Strategic thinking?

We conclude this series of blogs on the successful occupation of the Promised Land by thinking about strategy.

This is a word that is often on our lips.  We need it to make sure our organisation is heading in the right direction.  We use it as a plumbline to check whether new ministries add value to our mission or distract us from it.  We think about it when we start a new endeavour.  Without strategy, we may be doomed to sleepwalking into obsolescence.  But do we overdo it?  Is our missional thinking dominated by secular management theory rather than Biblical values?

In the book of Joshua there is clear evidence of strategy: the Israelites crossed the Jordan, conquered the largest city in the river valley, went up onto the hills beyond and secured a bridgehead, then carried out an offensive to subdue the south before a final campaign to take the north.

Yet nowhere is there any evidence of the Israelites strategizing.  There are no war councils, no boffins, no new weapons.  Their strategist is clearly God, who tells them which city to attack, and frequently even determines the tactics (Joshua 8:2) and took part in the battles (Joshua 10:11-13).  The one time they make a strategic error is when they don’t consult God (Joshua 9:4).  Divine prompting is the key to their success.  Which brings us back to where we usually start each year: prayer.  Because only through consistent, intentional seeking of God can we discern God’s will for our organisations and determine strategy which is often radical, innovative and unorthodox.

Other Biblical examples of divine involvement determining strategy include:

  • Philip preaching the gospel to the first African gentile (Acts 8);
  • Ananias taking the gospel to the enemy (Acts 9)
  • Peter taking the gospel to the first European gentiles (Acts 10);
  • Barnabas and Paul being set aside for their first missionary journey (Acts 13);
  • Paul being led in a dream to take the gospel to Europe (Acts 16);

You can probably think of others.  There are also numerous examples of modern mission workers who just went, not knowing where they were going, following the prompting of God, like Jackie Pullinger.

So if our missionary endeavours are to have the impact in the nations where we work that the Israelites had on taking the Promised Land, let us devote ourselves to prayer.  Our words will be more effective if they are dropped into our hearts by God.  Our attitudes will be more compassionate if they mirror more closely the character of God.  Our actions will be more effective if they are guided by us being ever more sensitive to the Holy Spirit.

We have mentioned before in these blogs the habit of St Aidan and the other Celtic monks who brought the gospel to the Anglo-Saxons, balancing their ministry with their prayer.  Based on a small island cut off from the mainland at high tide, they retreated to the island and slept, prayed and ate while it was isolated.  When the sea receded enough, they crossed to the mainland and ministered to the locals.  Less activity and more prayer made them more effective.  How counter-cultural would that be if we made it our practice today?

Mo Farah

RioMo Farah is not a Christian, yet in Rio on Saturday night he demonstrated something that we all could learn a lesson from – he got up again and carried on.

We all know what it is to fall.  We make mistakes ourselves, or like Mo, we get innocently tripped up by life.  Sometimes somebody deliberately trips us up.  But however it happens, we find ourselves on the floor.

Dazed, confused, hurt, our instinct can be to give up, thinking it’s all over.  Maybe we lash out, to try to regain some pride by implicating others, or look around for sympathy to make us feel better.

But Mo showed us what the Christian’s discipline should teach us: don’t mess around, just get up and start running again.  In a 100m race that would not be possible.  But in a distance race, there is time to make up lost ground.  And the Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint.

The Bible is full of people who fell.  In a temper, Moses killed a man.  Out of fear, Peter denied he even knew Jesus.  Abraham, the man of faith, took events into his own hands rather than trusting in God.  But that isn’t what they’re remembered for, because they didn’t let failure become the final word.  They carried on.  There are many others who tripped up, but finished well.  Falling isn’t final.  It has been rightly observed:

Falling isn’t failure.  Failure is not getting up again.

They had been with Jesus

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Why does Jesus call us?

Perhaps we’ve never really pondered that question before.  We might initially think of reasons such as he needs us to be witnesses, to serve him, to worship him, to pray to him on behalf of others.  And all these would be valid activities and not a waste of our time.  And some of us have particular callings to these activities.  But they’re not the primary reason why Jesus called us.

In Mark’s gospel we are told that Jesus called twelve of his disciples “to be with Him” (Mark 3:14).  Granted, it goes quickly on to say that he also wanted them to preach, and to cast out demons – in other words, the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel.  But the key part is that he wanted them to be with him.  Relationship, not function.

Jesus has angels to serve and worship him.  The Holy Spirit intercedes with the Father.  Jesus can reveal himself to people directly without needing humans to help.  He doesn’t need us to work for him; he wants us to hang out with him.  Jesus is a social being.  He wants to walk, talk, be listened to and be involved.  But many of us relate to him in exactly the opposite way.  We don’t want to be with him; we’re much more comfortable doing things for him.  Or if we do, we’re usually too busy to make it happen.  A bit like Martha & Mary.  Which, paradoxically, makes it much harder for us to do the busy stuff well, because we haven’t been with him in the first place.

In the book of Acts, Peter and John get hauled in front of the religious authorities, who are unhappy that someone has been healed by them.  It’s obvious to everyone that they haven’t studied the law to an exceptional degree, and they’re not well-educated.  But as the Council members listened to what Peter has to say “they recognised they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).  That is their prime qualification for ministry, not their background, education, abilities or resources.  It was the fact that they had spent time with him, understood his teaching, picked up his expressions, learned his demeanour, understood his values, received his approbation and had their lives utterly transformed by being with him.  Why do we think we need anything less if we want to see the kingdom spread in anything like the way the first generation church did?

Why don’t we all, even now, just stop what we’re doing and go and hang out with Jesus?

No one is an island

1112138276The recent news of a pastor beheaded by ISIS in a central Asian republic brought to me by a trusted friend reminds us of the continual challenges faced by our brothers and sisters in parts of the world where living openly for Christ really does mean putting their lives on the line.

The writers of the New Testament letters frequently referred to suffering when they wrote to encourage their flocks.  They regularly stressed that it was normal, that we had been warned in advance about it, and that it’s all part of the cosmic conflict in which we are on God’s side.  Jesus said that the world would hate us because it hated him first (John 15:18ff).  We in the West have been mostly insulated by the ‘Christian’ nature of our culture from the normality of suffering which is only too familiar to people in Asia, the Middle East and north Africa.

The Apostles’ teaching did not deny the tragedy of their suffering, but placed it into a larger context.  We read of Peter and John rejoicing that they had been considered “worthy” of suffering shame after they had been flogged (Acts 5:41)!  Paul talks about “momentary light affliction” (2 Corinthians 4:17) and says that the suffering of this life cannot be compared to the glory of the next (Romans 8:18).

For millions of Christians around the world, but particularly in the 10/40 window, their faith means that life is a daily struggle to get served in shops, find jobs, be treated fairly by police, and avoid government oppression or mob lynching.  We in the West can help them by funding agencies like Open Doors which work among our persecuted family to protect, empower and advocate.  We can keep informed about their sufferings by following websites like persecution.org, and we can pray using resources like the World Prayer Map.

It can be so tempting for us just to shrug our shoulders and think it’s just another person we don’t know in a country far away.  But let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is our family, we will meet them one day in heaven and rejoice in the stories of their faithfulness even to the point of death (Revelation 12:11).  But until then we are parted from them, and as John Donne wrote in his poem No man is an island:

…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

They had been with Jesus…

Jesus' last message

Jesus’ last message

In the book of Acts, there’s quite a lengthy story about the trouble that Peter and John get into for preaching the resurrection of Jesus after the healing of a lame man in his name (Acts 3-4).  The ructions go all the way to the top, and they end up being hauled before the authorities to account for themselves, where Peter preaches a bold message.  And then as the national and religious leaders begin to debate what to do with them, Luke adds a delightful little phrase:

They recognised them as having been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13)

Of course, it may just be that realising they were Galileans they remembered seeing Peter and John with Jesus.  But I like to think it was more.  I wonder if they saw something in their boldness, their integrity and eloquence that reminded them of Jesus.  Had Peter and John begun to resemble Jesus?

After three years of living with Jesus, it’s highly likely that some of his mannerisms and expressions had begun to rub off on them.  Even subconsciously, we emulate key authority figures in our lives.  But this could have been so much more.  Having received the gift of the Holy Spirit (as Jesus promised them in John’s gospel) they were beginning to undergo inner transformation.  They were being reminded about what Jesus had told them (John 14:26).  They were doing what he had done, and saying what he had said.  They were becoming like him.  And it showed.

They had been with Jesus

They had been with Jesus

The great mystery of this is that the Father and the Son have set up home with us (John 14:23).  Not merely that they moved into our neighbourhood, or visit our church on a Sunday morning, but that they have settled in.  Most of us fail to actively cooperate with them.  We treat them like lodgers, who live in a room at the back of the house.  We see them occasionally, and sometimes we may have a chat, but effectively they live separately lives while under the same roof.

They want more.  They want to be treated as part of the family.  They want to belong with us.  Jesus says he wants to come in and eat with us (Revelation 3:20).  Note that he says this not in an evangelistic way to unbelievers, but as an offer of deeper fellowship to Christians.  This is an intimate relationship, living together cheek by jowl, talking things over, doing things together, just like Jesus would have done when he was living with his disciples.  And when we cultivate this intimacy, we become more like him.

Do the people you work with see Jesus in you?  Not merely the Christians, who might be looking to see him in us, but the non-Christians.  The policeman at the roadblock, the customs official, the taxi driver or the shop worker.

If they don’t, it’s probably because we haven’t been with Jesus.