God’s Purpose in Our Trials

El Salvador, Map
El Salvador is highlighted in Central America

Oscar A. Romero was an archbishop of the Catholic Church, Archbishop of San Salvador, capital city of El Salvador (1977-1980). In 1979 the Revolutionary Government Junta came to power amidst increasing human rights abuses and an escalation of violence that would become the Salvadoran Civil War.
Although known as a pious and conservative bishop no one foresaw that in three years Romero would be noticed internationally by both Catholics and non-Catholics as an embodiment of the prophetic church, and a “voice for the voiceless” of El Salvador.
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Knowing Love for One Another

Early on in our marriage Jenny and I committed to making a priority of meeting with a small group of fellow Christians during the week.
We have hosted weekly small group meetings in our home in since that time. They have been variously been called home groups, small groups, growth groups, cell groups, bible studies, life studies and so on, and yet have generally retained the same key components – time to share life together over a meal, a Bible study and prayer.

Our Cell Group in Hawthorn, celebrating our daughter’s 18th birthday

I believe these informal get togethers have been one of the keys to the ongoing stability of our marriage, our family, our ministry and our lives. By sharing our lives with others over the years we have learnt and grown, laughed and cried and seen many answers to prayer. Our children were an integral part to our times too; they contributed and learnt the faith not only from us, their parents, but from other significant adults. The adults in turn were enriched by their presence.
These weekly gatherings have become so much a part of the rhythm of our lives as Christians it’s hard to imagine life without them. It’s hardly surprising that, as a pastor, it would be my preference that every Christian is part of one, whether it is a weekly Bible study, home group, small group, prayer group, mission group, or a task focussed group.
There is ample research to show that effective small groups are the backbone of growing, healthy congregations and the glue that holds them together. They are the place where people experience deeper levels of community, acceptance and accountability. They are the place where people learn from each other’s wisdom and experiences. Here trust can grow and vulnerabilities be shared. Here one can lean on another through times of trial and growth. Small groups are the place where personal care of each other deepens at a practical, prayerful and personal level.
One of the surprises Jenny and I received when we first started being part of Hobart Baptist Church was how few small groups and Bible studies there are. I’ve often wondered why this is the case.
One reason is perhaps that in the past many found their primary small group was Sunday School, but with the decline of the all-age Sunday school over recent decades, they didn’t move onto new forms. For others, perhaps, the idea of a Bible study may be threatening. For others the thought of small group may look too intimate and personal, still for others the possibility of being asked to contribute or read out loud might be daunting and for others the idea of going out at night could be a problem.
What is more, being a city church makes it difficult to have home groups. We are so scattered across the suburbs of Hobart that it is difficult to easily organise ourselves into groups. However, I don’t believe this shouldn’t stop us from trying. After all, if we want to be a thriving, growing, healthy church, Bible study groups will need to be part of who we are. Ultimately I would love to see everyone who is capable having the opportunity to be a member of a small group whether that be in a home or at our church during the week, even on the weekend whether it be during the day or the evening.

“If we want to be a thriving, growing, healthy church, Bible study groups will need to be part of who we are.

The early church culture we read about in the New Testament is one where Christians are praying together, studying God’s word together, and caring for one another. For Jenny and me, our experience is that small groups are the simplest and easiest structure to allow us to do this.
I believe every practicing Christian should be part of a small group of some description, and if you are not already, then I encourage you to seriously consider it. Look up the pastor in your local expression of the church, and ask him or her what groups you can join in your gepgraphical area. Costly though it may be, one day you will be very glad you did!
Stephen L Baxter

The success of failure . . . and the failure of success!

Often when discussing how Jesus said we – his disciples – would do even great things than he did, people look stunned and ask, “Even walk on water?”
I respond, “Jesus was not the only person to have walked on water.”
Incredibly surprised they ask, “Who else did?”
Peter,” I reply.
And almost dismissively they say, “Oh yes, that’s right” (see Matt 14:22-31).
Their response reminds me how often we view things through the lens of failure rather than success. We think of Peter as one who sank in the water, forgetting that to sink, he first had to walk on the water.
We overlook the reality that Peter daringly stepped out of a boat into the darkness in the middle of the lake of Galilee. We don’t stop to imagine what Peter must have felt in those moments to choose to step out of the boat. We miss the point that it was a moment of triumph, Peter actually walked across the top of the water.
Sadly, our recollection of the event is coloured by the next few moments when Peter’s resolve quivers and he begins to sink. “What a failure,” we conclude forgetting what he has just achieved and missing the fact that there were 11 cowards who never got out of the boat. We are quick to condemn Peter, and slow to condemn the others.
Why are we so quick to do so?
Why see Peter as a failure rather than a success?
Why is success such an obsession and failure such a problem?
Perhaps it is part of our fallen nature. When Jesus taught he turned the world’s value systems upside down. For instance, those whom the world considers rejected by God are in fact blessed (blessed are the poor); and those who are gentle and humble inherit the earth (blessed are the meek) rather than those who are aggressive and charismatic (see the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5).

