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 Hinduism Points to Jesus

Since the 1960s, Hinduism has profoundly shaped the West. But it goes beyond vegan food, henna and hippy culture. We’re all one with God; there’s a divine spark within each of us; I’ll find my own path—all of these Hindu ideas have gone global.

Hinduism inspired brilliant movies like Inception, Avatar and Interstellar. And many big-name celebrities have famously converted to the faith, including Julia Roberts, Russel Brand and George Harrison of The Beetles.

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

The Heart of Hinduism

Hinduism has no founder: there’s no historical figure called Hindu. That’s just a British word for the colourful rituals and beliefs of the Indian subcontinent. Even today, most Hindus don’t know that word—they just know they follow the eternal religion.

Eternal is a stretch, but it’s definitely ancient. Hinduism predates Moses, beginning around 2000BC—making it the oldest religion in the world. It’s not a neat, easily understood faith. It has no organised hierarchy, no creeds, and no central holy place. It sort of just is.

“Since the 1960s, Hinduism has profoundly shaped the West.”

At the centre of this spectacular web of beliefs and practices is one simple idea: union with the ultimate life force. To understand what this even means, we need to take a journey through the deep traditions that have shaped Hindu belief.


THE VEDAS (2000BC—500BC)

First are the Vedas. These hymns, curses and chants were brought to India by Persian nomads, explaining how to communicate with a vast array of gods through the use of drugs, and how to appease these gods with sacrifices.


THE UPANISHADS (1000BC—300BC)

Second are the Upanishads. Indian gurus and holy men reflected deeply on the Vedas and developed a whole worldview out of them, teaching these important ideas:

Brahman / Behind everything in the universe is a life force called Brahman. Brahman isn’t a who but a what—it has no personality. And Brahman isn’t seperate from the world: it encompasses everything, including you and me. Like sparks from a flame, we all came from Brahman, and to Brahman we will all return.

“At the centre of Hinduism is one simple idea: union with the ultimate life force.”

Illusion / You think you’re reading this blog, but actually you’re not. You, your device, and the entire universe is actually just a dream of Brahman. According to Hindu teaching, until you realise this, you’ll stay trapped in the illusion of this world.

Reincarnation / All of us, even plants, animals and insects, are caught on a carousel of being born, dying and being reborn again. Reincarnation isn’t fun to a Hindu—it means being spat back out into the illusion of this world; trapped once again in a false existence.

“In Hindu teaching, the entire universe is just a dream of Brahman.”

Karma / We think karma is doing good so good comes back to me. For Hindus, karma is vengeful—it’s the reason we’re trapped. The poor are suffering now because of their actions in a past life: it’s their fault. As such, I need to live a good life now so I can return as a king, not a cockroach.

Release / However, the end goal is actually to not come back at all. Instead, I’m aiming to experience final release from the futile cycle of life. Release isn’t a place; it’s a state of being where I no longer exist—where I’m absorbed back into Brahman, the ultimate reality.


THE SMRITI (500BC—AD300)

The third and final tradition is the Smriti. These epic Shakespeare-like dramas tell the stories of the gods, and teach two more ideas:

The Caste System / People are born into different castes or social orders based on their karma from past lives. Those at the top work in business and government, while the untouchables at the bottom fill India’s slums. Mahatma Gandhi fought the caste system, and today many Hindus reject it, but it remains deeply ingrained in Indian society.

The Way of Release / Release from reincarnation and a return to Brahman is possible, and it can happen in one or more of the following ways:

  1. Path of DutyPerforming good works that are fitting to your particular caste, and being faithful in giving offerings to the local gods.
  2. Path of DevotionChoosing one of Hinduism’s 330 million gods to love and worship with your whole life—the most popular being Vishnu and Shiva.
  3. Path of KnowledgeDenying comforts, chanting scriptures, and practicing mediation and yoga in order to achieve union with Brahman.

And that’s a brief summary of Hinduism. Today it’s the third largest religion in the world with over a billion followers. The vast majority of Hindus live in India.

