The Year in the Jungle That Changed My Life

When I was 19, I made one of the biggest decisions of my life. I moved to the jungles of Indonesia.

If you know me now, that may sound like the course my life was always going to take. Let me assure you: it was anything but an inevitable decision at the time.

My mate, whose parents were working for an NGO there, had been bugging me endlessly to visit, and I was more than content to ignore him. I felt no particular draw towards other cultures and certainly no interest in learning another language. Like a hobbit, I had everything I needed in my little shire and had no reason to leave.

“This was one of the best decisions I have ever made.”

But then God spoke, and in a Jonah moment, I knew I could ignore him no longer. And rather than a visit, I felt compelled to commit to at least a year and see where it would go.

Over a decade later and I’ve just returned from my tenth trip to this remote region. I’ve now spent around two and a half years of my life in a place that has captured my heart and keeps drawing me back.

If you’re wondering what to do with your gap year; are at a crossroads in life; or are otherwise experiencing your own Jonah wake-up call, let me share with you why this was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

The Adventure of a Lifetime

I’ve always loved camping, but I didn’t know adventure until I lived on this tangle of tropical islands.

I could tell you stories of spear fishing and jumping down waterfalls, of high-speed midnight rides on a car roof (don’t tell Mum), of climbing one of the world’s most active volcanoes (four times), and of getting lost in the jungle for days—and fortunately, making it out alive.

If none of that excites you, I could tell you about the families who’ve hosted me in their dirt-floored, bamboo-thatched homes; stories of suffering and hope that I never imagined I’d hear first hand; and the incredible friends, young and old, that I now have a lifelong bond with.

Culture and Language

I recently heard it said that until you understand a second language, you don’t understand your own. I couldn’t agree more. And I’d say the same about culture.

On return from my first year in Indonesia, I had fresh eyes—an outsider’s view—on things in my own culture that I’d grown up taking for granted. I can’t quantify just how life-changing that has been for me.

In the best of ways, I now question the status-quo I see all around me, and more importantly, the mediocrity inside my own head.

And there’s another link between culture and language worth mentioning. Language embodies culture. When you learn one, you learn the other. Through language, you don’t just learn to speak like your hosts, but to share their values and their outlook on life so that it shapes your own.

Growth and Perspective

When I landed back in Australia, after spending some time with a friend, she commented that I went to Indonesia a boy and came back a man. Maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but I certainly grew a lot that year—not least in my perspective on the world.

Whether it was washing my own clothes each day with a scrubbing brush, tasting the most unusual cuisine from bat to snake to sago grub, or seeing the unparalleled joy of children in the face of abject poverty—there is something about living on the outskirts of civilisation that can only alter your view of almost everything.

I can no longer approach finances like I used to. Or my fears, or my friendships, or my faith. Years later and I’m still unpacking how my interactions with the amazing people of Indonesia have shaped me.

Future Possibilities

Too many people, even those still finishing high school, have been persuaded to focus far too much on CVs and career paths, salaries and ambition. Too few are concerned about the kind of person they’re becoming.

As you make these big decisions about your future, what grid are you using? If it’s comfort, status or security, let me challenge you beyond goals like these that won’t satisfy, and that aren’t particularly attainable anyway.

Let me challenge you away from the path of least resistance and towards the path of adventure, obedience and self-sacrifice—whatever that might look like for you.

Even if it looks like a year in the jungle.

~

The organisation I serve with in Indonesia welcomes with open arms western visitors who are willing to serve and get behind their vision of physical, emotional and spiritual restoration for the poor and marginalised.

They have a particular need right now for native English speakers to teach in the school (Reception to Year 8), qualified or otherwise. Please get in touch with me if you’d like to find out more.

How Buddhism Points to Jesus

Let’s be honest, it’s the world’s most fashionable religion. Buddhism has an exciting mystique about it, especially for us spiritually starved westerners.

Mindfulness has gone mainstream, along with Zen gardens and the Dalai Lama. Buddhist themes light up our cinemas, from The Matrix to Kung Fu Panda and every Star Wars film in history.

Christians are sometimes known for their fear of other religions. But what if we got over ourselves and asked what we can learn from Buddhism—and how it might point people to Jesus?

Origins and Influence

The Buddha lived long before Christ. He was born Siddhartha Gautama, a Hindu prince, in the 5th or 6th century BC. A prophecy foretold that he’d become the greatest founder of the greatest religion in the world. Fearing this, his father kept him safe inside a palace.

But that would never last. One day Gautama ventured outside, and on his travels he encountered an elderly person, a sick person, and a corpse—confronting him with the reality of human suffering.

He called this the wheel of suffering, and he made it his life’s mission to find an escape from it. At age 29, he abandoned his wife and son and gave up everything to live as a poor man. Following the Hindu tradition, he wandered the Ganges river to mediate, fast, and learn from gurus.

“A prophecy foretold that he’d become the greatest founder of the greatest religion in the world.”

Desperate to be free of suffering, Gautama sat under a tree and vowed not to get up until he was enlightened. Six years after his search began, the moment arrived. He became the Buddha or enlightened one—and a new world faith was born.

The Buddha’s teaching career continued until his death at age 81, during which time huge crowds followed him. 2,500 years later, Buddhism is the world’s fourth largest religion; the dominant faith in a dozen countries; and is practiced by half a billion people.

The Heart of Buddhism

Buddhism is complex and varied, drawing on Hindu ideas like karma and reincarnation, and mixing with many other beliefs as it spread through Asia. But in all its diversity today, it’s built on one simple idea: escape from suffering. The Buddha developed this in his Four Noble Truths.

1. The Existence of Suffering. To live is to suffer. Sadness, fear, worry and loss are all part of life. Even pleasure is fleeting. This too is a form of suffering.

2. The Explanation for Suffering. Suffering is caused by desire. We experience the pain of hunger, for example, only because we desire food; we experience grief and fear of death only because we desire life.

“Buddhism is built on one simple idea: escape from suffering.”

3. The End to Suffering. Suffering ends when desire ends. The end goal of Buddhism is nirvana—to end all desire by realising that we don’t really exist, so we can live in this world with complete detachment.

4. The Escape from Suffering. There is a way to be free. The Buddha had been a prince and a pauper, but neither experience dealt with suffering at its root. Under that tree, the Buddha found a Middle Way between these two extremes—also known as the Eightfold Path to end suffering:

Right understanding | embracing the Four Noble Truths

Right direction | aiming for a life of detachment from this world

Right speech | speaking truthfully, kindly, and gently

Right conduct | acting non-violently and compassionately

Right livelihood | finding a vocation fitting with Buddhist beliefs

Right effort | endeavouring to live a worthy and meritorious life

Right mindfulness | realising that all sensations are illusory

Right concentration | meditating to remove all distraction

This, in a nutshell, is Buddhism. Notice that God wasn’t mentioned? That’s because the Buddha was silent on the existence of God. In fact he was even silent on the origin of the universe. His goal was simply to discover a life of serenity that transcended suffering.

(Religion is still an accurate word to describe Buddhism. Most Buddhists today pray and take part in other rituals; one branch worships the Buddha as a god).

The Buddha and Jesus

In comparing Buddhism and Christianity, we must avoid two extremes. One is syncretism: combining these two faiths and ignoring what makes them unique and incompatible. The other is ostracism: rejecting the Buddha and his teachings completely.

There is a better way—a middle path, if you will. It involves caring enough about Buddhists to find points of contact between their beliefs and the gospel; taking down our walls and instead building bridges; asking how Buddhism can deepen our gratitude for the good news of Jesus.

“The Buddha’s goal was to discover a life of serenity that transcended suffering.”

First, the Buddha’s spiritual commitment is astounding, and it puts many of us Christians to shame. Am I seeking Jesus as passionately as the Buddha sought enlightenment? Am I as desperate to be free from sin as he was from suffering? Do I meditate on God’s Word—at all?

But let’s go a level deeper and explore Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. How does Jesus answer the Buddha’s deepest questions about life?

1. The Existence of Suffering. Suffering is part of our life in this world. Scripture says that Adam and Eve’s sin brought a curse on the world, and now all creation groans as we long to be released from sin and suffering.

2. The Explanation for Suffering. Left unchecked, our desires do lead to misery. In the words of James, they entice us, drag us away and lead to sin, which gives birth to death. The Bible even describes us as slaves to sin—caught in our own endless wheel of suffering.

“The Buddha’s spiritual commitment puts many of us Christians to shame.”