When Jesus taught, he turned the world’s value systems
upside down.

Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God – a place where God rules with a very different value system. While on earth Jesus formed a little group around him whom he prepared for the coming kingdom.
Peter’s walking on water was part of that learning and it seems like Peter learnt well. Even though he sank that night, at least he had a go. Ultimately Peter is the one who has the courage to stand on the day of Pentecost and explain what is going on. It is he who has the courage to stand and testify before the Sanhedrin. It is he who, when commanded by them to stop preaching in Jesus’ name, tells them that he can’t obey and will continue to preach (Acts 4:13-20 and 5:27-32).
Failing and Learning
Peter did not ‘fail’ that night on the lake; rather he had a very good moment of learning. He demonstrates an important principle for us all: successful people fail every day just like everybody else, but they view their ‘failure’ as an opportunity, not as a threat.
In fact, from the world’s point of view Jesus was just another failed Messiah. It appears that his career was cut short and his dreams never realised; his plans were thwarted and his work unfinished. However, the resurrection changed everything. The ‘failure’ of Jesus in fact becomes the hope of the world. All our failures now have the opportunity to become successes.
When Jesus chose obedience to Father he knew it meant choosing failure by the standards of the world. In doing so he demonstrated once and for all what true success is. When stripped down to its basics, success is faithfulness and obedience to the will of God – everything else is lost in comparison.
When we come to look at the church today, and at the lives of fellow Christians, it is too easy for us to view the church and each other through the worldly lens of success.
Thankfully God doesn’t view us that way. Jesus demonstrates for us this amazing paradox: the failure of success, and the success of failure.
May God grant you a renewed mind to view the work through this lens of the Kingdom of God.
Stephen L Baxter

“Acts of God”?

The devastating tsunami which hit Japans east coast in March 2011

In a world that has largely dismissed God as irrelevant, antiquated or dead, it seems strange that one of the few things God still gets credit for are natural disasters.  Earthquakes, floods, tornadoes and landslides are deemed “acts of God” – just read your insurance policy.
An “Act of God” is a legal term for events outside human control for which no one can be held responsible. Insurance companies use it to identify things they don’t cover in their policy and in Queensland this has lead to public outcry as it has left many without insurance cover.
All this talk of “acts of God” has not been good press for God or for the gospel. It only serves to reinforce a strongly embedded view within Australians that God is a wrathful overseer, inflicting unfair retribution on wayward humanity. But that is not the God we know and love, and it is in stark contrast to the teaching of Jesus. He taught of God’s unfailing goodwill to all and said God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).
Many ask: Was Japan’s earthquake a retributive act of God? Did he send the rains and floods into Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland as judgment? Did he shake Christchurch for their sins? We answer a resounding, “No.” That is not the God Jesus represented.
Yet, we are left with questions. While science can help us understand why natural disasters occur and Jesus helps us appreciate God is not causing disasters, we still struggle to understand why God allows them to occur.
So why do natural disasters happen?
Answers are not straight forward, but the Bible does give strong hints to where the answers lie. It explains how the natural world is held in the grip of decay and groans under the weight of this bondage. It explains how creation is waiting in the hope of liberation, transformation and freedom (Romans 8:19-22).
Here the Bible depicts the world not as fixed or settled, but in the process of becoming. Using the image of childbirth it suggests that ferment, unrest, confusion, and disarray are to be expected as the process of history unfolds.
In a similar vein Jesus said, “You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come . . . There will be famines and earthquakes in various places” (Matthew 24:6-7). He confirms that natural disasters are to be expected in a world still developing and becoming all it was designed to be. In fact he goes on to say that these are just the beginning of the birth pains.
Jesus encourages us to take a long term view of God’s plan for the world. It began in the Garden of Eden thousands of years ago, it peaked in the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth a couple of thousand years ago and only God knows how much long it will be before the end will come.
Until that time, Jesus was very clear about what he wanted us to do.
Those who exhibit true “Acts of God”
Once we appreciate that natural disasters are not “acts of God” but the consequences of complex earth systems still incomplete and awaiting liberation (although they are exacerbated by imperfect management by us humans) we can begin to see what true “acts of God” are – the actions of those who follow Jesus in loving others.
Today in Japan on the frontline of care are many who follow Jesus. Amongst them is the Salvation Army with their slogan, “Combating natural disasters with acts of God.” Think about that. It is brilliant.
“Combating natural disasters with acts of God” helps redefine “acts of God.” It reinforces the point that “natural disasters” are not caused by God. It refocuses “acts of God” on the actions of people one to another.
Earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and the like will keep on happening, we can’t stop them. But we can, in the name of Jesus, make a difference to those who suffer. Let us pray that God will grant us, and our fellow believers across the world who are helping in disasters, grace to love and care just as Jesus would.
Have you ever experienced an “Act of God”?
Stephen L Baxter