Friday, May 30, 2014



All of us collide with bureaucracies from time to time. I have had two major experiences:

Case #1: A church of 1000+ attending, where I was senior pastor for about eight years; at one count 27 on salaried staff, lots of volunteers, 60 home groups, not to mention the committees of administrators for this and that... Fun!

Case #2: More recently, about a dozen highly competent doctors in various medical institutions and hospitals - including several 'associate professors' - who are managing various aspects of my wife Jan's cancer + other medical scenarios... When they give conflicting advice, either our GP or we have to get them talking to one another...

Now consider these, from Time (June 2, 2014):

# 1: (p. 22). Stats from the recent elections in India. Number of eligible voters:  834 million; Number of people who voted: 554 million; Political parties that participated: 464; Popular vote won by Modi's BJP: 31%; Length of elections: 5 weeks (April 7 - May 12). (All of these - largest in human history?).

# 2: (p. 15: Columnist Joe Klein's one-pager): 'Back at the turn of the century... [US] Senator Bob Kerrey learned a little something about the ethos of Veterans Affairs. Kerrey, a Medal of Honor recipient who lost part of a leg in Vietnam, needed to get his home address changed. He had called the bank and settled the matter in 10 minutes. He called the VA and spoke to a hostile and not very helpful receptionist. He spoke to the receptionist's supervisor, who told him "You're going to have to come in." So Kerrey went to the VA office in New York. The receptionist again wasn't very helpful. Kerrey pointed out that he was only talking about an address change. The receptionist said, "Talk to one of them," pointing to customer "service" employees sitting at desks labeled A and B. Desk C was vacant. Kerrey went to desk A where he was told, "That's handled by Desk C." Kerrey asked when the occupant of Desk C was returning. "I don't know," said Desk A. Kerrey went over and sat at Desk C for a long while, and then a longer while. He spoke to the supervisor, who had no idea where Desk C was and told Kerrey, "Come back tomorrow".

"You gotta be kidding," Kerrey said, or perhaps yelled. It took 12 days to get his address changed...

'I've head far more serious VA horror stories ad nauseum in recent years. I know of at least one young Marine who committed suicide while waiting - months - for his medical records to be transferred from Los Angeles to Houston. I've also heard stories of heroic treatment performed by devoted VA doctors, nurses and counselors, but those often occurred after their patients endured a Kafkaesque struggle with the VA's bureaucratic gatekeepers...'


Thomas Piketty - the super-rich and the rest of us...

The super-rich and the rest of us: author Thomas Piketty

Mark Colvin reported this story on Thursday, June 12, 2014 18:26:00

MARK COLVIN: In an Essential Media opinion poll published this week, Australians were asked to compare fairness and equality in the country to the situation 20 years ago. Forty three per cent said they thought Australia was less fair and equal. Only 28 per cent thought fairness and equality had improved.

Inequality seems to be a rising issue in the electorate, and much of the controversy about the federal budget here has focussed on perceptions that it'll hurt the poor more than the rich and make Australia a more unequal place.

That's consistent with an international trend in which politicians and economists are being confronted with a serious inequality debate.

And in the last few months, that's been fuelled by a fat best-seller by a hitherto obscure French economist who's been studying, among other things, the widening gap between the super-rich and the rest of us.

His name is Thomas Piketty. He's is a professor of Economics at the Paris School of Economics. And his book, Capital in the 21st Century, has become a massive worldwide bestseller.

He spoke to me from his office in Paris.

THOMAS PIKETTY: My book is really trying to shift the attention from income to wealth and from the study of top income and top managerial compensation to the study of wealth dynamics, wealth accumulation, wealth concentration and of course both issues are important and both issues are related but I think in the long run, the issue of wealth concentration is even more important.

So let me take an example that illustrates what you've just said. Take the Forbes ranking of global billionaire over the 1987-2013 period. What we did is to compute the evolution of the average wealth of a fixed fraction of the world population at the top. Now if we were in an equilibrium for the world distribution of wealth, you know, this group should be rising at the same speed as the average wealth in the world economy.

Now what we see is that it is actually rising three times faster. So it has been, over this entire period, it has been rising about 6, 7 per cent a year in real terms above inflation rate, whereas average wealth at the global level has been rising at about 2 per cent per year.

MARK COLVIN: So if you're a person who has saved $50,000 in the bank, compared to a person who's saved $2 million, you're not going to get richer at the same rate? I mean it's not that you're not going to make more money, it's that the rate itself is going to change. That person is going to get richer faster with bigger percentages than you?

THOMAS PIKETTY: This is what we observed for the wealth rankings. You come to your bank with $100,000 or $200,000, you're not going to get 6 or 7 per cent real return these days and it looks as if financial deregulation has probably increased the inequality in rates of returns.

MARK COLVIN: Is it also just because, naturally, if you're pulling in 2 million a year or something, you're likely to spend much less of your income than somebody who's pulling in $100,000 a year?

THOMAS PIKETTY: Right, so you're perfectly right. Scale economies, you know, import volume and demand are the key part of the explanation. So, take the capital endowment of Harvard University, you know, they spend only 0.3 per cent per year in management cost, but because they have $30 billion, you know, 0.3 per cent is $100 million.

So they can spend $100 million to pay a group of portfolio managers, you know, which is enough to pay a pretty good team, and still that's going to cost them only 0.3 per cent. So if this allows them to get a return of 8 per cent rather than 4 per cent, that's clearly a good deal.

Now, if you have an endowment of 100 million, of course you cannot spend your entire endowment in management cost, and if you have $100,000, you know, you can ask your brother-in-law what to do with your money, but probably that's not going to get you very far.

So, you know, unless you have a very productive brother-in-law, but on average, the rate of return that we observe in the data, you know, are very different depending on the initial size of the portfolio.

Now, that's one source of rising inequality. Of course, it's not the only explanation. You know, it's also, you know, some people at the very top of the list are also by their fortune an entrepreneurial wealth and, you know, that's very useful. But still, even if, of course it is good to have entrepreneur, to have new wealth accumulation, if the top of the list, if the top of the distribution is rising three times faster than the average, you know, whether it comes from a year rate of return for large initial wealth, and that's part of the explanation, or whether it comes from entrepreneurial wealth, and this is another part of the explanation, in any case, you cannot have the top rise three times faster than the average forever.

So, this will have to stop somewhere. What will be the level of wealth consolidation where this will stop? I don't know, and nobody knows and, you know, I think we should all be concerned about that.

MARK COLVIN: Now, as you know, The Financial Times newspaper has been picking away at your figures and has launched a fairly concerted attack on them.

In a radio interview it's difficult to go into all the technical material, but what, broadly, has been your response?

THOMAS PIKETTY: Yeah, I have responded point by point. You know, it's available online, and I think anybody who would spend a few minutes on this controversy will see that, you know, they have made a lot of noise out of nothing. You know, I am very happy to put all the detailed data online. That's what I have always done. But I think in the case of the Financial Times, you know, I think it's a bit silly on their side, you know, to try to deny the rising inequality.

You know, I think we see rising inequality very clearly in top managerial compensation over the past few decades. You know, if they can't see that, you know, they should open the financial statements of companies.

And regarding wealth, you know, every magazine in the world is publishing wealth rankings where you can see that the top of the distribution is rising faster than the average.

There is one country, Britain, where they try to make the case that wealth inequality is actually declining in the recent decade, but in fact, they are comparing apples and oranges. They are comparing a measure of wealth inequality for 1990 that's based on administrative tax data with a measure for today that's based on self-reported wealth data where, by definition, the top of the distribution does not respond.

I'm not saying that rising inequality is the only possible outcome. You know, there are other economic forces which can sometimes lead to a decline in inequality, but this also requires specific policies and institutions, investment in education, better access to skills and higher education. But, you know, there are forces that, even with the right educational investment, tend to push in the direction of rising inequality.

