Have you noticed how the writer of the book of Proverbs urges us to seek wisdom? (Read Proverbs Chapter One to find out.) It a great idea, but not as easy as it seems, particularly given the strange nature of wisdom. We’ve all been told that we are “not to judge a book by its cover”, nevertheless “the first impression is a lasting impression.” We’ve heard it said “too many cooks will spoil the broth,” but also “two heads are better than one.” And although “knowledge is power,” equally so “ignorance is bliss”. There is also a saying, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” Stop and read that again slowly. Here are two opposite statements that, when put in the one sentence, are no longer contradictory but transform into a wise saying. Wisdom can often be quite paradoxical. Paradox is like that, a statement that initially looks absurd and self-contradictory turns out to not only be true but wise. Read More >>>
The story goes that the German violinist Fritz Kreisler had an hour to spare before his boat sailed for London where he was scheduled for a concert performance . . . The proprietor of the music shop Kreisler had wandered into asked if he could look at the violin tucked under his arm. After one glimpse the proprietor quickly vanished returning with two policemen who promptly arrested Kreisler. “What for?” Kreisler asked. “Because, you have Fritz Kreisler’s violin,” came the reply. “But I’m Fritz Kreisler,” he protested. But they didn’t believe him. Aware his boat was about to sail Kreisler asked for the violin and began to play a piece he was well known for. It didn’t take long before the store proprietor and the policemen were convinced and let catch his boat. Kreisler’s story is a great illustration of the old adage, “Actions speak louder than words”. It is not what you say but what you do that really counts. It reminds me of Jesus’ comment that, “everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Read More >>>
The story is about Laura Rambotham who leaves the sheltered world of her mother and enters a boarding school. Here she is a little fish in a big pond and Laura struggles in the new environment. The epitaph in the book says, “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding” (Proverbs 4: 7), but one is left wondering what wisdom has Laura gained. Are you a wise person? Is that a fair question? If you think you are wise . . . Read More >>>
Among the many tensions that exist at the heart of any church, it is my observation there is one that we often overlook. A tension, I believe, is where we are pulled in two directions at the same time by two important truths.
Another tension in the church has to do with the focus of its life. Should it be inward or outward looking? In any church there are forces at work causing it to focus inward on itself. This is not necessarily bad as God calls us to love and care for each other. This inward looking behaviour is important for any healthy church. It is the necessary work of maintaining our unity, nurturing new Christians and ensuring growth in maturity. But there is also a force that moves us to focus outwardly to those around us, sending us out to the people outside the church . . . Read More >>>
Over Easter the New York Times ran an article that commented in passing that Easter Sunday is the day Christians honour Jesus’ “resurrection into heaven.” A mistake which, once pointed out, was quickly corrected. Nevertheless, such an error reminds us of the growing ignorance in our Western world of Christian belief.
This year’s Easter has come and gone and life returns to normal, almost as if the resurrection has no effect. But it wasn’t like that on the first Easter. I wonder whether Easter should make more of an impact in our lives. Maybe we too reflect the ignorance of the rest of our community. Read more . . .
We use the word “church” in so many different ways that sometimes it becomes quite confusing. When we say we are “going to church” we could mean we are meeting with others to worship God, or that we are just going to the building. Sometimes we use the word church to mean a denomination, and other times we use it to mean the wider body of Christ of which all believers are part. Sadly, none of these ways of using the word are from the Bible. In the New Testament the word we translate “church” is ekklesia, which means a public gathering, assembly or meeting. Never throughout the New Testament does ekklesia refer to a building; it only always refers to people.
Nevertheless buildings are important. While many churches exist without a building, they can serve a useful function. For Hobart Baptist our buildings help us go about the ministry God has called us to. What is more, did you know that our buildings are used seven days a week? Many other groups find our buildings helpful too. From time to time, for many reasons, churches need to develop their buildings. These may include the buildings being too big or too small, they could be falling down or crumbling, or often they are wrongly designed for today’s church or community needs.
Hobart Baptist Church is in the middle of a process of dreaming about how we might develop and use our buildings to help us in our ministry both now and in the future. When we began the journey nearly two years ago we were just looking at upgrading the kitchen and having meeting rooms with appropriate technology, but since then the vision has grown and we are now in serious discussions with the owners of neighbouring properties about how we might do something quite large together. The church has appointed a taskforce to work with the interested parties to work out what is possible. We are aware that any development needs to reflect and to speak of what the church stands for, what it wants to promote and how it can best be used in response to contemporary and future needs. So all our dreaming and discussion has taken place within the context of the mission of the church and our place in neighbourhood in mind. Everyone the taskforce talks to is very excited with our vision and are keen to see the vision realised. However, the Taskforce is very mindful that despite this truly amazing opportunity, “the church” is not a building, no matter how beautiful, spacious or practical it might be. The building only exists to serve God’s people who are the church, and it is important for us to constantly remember this.