Hinduism and Jesus

Hindu ideas challenge Christians, and in the best of ways. They rattle our safe little cage and make us question everything we thought we knew. Hinduism also reminds us that God is not just far off, but present everywhere; and many Hindus truly know the meaning of spiritual devotion.

But where does Jesus fit with Hinduism? It would be too easy to see him as just another guru or god among the millions. But this holy man is different. Jesus’ teachings are eternal, more ancient than the Vedas. In fact, they come directly from Brahman.

“Jesus came to show us what Brahman is like.”

According to Jesus, it’s true that Brahman is the life force present everywhere, giving unity to the world we see. But Jesus called Brahman a who, not a what. Brahman is actually personal, with a mind, emotions and the capacity for relationship.

This makes sense because we are personal. We use logic; we experience joy and sadness; and we relate to others. How could you or I, with all the beauty and wonder of personality, come from an impersonal force? Brahman must have a personality if we came from him.

“Brahman is a who, not a what.”

Jesus also taught about karma. He called it sin—actions from our past that have trapped us. But he didn’t teach the path of duty, devotion or knowledge, because they leave us uncertain; we can only know if they’ve worked after we die. Jesus taught a better way of release, one that we can know gives us release in this life.

Instead of us making our way back to Brahman, Jesus said, Brahman has come to us. Jesus wasn’t just another spark from the flame: he claimed to actually be Brahman, entering into our world, ending the illusion. Jesus came to show us what Brahman’s personality is like.

Jesus performed every good work and lived a perfect life, and this meant his karma was good. And when he died, he took all our karma upon himself, and he gave us his good karma in return. The moment we believe this and devote ourselves to Jesus, we experience final release.

“Jesus isn’t just another guru or god among the millions.”

When we die, we can be certain we’ll return to Brahman. Not like sparks to a flame. But like children to their father. We’re actually seperate beings from Brahman—and that’s good, because it means we can have a personal relationship with him. This is love. And this is true union with the ultimate life force.

We all need a god to worship and devote our lives to. Jesus is the only one who is truly worthy of this, because he’s not one god among many. He’s the one true God.

And this God loves and accepts us, no matter which caste we’re from.

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 get 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

Claydon, David. Connecting Across Cultures: Sharing the Gospel Across Cultural and Religious Boundaries. Melbourne: Acorn Press Ltd, 2000, 83-94.

Dickson, John. A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions: An Introduction to the Big Five. Sydney: Blue Bottle Books, 2004, 17-46.

How Islam Points to Jesus

For some in the West, Islam is a synonym for terrorism and oppression. Others seem to believe that Muslims deserve a free pass, and special immunity from criticism.

I’ll admit upfront that I’m biased too. I love my Muslim friends, and I have a deeper interest in Islam than any other world faith outside my own. For me, Islam is an acronym for I Sincerely Love All Muslims.

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

Origins and Influence

It all began with Muhammad ibn Abdullah, born in Mecca in 570AD, five centuries after Jesus. Arabia was dry, hot, and full of warring tribes. Jews and Christian cults were scattered around, but most people were polytheists, and once a year they’d flood to Mecca to worship their gods.

As a travelling merchant, Muhammad sat around campfires at night hearing many religious ideas, and the idolatry troubled him. He would often retreat to a cave near Mecca for spiritual insight. One day there, a supernatural being appeared and spoke to him. He was so alarmed that he ran home to his wife, convinced he was demonised or insane.

“Muhammad sat around campfires at night hearing many religious ideas.”

But with the help of a scholar, Muhammad concluded that he’d met the angel Gabriel, and that he was called to be a prophet. For the next two decades until his death, he received 114 messages—today making up the chapters of the Qur’an.

His theme was this: only one of Mecca’s hundreds of gods was the true God, and all the others were false idols. That didn’t go down too well—so fleeing persecution, Muhammad moved to the city of Medina.

Here the people liked him and his message about the oneness of God. They embraced him as their prophet and political ruler. It was 622AD; Islam was born.

“Muhammad would often retreat to a cave for spiritual insight.”

