Suckers!

Those people who have roses in their gardens may occasionally come across a new vigorous growth coming from low down in the plant.  They may well rejoice at the new life in the plant, but they would be wrong to.

It’s most likely a sucker.  These are shoots coming off the wild root onto which a cultivated rose has been grafted.  If allowed to grow it will take all the energy from the roots and gradually starve the rose, which will wither and die, leaving a wild rose in its place.

What has this to do with mission work?

Common to all Christians are the habits and thought patterns we got into before we were saved.  We may have had struggles with addictions, an exaggerated tendency to despondency, fear of failure or a possessive need to be loved.  When we become Christians, in theory our life has been transformed.  St Paul talks about us being ‘dead to sin’.  He tells us we have been buried with Christ through having been baptised into his death, so that we can walk in newness of life (Romans 6). But he also writes: ‘Lay aside the old self… be renewed in the spirit of your mind… and put on the new self’ to people who were believers and who presumable had already been baptised (Ephesians  4:22-24).

So there is still something for us to do to facilitate our transformation into being a new creation (Galatians 2:20).  Sometimes those old habits come creeping back, like the sucker on the rose.  Many of us make the mistake of thinking that a given negative action in our lives was an isolated act of sin, repent of it, and move on.  But the same ‘isolated’ act then occurs over and over again, becoming a weakness, and eventually a gaping hole in our armour.

In the same way, a good gardener will cut off the sucker as soon as she identifies it, but it will grow back again and again and again.  Because the problem is not the sucker, but the root it grows from.

Changing the metaphor slightly, Christians are wild olive branches grafted into the cultivated olive tree (Romans 11).  But just as with the rose, there is a tendency for the old wild plant to reassert itself.

For mission workers, often under great stress and feeling isolated or lonely, it can be very tempting to fall back into old habits.  They bring us short-term comfort even though we have the challenge of the guilt we carry with us.  They become our secret sin, and we lie to ourselves telling ourselves it’s alright because it’s just a method of coping with the stress.  But sin grows, like the sucker, sapping the life of a beautiful rose.  And one day it will be seen by everyone for what it is – bringing down our ministry, our family, possibly even our own walk with God.

We need to tackle the root of the flesh which makes us vulnerable to such sin.  We need to see it for what it is, expose the lie it is telling us, and root out the base desire.  Sometime we need help with that – prayer partners, accountability partners, even deliverance ministry.  If you would like to have a confidential discussion with Syzygy about this, email us on info@syzygy.org.uk.

A good tree cannot produce bad fruit; a rotten tree cannot produce good fruit.

(Matthew 7:18)

Pruning

Continuing the horticultural theme we started recently with ‘re-potting‘, today we’re going to think about pruning.  All of us who are mission workers will be no stranger to sudden losses in our ministry.  Whether we are being evacuated, losing a work permit, finding a key supporter withdraws funding, losing a key colleague or having a ministry closed down by our agency, we all know what it is to find our plans thwarted.

The feelings of doubt, anger, loss and confusion that can go with such events can be reminiscent of the grieving we feel at the sudden death of a loved one.  We had no time to say goodbye, prepare ourselves for the change in our lives, or to celebrate the successes.  It’s suddenly all gone, and we’re left with a gaping hole where there once was certainty and stability.

In addition to these feelings there may also be a sense that God has let us down.  He called us to do this, so why would he allow it to be stopped?  Why didn’t he answer our prayers?  And if we feel like this, we may also feel guilty that we have such feelings, because we know we’re supposed to have faith and trust God in all things.

Reading the Psalms can help us at a time like this, as many of them are written by people in similar situations, grappling with the injustice of the world and the apparent invisibility of God when most needed.  The writers work hard to reconcile the truth that they know about God with the world they see around them which doesn’t always reflect that truth.

It can also help us to think of these situations as times of pruning, although we often don’t recognise God’s intentional hand in them until many years after.  The farmer growing a vine has learned from experience that he has to ‘be cruel to be kind’, and that hard pruning leads to more, and better, fruit.  The farmer will be cutting off some of the strongest, most vigorous growth, in order to prevent it producing too many leaves and twigs.  We all know the result: more fruit.

