Hawthorn Presbyterian Church

Some thoughts on Christmas Giving

[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for November, 2016. (edited slightly)]

Probably sometime this month, if you have not done so already, your attention will turn to Christmas gift-giving. This can be a great joy; it can also be very frustrating! Giving freely and out of love is a precious thing; giving out of obligation or duty can quickly become a burden. There are also lots of tricky questions to answer: do you send a gift to everyone from whom you received a gift last year or will a card suffice? if the gift is thought to be “too cheap” will the recipient be offended? when does one stop giving a gift? Then there are the many office kris kringle arrangements…& so on.

As Christians who know something of the highest gift-giving that history has ever seen—the Father sending His beloved Son to be born for our salvation— we have a wonderful opportunity to treat giving and receiving gifts in a way that enhances our understanding of grace. One easy way to do that is to widen out the scope of gifts for ourselves if we are asked what we might like as a Christmas gift. Yes, we could ask for a book by our favourite author or the latest cd/dvd by our preferred artists (or preachers), but we can go beyond these options to focus on others.

The Gideons International have long provided a memorial Bible plan whereby people could gift the cost of Bibles in recognition of a loved one or particular anniversary. Money given here meant Bibles given there. That plan still continues. In recent years many Christian agencies have adapted this practice to provide for gifts in kind to be given. Money is paid to the agency, a card is sent to the “recipient of the present” and the actual goods are then purchased locally overseas and distributed to needy families by the agency. So in response to the question, “What would you like for Christmas?” one can now answer, “Well I don’t really need anything, but if you want to give me a gift, I’d like that gift to be the knowledge that someone else has received something useful on my behalf to help them in their poverty.” So money given here leads to mosquito nets, cooking utensils, school exercise books, chickens, goats or pigs, fresh water/baby care essentials, etc. given there. The beauty about such programs is that the local economy benefits far more than if actual goods are sent from Australia.

The idea has caught on, and many “secular” agencies have also adopted the practice, so the range of philanthropic giving is quite extensive. All other things being equal, it is probably true that non-Christians are more likely to support secular aid agencies so it is our view that where possible Christians who want to give or “receive” in this way should suggest Christian agencies. Surely no Christian would object to receiving such a gift, but of course you must use your discretion with your non-Christian friends. In these cases you could choose something non-contentious—vaccinations, mosquito nets, school books…— or break the ice first by enabling them to “give” something to you. Younger children might not understand fully but you could involve them in donating a few dollars for an age appropriate gift in their name so that a precedent is provided which they will hopefully adopt for themselves later.

We have found Compassion International and our own Australian Presbyterian World Mission to be agencies careful to preserve a right balance between Christian gospel witness and practical aid, but certainly there are other agencies which do so and as effectively. You can find the details here: www.compassion.com.au/gifts-of-compassion for tax deductible gifts [with the exception of Bibles] and at www.apwm.org.au [use the 5th Oct “Christmas Shopping” link.]

May God give you gracious giving and happy receiving, whatever you do.

Dangerous Freedom

[first published in the monthly Congregational “Notes”, October 2016.]

When Janet and I travelled in France earlier this year, we were struck by the absence of barriers and safety restrictions in many places. In Australia, there would surely have been fences, ropes, locked gates, etc. all designed to stop the foolish but frustrate the intrepid. Not so there! The clearest example of this was the Pic Saint-Loup climb. The Pic (Peak) is a steep granite rise of some 360 metres above its surrounds. It is an hour’s walk to the top on a path of about 2.8 km. The view is stunning—and so is the drop! The sign at the bottom simply says prudence aux bords des falaises au sommet or, “(take) care at the cliffs at the summit.” In case one forgets, there is a shorter sign near the end of the climb which says, “Be careful near the summit.” At the top, there is a low wall on which to sit and enjoy a rest, near a small plaque in memory of a cyclist who fell over the edge and died about 60 years ago. The freedom to enjoy the view was dangerous and required watchful “common sense”—in other words, vigilance.

You may have heard the saying, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance,” often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but probably first penned in 1790 by the Irish lawyer John Curran who wrote, “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.” Curran was quite correct: liberty is from God, it is a gift, and its preservation requires vigilance against any thing which would see its demise. Today’s politicians would be well to heed him. Without proper watchfulness, freedom will be abused and become the door through which those who destroy it enter in. In response we must also resist the humanistic and totalitarian corollary which reverses the order, as if somehow by the exercise of eternal vigilance [redefined as spying on one another and reporting to a central agency?] we can create a “free” community. That too will fail and lead back to bondage. He was referring to political liberty but the same is true of Christian liberty.

The relationship between freedom and vigilance has its roots in the Garden of Eden. God made Adam and Eve free, and gave them a command to obey that they might preserve that freedom for their descendants for ever. Instead they took that freedom and used it to justify their own disobedience. They failed to be vigilant and so did not see through the subtlety and misrepresentations of the Serpent. They fell. They died. Then when called to account, they refused to acknowledge their fault and blamed the other, and in the end it was God’s fault (Gen 3:12) for not stopping it in the first place.