3. The End to Suffering. The gospel offers a remarkable solution. Not unlike the Buddha, Jesus stepped down from his heavenly palace to identify with a broken human race. But rather than seeking an escape from it, Jesus took our sin and suffering into himself at the cross. All who are enlightened to this, God welcomes into an eternal serenity where suffering is no more.

4. The Escape from Suffering. Jesus himself is the path to end suffering. He is the way, the truth and the life. Suffering will still touch us in this life, but as we follow him, his Spirit enables us to live detached from sin, and to act with truth, gentleness and compassion—and many other virtues the Buddha taught.

Not so that we can earn our escape from suffering, or finally reach enlightenment. But because we’ve already experienced this in Jesus, the truly enlightened one.

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to support my blog, please like it, leave a comment, and most importantly, share it on social media. To receive new posts directly by email, scroll to the bottom of the page and subscribe.

Check out the rest of this series:

Buddhism  |  Islam  |  Hinduism  |  Atheism  |  Judaism  |  Pluralism

 

Sources

Cioccolanti, Steve. From Buddha to Jesus: An Insider’s View of Buddhism and Christianity. Oxford, UK: Monarch, 2007.

Claydon, David. Connecting Across Cultures: Sharing the Gospel Across Cultural and Religious Boundaries. Melbourne: Acorn Press Ltd, 2000, 99-108.

Dickson, John. A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions: An Introduction to the Big Five. Sydney: Blue Bottle Books, 2004, 47-84.

Secrets to a Thriving Young Adults Church

In high school I was shy and awkward. If you told me that one day I’d be discipling hundreds of young adults in one of Australia’s fastest-growing Baptist churches, I would have shaken my head in disbelief.

It turns out that God has a sense of humour. This has been my adventure for the last four years, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I talk to other leaders who feel discouraged in young adults ministry. Youth still in high school flock to events that are run well. But after they graduate and get their license, keeping them in a faith community is like herding cats.

“All of these secrets are totally counter-intuitive.”

It’s a huge challenge for me too. Any of my “success” I credit to the goodness of God. But there are also a few things I’ve picked up along the way—secrets that I think help our young adults community thrive.

All of them are totally counter-intuitive. So brace yourself.

#1 Give up trying to do so much ministry

Like most pastors, I nearly burnt out in my first year. Then I discovered boundaries and learnt the word “no”. I also lifted my eyes and saw a church full of talented young people.

As I began asking their help to get things done, I realised something deeper. Young adults come alive when you look them in the eye, name their giftings, and throw them off the deep end with the words “I believe in you”.

“I lifted my eyes and saw a church full of talented young people.”

Some weeks now I don’t touch a microphone. Other people preach, lead worship, run life groups, and oversee complex ministries. Out of this fertile soil more grassroots ministries spring up—some that are thriving before I even hear about them.

I’m still deeply involved in the life of the community. And I preach often, because that’s my main gifting. But my role has shifted significantly to discipling leaders, and helping them do the same.

“As I’ve had the humility to step down, I’ve seen others step up.”

This is a win for everyone, because if I’m honest, I’m actually not that good at most other things. That’s what all the other people in the body of Christ are for.

Too often, pastors are put on a pedestal. It boosts our ego, but the pressure is deadly. As I’ve had the humility to step down, I’ve seen others step up. And I’ve realised that’s precisely how disciples are made.

#2 Get rid of your best quality people

Right now—and most of the time—some of our best young people are off completing discipleship schools with YWAM or serving on the mission fields of South-East Asia.

When they come back, more will go. Every month we farewell people who join our church plant, or decide to serve at a different church, or who go overseas with a ministry we’re not connected to.

“Long ago, I decided that my goal isn’t to retain young people.”

If this sounds stressful, it’s because you’re not thinking like a millennial. After thirteen years of routine, young people want freedom. We want adventure without a guaranteed outcome—even without the guarantee that we’ll return. And just watch: out of gratitude for that freedom, most will return anyway.

Even if they don’t come back, it’s not a loss. Long ago I decided that my goal isn’t to retain as many young people in church as possible. That will only leave me frustrated. It’s like herding cats, remember?

“Millennials are drawn to this kind of permission-giving community.”

Instead, for the six months or the two years or the decade they are with me, I will pour my heart into discipling them as well as I know how. Then, wherever they go, they’ll be a blessing to others, and a benefit to God’s kingdom. And I won’t feel deflated.

Millennials are drawn to this kind of permission-giving community. That’s why you can keep sending out your best with the confidence that more will come and replace them.

#3 Tell them how hard it is to follow Jesus

Social media is a mirage telling us the perfect life is always just up ahead. The modern world tries to turn this dream into reality and sell us lives that are easy and pain-free.

The church has tapped into this project, and for decades now we’ve tried a seeker-sensitive approach. We hope that if we lower the bar of discipleship enough, anyone will step over it.

“We want purpose. Give us something worth dying for.”

But if you actually talk to young people today, they don’t want a low bar. We want a challenge. We’ve grown up with easy, and it’s boring.

We’ve also grown up with enough pain and mess to realise that the perfect life is a lie. We don’t want perfect; we want purpose. Give us something worth dying for—then we might have something to live for.

“We’ve grown up with easy, and it’s boring.”

Jesus is the answer to this cry. He calls us to die to ourselves daily. To put others first. To take up our cross of suffering and follow him. To live for a cause bigger than ourselves, greater than our comfort, more transcendent than the politics of our age.

Preach that, and young adults will come from miles away.

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For more ideas, check out More Secrets to a Thriving Young Adults Church.

We’re Not Debating Same-Sex Marriage—We Just Think We Are

Part 3 of 3

It’s still a fortnight until Australia votes, but the topic is already hot and has been for weeks. Who said Australians don’t care about politics?

Both sides have offered compelling arguments. In a recent blog, I tried to navigate these and champion a response that looks like Jesus, where principles are valued, and people are too. (Have a read of it here).

I received many warm words of feedback, from both sides. And I had to trash a lot of scathing remarks, also from both sides.

“Who said Australians don’t care about politics?”

In the end, I advocated for marriage as Jesus defines it, so naturally my harshest critics were on the yes side. And their words continue to ring in my ears.

So I’ve done some digging, and underneath their assumptions I made a surprising discovery. The debate we’re having isn’t really about same-sex marriage. It’s about other things entirely. Most surprising of all is that no one seems to notice.

“People are searching for themselves in race, politics, religion, sexuality.”

It’s not that the debate has gone off-topic. These other conversations need to be had. In fact they’re so important that if you can sway me on these, I’ll vote yes too.

So what is Australia really debating behind the same-sex marriage question? What would I need to be convinced of to throw my weight behind the yes campaign?

1. A person’s sexuality is their identity

Headlines collect like dark clouds on the horizon. Tyrants, riots, terrorism. The nightly news flickers its endless memes of a world filled with orphans, lost and scrambling for identity.

People are searching for themselves in race, politics, religion, and sexuality. All of these contribute to our sense of self—but to build an entire identity on any of them is to seal the fate of our own disillusionment.

“The nightly news flickers its endless memes of a world filled with orphans.”

The reason is simple. You can’t know who you are until you know whose you are. I am deeply known and loved by the One who created me. I don’t know a more solid ground where I camp my worth, and even begin to work out who I am.

I get it. Voting no can seem like a frontal assault on someone’s identity. But to any who feel that way, I want to plead with you that you are loved, and you are so much more than your sexuality.

2. This vote is a referendum on people’s humanity

It’s for the same reason that I refuse to see a no vote as a statement that anyone is subhuman. Framing the debate this way helps the yes cause—but it does terrible damage to those it’s trying to protect.

To the woman caught in adultery, Jesus offered a caring, if complex, response: safety from her would-be executioners, and a life-changing commission. Go and sin no more.

“You are loved, and you are so much more than your sexuality.”

God knows, the church has a long way to go before it looks like Jesus in this scene. Still, the Saviour’s point is clear: someone’s lifestyle isn’t to be confused with their humanity.

Vote yes or no this September, but remember the vote is about marriage, not people’s status as human beings. We’re all made in the image of God, and that’s a truth no survey can change.

3. Religion should stay out of politics

If religion should stay out of politics, then as a Christian, I should abstain from this vote altogether. But then so should everyone else.

To think the public square is religiously neutral is to commit insanity. Everyone’s beliefs influence their political views—this is just as true for the secular humanist as for the devoutly religious.

“To think the public square is religiously neutral is to commit insanity.”

Separation of church and state is about letting the government and the church both influence society for good, without either thinking they are the other. It’s not about a religion-free society. (A few communist states tried that last century and it didn’t turn out so well).

