‘And no one after drinking old wine desires the new, for he says, “The old is good”‘ – Luke 5:37-39

One of the joys I’ve had at the end of 2015 has been that of knowing that my kids, having outgrown the church fellowship that Esther and I pioneered 25 years ago, have each become part of fine_red_wine_picture_2_167120vibrant, outgoing churches in their own right. And as I’ve attended some of the Christmas celebrations of my kids’ churches over the past month, I’ve thought to myself, “Why wouldn’t you want to be part of something like this?” And I’m reminded of Jesus words (above) concerning old wine.

I never could understand that add-on. Jesus is addressing the Pharisees who want to contain everything in old lifeless religious patterns, old wineskins. And here he is seemingly complimenting the product of those wineskins. And of course he is right. If the fruit of the vine has been good and the wine maker and wineskins have done their job then the product will be ‘good’. That’s the aim of the good vintner.

It didn’t, however, start out that way. At one stage it was new wine in a new skin. And not necessarily very appealing to the taste buds. But, through a process of heat and fermentation and age, under the care of wise vintners, it matured and turned into a highly desirable product, one that you’d want to let linger on the palate and then come back for more.

However… no winemaker, having produced such a vintage, then proceeds to simply increase his product by adding new wine to it. That’s not how it’s done. What he does is start a new wineskin. With fresh grapes that will not necessarily produce the same tasting wine (the same hints of mulberry and subtle notes of grapefruit and old boot leather).

And it seems to me that no matter how ‘good’ a church fellowship is it will not get better by simply adding new people. Someone has to go off and start a new wineskin. And stick with the new wine through its unpalatable fermentation stages.

This is surely why Jesus’ church planting strategy centred on finding a new wineskin, a new ‘person of peace’, and kicking off something fresh in his home (Luke 10:5-9). With a disciple-making, apostolic type person checking in to see how the maturing process is going, making adjustments here and there, but allowing the new fellowship to find it’s own flavour and characteristics (hints of their own ethnicity and background and subtle notes of their housing estate). And in the end becoming so ‘good’ why would you want to leave? Why would you want to go back to immaturity?

Unless of course you’d caught the bug of wanting to create more wineskins and more wine.

 

 

PriscillaBack in 2000 I commenced as a Prison Chaplain at our local prison, a bit raw and apprehensive in a strange new environment. This was at the old jail which was basically a load of cage-like open yards, each enclosing a lawn area surround by the inmates’ units. The yards were in turn arranged around a large open area containing the admin blocks. The chaplain’s office opened onto the open area.

One morning, only about a month after I started, I got word that a young guy wanted to attend our Bible study that afternoon, so I decided to go down to his yard and check him out. When I got there the guy who came to meet me was a young aboriginal guy, very effeminate, could have been a black version of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I invited him up and went back to lunch and then awaited the afternoon study.

After five or six guys had arrived and were making a coffee (in those days we enjoyed such freedoms) I stepped out of the office to see where our new attendee was, only to be confronted with the spectacle of him coming across the open area accompanied by wolf-whistles and jeers from the surrounding yards. About ten metres from the office he whisked off his outer shorts and, waving them about his head like Priscilla herself, minced into the office. I shut the door and thought to myself, “This is going be interesting.”

Fortunately the guys already there where a bit maturer and welcomed him, making him a coffee. Then the question came.

“What does God think of gays?”

To which I replied, “It’s not a matter of being gay or straight. It’s a matter of whether you have a relationship with the God who gave you life.”

And that to me is the bottom line. There is a God whose first thought toward us is one of love, not one of rejection and judgement. “For God so LOVED the world that he gave …. (John 3:16). There is a creator who loves and then gives, so that He can enjoy us forever. For sure that relationship is on His terms. We need in response to drop our rather life-less independence and to get to know Him, learn to love both Him and His ways. But from His side there is nothing standing in the way.

He longs for relationship. He longs to bring Priscilla out of her desert … and give him a life.