“The building only exists to serve God’s people who are the church, and it is important for us to constantly remember this.”
That, however, doesn’t take away the reality that the Taskforce is at a very important stage in our discussions and we as a congregation are praying earnestly. A full update will be given at our church meeting in April, but in the meantime we will be praying that God will oversee the process and that a shared understanding on how to proceed will be approved by all the respective parties. We are looking forward to all that happens as Hobart Baptist Church charts its course into the future, with our great God at the helm. Stephen L Baxter
Yesterday at Hobart Baptist Church we got together for our monthly Combined Service. We call it a Combined Service because the different congregations making Hobart Baptist Church come together in worship to celebrate our diversity and reaffirm our unity.
It is a different type of service with the children joining us for the entire time and our three congregations—our traditional Sunday morning crowd, our Karen folk and our Church With No Walls people—participating in some way. Then after the service we continue our worship by sharing a meal together.
This is an important event in the monthly life of our church. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the focus of our worship services should be solely on God and with no thought of other worshippers gathered with us. However, God expects more of us than that. In the New Testament it is clear that that we don’t worship merely as individuals, but as a people, a congregation. Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church were to make sure that everything happens—whether it is singing, teaching, praying, and reading the Bible—is done in such a way that “the church may be built up” (1 Cor. 14:26). Rather than think of ourselves, we are to think of one another. We are to make sure the rich don’t get all the good seats (Jms 2:1-4) and that at communion no believer is excluded (1 Cor. 11:22-23). Worship should not only increase our love of God but also the love of our fellow believers. John reflects on this when he writes, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” (1 Jn 3:16).
Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. Bythis everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn 13:34, 35). Sadly, we are not always as good at loving each other as we ought to be. Many of us have experienced hurts, divisions and disunity in churches. It can often leave us hurt, and even bitter. In fact, the number issues of over which we can disagree are limitless whether it is about theology or worship style, power or cultural differences, the pastor or the leadership.
“It is not the differences or disagreements that are the problem, but how we deal with our differences”
While it is true that these differences will by nature bring disagreements, it is not the differences or disagreements that are the problem, but how we deal with our differences. When a difference brings disagreement it presents an opportunity to either create unity or division. Unity will one day finally be realised but only when Jesus returns, until then unity will always be in process and something we are continually working on so as to maintain it. Our combined services give us an opportunity where we can exercise our love for each other. They are a visible demonstration of the unity we have in Christ despite our differences. They are a way to help us to maintain our unity in the midst of our diversity. As we spent time together yesterday, in the service and in our meal together, we were all provided with two opportunities. Firstly, to experience the love and unity of being part of God’s family, a very encouraging experience; and secondly, an opportunity to express that love and unity to each other. The challenge is to embrace being different, while working together. I pray that as you seek to express love and unity to those in your fellowship that God will bless you too, just as he blessed us yesterday. Stephen L Baxter
Yesterday at Hobart Baptist we had our sceond Combined Service.It’s a time when the three different congregations making up Hobart Baptist Church came together to worship at one service and celebrate our diversity. The children did not leave for their programs in the middle of the service, but remained with us for the entire time; and later we continued our worship by sharing a meal together.