But the individual branches probably don’t know this.  They’re probably thinking “Ouch” and wondering why that branch which was growing so long has been so brutally lopped off.  Their favourite bits are now missing.  Some of their most lovely green leaves have gone.  But they don’t know what the farmer is planning, and what great plans he has for them to produce much fruit.

So when your fruitful ministry has been suddenly stopped in its tracks, as well as grieving (which is healthy) and stopping to consider what happens next, pause also to reflect on how God is redirecting your fruitfulness to bring even more glory to him.

Send in the workers!

Large harvest, few workers

Large harvest, few workers

The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  So ask the Lord of the harvest to send out more workers.

This verse, recorded both by Matthew (9:37-8) and Luke (10:2) will be familiar to most of us involved in cross-cultural mission.  We are only too aware that there is a great need for more people to help with our work and yet so few people come forward.  We frequently use this verse in our prayers and in our appeals.  Yet our familiarity with it may blind us to one obvious point:

Why would the farmer not want to send out more workers?

The verse gives us a glimpse of life in an agrarian economy still relevant to many parts of the world but less so to the west.  In a society dependent on growing its own food a good harvest is of paramount importance, and getting it in quickly before it perishes or gets stolen is a top priority.  So here we’re given a picture of a farmer with a bumper crop in his fields, and not enough workers to reap it… and he doesn’t go out and hire more workers?

Camille Pissarro - the Harvest

Camille Pissarro – the Harvest

This farmer (who represents God in this instance) is not interested in mere hired hands.  He’s not a capitalist who sees labour as an expendable commodity.  He’s looking for partners who will not only work with him but share the rewards.  John’s version of this verse (4:34-38) says “he who is reaping is receiving wages, and is gathering fruit for eternal life.”  In other words, this farmer not only pays wages, he runs a profit-sharing scheme as well!  The result is that everyone is happy.

So it’s not merely a case of spending more money to attract new workers.  It’s about winning hearts and minds so that new workers will join a cause.  The best way to do that is to pray, because in prayer our hearts become aligned to the heart of God.

By encouraging people to pray rather than to go, we are helping them to enlarge their hearts for the lost.  As they buy into God’s mission to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10) they will be equipping themselves to be the answer to their own prayer – and go.

There is a huge multitude of people worldwide who are ready to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.  Of course God wants more workers to spread this news, but God wants them to join in of their own free will and not because they’ve been boxed into a spiritual corner and find themselves forced to go against their own better judgement.

All great moves of God start with prayer – let us redouble our efforts to rekindle another one by being obedient to this commandment.  Join with us in praying at 10:02 every day that the Lord will send more workers!

Sowing what you did not reap

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Planting out rice seedlings in Cambodia

I am sending you to harvest in fields where others have done all the hard work for you. (John 4:38)

Sometimes we hear stories of miraculous revivals which seem to have no preparatory work involved.  They just seem to spring out of nowhere.  Historically we might think of the Welsh revival, or the Karen turning to Christ in response to Adoniram Judson’s preaching, or the arrival of Christianity in Korea following the death of Robert Thomas.  They’re not just historical though, and such revivals continue to happen today, for example in parts of Latin America, India and Africa.  Even south Wales.  People who reap such harvests are often praised, as if somehow they’ve done something innovative or creative to make revival happen.  These blessed few get to speak at conferences, publish books, and tell their story over and over again to admiring churches.  They attract followers, their organisation grows, and they’re able to achieve more and more.  They become CEOs.

At the same time, there are probably many thousands of mission workers globally who are struggling hard yet reaping very little.  Their churches may not be growing, their projects not entirely effective.  They are plagued with self-doubt, yet continually strive harder in order to achieve more.  Or they may be under pressure from sending churches or support partners.  ‘What are you doing out there?’  ‘Is it really effective?’  ‘Are you sure you’re not wasting your time (translation: our money)?’  You’re probably one of them.   Working hard, sowing seed from which there is no obvious harvest.  Such mission workers are often at risk of burnout, leaving their ministry early, and possibly even beginning to have doubts in their faith.  Yet their hard work may be planting the seed which others will harvest a generation later.