The people of Mecca kept troubling Muhammad until eventually, with an army of 10,000, he marched on the city. The powerless Meccans were quick to convert to Islam.

Throughout his life, Muhammad lead 66 battles, married 11 times, and was heralded as a great military leader and God’s final and greatest prophet.

Within a hundred years of his death, Islam spread as far as Turkey, France and India. Fourteen centuries later there are 50 Muslim-majority nations, and Islam is the world’s second biggest religion with 1.8 billion followers.

The Heart of Islam

Islam is built on a single idea: submission to Allah—this is what the word Islam means. Muslims practice the Five Pillars of Islam in the hope that Allah will accept them into paradise:

1. Creed. There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet. If you recite this in the presence of another Muslim and believe it, you become a Muslim.

2. Prayers. At five set times a day, faithful Muslims pray facing the city of Mecca. This involves a ritual washing, set postures and recited prayers. The Friday noon prayer is held in local mosques where a sermon is preached.

3. Fasting. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims aren’t allowed to eat or drink while the sun is up. Night time is for feasting; and celebrations are especially big at the end of this month—a time when Allah is more likely to hear and answer prayers.

4. Alms. This religious tax of up to 5% helps feed the poor, support war efforts, and spread the message of Islam around the world.

5. Pilgrimage. Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it must visit the city of Mecca once in their life. Here, pilgrims take part in many rituals: they wear special garments, circle a shrine called the Kaaba, and spend an evening on a hill outside the city where they hope their sins will be washed away.

Jihad is sometimes considered a sixth pillar. Jihad means struggle, and while some point to the days of Muhammad and think of this in military terms, most Muslims today consider jihad an internal struggle against sin.

Along with these practices there are Five Pillars of Faith which every Muslim must embrace:

1. God. Allah has 99 beautiful names. (His hundredth name is unknown). Allah is unique, and it’s blasphemy to equate any person with him; certainly, he is too lofty and majestic to have a son. Allah is our master, and we are his servants. He knows us, but we can’t know him.

2. Angels. These include jinn or genies, but most important are the two angels that sit on every person’s right and left shoulder, recording our good and bad deeds for a final day of reckoning.

3. Prophets. Moses, Abraham, David and many other Bible characters are prophets in Islam—Jesus is especially honoured as a prophet. But Islam’s final and greatest prophet is Muhammad. He’s the model for all Muslims to imitate.

4. Books. The Torah, Psalms and Gospels are holy books in Islam. In fact, Jews and Christians are considered people of the book. But the most holy book is the Qur’an. Muslims believe it was given because the other books were corrupted.

5. Judgment Day. Like Muhammad, Allah is a good businessman. On judgment day, he will weigh our good and bad deeds on a scale to see whether we deserve hell or paradise. But even then Allah is still sovereign, and his mercy is what will determine our destiny.

Muhammad and Jesus

Christians have much to learn from Islam. In a world of apathy, Muhammad led with uncompromising conviction, and he had a reverence for God that the western church desperately needs to recapture. And the cultures Muhammad has shaped are among the most respectful and hospitable on the planet.

What about Muhammad’s claims? Private visions are difficult to verify—but the Qur’an does help us build bridges with Muslims since it speaks so often of ‘Isa al-Masih or Jesus the Messiah. In fact Jesus is referred to 93 times in the Qur’an—four times more often than Muhammad himself!

“Christians have much to learn from Islam.”

The Qur’an says that Jesus was born of a virgin; that he was a healer and miracle worker who raised the dead; and that he will intercede for us on judgment day. These things are not said of Muhammad. In fact, while the Qur’an mentions Muhammad’s sins, it calls Jesus sinless—and even gives him titles like Spirit and Word of God.

Actually, this is what the Bible taught all along. There’s no theological reason for Muslims to believe the Bible has been corrupted: God can protect his books. And there’s no historical reason either: 25,000 manuscripts spanning from the second century AD are almost identical to today’s Bibles. How could forgers have edited so many documents—and no modern scholar notice?

“God can protect his books.”

