The (Futile) Quest For Grace

About 20 years ago I was wandering thru a second hand booksale in Busselton when I stumbled upon an autobiography that caught my eye. Manning Clark was a prominent Aussie historian and had written 3 volumes of work specifically about Australia. But it was the title of the book that sparked my interest – The Quest for Grace.

It had me intrigued. Who seeks ‘grace’ and what do they mean by that?

I opened the first couple of pages and inside the cover was a quote from Dosteovsky’s Brother’s Karamasov. It said:

I want to be there when we suddenly discover what its all been for.’

Wow… really?

This is someone’s raw quest for making sense of life – more than that – finding grace – so I snapped it up. Two bucks well spent.

As I read I discovered Clark was the son of a Church of England clergyman. He grew up in a pastor’s home and spent much of his early life around churches. He knew the ‘scene’.

Unfortunately this was disastrous for him as he says he witnessed hollow, stony religion rather than the Jesus he sensed was inspiring and captivating. When speaking of his experience in church he said :

The Protestant churches have been captured by the Pharisees. Church of England worshippers appear so confident of their virtues, so smug, have such a cocksure air that I wonder if they believe the resurrection morning will occur on the Melbourne Cricket Ground where they will have reserved seats in the Member’s stand, sheltered from the heat of the sun if it happens in summer and the icy winds of the Antarctic if it happens in winter – yes and the member’s bar will be open should there be a delay.

This son of a clergyman sees the pharisaical religious spirit rather than the beauty of grace and he wants to run a mile.  Of church leaders he writes,’they speak of religion as if it were a theorem in geometry’. The ‘walnut hearted people’ left him totally disinterested and as a result seeking ‘grace’ elsewhere.

What was both mildly amusing but also disturbing were the words Clark frequently used as synonyms for Christians. All through his book I read of ‘conformers – heart dimmers – life deniers – straighteners – God botherers – knee benders – petitioners – grovelers – miserable – frowners – smilers and as you can imagine none of them were compliments.

Clark grew up in the centre of a church community and was repulsed by it.

A tragedy… How can you be so close and yet be so distant?

Interestingly Jesus himself gets a fantastic rap from Clark  – even if he does refer to him as the ‘Galilean Fisherman’. I guess he did go fishing, but he was generally thought of as a carpenter… Clark writes of teaching Rupert Murdoch in one of his Divinity classes (yes – he taught Divinity…) and of the approach he took to teaching. Clark focused on Jesus – the ‘Son of Man’, the earthy, rugged, beautiful Jesus who cared for the outcasts and had time for the sinners. He was inspired by Jesus and he claims that he may have even inspired Murdoch, however he writes that after that class he was asked to never teach Divinity again.

Ha… Once again Jesus meets religion and the sparks fly.

I grew up in church communities that had their own ‘pharisaical’ quirks – their own tight ‘in house’ laws that formed a way of sorting the insiders from the outsiders. I was enculturated into that tribe and I became one of them. I abided by the laws and I called out those who flaunted them. My competitive spirit meant that rather than seeing legalism for the nonsense it was, I was driven to being the best I could be in it. King of the pharisees… it was my unconscious goal because this was what I thought a ‘good Christian’ looked like.

In reality this was religion of the worst kind – the kind that seems plausible – that doesn’t seem that harmful – and even appears noble and good…

Every now and then in those teenage years I would get a sniff of Jesus – the real Jesus. A prophet would come to town – a John Smith or a Tony Campolo who would speak of a Jesus who walked in grace and who would call out religious behaviour and rebuke it.

In those moments I felt like I had been locked in a dark room and someone had opened a door letting the light in. I didn’t realise it was dark because my eyes had adjusted to dimness – it was all I had known – but once the door opened I began to realise what I was missing.

I wanted to find that light, and live in it – I hated who I had become (even if I was proud of it at the same time…) and (not surprisingly) this new direction brought me into conflict with the religious people – who were ironically leaders in the church…

I loved Jesus – and I don’t mean it in that lovey dovey sense that some of our songs seem to suggest. I loved him in that I saw what he was on about and I wanted in. And I wanted to lead other people to follow him, but I was so tightly scripted for the religious gig that it was hard to shake.