Why would we do something like this? Why expend all this effort to change our normal pattern? In Galatians 3:28 Paul says we are “all one in Christ,” “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female.” He reminds us that God does not see his people as the world sees them. God does not operate in categories of ethnicity, status or gender, but is in relationship with each person in the same way. When we gather together in our diversity we are reflecting something of the way God regards each one of us. Making room for each other and treating each other in the reality of that “oneness” becomes of itself an act of worship. Throughout the Bible, from the Old Testament prophets to the New Testament letters, there is a theme of the promise of God of a New Creation – a world where everything is set right. In it, God’s Spirit fills everyone regardless of ethnicity, age, gender, or class. It is a place where that same Spirit gifts everyone for the common good of all. It is a place where broken lives and relationships are healed. That’s why Jesus commanded us to be in unity. John records him saying (13:34-35), “A new commandment I give to you. Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this will all know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Being in unity despite our differences is a command of Jesus. From this passage, the American theologian Francis Schaeffer concluded that according to Jesus, the world has the right to decide whether we are true Christians based on the love we show to other Christians. So when Jesus said we are to love on another he was talking about something real and observable, something that needs work, yet it is something that is at the heart of what it means to follow him. That’s why we take being together seriously and why we make the effort to worship God in all our wonderful diversity. It was an enjoyable time together yesterday. For some there may have been things that happened that were not exactly to their taste and therefore a little uncomfortable. I encouraged those people to, as an act of worship, move past the discomfort and choose to celebrate the diversity God has blessed us with. Perhaps you too find it difficult to embrace all God’s wonderful diversity and choose to stay in an environment where you are safe and comfortable. Let me encourage you too, to look past these things as your act of worship. Stephen L Baxter
. . . OR, A Divine Game of Chasey During the Sunday sermons at Hobart Baptist, we are currently making our way through the book of Acts and I keep emphasising how amazed I am at the number of times God takes action and the church plays ‘catch up’. Time and time again the Holy Spirit intervenes taking the initiative in the Christian community and the people have to adjust to the new thing happening. The story of Acts is the story of the forming of the church. The reason I believe it is important for us to study Acts is so we recognise when God is at work in our church and in our community. And more than that, so that we’ll be ready to “catch up” with what God is doing.
In his book, The Continuing Conversion of the Church, Darrell Gudermakes the compelling point that transformation (his word is conversion) should be the constant experience of the church. If the church is obedient to its Lord, it will continually experience transformation. Why? Because the church exists for God’s purpose and it is God who is at work within and amongst her to achieve these purposes. Years ago the German theologian, Karl Barth, made the comment: “There is a Church because there is a mission.” I said something similar last Sunday (June 17) when I suggested, “The church does not have a mission, instead, God’s mission has a church.” This is significant. The church will continue to experience transformation not because we want change, nor just because we live in a changing world, but because the church does not exist for itself.
The church was brought into existence with a purpose, and that purpose remains because God is at work achieving his purposes.
This is the importance of the book of Acts for us. It gives insight into what it means to be the church called into existence for the purpose of God. Sadly, a quick look at church history reveals we haven’t always been good at keeping this focus. Time and time again we get drawn into worrying about our survival rather than focussing on what God is doing in bringing the “kingdom” to earth. In fact, there are hints of this even in the New Testament. Guder remarks: “Whereas the early Christian community was established by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit to be a missionary people sent into the entire world as salt, light and leaven, it began to be concerned with its identity, structure and survival.” As a result the perception of the gospel changed. The focus of salvation was no longer on the coming of the “kingdom” but upon meeting individual human needs. The same temptation is no less real for us today. Living in a consumer based, individualistic world it is easy to drift into believing salvation is all about my needs, my desires, and my wants focusing on what happens after death. The gospel is that, but it is far more. Being saved is being caught up in God’s big plan to bring salvation to planet earth as well as all the people who live on it. As Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) The church’s focus is not about my salvation, but about God’s big rescue at work in and through his church. So here the challenges before you and me as we seek to live faithfully:
Are we going to allow the significant issues we face as a church (locally, but also across our state and nation) cause us to focus on matters such as “identity, structure and survival”; OR will we learn from Acts and ask God for the revelation, insight, illumination and wisdom to perceive what it is God is doing?
Will you and I allow ourselves to be caught up in God’s purposes; OR will we focus on our own needs?
Will you and I pray, “Lord, save us”; OR “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”?
My prayer is that during your journey through Acts you will be encouraged and inspired to “catch up” with the things God doing in your church, in your family and in your community. Stephen L Baxter
Back in 1990, Jenny and I with our three young children and nine eager fellow travellers set out for a short term mission trek visiting our sister church which worked in the slums of Chennai (then called Madras). Chennai is in the province of Tamil Nadu, and is famous for its curries and very dark-skinned inhabitants.
For six weeks we shared life with our Indian brothers and sisters in Christ. It was there we learnt about the diversity of God’s church in ways we could never have imagined. It was a confronting, uncomfortable and challenging time; yet it was nevertheless an encouraging and life-changing experience. On Sundays we sat on the floor through 2½ hour long services, with women on the right and men on the left, in humid, sweltering conditions. Most of the time we had little or no idea what was going on as men prayed and preached and women sang and wailed. We watched as the pastor prayed for Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians alike and then asked us to join in.