When Paul wrote to the Galatians, he was concerned that they would not appreciate the heights of God’s grace in Christ (2:16-21, 3:6-9), the freedom they had in Him (5:1, 13), or the holding power of His love for them and their returned love for Him; a love conveyed on both sides by the work of the Spirit of God (5:13-26). He feared that in their diminished view of Christ they might be deceived (1:6-10) back into slavery and spiritual “toddlerhood” (4:1-3) by erecting and trusting in all sorts of religious rules, in order to be safe, whether food rules (2:11-14), human effort (3:3-22), ceremonial religion (4:8-11) or sacramentalism (5:2-12). He could see that each of these things only diminished further their view of Christ and obscured His loveliness. Security by religious works and ceremonies always leads to a downward spiral, that apart from the gracious intervention of God, eventually crashes in disaster and despair.

Christian freedom is a precious gift, but highly dangerous if we foolishly take it as liberty to sin or to be at peace with error. However, if we let that danger teach us to fix our eyes and hearts on Christ and His commands, we shall never stumble, and never “fall over the edge”.

“Noblesse Oblige”, Sanctification, and the Privilege of Christian Mission

[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes”, September, 2016]

We continue this month to apply the concept of noblesse oblige (the idea, stamped into mankind at creation in the notion of family, that those who have position of privilege can be expected to use that privilege for the good of others) to the Christian life.

In the Old Testament, Israel, having received the privileges of grace as a nation was required to exhibit that grace to other nations, so that they would see the wonderful character of God (e.g. Deut 4:5-10). Israel failed to do this. They became proud, and presumed that the grace of God had completed its work with the Exodus! They were all right and that was that. There was nothing more except their vindication in world history! In their presumption they lost their outward focus, became inward looking and by their disobedience exchanged the grace of God for terrible burdens (Lk 11:46). In the end the only “hope” offered was circumcision and the ugliness of Pharisaism.

It is easy to criticize Israel but the Old Testament historical narratives were specially selected so that they would also serve as an example for the Church in every age, as the Christians in Corinth were first reminded (1 Cor 10:6, 11). They needed to hear this especially because like Israel of old they had forgotten their indebtedness to God. Their calling in Christ gave way to factionalism and party spirit (Chs 1-3) so that Paul had to challenge them to return to the grace of God “What do you have that you have not first received? (1 Cor 4:7)” The honest answer was of course, “Nothing!”

In Paul’s rebuke, they had to cease pursuing worldly wisdom and success. They were to follow his example (2:1-5) and be willing to be “fools for Christ’s sake” (4:10). They were to seek the empowering of the Holy Spirit; turn away from immorality (Ch 5), avoid lawsuits and worldliness (Ch 6) guard the understanding of marriage (Ch 7), carefully restrain their liberty before a watching world (Chs 8-9), avoid Israel’s errors (Ch 10), take care to function coherently as a congregation (Chs 11 & 12), show real love (Ch 13) and delight in true preaching (Ch 14). (What a list! May God enable us to live likewise!) In all this, Jesus’ resurrection was God’s great assurance that their own faith, work, and witness would not be in vain (Ch 15), so they could and should bring their offerings for the wider work and mission of the Church (Ch 16).

It is instructive that Paul ends his letter to Corinth with a reminder of their obligation to be concerned for missionary efforts by giving. All the sanctifying correctives were to lead towards a greater congregational sense of God’s mission and their place in it. They had been blessed in order to be a blessing (he had told the Galatian Churches the same things (16:1)) because tempting as it is, Christians must never be concerned only for the advance of the gospel in their own little corner. All this is for us, because left to ourselves we will surely be no better than the Corinthians.

So what drives your sense of mission, or mine? Is it merely a matter of duty? Duty is good but duty without joy quickly becomes a burden and drudge even though it is still good! The answer must be that we remember our calling and the amazing grace that lies behind it (1 Cor 1:26-31). As we do, we will surely be overwhelmed with joy and embrace more gladly the “missionary obligation” this privilege brings.

We gladly share good news about earthly things; we should be willing to give of what we have to share the very best news there is! After all just like the Corinthians, “What do you have that you have not first received?” Our noblesse in Christ obliges!

“Noblesse Oblige”, Christianity, and the Importance of Family

[first published in the monthly congregational Notes, August 2016]

Noblesse oblige is a French phrase that came over directly into the English language in the 19th century, but the meaning it carries is far older than that. Literally it can be translated as “nobility obliges”, and the term denotes the social idea that those who have privilege or position arising from wealth or birth are obliged to use their status for the good of society as a whole and especially for the good of those less fortunate.

The idea of noblesse oblige is sometimes vigorously opposed, and not just by those who are selfish and don’t want to share. Surprisingly this opposition often comes from people who might benefit from the generosity that noblesse oblige inspires. Why? It is a philosophical issue. They argue that it implicitly sanctions the inequality out of which the ‘obligation’ flows. They fear that someone may say, “My privileges give me social duties, therefore my privileges are valid. I am ‘born to rule’.” This is anathema to them because the idea of ‘nobility’, especially inherited nobility, denies their view of equality and must be penalised out of existence. (We strongly suspect that the real root of this hostility is a deep, sinful, hostility to grace.)

Societies will always have inequalities, and not only as a consequence of sin. In fact, some are inherently necessary, (a reality which upsets many today), though in saying that we certainly agree that sin can, and does, turn even these ‘good’ inequalities into something oppressive and perverse. It is an undeniable fact of history that those with power, privilege and a twisted sense of ‘nobility’ have used this to oppress others, but the abuse of privilege is never a sufficient argument against it.

But who ‘enforces’ such an obligation? The answer is, “No-one!” As man is created, this sense of noblesse oblige grows out of the blend of voluntarism and obligation stamped deeply by God on man at creation in the notion of family. The ‘noble’ privilege of parenting brings an obligation towards our dependant children, who benefit and grow, and begin to return wider benefits to all. It is not unique to Christian societies; Christianity simply brings a redeemed sense of ‘nobility’ and a new purpose to this ‘obligation.’ Christians are of the noblest descent possible; they are adopted sons and daughters of the King of Kings! They have an inheritance that exceeds all the treasure of the world and bear an honour that can never be taken away. Christians also have the greatest of all obligations—an ‘obligation’ born of a response to love. They are to go into all the world to declare & commend the Good News of what God has done through His Son; to be salt, light, and a city on a hill to where all who seek to be forgiven may go; to assure that all who repent and trust in Christ will be made new and have hope.

But there is one element which sets this noblesse apart. It is not by natural birth but all of grace. It is entirely undeserved, gives no reason to boast, and must never be used as a vehicle for control or oppression. Jesus knew how radical this was. His ‘nobility’ was not in power or earthly wealth but in being one who was born to serve, and that this ‘nobility’ should also be the mark of those who follow Him (see Luke 22:24-27).

Through the regenerating and enlightening work of the Holy Spirit, Christians are set free from the errors of a worldly notions of power and influence, of the need for self-aggrandisement and praise for service. They also know that family is the place where the noble and necessary balance of honour, privilege, duty, and servant-hood is to be taught at its most foundational level. This is why it is so important for Christian homes to model more than a privatized faith; to model the true noblesse oblige of the Christian life lived in response to Divine grace. But it is also why those who hate or deny God and His grace, work so hard to eradicate His plan for families.

On Confession of Sin

[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for July, 2016]

Confessing our sins is most necessary; we will not begin to repent of them until we acknowledge that we are sinners by nature [we naturally want to sin] and in action [we automatically do sinful things]. But what is confession? The word “confess” simply means to acknowledge openly and freely from the heart, so that in the Bible the same word is used of those who “acknowledge” Jesus as the true and only Saviour and Lord [e.g. Matt 10:32, Rom 10:9, 1 Jn 4:15 etc.] This breadth of meaning helps us understand the words in James 5:16, where we read, “Confess your sins one to another, and pray for one another that you might be healed.” Some take this verse to teach that Christians should so share their lives that they must always confess all their sins to one another. We disagree. Some cite the Westminster Confession of Faith [15:6] which says that as an evidence of true repentance, we must be wiling to make public and or private confession as part of reconciliation. We agree, but is there any guidance on whether we must always confess our sins to others as a regular practice?

The English Puritan, Thomas Manton, wrote the Introduction for the Westminster Confession of Faith. He also wrote a commentary on the Book of James so it is safe to assume that he will give us insight into the Puritan mind on this text. There are, he says, times when public and private confession may be necessary, and times when it will be wisest to bring our faults only to Christ. Public confession may involve the whole Church in times of deep humiliation for sin, as in Nehemiah 9. But as well as confession by the church, it may be necessary to have confession to the church. This may be before admission to the church when people solemnly disavow the sins of a past life and profess to walk in godliness, or it may come after admission to the church if there are public scandals which cannot be dealt with privately; public sin requires public confession.

On the matter of private confession, he says that this is only necessary in some cases. First, to a wronged neighbour after giving offense (e.g. Luke 17:4 & Matt 5:24) “God will accept no service or worship from us until we have confessed the wrong done to others.” Secondly, this confession may be made to people with whom we have consented in sinning—for example in theft, adultery etc., and in doing so we lovingly invite those who have shared with us in sin to share also in repentance. Thirdly, there may be times when our conscience troubles us so much that we will open our sin to a godly minister or to a wise Christian friend who will then be more able to give us gospel counsel and can better pray for us. It is one of our faults as Christians, Manton says, that we are not more open with spiritual friends when we cannot escape our doubts and troubles. But this confession must be voluntary, because “requiring such a precise and accurate [list]of their sins, with all the details” makes this verse into an unbearable burden and only gives occasion for consciences to torture us further. We do not need to dig up what Christ has buried. Furthermore, he says, the context of this verse suggests it applies first of all to those sins which lead to needing healing.

So how much ought we confess? How much do we need to hear? Here we will need wisdom; there are many things we do not need to know. However what a blessing we have One to whom we can confess all our sins, who will always believe our contrition and never misunderstand our grief. What a blessing to point others to Him. As the apostle John affirms, if we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

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