I am a recovering Pharisee… As such I react a little violently to any hints of Pharisaism and legalism. I know its destructive impact but I also know the wildly liberating experience of grace – the Jesus I wish I knew as a teenager…

Manning Clark’s story disturbs me because it is the simple story of a man seeking grace – who found only stony law. He concludes by saying ‘there have been moments of grace’ throughout his life, but he never really found what he was looking for.

May we be communities of extreme grace and may the man of ‘grace and truth’ be the one who lead and inspires us.

(This post was an excerpt from last Sunday’s teaching at Quinns Baptist. If you’d like to hear the rest then you can listen to it here.)

8 Things the Church Could Learn From the SLSC

On a dark gloomy Sunday morning around 6 years ago big swells, high tides and some people desperate for abalone combined to create a chaotic and tragic situation at our local beach.

The Yanchep Lagoon is generally seen as a beautiful, calm spot to go for a swim, but it is also a place of significant currents and genuine danger for those who are unaware and have little water awareness. When the swell is up (like in the pic above) its just plain treacherous and best avoided unless you are a strong swimmer.

On that morning my friend Scott and another co-lifesaver were the only two on duty. No one should have even set foot in the ocean that day, but the lure of abalone was too strong for the 70 or 80 people who hit the water – some fully clothed – armed with screwdrivers and knives to pry the shellfish off the rocks. Many lost their footing quickly on the jagged reef and were swept off – in need of rescue. The two men on duty worked without a break to do their best to make sure people were safe and by the end they were exhausted physically and emotionally.

In that one hour they completed 13 rescues and for their efforts they were awarded bravery medals but it’s a story that most in the community would be unaware of. In the midst of the 13 people rescued one man went missing and was never found. Tragedy…

If there was ever a group of people who are loved and valued by the community they are part of then surely it would be the local Surf Life Saving Club. Stories as dramatic as the one above are rare, but live savers exist because people get into trouble and need saving.

On Sunday at our Yanchep Church gig I shared a bit of why I believe the Surf Club is a fantastic metaphor for who we hope to be as a church. There are some strong parallels between their presence and activity in the community and the kind of people a church ought to be.

What can a church learn from the surf club?

1.Clarity of Purpose – The SLSC know what they are there for. Its not difficult. It’s to save lives – to be there for those who are going under. When Jesus was on earth he said ‘I have come to seek out and to save those who are lost’. His mission was ‘salvation’ in its most holistic sense. Any church that is going to serve its community will have ‘saving lives’ front and centre of its mission – otherwise it probably aint a church…

2. Presence and Stability – The life savers are always there – rain, hail or shine over the summer months. They don’t bale on difficult or miserable days. They are a stable presence – a sure thing in a fickle world. I have driven past the lagoon on some terrible days and seen the guys there in their hut and felt for them. But it’s what they do – they ‘turn up’ regardless of weather or how they feel.

3. They read the conditions – The SLSC know the water. They know what’s going on and how to navigate the tricky currents, the tides and the reef structure. We need to know how to navigate the cultural currents in our society. There was a day when we would have started a church by sending people out knocking on doors. We don’t do that now – people don’t appreciate a visit from their church. The cultural climate has shifted in so many ways and reading that is part of being effective rather than swimming against the tide all of the time.

4. They are loved and valued by the community – The SLSC are loved and valued because of the service they provide and they would be missed if they disappeared. Wouldn’t it be great if the same could be said of the church? One of the questions we have to consider is what would it look like for people to love us and want us in the community?

5. They are prepared – these guys have started training already for the coming season. They keep themselves in shape and ready to respond. The comparison is pretty obvious – we want to be a bunch of people who live lives of faith so that we are able to lead people into that journey also.

6. They do it often unappreciated – Another SLSC friend told me stories of people they dragged up onto the beach who simply walk away without a thank you – sometimes to get into trouble again… If you lead a church then you’d know that this is just how it is.

