 2014

All Change!

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The “Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed.”
Martin Van Buren
In 1829 the Governor of New York at the time, Martin Van Buren, wrote to the American President, Andrew Jackson, demanding his Federal government preserve the country’s system of water canals. He was fearful of “the spread of a new form of transportation known as ‘railroads’”. The result he said, would be “serious unemployment,” “boat builders would suffer,” and that “towline, whip and harness makers would be left destitute.”
The problem with the ‘railroad’ he said was that “carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of fifteen miles per hour.” This was frightening to women, children and livestock, and passengers’ lives were in danger. He concluded that the “Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed.”
Change is never easy. Sometimes we love it, sometimes we tolerate it, sometimes it makes us angry, and sometimes it frightens us terribly. We can long for it and plan for it, yet at the same time we will fear it and even actively resist it.
Yet change is inevitable . . . Read more >>>

The Voting Dilemma

Parliament House Tas
Parliament House, Hobart

In Tasmania, we will soon be voting to elect a new State Parliament  on March 15. For some, if not many of us, this poses a dilemma. Sadly few on the list of candidates, or the parties they represent, endear themselves to us. We feel no matter how we vote, we will be forced into a compromise. We many even be tempted to cast an invalid vote.
But that too creates a dilemma. We are called to pray for our governing authorities and submit to them (1 Timothy 2:1-3, Romans 13:5-6), and if, as Paul writes, we are to give them respect, honour and pay taxes, then voting responsibly is part of our honouring.
Moreover, Jesus calls us to be like salt in our community. We are to be those who are called to make a difference in our world by witnessing to a loving God who seeks engagement with people across the world. How are we to vote as responsible salt-like followers of Jesus when our choice is a compromise to our values?
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Don’t Ask A Fish

Goldfish in fishbowl
“A fish . . . has no means to convey what it takes for granted”

An old Chinese proverb says, “If you want to know what water is, don’t ask the fish.” A fish has never lived outside its watery environment, it has no experience or language to describe its natural environment, and so it has no means to convey what it takes for granted.
The same can be true for us. Much of what we accept as normal, because we were born into and it experience every day, is beyond our ability to appreciate and describe. It is only as we get older that we might begin to realise our experience of life is unique and special in certain ways and is not the experience of everyone.
We take so much for granted. Compared to the rest of the world, living in Hobart is very comfortable. We are amongst the richest people in the world with access to some of the cleanest water and air on the plant. We are surrounded by magnificent beauty and most of us do not need to worry about shelter or food.
At the same time we live in a society that is very secular, consumer-driven, and individualistic. Most people take it for granted and assume it is the only way to exist. However, as Christians there is much we find about our community that is contrary to our values and way of thinking. We are constantly confronted by them and often feel like a fish out of water.
Across the centuries in many and various ways, Christians have been at odds with their surrounding culture, which is not surprising as we are called to stand firm against conforming (Rom 12:1-3). For us, it is a constant challenge to preserve our Christian worldview when our values clash with prevailing attitudes of our community, neighbours and families. The pull of the surrounding environment is compelling and often causes us to drift from our values without even realising it is happening.
Over the past 50 to 60 years community values have changed so much we are now living our Christian lives in the midst of a hostile environment. We are in the middle of a spiritual battle which competes for our hearts and minds. Our beliefs are constantly challenged, and often rejected. We can easily feel overwhelmed and begin to flounder against strong intimidating forces.
Yet we have a job to do. It is not to retreat but stand firm and relearn how we are to live as Christians in our changing world. We have to learn how to be missionaries in our community, our neighbourhoods and our families. This will require God-given insight, wisdom and passion. It will require theological reflection and a good dose of compassionate courage. It will require refreshed minds understanding again what we believe and why we believe it. It will require recharged hearts and strengthened wills. It will require deepening relationships as we walk and work together in being the witnessing community of faith God calls us to be.
With God’s help we can do what the fish cannot do – we can grow to understand and describe the environment we live in so we can live differently. Paul the apostle said we are to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” and to “not let the world squeeze you into its mould” (Romans 12:1-3, JB Phillips).
May God strengthen us as we allow him to change and equip us to be living witnesses to him in our world today.
Stephen L Baxter