Image source: www.sxc.hu

Image source: www.sxc.hu

This apparent injustice will be familiar to many of us.  It’s also Biblical.  Jonah, despite his initial reluctance, was the Bible’s most successful mission worker.  In just one day of ministry an entire megacity repented (Jonah 3:4-5).  By the grace of God (Jonah complained), and not because of Jonah’s oratory.  Philip saw revival in Samaria (Acts 8:4-13), and Peter saw a small revival break out spontaneously in Caesarea when he went to visit a centurion (Acts 10:44-48).  Yet Paul, at one stage of his ministry, wandered around for weeks looking for the right place (Acts 16:6-8).  He was ineffective in Athens (Acts 17:32-34).  And most of the Old Testament prophets had nothing but jeering and opposition to their ministries.

If we could bottle ministry success it would be a best seller.  But we can’t.  Most of us have absolutely no idea why our ministry thrives, or doesn’t.  But what is probably true is that it has less to do with our strategy, or effort and our resourcing than it does on the grace of God.  When God chooses to move sovereignly to bring revival, it will not be because one pastor has a good idea.  It will be because God chooses to bless a particular church, town or people group.  At the moment we are seeing incredible revival among Iranians.  It has little to do with the church’s outreach.  It’s just because that suits God’s purpose.

It can be easy for us to let success go to our heads, or to allow failure to discourage us.  But recognition that it is God’s decision where revival breaks out relieves the pressure on us and allows us to do two things.  The first is to pray.  If God is on the move, the best strategy is to find out what’s on God’s heart and ask if we can join in.  Sometimes God will say yes, in which there’s no credit to us when it goes well.  If God wants us to work somewhere else, that is God’s decision and the result does not reflect badly on us either.

The second is to embrace humility, whether we have the outward trappings of ‘success’ or ‘failure’.  If it’s in God’s hands, it’s not in ours, so we can deserve neither blame nor credit.  And we should remember that the Bible does not call us to be successful – it calls us to be faithful and fruitful.  Faithful in serving God wherever we are called, and fruitful in the process of doing that.  The fruit we bear may be numerical, or in the maturity of our church, but it may also be in the personal character growth that comes with perseverance when we appear to be unsuccessful.  To serve where God wants, and to serve how God wants, is the ultimate in faithfulness and fruitfulness.  We can only be responsible for ourselves.  And leave the results in God’s hands.

I am the vine, you are the branches

Jesus introduces this highly symbolic teaching in John chapter 15 by comparing himself to a vine. Not a vineyard, notice. That was an Old Testament image used of Israel, frequently with reference to Israel’s faithlessness (Isaiah 5:1-7, Jeremiah 2:21, Ezekiel 15, Hos 10:1, Luke 20:9-18).  He clearly places himself within Israel’s religious tradition, but emphasises his distinctiveness as the true vine, the genuine one, faithful to God’s original plans for Israel.

Each individual believer is a branch. Vine does not refer to the plant, but to the woody ‘trunk’ of a cultivated vine, which remains every year while the fruiting branches are pruned off. The vine is independent of the branches, and continues without them if necessary, but not the other way around. The purpose of each branch is to bear fruit.

We are given four different types of fruit: no fruit, fruit, more fruit and much fruit. The goal of each branch is to bear much fruit and so glorify God (v8), who tends the whole plant with this purpose in mind. The branch doesn’t produce its own fruit (“apart from me you can do nothing”) but it bears fruit which the vine produces. God prunes the branches. A grape plant will of itself produce long, trailing branches which have vigorous growth but small grapes. A skilled horticulturalist will prune back the growing shoots to prevent them producing shoots and leaves, and bear fruit instead. The purpose of pruning is to produce more fruit. The more mature the branch, the more vigorous its growth, so the harder it needs to be pruned.  Even though it may be painful and frustrating, the result is an improvement in the quality and quantity of fruit.