7.They only rescue those who want rescuing – They sit on the beach and they wait – and they watch – until there is a need and then they respond. They aren’t swimming out to people not in need trying to drag them onto the beach. They aren’t performing CPR on people who don’t want their help. In the language of faith we would say its responding to the spirit as we see him drawing people in. Seeing someone in trouble is one thing, but until they acknowledge their need to move into their space to ‘rescue’ will be seen as an intrusion.

8. Rescues are done with grace & kindness – when someone’s in trouble then chances are they know they have done something stupid. They already feel dumb, so a rescue that preserves a bit of dignity is important. My friend told me that people getting rescued often feel shame – they know they have stuffed up. So he told me that rather than sitting on the beach and waiting for the ’emergency call’, they watch people constantly and when someone enters the water looking like they are going to get in trouble, they drop the ski in and paddle alongside them – near them. When the call comes its a simple invitation to hop on board rather than a full scale mission. I loved this picture of watching, being alongside and responding as needed.

John wrote of Jesus as the ‘word who became flesh and moved in the neighbourhood’ – how God became one of us. The one ‘full of grace and truth’ – the same one who came to seek out and to save those who were lost…

For many people life hums along nicely – they feel no need of any ‘salvation’ or the like – their life looks more like the image above, but one day there may come a time… when the wheels fall off, when life no longer makes sense, when hope is lost…

And then isn’t it good to know there are good people right there, prepared and ready to help, willing to leave their own comfort and do whatever it takes to show the way back to life again?

That’d be the church doing what it does best.

To Change the World

I read this quote on Frosty’s blog today and I just want to put it on here before I forget where I saw it… It resonates so deeply with some of my own meanderings over the last 10 years.

“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.”

Henri Nouwen

The Making of a Sermon

Friday morning is usually the day I sit and take some time to either put together some teaching for Sunday, or I begin to think ahead to the following Sunday and I do some preliminary work to get my head around ‘where to next’? This is all in between the various distractions of business emails, facebook forays, coffee making and staring out the window at the surf…

So in case you are curious about the ‘sermon making process’ then here’s kinda how it works for me…

The first task of a day like this is to turn wifi off and put the phone on silent. I can distract myself enough without any additional assistance. Inevitably a work email will come in with a person needing a ‘quick quote’… Facebook will tell me something trivial and banal has happened and I will feel compelled to look – now… Or I will wonder when the winds will again turn offshore and that will lead me to which will link to some surf cams somewhere exotic and then to checking airfare prices to said locations…. no kidding…

I can’t work with wifi on.

I’m not a ‘sit in prayer for two hours’ before beginning kind of bloke. I am more the person who starts work and figures it out along the way listening to what I hope is the voice of the Spirit. I think both are equally valid methods – you just have to choose the one that works for you. There is much to be said for stilling your mind and focusing your thoughts, but there is also a case for listening to the Spirit as you work.

Today I am preparing for Sunday 19th which is 9 days away – so I have time. And its time I like to use to think broadly and listen for any ideas that might seem important.

My primary question when I’m doing this stuff is ‘God – what do you want to say to these people thru this passage of scripture?’ We are currently in the book of Luke at QBC (because we also have YCC on the go…) and I have scored chapter 5.

As I open it I realise its a big chapter and a lot happens here. I’m immediately a bit overwhelmed by the amount of content and the diversity of it. I know I don’t have to knit it all together into one neat coherent message, but I’d like to cover as much of it as possible. As a methodology we have chosen to simply run with ‘chapter slabs’ every week and the person teaching is free to dive deep into one story or to try and cover the whole chapter if that can work. There is no right way – or preferred way.