MARK COLVIN: Thomas Piketty. Professor Piketty is a professor of Economics in Paris, and his book is called Capital in the 21st Century.
ABC national radio 12/6/14

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


PENTECOST: The Holy Spirit’s Gift of Energy

Pentecost Sunday is sometimes called ‘the birthday of the Church’. Pentecost is a Greek word meaning ’50′, so we celebrate Pentecost 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus. Forty days he taught and encouraged his followers, then after his Ascension they waited another ten days for his gift of the Holy Spirit.

In ancient Israel, Pentecost was the celebration of the wheat harvest, 50 days after the slaying of the Passover lamb. Since biblical times, the Jewish celebration (‘Shavuot’) also commemorates the day the Ten Commandments were revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai.

The Holy Spirit is God in action. Sometimes the Holy Spirit is called ‘the third person of the Trinity’ as if he is a lesser Being than Father and Son. He has certainly been ‘the neglected member of the Godhead’. (In the Apostles’ Creed there are at least 10 statements about Jesus Christ and only one about the Holy Spirit).

At the beginning of time, God’s Spirit (Hebrew ‘ruach’) created this universe out of nothing, bringing order out of chaos. ‘By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth’ (Psalm 33:6). I remember a graphic Time Magazine article [1] (May 13, 2002) with a double page spread headed ‘A Star Is Born’: ‘The astonishing images beaming down from the new high-resolution camera on the Hubble Space telescope arrived last week, and they are out of this world. This photo of a stellar nursery is a close-up of the Cone Nebula, a cloud of gas and dust some 2,500 light-years from Earth. From top to bottom, the celestial pillar spans 2.5 light years – 3,000 times the size of our solar system. Stars are being born within the cloud as dense knots of gas collapse and flare with nuclear fusion. Five billion years ago, when our sun was still a newborn, it was probably shrouded in a cloud like this one.’ That’s the creative Spirit of God at work.

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures – our ‘Old Testament’ – there is the deep conviction that no one can do the work of God without the Spirit of God; no one can lead others for God who is not led by God’s Spirit. The Spirit gives Joseph skill to rule (Genesis 41:38); he gives Joshua military prowess (Numbers 27:18); he gives skill to a couple of craftsmen (Exodus 31:2-6), and he gives words to the prophets.

The Holy Spirit empowers Jesus, from his conception, and throughout his ministry, to teach and to heal. And before Jesus left his followers he gave them a mandate to motivate them for the task ahead, and promised to send the Holy Spirit in his place (Luke 24:49).

Notice we used ‘he’ (Christian feminists often like the pronoun ‘she’). The Holy Spirit is not an ‘it’ or a thing (although the Bible describes his operations as being like the wind, unpredictable or even mysterious). The English language used to say ‘Holy Ghost’, but the Spirit is not a ‘spook’ either. He is like Jesus, who is like God: thinking, willing and feeling –possessing all the attributes of any personality: intellect, emotion and will. The Holy Spirit can be grieved and quenched or stifled and ignored. The Holy Spirit ‘inspires’ people to say what God wants them to say (or to write those things down). So prophets and Scripture are ‘inspired’ by the Spirit. The Spirit guides us into the truth about Jesus, about ourselves and our sinfulness – and its consequence, judgment – and gives us the ‘big picture’ and God’s will for the future (John 16:8-13).

When you become a Christian, the Holy Spirit enters your life, and he will never leave you. In a sense, he’s a guest: you’ve let him in the front door. It’s now an exciting (and sometimes scary) process letting him take control of every room in your home. (Perhaps you could imagine these rooms, invite him in, and talk about what he discovers there!). He helps us to pray (Romans 8:26), to communicate to others about Christ (Mark 13:11), to love (Galatians 5:22), and to do what is right (1 John 2:27).

So be ‘filled with the Spirit’ (Ephesians 5:18). You get drunk with wine by choosing the sort you want, imbibing it, and ingesting it. Then your behaviour exhibits some changes according to how much and how often you drink (changing – and eventually controlling – you). So with the Spirit, says Paul. But in one sense you don’t get more of the Spirit; he gets more of you.

How am I filled with the Holy Spirit? First you must desire him – hungering and thirsting for what is right (Matthew 5:6). This involves confession of your sins (1 John 1:9). Then ask him to fill you: if you ask for anything he wants, he’ll hear you (1 John 5:14,15). Thank him for filling you, and by faith live moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day in his power and under his direction.

He wants to change you, though your basic temperament remains the same. Paul, for example, was a very aggressive person before his conversion but the Spirit redirected all that emotional energy towards more positive ends. Being ‘filled with the Spirit’ simply means being controlled by him. Are you supposed to ‘feel’ anything when the Spirit comes into your life? Yes and no. Some do, some don’t. Some have a ‘peak experience’ – for a few it’s quite powerful. For others it’s quite a matter-of-fact transaction. The Spirit operates uniquely in each of us. Remember, he’s like the wind – sometimes a hurricane, sometimes a gentle breeze. Indeed, Paul and Luke describe receiving the Spirit in different ways. For Paul ‘receiving’ the Spirit makes us God’s children (Romans 8:15). For Luke ‘receiving’ the Spirit gives us power (Acts 1:8). However, Paul also writes about receiving the Spirit with accompanying miracles (Galatians 3:1-5). Christians today generally follow either Luke or Paul on this point – the Pentecostals like Luke, the Evangelicals Paul. In the early church, ‘Spirit’ and ‘Word’ went hand in hand. Let us combine both Luke and Paul: allowing the Spirit to make us holy, give us wisdom and endue us with power. Throughout the world, where ‘signs and wonders’ accompany the proclamation of the good news the church is dynamic and alive. However the great need for those young churches is Bible teaching – but without losing their enthusiasm.

About miracles: some Christians expect a ‘miracle a day’; others confine them to the pages of their Bibles! Jesus did promise that his followers would perform the same miracles he did – even greater ones (John 14:12). His power still the same. But note that biblical miracles clustered around just four historical periods – creation, Moses and the Exodus, the prophets Elijah and Elisha, and Jesus and the apostolic era. There were a few miracles at other times (eg. the story of Daniel). Does God still heal miraculously? Certainly, and we should pray for that possibility. But today no one has a gift of healing like Jesus’ or Paul’s. No one can heal anyone at any time. Sometimes Paul healed everyone in a city. But no faith healer I’ve heard of has a gift like that today. Some of them build hospitals: if they had Paul’s gift they might be emptying them!

Christians sometimes get nervous about spiritual gifts they don’t fully understand, especially if they sense the Holy Spirit nudging them to be the channel of such a gift. It is important to remember that the Spirit doesn’t offer white-elephant gifts. His presents are not useless, like the thing you took home from the last Christmas party. We are wise not to turn up our noses at his gifts, for he knows what he is doing. And the Church is waiting to benefit from our gift-offerings…

Stay open-minded. Don’t fall for Cornford’s Law, which says ‘Nothing should ever be done for the first time.’ Instead, opt for the perspective of Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts: ‘Life is like a ten-speed bicycle. Most of us have gears we never use.’ If we could scan a congregation with God’s radar, we would probably spot dozens of unused gifts – spiritual capacities lying dormant in the lives of many Christians. Meanwhile, the whole church is poorer.
Again, the Holy Spirit is simply God in action. God acting in your life individually, and in the life of the church. (Some years ago a preacher caused a fuss when he said in one of our Australian Anglican Cathedrals: ‘If the Holy Spirit were removed from this place, 99% of what we do here would go on unhindered!’).

This morning I want to major on something Paul says about the Holy Spirit. In 2000, my wife Jan and I did a SKI (‘Spending the Kids’ Inheritance!’) trip around Australia. We listened on CD to all the Psalms as we drove down the beautiful Western Australian coast, and to all of Paul as we drove across the Nullabor. Sometime, if you’re doing a long car-trip, listen to all of Paul’s letters, and you’ll be amazed at his fervour, his passion, his energy. This man was utterly ‘sold out’ to Christ.

