This is the audio version of a regular weekly email journal from Tony Payne, that seeks to apply the liberating truth of Christ crucified to every aspect of life and ministry.
Making God bigger
This is the second in a little three-part series thinking about different aspects of our church meetings—now that many of us are back and almost approaching normal church again.
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This week we turn to the subject of singing and making God bigger.
Making God bigger
Is it possible for singing to make God bigger?
The answer to that question begins back in the mists of time, when dudes with Sony Walkmen roamed the earth and I was at theological college.
As part of my Old Testament studies in 1994, I was set the task of assessing the ‘content and function of “praise” in the Book of Psalms’.
This was much more than an academic exercise for me.
My years in the charismatic movement were only a bit more than decade in the rear-view mirror. And as with many aspects of my neo-pentecostal youth, I had a sneaking feeling that I might have some unlearning and re-learning to do about ‘praise’.
And so it proved to be.
I’d always thought of ‘praise’ as a personal (or corporate) expression of adoration or devotion to God. ‘I praise you, O God’ was a way of saying “I am in awe of you; I want to express just how much I love you” and so on.
So when we all sang, “I will praise you, O God” (or “We praise your holy name”) then that’s what we were doing. We were ‘praising’. To sing it was to do it. And the more we did it, the more God was praised—hence the 40 minutes of pretty repetitive ‘I will praise you’ type songs that kicked off of the charismatic church meetings I went to in the 70s and early 80s.
But my Moore College essay got me looking afresh at ‘praise’ in the Psalms—at what the word itself meant, and what its content and functions were. I found that it had a quite different meaning and purpose. I discovered that this definition by Mark Harding was completely accurate:
… praise and commendation result from human assessment of another’s qualities, attributes, excellences or deeds. What is seen is advertised. It is the advertisement—the public acknowledgment and acclamation—of the attributes and excellences and deeds of another which is praise.
This is what ‘praise’ is in the psalms (and in the Bible more generally). Praise is not an expression of our gratitude or awe or adoration in response to God’s mighty deeds; it’s the advertising of those deeds to others. When the psalmist says “I will praise you”, he is announcing what is about to come next, which is the actual ‘praise’—that is, a description or narrative or declaration of some aspect of God’s great character or his saving action in the life of the psalmist. This is what ‘praise’ is: it’s letting everyone know just how excellent and ‘praiseworthy’ God is by telling forth his mighty acts.
And because God is indeed very, very praiseworthy, we’ll tend to advertise his greatness with everything we’ve got—with the lyre and the cymbals and all the other joyful-noise-makers we can throw at the situation. We
The word of God is not restricted
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard or used the word ‘restriction’ so many times in a calendar year.
What are the latest restrictions?
When are restrictions going to be eased?
How are we going to do X at the moment, given the restrictions?
These have been our constant questions.
(In fact, as I write this, I believe the premier of Western Australia has just imposed Apocalypse Level 10 Restrictions in his state because someone in Perth has a runny nose. Or something like that; I might have missed the details.)
And if it hasn’t been ‘restrictions’, it’s been ‘lock-down’, which in one of those strange quirks of the English language means something slightly different from ‘locked up’—although why one is ‘down’ and the other is ‘up’ is hard to say.
In any case, I’m sure I’m not the only one in this season of constant restriction, whose mind has been drawn to 2 Timothy 2:9.
But God’s word is not restricted!
(Or ‘bound’ as most translations very reasonably put it).
The apostle writes these feisty words as he sits in prison, chained like a criminal. His circumstances certainly restrict his ministry, but he is supremely confident in the free-ranging power of God’s word. The word of God cannot be locked up (or down), because it is the speech of God himself. And you can’t restrict God.
All this is a great comfort and encouragement, not to mention an apt description of so much that has happened over the past year. Despite our ministries suffering restrictions of all kinds, God’s word has continued to do its powerful work in people’s lives. This has certainly been the case in the ministries I’ve been involved in—and I’d be surprised if most of you didn’t have your own wonderful stories of how God has continued to work through his word to transform lives.
This sends our mind to other places in Scripture, like Romans 8—if God is for us, who can restrict us? Or to those passages in Acts, where the word of God increases and multiplies, despite the persecution of the apostles. It’s as if God’s word possesses a life and power and dynamism of its own (because it does!). It can’t be defeated or suppressed, because it is the word of the King of kings, who continues to spread his gospel by his Spirit, from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
As I pondered all this, and read 2 Timothy 2 again during this past week, it occurred to me that Paul has a particular reason for being so confident in the unrestrictable effectiveness of God’s word.
In 2 Timothy, Paul knows that the end of his life and ministry is near. His race is run. He urgently wants Timothy to step up and stay strong and carry the ball forward. 2 Timothy is really about all the ways in which Timothy can and should and must do this.
And in chapter 2, with its famous verse 2, we see that a crucial facet of Timothy’s task is not just to receive and protect and proclaim the apostolic gospel, but to recruit other people to do the same:
And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.