I have scanned this chapter a few times over the week and right now my gut feel is to run with the themes that emerge (but I could change that at any time…)

The simple content is:

  1. Jesus calls Peter to come ‘fish for men’ after sending him and his mates back out to catch a massive haul of fish despite their previous efforts being futile.
  2. A man chases Jesus down who is covered in leprosy – Jesus touches him, heals him and sends him back to the temple and tells him to keep it quiet
  3. Next is one of my all time favourite Bible stories of the young men who drop their mate thru the roof at Jesus’ feet to be healed – right in the middle of a room where Jesus is quietly being scoped out by Pharisees from near and far.
  4. Jesus calls Matthew and then a big party follows at Matthew’s place where he gets asked why he keeps hanging out with these people.
  5. The chapter closes with Jesus again be asked why his disciples don’t fast like other disciples do. He does the whole wineskin spiel.

There’s a lot there and each of those stories could form a message on its own quite easily. As I read I remember that I taught on the ‘haul of fish’ a few weeks back but to a slightly different crew – a combined QBC & YCC as we held a dedication event. Maybe some of that is still pertinent – but it may feel like a ‘repeat’ and I hate repeats.

I am instantly drawn to my favourite ‘lower him thru the roof’ story and I know I could make that one ‘work’ quickly and easily. I’m good at that one. The temptation to just do that is there. It would cut my prep time right down. But if the question is ‘what is God saying to these people?’ then I can’t just drag out an ‘easy preach’ and run with it. That’s cheating.

So I do what I often do and print the whole chapter out then make notes around it with a pen – observing what hits me and what strikes a chord in my heart.

Right now the ‘spark’ thoughts are:

‘but because you say so’ v 5

‘covered with leprosy’ v 12 ‘touched the man’ v 13

‘Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed’ v 16

‘They had come from every village’ v 17

‘Jesus saw their faith’ v 20

‘Levi held a great banquet’ v 29

‘But the time will come’ v 35

None of these phrases are focal / summary statements, but rather are just the phrases that struck a chord as I read. I find that because the Bible is so familiar now after so many years I need to ‘listen with the heart’ to what is fresh and then discern what to do with that – if anything.

I also see themes and motifs emerging that are worth paying attention to:

In the context of Luke’s story we have had the accounts of the miraculous children in ch 1 & 2, we have met John the Baptist in ch 3 and then Jesus baptism happens in ch 4 along with his statement of his core mission. Up to now it has felt largely preparatory, even under cover, but it now feels like Jesus has ramped things up a notch or two. He is ‘picking his team’, getting stuck into his work and making enemies with the Pharisees.

So from here I begin chewing on the thematic threads to see if anything fires:

  • the calling of the unlikely ones
  • rejection of the established paths and the opposition that brings
  • the work / rest cycle in Jesus
  • covert and overt identity claims – ‘Messiah’ / Lord
  • the redefinition of holy / unholy and clean / unclean
  • Jesus authority recognised by the ‘outsiders’ – rejected by the ‘insiders’

I wonder what does any of this say to a bunch of middle class white Australian/SouthAfrican/Pom Christians in the northern suburbs of Perth?

I also have to be aware of my own ‘issues’ – my pet peeves, annoyances and hobby horses that can so easily fuel my preaching.

Having got this far I instantly I want to reflect on what we can learn from those who not regular church goers about what it means to follow Jesus. What ‘fresh eyes’ can they bring to a story I have become so familiar with and even oblivious to? That probably reflects some of my recurring internal angst at the moment. I have read this Bible so much and so often over the last 40 years that I am over-familiar with it – bored with it at times – wondering what is there in here that I haven’t yet mined?

In these moments I occasionally wonder about a life that doesn’t involve leading a church – how that might shape my perception of scripture. Have I become so immersed in it for so long that it has lost some of its bite? When I think of mining operations I know there comes a point where you are no longer really drawing out what’s valuable – you’re just pulling up dirt. I sometimes feel like the teaching process has become this for me. Part of my struggle is that I find it hard to communicate ‘old truths’ – stuff that may be new to others but is old for me. I don’t find great joy in that and I find that my own teaching is most engaging when I am sharing stuff I am learning freshly.