So what is this fruit that Jesus expects us to bear? He calls it “fruit that remains” (v16), so it is clearly something that is of lasting value, even into eternity. There are three specific types of fruit that we find in scripture. The first is character development. This is often known as fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). It is something that the Holy Spirit grows in us as we cannot of ourselves develop these characteristics. The second is numerical growth. In John 4:35-6 Jesus says that the fields are white for harvest, in a clear analogy of reaping lives for eternal salvation. The final type of fruit is a transformed life (Luke 3:8-14).  John the Baptiser links repentance to generosity to the poor, integrity in business and self-restraint in the use of power.

So how does a branch bear fruit? The unhelpful Biblical expression abide/remain/stay is somewhat opaque. Some have suggested that it means going to church, but experience shows that just going to church doesn’t necessarily produce good fruit. There has to be more to it than that.  Jesus gives us some clues. The first this is to let his words remain in us (v7). This means that we should not merely be dipping into the Bible, but devouring it in lengthy and regular times of study, meditation and memorisation. He then tells us that we should remain in his love (v9). The intimacy and commitment of our relationship with Jesus should directly reflect his relationship with the Father. And finally he tells us to keep his commandments (v10). There is a reciprocal relationship between the love, which feeds our obedience, and our obedience, which lives out our love. In John 14:15 Jesus said “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

The branch’s primary responsibility is to maximise the point of contact with the vine. Only then can it receive the life-giving sap that produces the fruit. This should be reflected in our utter dependency on Jesus, bearing fruit by the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives as we invest time in our relationship with him. We may find it hard to find the time to do this, but without doing this, our works are futile and nothing with think we have achieved will last.  Our motivation is what Jesus tells us in verse 8: “In this is my Father glorified: that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”

Harvest – festival?

Early autumn can be a beautiful time in England.  It’s often warm, and the golden sunshine lights the reds, russets and browns of turning leaves.  Fruit ripens, seedheads pop and dewdrops diamond the spiders’ webs.  In a tradition going back millennia before the start of their own religion, Christians take some of the harvest into their places of worship to honour the God who gives them food.  Yet in the midst of the rejoicing, there is hard work organising sheafs of wheat, displays of elaborately plaited bread, and vases of chrysanthemums.  One lady commented cheerfully to me, ‘I’m glad we only have to do this once a year!’

The feast of Passover is in essence a similar event.  Although six months removed from the English harvest, Passover is a celebration of the barley harvest as well as of the Exodus.  Joyful pilgrims went up to Jerusalem from all over ancient Israel to celebrate together.  The third day after Passover is called the Feast of  First Fruits, when they took their tithe of barley to the temple.  One Sunday nearly two thousand years ago, such a band centred on a rabbi from Nazareth.  With his twelve lieutenants, assorted women who funded his work, and possibly dozens of hangers on, he would have found difficulty staying in the crowded city, so they all stayed at the home of some friends in Bethany.

Martha and Mary remind me of Marilla and Anne in the book Anne of Green Gables. I can imagine Martha fussed with the responsibility of catering for so many: ‘Well, Anne, we’ll need to wash all the best crockery, and get some of my pickles out of the larder, and for goodness’ sake let’s have none of your daydreaming today!’  ‘Oh but Marilla, isn’t is SO exciting that Jesus is coming to our home!  I’m so happy that I could die perfectly contented even if the rest of my life were misery and squalor.’

It’s not surprising that Martha got stressed with the catering.  It would be a massive task hosting such a crowd.  Yet Jesus, who presumably ate the supper she cooked, said that Mary, distracted from her responsibilities by the joy of being with Jesus, had made the better choice.  It seems that Jesus is not looking for servants – he already has plenty of those.  Jesus is looking for kindred spirits.

Many of us active in ministry are so busy with the work we do for God, that we often don’t have the time to sit down and be with him.  We run around Martha-ing away, and seldom sit and Mary.  In order to combat the stress and busyness in our lives, we need to make time listen to what Jesus has to say to us.  One friend of mine has it in his job description to spend one whole morning in prayer each week.  We may think that’s a luxury we cannot afford with so much responsibility to carry, but if we asked Jesus whether he’d prefer us to be busy, what do you think he would answer?