The gospel deposit is protected and spread through multiple nodes of transmission. The gospel race is not just Paul’s to run, or Timothy’s. It’s a relay, with the baton being passed from faithful person to person to person, each of them receiving the word and teaching it to others, who receive the word and teach it to others, and so on.
Amazingly, this is how the all-powerful, ruling Jesus Christ spreads his word and his reign.
And I think that this is why Paul is so confident that God’s word will never be locked up or down. Paul might be chained up, but Timothy isn’t—and neither are the faithful men, nor the ones they will teach, nor the ones they will teach. The risen Jesus Christ uses
Ministry or ethics?
Perhaps I’m perverse, but I really quite enjoy the first week back at work after holidays.
I don’t have super high expectations of myself. I know it will take a while to get the brain working, and to remember what it is that I am being paid to do.
And it’s one of those times of year when you have the excuse (in fact, the obligation) to pause and think about what you should be doing. To strategize a little. To plan and prioritize.
This is excellent, and definitely more fun than actually working.
So I’ve pulled open the digital equivalent of the musty manilla folder with all my writing ideas in it, and started to rifle through it. What should I write about this year in The Payneful Truth?
There are digital notes and scraps and half-written ideas on a whole range of subjects:
on the wisdom and folly of crowds;
on the common impulse (including in my own breast) to soft-pedal on fraught moral issues so as not to be hated;
on the nature of Christian maturity as growth in faith, love and hope;
on the cult of environmentalism, in which everyone educated in the last 20 years has been enlisted as a devotee;
on the relationship between preaching and the Bible (amazingly, I have something fresh to say about that);
on why Christians can appreciate the good impulses in both progressive and conservative politics, while also seeing the fundamental shortcomings of both;
on what Titus teaches us about the imperatives of ministry;
on whether or why we should keep the livestream going once we’re fully back in church together (if that ever happens!);
and much, much more.
It’s a pretty disparate list.
There are practical ministry ideas, theological issues and discussions about discipleship; but there are also issues that would normally be classified as personal or social ethics.
Having such a broad range of possible topics is generally a no-no in the world of newsletters and podcasting. Pick your lane and build your audience. That’s the standard advice. Write about ministry or theology or ethics, but don’t try to do all of them at the same time.
I’ve thought about this more than once over the past 12 months. Should The Payneful Truth be mainly for ‘trellis and vine’ types who want to discuss ministry? Or should it also delve into the ethical complications of living as a Christian in the world?
Which lane should I pick?
It seems to me that the road we’re called to walk down as Christian believers has more than one lane, and the dotted line between them isn’t so clear.
Take the division between ‘ministry’ and ‘ethics’. It’s true that most people tend to be more interested in one or the other, as revealed basically by what they talk about all the time (and the articles or links they share online). It will be about the latest issues in evangelism or preaching or discipleship (on the one hand), or about climate change or US politics or transgenderism (on the other).
In my own life, there’s some history and heritage here. The evangelical movement I grew up in, swirling around St Matthias and Campus Bible Study, had a reputation for giving a high priority to gospel ministry, to the point where not much else got a look in.
It was a caricature—the reality on the ground was much more nuanced—but most caricatures possess a kernel of truth. In fact, back in the 90s, there was a joke going around that made fun of the differences between well-known churches in Sydney:
How many people does it take to change a lightbulb at Barnies Broadway? “Well, there are two views about that …”
How many people does it take to change a lightbulb at Christ Church, St Ives? “We’re not sure; we have people who do that.”
How many people does it take to change a lightbulb at St Matthias? “We don’t change lightbulbs; it’s not a gospel issue.”
Of course, h
Spiritual golf lessons #3: Forget the last shot
Here’s the third and final little piece in our summer holiday series of spiritual golf lessons.
Picture the scene.
I’ve smashed a soaring 230m drive down the middle. I’ve laced a piercing 3-iron that comes to rest just a few feet from the green. And there I stand, having taken two shots to be just short of the green on a par 5.
I look significantly at my playing partners, and they give an appreciative nod. Well, well, well. Who would have thought?
Anyway, here I am. I just have to chip the ball up onto the green, and then it’s a rare putt for birdie. Worst case: two putts for five, and an easy par.
Anxiety starts to nibble at the edges of my mind. What if I totally mess this up, like I did last time?
It wasn’t that long ago. I was in much the same rare position. Just off the green for two. Feeling heroic. Then I stubbed the chip and advanced the ball a pathetic three feet. Then caught the next one thin and sent it scudding across the green into the bunker. Then took two to get out of the bunker. Three-putted. Fumed off the green with 10.
The one thing I absolutely must not do is repeat that fiasco. Just forget about it. It’s history. Don’t even think about your playing partners’ reaction were you to do it again. Just relax. This is easy. Only an idiot would mess up this opportunity …
The result is inevitable. The weight of the past is too heavy. And the more you dwell on it, and even try to convince yourself not to repeat it, the more inexorably the anxiety and the memories bear down, and paralyse you.
Τhis is one of the elusive skills of golf—the ability to forget the last shot. To play good golf you have to obliterate from your mind the failures and frustrations of the past, and focus just on this shot, the one in front of you, with a free and untroubled confidence.
Very few golfers can do this consistently. They are the ones at the top of leaderboards.
But it’s not just golf.
Can you imagine how good life would be if we could truly escape the burden of the past? If we could erase the humiliations, hurts and damage of the past? There are lovely platitudes that suggest we can. Live in the moment. Leave your past in the past. Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.
But it’s as difficult in life as it is in golf. Guilt and hurt have a way of taking up residence. They linger in our lives like unwelcome houseguests. There are memories and feelings and consequences that we find almost impossible to escape. They boil over in the present and we mess up all over again. We do even more damage, and lay down new scar tissue, and so the cycle of hurt, anxiety and failure continues.
Imagine being free of it all.
Imagine being able to begin each day with a completely satisfied and untroubled mind—of being able to look back on all your yesterdays without guilt or anxiety or hurt, with nothing to condemn you, and no bitterness or anger towards those who have done you wrong.
This is the stunning and unique possibility that the Christian gospel offers—a fresh start, every day.
All the sins of yesterday, and all the days before, are washed away by the blood of Jesus. They are all paid for in full. No condemnation remains. I’m freely and completely justified—just-if-I’d never done them.
I am not only forgiven in full; I am also set free to forgive others. Forgiving others is part of the same liberating work that the gospel does in our lives. The gospel moves us, and requires us, to extend to other people the same forgiveness that God has granted to us. Malice, bitterness and revenge belong to our former lives that were crucified with Jesus on the cross.
This is freedom—to start again, each day, with a clean slate; to have no regrets or recriminations; to be at peace with God, with myself and with others. And all of it because of the cleansing b
Spiritual golf lessons #2: Trust your swing
This is the second in a little series of holiday reflections about golf and the Christian life. Feel free to share them with your friends.
When Fijian golfer Vijay Singh stepped onto the first tee for the final round of the 1998 USPGA, he was setting out on the most important 18 holes of his life. He was tied for the lead with Steve Stricker. They were both trying to win their first Major.
Earlier that morning, Singh’s young son had farewelled him with a simple message, which Vijay wrote on a piece of paper and pinned to his golf bag.
“Papa,” it said, “trust your swing.”
Vijay did exactly that, and won his first Major.
It's one of the paradoxes of golf. The more you think about the shot in front of you, the more you worry about what might happen, the harder you try to avoid all the disasters that might befall you, the more likely you are to send the ball scuttling off at 45 degrees into the bushes. Anxiety, tension, thinking too much, fear of failure—these are all fatal to good golf.
The good golfer practises until he has a swing that he can repeat with a fair degree of reliability. And then, when he stands over the ball, he goes into his regular routine and repeats that swing, trusting that it will work for him, as it has countless times before.
But trusting your swing requires mental courage.
You stand over the ball and look up at your target. The flag is 170 metres away, into a stiff breeze, across a lake, with bunkers everywhere. At that moment, it seems hard to believe that a smooth, relaxed, back-and-through swing will give you the best chance of hitting the green. Anxiety starts whispering in your ear. Your hands grip the club a little tighter. You struggle to stay calm as you take the club back. And then at the top of the backswing, some part of your lizard brain initiates a violent downward thrashing motion, as if you are trying to kill a snake.
The result is a predictable piece of self-sabotage.
Didn’t trust the swing.
Staying calm and trusting the swing is the rational thing to do. It yields the best results. But it's still hard to do when the heat is on, and your playing partners are watching, and all the memories of previous disasters are flooding into your mind.
In the Bible, ‘faith’ in God is trusting your swing.
It’s relying on what we know to be true about the supremely good, supremely powerful God who has loved us in Jesus Christ. We know that God is reliable and good and generous. We know it from how he has acted, not only in the history of Israel and supremely in Christ, but also in our own lives. We know that trusting God always turns out for the best, because he has promised that he will always work for our good—and we know that he always keeps his promises.
But trusting God is also an act of mental courage.
We know that God is supremely trustworthy. But it’s amazing how often we find ourselves standing over the ball, paralysed by the obstacles in front us, gripped by anxiety, and worried about what others will think of us. Some irrational part of our sinful brain screams at us to trust our instincts, or what everyone else is saying, rather than to stay calm and trust God. And so against all sense, we self-sabotage our way to another disaster.
Trusting God is not some mystical quality or some non-rational leap into the dark. Trusting God’s word is always the most rational, the most sensible, the most effective thing to do. It always turns out best, not only because God’s ways are so good, but because God’s promise is unshakeable.
All we have to do is trust.
If only I could remember that on the first tee.
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Spiritual golf lessons #1: The fundamentals
Listen now | For some light-hearted but encouraging holiday reading, here is the first in a series of three short lessons from the most frustrating, challenging and beautiful game of all.
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