I go back and read it again just to see what about the stories I find stirring:

  • I see the massive haul of fish – until nets were breaking and I want to ponder that more.
  • I see a leprous man seeking Jesus out even though he wasn’t allowed to and I want to consider that some more.
  • I ‘feel’a showdown when Jesus heals the crippled bloke whose mates dropped him thru the roof. I see him going toe to toe with the guardians of tradition.
  • I see a massive party at the home of an unlikely disciple and that makes me smile.
  • I see a rabbi who doesn’t appear religious enough – and I feel like I want to dig into that a bit more

But the party at Matthew’s house is inspiring me… hmmm…


So that’s where I have got to today.

Overviews – themes – gut stirrings – curiosities and some inner worrying…

I will sit on this now for a few days and see what emerges as I let it percolate. I will read and re-read those stories probably another 30 or 40 times. I will read other people’s perceptions via commentaries and I will probably even do a quick sweep of my favourite bloggers in case there are any nuggets there.

As well as that I will chat my kids and my friends about these stories and ask them what they see. I will ask the questions that interest me and hear other people’s points of view.

Some time over the next 8 days a focus will emerge – one core idea to be communicated and I will then spend next Friday shaping that into something strong, sharp and valuable.

I work with three basic questions when I am teaching:

  • what do I want them to know?
  • what do I want them to feel?
  • what do I want them to do?

It has to be more than knowledge – it must evoke some feeling that leads to action.

Right now its a mess of random thoughts and impressions, but give it time and it will shape up into something with potency. I have learnt that. No matter how messy it looks now I just need to wait – listen – ponder and reflect.

It will come… it always does.









When Silence Grows More Deafening

As the Willow Creek saga unravels further one of the most disturbing parts is the deafening silence of Bill Hybels himself – its as if he has vanished off the planet.


With 10 women making statements against him and the entire eldership and two senior pastors resigning there seems no question that tragically – sadly – he is guilty, and we may have heard just the tip of the iceberg.

The longer Hybels waits to come clean the worse he will be perceived – if that is possible. The opportunity to be perceived as a failed leader / a broken man has passed. If he had owned the failure we would all have been deeply disappointed, but acknowledged ‘there but for the grace of God…’

As time wears on you hope Hybels isn’t gathering a ‘spin’ team to either fight the accusations or to downplay them. That would be the worst scenario imaginable but right now, the longer the silence the less genuine any (possible) repentance appears.

While I’m not a megachurch fanboy I have found Hybels missionary heart inspiring and his teachings on integrity (Who You Are When No One is Looking) felt so valuable… albeit dissonant with his own practice… so watching this very public schmozzle has been actually distressing.

I love that churches are full of broken, screwed up people – that God’s love for us never changes in spite of our own darkness – but when we fail to acknowledge our brokenness and when we put on an air of togetherness we set the cause of Christ back and we wound the very people we claimed to champion.

Come on Bill… The clock is ticking… and many are watching to see if you can practice what you preach in the tough parts of life.




32% Sold Out to Jesus












Are you 100% sold out to Jesus?

I dunno how often I heard this expression preached at me as I was growing up and I dare say I used it – or its derivatives – a fair bit as a youth pastor too. It was never enough to just be a Christian or just a follower of Jesus. You had to be a certain type of Christian.

100% sold out.

Jesus had to be ‘number 1’ in your life…

If you’ve been around evangelicalism for a while then I’m sure you are familiar with this language. I’m not sure if it’s still used around the place today, but I’d dare say it is because it appeals to our inner zealot.

I remember as a teenager hearing sermons that called me to be 100% devoted to Jesus – to give my whole life over to him and I would think ‘Ok’… but then I’d wonder ‘Am I really 100% devoted?… How can I tell?… What if I’m only 99%? Will that do?…

It was all a bit confusing and for someone with an ‘all or nothing’ type of personality I had regular times of thinking if I can’t do it ‘right’ then better not to do it at all. Keith Green didn’t help the cause with lyrics like ‘if you can’t come to me every day then don’t bother coming at all’. (Thanks Stephen McAlpine for the reminder this week!)

If language shapes our realities, then I’d suggest that this language was probably quite unhelpful in forming disciples of Jesus.

