Trusting God, Forgiving Others

You may remember the story a few years back of the sad shooting in an Amish schoolhouse in the US that took the lives of five Amish girls and injured five others. With this tragic event the life of these simple Amish folk for a moment became international news.
The simple, 18th century lifestyle of the Amish seems quite strange in our modern age of conveniences and comforts. Yet their unique, genuine and deep faith in God shone through the media coverage.

Almost instantly after the killings they offered forgiveness to the killer

Almost instantly after the killings they offered forgiveness to the killer and established funds not only for the families of those killed and wounded, but also for the family of the man who committed the murders.
Consistently the Amish have explained that their motivation has come from Jesus’ command to forgive those who hurt you. One Amish man wrapped his arms around the killer’s father and tried to comfort him in his grief saying, “We forgive you!”
It is interesting to read the comments reported in the media:

“We’re really strongly taught to forgive like Jesus did. We forgive the way Christ forgives us.”
“You need to go on and just trust. God will take care of us.”
“We think it was God’s plan, and we’re going to have to pick up the pieces and keep going. A funeral to us is a much more important thing than the day of birth because we believe in the hereafter. The children are better off than their survivors.”
“We need to go through trials to strengthen our faith. We need to accept it. There is no other way we can go on.”

As the injured girls began to recover some incredible stories started to be told. One was an interaction leading up to the shooting where the oldest girl in the school, 13 year old Marian Fisher, pleaded with the gunman, saying, “Shoot me and leave the others alone.”
Through their Christ-like response to this tragic event, the Amish demonstrated something of Jesus’ love and forgiveness to a world they normally withdraw from. Even in the midst of their own grief they turned media attention away from themselves and toward God.
Their humble trust is an example to us all. They showed how to allow God to be at work in our hearts in the very toughest of trials. They showed how a tragic event can become a witness to God’s love.
It is good for us to take hope and inspiration from their example. It helps remind us that no matter what we might be going through there is always a way to continue to trust in God and his goodness.
Stephen L Baxter

What is success for the follower of Jesus?

Solomon is arguably the most successful person in the Bible. In his life he achieved much, gaining honour and wealth and a standing unequalled amongst kings. Yet, Solomon, despite his great wisdom and honour and wealth, concluded, “Everything is meaningless, utterly meaningless!” (Eccl 1:1) In his final analysis of life, recorded in the book of Ecclesiastes, success proved unfulfilling.

Wealth beyond measure
Solomon was arguably the most successful person in the Bible

In his autobiography, The Price of Success, the successful translator and essayist JB Phillips, wrote,
“I was well aware of the dangers of sudden wealth and took some severe measures to make sure that, although comfortable, I should never be rich. I was not nearly so aware of the dangers of success. The subtle corrosion of character, the unconscious changing of values and the secret monstrous growth of a vastly inflated idea of myself seeped slowly into me. Vaguely I was aware of this and, like some frightful parody of St Augustine, I prayed, ‘Lord, make me humble—but not yet’. I can still savour the sweet and gorgeous taste of it all—the warm admiration, the sense of power, of overwhelming ability, of boundless energy and never-failing enthusiasm. It is very plain to me now why my one man kingdom of power and glory had to stop.”

“I prayed, ‘Lord, make me humble—but not yet’.

Phillips’ struggle with the effects of success is common to all humanity, including Jesus. Yet Jesus taught that “the life you save is the life you lose”, (Lk 17:33) and he lived it. He was prepared to give his life away by dying in his culture’s most disgraceful manner. He had no money in the bank, and only a handful of followers remained to his death. He was, in terms of worldly success, a perfect fool and a failed messiah.
Although through the resurrection Jesus was exonerated and vindicated by God, he demonstrates for us that the life you guard, grasp and play safe with is the life of little worth to anyone, including you. This is the paradox: those who are most fully alive are those who give that life away.

“This is the paradox: those who are most fully alive are those who give that life away.

Solomon’s wealth and honour were spontaneous gifts of God, a blessing Solomon did not expect or seek. In contrast, the assurance of a long life was conditional on his following David’s example: walking in God’s ways and obeying him.
Therefore, in those sober moments when Solomon centred his life on God, is it any wonder that he expressed this final conclusion: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man”? (Eccl 12:13)
Life is about relating to God, and thus gaining the power to live life according to his words. This is success, and it alone can produce true happiness, contentment and significance. 
Stephen L Baxter

The Grace of God Breaks Through

It was a different morning at Hobart Baptist Church yesterday morning, when we welcomed our Boy’s Brigade, along with their family and friends and others who  joined us for the service. The service was special not only because Boy’s Brigade was with us, but also because it was a Combined Service, where the three congregations that make up Hobart Baptist Church came together at once. Normally the children would leave in the middle of the service, but yesterday they stayed for the whole time.