TEXT: Paul’s secret? It’s here in COLOSSIANS 1:24-29.

Christ – the Spirit – within, gives him ‘energy’.

I have a shelf-full of books about the Holy Spirit and his gifts. I have one titled ’27 Spiritual Gifts’. I don’t know one where ‘energy’ is listed as a gift of the Spirit. That’s a pity.

In this paragraph Paul talks about the special ministry given to him – to warn and teach, and reveal the truth about God-in-Christ, encouraging people towards their full potential/maturity. He labors at this ‘agonizingly’, as the Greek word literally puts it, striving like an athlete: ‘I labour diligently, I strive as in a race, I wrestle for victory, by the mighty energy of Christ working in me; and with great and effective power.’

At this point it is good to ask ourselves: how many prayers and tears, how much heartache and disappointment have people gone through for me to come to Christ? Think of the Bible in your hand: the blood of martyrs, the fears and tears of persecuted people throughout centuries, the sweat and labor of translators, and the effort of teachers to make it plain and clear all worked together to produce God’s word in the Scriptures. People have died to make all this possible!

Paul ‘rejoices in his sufferings’ (an oxymoron if ever there was one!). In 1 Corinthians 11 he goes into some detail: ‘Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.’

Talk about ‘negative energy’!


A couple of days ago I talked to a woman who has been suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for years. She told me she can only read for five minutes and is then exhausted. Yesterday I was on a spiritual retreat, and another woman there couldn’t eat the onion soup – she’s allergic to onions.

We moderns have invented all sorts of things to make our life easier, and they’re having the opposite effect. There are chemicals in our foods, our water, the fabrics of clothes we wear and seats we sit on, pollutants in the air – toxic substances robbing us of energy. As they say to world travelers: ‘In poor countries don’t drink the water; in rich countries don’t breathe the air!’

Lack of energy in general, or a decrease in the level of energy that you used to have, can be a sign that your body is not functioning as efficiently as it could. The reasons for this are many. However, simply stated, it is usually due to deficiency of proper nutrients – proteins, vitamins, minerals, oxygen and enzymes; inefficiency of the digestive system, congestion of organs such as the liver and kidneys, etc. When toxic wastes are stored the cells become less efficient at producing energy. What energy is produced must be directed toward survival as a first priority. Less energy is available for muscle movement and activity. Fatigue is the means our body uses to block mind and body from continuing to deplete its life reserves. It is our body’s way of letting us know that we are disregarding its needs. The body may be calling for rest, relaxation and exercise. If you are consuming a high-fat, high refined carbohydrate diet, watch out! Excessive alcohol or caffeine, drugs, tobacco, stress, and poor diet (not enough vegetables, vitamins and minerals) are all energy robbers. So cut back on fats, refined sugars, refined carbohydrates (white bread, flour products) and get plenty of servings of fruits and vegetables.
And we must also deal with negative emotions like worry, anxiety, fear, anger, hatred and guilt. Do that with a trusted friend or counselor.

Now, back to Paul and the secret of his ‘energy’. Paul often talks about the Spirit’s ‘power’ within us, and uses several Greek words – like ischus, kratos, dunamis and exousia, to describe how the Spirit works. But the Greek words energes or energeia refer to the outworking of all these energy sources. For example, in Ephesians 3: 20: ‘Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power (dunamis) that energizes (energes) us.’ For Paul, energy produces something; it is the effective ‘working out’ of God’s gifts of power. The Holy Spirit energizes the prayers we offer (Romans 8:26-27), and our service for the Lord (Romans 8:11). But the Spirit is not wild and untamed: the energy he releases in us and through us is controlled and effective. It’s something like a dam: all that power is latent in the water behind the dam wall; but it must be released to turn the turbines, which produce electric power. Then wires conduct electricity. But if you put too many volts of electricity through the wires, they will burn. They may not be designed to carry that voltage. There will be a short circuit, or fire.

Physically, emotionally and spiritually, individuals have varying energy levels. Some are ‘high energy’ people (Paul, Augustine, Francis, Patrick, Luther, Wesley): you may not have these energy-reserves, and that’s O.K.

But most of us know there are ‘blockages’ in our lives robbing us of the energy we could have if we were freed of these impediments. Is there hope for us? The good news of the gospel answers with a resounding ‘Yes!’

When the Spirit’s power invades a fisherman like Simon Peter or a shoe salesman like D L Moody, or a young American who’s only done a couple of years in Bible colleges like Billy Graham they can be very effective servants of Christ indeed. ‘Correct’ doctrine, homiletically-sound sermons, professional techniques all have their place, but throughout the world the churches that are open to the Lord’s power working among them are alive. Churches that have shunned this dimension for a rationalistic faith are declining everywhere.

Introducing his Letters to Young Churches J B Phillips states: ‘The great difference between present-day Christianity and that in these letters, is that, to us, it is primarily a performance; to them it was a real experience. We reduce the Christian religion to a code… a rule of heart and life. To these it was quite plainly the invasion of their lives by a new quality of life altogether.’

Harvey Cox in his The Future of Faith summarizes it all well: the church world-wide is in good shape when it jettisons at least three concomitants of ‘Constantinianism’ – institutionalism, hierarchicalism, and creedalism. These three destructive tendencies are not compatible with the church as a missional community; they destroy faith (as distinct from ‘beliefs’). Cox reckons the Pentecostals in Latin America (those influenced by the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and liberation theology rather than Western notions of ‘prosperity theology’) point the way to a dynamic ‘Age of the Spirit’. One of the key secrets of these ecclesial communities’ social justice ministries? They make lists – lists of people in their neighbourhood who need help. And – importantly - they and the Catholic ‘base ecclesial communities’ are not imprisoned within a fundamentalism of ‘Jesus as personal savior whose mission [is] to rescue them from a sinful world…’ [2]


First, we can determine to follow Christ’s example of loving service to others. Some are called to ‘greatness’ (that is, they are called to do humble tasks, like working behind the scenes or washing others’ feet!); others are on centre stage (dangerous for the spirituality of most people). When ‘the world’ talks about leadership you hear words like: Power, Influence, Leverage. Leaders, powerful people, ‘make things happen’, or ‘don’t put up with any nonsense’. Jesus talks of leaders with words like Compassion, Humility, Gentleness, Generosity, Patience, Service.

Two stories:

=== During the American Revolution, a man in civilian clothes rode past a group of soldiers repairing a small defensive barrier. Their leader was shouting instructions at them but making no other attempt to help them. Asked why by the rider, the leader said with great dignity, “Sir, I’m a corporal!” The stranger apologized, dismounted, and proceeded to help the exhausted soldiers. The job done, he turned to the corporal and said, “If you need some more help, son, call me.” With that, the Commander-In-Chief, George Washington, remounted his horse and rode on.

=== His name is John. He has wild hair, wears a T-shirt with holes in it, jeans and no shoes. This was literally his wardrobe for his entire four years of college. He is brilliant - esoteric and very, very bright. He became a Christian while attending college. Across the street from the campus is a well-dressed, very conservative church. They want to develop a ministry to the students, but are not sure how to go about it. One day John decides to go there. He walks in with no shoes, jeans, his T-shirt, and wild hair. The service has already started and so John starts down the aisle looking for a seat. The church is completely packed and he can’t find a seat. By now, people are looking a bit uncomfortable, but no one says anything. John gets closer and closer to the pulpit and when he realizes there are no seats, he just squats down right on the carpet. (Although perfectly acceptable behavior at a college fellowship, trust me, this had never happened in this church before!) By now the people are really uptight, and the tension in the air is thick. About this time, the pastor realizes that from way at the back of the church, a deacon is slowly making his way toward John. Now the deacon is in his eighties, has silver-gray hair, a three-piece suit, and a pocket watch. A godly man, very elegant, very dignified, very courtly. He uses a cane and as he starts walking toward this boy, everyone is saying to themselves, “You can’t blame him for what he’s going to do. How can you expect a man of his age and of his background to understand some college kid on the floor?”