Yes – unhelpful. And if you still do it then you should stop it – now.

Every time we call people to 100% devotion to Christ we set them up for certain failure – certain failure. To be sure Jesus called people to follow him – to die to self and take up our cross – to love him more than father or mother and so on, but I don’t think he meant what we seem to mean when we say these things, because Jesus welcomed people wherever they were in faith. He commended the faith of the (pagan?) centurion, he accepted the failings of his closest disciples and he rebuked the apparently exceptional faith of the Pharisees. I mean if anyone had the whole ‘100%’ thing going on it was these fellas.

The crudity of these words just doesn’t acknowledge the raw, perpetually broken nature of our humanity, or our natural ebbs and flows in faith.

The call to ‘give all’ even seems to suggest we can somehow ‘will ourselves’ into a place of devotion to Christ. Would that be our works gaining us approval with God – at least perceived approval?…

So… What if I am in your church and not 100% devoted to Jesus? I’m just a 90 percenter…

Is it ok to be one of those people? To acknowledge that even in my super duper ultra holy Jesus centred life there is still an element of selfishness – or a part of me that is mildly unredeemed?

Can I still be a disciple if I struggle with doubt… porn… greed… anger…?  What if I struggle with all those things at the same time?… That’s gotta put me below the pass mark – surely?

Then again, what if I’m a complete and utter screw up, but in my own stumbling, bumbling way I am doing the best I can? Is it ok to be ‘13%’ sold out to Jesus because frankly that’s all I can do right now?

And who actually gets to measure these percentages anyway? Is there an online test I can sit? (Its ok – I just checked and there’s not.)

Would I be welcome in your church if I am a flawed disciple?… A sinful, broken, lost hopeless cause?…

Would Jesus still welcome me even if your church wouldn’t?

Ok – so that question is rhetorical. You know the answer to it. And if we know the answer to that one then it actually makes the rest null and void. It speaks of his grace and our tendency to veer towards shades of legalism – even if in the guise of ‘hard core discipleship’.

Maybe rather than calling people to ‘sold out’, 100%, absolute devotion we just call them to follow Jesus and leave it to the Spirit to call them on into pathways of conformity to him that no other person could.

Maybe we should examine our rhetoric and see whether these are actually things Jesus said or if we have coined his ideas in ways he never intended.

I can’t imagine Jesus as someone to set you up for failure and then heap you with guilt because you didn’t reach an unattainable goal. That does sound a lot like a bunch of people Jesus didn’t get on with all that well.

I don’t think Jesus is constantly measuring our degrees of devotion to see if we qualify but I do think he is cheering us on when we give whatever faith and devotion we can muster.

Church Planting in Reverse

I never thought I’d see the day when I’d be putting up church signs.

But a couple of weeks back I ordered twenty of these to splash around the suburb in different places and at different times. I’ve also paid for an Instagram ad to get a little bit of promotion – again not in my church planting repertoire previously!

In my mind church planting should begin with moving in and getting to know a place, getting to know the people, becoming part of the fabric of a community and then forming a church community that is indigenous and specific to the kind of people who live there.  It is a slow, unhurried process and the whole Sunday gig comes second to the community engagement.

So for church signs to figure so early in our process of church planting felt a little odd and arse-about. But as I reflected on this I realised that in our core team there is probably more than 20 years of living in this area, getting to know people and becoming part of the community. We live here – we belong here – and we love this community.

That ‘living’ wasn’t done with any thought that one day we might plant a church. It was just ordinary life, but it turns out that it has been the foundation of a church community – ordinary people doing ordinary things. Ordinary people living in their community and being a part of it.

So when the impulse came to plant a church we didn’t need to then start connecting and become part of an otherwise foreign community. We just needed to let the people around us know that this thing is gonna happen.

And so it is… This Sunday we have a ‘launch day’ another phrase that wasn’t in my vocabulary previously. At this rate we will be having pre-service countdowns, offering sermons and Bunnings like greeters at every entry… Ok just kidding.

Its been a slow slow burn, but a fire is starting!