Slaves of righteousness?

A Roman soldier leading captive slaves.

A Roman soldier leading captive slaves.

In Romans chapter 6, Paul uses strong visual imagery to ram home a theological point – slavery*.  This would have made a lot of sense in his day when slavery was a significant part of the Roman economic structure and everybody would have been fully aware of the issues.  Many of the early Christians would have been slaves; a few were slave owners and most of the rest would have aspired to own slaves.  At the time Paul was writing, possibly a third of the population of Rome were slaves.

Everyone knew that slaves had no freedom to choose.  They were quite literally the property of their owners and were not legally recognised as people.  They were assets which could be bought or sold.  They had to do exactly what they were told, or they were punished.

Imagine then a slave, let’s call him Maximus, who has recently been sold by his former owner, Brutus.  One day his new owner sends him out to do some shopping, but on his way to the market he meets Brutus, who tells him to go off on an errand for him.  What is he to do?  He knows he shouldn’t, but he’s afraid of Brutus who is a violent man, so he goes.  Of course, when he gets home late, he’s in trouble and his new owner wants to know where he’s been.  What can Maximus say to defend himself?  He’s a pawn in a power struggle who has ended up satisfying nobody.

"You have been set free from sin"

“You have been set free from sin”

Paul uses an argument just like this to put us in the place of Maximus.  Why are we still obeying sin when we have a new master?  Sin used to control us (Romans 6:17) but then we were bought (the Greek word exagorizo, which is usually translated ‘redeemed’, literally means “bought from the market”).  So we no longer have to obey our old master.  In fact, when he turns up, demanding obedience, we can tell him where to go, because we have a new master.  And Paul encourages us to obey him, so that we wholeheartedly belong to him (6:19).

All of us struggle to break the habits of our former lifestyles.  We learned sinful thoughts, attitudes, words and behaviour from our old master, and even though he now has no power over us, we’re in the habit of living in a way that would please him.  The new master has different standards, and we should make a strenuous effort to live in a way that shows we are now living according to his standards.  So the next time the devil comes knocking, remind him it’s a done deal and he’s not in charge any more.

Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, for sin shall not be master over you.  Though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.

 (Romans 6:12-18, edited)

 

 

*Health warning – it never does to take biblical imagery to extremes.  Certain aspects of the slavery motif can be problematic (e.g. did God do a deal with the devil to ‘buy’ humans out of satan’s control?  Are we slaves or free people?).  The Bible writers used imagery like this to convey a general example, not an exact parallel.

The Parable of the Oppressors?

1354359_fifty_pounds_2The western church has traditionally interpreted the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-27) as an encouragement to use wisely the gifts that God has given us, though we usually play down the bit about the wrath of God poured out on the servant who doesn’t.  As we observed two weeks ago, this fits in neatly with our protestant work ethic – our performance demonstrates our salvation, and God is looking for a return on his investment in us.  But are there other ways of interpreting this parable when seen through the eyes of other cultures?

When workers’ groups in Latin America looked at this parable they came up with a very different interpretation, because their perspective is different.  In Europe, theology has traditionally been done by wealthy, white, educated men.  But the worker’s groups were the opposite: poor, uneducated, marginalised people who recognised in this story a situation only too relevant to their own situation.  They pointed out that in an agrarian economy anybody who was returning 1000% profit (Luke 19:16) was clearly exploiting someone, and was therefore a bad guy.  Only an evil and corrupt king would commend him.  By their reckoning, the only person who comes out of this story with any credit is the one who buried his talents – because he didn’t oppress anybody.

No pressure then...

No pressure then…

Most Europeans find this interpretation hard to accept, but possibly this is only because we are so accustomed to our traditional interpretation – that God has given us certain talents and expects us to make the most of them… or else.  Which, when you think about it, doesn’t really square with our idea of the totally unmerited grace of God.

The marginalised South Americans who developed their own understanding of this parable would be far closer to the culture of Jesus’ audience than we are.  And while there may be flaws in their interpretation (is Jesus really telling us it’s good just to bury our treasure and do nothing with it?) there are also flaws in ours – is God really an exacting man, reaping where he did not sow, and punishing those who don’t perform well enough?

We also face the challenge that the word ‘talent’ has a double meaning in English.  We understand it to mean a gift or ability, which is stretching the original text too far, as a talent was in Bible times an enormous sum of money.  Luke uses the equivalent word ‘mina’ (an ancient middle-eastern currency unit), which emphasises that there is a financial context to this parable.  A mina was worth about 9 months wages for an agricultural worker – a phenomenal amount of spending money for the sort of people Jesus was talking to.  A talent was the Greco-Roman equivalent.

Jesus is in fact basing this parable on a real life incident involving the king of Galilee, Herod Antipas.  When his father Herod the Great died shortly after Jesus was born, his will had to be confirmed by the Emperor, so all his sons scurried off to Rome to persuade Augustus to grant their claims.  The Jewish people also sent a delegation asking the Emperor to get rid of Herod’s dynasty altogether!

Which raises a relevant question:

Would Jesus really use Herod as a metaphor for God?

We naturally assume that the authority figure in any given parable – a king, a judge, a landowner – stands for God.  But that’s not necessarily so.  There can be the very odd occasion when the authority figure is an anti-type of God – see for example Luke 18:2-8 where the judge is clearly contrasted with God.  This parable is designed to contrast the oppressive behaviour of the king with that of God.  The king commends his stewards who exploited the poor by saying “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

SheepIt is interesting to note that immediately after this parable Matthew places the judgement of the sheep and the goats, which also features a reward for performance.  But in that story, the slaves are not expected to make a huge profit out of the people, but to be generous to them.  They were expected to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the sick and imprisoned.  Is it possible that Matthew has set up a deliberate contrast between two ways of behaving – a worldly way embodied by an evil human king, and the heavenly way following the righteous God-King?

This understanding frees us from the pernicious pressure to perform in order to earn our salvation (or at least our reward) and allows us to love generously and freely, in a way that brings hope to the marginalised.  Over history, faced with the choice of being the oppressor or siding with the oppressed, the church has at different times done both.  Institutional church has often been the oppressor, while many courageous, counter-cultural individuals like Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa have met Christ in the poor and downtrodden as they served them.

Which course will you take?

Luis Suárez

SuarezThere can be little doubt that Luis Suárez is an excellent footballer.  With a career tally of 40 international goals for Uruguay he is their all-time top scorer,  and he has 220 more in club football.  He has scored six hat-tricks for Liverpool, holding the Premier League record.  In April 2014 he won the PFA players’ player of the year award.  He spectacularly scored both Uruguay’s goals against England in the 2014 world cup, virtually eliminating them.

So it is  disappointing that his skills did not feature at all in Uruguay’s first match of the knockout stage, which they lost 2-0 and exited the competition.  He was already suspended for biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini, the third time he has been punished for biting an opponent.  All of which goes to demonstrate that character is more important than ability.  You can’t score for your country while you’re in the sin bin.

jawsIn the Bible, we don’t find the 11 disciples selecting candidates to replace Judas Iscariot on the basis of their leadership ability, organisational gifiting or mentoring skills.  They looked for men who had been with Jesus (Acts 1:21).  When Paul tells Timothy what the qualities necessary in church officials are, not one of them is a gifting.  They are all character qualifications (1 Timothy 3:1-10).  If Jesus had picked his disciples on merit, he probably would not have accepted any of the twelve, except perhaps Judas Iscariot, who appears to have had some potential.

Which causes us to consider how we select our mission partners.  Are we often so dazzled by the ability of applicants that we are blinded to their character flaws?  Do we focus on the skills we need in the field rather than the character of the person wielding them?  And in the process, are we sending the wrong people, or putting them in the wrong team, and inadvertently damaging the work of the kingdom and causing mission partners to return prematurely because of the excessive stress caused by having the wrong players on the team?  And are latent character flaws in each of us threatening to bring the whole thing crashing down about us as we are accustomed to seeing when a prominent televangelist or famous church leader falls into sin and loses their ministry in the fallout?  As Gerald Coates once said:

What a man builds with his gifting, he can destroy with his character.

Singing in the rain?

Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain"

Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain”

England has a reputation abroad for being an unnecessarily moist country.  Yet in some countries moisture is welcomed.  I have been in Africa when the rains break, and seen people stop their cars and get out and dance in the puddles because they’re so glad it’s raining.  That wouldn’t happen in Manchester.  Where people are still in touch with their farming communities, they recognise the need for rain.  No rain, no food.  So they are grateful for the rain.

It’s the same in the Bible.  Rain is generally used as a sign of God’s blessing (except of course, in the Flood).  It’s part of the covenant with Israel that if the people obey God, the rain will come (Leviticus 26:3-4).  When they don’t, it doesn’t.  And if you’ve ever been to Israel, you’ll know the value of rain.  It’s a dry land where every drop is cherished and irrigation systems are carefully designed to use no more water than is absolutely necessary.  Likewise the withholding of rain is a sign of God’s judgement (e.g. 1 Kings 16:29-18:1), and clouds without rain are the ultimate picture of disappointment (Proverbs 25:14).

The English don’t like the rain.  Where we live, it’s usually cold, insipid and persistent, and it interferes with the cricket.  Unlike tropical countries, where there’s a regular cloudburst which clears up quickly, here it can go on dribbling for days with barely a centimetre falling.  Sometimes it’s even hard to know whether rain is falling or whether the air is just full of damp.  The moisture nags its way through our clothing and into our bones.  The only thing we enjoy about it is that it gives us something to moan about.

This year the English have had a lot to moan about.  Having just endured the wettest spring since records began, the whingeing Poms have had a lot of practice.  We’ve moaned about the weather so much that we’re now even moaning about people who moan about the weather.  How does this square with St Paul’s injunction to the Thessalonians to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)?

Surely we should be cultivating an attitude of thankfulness even when we’re cold and clammy and our barbecue has just been cancelled.  Can we here in England be thankful that we live in a country where the grass is green and we can turn on a tap without wondering whether water is going to come out of it?

We who are mission workers have many opportunities to moan.  We struggle with intermittent electricity and water supplies, the challenges of bureaucracy, the dangers of travelling, setbacks in our ministries and so much more.  A closer inspection of what Paul wrote reminds us that we’re not giving thanks for the circumstances, but we’re remaining thankful despite them.  The early church did not give thanks because they were persecuted, but because they had “been considered worthy” of suffering for Jesus.  James is no masochist when he tells us to count it ‘pure joy’ when we have trials – he’s encouraging us to look beyond the trials to the perfection that lies beyond (James 1:2-4).

Let us lift our eyes above our immediate troubles and give thanks to God for all that he has done in our lives.

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!

When Jesus doesn’t fulfil our expectations

Triumphant entry by He Qi

(He Qi)

The problem with the Palm Sunday story is that we think we know it.  We find it hard to pay attention, because we’re familiar with it.  We’ve heard it at least once a year throughout our Christian lives.  We’ve still got last year’s palm cross on the dressing table.  But what is really going on here?

The pilgrims who have come up to Jerusalem from Galilee are at fever pitch, full of enthusiasm.  Unlike the residents of Jerusalem, who are asking “Who is this?” (Matthew 21:10), they’ve seen Jesus in action in Galilee and along the road through Jericho.  He’s been demonstrating his credentials and their expectations are high.  Is this the time when Jesus is going to confront the Romans and liberate Israel like a Messiah is expected to do?

Jesus initially indulges their enthusiasm.  He arranges a donkey to ride on.  Why?  Jesus usually walks everywhere (sometimes even on water!) but on this occasion he’s deliberately stoking their anticipation.  They all know Zechariah’s prophecy which Matthew quotes:

Say to the daughter of Zion ‘Behold, your King is coming, gentle, and mounted on a donkey.’ (Matthew 21:5)

Triumph

(Unknown artist)

Jesus is making a visual demonstration of his identity.  He is answering the question they had asked him on his last visit – “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (John 20:24).  They recognise his answer as such, and treat him accordingly, throwing their coats on the ground in front of him and forming a cheering honour guard as if he were a homecoming king.  Luke even reports that they changed the wording of the traditional greeting ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ to ‘Blessed is the King…’ (Luke 19:38).  Mark points out that they expect the kingdom of David to be restored (Mark 11:10).  No wonder the Pharisees told him to shut them up – they knew that the Romans would not tolerate sentiments such as that (John 11:48).

So this ‘King’ rides triumphantly up into Jerusalem at the head of a rejoicing multitude… and then confounds them.  He goes through the gate and turns left.  He doesn’t head straight for the Roman fortress to force a confrontation with the occupying army.  He goes to the temple.  His priorities are different.  He’s already answering the question that Pilate will ask him a few days later: “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).  And in doing so, he disappoints thousands of followers, one of whom was Judas, who was probably hoping for great things from Jesus, but felt he had been let down.  Those thousands were not there to support him when he was on trial for his life.  As far as they were concerned, he was already just another failed pretender.

(Sadao Watanabe)

(Sadao Watanabe)

With 2000 years of perspective, we can see that Jesus was right.  He stuck to his mission and did not let the crowds divert him.  But it would have been hard for those in his enthusiastic following to have appreciated that.  Even his own disciples do not appear to have understood what was going on even though he had spoken to them plainly about his imminent death (Matthew 16:21).

What do we do when Jesus appears to let us down?  Those of us involved in world mission know only too well how wrong things can go.  We find our visas revoked with only 48 hours to leave the country.  A colleague is killed in a car crash.  A loved one is kidnapped.  A pastor swindles money from the church.  Our children lose their faith.  We are constantly ill, or stressed with overwork.  The ministry ends in defeat.  Did Jesus fail us?  It can feel like that at times, and we can be very tempted to respond like the crowds in Jerusalem.  All deserted him.  One betrayed him.  Another denied knowing him.  Others fled for their lives.

Yet, a few days later, Jesus returns (John 20).  Not to the religious leaders, nor to his own family.  Not to his best friend, or to the men who would lead the Jerusalem church.  He comes to a grieving and confused woman.  A woman who remained faithful, even though he had not turned out to be the Messiah she expected him to be.

Jesus doesn’t mind our confusion and grief.  He isn’t upset by our lack of understanding.  He seeks our faithfulness.  Even when all appears to have gone very badly wrong, he is still there for those who trust him.  In the midst of our pain, sorrow, trauma and confusion, let us hold on tightly to the one person who is constant, Jesus Christ – the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).

Jonah – successful mission worker?

jonahWe all know the story of Jonah.  It’s taught in churches and religious schools, partly because it’s a graphic and exciting story that appeals particularly to children.  Well, at least the bit with the storm and the big fish is exciting.  We don’t always tell the second part.  While theologians may argue over whether it is a true story, a parable or an allegory, this exquisitely crafted play in four acts has much relevance for the 21st century church, and we’re going to consider four contemporary applications of its lessons.

Jonah was a reluctant mission worker.  This is the bit of the story we’re most familiar with, how Jonah ran away from what he knew God wanted him to do, and was boxed in more and more till he got on and did it.  Most of us who have been Christians for a while will know this sense of how hard it is to run away from God, though we’re not usually boxed in as dramatically as Jonah was!  Yet our own experience of God tells us that God knows best how to run our lives.  To what extent are we still trying to run away from what God wants us to do?

JonahJonah was a frightened mission worker.  He knew that the Ninevites were a cruel and dangerous people.  What were they going to do to him when he told them to change the way they lived?  These were the people who invented crucifixion, and an earlier form of execution, impaling on a sharpened stake.  Faced with those two alternatives, we might have been buying a ticket to Tarshish too!  But to what extent are we afraid of telling people the good news today?  What’s the worst they can do to us?  Granted, we have to be careful not to lose our visa, endanger local believers, or damage the reputation of our agency, but let’s be bold!  Let’s risk the ridicule, criticism and bullying that might result.  Are we prepared to take the good news to people even at personal risk to ourselves?

jonah2Jonah was a judgmental mission worker.  He didn’t think these people were worthy of being forgiven.  They were foreign, cruel, evil.  Only nice people deserve to be forgiven.  He was blinkered by his racial supremacy of being one of God’s chosen people.  The other people obviously weren’t chosen.  But God had bigger plans.  We might laugh at such narrow-minded bigotry these days, but who are the people we don’t think are worthy of forgiveness?  Benefit cheats?  Illegal immigrants? Arms dealers?  Drug pushers?  Rapists?  Paedophiles?  But in God’s eyes, we are no better, but Christ died for us when we didn’t deserve it (Romans 5:8).  Are we prepared to take the good news to people we don’t think are worthy?

Jonah was a successful mission worker.  We often admire the philosophy of Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill, or the harvest of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost.  Yet 120,000 people responded to Jonah’s message!  When Jonah was faithful to his calling, God delivered the results.  It’s not rocket science.  God does not want anyone to die, but wants people everywhere to turn to him (2 Peter 3:9).  So why would we not want to tell people?  The US illusionist and comedian Penn Jillette, who is a vociferous atheist, commented in a blog about how much he respected a Christian who gave him a Bible:

How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?

That’s a harsh statement, which strips away the cosy multicultural fudge that we are used to.  We might like to think we don’t tell people about Jesus out of respect for their faith choices, or because it’s a private matter, but surely love overrides those and demands that we tell people the good news.

Becoming less human?

trigger

Trigger the philosopher

In an episode of the classic British comedy “Only Fools and Horses” Trigger, a roadsweeper, claims to have used the same broom for 20 years, though he adds that in that time it has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles.  His friends clearly doubt that it therefore qualifies to be considered the same broom.  This is a modern variant of the ancient paradox called the Ship of Theseus, a philosophical debate over whether the identity of the original object can be said to be continuous over time when all its original parts have been replaced.  A bit like the Sugababes after the three original members had all left.

e_Coli

Alien – but friendly?

A similar question can be raised about being human.  It has been estimated by several authoritative microbiologists[1] that bacteria and fungi living in and on the human body outnumber the human cells by an incredible 10 to 1, with over 500 different species living in the gut and 500 more living on the skin.  Less than 10% of the cells in your body are human!  While these fellow-travelling cells are blatantly parasitic and can cause disease, they can also significantly help our existence, helping us digest food and absorb energy, stimulating our immune systems, breaking down waste and acting as a protective barrier on the skin.  Some of them even defend us, attacking invading bacteria of the wrong sort.  One microbiologist has said of this prolific microbial infestation: “they truly represent another arm of the immune system.”[2]

All of this has a huge impact on our understanding of what it means to be human.  Babies are born free of microbes, and we acquire more throughout our lives with every drink, touch, or kiss.  So as we move from 0% to over 90% microbe throughout our lives, life itself is a journey into becoming less human!

Sugababes: same, same or different?

Sugababes: same, same or different?

Or is it?  To be human is to be in community.  Way back in the days of the Garden of Eden, God concluded that ‘It is not good for the human to be alone’ (Genesis 2:18).  The human needed community of its own kind, and ducks, fish and elephants weren’t quite up to the job – fortunately!  This need for community reflects the community inherent in a Trinitarian understanding of God: three persons in perfect harmony, love and unity within the One being.  Historically, human life has thrived in community.  The aggressively assertive individualism of 20th century Europe is a historical anomaly, which is already showing signs of being redressed as postmodern youth are more aware of their connection to the global village and of their need for community, even if it’s expressed mostly through their technology!

In the same way as we enjoy a symbiotic relationship with other life forms at a microscopic level, we also enjoy one at a macroscopic level – with God!  Jesus teaches a lot about this in John’s gospel but we are not accustomed to thinking about our interaction with God in this way, largely because our thinking has become so individualistic.  But consider the impact of the following verses, all from John when viewed from the standpoint of a committed, interacting, mutual relationship with God:

I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you (14:20).  Is Jesus really in us in the same way that he is in the Father?  Linking these statements in this way makes it appear he believes so.  Does it really mean that being ‘in Christ’ effectively invites us through him to participate in the nature and essence of the Trinity?

Abide in me, and I will abide in you… apart from me, you can do nothing (15:4-5).  Jesus’ teaching on the vine makes it clear that unless the branch stays connected to the vine, it can’t hope to survive, let alone bear good fruit.  Branches don’t dip in and out as they choose.  They are intimately and permanently interconnected, allowing the sap to flow continuously, not just when they feel the need for it.

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him (6:56).  Eating and drinking is a reference using physical sustenance as a metaphor for spiritual life.  It parallels the sap from the vine.  It’s not about the need to take communion regularly so much as the constant communion of looking to Jesus as the source of our being (Acts 17:28).  Compare the English idiom ‘that’s meat and drink to me.’[3]

Whoever believes in me, from his belly shall flow rivers of living water (7:38).  This verse has echoes of the river seen in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 47:7-12) and foreshadows the one in the new Jerusalem (Revelation 22:1-2).  It is not a pathetic trickle or an intermittently dripping tap, it is a powerful, life-giving and permanent watercourse which symbolises the interconnectedness of our life with the Holy Spirit.

As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you (20:21).  In this, John’s version of the Great Commission, Jesus links his sending to the Father’s.  As the Father sent, Jesus sends; as Jesus went, so do we.  We are united in ministry with the Trinity.

imagesThis gives us a new view of the intimacy and togetherness of our relationship with God.  What does it mean for each of us as we go into meetings, hold conversations, shop and eat?  It means that God is with us in everything that we think, say and do, not just in the times of prayer and ministry.  We face those difficult situations together with God.  When we walk into a room, God walks in with us.  Into every situation we take with us the love of the Father, the grace of Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14).  Let us reflect on how that knowledge may change our sense of isolation and disempowerment in difficult situations.

To become more human means to become less human!



[1] references are available on request as they are too numerous to quote!

[2] Gary Huffnagle, University of Michigan Ann Arbor

[3] Oxford Dictionary: be a source of great pleasure to; be a customary matter for – “but the high balls to the front two were meat and drink to the big Partick defenders, and Thistle soon hit back to deadly effect.” (The Sun, 2002)

Start the year with prayer

SpurgeonPrayer pulls the rope below, and the bell rings above in the ears of God.  Some scarcely stir the bell for they pray so languidly.  Others give an occasional pluck at the rope, but he who wins with heaven is the man who grabs the rope boldly and pulls continuously with all his might. (C H Spurgeon)

As we start out on a new year, what better way than to begin with prayer?  It is only through prayer that we discern God’s direction and purposes, and while the secular world may preoccupy itself with new year resolutions for a week or two, each of us engaged in a mission for God needs to follow God’s instructions for the important steps we have to take.

praying handsPrayer is at the heart of all our activity.  We know that Jesus spent time alone in prayer at importance stages in his ministry, and yet so few of us follow his example.  My church, like many others, is starting January with a week of prayer, and I intend to take the opportunity to set time aside to listen to God for the future of Syzygy, and I invite you to join me to do the same for your ministries.

How often do we make a significant amount of time for prayer?  Most of us spend a few minutes at a time, or some emergency prayers for help when we find ourselves in difficulty, but how often are we, like Mary, to be found at the feet of Jesus listening to his words – even to the distraction of some of our colleagues who think we do not do enough work!  We are far more likely to be like Martha, toiling away diligently for him, which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t actually take us away from Jesus.

Spurgeon’s great quote above reminds us of the need for determination, persistence and energy in prayer.  How can we achieve this when our church, work and home lives are all demanding time and attention of us?  Surely, not all of us have the luxury of setting aside great chunks of our lives for prayer?  I think few of us would think that Jesus did not have pressures and demands on his time and attention, yet he seemed to make time for it.  Perhaps it’s because we’ve lost the understanding that prayer is crucial to the effectiveness of our ministries and the fruitfulness of our lives.  Here are some of Syzygy’s top tips for developing a prayerful life:

  • firepanStart and end each day focussing on God.
  • Pray before you start your work, and invite God into your busyness.  Focus your attention on God and remind yourself that He’s the reason you’re in this ministry.
  • Two or three times a day (more if you can manage it) pause in your work to remember God, ask for his help, and thank him for equipping you to do your work.
  • If you have colleagues, meet together regularly for a short time of prayer.
  • Create at least an hour a week for a time of unhurried prayer.
  • Set aside a significant time each week, month and year to get away and be alone with God.  Arrange for others to cover your responsibilities so you can get away.
  • Don’t be slow to communicate prayer requests to others.

Prayer is the boiler room in which we stoke the great fires which power our ministry.  The more we shovel, the more energy we generate!

Syzygy has a number of intercessors committed to prayer for mission.  If you would like them to pray for a particular issue, or if you are willing to join this band of heavenly bellringers, please email prayer@syzygy.org.uk.

I am a leaf on the wind… watch how I soar!

FallAt this time of year in the northern hemisphere, the colours of leaves turn to red, gold and brown, creating a magnificent kaleidoscope across the woodlands.  For many of us it is our favourite time of year, as we admire the glorious views and kick our way through piles of dry fallen leaves.  On a clear day, with a light breeze, it is possible to see a leaf wafting through the air and be amazed at its lightness and agility.

Although the title of this week’s blog, borrowed from Joss Whedon’s epic sci-fi film Serenity, sounds more Zen than Christian, it mirrors Jesus’ inscrutable saying in John 3:8 – The wind blows where it wills: you hear the sound of  it, but you don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going.  It’s like that with those who are born of the Spirit.

Those of us who are born of the Spirit are like leaves on the wind.  Others don’t understand our attitudes and motivations, or our hope for the future.  Often we may feel like we don’t know where we’re going but think we are being driven along by the tide of circumstances, though in fact we are being borne along in the arms of the Spirit.  As we whirl through life’s ups and downs we may feel more confused than guided.  Yet the Spirit knows where he is taking us.

Falling leaf 2

Autumn, however, always comes to an ignominious end, with those gloriously wafted leaves lying decomposing in a sodden, driven heap underneath a hedge somewhere.  How can we avoid that happening in our lives?

We need to be light.  Gravity pulls the leaves to the ground, but the lighter they are, the longer they seem to float.  Three things make a leaf heavy: its own nutrients, rain, and dirt.

A leaf that is weighed down by the moisture and sugars that it has been producing all summer is unnecessarily heavy.  If it has been untimely ripped from its tree by strong winds it will not have had the chance to return all that goodness to the tree, and become a light hollow shell.  John the Baptist said ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30) and a little later Jesus said ‘Only the Spirit gives life; human strength can achieve nothing ’ (John 6:63).  We must make less and less of our passions and desires, so that Christ can become more in us.

Dead leavesRain symbolises life’s circumstances.  Heavy rain can drive leaves from the trees.  Soggy leaves don’t soar.  Life’s hardships can make us cynical, and cause us to focus on the challenges we face rather than the glorious creator God who is with us in the midst of them.  When this happens, we need to remind ourselves that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).

The dirt of being part of this fallen world rubs off onto us on a daily basis as we go through life.  What we see and hear around us affects us, can lure us into compromise.  We can become attuned to ungodly attitudes and values around us.  At times like these we need to come back to Jesus to be made clean, and remember that we are called to be holy, just as God is holy (1 Peter 1:14-16).

In addition to making sure we are as light as possible, we need to become attuned to the Holy Spirit in our lives, to be able to listen to the still, small voice, and understand where we are being taken so that we don’t fight it, but let go of ourselves and trust in God’s tender mercy.  Only then will we be truly able to soar in the Spirit.

Jesus rescues us from God?

rob-bellOne of the attention-grabbing statements in Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, published a couple of years ago, was the statement that ‘Jesus rescues us from God’.  Bell loves these potentially controversial yet thought-provoking sayings, and while this may on the surface sound ridiculous, put into the context of the surrounding paragraph, it might superficially seem to make sense:

Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue.  God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life.  However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach us that Jesus rescues us from God.

But in doing so, Bell has revealed his lack of Trinitarian thinking.  Steve Chalke did the same a few years ago, when an evangelical storm in a teacup blew up around his suggestion that God might have been guilty of cosmic child abuse by beating up his own son on the cross.  Neither of them intended to communicate that they really believed what they said, but they both inadvertently ignited some controversy.

Trinitarian or tritheistic?

Trinitarian or tritheistic?

What these two, and countless other Christians in recent years have started to do, is think of the Father (aka God), Jesus and the Holy Spirit as separate people.  This is understandable given that we classically formulate the Trinity as ‘God in three persons’.  But a person today is an individual, whereas 1700 years ago when the word ‘person’ was first used in this context, identity was far more rooted in community, family and relationship than individuality.

That means that the Christian Fathers who thrashed out the orthodox definition of Trinity were thinking more of three ‘persons’ in relationship, in community, together, rather than three individuals.  But in our individualistic culture the imagery of the Trinity is stretched almost to breaking point, as we find it hard to conceive of three ‘persons’ in one being, unless it is evidence of a personality disorder.  The postmodern church has become functionally tritheistic, simply because it is, on the surface, easier to reconcile.

But Bell is wrong: Jesus does not rescue us from God because Jesus is God.  Chalke is wrong: God did not beat up Jesus; God took the beating personally on the cross.

Trinitarian believers need to learn to see God in Jesus as much as we see Jesus in us.  Jesus had a very high Christology: He who has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9).  I am in the Father and the Father is in me. (John 14:11).  I am the Father are one (John 10:30).  In this latter verse the Greek implies one thing or one substance, rather than the more metaphorical being of one heart and mind.

Jesus handNot only did Jesus self-identify with the Father, he co-acted with the Father  – The Son can do nothing by himself… Whatever the Father does, the Son also does the same (John 5:20) and he co-spoke with the Father – I do not speak on my own initiative… I speak what the Father told me (John 12:49-50).

Even more radically, he then goes on to include to include us in this relationship of being and acting – I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you (John 14:20).  Remain in me, and I will remain in you (John 15:4).

And his missional mandate includes us too: God seeking the lost in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:9) becomes Jesus seeking and saving the lost (Luke 19:10) becomes our mandate in the Father and the Son: As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you (John 20:21), empowered by the Holy Spirit, who abides with you, and will be in you (John 15:17).

When we see ourselves as part of this Trinitarian missio dei – God’s outreach to the world – we will find ourselves truly commissioned, sent, indwelt and inspired by the living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Reconciliation

A gesture of reconciliation? (Source: sxc.hu)

A gesture of reconciliation? (Source: sxc.hu)

On a long flight recently, I watched three movies.  Although they were in different genres and from different studios, they all shared a common theme – healing broken relationships.  In fact, this could even said to be the real plot of all three films, though not necessarily the headline one.  And if you think about it, there have been so many films recently which address this issue, that it may even be a reflection of a deep need within society.  Art mirrors life, not the other way round.

In the UK, where only 25% of children are brought up by both their biological parents, and the number of single adult households outnumbers the couples, there is clearly a lot of relational damage.  Add to that the fact that during the 20th century many people consciously broke traditional ties to family, community and hometown to assert their individualism and independence, and we are left with a world which is desperately in need of healed relationships.  Many other cultures share these challenges, together with other deep fissures in their society resulting from race, class, tribal, religious and political divides.  Not surprisingly, the three films I watched featured three different generations looking for that reconciliation.  All of them, of course, were successful.  Only in Hollywood do they all live happily ever after!

Jesus hand

Source: www.captivatedbychrist.org

Reconciliation is a key biblical theme.  It could even be described as the main one – God looking to restore the damaged relationship with humanity.  It starts with God’s first question ‘Where are you?’ (Genesis 3:9), via the mission of Jesus to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:9) and ends with the ultimate reconciliation – a wedding (Revelation 19:9).  As Paul writes, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

A careful study of Paul’s writing about what Jesus accomplished on the cross reveals that he uses the concept of reconciliation more frequently than other terms such as salvation, atonement, healing or redemption.  Restoring a damaged relationship is essential to God’s mission, and deep inside, even the lost crave reconciliation, a sense of oneness, of belonging.

Once reconciled with God, we have the ability to become reconciled to the rest of humanity.  We have been forgiven, so we can forgive.  We have been reached out to, so we can reach out.  We have received peace, so we can give it.  This is a message the world is crying out for, yet we are still timid to share it.

Souce: www.gdwm.org

Souce: www.gdwm.org

Not only do we hang onto this message for ourselves, but often we fail to apply it.  The church is riven with division, between denominations, differing styles of worship or methodology, and individuals who have fallen out with each other over issues of belief or practice.  We often cite our own ethics or convictions as reasons for maintaining a rift with an ‘unrepentant’ Christian – but does that mask an unwillingness to engage with someone who really just holds a different opinion?  Are we really so different from those believers of an earlier generation who burned each other at the stake?

True reconciliation means not that we overlook matters of faith or style, but that we recognise that what unites us in Christ is greater than what divides us in the flesh.  It requires grace, and generosity of spirit to acknowledge that Christians who have markedly different practices from us are also loved and forgiven by God.  Let us have the humility to walk barefoot across the gap between us and ask forgiveness for our judgementalism on those for whom Christ also died.

The wounded hands of Jesus have reached out to us in reconciliation.  Why do we find it so hard to reach out ours to others?

Sowing what you did not reap

206

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.

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.

And on the Sabbath…

ChillingYou’re probably already aware that the Genesis account of creation tells us that God rested on the seventh day, but have you realised that God actually blessed it, and made it ‘holy’ (Genesis 2:3)?  God blessed humanity, and some of the animals too, but didn’t call us holy.  So the seventh day is clearly something important.

Holy doesn’t necessarily mean sombre or sacred, it can also mean separate or special.  The first thing God called special was a day off!  That says something about the significance of taking a regular day off.  You may know of the importance that the Jewish people have historically attached to their Sabbath, and while it has become somewhat rule-encrusted (as you will find if you ever go to Israel and get in a lift on the Sabbath – it stops on every floor so you don’t have to ‘work’ by pressing the button!) the traditional Jewish celebration of God, the Word and family is a good way to focus on what is really important in our lives.  Many Christians who have followed their example and tried to avoid work, shopping, DIY and other leisure activities on the Sabbath have discovered the blessing of a complete day of rest.

Of course, many Christians in ministry are not able to take their Sabbath on Friday/Saturday/Sunday as they are often ministering in church.  They may try to take a day off in lieu during the week, but this doesn’t always work so well as children are in school, colleagues who are still at work make phone calls, church members have needs and the general temptation to shop, catch up on emails or do the housework can eat away at that precious time with God and family.

RelaxingMany of us, of course, believe that every day is Sabbath, in the sense that it is a day dedicated for serving God, but while it is true, this understanding has helped to undermine the sense of setting aside a day for stopping and restoring the soul.  But this one day off a week, whenever we take it, is part of God’s plan to help us avoid becoming workaholics and burning out with constant striving.  It is important to get rest.  Recently I was involved in preparing the job description for my church’s new minister, and I wrote into it ‘You will take one complete day off each week’ because I believe that without stopping and recharging the batteries regularly, we can quickly run them down.

God, of course, did not need to recuperate from creating the entire universe.  The Hebrew word Shabbat from which we get ‘Sabbath’ implies sitting, being still, or stopping.  We might easily in modern language say ‘chill’.  I can just imagine God and Adam, lying on recliners by a pond somewhere, having a drink together and chatting.  Some gentle hanging out together.  We should remember that Adam was created on the sixth day of the week, and on the seventh, like God, he chilled.  Adam’s first day on the job was a day off!  The result was that he started his work rested and refreshed.  He didn’t need the Sabbath to recuperate from the previous week; he had it to prepare for the coming one.

Which is why our ministry works best if it flows from our place of rest rather than drives us to it.

Where’s the guide?

A Huarani guide

A Huarani guide

I recently heard this story told by Elizabeth Elliot, the mission worker and author:

Two young Americans with high adventure in their hearts arrived in the city of Quito, Ecuador on their way to the “Great Amazon Rain Forest” east of the Andes.  They were going on a six weeks trek and planned to write a book about their experiences.  They had every imaginable supply that they thought they might need for this adventure.  They had been to an army surplus store before they left home and bought everything the salesman told them they would need.

They described their equipment to me with great pride and I could see that it was not going to be of much use.  I wanted to tell them that what they ought to have was a guide, but they had asked only for help on the language and not for advice.  So off they went, full of confidence.  Perhaps they found their way all right, survived, and even wrote the book.  I never heard from them again.

Elizabeth Elliot

Elizabeth Elliot

What we really ought to have is the Guide himself.  Maps, road signs, equipment is useful, but infinitely better is someone who has been there before and knows the way…

Many of us spend a lot of our time  sitting in meetings planning and strategising,   While those activities are necessary, they are no substitute for following the Guide, listening to His advice, and going where He leads even when we can’t see why he’s going there.

Can we change the way we do our meetings?  Instead of opening with a brief prayer for guidance and closing by asking God to bless our decisions, can we spend more time listening to God than we do to each other?  You will recall that last week I reminded us that the famous missionary call of Barnabas and Saul came not when the church leaders were strategising but when they were worshipping.  If we engage in God-focussed activities in our meetings, it will not be surprising if God participates in them.

The Lord is my Guide… He leads me in the right paths.  Even when the going is tough, I am not afraid because He is with me.

Elizabeth Elliot is one of the foremost mission workers of her time.  After spending many years working among the indigenous people of Ecuador, she became a renowned author and teacher.  You can read more about her at www.elisabethelliot.org.

Tech notes: podcasts

1084232_headphonesOne of the ongoing challenges for mission workers is the need to ensure spiritual input.  One of the major reasons for burnout is that we continually give out at a faster rate than we take in.  So we need to make sure we have ample access to good quality teaching.

There is an extent to which, due to isolation or security needs, some mission workers can’t meet together easily for Bible study, and the local churches in which we minister are not always geared to meeting our needs.  But the internet makes good resources much more accessible than the days when our churches used to post us cassettes of the sermons.   One such benefit is the podcast, which can vary in length from five minutes to over an hour, and is an easily accessible resource that can be used in a variety of contexts: while setting aside time for study, or travelling, jogging – even on a flight.

Many churches now put their sermons out as podcasts, and even if the quality is not always consistent, it does have the benefit of keeping you in touch with what’s going on in your sending church.  But you can get them from other churches as well.  You might like to try, for example, Holy Trinity Brompton, Mars Hill, Gold Hill Baptist Church, Saddleback Church, St Helen’s Bishopsgate, or Willow Creek.

165809_headphonesSome famous speakers podcast regularly, sometimes even daily, though the quality of these can be variable.  Try out Mark Driscoll, Joyce Meyer, N T Wright, Max Lucado, David Pawson or (from beyond the grave!) Derek Prince.  Even classics such as My Utmost for his Highest and The Practice of the Presence of God are available as a podcast.

Other organisations such as the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable  programme and Christianity magazine also have regular and thought-provoking podcasts, and Member Care Media, which we have highlighted before, issues daily podcasts aimed specifically at the mental, physical and emotional wellbeing of overseas mission workers.

Individual podcasts can be downloaded from the website appropriate to your preferred church or speaker (as linked above), but it’s a lot easier to subscribe to them through iTunes, or go to One Place, a Christian resource for bringing lots of Christian teaching resources together online.  You can download podcasts to your computer or phone, and though for some people download speeds at home are often a challenge, you can get round this by going to an internet café or office where they may have a better service.  If you’re in a country where you need to think about security, make sure you regularly alternate between different cafés.

There are of course many more online resources such as Bibles, commentaries and guides, sermon resources, audio books and devotionals, and Oscar has a full list of these.

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)

Working from a place of rest

Working fromI once heard a story about a colonial expedition into the African interior.  On the first day, they made excellent progress through the forest.  By the end of the second day, they had travelled much further than they had expected.  But when the third day dawned, the African porters steadfastly refused to move.  No amount of cajoling or beating from the European leaders could change their minds.  “We have travelled a long way from home,” they explained.  “And we are waiting for our souls to catch up with our bodies.”

Whether this story is true or not, it deserves to be.  It is true that our souls cannot travel as fast as our bodies do, and we ignore this truth at our peril.  One of the reasons so many mission workers suffer from fatigue, burnout and breakdown is that we don’t plan in regular times to stop and wait for our souls to catch up.  Tony Horsfall, himself a veteran mission worker who is now a celebrated author and speaker, learned this the hard way, as have many of us who have suffered burnout in one way or another.

Tony uses his own experience to encourage us to slow down and wait for our souls to catch up.  Using the story of Jesus sitting alone by a Samaritan well, he points out the importance of regular rest in our lives, as exemplified by our Lord, whose frequent breaks from ministry for rest and prayer enabled him to cope with extraordinary demands on him.  Tony invites us to

Come and sit by the well for a while. Take some time out to reflect on how you are living and working. Watch Jesus and see how he does it. Listen to what the Spirit may be saying to you deep within, at the centre of your being; and maybe, just maybe, God will give you some insights that will change your life and sustain your ministry over the long haul.

TonyWorking from a place of rest is well-written and easy to read, with short chapters that don’t weigh you down.  But the content is not light, as Tony covers such issues as The Discipline of Stopping, Remember the Sabbath and Drinking from the Well.  This book can help us discern what God wants us to say “yes” to, and when to say “no”; it can help us learn to build margin into our lives so that we work from a place of rest.

I wish I had been familiar with the concepts in this book before my health broke down and took me out of my overseas ministry early.  This book is a must-read for all mission workers who think they are too busy to stop and rest, and particularly for those who don’t think they need to.

Working from a place of rest is available online from its publisher BRF for just £6.99, as well as Christian bookshops and online retailers.

White as snow

DSC00220Snow is falling in England, at the time of writing (23.1.13).  It usually happens a few times in winter, but it’s unusual for it to be quite so deep or to lie around for more than a few days, particularly in the warmer south.  Our continental neighbours who are more accustomed to snow must marvel at the havoc and delight it causes.  Schools close.  Deliveries cease.  Traffic stops.  Instead, people make snowmen and throw snowballs.  We go sledging.  Facebook is filled with photos of cute children playing in the snow.

At least for a few days, until we get fed up with wet shoes, cold fingers and traffic chaos, we are thrilled.  Children want to go out and play with it.  Even adults become childlike and light-hearted.  We play in it, and marvel at its sparkly beauty and the silence it creates.

Why do we like snow so much?  What is it about it that we find beautiful?  What is its appeal?  Is it merely that it highlights the bare branches of trees and covers unsightly streets and buildings with a silent shroud of serene white?  Or is there something deeper, visceral, instinctive in it?  Something intuitive that we subconsciously connect with?

In the Bible, snow doesn’t feature much.  It is an occasional meteorological phenomenon (2 Samuel 23:20), and sometimes it is used simply to describe something particularly white (Exodus 4:6).  It occasionally snows in Israel, particularly on the higher mountains like Hermon, but for much of the year, it’s just too hot.  In a hot,  dry, dusty climate, things don’t generally stay white for long, so things that are intrinsically white are often  used as metaphors.  Snow, wool and milk are all biblical examples of this.  Where they come into their own is when they acquire a spiritual significance because of their colour.  White is deeply significant.

In cultures all over Europe and Asia white is, understandably, associated with cleanliness, and by extension purity and innocence.  Ancient Egyptian and Roman priests wore white.  Babylonians and Chinese recognised the dualistic tension between white and black, day and night, yin and yang, good and evil.  Brahmins wore it, and Japanese pilgrims do.  Moslems on the hajj wear white.  So it is clearly not merely Judeo-Christian imagery, but something common to humanity.  Where does the link with purity come from?  It may be that it is simply because milk is white, that it became associated with the innocence of a baby, unsullied by the world.  But I think it goes back further than that.

Genesis tells us that on day one, God made light.  The first thing that God created, even before he made heavenDark_Side_of_the_Moon and earth.  Light, in its purest form, when it is not bouncing off objects, is brilliant white.  Light is frequently associated with purity, understanding, and God – ‘who dwells in unapproachable light’ (1 Timothy 6:16).  God’s clothes are described as white as snow (Daniel 7:9) and so were the angel’s (Matthew 28:3).  John says the same of the hair of the risen Jesus (Revelation 1:14).

So, deep in our folk memories, the whiteness of snow reminds us of God’s purity.  It reminds us of our desire to be cleansed and become pure like God.  Two of the most famous verses about snow are about finding forgiveness.  David, repenting of his sin, said to God ‘Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow’(Psalm 51:7).  And God’s great promise of forgiveness and cleansing to humankind in Isaiah 1:18: ‘Though your sins are scarlet, they will be as white as snow.’

Deep snow covers up all manner of ugliness, making even the roughest outlook beautiful.  When I see urban wastelands blanketed in this picture of innocence, I am reminded that God’s love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).  When we look out on a pristine white landscape, let’s take the opportunity to glorify God who is even more pure, and who will one day grant his followers the privilege of dressing, like him, in white (Revelation 19:8).