If you’re a Christian and you feel terrible about imposing your view on the rest of society—in this or any other vote—take comfort. If you don’t like the result of the postal vote, the rest of society will have imposed its view on you.

4. Less Christian influence in society is a good thing

The inquisition, the crusades and priestly abuses shock us all. The church has many apologies to make and a lot of trust to regain.

But for decades now this narrative has drowned out all else. You wouldn’t know it, but the role of Christianity in shaping our science, medicine, education, technology, democracy, reason and yes, equality, was nothing short of monumental.

“The commentariat has told us to disdain our Christian heritage.”

If all the church did through history was interrogate, kill and abuse, I’d be the first to jump ship. But I’ve done my homework. If the West divorces itself from the legacy of Jesus, we’ll only know what we had once it’s gone.

Even atheist Richard Dawkins has his reservations. This avowed critic of the church has “mixed feelings about the decline of Christianity, in so far as Christianity might be a bulwark against something worse.”

The commentariat has told us to disdain our Christian heritage. But most of us don’t even know what that is. And we abandon it at our peril.

5. Marriage is just about love between two people

I’ve heard that this vote is just about two people who love each other—it’s not about kids or broader society. But if this vote is about marriage, then by definition it’s about both kids and society, because all three are unbreakably linked.

Not all married couples have children. But marriage has and always will play a crucial role in raising the next generation. That’s why the government has such a vested interest in it.

Can any combination of genders parent? I’ll leave that to the experts. But to isolate marriage from all other relationships is to misunderstand it completely.

6. Ultimate fulfilment is found in sex

It’s not just porn saying that a life without sex isn’t worth living. The entertainment industry has preached that sermon for a hundred years, and no one questions it.

But we should. Many who are sexually fulfilled are miserable. And many who are celibate are more than satisfied. Jesus was. (And yes, he was a flesh and blood human).

“Many who are sexually fulfilled are miserable.”

Sex is a beautiful gift from God, but like all of his good gifts, we tend to carve an idol out of it. The thing with idols is they promise you the world, taking you to the highest of heights, only to push you off the edge and let you plummet.

Jesus will never do that. He came to give life, and life abundant. What can’t truly be said of sex can always be said of him. In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11).

I will vote yes next month if anyone can convince me these six points are true. Until then, let’s keep not debating same-sex marriage.

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Read the rest of the series on Same-Sex Marriage:  PART 1  |  PART 2  |  PART 3

Same-Sex Marriage Might Set the Church Straight

Part 1 of 3

Last night on a mild winter’s evening in Adelaide, hundreds of people packed an auditorium, spilling into foyers and corridors in what became a standing-room only event.

During a week of wall-to-wall media focus on same-sex marriage, it was by happy coincidence that a UK pastor had come to our city to call on Christians to better support those who identify as LGBT+ or same-sex attracted.

Doubtless what drew such large crowds is that Sam Allberry (who has also authored the book “Is God Anti-Gay?”) is himself same-sex attracted, but because of his love for Jesus he’s chosen to remain single and celibate.

“People spilled into foyers and corridors in what became a standing-room only event.”

Much about the night struck me, including Sam’s common-sense perspectives and his deeply pastoral approach to the topic. Most of all though was how uncomplicated his call to Christians was: that the church simply be the church, and embody the love of Jesus.

So uncomplicated in fact that as a single person, I realised that all of Sam’s advice for providing care to the LGBT+/SSA community is just as relevant to the church in providing care to singles like me.

“One of the unexpected perks of singleness is a unique perspective on the world.”

As Christians we’ve often been so intoxicated by the world’s ideas that we’ve drifted asleep at the wheel. A nation-wide debate on the definition of marriage is waking us up from our slumber.

For which reason, if marriage legislation in Australia does change, maybe it’s as much an opportunity for us as it is a threat. I have as many reservations about this mass cultural experiment as the next person, but if it does pass as law, consider how same-sex marriage might set the church straight. It would awaken us to:

1. A truer grasp of the purpose of marriage

One of the unexpected perks of singleness is a unique perspective on the world. Call me a cynic, but I think Christians have idolised marriage.

Marriage is a gift from God. I love celebrating weddings, and I cheer on all of my married friends—and I look forward to being married myself when God’s timing comes. But secular doctrine says a fulfilled life orbits around a sexual relationship. Rather than critiquing this, the church has simply insisted that said idol be blessed with vows.

“Call me a cynic, but I think Christians have idolised marriage.”

But as Sam points out, when Jesus taught about the sanctity of marriage in Matthew 19:3-12, the disciples’ reaction was to ask why anyone would dare embark on such a high and costly calling. In response, Jesus encouraged them to seriously consider singleness. And with that, the discussion ended.

In other words, marriage and all of its blessings are worth it—if you’re willing to pay the cost. The primary purpose of marriage isn’t to make all of your dreams come true but to conform you to the image of Christ. Marriage isn’t the holy grail of satisfaction. Biblically, it wasn’t actually created to fulfil us, but to point us to the One who can (Ephesians 5:32).

2. A deeper love for those longing for intimacy

Another dogma of the present culture is that sex and intimacy are synonymous—so much so that we can’t even imagine an intimacy that’s not sexual.

But as Sam explained, in the Bible they’re distinct. It’s possible to have a lot of sex and no intimacy—and just as possible to have a lot of intimacy and no sex. Jesus, Paul and saints through history have shown us that it’s possible to live without sex, but no one can live without intimacy.

To be intimate means to be deeply known and loved. One of the biggest struggles for those who are LGBT+/SSA (and may I add, single) actually isn’t sexual temptation, but loneliness.

“It’s possible to live without sex, but no one can live without intimacy.”

And this is great news, because it means the solution isn’t more PhDs. It’s love. In fact, it’s a particular brand of Christian love: the forgotten art of biblical friendship where soul meets soul and where church is family. Sam’s heart cry is for the church to become the kind of community where anyone choosing to forsake an ungodly relationship for the sake of the gospel would find themselves with more intimacy at the end of that transaction, not less.

We should never treat anyone as a sort of project for our own self-congratulation—but we must aim to love well. Nuclear families whose highest purpose isn’t merely their own joy but the enfolding of others into that joy are all the richer for it.

3. A greater disgust at our own sin than others’

Said Sam, when Paul called himself the chief of sinners, he hadn’t surveyed the entire first century church to make that discovery. He was simply choosing to be more disgusted at his own sin than that of others.

And such must be the case for us too. If our internal reaction to anyone in the LGBT+ community is, “eww, they’re icky,” then we’re far more influenced by Victorian sensibilities than by the gospel. The gospel guards us from hypocrisy by showing us the log in our own eye before we offer to help our friend with their speck.

“Paul chose to be more disgusted at his own sin than that of others.”

As Sam says, none of us are straight. We’ve all got skewed and twisted desires. Even if he were healed from homosexual lusts, Sam explains, he’d still have heterosexual lusts to deal with, leading to no net increase in holiness.

To follow in the footsteps of Jesus, all of us are going to have to say no to some of our deepest sexual desires, simply because that’s a part of what it means to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.

4. A clearer vision of the good news of Jesus

Where my heart most resounded with Sam’s, where I looked at his same-sex attraction and saw my singleness in the mirror, was in a quote he shared by Aiki Flinthart: “Those who hear not the music think the dancer is mad.”

Jesus is that music. The world will never understand the choices we make in following Jesus until they understand just how much Jesus means to us.

“Those who hear not the music think the dancer is mad.”

Same-sex attraction is a unique struggle, but to see it as an altogether different struggle than any other is to miss the radical sacrifice Jesus calls every believer to. But more than that, it’s to miss the highest privilege all of us have—which is to point the world to Jesus as the all-satisfying bread of life, who is worthy of even the greatest sacrifice.

“I am the bread of life,” said Jesus. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again.” (John 6:35).

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Read the rest of the series on Same-Sex Marriage:  PART 1  |  PART 2  |  PART 3

I Ate No Food for a Week: Here’s What I Learnt

The irony isn’t lost on me: Jesus said if we draw attention to ourselves when we fast, the attention we get will be our only reward.

But I’m convinced that as 21st century believers, Jesus’ principle of discreetness in Matthew 6 is almost all we think about when we think about fasting. That means almost no one talks about fasting, which means almost no one practices it anymore.

So maybe I’ve just lost my reward. But it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make if I can stir some thoughts about the forgotten discipline of fasting, and help restore it to a place of normality in the Christian life.

Here are three really valuable lessons I learnt from my week of fasting.

1. Food competes with God for my affections

Food is a really good gift from God. But even good gifts from God can compete with him for our affections.