There are thomalcolmwells.flickrse who would see the judgement of God behind every storm and flood but I tend to agree with Jesus – these things are often just a part of our fallen world.

That doesn’t mean that when Cyclone Marcia hit Yeppoon on the Central Queensland coast in February, carving a trail of destruction through the community, there were not lessons that could be learned. Jesus found lessons in the events and rhythms of life, and in the days that followed the storm, as I prepared for the Oikos Gathering that we were hosting in a few weeks’ time, a few lessons grabbed my attention as well. Here are three.

IN A STORM BIG THINGS COME DOWN!
Even things that have been a part of the scenery for a long time and that seem immoveable and permanent – they come down. Driving into or out of town in the hours and days that followed Marcia we marvelled at and lamented the power of a wind that was able to bring down huge trees and whole forests, root systems ripped out and trunks snapped in two. And looking over our fallen trees we felt sad that much that we have loved and appreciated had come down.

However looking over the structures that make up much of modern western church and political life we often feel sad and frustrated that they are still standing, seemingly entrenched in our culture, their root systems often drawing more from the world’s systems and culture than from the Spirit of God. We struggle to bless expressions of the church that we feel are actually a hindrance to the Gospel and to the emergence of true Kingdom life in our communities.

And sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that it’s actually our job to try to bring them down. So, instead of giving our attention to the establishing of new plantations we huff and we puff, with our Facebook comments, our prophecies and prayers and online petitions, with the hope that we’ll expend enough wind to bring it all down. And in the process often finish up breathing out the very spirit that we oppose.

A cursory read of the Book of Acts, however, should be enough to show us that there is a wind from heaven that even the most entrenched religious and secular systems of man cannot withstand. Rome fell once and its legacy, found in much of our church structures, will fall again. The Temple was destroyed and its lingering legalism will come down as well. The wind that blew so powerfully in Luther’s day will blow again.

Let’s quit our huffing and puffing and use our breath to breathe blessing over the plantings of the Lord that will rise up in place of the old, their roots deep down into Christ, their branches a gathering place for the world.

WHEN THE LEAVES HAVE GONE YOU CAN SEE FOREVER!
One of the most common comments after the cyclone was that, with so much of the foliage gone, you could see neighbours that you never could see before! Indeed, from our rear balcony we can see a prominent mountain that previously had been hidden from our view. And I was reminded of Jesus looking for figs on a very leafy fig tree and finding none. It was all show – lovely but fruitless.

I tend to feel that the days of a fresh wind of the Spirit will be days of exposure. They will be days when our façade will be stripped back and the affections our hearts made bare. In Psalm 84 the psalmist speaks of eternity running through our hearts. In other words, when our outer show is removed and our hearts made bare people should be able to see straight through to Jesus, unhindered by the foliage of our own shallow and short-term ambitions and plans. Under the leaves they should find fruit, the fruit of the Spirit of God, which is nothing less than a reflection of the life of the future and of the One who is to come.

And there is a mountain, the one that Ezekiel spoke of, that will rise in the earth and to which the people will stream. Right now it is hidden, certainly here in the West. Lord, send a wind. Strip us of our foliage. Let the world see Jesus. Let them see a wonderful forever.

YOU CAN LIVE SIMPLY AND ENJOY IT!
Five days without electricity forces you to live more inventively and more simply. That’s not to say that we were not glad to have the electricity back (as evidenced by my wife Esther’s embarrassing yahoos from the front lawn), but the culinary delights and dining experiences that emanated from the combination of our one-burner gas canister camping stove and our Christmas solar lights are a lovely memory. Of course those people who enjoy camping would have had no problems and already have many of those kind of ‘around-the-fire’ memories.

