Preach the Gospel?

What does Good News look like to them?

In the world of mission there is a continuing debate of whether we should demonstrate the gospel, preach the gospel, or do both (often referred to as “wholistic” mission)*.  Advocates of the first argue that there is no point in preaching the gospel to people who are going to die of hunger, while advocates of the second say there is no point in giving people hope in this life if they have no hope for the next.  Proponents of wholistic mission try to find a mid-point and do both.

The picture is muddied even by the example of Jesus.  One the one hand it is clear that Jesus had compassion on people because they were needy (Matthew 9:36), yet the previous verse said he proclaimed the gospel and healed people.  His famous mission statement in Luke 4 says that he came to preach good news… and then proceeds to focus on the poor, the imprisoned, the blind and the oppressed.  In other words, the socially disadvantaged.  Then later in the same gospel he says “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) which sounds profoundly soteriological.  In Acts 11 Peter calls Jesus a man who went around doing good and makes no mention of him preaching the kingdom.

One way to square this circle is to ask ourselves what Good News actually is.  Evangelical Christians would customarily describe it as “Christ died for your sins”, but of course before Jesus died, Good News must have meant something else.  In Luke 9, Jesus sent the Twelve out to proclaim the kingdom of God (Jesus’ usual message) and heal, but in verse 6 we’re told they ‘preached the Good News’ and healed.  So the Good News is not merely the Kingdom even though it includes a call to repentance (Mark 6:12).  For some people, Good News looked like healing.  For others it was food, or deliverance from demons.  Good News embraced their immediate needs as well as their eternal needs.

What does Good News look like for the people we meet?  Seen from their perspective, it may not primarily be salvation.  They might have more immediate concerns.  These might be a bed for the homeless, a meal for the hungry, a community for the refugee, healing for the sick, comfort for the bereaved, friendship for the lonely.  This is why so many Christian compassion ministries exist in the UK and abroad.

Christmas is a time of year when Christians invite their non-Christian friends and neighbours to church services, or send them overtly evangelistic Christmas cards.  But if we’re not showing them what Good News looks like throughout the year, our preaching might seem to them a bit shallow.

* There are of course many facets to mission including discipleship, social action, advocacy, creation care….  but the ‘show and tell’ model is a simple one to use.

Life balance

The runup to Christmas is often a busy and demanding time.  Decorations to put up at home and work, festivities to prepare, carol concerts to attend, presents to buy, meals to share, nativity plays to endure, church services to plan… The list goes on and on.  So much for celebrating the Prince of Peace.

But this is just one more symptom of the crazy demanding world we live in.  A world in which technology means we are available to our colleagues and customers 24/7.  A world in which we’ve almost forgotten that until 1994 shopping on a Sunday was almost impossible in the UK.  A world in which everyone expects more but has less to give.

For mission workers life balance is always hard, for many reasons.  Our kids have needs which are different because they’re growing up in a different culture.  The spiritual dynamic of the place we work saps our energy.  There never seems to be enough money or people.  The constant turnover of co-workers is emotionally demanding.  Coping with life in a foreign culture can be exhausting.

How do we balance all these competing demands for our attention?

First, we should decide what is important to us.  Family, friends, children, ministry, work, hobbies, health, God are all important and need to be in the mix, but what is the proportion and priority?  It will look different for each of us and we need to decide what is the most appropriate in our circumstances.

Then we need work out (on average) how much of our attention to allocate to each element in the mix, and when.  Some of this is already done for us, if we have for example a 9-5 job, or we need to be at specific church services on Sundays.  But we may be able to be creative.  For example, if you find date night hard to do with your partner because you have kids and can’t get babysitters, why not arrange a date lunch once a week when you both set aside time for a long, leisurely lunch together while the kids are at school?

Then we must be disciplined in protecting that time.  Some of us deliberately cannot access work emails on our phone.  Or make a point of turning the phone off at certain times so we can’t be interrupted.  We can put things in our calendars and say “Sorry I’m busy that day” without telling people why we’re busy.

If you need to get your life back into balance you are welcome to talk to someone from Syzygy.  Just email info@syzygy.org.uk to get in touch.  And we can recommend a weekend retreat on the subject at beautiful Penhurst Retreat Centre in East Sussex.  If you can fit it in.

At Syzygy we come across far too many Christians who are pulled in so many directions because they find it hard to say no or find it easy to overcommit.  If we are going to be known for having “life in all its fullness” (John 10:10) we need to get that life into balance.

 

The price of peace

Source: www.bbc.co.uk

Source: www.bbc.co.uk

At this time of year there is a lot of talk about peace.  It’s almost as if we’re thinking of a blanket amnesty like the football played in the trenches of the First World War in 1914.  We may not have resolved all our problems, but for a day at least we can put them aside in a spirit of goodwill to everyone.

Yet the world will continue to have plenty of places where peace will not prevail this Christmas.  Conflict in central Africa and the middle east will not cease.  Oppression of Christians in Islamic or communist states will continue with a vengeance.  And of course even in Christian households and churches there will be strife and discord.

We’ve not previously quoted Doctor Who in this blog before, but one thing the twelfth doctor says is apposite for this occasion:

The only way anyone can live in peace is if they’re prepared to forgive.*

This is the motivation behind God’s incarnation.  Creating an opportunity for reconciliation, God chose to forgive so that humanity can live at peace with God.  But it’s not merely for us to enjoy, to indulge ourselves in, or to congratulate ourselves for.  It might be a free gift but it’s not a cheap one – it cost Jesus everything to create it, and it costs us every time we choose to forgive someone.  It means letting go of our right to justice, to hatred, to revenge.  Just as God let go of his rights and forgave us.

The gift that keeps on giving needs to be passed on.  In fact, it gets better if it’s passed on, which is why Jesus taught us to pray “Forgives us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”  So give generously this Christmas, and give the gift of peace to those who don’t yet have it.

* The Zygon Inversion, new series 9, episode 8

Please give generously!

moneyGiving is not unique to Christmas.  Many other cultures give generously to others at the times of their major festivals, but of course what is unique for Christians is our message that God gave first – “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son…” (John 3:16).

Just as people give reciprocal gifts at Christmas, God’s generosity inspires us to give back to him – not out of obligation, or a misplaced desire to repay the debt, but out of sheer gratitude for the exuberance of his own generosity.  We can never repay this generosity and one popular prayer acknowledges this: “All things come from you, and of your own we do give you”, referencing 1 Chronicles 29:14.

At this time of year much of this generosity rightly overflows to those who have little: the residents of refugee camps; the homeless and destitute in our major urban centres; those fleeing from natural disasters; the elderly who may often be alone.  This year there is another group joining them – the overseas mission worker.

Not that they’re actually homeless (yet), but financial challenges in major donor countries over the last decade have reduced giving to mission workers significantly.  Rising unemployment has cut giving.  Financial uncertainty has cut giving.  Lower returns on pension yields have cut giving.  People in the west feel that they are not as wealthy as they were, and are worried about their future, so there is a tendency for them to cut back on giving, rather than “giving beyond their ability, despite their [perceived] deep poverty” (2 Corinthians 8:2-3).

This year the situation has worsened because of the fall in the value of the pound since the Brexit referendum.  Since this affects every penny sent by UK churches to mission workers overseas, each mission worker might have seen their income fall by over 10% in six months, depending on where they live.  This could be the difference between continuing in mission and returning home.  For a mission worker on an allowance, say, of £18,000 a year, that’s £150/month wiped out.

“Where is their faith?” you may ask.  It’s in your pockets (see our blog Was Hudson Taylor Wrong?)  So please give generously this Christmas to mission workers – and keep on giving generously throughout the year.

 

Christmas – the happiest time of the year?

ChristmasAccording to contemporary mythology, Christmas is the happiest time of the year.  A time for giving, celebrating, and enjoying being with family.  Many seasonal songs perpetuate that myth.  Yet for many people it is far from that.  Coping with the various personal tragedies which can afflict humanity, Christmas is merely a mirror of the joy they don’t have.  So often church only seems to make it worse, enthusiastically buying into the seasonal activities while blissfully unaware of the isolation this can cause.  Christmas can be the most unhappy time of the year.

It can be an extremely difficult time for those who have been bereaved, divorced or abandoned, particularly if that has occurred in the last year.  For them this celebration will be a mockign memory of former happy times.  Other people will be lonely, having no special person to share it with, and it’s interesting to reflect on how many popular Christmas songs indicate that the presence (or absence) of a key loved one is a crucial factor in whether Christmastime is happy or not.  Some people will have no children but will be longing for their own children to treat, and they burn with pain each time somebody says ‘Christmas is all about the children’.  With so much activity centred on the children, those who want them can feel that it just makes their lack harder to bear.  Christmas can be the most lonely time of the year.

crackerWhile the celebrations of many who do not have family, or have a key part of their family missing, are overshadowed by their lack, many of those who do have family will also be suffering.  Perhaps loved ones are estranged, or relationships are tense, with a threat of arguments or even violence over Christmas.  Others are weighed down by the burden of expectation, needing to get along with in-laws or deliver a perfect Christmas experience of food, presents and decorations, perhaps while lacking the time or the finances to do it properly and fulfil everybody’s Christmas dreams.  Christmas can be the most uncomfortable time of the year.

Others will have no home at all, relying on shelters and hoping for mild weather, or will have no food to eat, or will be unable to afford to heat their homes.  Others will be refugees, wondering if their community can survive international conflict or natural disaster.  Christmas can be the most painful time of the year.

It is no coincidence then, that the child whose nativity we celebrate was not born into a perfect family Christmas.  The were forced to be away from their home by a dictatorial empire, and quite possibly were ostracised by family due to the suspicions surrounding Jesus’ paternity.  With no place to call their own, they found rough shelter in a strange town and Mary gave birth in uncomfortable and humiliating surroundings.  Soon afterwards they were political refugees, on the run from an oppressive tyrant murdering innocent children who might grow up to overthrow him.

Yet Jesus came to bring hope and comfort to those who suffer.  In this age through his church, and in the future in heaven, he promises better for us.  For those of you who feel lonely, uncomfortable or in pain at this time of year, we offer some words of encouragement:

  • Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God; blessed are you who are hungry, for you shall be satisfied; blessed are you who are crying, for you shall laugh.  (Luke 6:20-21)
  • To those of you who can’t have children, don’t say you’re all dried up; I’ve got something better for you – a name that will last forever (Isaiah 56:4-5).
  • Look!  God has come to set up home with humanity… and he will wipe away every tear, and there will be no death, or mourning, or crying or pain any more.  These things all belong in the past (Revelation 21:3-4).

And for those of you who are fortunate enough to be enjoying a happy, festive occasion, maybe you’d like to spend a few moments considering how you can share your company, food and joy and with those for whom Christmas is a season to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Prepare the way of the Lord

Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness,

Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.

Let every valley be lifted up

and every mountain and hill made low.

Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,

and everyone will see it”

(Isaiah 40: 3-5)

During advent it is customary to prepare for Christmas by reflecting on the various parts of the gospels which tell the stories taking place prior to the nativity.  John the Baptist becomes involved in this, because he was born not long before Jesus, and all four gospel writers use this quote from Isaiah to place him in context – preparing the way for the Messiah.  These words are frequently quoted in Christmas services and sung in performances of Handel’s Messiah, but what do they really mean?

John is calling for a motorway to be built!  He wants a smooth road like the Romans built, not a rocky Hebrew path.  He wants one that goes straight to its destination, not meandering through the clefts and wadis and up and down mountains.  And he wants one that’s elevated.  The Hebrew word used by Isaiah for ‘highway’ literally means a raised embankment – so that it’s not susceptible to flooding.  Modern civil engineering in the 8th century BC!

We have a love/hate relationship with motorways.  We don’t like millions of tons of concrete being poured on pristine landscape, or thousands of cars and lorries pumping out greenhouse gases (see last week’s blog), but when we want to get from A to B quickly and conveniently we’d much rather get in a car and drive along the motorway than hike along a tortuous mountain route.

But how does this prepare the way of the Lord?  John prepared people to meet Jesus.  He fomented an atmosphere of religious revival into which Jesus could step.  He got people talking about what God was doing.  He created the idea of entry into God’s kingdom not by birth but by choice, a choice which involved a change of heart about our attitudes and behaviour.  He saw himself in the role of Isaiah’s precursor to the suffering servant.  In this way he creates a context into which Jesus steps.  John is essential his warm-up act.

This Christmas, as we have an opportunity once again to present the new-born Christ to millions of people who do not yet know him, let us reflect on whether our attitudes and behaviour act like a motorway, bringing him swiftly and effectively into the lives of the lost, or like a religious roadblock.