The Adventure Continues

Greetings to all as another year begins!

The start of every year is often one full of anticipation for many people. It presents a moment of opportunity for a fresh beginning, a chance to start over, and a hope for a better year.

While New Year’s resolutions may not be for everyone, for most of us there lurks in the back of our mind a list of things we would like to do better. Whether we want to ‘turn over a new leaf’ or ‘start from scratch’, looking ahead to the coming year is like a blank canvass stretched out before us. There are 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days, or 8,750 hours full of opportunity and promise waiting to be explored.

Sometimes our hopes for the New Year are born of disappointments, grief or pain from the past. Sometimes they New Year Calendarare born of dreams, visions or the hopes for ourselves or others. Others times they come from the promptings of our heart through the Spirit of God or God’s word to us from the Bible.

Though the Bible doesn’t mention New Year resolutions, it does urge us to examine our lives regularly. The call to “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) reminds us how difficult it can be in the midst of a noisy world to find the space to connect with God. Yet Paul encouraged the Corinthians to “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Cor 13:5) and Lamentations suggests we “examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord” (Lam 3:40). And Jesus often withdrew to isolated places to reflect and prayerfully discern the Father’s will (Lk 5:16).

Perhaps you could take some timeout this January to sit quietly, reflect on your life and spend time with God.  Here’s some thoughts to help you on your way . . .

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Your Obituary – How Will it Read?

Alfred-Nobel

Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, read his own obituary in the local newspaper

One morning Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, read his own obituary in the local newspaper. It said, “Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, who died yesterday, devised a way for more people to be killed in a war than ever before. He died a very rich man.”

Nobel, obviously, was surprised and deeply affected. But, it wasn’t because he was presumed dead. The reporter had made a mistake as it was his older brother who had died. He was deeply affected because of what it said. He wanted to be remembered differently than the person who had invented an efficient way to kill people and amass a fortune. In response the Nobel Peace Prize was born.

Today Alfred Nobel is remembered more for his prize than for inventing dynamite.

Sometimes we are given the opportunity to reflect deeply on life and make a change. You hear bad news from your doctor; you have a near miss with a truck on the road; or you catch up with old friends at a school reunion – and it causes you to reflect. Am I heading in the right direction? Have I just drifted along? How would I like to be remembered?

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You Foolish Galatians!

Recently at Hobart Baptist Church we recently began a new series of messages based upon Paul’s letter to the Galatians. I’m looking forward to all that God will bring out of it for us.

Saint_Paul_Writing_His_Epistles-_by_Valentin_de_Boulogne

“Traditional Christian art often depicted Paul at a desk, pen in hand. But this is not how it would have happened.”

When he wrote this letter, Paul had just arrived back in Antioch in Syria after his first short term mission journey that lasted about 18 months. It was here he heard news that the new communities of faith he helped establish in the region of Galatia were struggling. Concerned for their welfare, Paul wrote a very firm, even angry, letter to them.

Now when we say Paul ‘wrote’ a letter, it is good to remember this was 2000 years ago when literacy was sparse and the cost of materials high. Paul was not skilled at writing so he would have engaged a professional scribe.

Traditional Christian art often depicted Paul at a desk, pen in hand. But this is not how it would have happened. Nor is the image accurate of him pacing back and forth dictating furiously to his secretary. Rather, for Paul, letter writing would have been a very time consuming process.

He most likely would have been with his team in a room tossing around ideas that were captured laboriously by the secretary.

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Baptism: Being Immersed in Jesus

Yesterday at Hobart Baptist Church we enjoyed for the second week in a row, three special baptisms. It is was a special time of celebration when new followers of Jesus Water bubble and wavesdeclared their commitment and faith in this way.

If you were able to take a moment to look around our church you would notice we are an international church with many different backgrounds, languages, ages, cultures and experiences.  We currently have three gatherings on Sundays . . .

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The Challenge of Grace

At Hobart Baptist Church we are just about to the end of series titled ‘Challenging Church.’  Over the past few months we’ve focussed on some of the ways the church is being challenged in our society.

Candles and Cross

Jesus called his disciples to be the
“light of the world”

Not only are the rapid changes bringing disorientation but there are many that are loudly proposing that the church is irrelevant and has no place in today’s world. This calls for increasing courage and reliance on the Holy Spirit to enable us to stand and face these challenges.

But in addition to these challenges, the church itself is in turn called to be a challenge to the world. Jesus called his disciples to be the “light of the world” – a people living an alternative to the world, grounded in faith and repentance where we acknowledge . . .