We live in the day of switched on, entertainment church. Professional high powered worship is a flick of a switch away. PowerPoint sermons mean you don’t have to open your bible – it’s up there, verse by verse, with a lovely sunset background. Or streamed onto your iPhone if you didn’t manage to get out of bed in time. And after a while it’s the easiest and most sophisticated way to go. That doesn’t mean that it’s bad but like all good things we can finish up so hooked that when the electricity crashes so do we.
Unless, like father Abraham, we’ve learned to love camping. Unless, by choice, we have supplemented the above with a love for the simple and the unsophisticated. The acoustic guitar and the hand drum. Or the silence. The “everyone has a hymn, a word of instruction, a revelation…”, the two or three gathered, with Jesus in the midst.
And it may be that in the days ahead, as the Lord strips the church back – whether by storm or otherwise – from its dependence on mode and method, and brings us back to Jesus only, we will discover a joy, an inventiveness and a quality of Kingdom life such as we have striven for but not known.

No-one wants a storm. And I don’t really believe it is the Father’s favourite way of bringing change. But the Lord is on a mission. One way or another He WILL shake those things that can be shaken. He WILL flood the earth with the glory of Jesus. The Church is his instrument for bringing in the Kingdom and therefore judgement begins with us.

Let us not wait for a storm but let us embrace the simple. Let us give people a clear view of the eternal. Let us give our labours, not to bringing trees down, but to raising up new ones, rooted in Christ, their glory – His glory – covering the earth.

Thank you Marcia.

Sometimes it seems that the main criteria by which Christians judge politicians is their stance on abortion and same-sex marriage. As if these were the major sins that bring down a nation. However if we look at the main reasons listed in Isaiah for the judgement of Sodom these sins get no mention. Instead “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.Ezekiel 16:49. Sins, I might suggest, that are often more associated with the right wing of politics than the left (indeed the reaction by the Right to Obamacare might well be an example).

Perhaps it is these more acceptable sins of a nation which assault heaven more and by the time the sins of abortion and same-sex marriage raise their ugly heads it’s a bit late. The horse has bolted long ago. And the task of turning it around is too great for even the most Spirit-led politician. Which raises real questions for me about the relevance of Christian engagement in politics.

I should say to start with that I don’t have a problem with Christians running for a political office as a way of serving the community. What concerns me is the idea that we can somehow bring about a more tolerant, caring and God-honouring society through legislation. I would have thought that the history of Israel under the Law is proof enough that righteousness cannot be legislated. Israel had the perfect law but the inherent self-centredness of their heart meant that they either flouted those good laws or turned their observance of them into a cause for self-righteousness. And Paul, in the New Testament, makes it clear that, no matter how good the law, that will be the result. Which is surely why the only reason that Paul gives for praying for government is that we will have a peaceful environment for the proclamation of the GOSPEL.

Because even the ‘law of Christ’ – love God and love others – can only be acceptably lived out of a changed heart. Without that change of heart we simply get religious observance and humanistic welfare (epitomised by the ‘right’ and the ‘left’?). So, while I’m sure that there is a place for us to raise our voices against some of the more glaring sins of our society, our major calling has to be pointing people to Jesus. We need to come to grips with the reality that for some time now we have lived in a post-Christian society. And without a major heaven-sent revival no amount of political intervention is going to change that.

I would suggest that our calling is NOT so much to pray Christian politicians into our political systems but to pray the prayer of Jesus which was that HIS Kingdom would come. Mitt Romney and Tony Abbott may want to restore ‘traditional’ values to our countries but the best of American or Australian values fall way way short of the values of the Kingdom. So if we choose those channels as the way to bring in righteousness I suggest that we will be very disappointed.

But not to worry. All is not lost for we have a glorious and powerful Gospel, as did the early church. With it – and without any involvement in the far worse political system of their day –  they turned the hearts of men towards each other, broke down ancient barriers and turned the heathen world of their time up-side-down. And surely we are destined to see the same – if we stick to the main agenda, refuse the path of politics and look only to Jesus.