Spot the spelling mistake. Yes, this is the official logo!
Boys Brigade Australia

Hobart Baptist Church is made up of a diverse group of people. We come from many different backgrounds, languages, ages, cultures and experiences. There are among us many different expectations of what a church should and could be; yet we were together this yesterday, in the midst of our diversity, to worship the one and true God.
While there are many in our community who dismiss church as out-dated, irrational and perhaps even dangerous, there are also many who believe it is important and many who quietly admit they wish it were true. The notion that there is more to life than just breathing, eating, working, and death is enticing.
Many think people go to church because it makes God happy – as if God needs cheerleaders to tell him how great he is, while others think it is because God wants to be worshipped. However, we don’t come to church because of what God wants, (although worship is important,) but because of what we need. We come to be reminded that God loves us, that we are forgiven, and that life is much more than what our education, our media, and the world tell us.

God’s grace breaks into our lives in surprising and unexpected ways

In a similar way there are many who think the main purpose of the Bible is to tell us how to live a good life. But that is far from the truth.  While the Bible does have commands, promises and teachings, its main purpose is to illustrate how God’s grace breaks into our lives in surprising and unexpected ways. Almost against our wills, we are invited to respond to God’s love —a love that saves us from our sin and our brokenness; and a grace that rescues us from all that overwhelms and engulfs us.
My prayer is that everyone, including you, may sense the reality of the presence of God, receive a glimpse of the love of God, and be touched by the reality, the mercy abd the grace of God.
May God bless you,
Stephen L Baxter

Is ALL progress good?

In the words of the Mercury newspaper on Tuesday, August 28, “Tasmania is a step closer to becoming the first place in Australia to allow same-sex marriage after legislation was introduced to State Parliament.” 
On that day Labor Premier Lara Giddings and Greens leader Nick McKim co-sponsored the Same-Sex Marriage Bill 2012, claiming the “majority of Tasmanians believe the time has come for this change to occur.”
I don’t know about you, but I am somewhat bewildered by all of this. It raises many questions for me, among them the questions of whether the majority really know what’s best for the future of our community.
While I doubt the statement that the “majority” of Tasmanians believe it is time for a change, even if they do, does it logically follow that they are right? There is a fundamental question here: Can the majority be trusted to make decisions and behave in ways considered “moral” and “right”? I doubt it. One could argue that the majority of Tasmanians would like a change of government, yet no premier would willingly step aside because the majority believe it is time for a change. Even our politicians have doubts that change should occur just because a so called “majority” want it.
Across cultures and religions for thousands of years marriage has reflected the biological complement of the sexes and understood it to be the union between a man and a woman. This understanding existed long before our parliament was established. We can therefore legitimately ask what place parliament has in redefining something that has naturally existed for millennia.

Newly Married Couple

That our Premier believes such a redefinition is right and appropriate is predicated on an unspoken premise sitting at the heart of modern society: all progress is good. Such a premise suggests the Same-Sex Marriage Bill 2012 is a logical progressive step in the maturity of humanity. Where for some, redefining an understanding that has existed for thousands of years would be a reason to exercise caution, in the name of progress it is heralded as a defining moment.
Not everyone shares their optimism. Karl Barth, the great Swiss Reformed theologian of the 20th century once noted, “The world does not know itself. It does not know God, nor man, nor the relationship and covenant between God and man. Hence it does not know its own origin, state or goal. It does not know what divides nor what unites. It does not know either its life and salvation or its death and destruction. It is blind to its own reality. Its existence is a groping in the dark.” (Church Dogmatics 4/3, p. 769).
Barth’s view is in sharp contrast to the confidence of the proponents of the Same-Sex Marriage Bill. Building upon God’s revelation in the Bible, he suggests humanity is blind to its own reality. It is not a surprise therefore that some people do not share such a positive view of “progress” that undergirds the proposed bill. For them, not everything heralded as “progress” is in fact “progress”. Karl Barth experienced it first hand living in Germany during the rise of the Nazis, and he eventually fled back to Switzerland.
Yet, belief in progress is so deeply cemented in today’s culture that anything old is more often than not considered morally offensive. We worship progress; it is self-evident and infallible; anything less is retrograde and backward and regularly ridiculed and scoffed at.
Marriage fits this category. The fact it has been around for millennia crossing cultures and religions means, by default, that it is viewed with suspicion and perceived as old fashioned and out-dated. It is implicit that any reasonable “progressive” person would agree with this premise, and anyone who disagrees is regressive, antiquated and ultimately a threat to society and progress itself.
But as Christians we beg to differ. Not all progress is good, and the majority is often not right (as in Nazi Germany, the debate on slavery, violent and wide-spread racism found across different communities, or among the crowd who demanded Jesus’ crucifixion).