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Christmas Grace (again)

In my last blog I reflected on the meaning of grace at Christmas time, and I’ve been thinking more about it since then. At Christmas time we hear a lot about peace, joy, and love; yet there are two words not popularly associated with Christmas – grace and mercy. Nevertheless, more than any others these words probably reflect the true heart of Christmas.

While we can easily get caught up in the hype that is ‘Xmas’, CHRISTmas is a reminder that despite what Bette Midler’s popular song suggests, “God is watching from a distance” – in fact is not distant but God is with us. Christmas celebrates that God travelled across an impossible and infinite distance to be born a human being amongst us.

Christmas bauble

GRACE: God’s son traded a throne in heaven for a feed trough in a stable

Locked in time and place in a body, God’s Son put his power to one side and traded the throne room of heaven for a feed trough in a stable. Becoming human means he shares our frailty and experiences our delicate lives. The miracle of the incarnation is that God overcomes the divide between earth and heaven and between creation and creator and becomes one of us. Living the journey from baby to adult he lives the journey of life and learns what it is to cry, to crawl, and to walk; what it is to experience not only joy and love, but also loneliness, despair, pain, grief, loss and ultimately death.

He lived a life like no other human before or since. In Jesus, God did what we could not do ourselves. He lived the life as humans were always meant to live but never could. He succeeded where we all fail. Paradoxically, he paid the penalty we should have paid and died the death we deserved. Yet in doing so he won for us a life that we were never entitled to. Through no effort of our own we receive mercy and forgiveness, all because of what he did.

This is a call for great celebration. This is the grace of Christmas. But it is not all. Grace is not limited just to Christmas. God isn’t just in the season. With the coming of the Holy Spirit, God is with us all time. God did not just pay us a visit and disappear. No, God remains intimately connected with us.  God is present with us in every situation and shares with us at every moment. Whether that moment is good or bad, full of joy or sorrow, whether we are holy or sinful, whether we are alive or dead, God is with us.

This is what the angel meant with he said to Mary that her baby would be “Immanuel, God is with us.”  This is Christmas grace.

As we celebrate Advent this year and as we draw near to Christmas Day, may our hearts be sensitive to the reality that God is with us. In our everyday life God is there to meet us in the midst of it. May the grace of Christmas be an inspiration and an encouragement to you in the days ahead and indeed throughout the year to come.

Aussie Attitudes to Christianity

Karl Faase

Karl Faase, Senior Pastor at Gymea Baptist, Sydney, since 1996

Late last year Olive Tree Media (lead by Karl Faase from Gymea Baptist Church, Sydney) released survey results that inquired into attitudes among Australians toward Christianity and why Aussies don’t readily accept Christian faith.

Results show that despite 61% of Australians calling themselves Christian at the last census (2011), 60% say they don’t in fact know a Christian. This seems to confirm the hunch that many tick the “Christian” box even though they no longer, if ever, have taken it seriously. Not surprisingly, the survey reveals that half of the Australian population have fixed ideas and are not at all open to exploring or investigating other religious views and practices. Karl Faase concludes that this leaves only 20% of the Australian community who genuinely “are open to spirituality and the idea of the existence of God.”

However, this 20% still struggles to connect with the Christian church or faith. The survey found that even among those who consider themselves ‘spiritually open’ there are blockages in “attitudes and beliefs that they hold towards the church and Christianity.” These include questions of science, the existence of suffering, a perceived hypocrisy in the church, and the perceived failure of Christian leaders. Faase suggests these “belief blockers are creating an almost impenetrable wall to faith.”

My guess is that you find nothing new in these survey results. Like me, your experience confirms there are many among our acquaintances, families, and friends for whom discussions about faith, belief, church and Christianity are no-go areas. You too have felt the “impenetrable wall” and like me are somewhat surprised when someone is willing and wanting to have an open discussion.

How do we respond? Over the past months each Sunday at Hobart Baptist we have been making our way through the Book of Acts. We have been observing the church in its infancy as it learnt what it meant to be the church in response to the continuing work of Jesus in the world. In many ways we are just like those early Christians. They too lived in a society of “impenetrable walls.” They too experienced a community where most did not want to explore or engage in conversation. And just like them, we too are learning what it means to be church.

“We too are learning what it means to be church . . . 

Although we live in a different part of the world, at a different time and in different circumstances, it is still the same Jesus we follow, and it is this Jesus that is still at work in the world. In our exploration of Acts, we have seen time and again how the journey of the early church was an ongoing response to what God was doing. Whether it was on the day of Pentecost, Ananias and Sapphira’s demise, persecution of the believers, the conversion of Saul, or Peter’s experience with the centurion Cornelius, the early church had a job of keeping up with the actions of the Holy Spirit around them.

In asking “how do we respond?” to the challenges we face in our day, we can turn to Acts and see that the answer lies in seeing where God is already at work in our world. When Jesus was challenged for healing a cripple on the Sabbath he responded saying he only does what he sees his Father doing (John 5:19).

Jesus’ example is helpful for us. It gives us a model as to how we can respond to the challenges we face today. The Olive Tree Media survey suggests that only one in five people are genuinely open to listen . . .

So may God grant us the grace and insight to know what it is God is doing in our Aussie communities and to lead us to those whose attitudes are open to Christian things; may he grant us the courage to be bold; and give us the wisdom and strength to respond just as Jesus would.

Stephen L Baxter

The Diversity of Jesus’ Church – in India!

Back in 1990, Jenny and I with our three young children and nine eager fellow travellers set out for a short term mission trek visiting our sister church which worked in the slums of Chennai (then called Madras). Chennai is in the province of Tamil Nadu, and is famous for its curries and very dark-skinned inhabitants. 

For six weeks we shared life with our Indian brothers and sisters in Christ. It was there we learnt about the diversity of God’s church in ways we could never have imagined. It was a confronting, uncomfortable and challenging time; yet it was nevertheless an encouraging and life-changing experience.

On Sundays we sat on the floor through 2½ hour long services, with women on the right and men on the left, in humid, sweltering conditions. Most of the time we had little or no idea what was going on as men prayed and preached and women sang and wailed. We watched as the pastor prayed for Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians alike and then asked us to join in.

Dance in Worship

Two of our group in ‘half-saris’ (worn by older teen girls) dancing to a worship song as learnt at home. They are dancing surrounded by the women’s half of the congregation.

As leaders, one of our main tasks was to counsel our team as they experienced culture shock, and guide them to a godly and biblical way to understand the gulf of differences that existed between the Indians and us. The way they lived their Christian life, their theology and practice of church was something we had never encountered or experienced before.

We often pined for home, yet we learnt so much during those six weeks and it was sad when we came to leave. While their church services seemed so disordered, often leaving us confused and uncomfortable, we could not deny the reality that God was at work amongst them, despite our disquiet and questions.

As I look back now I think it was the first time I realised that despite what I’d assumed, the opposite of disorder is not order, or certainly not my idea of order. When things are uncomfortable, confusing and seemingly out of hand, I look for stability in what I know and what I experience. But living in Chennai  that was impossible, there was no escape. I couldn’t walk away, I couldn’t withdraw. After all, I was the leader.

Friends

Jenny with our three children and some Indian friends

What God taught me was that peace is the opposite of disorder, not order. The apostle Paul says as much in a little verse in 1 Corinthians where he says, “God is not a God of disorder, but of peace” (14:33). What a simple but profound statement, written to what was most likely the most dysfunctional church of the New Testament. Here was snobbery, sexual promiscuity, over-enthusiastic expression of spirituality, and disorderly times of worship. The church was divided and confused, and in the midst of their disarray Paul reminds them of the importance of peace, after all Jesus is the King of Peace (Hebrews 7:2) and the angels announcedat his birth that he would bring “peace on earth.”

Preaching

Here I am preaching at 2am at the New Year’s Eve all night prayer vigil!

The lessons I learnt in Chennai served me well just a few years later when I became the Managing Director of Australia’s largest Christian magazine at the time (On Being magazine). Through the magazine I came in contact with people with quite a wide diversity of experiences and expressions in following Jesus. I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Christians from all persuasions and walks of life. Some were more conservative even fundamental, some were liberal, some charismatic and Pentecostal, some were orthodox and some unorthodox. Many thought their way of being and doing church was the “right” way, and some really struggled to appreciate the uniqueness of each other’s gifts, heritage and experience.

However, I found the experience of learning about all this variety was rich and rewarding. I was constantly reminded of God’s love of diversity and the how body of Christ is made up people from different backgrounds, heritage and experience. Such a range in understanding is not a problem to God, and I learnt that it shouldn’t be a problem to me either.

This is one of the things I find delightful about Hobart Baptist. We are made up of three quite distinct and different congregations. In essence it is a small expression of the diversity of the body of Christ. Alongside our more traditional Baptist heritage, we have our Karen congregation and their experience of church, living in refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border. And alongside these we have Church With No Walls expressing their faith in God in different ways again.

I am constantly encouraged by the willingness of people to work at being one church in the midst of our diversity, endeavouring to encourage one another through the exercise of grace, forgiveness and love. Despite our differences we are to work at being united, and in doing so be obedient to the command of Jesus. On the night before he died Jesus prayed for us (John 14-17) and insisted that as disciples we demonstrate our unity by our love for one another.

That is not to say we agree on everything, in fact the reality is we don’t. But we can agree to be united despite our differences. Often Christians make the mistake of wanting other Christians to think the way they do. Still others believe everyone should worship or work the way they do. But we were made to be different – different gifts but the same Spirit, different services but the same Lord, different ministries but the same God (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). The Bible is clear: we are called to unity but not uniformity.

Unity is not about having big services with all the congregations together, nor is unity singing the same songs and doing everything the same way. That is conformity or sameness. Such uniformity is unbiblical.

How is it possible to live with such diversity? I believe unity is a journey, not a static point. Our focus is not order (although that maybe important) but peace. Why? Because we can experience peace even in the midst of disorder or when we feel uncomfortable. Unity is being united in purpose and allowing each other to get on with what they are called to. We may sing different songs, conduct our services differently and see the world differently, but what is important is that we all reach for the same goal. We want to see each other’s ministries flourish; we therefore pray for each other and help out wherever we can. This is unity! That is what God taught Jenny and me in India.

We discovered God is much bigger than our experience, our theology and our ability to understand. Our thinking was too small at the best of times. Once we relaxed and experienced peace, we were able to see God at work in new ways, and learnt to appreciate their “dis”-order in a new way.

We learnt that we can’t limit God to our comfort zone and say, “God, I only want you to work in what I’m comfortable with.” We learnt that Jesus is not a comfortable Saviour, and if we were looking for comfort we need to look elsewhere than Jesus. So despite the fact that Jesus is the Prince of Peace, it did not mean he was the Prince of Comfort. And although the Holy Spirit is called the comforter the Spirit’s job is not to make us comfortable.

God has not finished with Hobart Baptist Church, there is much more that the triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – desires for us. And if God is at work amongst us, we can guarantee that the journey will be uncomfortable and challenging; for me as well as you. Our assurance is that God is with us, and Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is our Saviour.

I encourage you to be at prayer for the various forms of the Church in Hobart and elsewhere. Pray also for those who are experiencing a sense of disorder wehre they are; that they may seek God’s peace, the peace that passes understanding; and that they may grow in love for others despite differences.

Stephen L Baxter

Celebrating HOPE at Pentecost

The Spirit came like a doveYesterday was Pentecost Sunday, the day the church remembers and celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit.

In the churches I grew up in there was some caution around this day, not so much with ‘Pentecost’, but with ‘Pentecostal’. There were concerns with ‘Pentecostal’ theology and styles of worship, and sadly this caution sometimes lead to an avoidance of the Day of Pentecost itself.

Pentecost was originally an Old Testament festival, called the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot). It began as an agricultural festival celebrating and giving thanks for the “first fruits” of the early spring harvest (Lev 23, Ex 23, 34) but by the early New Testament period it had became associated with the celebration of God’s creation of his people and the giving of Torah (the “Law”) on Mount Sinai.

In Acts 2 Luke records the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on those in the upper room during Pentecost celebrations in Jerusalem. They link these events to the prophecies of Joel 2 and promises of Jesus (Acts 1:8). The emphasis is primarily on an empowering by the Holy Spirit to enable the people of God to witness to Jesus the Christ.

There is debate about exactly what happened at Pentecost, whether it is once off or repeatable event; and whether it should or should not be the experience of all Christians. Whatever one’s preference here, what it most clear is that Pentecost represents God’s gracious presence, enabling his people to live as witnesses for him.

Pentecost Day is a day to celebrate hope. It reminds us that God is at work through his Holy Spirit among his people. It is a time to celebrate God’s ongoing work of saving this world, and that the way this is done is through his people through the power of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost reminds us that Jesus is not finished with his church. There is much room for celebration and hope.

Let us pray God will enable you to be open to the renewing work of the Holy Spirit in your life, and in the life of your local church.

Stephen L Baxter