Make me an instrument of your peace

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.

 

This much-loved text, often attributed to St Francis of Assisi, is an inspiration to many.  Yet once we look beyond its beauty we find a brutal challenge to our fleshly and soulish ways of doing things.

As we go about our lives, work, relationships and ministry this week, energised once again by the thrill of the resurrection we have just commemorated, let us bear this challenge in mind.

As mission workers, church planters, member care workers, church leaders and agency employees, how do we conduct our relationships with one another and those we are reaching out to in the light of the sacrifice this calls us to?  A sacrifice which mirrors the one we celebrate as bringing us new life?  How do we communicate that new life to others?  Is our transformation deep or only superficial?  How do we tap into the grace which allows us to respond to every challenge with love and forgiveness?

As we are transformed by the grace of God, we offer the same hope to others.  He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30)

Thine is the Kingdom?

Source: www.sxc.hu

Source: www.sxc.hu

Few would argue with the view that mission workers are sacrificially serving God.  They move far from their homes, often to work in uncomfortable, unstable or unhealthy places.  They risk health, career, family and wealth to follow their call into world mission.  Thousands of mission workers worldwide work selflessly for the God they love and the people God has sent them to.

Or is it selflessly?

On the surface, it certainly looks that way.  But start to dig a bit deeper and in some cases we find that the altruism is not pure and unadulterated.  There may well be an element of self-seeking underlying the sacrifice, maybe the desire to prove that we are the better Christian by making the greater sacrifice.  But for some among us, ministry is more therapy than service.  It may well have our glory as its goal, not God’s, even though we don’t realise it till someone points it out to us.  But it can be betrayed by excessive use of phrases like:

I want to…

I need…

My goal…

While these expressions may not be wrong in themselves, frequent use of them may in fact be an indication that another agenda is being followed – that of the mission worker.

Some of us may have gone into mission to prove that we could achieve something, even though this motivation is subconscious.  In a society that is always desperate to achieve some sort of significance – be it academic, career-focussed promotion, or wealth creation – it is hard not to acquire a streak of competitiveness during our upbringing that we find hard to shake off in later life.

So our ministry (even that expression is a bit of a giveaway!) can be a means to us demonstrating that we can actually achieve something.  While any readers who have read this far into this blog may be incredulous at what I’m suggesting, I see it all too frequently in my ministry (whoops – I mean Syzygy’s ministry!).  It can often be traced back to a childhood authority figure.  A grandparent who said “you’re useless”, a teacher who doubted your capabilities, a church leader who thought you had nothing to offer the church.  And even though they may be long-dead, we’re still trying to prove them wrong.  You can read all about this in a previous blog.

Jesus did not select many high achievers to be his followers.  Matthew possibly was one; he would certainly have been wealthy, but he walked away from it all (Luke 5:28).  The others were probably simple tradesmen.  Even the Biblical characters who had something going for them, like Moses, Joseph or Paul had to be broken, exiled or humbled before God could use them.  God loves to use the insignificant to shame the proud (1 Corinthians 1:27), but that doesn’t mean they become significant.  In fact, they start to delight in being nobodies.

Paul starts one of his earliest letters, Galatians, with “Paul, an apostle not sent by humans but through Jesus Christ”.  His career progression leads to him becoming “least of the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:9) and ultimately “greatest of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).  He ends his life writing “I am being poured out as a drink offering” (2 Timothy 4:6).  Was his career going backwards?  Was he morally deteriorating as he aged?

No.  Like John the Baptist, he knew that the essence of following Jesus is that “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).  Now would be a good time for each of us to reflect on our ministry, our success, and our achievements and ask ourselves if we’re building God’s kingdom, or our own.

With God in the desert

The Wilderness of Judea

The Synoptic Gospels all record that Jesus went out into the desert and spent 40 days there in prayer and fasting prior to the commencement of his ministry.  That is a significant retreat, but going into the desert was not an uncommon thing to do in his day – John the Baptist had lived in the desert, and various Jewish monastic communities thrived there.  Later on, Christian ascetics would move there, and eventually many Christian monasteries started.

The desert is a place of transformation.  It represents the end of human existence.  Hunger and thirst, heat and cold render it inhospitable to humans, and the existence there of wild animals and outlaws makes it dangerous.  Yet here at the extremity of human survival, we meet God.  Both Moses (Exodus 3) and Elijah (1 Kings 19) had powerful experiences of God in the desert which equipped them for future ministry.

But why go into such a place where survival is difficult?  What drew them there?  Surely it’s about more than just getting away from it all?

For the ancient Israelites, their first corporate experience was in the desert, and as they wrote their Scripture and told their stories that experience embedded itself in their cultural assumptions.  Yes it was dangerous – “were there not enough graves in Egypt?” they asked Moses (Exodus 14:11) – but in their extremity, they met God.

Water from the rock

In the desert God provided them with food, water, protection and guidance.  With their human existence hanging by a thread, they learned that with God, the desert is a safe place.  Most significantly, it was in the desert that they heard the voice of God (Deuteronomy 4:22-27).  It is not a coincidence that one of the Hebrew words for desert – midbar – can also be translated “He speaks”.

Today we don’t need to go into the desert to meet God.  We can meet God anywhere.  When we are at the end of our human endeavour, God provides.  When we have run out of strength in battling our human nature: controlling our tongue, managing our sex drive, mastering our temper – whatever our personal challenge is, that’s when we can turn to the grace of God to help us.  Perhaps that’s one meaning of Jesus’ teaching “If anyone wants to follow me, let him take up his cross…” (Luke 9:23).  It’s when we finally admit we can’t make ourselves better people, or do a better job, and allow the Holy Spirit’s transforming power into our lives instead.

In my experience, too many cross-cultural mission workers are trying too hard to do more than they can or to be someone they’re not.  It drives many of us to burnout as we reach the limit of our ability to keep on striving.  That’s when we need to abandon ourselves to God to care for us.  We need to stop gritting our teeth and carrying on, and start letting God work in us and through us.  We need to let go of the illusion of strength and competence we project around us, and allow God to move through our brokenness and vulnerability.

The Spring of En-Gedi

The Gospels record that Jesus was in the habit of regularly going off by himself to pray.  That’s how he expressed his total dependence on the Father to teach him what to say (John 8:28) and show him what to do (John 5:19).  His entire ministry flowed from this dependence.  It is a ministry model we would do well to implement for ourselves.  We can’t always make the time to get away for an extended retreat, but we can take steps to do a retreat in daily life, and I’ll detail some of these in a future blog.

It is thought that David wrote Psalm 23 while hiding from Saul at the spring of En-Gedi, in the Judean wilderness.  It is a beautiful, refreshing stream in the desert (Isaiah 35:6).  Only when we are in the middle of the wilderness will we truly appreciate how God “leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:2-3)

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.