It takes a long time for the man to reach the boy. The church is utterly silent except for the clicking of the man’s cane. All eyes are focused on him. The people are thinking, “The minister can’t even preach the sermon until the deacon does what he has to do.” And now they see this elderly man drop his cane on the floor. With great difficulty he lowers himself and sits down next to John and sits with him so he won’t be alone.

Everyone chokes up with emotion. When the minister gains control he says, “What I’m about to preach, you will never remember. What you have just seen, you will never forget.” [3]

Perhaps, however, God has put an idea in your mind or a ‘groan’ in your heart for some major missional activity. Let me quote from arguably the best Methodist preacher in the English-speaking world in the first half of the last century, W. E. Sangster: ‘All true progress in this world is by the echo of the groan of God in the hearts of men and women. How were the slaves freed in the British Empire? Did all England wake up one morning and say: “This is wrong. We must free the slaves”? No! One man woke up one morning with the groan of God in his soul, and William Wilberforce and his friends laboured until that most splendid hour in our history, when Britain was worthy of herself, and, under no pressure from anybody but the pressure of her own conscience, paid a larger sum than her national debt to free the slaves.

‘How was all the social trouble after the Industrial Revolution ameliorated? God groaned in the heart of Lord Shaftesbury, and he toiled and toiled to serve and save the poor. How were the prisons cleaned up in England? Did everybody suddenly say, “These prisons are places of indescribable filth”? No! God groaned in the hearts of John Howard (! – my exclamation point) and Elizabeth Fry. How were the orphans rescued from the streets of London? A century ago (as recently as that!) God groaned in the heart of Thomas Barnardo. Progress is by the echo of the groan of God in the hearts of men a nd women. And you need never despair for our wayward race while “the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered”. [4] 


Tom Rees, in his little book on the Holy Spirit (The Spirit of Life, or Life More Abundant) says ‘I don’t like big cities; I much prefer the countryside, and for this reason I go to London only when it is absolutely necessary. However, every week or so I set out for London in the car, complete with a list of the people I must see and the articles that I must purchase. Not long ago I set out for one of my journeys to Town. After parking the car I went into a shop to make several purchases. “I want six of those, and a dozen of those; oh yes, and one of those too.” While the assistant was packing my parcel I put my hand in my pocket to pull out my wallet, and to my horror it wasn’t there. Covered with confusion, I said: “I’m so sorry, I shall have to ask you to put those things back – I’ve come to London without any money. I will call in again in a day or so.” And then, covered with embarrassment, and feeling very small, I walked out of the shop, and as I looked through my shopping list again I discovered that without my money I could do nothing – I could purchase nothing. My journey had been completely fruitless; so with a heavy heart, I climbed back into the car and drove home.

‘I went straight to my room to collect the wallet from the suit I had worn the previous day, and then panic seized me – it wasn’t there, and I knew that it contained nearly twenty pounds. There was only one thing for it – I must have been robbed. Then, in a sort of desperate way, I ran my hands over the jacket I was wearing. Can you imagine how I felt when I discovered my wallet in the jacket pocket – it had been there all day. I had taken it with me to London. I had carried it with me into the shop! I had brought it home again.

‘Now, why was my journey to London fruitless? Why did I behave as if I were penniless? It was not because I had no money – I had nearly twenty pounds. No, the reason was simply this – I didn’t know I had it.

‘Paul was indwelt by the Holy Spirit. And you too, my Christian friend, believe it or not, are indwelt by the same Holy Spirit. All the resources that Paul had you have. Did I hear you say: “Then, if that is true, why is there such a difference between the life Paul lived and the life I live? Why was he so like the Master, and why am I so un-Christlike? Why was Paul so powerful where I am utterly weak and defeated?” The answer to your question is this: Paul appreciated very fully his resources in the Holy Spirit. The fact that his body was the dwelling place of the Spirit dominated his life, and what is more, he learned by faith to draw on his resources.’ [5].

So here’s a special word from Paul to you who lack energy: The Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you: he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through the Spirit who dwells in you! (Romans 8:11). Again: the same power – which raised Jesus Christ from the dead – is available to you and me today to help us with day-to-day living! ‘I am crucified with Christ, but I live; yet not I but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in this body I live by the faith of the Son of God.’ (Galatians 2:20). ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ’ (Ephesians 1:3).

So where do we start? First, live one day at a time, as Jesus suggested. ‘Today is unique! It has never occurred before and it will never be repeated. At midnight it will end, quietly, suddenly, totally. Forever. But the hours between now and then are opportunities with eternal possibilities. Times may be hard and people may be demanding, but never forget that life is special. Every single day is a special day. God is at work in you!’ (Charles R. Swindoll)

Then remember, ‘The greatness of a person’s power is in the measure of their surrender to the Holy Spirit.’ Hear this – again from Paul (2 Corinthians 5:17): ‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!’. Psalm 27: ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?’ (Psalm 27:1). And as Paul said to the timid Timothy: ‘God has not given us a spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind’ (2 Timothy 1:7).

‘Every time we say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” we mean that we believe that there is a living God able and willing to enter human personality and change it.’ [6]

As we go now to our daily tasks and activities, may we be assured that the Holy Spirit energizes our life with his presence and his power according to our particular needs.


In Colossians 1:24 Paul insists that he rejoices in his sufferings for the church. Does this suggest an unhealthy masochism on Paul’s part? Does it matter that these sufferings are not just any afflictions, but those which, like the Cross, are endured for the sake of others? Under what circumstances can you rejoice in your sufferings? (As someone complained to me this week: ‘If God wants human beings to hear and build their lives on the Word of God, why doesn’t He make it easier?’).

Talk about health and stress. Humans of course vary greatly in terms of their productivity under stress. As stress increases, some are super effective; others are incapacitated. Do you ‘fall apart’ or ‘get going?’ What can make the difference?

People receive the Holy Spirit, in Luke’s meaning of the term, in different ways. Some people receive the Spirit more or less spontaneously, while for others the response is quite conscious and deliberate; some experience dramatic manifestations of the Spirit, while with others the manifestations are more subdued. The way in which people receive the Spirit will be determined, to some extent, by the situation and by the person (his or her personality type, age, station in life, church environment). More important than the particular way we receive the Spirit, however, is what we do afterwards. It’s like the difference between a big church wedding and a small family wedding. The kind of wedding you have doesn’t determine the kind of marriage you’ll have. What’s important is how you live out the reality of married life [7]. Do you agree?

Study Paul’s prayers for the Ephesians (1:15-23, 3:14-21). Do we pray for one another like this? What might happen if we did?

Paul says he suffered devastating attacks from within the church. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Caesar is killed by a group of assailants. A famous line is ‘et tu, Brutus?’ Caesar was stunned that one he thought was a friend would turn on him. Anyone who has served in the church for any length of time understands this feeling. Some of the most painful blows come from the ones we thought were our friends. It would be nice if everyone in the church applied God’s commands to love, kindness and encouragement. It would be nice, but it is not the way it is.’ It might be helpful to talk about that, and then pray for one another…

[1] Time, May 13, 2002

[3]  Rebecca Manley Pippert's, Out of the Saltshaker.

[4] W E Sangster, Westminster Sermons, Volume one, p. 84

[5] H & S., 1961, pp. 127-128

[6] J. B. Phillips, Plain Christianity, 1954

[7] Larry Christenson, ‘Receiving the Holy Spirit’ in LaVonne Neff et al (eds), Practical Christianity, Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1988, p. 164

Tuesday, May 27, 2014



I did a course back in the 1970s in a Social Psychology degree on ‘Self-Directed Behavior: Self Modification for Personal Adjustment’. Our text was the best available then (and maybe still is), with that title, by David L. Watson and Roland G. Tharp (Brooks/Cole). Amazon still sells it: ninth edition, 2006, paperback $129.35 ! It’s probably the best self-help book I’ve ever read.