As an Australian Christian it almost seems un-Australian to not appreciate Hillsong and the wealth of inspiring and God-glorifying music that they have given us over the years. Given indeed to the world. I am just returning home to Oz from the Philippines where, on one Sunday night, I endured a three hour concert where 4 invited worship teams seemed to compete with each other in replicating as much Hillsong as they could manage, complete with the same stage and audience mannerisms that make up the usual Hillsong DVD. I don’t blame the guys back in Sydney for that, but it does leave me with concerns and questions about the nature of modern Christian ‘worship’. How much of it is true worship and when does it just become soulish hype. And a pleasant experience on the plane on the way to Manila only served to heighten my concern.

 
I’m a great Sting fan. I love his music style and his skill with lyrics. So how great was my joy to find his Berlin Concert, complete with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, as part of the Qantas in-flight entertainment. It was a fabulous concert, filling up my senses and having me at times in tears. I watched it twice and told my wife that I’d love it for Christmas. But here’s the concern. A month earlier I had been into our local prison to facilitate the Sunday services and the lads in the first session had the latest Hillsong DVD which we used for a couple of songs. I’d not seen a Hillsong production for a while and so I was suitably impressed with the whole production, the smoky blue effects, the crowd angles, the music style, so professional, so drawing. I enjoyed it, worshipped to it and thought of some teenagers I’d love to get it for.

Have you already got my drift though? I don’t have any doubt at all about the integrity of the producers of the video BUT … when you put together a team of amazing musicians, skilful writers and a brilliant audio and visual team you have to finish up with a successful product that has all the dangers of leavings its participants emotionally high but not necessarily engaged with God in a life changing encounter that continues after the lights have faded. Especially when churches all over the country see Hillsong as the benchmark and are trying to replicate their style, all in the name of a spirit of ‘excellence’. So the push for talent in the worship team becomes a subtle mini version of Australian Idol and the expectations of an entertainment-driven generation of young churchgoers are catered for and driven higher. And we confuse the results for worship that pleases God.

And here I am reminded of David trying to bring the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6), on a ‘new cart’ (driven by the spirit of excellence?) replete with a plethora of professional musicians and skillful music that would surely rival heaven – but God was not in it. Indeed it was not until this new thing stumbled and God’s wrath burned against Uzzah for trying to keep it going, that the participants, as earnest as they surely were, were even remotely aware that their ’worship’ fell far short of God’s measure of excellence.

What was missing was the blood (verse 16). God’s presence is not brought down by highly skilled (and sometimes unknowingly ego-driven) musicians and polished performances but is carried each day by New Testament priests (ordinary believers) who are dead to performance driven religion and who’s worship is more about service than singing. Such worshippers do not need a professional song-leading team every Sunday and are quite satisfied with a poorer but sometimes more honest worship session when they do get it. Indeed such a genuine mixture of sacrificial service and heartfelt singing makes a big noise in heaven whether it is accompanied by excellence or not.

So will it be Sting or Hillsong at Christmas? Hopefully both. I’ve no doubt that God raised Hillsong for His purposes. And just as David “served the purposes of God in his generation” so I trust will they. May they do it though through a pathway of blood.

Six years ago we did something that must have left many of my ministry friends scratching their heads. After spending ten years planning, building and paying off a new church centre … we walked away from it. And the reason? Well the reason is well documented in my blogging at the time but basically we came to the conclusion that the future for the church of Jesus in general was for it to get back to ‘how it was in the beginning’. Back to when the Holy Spirit breathed on the fledgling church and something unique sprung into view – an organic community that was fresh and simple and had in it the seeds for  growth and revival. There were no buildings, programs, hierarchical structures, distinctive church names or advertising gimmicks – just believers around a meal table sharing their lives in Christ.

Six years ago we were attracted by a vision to recapture that simplicity and, although we can’t say we are there yet (because it involves more than leaving a building), we know we did the right thing and aren’t looking back. However, following the vision did leave us with an interesting dilemma. What does a house church do with a building?

Well it actually didn’t turn out to be much of a dilemma since, as it turned out, there were many with a different vision that were happy to use it. In fact over the ensuing years four other churches, the local bridge club and our own successful playground were happy to call it home. And while they did so we wrestled with our own longer-term vision for the building.