As leaders, one of our main tasks was to counsel our team as they experienced culture shock, and guide them to a godly and biblical way to understand the gulf of differences that existed between the Indians and us. The way they lived their Christian life, their theology and practice of church was something we had never encountered or experienced before. We often pined for home, yet we learnt so much during those six weeks and it was sad when we came to leave. While their church services seemed so disordered, often leaving us confused and uncomfortable, we could not deny the reality that God was at work amongst them, despite our disquiet and questions. As I look back now I think it was the first time I realised that despite what I’d assumed, the opposite of disorder is not order, or certainly not my idea of order. When things are uncomfortable, confusing and seemingly out of hand, I look for stability in what I know and what I experience. But living in Chennai that was impossible, there was no escape. I couldn’t walk away, I couldn’t withdraw. After all, I was the leader.
What God taught me was that peace is the opposite of disorder, not order. The apostle Paul says as much in a little verse in 1 Corinthians where he says, “God is not a God of disorder, but of peace” (14:33). What a simple but profound statement, written to what was most likely the most dysfunctional church of the New Testament. Here was snobbery, sexual promiscuity, over-enthusiastic expression of spirituality, and disorderly times of worship. The church was divided and confused, and in the midst of their disarray Paul reminds them of the importance of peace, after all Jesus is the King of Peace (Hebrews 7:2) and the angels announcedat his birth that he would bring “peace on earth.”
The lessons I learnt in Chennai served me well just a few years later when I became the Managing Director of Australia’s largest Christian magazine at the time (On Being magazine). Through the magazine I came in contact with people with quite a wide diversity of experiences and expressions in following Jesus. I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Christians from all persuasions and walks of life. Some were more conservative even fundamental, some were liberal, some charismatic and Pentecostal, some were orthodox and some unorthodox. Many thought their way of being and doing church was the “right” way, and some really struggled to appreciate the uniqueness of each other’s gifts, heritage and experience. However, I found the experience of learning about all this variety was rich and rewarding. I was constantly reminded of God’s love of diversity and the how body of Christ is made up people from different backgrounds, heritage and experience. Such a range in understanding is not a problem to God, and I learnt that it shouldn’t be a problem to me either. This is one of the things I find delightful about Hobart Baptist. We are made up of three quite distinct and different congregations. In essence it is a small expression of the diversity of the body of Christ. Alongside our more traditional Baptist heritage, we have our Karen congregation and their experience of church, living in refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border. And alongside these we have Church With No Walls expressing their faith in God in different ways again. I am constantly encouraged by the willingness of people to work at being one church in the midst of our diversity, endeavouring to encourage one another through the exercise of grace, forgiveness and love. Despite our differences we are to work at being united, and in doing so be obedient to the command of Jesus. On the night before he died Jesus prayed for us (John 14-17) and insisted that as disciples we demonstrate our unity by our love for one another. That is not to say we agree on everything, in fact the reality is we don’t. But we can agree to be united despite our differences. Often Christians make the mistake of wanting other Christians to think the way they do. Still others believe everyone should worship or work the way they do. But we were made to be different – different gifts but the same Spirit, different services but the same Lord, different ministries but the same God (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). The Bible is clear: we are called to unity but not uniformity. Unity is not about having big services with all the congregations together, nor is unity singing the same songs and doing everything the same way. That is conformity or sameness. Such uniformity is unbiblical. How is it possible to live with such diversity? I believe unity is a journey, not a static point. Our focus is not order (although that maybe important) but peace. Why? Because we can experience peace even in the midst of disorder or when we feel uncomfortable. Unity is being united in purpose and allowing each other to get on with what they are called to. We may sing different songs, conduct our services differently and see the world differently, but what is important is that we all reach for the same goal. We want to see each other’s ministries flourish; we therefore pray for each other and help out wherever we can. This is unity! That is what God taught Jenny and me in India. We discovered God is much bigger than our experience, our theology and our ability to understand. Our thinking was too small at the best of times. Once we relaxed and experienced peace, we were able to see God at work in new ways, and learnt to appreciate their “dis”-order in a new way. We learnt that we can’t limit God to our comfort zone and say, “God, I only want you to work in what I’m comfortable with.” We learnt that Jesus is not a comfortable Saviour, and if we were looking for comfort we need to look elsewhere than Jesus. So despite the fact that Jesus is the Prince of Peace, it did not mean he was the Prince of Comfort. And although the Holy Spirit is called the comforter the Spirit’s job is not to make us comfortable. God has not finished with Hobart Baptist Church, there is much more that the triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – desires for us. And if God is at work amongst us, we can guarantee that the journey will be uncomfortable and challenging; for me as well as you. Our assurance is that God is with us, and Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is our Saviour. I encourage you to be at prayer for the various forms of the Church in Hobart and elsewhere. Pray also for those who are experiencing a sense of disorder wehre they are; that they may seek God’s peace, the peace that passes understanding; and that they may grow in love for others despite differences. Stephen L Baxter