The course’s and book’s aim: ‘To help you... achieve more self-determination, more “willpower”, more control over your life... The vehicle for learning will be your own self-analysis, your own program for implementing your values’ (3rd edition, p. vii).

The authors’ favourite scenarios for change include overeating, smoking, drinking and drug use; assertion; specific fears; the other sex; family, friends, lovers and co-workers; depression; studying and time management.

It’s said psychology is ‘what everyone knows in language no one can understand.’ This book uses simple language – often over-stating, perhaps, the very obvious. Like: Self-direction is all about actualizing one’s values. The A-B-C of behaviour change involve antecedents (the ‘setting events for your behaviour, which stimulate you to act and feel in certain ways’) , behaviours, and consequences (which ‘affect whether you repeat certain actions or not, reinforcing behaviour or failing to so’.

Start with a list of personal goals – long- or short-term, major or minor. Select one goal – an important one - for a learning project. Specify behaviours-in-situations: concrete examples – in your daily life; list details of the problem/s - non-performance vs an undesirable behaviour? Observe yourself and fill out this sentence: My goal is to change [thought, action, feeling] in [situation]. Give yourself reminders. Make a list of what happens if you don’t change. Get others to remind you. Write a self-contract. Be aware of the experiences of others (eg. stopping smoking, drinking, drug use – ‘cold turkey?’ or ‘reduce consumption gradually?’ Be clear about any ‘escape’ intentions).

Self-observation: be brutally honest (eg. how much you eat if your goal relates to weight-loss). Keep a structured diary (relating to behaviors – negative and positive - and their antecedents and consequences). Incorporate ‘self-talk’, thoughts, fantasies,  in your diary. Use reminders (eg. a card inside the cellophane wrap of your cigarette pack). Have a friend check with you regularly. Reward yourself for keeping records.  

Reinforcers: What works best for you? Negative (unpleasant/punishment) or positive reinforcers? Behavior that is punished will occur less often in the future. An act that is no longer reinforced, either positively or negatively, will weaken (extinction). But intermittent reinforcement increases resistance of behaviour to extinction. Self-instructions (yes, talking to oneself) control behaviours. Also many behaviors are modelled on those of others (imitation).

Antecedents: Record-keeping is important here: what beliefs cause problem behaviours? Is there a common theme? If these beliefs are illogical that should become more and more obvious. Is there a chain of behaviour leading to the final – bad – act? Self-instructions early in the chain should help. And figuring out the chain of events which lead to the behaviour in question: for example, if it’s over-eating that’s your problem, don’t shop when hungry.

Developing New Behaviors. Four techniques – (1) Shaping new behavior. Two rules here: You can’t begin too low; and steps upward can’t ever be too small. If you want to increase study-time, do five minutes more today than yesterday... Plateauing is a challenge. (2) The use of incompatible behaviours, by selecting the opposite eg. smiling rather than frowning; being courteous rather than being rude.  (3) Rehearsal: including the use of imagination, and relaxation. (4) Modeling: this is about learning from others’ skills in areas you’re lacking.

Consequences. Self-reinforcement is essential: arranging a reward for desired behaviours. Successful self-controllers are three times more likely to use self-reward procedures. One variety: the Premack Principle: ‘If behaviour B is more likely to occur than behaviour A, the likelihood of behaviour A can be increased by making behaviour B contingent upon it.’ (A young woman only allowed herself to have a shower if she exercised for 15 minutes first). Reinforcers should be prompt, maybe a token (eg. money), maybe shared with others (give them money which they give back after desired behaviour), maybe verbal (smoking clinic gives a special phone number to ex-smokers, where they hear praise for their efforts), ‘imagined extinction’ – like imagining the food you haven’t eaten in a weight-loss program is tasteless. Punishment alone is insufficient: self-punishment doesn’t necessarily teach any new behaviours.

Planning for Change.  Your plan should have a goal (make it simple and specific rather than complex, and diffuse). Incorporate accurate self-observations and feedback. Write it down and sign it – it’s then a contract with yourself. The contract lists your rules as well as your goals and subgoals. A formal contract increases your chance of success. Display it. Keep it in your diary or on your mirror. If you need a new one, rewrite your contract – and sign it again.

Analyzing the Data.  Make a graph: any progress can be diagrammed on a time-line. If something happens which is likely to torpedo your plan, tinker with it and change it.

Termination. This might not mean ‘success’: it could simply mean the problem doesn’t exist any more – you live with it. However there’s a trap here: ‘Yes, I lost 20 pounds rather than the desired 40 pounds, and stopped the dieting at that point - and I’m over-eating again!’ So situations will have to be found where any new behaviour is valued. And is praised by friends. The danger of stopping too soon is more frequent than prolonging the effort! Practise the new behaviour until it is perfect. And use the problem-solving steps to deal with new difficulties.

Uses and Limits of Self-Directed Change. Professional help may be needed if personal goals don’t lead to change; or if the technical problems are greater than the effort of reading these pages; or if your environment seems too chaotic for your plan to work.

And two quotes to ponder: ‘Life is trouble. Only death is not’. (Zorba the Greek). ‘Life is just one damned thing after another’ (Anita Loos). This is not pessimism, but realism. After you’ve solved one problem, you’ll meet some more that require thoughtful self-direction.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

PREACHING: preachers other preachers read (and preach).

Preaching: Preachers other preachers read (and preach!)

I talk to lots of clergy - in conferences and one to one – and have a pretty good idea about their preaching styles, and the  other preachers they read for inspiration.

An interesting thing happened on the way to writing this chapter,  Mothers’ Day 2014. My wife has produced one of the two or three most popular Mothers’ Day sermons online. (Google those words and you’ll find hers in the top four – out of one million). In the week before every (North American) Mothers’ Day up to 5,000 people daily read her sermon. And many preach it – some without acknowledgement. (Jan still smiles when she remembers the apologetic email she received from an American pastor who did just that – and was caught out!).

Some people – I’m one of them – actually enjoy reading others’ sermons. When John Claypool used to publish his each week, and sent them out once a month, I often found myself dropping everything to read them. I’ve done the same with other contemporary homiletical ‘greats’ like Richard Rohr, Brian McLaren, Barbara Brown Taylor, Frederick Buechner, Tom Long, Eugene Peterson, Fred Craddock and William Willimon. And, a generation ago, W.E. Sangster, James Stewart, and Helmut Thielicke. Before that, F.W. Boreham and at the turn of the 20th Century the often-circumloquacious but erudite but orthodox Peter Taylor Forsyth [footnote Jason Goroncy review]. And if you add the black preachers Martin Luther King and Gardner Taylor, (and, if you want a Pentecostal, TD Jakes), that just about completes the list of English-speaking/writing ‘greats’ in the 20th and early 21st centuries, in my view.  (Oh, and don’t forget William Barclay, who in his commentaries and one-page reviews in the Expository Times provided more preachable material than anyone else in the 20th century.) [3]

So how would you select the best Christian sermons ever written? A book was published a decade ago in the U.K. titled Best Sermons Ever collected by – wait for it! – the assistant editor of the British newspaper Daily Telegraph, Christopher Howse [1]. Here’s Howse’s list: Peter the Apostle, John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, Aelfric, St. Bernard, The Homilies, Lancelot Andrewes, John Donne, Jeremy Taylor, John Bunyan, Jonathan Swift, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Lawrence Sterne, Sydney Smith, John Henry Newman, Charles Spurgeon, Martin Luther King, H.A. Williams, and Pope John Paul II.

Now, class, what does that list suggest to you? We’ll come back to that. In addition Howse offers excerpts from other sermons and prayers from people ranging from St. Francis of Assisi, George Herbert, John Keble… to moderns like Mother Teresa and Billy Graham.