The Word of God didn’t come to Jesus in a private vision. Jesus is the Word of God. His life was the message, and it was lived out in public where it could be tested by history.

Like Muhammad, Jesus called people to turn from their idols and follow the true God. The people of Jerusalem persecuted him for this. But unlike Muhammad, Jesus didn’t flee. He willingly submitted to the plan of God. That evening he was crucified on a hill outside the city—where he washed our sins away.

Because of this, our destiny no longer hangs in the balance between the good and bad deeds that we do. God has shown us mercy once for all in Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s guarantee that we’ll also be raised up to paradise.

“Jesus is the Word of God. His life was the message.”

Because of Jesus, God hears our prayers any time of the year. Because of him, we can win our internal struggle against sin. Most of all, because of Jesus, we can know God and the great love he has for us.

It is wrong for any human to equate themselves with God. But what if God equated himself with us? What if the greatest act of God’s majesty was to become one of us, and make himself personally known? What if God’s hundredth name is ‘Isa al-Masih?

“Because of Jesus, we can know God and the great love he has for us.”

Today there’s a wind in the house of Islam. In countries still shut to the gospel, Jesus is appearing to thousands of Muslims in dreams and supernatural visions. And many more are coming to faith in open nations through the love of Christian friends.

Muslims around the world today are discovering that Jesus is more than a prophet—and that following him is the true path of submission to God.

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 get 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

Dickson, John. A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions: An Introduction to the Big Five. Sydney: Blue Bottle Books, 2004, 177-217.

Masri, Fouad. Bridges: Connecting Christians With Muslims (DVD). Indianapolis, IN: Crescent Project, 2008.

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.

If you found this helpful, please go back and hit share or leave a comment. If you’d like to receive my blogs by email, scroll to the bottom of the page to subscribe.

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

Understand Any Book of the Bible in Ten Seconds

Have you ever read the entire Bible?

It’s a big book. To read it from start to finish takes about three days without a break. With so much to comprehend, it’s little wonder that literally millions more books have been written to explain and apply it.

“To read the Bible from start to finish takes about three days without a break.”

But in an age saturated by information, it’s no surprise that the most helpful resources are also the simplest. I’ve long thought that a resource should exist that explains every book of the Bible at a glance.

I’ve never found one—so I created one. I trust you’ll find these simple outlines personally useful and great to share with those new to the Christian walk. (Download a printable PDF copy here).

If you enjoyed reading this, please like and share it on social media, and scroll to the bottom of the page to subscribe to my blog by email.

I’m indebted to Charles R. Swindoll for many of the book structures, and to Jeffrey Kranz for his simple book summaries.

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

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.

maluku

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?

ternate

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.

If you enjoyed reading this, please like and share it on social media, and scroll to the bottom of the page to subscribe to my blog by email.

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

Seven Things God Can’t Do

omnipotent

There are some things God can’t do. Yes, God is all-powerful (“omnipotent” in Christianese). Nothing is too hard for him (Isaiah 43:13) and he does whatever pleases him (Psalm 135:6).

But “all-powerful” still has limits. By the time you’ve finished reading about these seven examples, I think you’ll not only agree with me, you’ll also love God all the more for it.

1. God can’t deny himself. In 2 Timothy 2:13, Paul puts it like this: “If we are unfaithful, God remains faithful, for he cannot deny who he is.” Who God is today, he has always been.

“‘All-powerful” still has limits.”

Trustworthy, perfect in beauty, entirely without sin, full of unfailing love, present in our weakness. The second God falters in any of this, the moment he breaks a single promise that he has made, he ceases to be God. And that’s something he cannot do.

2. God can’t be tempted with evil. James 1:13 says that, “God is never tempted to do wrong.” We tend to think of right and wrong as abstract ideas that even God is accountable to. But we have it back-to-front.

“The moment God breaks a single promise he has made, he ceases to be God.”

Good is, by definition, anything that aligns with God’s perfect character. And evil is, by definition, anything that doesn’t. So to say that God can’t be tempted with evil is an understatement. It’s a logical impossibility.