And the result of our wrestling? We’re going back!

Let me explain …

When we stepped out of old style church I also stepped out of paid ministry, meaning I now needed a job. After various short time jobs, including driving a bread van and early morning cleaning the local Sailing Club, I was eventually snapped up by the local Salvation Army to manage their Red Shield Family Store (Op Shop). And although it turned out to be a God thing, re-employing my natural skills and putting me in touch with the community in a way that I never was before, the down side was that I inherited a shop building that was awkward, hot and very un-inviting. It didn’t take long before I knew we needed another building. And … well yes, you guessed it. After searching all over town for a more suitable place I found the keys to the perfect building hanging up in our kitchen.

And last week, after some months of arm-wrestling with beaurocracy and a couple of weeks of transforming a sparsely used meeting place into a potentially week-long meeting place, we moved back to the building! We now have the classiest looking Op Shop in town in a building that you would swear was designed exactly for that purpose.

Plus, we now have triple the rental income coming in to sow into local and overseas projects, such as the school we are helping Lhoy and Venus Edaniol build in the Philippines.

How wonderful and surprising is our God? Who would have thought that He would lead us back into something we thought we had no further use for? Or that I’d be pleased to be going back? And I am. The Op Shop represents a great opportunity to befriend a whole level of people, both shoppers and volunteer workers, who may never have stepped into the building for a church service but who may well be lined up by God to experience his love via a different and more inviting channel.

Thank God for the Salvos! And thank God for the building!

This is a poem I wrote for my good mate Ron Watson, who this week leaves Yeppoon to eventually take up an itinerant job pastoring among the homesteads and communities out of Weipa, North Queensland. As the local Uniting Church pastor and as a regular prayer partner we have shared a journey and I’ll miss him.
______________________________
Our Ron has gone to Weipa
He’s gone there with his wife
He’s had enough of playing church
He wants to get a life!
He’s sick of surface living
Of trying to please the flock
He wants to go in deeper
Till he gets down to the Rock!

The rock of true discipleship
Of dying to yerself
Of looking out for others
Not sitting on the shelf
And waiting till the pastor
Comes and has a cup of tea
So I can whinge about the church
And talk of only me

NO! That’s not the way of Jesus
Not the path the Master trod
The way of true discipleship
That brings us to a God
Who wants to mobilise His people
And, what ere it cost,
Get them out of church and pew
To help him reach the lost

Mind you, he’d seen revival
Over there in Emu Park
The Great Carpet Revival
That grew out of a spark
Of life among the oldies
When suddenly they saw
That faith combined with works
Could do wonders to the floor

Then, as they gathered on new carpet
New ventures came to mind
What about the folk out west
You know, the hurting kind
Then faith turned into vision
Into projects and, you know,
Those Parkies got a passion
To see the Kingdom grow

And back there in Taranganbah
Our Ronnie’s thoughts went back
To a calling deep within his bones
To leave familiar tracks
And find again the paths of faith
The ancient paths of old
The ones that Abraham had trod
That Paul and Silas told.

That took the gospel to the world
And spread the news abroad
The story of God’s favour
And the goodness of the Lord
The story of a Saviours love
The outback needs to hear
We’re off to Weipa, Heather
Do not fear, my dear

For we will tread on scorpions
And pick up snakes that bite
By faith we’ll face the darkness and
Turn back the outback’s night
The homesteads will be Jesus homes
And camp fires all will ring
As praises fill the ancient skies
To Jesus Christ the King

And back here on the Keppel Coast
Our faith is also stirred
We face the darkness also
But our faith is not deterred
For even though our friends move on
There’s One who does not leave
He’ll build his church in this great land
From outback to the sea

But Ron moves on, to Weipa
Goes to Weipa with his wife
Goes to find the ancient pathways
Goes to bring the west new life
Goes to walk alongside Abraham
And Peter, Paul and John
Goes to find what Jesus has in store
For Heather and for Ron