First, a little introduction to the ‘practical theology’ of preaching. What is preaching supposed to ‘do’, if I can put the question into a utilitarian frame of reference? I’d suggest the best preaching is didactic, prophetic, and dramatic. [2]

Christopher Howse would, I think, prefer three other adjectives – erudite, scholarly, and/or ‘literary’. In other words, he comes to this exercise as a literateur, rather than as a homiletician. Notice the absence of modern American mainline preachers in his list? Yes, perhaps Jonathan Edwards, ML King and Billy Graham deserve a place, but what of the others most theologically-sophisticated Americans are reading, like those mentioned above? (The answer, from my experience of 8 – 10 trips to the U.K. for pastors’ conferences: on that side of the Atlantic many have never heard of them). And I’m surprised W E Sangster and James Stewart are missing.

So, frankly, most of these sermons are of classical – rather than devotional – interest only. Some of them are heavily impregnated with Latin phrases and other obscurantisms. And some fit into the category of ‘Why use 10 words when 100 will suffice?’

One of the best is a homiletical essay – Jonathan Swift’s ‘Upon Sleeping in Church’ . The text, of course, is about Eutychus falling out of the window, Acts 20:9: ‘The accident which happened to this young man hath not been sufficient to discourage his successors’. But frankly, I’d go to sleep in some of these sermons – especially Laurence Sterne’s on ‘Evil Speaking’.

And some are both brilliant and scary. How about this, from Jonathan Edwards’ 15-page sermon (without a title – but from one version of his famous ‘Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God’ :

‘If you cry to God to pity you, he will be so far from pitying you in your doleful case, or showing you the least regard or favour, that instead of that, he will only tread you under foot.  And though he will know that you cannot bear the weight of omnipotence treading upon you, yet he will not regard that, but he will crush you under his feet without mercy; he will crush out your blood, and make it fly, and it shall be sprinkled on his garments, so as to stain all his raiment. He will not only hate you, but he will have you, in the utmost contempt: no place shall be thought fit for you, but under his feet to be trodden down as the mire of the streets.’ [4]

No wonder ‘revival’ broke out when people heard this sort of diatribe!

Some excerpts and notes (many of these are in the category ‘they don’t produce them like this anymore!’) :

* Wesley traveled on foot or horseback 225,000 miles and preached 40,000 sermons!

* Lancelot Andrewes mastered fifteen languages!

* ‘In Lapland witches sell winds’ (John Donne)

* ‘Celibate, like the fly in the heart of an apple, dwells in a perpetual sweetness, but sits alone, and is confined and dies in singularity; but marriage, like the useful bee, builds a house and gathers sweetness from every flower… and feeds the world with delicacies’ (Jeremy Taylor)

* ‘It is my duty – it is my wish – it is the subject of this day to point out those evils of the Catholic religion from which we have escaped’ (from Sydney Smith’s ‘The Rules of Christian Charity’ !). Another profundity from that sermon: ‘The evil of difference of opinion must exist – it admits of no cure’

* ‘When people say that I acted charitably towards so and so, what they generally mean is that in fact that I hate his guts but managed to behave as though I didn’t’ (H. A. Williams)

An inspirational note from Martin Luther King: ‘Let us not despair. Let us not lose faith in man and certainly not in God. We must believe that a prejudiced mind can be changed, and that man, by the grace of God, can be lifted from the valley of hate to the high mountain of love… Let us have love, compassion and understanding goodwill for those against whom we struggle, helping them to realize that… we are not seeking to defeat them but to help them, as well as ourselves.’

This book reminds me of the 9 November 1895 Punch cartoon, which showed a timid curate having breakfast in his bishop’s home. The bishop is saying “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones”, to which the curate replies, in a desperate attempt not to give offence: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”.

If you are a theological or literary sophisticate who reads sermons without wanting to be ‘spiritually challenged’ by them, this book is for you…


[3] . This interesting list of the (twenty) ‘Greatest Preachers of the Twentieth Century’ is regularly at the top of the 20,000+ ‘most-accessed’ articles on our website – except in the week-and-a-half before Mothers’ Day (!). The Baylor University list of ‘12 Most Effective  Preachers’ actually listed a woman – Barbara Brown Taylor ( ). Google her sermon at Riverside Church in New York on the Good Samaritan for an excellent example of modern, lucid, challenging preaching:  The best list of outstanding modern preachers is the one comprising speakers at Yale’s  Lyman Beecher Lecture series -


PTFORSYTH (Goroncy) - wordy, erudite,  knew it was acquiesce 'in'.

Goroncy: PTFORSYTH astonishingly circumloquacious, as familiar with then-modern 'critical scholarship' as with English poets. Sermons three times longer than they needed to be. Verbosity Petered out with Barth, Tillich, THIELICKE .

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


Being an itinerant (‘hit-run’) preacher has some advantages. I remember a Sunday evening service in a conservative church in rural Victoria, Australia. They had big black Bibles and severe expressions… And they knew their Bibles, and were proud of that. It was a smallish group, so I decided to engage them in dialogue:
‘Who knows who the Pharisees were?’ They did. ‘The Pharisees got a pretty nasty press in the New Testament – particularly Matthew.’

‘Now tell me all the good things you can think of about the Pharisees.’ I wrote them up on a blackboard:

The Pharisees knew their Bibles; were disciplined in prayer; fasted twice a week; gave about a third of their income to their church; were moral (very moral); many had been martyred for their faith; they attended ‘church’ regularly; they were evangelical/orthodox; and evangelistic (Jesus said they’d even cross the ocean – a fearful thing for Jews – to win a convert).

There was a deep silence. I asked ‘Peter’ sitting at the front: ‘What’s wrong?’ He pointed to the list and said ‘That’s us!’ ‘Is it?” I responded. ‘Then you’ve got a problem: Jesus said these sorts of people are children of the devil!’
Then we did an inductive exercise on the question: ‘What’s so wrong with this list of admirable qualities?’ Short answer: it omits what was most important for Jesus. Whenever in the Gospels he used a prefatory statement like ‘This is the greatest/most important thing of all…’ none of the above were emphasized by him.
So what was Jesus’ emphasis? Yes, loving God, loving others, seeking first the kingdom = obeying God the King … And, from two Gospel verses the evangelicals/orthodox have rarely noticed – Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42 – justice/love, mercy, faith.

None of these were on the Pharisees’ list. But they’re the most important of all, according to Jesus. Have you noticed items like justice/love don’t get into our creeds or confessions of faith or ‘doctrinal statements’ either? (I’ve written a book about that: Recent Trends Among Evangelicals ).

Back to the Pharisees. Our text (Matthew 12:1-21) is about the problem of religious ‘scrupulosity’… Jesus and his disciples were walking on the Sabbath through the fields on their way to the synagogue, to church, and they were hungry. So as the law (Deuteronomy 23:25) allowed, they plucked some ears of corn to eat. The Pharisees had problems with their ‘reaping’ on the sabbath. In fact, the disciples were breaking four of the Pharisees’ 39 rules about work on the sabbath: technically they were reaping, winnowing, threshing, and preparing a meal!
Now the modern picture of the Pharisees almost certainly trivializes – or demonizes – their piety These were good people with good motives. But they were ‘good people in the worst sense of the word’. More of that later…

Jesus’ response is to argue from two precedents (lawyers/legalists are at home there) – precedents about necessity and service. David and his friends were hungry, so ate the forbidden bread (though note that when King Uzziah invaded the sacred area from another motive – pride – he was struck with leprosy, 2 Chronicles 26:16). Then the priests did a lot of ‘work’ on the sabbath – killing and sacrificing animals: so Jesus is saying that if sabbath-work has to do with the necessities of life and duties of sacred service, it’s O.K. and the *spirit* of the fourth commandment is not violated. Then Jesus reinforces all this with three arguments: someone greater than the temple is here; God wants mercy to have priority over sacrifice; and ‘the Son of man is lord of the sabbath’. Or, as the New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary puts it (in a way that would appeal to a rabbinical way of arguing): ‘Since the priests sacrifice according to the law on the sabbath, sacrifice is greater than the sabbath. But mercy is greater than sacrifice… so mercy is greater than the sabbath’ (Abingdon, 1995, p.278). I like Eugene Peterson’s translation of this section in The Message: ‘There is far more at stake than religion. If you had any idea what this Scripture meant – “I prefer a flexible heart to an inflexible ritual” – you wouldn’t be nitpicking like this.’

Then we have the story of the man with the withered hand. Jerome, the fourth century bishop-scholar, says some ancient Gospels tell us his name was Caementarius – a bricklayer – and he said to Jesus: ‘Please heal my hand so that I can earn a living by bricklaying rather than begging’. The Pharisees challenge him: ‘Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath?’ Now there’s a technicality behind that question, and Jewish scribes used to debate it: is it lawful for a physician to heal on the sabbath? If the answer’s ‘yes’ how about someone else, like a prophet? The Shammaite Pharisees did not allow praying for the sick on the sabbath, but the followers of Hillel allowed it. Arguments, arguments: ‘arguments by extension’ to which Jesus answers with an ‘argument by analogy’. If the sabbath laws allow you to help a sheep, why not a person? (But then, the Essenes wouldn’t have rescued a sheep either: gets complicated!).

So Jesus healed the man. Two notes at this point: #1 Jesus asked the man to stretch out his hand, to do as much as he could. Jesus often did that in his healings. It’s the same today: we get help any way we can, and do what we can. Jesus still heals: sometimes slowly (always slowly in cases of sexual/emotional abuse), sometimes instantly; sometimes with, sometimes without, the help of medicine… #2 I was a co-speaker at a conference with the Dr Paul Yonggi Cho, pastor of the largest church in the world. He said: ‘Every miracle recorded in the New Testament, including the raising of the dead, has also happened in Korea: we are praying for some miracles not mentioned in the Bible, nor recorded in Christian history. Like the replacement of a limb – an arm or a leg – that’s not there . We’re believing God for that…!’ Do what you like with that one!
We ought to make a little excursus at this point. What’s the Sabbath all about? Two things, basically: faith and rest. Faith that God will supply our needs if we don’t have to work all the time; and rest so that our lives will be in balance. As you know, I counsel clergy: that’s what John Mark Ministries is about. They’re often burned out. But when they are, it’s almost always associated with a failure to take the idea and practice of sabbath seriously. They don’t take a day off: a day off is any day (for pastors it’s often Thursday) when from getting up to going to bed at night you are not preoccupied with your vocation. Isn’t it interesting that in our leisure-oriented culture, there’s also more fatigue? A lot of people are just plain tired. The five-day work week is a recent innovation, but ‘leisure’ and ‘sabbath-rest’ are not the same. Gordon McDonald, in his excellent book Ordering Your Private World has a chapter ‘Rest Beyond Leisure’ which I urge you to read. He writes: ‘God was the first “rester”…Does God need to rest? Of course not. But did God choose to rest? Yes. Why? Because God subjected creation to a rhythm of rest and work that he revealed by observing the rhythm himself, as a precedent for everyone else… [For us] this rest is a time of looking backward. We gaze upon our work and ask questions like: “What does my work mean? For whom did I do all this work? How well was my work done? Why did I do all this? What results did I expect, and what did I receive?” To put it another way, the rest God instituted was meant first and foremost to cause us to interpret our work, to press meaning into it, to make sure we know to whom it is properly dedicated’ (Highland, 1985, pp.176-7).

The Pharisees had lost sight of the essence of the sabbath. Alister McGrath says in his NIV Bible Commentary: ‘The Sabbath was instituted to give people refreshment, rather than to add to their burdens’ (H&S, 1995, p.242). Precisely how you keep the Sabbath today will be governed by love for God and neighbour, and the kind of work you do. If you’re a manual worker, rest. If you’re sedentary, do something physical. Make sure it’s ‘recreational’ for you – re-creating your body, mind, emotions and spirit.

Jesus healed… and ‘the Pharisees conspired… how to destroy him’ – destroy the One through whom we have life. (When you’re beaten by goodness, reason and miracle, you have no other option but rage). And ‘great crowds followed Jesus’. They knew he loved them. He taught them and healed them. While the Pharisees were into destroying, Jesus was healing. The Scottish Baptist preacher Matthew Henry makes a good point here: though some are unkind to us, we must not on that account be unkind to others.

Sometimes I talk to a pastor who is being ‘destroyed’ by Pharisees. They are still with us. Why? It’s all about what American social scientists call ‘mindsets’: the mindset of the Pharisee and that of the prophet are antithetical: they can’t get along. Let me explain.

The Pharisee is concerned about law: how to do right. Now there’s nothing wrong with that as it stands. Except for one thing: you can keep the law and in the process destroy persons. I have a friend who lectured in law in one of our universities, before he got out of it all in disgust. He said with some conviction: ‘The whole of our Western legal system is sick, unjust. For one thing: if you’re rich, and can afford the cleverest advocacy, you have a pretty good chance of not going to gaol; but not if you’re poor.’ There’s something wrong with a system supposed to preserve ‘fairness’ when double-standards operate…

There’s a tension between law and love. Law is to love as the railway tracks are to the train: the tracks give direction, but all the propulsive power is in the train. Tracks on their own may point somewhere, but they’re cold, lifeless things. But love without law is like a train without tracks: plenty of noise and even movement but lacking direction. Both law and love ultimately come from God. We need God’s laws to know how to set proper boundaries and behave appropriately: without good laws we humans will destroy one another. Prophets, in the biblical sense, try to tie law and love into each other. The O.T. prophets were always encouraging the people of God to keep the law of God. But the greatest commandment is love: love of God and of others.

The Australian Uniting Church Interim Report on Sexuality looks at these two issues. It answers one of them very well and the other poorly. The question: ‘How can homosexuals (etc.) know they’re loved by us?’ is addressed with deep compassion. Marginalized people ought to feel they’re accepted in our churches. But they don’t, generally, so we’re more like the Pharisees than Jesus in that respect. (I once discussed the issue of the legalization of brothels with a couple of women from the Prostitutes’ Collective on ABC TV. In the middle of it, one of them turned to me and said, ‘You Christians hate us, don’t you?’ How would you have responded?)

But the other question: ‘What is God’s will in God’s word-in- Scripture about all this?’ is answered poorly in the UC report. It gives us permission to be revisionist when it comes to the clear mandates of Scripture, and that’s not on, for a follower of Jesus. He came not to set aside God’s law, but to fulfil it, by embodying the great law of love in himself.

Tony Campolo, interviewed on ABC radio, was asked ‘Tony, what are your views on homosexuality and the church?’ Tony: ‘I am conservative on this issue: I believe erotic attraction between members of the same sex is not God’s intention for us.’ ‘Ah-huh, so what should the church do?’ Tony: ‘The last thing the church should do is to be legalistically prescriptive about the behaviour of people like homosexuals. We have to do more – much more – than simply prescribe celibacy for other people!’ (The interviewer didn’t know where to go after that!).
For some of my views on LGBTI issues see my critique of the Evangelical Alliance’s recent publicationBeyond Stereotypes]. 

The last section of our Gospel reading takes all this further: Jesus the prophet was fulfilling the Scriptures. As God’s chosen servant whom God loves and in whom God delights, Jesus was a meek Messiah, not a warlike one. And he ‘proclaims justice’ (v.18), indeed ‘brings justice to victory’ (v.19). Now why is justice so big for prophets – and for Jesus (but not for Pharisees)? Hang in there. Fasten your seat-belts. There’s some turbulence coming as we close.