Over and over again this week I found myself thinking instinctively of food as the place to find comfort when my day had been hard or I’d faced a challenge. Apparently this is how I regularly think—but it took a week without food for me to notice.

“Even good gifts from God can compete with him for our affections.”

I experienced very few hunger pains and almost no drop in energy throughout the week.* The confronting conclusion this lead me to is that I don’t actually need food anywhere near as much as I think I do. Mostly, I just like it, and the comfort it brings.

And there’s nothing wrong with that—except when food is my first place of refuge. That’s a title that Jesus is jealous for. He wants to be the all-satisfying one for me.

Psalm 84:2 says, “My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” The constant companionship of an empty stomach taught me this truth like no amount of prayer, reading or meditation ever could.

*Being a working week, I chose to still drink some tea, coffee, juice and broth—so it was either this or an intervention from God that sustained me.

2. The spirit thrives when the flesh is subdued

By day three or four I had a clarity of mind that I’ve rarely experienced. The best way I can describe it is that my flesh began to diminish, giving way for my spirit to be more in control.

“Fasting is an undiscovered shortcut in learning how to walk by the Spirit.”

In certain conversations, I found myself with words of wisdom and insight that surprised me. When I prayed with others, my mind was sharp and my requests felt more impassioned than normal.

The single greatest takeaway of the week was how the self-control I was practicing with food transferred directly to other areas of my life. Temptations I normally struggle with were noticeably weakened. I told my hunger to bow to Jesus, and it turned out that other desires bowed too.

Our culture believes the myth that indulging every appetite—whether for entertainment or sex or food—is the way to true freedom and happiness. In reality, that path leads to slavery and addiction.

“I told my hunger to bow to Jesus, and it turned out that other desires bowed too.”

The self-control I discovered in fasting felt like the very opposite. I wasn’t playing slave to my desires. After all, true freedom is the ability to say no, not just yes.

I’ve come to believe that fasting is an undiscovered shortcut in learning how to walk by the Spirit so that we don’t gratify the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:16).

3. Fasting is a means, not an end

Given that I haven’t done it much before, this week I found myself becoming preoccupied with the physical aspects of fasting. In fact, towards the end of the week, I almost lost sight of why I began. If it has no greater purpose, not eating is a strange thing to do and has little value.

“Fasting isn’t an end in itself: it’s a means to seek the presence of God.”

I had to remind myself that biblical fasting isn’t a detox program, and it’s not some form of self-suffering or hunger strike. For all the purposes it has in Scripture—discipline, insight, answered prayer, spiritual breakthrough—its primary purpose is actually to draw near to God.

In a busy week, I found some time to do that. But next time I fast, I’ll be looking to leverage more value out of my fast: more time to be alone with God, to meet and pray with others, to read, and listen to teaching, and ponder. The reason I will is because fasting isn’t an end in itself: it’s a means to seek the presence of God.

The lessons I learnt this week have been invaluable, and I hope they’ve stirred something in you. If they have that’s good, because Jesus didn’t begin his teaching on fasting with the words, “If you fast…” but rather, “When you fast…”

He’s assuming we’ll be doing it again.

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Secrets of the Spice Islands

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Part 1: Cloves

One small island fascinates me more than any other. This volcano rises like a perfect cone from the emerald sea. Nestled on its eastern shores is a busy township, ever watchful of the belching sulphurous cloud above.

Even before I step off the boat, a sweet, pungent aroma fills my nostrils, carried on the tropical air. It is the smell of cloves drying in the midday sun—green flower buds blushing three days to a deep crimson-brown.

Welcome to Ternate. Before the dawn of modernity, when ships carried giddy explorers to every corner of the globe, this secret paradise and its four near neighbours boasted the world’s only clove forests.

“In Europe, cloves were said to be worth their weight in gold.”

That fact would be a footnote on the pages of history—except that medieval Europe’s hunger for spice was insatiable. To the rich, cloves were the ultimate symbol of affluence.

For three thousand years, this tiny wooden nail had been shipped across the world to flavour foods, preserve meats, numb pain, and infuse perfume. If that weren’t enough, clove was rumoured as a choice aphrodisiac. And more lately, as a cure to Black Death—the bubonic plague that had decimated the continent.

Venice was Europe’s spice gateway, and as a result, the canals of this seaport city dripped with wealth. And merchants all the way from here to Arabia, India and the far-flung Orient held two of the world’s most jealously-guarded secrets.

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The first was the spices’ mysterious origin, believed by many to be the lost Garden of Eden somewhere across the seas. The second was the dizzying profits being made along the spice trail.

Truth really is stranger than fiction: between their source in Asia and the markets of Europe, cloves underwent a one thousand percent markup. In cities like London and Paris, this spice was said to be worth its weight in gold.

“The spices’ mysterious origin was believed to be the lost Garden of Eden.”

These were times of swashbuckling adventures, of pirates, and a yearning for exotic lands. But no kingdom sailed the unmapped world for sport. It was only as Europeans closed in on the spice trade secrets—namely, that wealth unimagined was theirs if they could bypass middle-men and trade directly with Asia—that the Age of Discovery was born.

Portugal had bravely ventured round Africa’s southern cape, and the spices of Asia lay before them. Not to be outdone, Spain surprised the world and sailed west, searching for a quicker route to the Spiceries.

clove

Along the way, they happened upon a continent unexpected, which we now know as America. But this was not the prize. South round the Americas they went, pushing boldly into the uncharted Pacific.

Finally their worm-eaten ships laid anchor at Ternate. These adventurers had done it—they’d sailed to the far side of the world. Cordially welcomed, they traded their gold and textiles for more cloves than they’d ever dreamed of. Then evading the Portuguese through Asia, they limped back home.

“They had just completed the greatest voyage in naval history.”

Three years had passed. When the journey began, their ships numbered five and their crew 237. Alas, scurvy, dysentery and perilous storms had reduced them to 18 haggard sailors on a single carrack. But they had just completed the greatest voyage in naval history, having circumnavigated planet Earth.

More importantly, they’d tapped into the world’s most lucrative market at its source. The single haul of cloves and other spices brought home by the crew would pay for the venture and all its losses several times over.

circumnavigation

This was only the beginning. For the next two hundred years, wars would be fought, empires would rise and fall, and the most unbelievable real estate deal in history would be made—all in a bid for monopoly of the spice trade.

Today a bottle of cloves is sold for just three dollars on a supermarket shelf, yet this spine-tingling tale of the Spice Islands remains one of the greatest stories never told. Now that you’ve heard it, permit me to leave a few thoughts with you.

“Empires would rise and fall, all in a bid for monopoly of the spice trade.”

These bold explorers sacrificed life and limb, braving deadly seas and enemies unknown, all for dried bark, seeds and buds. What about you? As you toil from dawn til dusk each day, what’s the prize you’re seeking? Like these sailors, is it a treasure here on earth, vulnerable to rust, moths and thieves—or will it last eternally?

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Jesus warned that we could gain the whole world and yet forfeit our souls—and that the only way to avoid this greatest of errors was to surrender our lives for his sake. Is this message as forgotten for you as the history of the Spice Islands, or does it ring with warm familiarity?

O, that we would seek God’s kingdom and righteousness with the passion that monarchs and men had for spice.

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Read Part 2 of 2 | Secrets of the Spice Islands: Nutmeg.

Six Myths Christians Should Stop Believing (Part 1)

Jesus Halo 1

Some things Christians believe are quite strange. Like the Queen said to Alice of Wonderland fame, even I sometimes catch myself believing as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

I haven’t been a pastor long. But I’m becoming convinced that, for my own sake as much as anyone else’s, one of my primary responsibilities as a pastor is to dismantle these strange myths.

One or more of the following every week if possible.

 

Myth #1: Church is on Sundays

It’s probably been said long and loud enough that we now get it: church isn’t a building. But did you know? It’s also not a 90 minute event on Sundays.

The church is a group of people. People that Jesus has called out, as Tim Keller would say, to be “a counter-culture for the common good”.


The church exists to meet the needs of a lost and dying world.


This makes all the difference. It means that when we walk out of the church building, get in our cars and drive home, the church’s main event has just begun. Sunday is a drinks break. Hey, let’s even call it a celebration.

But it’s a celebration of what the church has been doing week-long: loving neighbours, growing deeper in private worship, hosting others in our homes, defending the faith, encountering God, fighting injustice, feeding on Scripture, speaking hope into darkness.


When we walk out of the church building, get in our cars and drive home, the church’s main event has just begun.