We believe there is much at stake in the future of our society and our children than the proponents of the Bill are willing to admit.

We believe there is much at stake in the future of our society and our children than the proponents of the Bill are willing to admit. We reject the presumption inherent in the Bill that a child no longer has the right to be raised within their biological family. We reject the notion that this is progress. We reject the opinion that marriage is outmoded. We reject the claim that a majority want change, and even if they did, we reject this justifies such a radical redefinition.
That the majority is not always right is clear, and God’s revelation confirms it. While there are many in our community who believe the majority defines what is right, the sad reality is that in the end the majority is not always right. And this is one of the fundamental issues at the heart of this debate. How do we know what is good for us and our future? To suggest, in the case of marriage, that a “majority” of Tasmanians knows what is best for our community, even if it flies in the face of thousands of years of understanding and practice, is either a height of progress or the heights of arrogance.
It is important we pray for our community, not just for the impending vote on the Same-Sex Marriage Bill 2012 in the upper House of Parliament, but that we move away from faith in progress, to a faith in Jesus and develop a healthy scepticism in the ability of humanity to know what’s best for itself.
Stephen L Baxter

Christmas . . . all about Humility

Christmas RushChristmas is just around the corner, and another year is drawing to a close. As we approach Christmas life gets busier and more frantic. Amidst the rush and tinsel it is difficult to remind ourselves of the “reason for the season.”
Over the next month churches around the world will be filled with millions of Christmas reflections focusing on the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth—the shepherds, the stable, and the feed trough for a cot. We will sing again Christmas carols inspired by such humility and we will again be thankful of wonder of God becoming a human being.Mary and Jesus
While it is right to be reminded of such humility, it is also a reminder that God asks the same humility of us. The Bible explains that we can only receive Christ through something of the same meekness and humility (Matt. 5:3, 5; 18:3-4).
While such humility may seem simple and obvious, Tim Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York suggests, it takes great humility to understand humility. In other words, once we begin to focus on humility, pride us just around the corner. As C.S. Lewis comments, “If we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good—above all, that we are better than someone else—I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the Devil.”
Once I ask myself the question, “Am I humble?” I’m opening myself up to pride. Keller suggests, examining one’s heart “often leads to being proud about your diligence and circumspection.” Christian humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less, suggested C. S. Lewis.
What this means is any talk about practical ways to help us become humble will always be counterproductive. Focusing on our attention on how to be humble will end up destroying what humility we may already have.
So what can we do? Are we left in an impossible situation? Thankfully not.
While focussing on humility destroys humility, there are other things we can focus on. When Jesus summarized why people should following him, he said it was because he was meek and humble (Matt. 11:29). Jesus put himself forward as our model of humility. We focus on his humility rather than our own and in doing so take our eyes off ourselves, and begin to think of ourselves less.
Humility then has a chance to grow in our lives, not because we try to be humble but as by-product of our focus on Jesus and our trust in the good news. This good news is that God accepts us not because of what we do but because of love. This love is demonstrated supremely in the humility of the second person of the trinity becoming a human being and living among us.
Christmas is an opportunity to celebrate and marvel at the miracle of the God’s love and acceptance. It captures our focus by sheer wonder and diverts our gaze away from ourselves. We are given a chance to “fix our eyes on Jesus.”
So as we begin to enter the Christmas season this year and as we listen to the stories again, let’s pray that we move past their familiarity and that our hearts, our imaginations, our thinking and our lives and be struck again by the extraordinary humility of Christ.
And then without us even noticing, and by a miracle of God’s grace, we to may begin to live humble lives. Not because we are trying but because we are living in the fullness of God’s grace and love.  May the humility of Jesus grow in, through and among us.
Stephen L Baxter