3. God can’t learn. I don’t have a Bible verse for this one. But God knows everything. And if God could learn, it would mean that once upon a time, he didn’t know that thing he learnt. Think about it.

4. God can’t do the illogical. Have skeptical people ever taunted you with questions like, “Can God make a box he can’t escape?” or “Can he make a rock so large he can’t move it?” or “Can God draw square circles?”

“Add these silly semantic puzzles to the list of things God can’t do.”

Don’t try to defend the indefensible. The answer is no. Add these silly semantic puzzles to the list of things he can’t do. God’s not fazed; no need for us to be either.

5. God can’t get tired. “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.” (Isaiah 40:28). That’s good news for weary souls.

6. God can’t teach you as much through pleasure as he can through suffering. How can a good God allow evil and suffering? This question is universal, and it’s borne out of the fire of our own uniquely painful experiences.

“The things that have shaped us the most have also cost us the most.”

While this doubt is deep, complex and touches us in different ways, we all know instinctively that the things that have shaped us the most have also cost us the most. Are not all of our favourite movies simply retellings of this same theme?

In our mess, this feels like cold comfort. But try to imagine your own story without a single struggle or challenge. What of substance in your life would there be to speak of today? In the chaos, hold on to God’s promise that all of these “light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

7. God can’t seperate you from his love. God didn’t remain aloof from the suffering of the world but entered into it. And it was this act of unthinkable humility—our Creator suffering all that we deserved, absorbing the rage of man and the wrath of God—that lifts the curse and welcomes us back into his eternal love.

“God didn’t remain aloof from the suffering of the world but entered into it.”

“And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39).

I’m glad there are some things God can’t do.

How Jesus Shaped the West: Morality

Despite its many faults, Western civilisation has lead the world for centuries in technology, education, science, liberty, and more. Why? Lots of reasons. But the greatest force that shaped us, overlooked by many, is a humble carpenter from Nazareth. // Read this series from the beginning, or start here for how Jesus shaped Morality.

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Not far from where I live, I’ve heard of a bustling Christmas market that draws big crowds, depicting life in first century Israel, complete with costumed characters—merchants, beggars, Roman soldiers, shepherds. Easily missed, tucked away in a back corner of the marketplace, is a young, shabbily-dressed couple laying their newborn in an animal’s feeding trough.

Isn’t this a perfect depiction of the first Christmas—and almost every Christmas since? Somewhere among the leg hams and frantic shopping and scattered wrapping paper is a God trying to get our attention. But his humility means that all but the most attentive hearts could celebrate the season and still miss his appearing.

The baby born that first Christmas night became a man who utterly reshaped the world. But in 2016, so much ideology and distraction has meant that we’re almost entirely unaware of Jesus’ influence on the West.

“God’s humility means that all but the most attentive hearts could celebrate the season and still miss his appearing.”

Some might interpret this series I’ve written as religious posturing or Christian triumphalism. In truth, it’s none of that. My desire has been to show that ideas really do have consequences, and that Jesus and his teachings have had an unfathomable impact on the world. Far from being an outdated superstition, Christianity has shaped our civilisation and our lives for the better.

It is no coincidence that the nations with the deepest Christian roots are also the safest to live in. Transparency International publishes a global corruption index that year after year finds the least corrupt countries to be those most shaped by Jesus.

“Far from being an outdated superstition, Christianity has shaped our civilisation and our lives for the better.”

But stories speak louder than statistics, so in considering how Jesus transforms the morality of nations, hear the story of John Wesley.

In seventeenth century England, faith and morality had collapsed. Millions of slaves were being shipped to America as England, France and Spain fought for monopoly of the slave trade.

Financial greed was rife. Laws were being manipulated to favour the ruling classes, sharply dividing the rich and poor. If you stole a sheep, snared a rabbit or picked a pocket, you could be hung as thousands gather to watch—or worse—shipped off to a strange faraway land called Australia.

“Millions of English people had never set foot in a school. The Bible was a closed book.”