This has other implications too. It means, lo and behold, that the church doesn’t exist to meet my needs. If I’m a follower of Jesus, then I am the church, and as the church, we exist to meet the needs of a lost and dying world. Ultimately, if all we do is an act of worship, then at the bottom of it all, the church exists for God.

As such, “I didn’t get much out of church this week” exposes much more about the person saying it than the event their critiquing. Yes, our Sundays should be marked by mutual love and service—and by excellence, not mediocrity. But let’s not forget: church isn’t on Sundays.

 

Myth #2: God Won’t Let Me Suffer

We don’t go around saying this. But we secretly believe it. It’s our unspoken creed. We demonstrate our belief in it every time we get upset with God when life doesn’t turn out the way we expected.

Simply by virtue of the fact that we’re Christians, we tend to think that we’re somehow less exposed to suffering than others. Or that we’ll get through our suffering quicker and more unscathed. Chapter and verse for that one?


“You have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him.”—Philippians 1:29


Never mind David’s lament Psalms, or Job, or Jeremiah, or Lamentations, or that Jesus himself was called the “Man of Sorrows”, or the first three centuries of church history, or the many Christians experiencing mental illness, or all that’s said about suffering in the New Testament.

Like James 1:2-3. “Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.”

Or Philippians 1:29. “You have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him.”

Or Jesus’ words in John 16:33. “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”


Christians tend to think that they’re somehow less exposed to suffering than others, or that they’ll get through it quicker and more unscathed.


Nice as it is to believe, there’s simply no guarantee that every Christian will marry happily, carve a smooth career path, be outlived by their children, avoid betrayal and heartbreak, and live a long, healthy and prosperous life. Anyone heard of the persecuted church?

As Psalm 23’s “valley of the shadow of death” reminds us, God’s promise isn’t an absence of suffering, but his sweet and abiding presence in the midst of it. Oh yeah, and the life of the world to come.

 

Myth #3: Demons No Longer Exist

This one will raise some eyebrows—for its inclusion in this list, if for no other reason. Regardless of what our churches say on paper about angels and demons, by and large we western Christians speak, act and live as though they no longer exist.

Missiologists—generally speaking, westerners, who’ve studied non-western cultures and who occasionally return to commentate on ours—call this the “flaw of the excluded middle”.

That is, in the west we see the universe as consisting of two tiers—the visible things of this world, and the invisible things of the other world (God). The tier we exclude is what lies in between: the invisible things of this world; the world of angels and demons.


Regardless of what our churches say on paper about angels and demons, by and large we western Christians live as though they no longer exist.


Of all the human cultures that have existed on God’s green earth from ancient times until now, ours is the only one that commits this strange fallacy.

I’ve lived in South-East Asia for a number of years and have seen things that made my skin crawl. First hand, let me tell you that demonisation is exactly as the New Testament describes: evil spirits taking over the faculties of otherwise-sane people, throwing them to the ground and causing them to say and do things they’re neither aware nor approving of.

What’s far more shocking is that these beings might afflict the body or mind of sufferers for years before they make their presence manifest. The big show of power is normally a last-ditch effort for control, before the victim experiences a sudden and welcomed release.

Doubtless many will think me strange for mentioning this. But that makes Jesus and his biographers strange too. Over a third of the times the gospels record him healing someone, that healing involved the exorcism of a demon. So my question to skeptical Christians then is, when did demons stop existing?

We’ve let the rationalism of the last few centuries, and a couple of poorly-handled and widely-publicised cases of spiritual abuse intimidate us. But that doesn’t alter reality: demons still exist.


If we follow Jesus, we’re in Christ. He has been exalted to the highest place and before him every knee will bow. 


And while the demonic is by no means the cause of all the world’s ills, I’m going to go out on a limb and say, based on the New Testament, that demons are responsible for at least some of what we today call mental illness—and a variety of other health issues too.

This is no silver bullet. Really it raises more questions than it answers. But it also gives us another tool in our charge to set the captives free.

Demons are ancient beings, and they wield far more power than you or I. But if we follow Jesus, we’re in Christ. He has been exalted to the highest place and before him every knee will bow. In Christ, the authority to cast out demons is explicitly ours.

Demons still exist. If this makes us uneasy, it’s time our theology and our confidence caught up with the authority entrusted to us by Jesus.

Read on about the last three myths that Christians should stop believing.

Last Year I Was Unmarried—Now I’m Single

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When my older sister happily married at 21, I was going to be just as happy and just as married by the time I was 21. So I thought.

This year I turned 31, and I am very much single. The strangest thing about this isn’t my persisting life stage, but that it took me over a decade for my life stage to actually dawn on me.


There’s a world of difference between not yet married and single.


Shouldn’t the fact that I’m single have been more obvious?

Well up until a few short months ago, I’d spent over a decade considering myself not yet married. But there’s a world of difference between not yet married and single.

Not yet married means lack, yearning, incompleteness, discontentment. I’d had a decade of it, and finally called enough enough. Now I’m single. The great thing about single is that it actually just means single.

New Beginnings, New Furniture

An odd set of circumstances lead me to being single.* Mid last year I was about to move house, but three months would pass before my new tenancy began. I looked around my place and realised that, through the generosity of friends and strangers; the frugality of my student years; and the help of a score of ex-housemates who’d married and moved out, I was now the sole owner of a large collection of horrific-looking furniture.

To store this junk for three months would cost time, effort, and money better wasted elsewhere. The only sensible option was to give it away.


For me, marriage is no longer ultimate. I don’t lack, I’m not incomplete. I’m not merely content being single. I’m satisfied.


As one smiling, thankful Gumtree customer after another collected their free chairs, tables and random dust-collecting oddments, the weight began to lift from my shoulders. I imagined what it would be like to purchase furniture for my new rental that didn’t make me cringe, and that I actually enjoyed using.

Three months later, I did just that—along with new linen, plants, furnishings, and a veggie patch. This is an embarrassingly mundane paragraph for me to write. Except that these changes embodied a defining paradigm shift that brought with it unforeseen contentment. My life was no longer on hold for some future, imagined event. In fact, even the word contentment—implying toleration—fails to capture it. I’m now not merely content being single. I’m satisfied.

If I marry and have children, it will be a blessing from God and a dream fulfilled. I think marriage and family are incredible, and I love and support my many friends who are enjoying that life stage. But for me, marriage is no longer ultimate. I don’t lack, I’m not yearning, incomplete or discontent. I’m not unmarried. I’m single. See the difference?

The Shrine to Romance

You can’t go through an experience like this and not have it affect the way you think about other spheres of life. For me, as a pastor, this has made me question some of Christian culture’s fundamental values.


In the church, have we gone beyond marriage is good to marriage is ultimate?


Rightly, church communities place a high value on marriage, children and family. God does: so should we.

Parallel to this, the world would have us believe that romance is everything—that the companionship, sex and fulfilment found in an intimate relationship is the summit of a lifelong search, the fullest expression of what it means to be human.

Could it be that the Christian culture I grew up in confused those two messages? In the paragraph above, have we simply replaced the word romance with marriage? Have we gone beyond marriage is good to marriage is ultimate? Has family become a synonym for fulfilment?

We Celebrate What We Value

That message may not be preached, but from the vantage point of a single, it seems widely implied. Scripture esteems singleness as perhaps even preferable to marriage in the freedom it affords us to serve the Lord without distraction. But where is singleness celebrated in the church?

Church-wide events are shaped predominantly with the family unit in mind. Unlike engaged couples, singles who decide to remain as they are instead of settling for a poor choice in life partner aren’t applauded. Community matriarchs are more likely to enquire with young people about a rumoured relationship than the joys and struggles of ministry as a single person. Singles aren’t honoured with glorious ceremonies, lavish banquets and generous gift-giving for consecrating themselves to single-minded service to God.

I don’t think singleness needs to be lauded with all the pageantry of marriage. But I am trying to identify a sanctified idolatry, widespread in Christian culture: if you’re married, you’ve made it. If you’re single, don’t worry, you’ll get there eventually.

With this message we do a great injustice to singles. The words second class citizen spring to mind.


Singleness is just as “Christian” as marriage. So how can singles be celebrated in church life?


We do a great injustice to those in our midst struggling with same-sex attraction. If even after much prayer that attraction remains for a lifetime and they choose to walk the narrow way of Jesus, our message to them is that even with such selfless sacrifice, they’ll never make it.

We also do a great injustice to the many young people who, and I’m quoting now, “just had to get married because I couldn’t be alone”. Isn’t God supposed to fulfil of that depth of longing? This injustice is multiplied when the one they married doesn’t walk with Jesus. They have the love they were told was the end-game, but now ministry is a lonely road, or far worse, an abandoned one.

Singleness isn’t better than marriage. But it’s certainly not worse. According to Scripture, singleness is just as “Christian” as marriage. What we celebrate as a community makes it clear what we value as a community. So I’ll just leave this question here: how can singles be celebrated in church life?

Singleness Can’t Be Done Alone

Like marriage, singleness has its pros and cons. I admire my older sister and my brother-in-law who with incredible patience and skill are raising three adorably mischievous boys I get to call my nephews. And I breathe a sigh of relief when we tuck the boys into bed after Monday night dinners and I wonder at how they survive each day.

I’m thankful for uninterrupted sleep, the freedom of a dawn surf whenever my calendar allows, quiet times that are in fact quiet, and the ability to work a 60 hour week at church when I need to, without any of my relationships paying the price. Paul was for real when he wrote about the undivided priorities of the single life.


Singles don’t have families of their own, so they love being made part of one.


But I’m also thankful to people who understand its difficulties—like my older sister and her family (and other friends—you know who you are) who don’t “host” me for “events” but consider me a member of the family, welcome anytime. Singles don’t have families of their own, so they love being made part of one.

I’m thankful to those who understand that I’m a verbal processor and, without a partner to debrief the day with, know to ask, “how was your day?”

I’m thankful for the many people in my church who recognise that though I don’t have a family to go home to, and though my time is therefore flexible, I still need boundaries and time out and opportunities to just be me, not a pastor.

Right Where God Has Me

Last year when I was still unmarried, puzzled, my senior pastor asked me why I’d been taking so few holidays. I was aware that this was the case, but likewise couldn’t work out why. I love time off. And then it occurred to me: married couples have guaranteed company when they holiday, but for me, four weeks of time away alone would only remind me of how desperately lonely and unmarried I was.


Singleness has its challenges, and it takes some creativity—and the considered help of others—to do it well. But it can be done well.


Now I’m single. As I write this, I also happen to be on holidays, on a beach on the NSW coast. I’m away camping with my younger, also single sister. Tomorrow I’m hiking for four days with a mate who’s married but knew I had holidays and invited me along. I’m thankful for people like this too. Singleness has its challenges, and it takes some creativity—and the considered help of others—to do it well. But it can be done well.

Life hasn’t turned out quite the way I expected. I’ll never be married at 21. I won’t be a young dad like I once hoped. I’ve had to grieve over that. I’ve loved and lost, more than once. It hurt, more than I naively imagined it could. I’m single—not for want of trying, but because it seems this is where God wants me, for now at least. Like marriage, it’s not ultimate. But it is good, and I am thankful.

* The other odd circumstance was being hosted, along with a bunch of pastors, by Kimberly Smith, where she gave us a copy of her book, What We Cannot Be Alone: Understanding Singleness In God’s Family. Thanks Kim for giving me language to express these thoughts. If you’re single, and especially if you’re married (for the sake of singles) please buy it and read it.

Why Christians should love their LGBTQIA friends the most

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Disclaimer 1: This is at least a 20-minute read, but I think it’s worth your time.

Disclaimer 2: This is a highly contentious topic, and even though my heart isn’t to be divisive, there’s probably something here to offend everyone—including, and especially, Christians (equality, right?) But let me forewarn you: if you tap out before the half way mark, you’ll only hear one side of the story. If part way through you start thinking I might just be another bigot, please scroll down to “love” and be surprised.

“Don’t judge others. Why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?”—Jesus


Around a month ago, five judges in the US changed the course of history for their nation, legalising same-sex marriage in all 50 states. It hit saturation point in the news media; Facebook supplied a rainbow flag app used in profile pictures by 26 million people; and the world was abuzz for weeks.

I found it interesting that just a few days earlier, 300,000 people from all over Italy converged on Rome to show support for traditional male/female marriage—and all the major news outlets were silent.

Likewise, the same week as the US decision, Pitcairn Island, a tiny Pacific nation of 48 people (and no gay couples) legalised same-sex marriage—a story picked up by many in the news media. But a month previous, when a same-sex marriage bill in the Austrian parliament suffered a landslide 110-26 defeat, journalists had more important stories to cover.

Zeitgeist, n. the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history.


We all tend to think of ourselves as objective. We’re freethinkers; we make our minds up for ourselves. But are we actually aware of how much we’ve been shaped by the influences around us—especially the media?

Everything is awesome


Every era of history has a defining spirit or mood. There’s a fantastic German word to describe it: the “Zeitgeist”. The Zeitgeist of our time is this: I decide truth for myself. It’s no one else’s place to tell me how I can or can’t live my life. With just a few exceptions (like terrorism and paedophilia and Christianity) everything is awesome. The more diverse, the better.

So today, not only is homosexuality an equally valid lifestyle choice, it’s in fact a hallmark of progress. The media celebrates diverse forms of sexuality with pioneering zeal. Opposing same-sex marriage is like denying basic human rights—freedom for slaves, or the right of women to vote.

This is the story being told by the major influences around us. Increasingly, Christians are finding themselves in the minority, unsure what to make of it all. Do they roll with the Zeitgeist? Do they challenge it?

They’ve often reacted in one of two ways (or, at least, the media has caricatured it as such). They’ve either made truth their motivation, and been very unloving. Or they’ve been motivated by love for their gay friends and family, but in the process, have kissed God’s truth goodbye.

In Ephesians 4:15, Paul talks about “speaking the truth in love”. Apparently you can have both. My heart is that Christian communities the world over would be places of both truth and love—especially to our LGBTQIA friends, family and neighbours. So let’s look at both truth and love.

Truth (what’s the big deal?)


How come this is even contentious? Christians are the biggest religious bloc in western nations, and by-and-large are the main people still opposing the LGBTQIA cause. Why?

It’s quite simple really. Their sacred text, the Bible, though penned by human authors, is believed by them to be the very words of God: his expressed will for how they should conduct their lives—both for their highest joy, and for his. And in that book, the seven places that homosexuality is addressed, it’s always portrayed as being against God’s will. (“Sin” is the Christian swear word used to describe things God doesn’t like).

People who are same-sex attracted should be made to feel completely at home in every Christian community on the planet.


Before we look at those texts, there’s a distinction of eminent importance to Christians (even if to no-one else) that must be made. Same-sex attraction and homosexuality are not the same thing. Same-sex attraction means having an internal romantic affection towards someone of the same sex. Homosexual describes someone who acts on those feelings and enters into such a sexual relationship. The reason this distinction is important to Christians is because the Bible nowhere calls same-sex attraction a sin.

For which reason, people who are same-sex attracted should be made to feel completely at home in every Christian community on the planet, right alongside the rest of us who struggle with all sorts of inward temptations and sinful tendencies. And while people who are living a gay lifestyle generally won’t feel comfortable in Bible-believing churches, they should certainly be made to feel loved and welcomed like anyone else.

This distinction is important because the Bible never calls same-sex attraction a sin.


Given that all the Bible’s references to homosexuality are negative, one of the following must be true if LGBTQIA lifestyles can be celebrated:

(A) The God of the Bible doesn’t exist
(B) God’s laws change with time and culture
(C) On closer inspection, the Bible doesn’t actually forbid homosexuality

(A) is how many resolve the issue: possibly there is no god, or maybe there is, but he or she is fine with whatever, and is far less opinionated than the Bible’s God. This leaves (B) or (C) as the solution for Christians who embrace not only LGBTQIA friends and family, but their lifestyle choices too.

Do God’s laws change with time and culture?


(B) essentially goes like this: In the ancient world, people were more homophobic, and were unaware of modern concepts like orientation (internal desires that are wholly independent of conscious choice). The people who wrote the Bible were speaking with relevance into their situation, but surely God’s standards for our world are more culturally appropriate now.

The problems with this position are at least threefold:

1. Paul (who we’ll hear from a lot) wrote, “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate… I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” (Romans 7:15,19). That sounds a lot like orientation.

2. Paul was in fact being culturally inappropriate by opposing homosexuality. Homosexuality was practiced and defended in the ancient world, and he made himself very unpopular by writing against it.

3. If God’s standards on homosexuality have changed, what other standards have too? Adultery? Drunkenness? Love for neighbour? How do we know which of them have changed and which he still wants us to uphold? And if homosexuality is the stand-alone case, why does it get special treatment?

For obvious reasons, (B) is a difficult (and not very scholarly) position to hold, which is why most LGBTQIA-affirming Christians will opt for (C). So let’s inspect those seven texts more closely.

Does the Bible really forbid homosexuality?


Genesis 19:1-29 tells the story of Lot, a man living in the city of Sodom, who hosts two visiting men in his home. “The men of Sodom, young and old, came from all over the city and surrounded the house and shouted to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to spend the night with you? Bring them out to us so we can have sex with them!’” Lot begs them, “Don’t do such a wicked thing.” The story goes on, ending with God destroying the city of Sodom with fire and brimstone for its wickedness. (The Judges 19 story bears many similarities to this one, so I’ll let you hunt it down).

Some point to Ezekiel 16:49—“Sodom’s sins were pride, gluttony and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door”—arguing that these are the sins God judged Sodom for, not homosexuality. But this creates a false “either/or” dichotomy when clearly it’s “both/and”. True to Ezekiel, Sodom was punished for neglecting social justice. But it’s undeniable from Genesis that their sexual sins were also cause for God’s judgment.

The objection is also made that homosexual rape, not homosexuality per se, is what upset both Lot and God in the story. Possibly that’s true. But the further we look in the Bible, the less likely that appears.

Which brings us to Leviticus. “Do not practice homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman. It is a detestable sin.” (18:22). And, “If a man practices homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman, both men have committed a detestable act. They must both be put to death, for they are guilty of a capital offence.” (20:13).

If Christians are happy to eat oysters and wear mixed-fabric underpants, why do they insist the Leviticus teachings on homosexuality matter?


To be sure, Christians today do not believe that those who identify as homosexual deserve the death penalty. If they do, they need to scroll to the half way mark of this blog, and examine their hearts. Christians know that this was the law God gave to Israel; capital punishment for this “detestable act” was specific to that nation in that time of history.

And relevant to this, God also called things like eating shellfish and wearing mixed fabrics “detestable” in Leviticus. He had his reasons: another (culturally complex) topic for another time.

So if Christians no longer believe in the death penalty for homosexuality, and are happy to eat oysters and wear mixed cotton/lycra underpants, why do they insist that this teaching about homosexuality in Leviticus is still relevant now?

“God made them male and female from the beginning of creation. This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife…”—Jesus


Simply put, as a minimum, Christians believe that any commands from the Old Testament that are repeated in the New Testament still apply to them today. And while the New Testament has nothing to say against oysters or Bonds underwear, it does warn against homosexuality.

And this brings us to Romans 1, a passage that describes a whole world that has turned against God, with homosexuality addressed as one example:

God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies… Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.” (v24, 26-27). More to come on this.

And the final two we’ll look at are the so-called “vice lists”:

Don’t you realise that those who do wrong will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t fool yourselves. Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

The law is for people who are lawless and rebellious, who are ungodly and sinful, who consider nothing sacred and defile what is holy, who kill their father or mother or commit other murders. The law is for people who are sexually immoral, or who practice homosexuality, or are slave traders, liars, promise breakers, or who do anything else that contradicts wholesome teaching…” (1 Timothy 1:9-11).

Homosexuality was as widespread in the ancient world as it is in ours.


Those who bring new interpretations to these texts rest their case on the “not that kind of homosexuality” argument. It goes like this: What the Bible is condemning is wrong or abusive gay relationships common in the ancient world, not the healthy ones we have today. Pederasty (a sexual relationship between a man and a boy) was common in the ancient world. Some of these relationships were even exploitative. It’s these that God condemns. Or perhaps what’s going on, at least in Romans, is that God gave heterosexual attraction to some people, and same-sex attraction to others, and what God forbids is heterosexuals who go against their God-given orientation.

Again, the problems here are at least threefold:

1. This is an argument from silence. The texts don’t specify that pagan pederastic practices, abusive relationships, or heterosexuals are in view—this is a novelty of modern interpreters. And without such qualifications, all three passages evidently forbid homosexuality in general.

2. Homosexuality was as widespread in the ancient world as it is in today’s. And not simply pederasty. Every kind of homosexual relationship known today was known then, from lesbian relationships to gender-bending marriages to lifelong same-sex companionships. And there was no more moral consensus among the ancients about it all than our world has today.

3. All such arguments ignore key phrases in the texts themselves—phrases making it clear that both people in the relationships described were willing participants. In Romans the phrase “each other” appears three times, and the fact that “they burned with lust for each other” especially rules out both abuse and heterosexuals. And without being too descriptive, 1 Corinthians uses two Greek words behind “male prostitute” and “homosexual” that actually identify the receiving and giving man in the sexual experience. Both are held responsible.

Many would add that “Jesus never condemned homosexuality, so neither should we”. However, in Mark 10:6-9, Jesus makes his views on marriage and human sexuality very clear: “God made them male and female from the beginning of creation. This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one. Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.

God’s true purpose for our sexuality


In fact Jesus wakes us up to the bigger picture. See, for Christians, it’s not just a question of God’s opinion on homosexuality, but in fact his true purpose for human sexuality in general. And as Jesus points out, the entire storyline of the Bible speaks to that purpose.

In the beginning, God didn’t create two men or two women—or a tribe of ape-like hominids on the plains of Africa. Here’s where a Christian’s stance on Genesis as history or myth really comes into play:

God creates a man. Then saying that “it’s not good for the man to be alone,” from Adam’s rib he makes Eve—“a helper who is just right for him”. God then declares, “this explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one”. He blesses their union and tells them to make lots of babies and fill the planet. And they could, because he’d given them the biological bits and pieces to make it happen.

Song of Solomon is a book of the Bible dedicated entirely to the beauty of sex—inside marriage, of course. (Curious that it never mentions babies. Apparently God created sex for pleasure as much as for offspring). The two players in this book celebrating intimate love are, no surprise, a man and a woman.

From beginning to end, God’s plan for human sexuality is clearly and beautifully portrayed as one man, for one woman, for life.


Throughout the Bible, marriage is used as a metaphor by God to describe the relationship between the groom, Jesus, and his bride, the church. In fact the Bible is book-ended by a man/woman marriage: Adam and Eve in Genesis, and Christ and the church in Revelation. From cover to cover, God’s plan for human sexuality is clearly and beautifully portrayed in the Bible as one man, for one woman, for life.

Why is this topic so contentious? Because for a Christian to wholeheartedly celebrate LGBTQIA lifestyles, they must go against the testimony of Scripture, the views of Jesus and the apostles, the understanding of the church for two millennia, and—many would add to this—the fundamentals of biology and reproduction. And for most Christians, that’s understandably far too great an ask.

Love (the half-way mark)


Well done, you made it. So we’ve looked at truth, from the perspective of the Christian God. What about love? Why should Christians love their LGBTQIA friends the most?

Many don’t. Many stop at truth. On meeting a gay person, all some Christians have to say is, in effect, “You’re wrong. You’re sinning.” Maybe they don’t even bother to engage at all, thinking that if someone has chosen a gay lifestyle, they’re beyond the reach of God’s grace—so why bother?

If Christians want to be like Jesus, they must love radically the way he loved.


If you’re reading this and you’ve been hurt by that kind of Christian, I want to say to you, I’m so sorry. It was wrong that you were treated like that. That’s not okay.

Being a Christian is about far more than believing the Bible. It’s not less than that, to be sure. But primarily, being a Christian is being a “little Christ”. That’s what the word Christian actually means. And the Jesus I know cared most for those who felt the most marginalised and the most distanced from God.

Love. Don’t marginalise.


I began by saying that the Zeitgeist and the media are pro-LGBTQIA. That is true. But it’s also true that, in 2015, same-sex attracted people and those who identify as gay are mistreated and misunderstood in many homes, families, schoolyards, workplaces and religious settings around the world. In some Islamic nations they are even put to death.

It’s the misunderstood and mistreated that, in my reading of the Bible, Jesus had the most time for. So if Christians want to be like Jesus, they’re not just going to hold radically to the truth he held to, they’re going to love radically the way he loved.

Let’s start with something simple. The blog you’re now reading was the sermon I preached last night to the church at which I’m a pastor. Last night, I dropped this one on our youth and young adults: using the word “gay” (or even the concept) as some sort of insult or joke is one of the quickest ways to completely undermine your witness for Jesus today. To many, it’s as offensive as the curse “Jesus Christ!” is to us. Convicted about this a few years ago I stopped doing it, expecting others would too—but I’ve continued to hear it in Christian circles. Let me be really frank: it absolutely has to stop.

Luke 7:36-50 tells a story, known to many Christians from Sunday School, about a prostitute (who elsewhere we discover is called Mary) who interrupts a lunch date between Jesus and a holier-than-thou Pharisee by the name of Simon.

rubens

Christ at Simon the Pharisee | Sir Peter Paul Rubens | 1618

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Uninvited, she joins them and breaks an immensely expensive alabaster jar filled with perfume, pouring it over Jesus’ feet, mingling it with her tears. Kissing his feet over and over, she then dries them with her hair. (In the ancient world, only the lowliest of servants would touch feet stained by the dusty roads—so try to capture the gravity of this moment).

It’s a silly Victorian-era sensibility that has lead many Christians to follow the culture in marginalising the people they are called to love the most.


Simon’s internal thoughts are central to the story. He thinks to himself, “If Jesus was a prophet, he’d know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!

In other words, “Eww, she’s icky.” Sadly, for many who have grown up in the church, and who are also products of their schoolyards, their reaction is exactly this towards the same-sex attracted or gay. “Eww, they’re icky.” And it’s this silly Victorian-era sensibility that has lead many Christians to follow the culture in sidelining and marginalising and even hating the people they are called to love the most.

Christians, take the plank out


Let me get preachy. Christians, are we like Simon the Pharisee? Do we simply find homosexuality alien and distasteful, completely apart from any gospel convictions we might hold, apart from any desire to see people restored to sexual wholeness, enjoying their sexuality the way God intends? If so, that’s the flesh in us, not the Spirit. And it’s horrifically ugly.

Christians are quick to point out “big sins” like homosexuality. But are we as quick to recognise the sins in our own lives that make us just as unqualified for God’s kingdom?


One of the greatest ironies in this story (and one you’ll only find by looking at the parallel account in Mark 14:1-9), is that Simon the Pharisee used to be Simon the leper.

In that culture, disease made you unclean. Leprosy, like other sickness, was seen as evidence of your sinfulness. Culturally you were required to call out “unclean” as you walked down the street so all the nice “clean” people wouldn’t accidentally touch you on their way. Simon used to be that guy. Now here he is, cut and polished, well housed and fed, and looking down his nose condemningly at a prostitute.

Simon wasn’t guilty of so-called “big sins” like prostitution. His sins were more respectable. Petty sins like theft and greed and cheating and lying and breaking promises. Where did I pull those examples from? You remembered: they come straight out of the “vice lists” of 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1.

“I am as undeserving of God’s love as the worst of sinners, but Jesus rescued me. So how dare I look down my nose at people who sin differently to me?”


See like Simon, we Christians are often quick to point out that “big sins” like homosexuality are forbidden by God and bar people from heaven. But are we as quick to recognise that the sins in our own lives are equally as serious and make us just as unqualified for God’s kingdom? Sexual sin is also mentioned: that includes things like pornography and sex outside of marriage. Do we take them as seriously as we do homosexuality? According to God, we should.

The Gospel, remember!?


Jesus said that people like Mary who’ve been forgiven lots, love lots—and that people like Simon who’ve only been forgiven a bit, love only a bit. Truth be told, it’s not that Simon was only forgiven a bit. It’s that Simon thought he’d only been forgiven a bit. He was a true Pharisee. He had self-righteousness nailed. He had a black, judgmental heart. Christians, are we the same? Or do we realise just how much we’ve been forgiven?

“The gospel is this: We are at the same time more sinful than we could ever dare imagine, and more loved and accepted in Jesus than we ever dared hope.”—Timothy Keller


I was once disqualified from God’s kingdom because of all my sins. I was once a spiritual leper, unclean and unwanted. What made me eligible for heaven and for a relationship with God had nothing to do with me cleaning my life up. It had everything to do with Jesus cleaning my life up for me. Jesus said to me, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.

I am as undeserving of God’s grace and kindness and love as the worst of sinners, but Jesus rescued me. So how dare I give up on anyone else, or look down my nose at people who sin differently to me?

Timothy Keller has said, “The gospel is this: We are at the same time more sinful than we could ever dare imagine, and more loved and accepted in Jesus than we ever dared hope.”

Jesus came to us in our brokenness and sin and transformed us by his grace. If we can’t radically love our gay friends and family and neighbours, then we’ve completely missed everything he came to accomplish.

Our task isn’t to judge people outside of the community of believers for not living the right kind of lifestyle. It makes zero sense for Christians to assume that those who don’t know Jesus and don’t have the Holy Spirit empowering their lives, either can or want to live like a Christian. Our task isn’t to judge, but to love.

If we can’t radically love our gay friends and family and neighbours, we’ve completely missed everything Jesus came to accomplish.


The verse that directly follows 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 says, “Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus.” Can someone turn around from a homosexual lifestyle? Absolutely they can. (The media won’t tell you these stories, but there are plenty out there). People did in Corinth, and people can today.

And whether God uses our love to work a new creation miracle in someone’s life, or whether our love makes no noticeable difference at all, we are still called to keep on loving. In the decades to come if we’re hauled before courts and dragged to prison for standing our ground (as many Christians fear—perhaps rightly), our commission remains the same: to love like Jesus.

Are people born gay or do they choose?


There’s one objection I haven’t addressed: “I was born gay: God made me like this, and surely he wants me to live a fulfilled life.”

Behind this idea is an assumption that says, “God made me perfect just the way I am.” That sounds great in greeting cards but it’s not a teaching of the Bible. Once again, a Christian’s view on Genesis as either myth or history has great relevance.

All of us are broken. Everyone struggles with sinful desires.


God did make creation perfect in the beginning, but we stuffed it up. At the fall of Adam and Eve, the world came under a curse, the effects of which we still experience daily—including in our genes. I was born with bad joints just like my mum, and a bad temper like my dad. Others are born with cleft palates and epilepsy—and genetics are also a factor in some mental illnesses. If we think all these things are perfect, why do advanced nations spend billions of dollars trying to fix them?

Every one of us is loved by God and made in his image, but we’re also full of imperfections. The reason the “born this way” versus “it’s a choice” debate has no relevance for Christians is because even if there are genetic factors in sexual orientation (which may well be the case), it’s actions, not attractions, that the Bible calls “sin”. All of us are broken. Everyone struggles with sinful desires.

The reason the “born this way” versus “it’s a choice” debate has no relevance for Christians is because it’s actions, not attractions, that the Bible calls sin.


The church of the future


Life is messy, and dealing with these realities in our lives won’t always be straightforward. But can I suggest four words for Christian communities to consider as we seek to love our LGBTQIA friends the most?

Community | As communities of believers, we absolutely need to be a soft place for people to land. What if this Sunday your friend sitting next to you in church turns to you and says, “I’ve never told anyone, but all my life I’ve felt same-sex attracted”? Without flinching, without a hint of “that’s icky”, without a word of judgment, we need to be able to turn to them and say, “I struggle with all sorts of things too. Isn’t it so good that we both have a home here.” The church is a hospital for the sick, not a museum for saints.

Healing | Many LGBTQIA people, including some who are friends of mine, can clearly point to an abusive event in their past that triggered same-sex attraction for them. This isn’t the cause for everyone, but it is certainly the cause for some. Jesus heals. He absolutely does. Churches need people equipped to walk that healing journey with those who have been hurt. I’m so thrilled to be part of a church that has such a ministry team. If your church is yet to equip such a group, what needs to happen for you to get there? What can you do?

The church is a hospital for the sick, not a museum for saints.


Sacrifice | For some people, on this side of eternity, same-sex attraction may remain a long-term struggle. Jesus and Paul talk about those who choose not to marry for the sake of the kingdom. That might be you. (Or you might happily marry heterosexually, but continue to deal with same-sex attraction). And it might not seem fair. Reality is, every Christian has a cross to carry. If life had gone a bit more according to my plan, I would have met and married the right person ten years ago. There are a lot of struggles that come with being a single 30 year old trying to live a pure life. But if you’re someone who chooses not to marry, more loudly than anyone else you are declaring to the world, “Jesus is enough”.

Identity | I look around in the media and the story I’m consistently hearing about homosexuality is that coming out is some sort of all-defining salvation experience. Coming out is literally promoted as the modern-day equivalent of being born again. In our world today, sexual experimentation is nothing less than a search for identity. Founding identity on sexuality is an empty promise, and one guaranteed to disillusion. Our sexuality is a great and awesome thing, but it wasn’t designed to bear a load so weighty. We are so much more than our desires. Sex is not the pinnacle human experience. Psalm 42 doesn’t say, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so I long for sexual fulfilment”—but rather, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so I long for you, O God.” Our sexuality isn’t our identity. Jesus is. Sex is good, but Jesus is far better. And he is enough.