First a word to the prophets in this congregation. ‘Prophets’? ‘Here?’ Sure. Well, who are they, and why don’t they – or the church – know who they are? Why don’t we recognize and commission them? Why don’t we hear them speak a special revelation of God to us? Ah, there are several answers to that. Mainly, of course, prophets are somewhat unpredictable. I’m studying the second half of Jeremiah at the moment to write some Scripture Union notes: here’s a guy who tells the king and the army to surrender to the enemy, otherwise they’ll be wiped out and/or carted off into captivity. Not the sort of message to stiffen the resistance of your armed forces! So they tossed him into a septic tank. Prophets disturb the comfortable; pastors comfort the disturbed. But we don’t want to be disturbed. And so the church organizes its life – its doctrines (like ‘prophecy isn’t needed anymore, we’ve got the Bible, and preachers’) and its structures (by-laws and committees to cover everything) to exclude this more spontaneous ‘word from the Lord.’ And prophets tend to major on social justice which isn’t nice for middle-class people – more about that in a moment.

But you can’t get away from the high priority the early church and the Hebrew people put on prophecy.

What is this gift? ‘The gift of prophecy is the special ability that God gives to certain members of the Body of Christ to receive and communicate an immediate message from God to his people through a divinely-anointed utterance’ (Peter Wagner, Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow, Regal, 1979, p.228). Prophecy isn’t just predicting the future, though it can include prediction. Prophets aren’t always right: so they ought to be in submission to the leadership of the church. Prophets aren’t adding a 67th book to the Bible. The canon of Scripture is closed: the prophet is simply bringing a biblically-relevant message from God to us today, for our situation. Are prophets sort of carried along by the Spirit? In a sense, yes. Michael Green writes: ‘The Spirit takes over and addresses the hearers directly through [the prophet]. That is the essence of prophecy’ (I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Eerdmans, 1975, p.172). Do prophets tend to be political activists? Often yes – as in the Bible. And today, therefore, such people are unlikely to be pastors of churches – if a pastor has a prophetic gift they’d better have also an independent income! ‘Since their message is frequently unpopular, they would feel restrained if they were too closely tied to an institution. And many church institutions feel uncomfortable with such prophets around too much… they tend to shun church bureaucracies and prefer to be outside critics’ (Wagner, p.230). Now there are varying points of view – between and among Pentecostals and Evangelicals about the ministry of prophets, and this is as much as I want to say about it all here. Except for this: if God gives you a special message for your church, write it down, and give it to the leadership: and hold the leadership accountable about praying over it, and then leave the decision about whatever happens with it to them.

Let us go back to those two Gospel texts evangelicals (like me) have ignored for 500 years: Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42. Jesus is inveighing against the Pharisees, and saying that despite their religiosity they’ve missed the point – which is justice/love, mercy and faith. Justice comes first (as with the prophet’s message Jesus is quoting: Micah 6:8). Why? Simple: justice is all about the right use of power; it’s about fairness; it’s about doing right – particularly for the poor and oppressed. Social justice is all about (it’s *only* about) treating others as being made in God’s image; human beings with respect and dignity and infinite worth. Justice is about the most important characteristic of human beings – their Godlikeness. Homosexuals, for example, aren’t just individuals who parade their gayness in Mardi Gras festivals. They’re made in the image of God. Hitler was made in the image of God; so was Stalin; so is Pol Pot and Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein… And so are the people in church next to you this morning. CSLewis says somewhere (The Weight of Glory?) that if we realized who the others really were with whom we were worshipping, we’d be tempted to fall down and worship *them*!

There’s probably something of the Pharisee in all of us. We take two good gifts from God – law and truth – and create all sorts of legalisms and dogmatisms to save us the trouble of loving people we don’t like. What is your spiritual ‘achilles’ heel’? How does the devil get to you? One of our ‘18 questions‘ for retreatants asks: ‘For what non-altruistic motives are you in ministry?’

Have you noticed that in the ministry of Jesus, the message of repentance was mainly aimed at religious people, church-folk, like us? When we elevate law over love; rules and precedents and structures above persons; when social justice is not at the top of our agenda; then we’ve got some repenting to do. Pharisees are people who know the Bible and miss the point. Lord help us!


P.S.  1. The statement about ‘trivializing the Pharisees’ refers to several problems biblical scholars have about the Pharisees in the NT in general and Matthew in particular. See, eg. the excellent article on the subject in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992).

2. And yes, I’m aware of the ‘New Perspective’ on Paul’s possible move from the more tolerant school of Hillel (Gamaliel was a Hillelite) to the more rigorous conservative school of Shammai when or before he became a persecutor of the church…

3. See Michael Hardin’s The Jesus Driven Life (a couple of reviews on this site) for a critique of the Pharisees’ Bible Study methods: ‘Jesus critiques their study of the Scriptures… as missing the point’  (p. 251). ‘One of the claims [of Jesus] is that his hearers “do not know God” [John 8:28-29]… astonishing because these teachers and “theologians” were people steeped in their Scriptures…’ (255).



In general there are two key religious mind-sets
- those of the ‘saint’ and the pharisee. We all have something
of each in us, and the potential to be either. Both may be ‘orthodox’
theologically, even ‘evangelical’. Both pursue ‘goodness’ but
by different means, for different ends. (Someone said pharisees
were ‘good’ people in the worst sense of the word!).

Saints (like Jesus) emphasize love and grace, pharisees
law and (their interpretation of) ‘truth’. Saints are comfortable
with ‘doctrine’, but for the pharisee doctrine becomes dogma,
law becomes legalism, ritual (the celebration of belonging) becomes
ritualism. The saint lives easily with questions, paradox, antinomy,
mystery; pharisees try to be ‘wiser than God’ and resolve all
mysteries into neat formulas: they want answers, now.

The saint listens, in solitude and silence; the pharisee
fills the void with sound. For the saints it’s ‘rising by dying’,
for the pharisees ‘rising by doing’.

With Jesus, acceptance preceded repentance, with
the pharisees it was the other way round. The saint, like Jesus,
says first ‘I do not condemn you’. Pharisees find that difficult:
they’d prefer ‘go and sin no more’. Jesus welcomes sinners; sinners
get the impression they’re not loved by pharisees. For the pharisee,
sins of the flesh and ‘heresy’ are worst, and they are experts
on the sins of others. For the saint, sins of the spirit – one’s
own spirit – are worst. Saints are ‘Creation-centred’; pharisees

For the pharisee ‘my people’ = ‘people like me’,
for the saint ‘my people’ = all God’s people. Pharisees are insecure
(needing ‘God-plus’ other things); the saints are secure (needing
‘God only’). The pharisees’ audience is other people: their kudos
provides a measure of security (psychologists call it ‘impression
management’; Jesus calls it hypocrisy); the saints’ only audience
is God: their inner and outer persons are congruent.
Pharisees hate prophets (‘noisy saints’) and their
call to social justice; saints love justice. (Saints aren’t into
writing creeds very much, which is why the two things most important
for Jesus – love and justice – don’t appear in them).
So saints remind you of Jesus; the pharisees of the
devil (demons are ‘orthodox’). Saints see Jesus in every person:
they haven’t any problem believing we’re all made in the image
of God (= Jesus) although they’re realistic about that image being
marred by sin. Saints are spread through all the churches: the
closer they are to Jesus, the closer to, the more accepting they
are, of others. ‘Ambition’ for them means ‘union with Christ’:
they call nothing else ‘success’. In their prayer they mostly
‘listen’, ‘wait on the Lord’; the pharisee needs words, words,
words. Pharisees have a tendency to complain about many things;
for the saints life is ‘serendipitous’: they have a well-developed
theology of gratitude.

Pharisees are static, unteachable, believing they
have monopoly on the truth, saints are committed to growing. (Nature,
they say, abhors a vacuum; the Spirit abhors fullness – particularly
of oneself). Jesus was full of grace and truth; Peters says grow
in grace and knowledge: pharisees aren’t strong on grace, but
for saints ‘grace is everywhere’.

The religion of the saints is salugenic, growth-and-health
-producing; that of the pharisee is pathogenic.

Only one thing is important: to be a saint.