Three quarters of children died before their fifth birthday. Unwanted newborns were left in the streets to die. Gin had overtaken beer as the national beverage, and alcoholism was destroying families, and leading to violence, prostitution and murder.

Gloveless boxing had become a favourite sport for men and women, and it drew massive crowds. Pornography was freely available. As soon as a theatre opened it would be surrounded by brothels. Men were known to sell their wives at cattle auctions.

Up and down the coastline of the British Isles, ships were lured onto rocks by false signals so they could be plundered, and the sailors were left to drown.

“Millions of slaves were being shipped to America as England, France and Spain fought for monopoly of the slave trade.”

Millions of English people had never set foot in a school. The Bible was a closed book.

Enter John Wesley.

He’d studied at Oxford and was ordained as a priest. After reading the Bible and searching his heart, he realised he was a Christian in name only. At the age of 34 he put his faith in Jesus. Of that moment he wrote, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine.”

This changed his life. He started sharing his faith in workhouses, prisons, and any church that would welcome him. Encouraged by his friend George Whitfield, he preached his first open-air sermon in April, 1739. The Great Awakening, a movement that was about to transform Europe and America, was born.

Wesley and other revivalists endured three decades of public abuse and violence. Drunken mobs attacked them as they spoke. Bulls were driven into their captivated crowds, and musical instruments were played nearby to drown out their preaching. When struck by rocks, Wesley would wipe away the blood and keep on preaching.

“He started sharing his faith in workhouses, prisons, and any church that would welcome him.”

But never once did he lose his temper. His desire was to point his nation to Jesus, and reclaim England from corruption, believing that when people get saved, their societies change.

Slowly the teachings of Jesus began to take root in people’s minds. His enemies were disarmed and won to Christ. Soldiers, miners, smugglers, fishermen, men, women and children would remove their hats, kneel down and were emotionally overcome as Wesley pointed them to God’s grace.

To teach and disciple the thousands coming to faith, Wesley established hundreds of faith communities across Britain, Scotland and Ireland. He was unstoppable. He got up at four each morning and preached his first sermon at five. By the end of his life he’d prepared and preached 45,000 sermons, written 300 books, and also a commentary on every verse of the Bible—while travelling a quarter of a million miles on horseback in rain, hail and shine.

“Wesley was unstoppable.”

He’d published his thoughts condemning the slave trade, and the last letter he wrote was to Wilberforce, who continued the fight. He opened medical dispensaries and vocational training for the unemployed, and raised money to feed and clothe prisoners, the helpless and the aged.

He died at the age of 88, and no coach was needed for his funeral because he’d arranged for six unemployed people to be paid a pound each to carry his body to the grave.

Directly influenced by Wesley and other revivalists, missionary societies were formed, stirring up hundreds of thousands of Christian young men and women to go to the furthest parts of the world, often at great personal cost.

“In the last decade of his life, Wesley was the most loved figure in Britain.”

Slavery was abolished. Prisons were reformed. Industrial workers were given rights. The Salvation Army was founded, along with George Muller’s orphanages, the YMCA, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and the RSPCA.

In the last decade of his life, Wesley was the most loved figure in Britain. He’d helped purge his nation’s soul of filth and bring it back from the brink of death.

The power of the Great Awakening wasn’t merely the threat that God’s watching, so you shouldn’t do bad things. Islam also teaches this, but in Islam, Allah is too majestic to enter dirty stables or filthy hearts.

“Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

The Great Awakening was powerful because Jesus does what no other God can do. He fills people with his Spirit and turns their lives around. As we take our sins to him, and receive his forgiveness and grace, we’re cleaned up and made new. And our world is transformed.

Over and over, and in countless ways, Jesus has shaped the West. This Christmas, in perhaps the subtlest of ways, God is trying to get your attention. Don’t miss him. Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.

osl

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REASON / TECHNOLOGY / LANGUAGES / HEROISM / EDUCATION / SCIENCE / MEDICINE / LIBERTY / EQUALITY / MORALITY

 

In this series of blogs, I have been indebted to Indian Philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilisation.