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!

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.

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

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Planting out rice seedlings in Cambodia

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

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

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

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…

Source: www.freebibleimages.org

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.

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…

You’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.

Many 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?

Photo by Joe Roberts on Unsplash

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.

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

One 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.

Some 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

Photo by paul segal from FreeImages

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.

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 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 heaven 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).

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.

Immigrants and strangers

In a recent exercise with a group of TCKs, we did a Bible study in which I challenged the young people to name as many characters from Bible who didn’t fit into the culture of the people around them.

From the obvious ones like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who left their homeland in search of an inheritance, and the apostles who went out into the Hellenised world and eventually beyond to take the gospel, to Joseph and  Daniel, the successful Prime Ministers of foreign powers, we came up with a list that completely filled the flip chart.  Rahab, who left her people to throw in her lot with the Israelites, refugees Ruth & Naomi, and David living with his band of outcasts among the Philistines were some of the less likely examples.  In the end, most of the major characters in the Bible were up on the list.  I left them with the challenge: in the light of that list, how do you feel about finding it hard to fit into British culture?

For mission workers adult and juvenile, the challenge is generally seen as how to fit in, whether it’s coping with culture shock when we go to live in a foreign country, or reverse culture shock when we come back home – and remember that Britain isn’t ‘home’ for TCKs who’ve spent most of their lives in another country.  Yet is this really the right approach?

People working with TCKs try to help them fit in and feel at home, to quickly make friends at school and come to grips with the very different culture they’re living in.  If they feel they can fit in, they are generally a lot happier and content to be living here.  But when you take a long, hard look at our materialistic, sensual, consumerist society, why on earth would we want anyone to fit in?  Learn to cope with it, yes, but to feel like you belong?  Surely all Christians should be actively taking steps to make sure we don’t feel we belong in this world!  Isn’t that what John means by telling us that we are not of this world? (John 17:16, 1 John 2:15)

The New Testament summarises this sense of dwelling in but not belonging as being immigrants and strangers (1 Peter 2:11, CEV).  There is a very contemporary ring about these words, yet they were ancient legal categories referring to transient migrant workers and what we now call ‘resident aliens’.  People who weren’t from round here.  People who were different, who didn’t fit in.  Who didn’t have rights.  People who formed an economic underclass, who may actually have been desperate to go ‘home’ but couldn’t find jobs or food there.  The Roman empire, particularly its major cities like Rome, Corinth, Antioch and Alexandria were heaving with this great unwashed mass of migrant humanity, living a hand-to-mouth existence, moving from tenement to tenement, city to city, in a never ceasing effort to find food, work, money.

This colourful picture shows us how Peter expected Christians to feel about their place in the world around us.  Hebrews 11:13-16 picks up on this imagery and suggests that the Old Testament heroes of faith were like foreigners and strangers in the land, looking for a better home, a city given them by God.  Paul resolves this paradox in Ephesians chapter 2, where he says you are no longer strangers and foreigners but co-citizens with the saints and the household of God.

This teaching would have been hugely encouraging to the stateless, illiterate, itinerant workers who made up the bulk of the early church.  Many of them were slaves, most would have owned no property, and few would have been Roman citizens.  To have a sense of community, belonging, enfranchisement and home would have been beyond their wildest dreams, and they found it in the church.  This truly is good news for a broken world.

At this time of year we remember the birth of the ultimate cross-cultural mission worker who brought this good news.  He wasn’t from round here.  He moved into our world and brought a message of hope.  Like those he lived alongside, he wasn’t a citizen; he lived under military occupation.  For a while he was a political refugee.  He had few belongings, and moved from place to place, with nowhere to rest his head.  He was executed as a common criminal and buried in a borrowed grave.  This was someone with whom the urban underclass could identify, even though in his own world he was a King.

How much effort do his followers make today not only to take his message to immigrants and strangers, but to take it in the same way he did?

What is a ‘calling’?

He Qi: The Burning Bush

One thing that all sending agencies agree on is that before serving God overseas long-term, there must be a sense of calling.  We may make exceptions for short-term trips as they are sometimes seen as exploratory, rather like putting a toe in the bathwater to see if it’s too hot, but before making a long term commitment, there has to be some sort of calling.

But what exactly is a calling, and how do we know when we have it?

A sense of calling  is the deep-seated conviction that God has a task for you, or a place for you to be.  It is essential if you’re going to be effective in your ministry; it motivates and energises you, and sustains you through the difficult times.  Yet it’s also something that’s extremely hard to agree on.    It varies from person to person, and depends on how they relate to God, and on the type of church they’re part of.  Some people feel they have prophetic words spoken to them, others have a vague sense that something is right, or a deep empathy for a place or a people.  Who is right?

Well, they all are, because a calling is as unique and personal to you as your relationship with God.  But let’s look as some of the Biblical models of calling and see what we can learn from them.

Abraham (Genesis 11:31-12:3) is given a cryptic call in which he is told to go, but is not told where, although it appears that they originally had the intention of going to Canaan when they set out from Ur.  Cross-referencing to Acts 7:2-3 it appears that this is the renewal of a call originally given in Ur, and that Abraham had got stuck in Haran – possibly because his father did not want to move any further.  Sometimes we need to hear our call again as circumstances can cause us to lose sight of it.  Sometimes a call is on our heart for many years before we can fulfil it.

Moses (Exodus 3) of course received a most spectacular call, involving a fireproof shrub and a lengthy conversation with God, of the type for which he would become famous.  Yet the key to it all was his own curiosity – on seeing the burning bush, he went to investigate.  If we are aware of what is going on around us, and are open to inspiration, God can get our attention.

 

Isaiah (Is 6:1-8) made a devotional response to God.  He did not have any idea what God was planning, but out of his profound awareness of being forgiven, his worship overflowed in a desire to serve.

Elisha (1 Kings 19:15-21) had a call which was adoptive.  God sent Elijah to anoint him and Elisha accepted.  He started out being a manservant to Elijah (2 Kings 3:11) but due to his zeal took over his mentor’s ministry and became one of Israel’s greatest prophets.

Saul & Barnabas (Acts 13:1-4).  Someone in a leaders’ meeting had a prophetic word telling them to consecrate Saul and Barnabas for ‘the work to which I have called them’.  There seems to be no further divine direction, so we must conclude that they were already mulling over the idea of a mission to Cyprus and this was confirmation.

Ezra (Ez 7:6, 9-10) went to teach in a Bible college.  It seems that he went out of a sense of personal conviction, yet it is clear that ‘the good hand of his God was upon him’.

Nehemiah (Neh1:2-5) received a call which was both locational and vocational – he had a specific task to do.  But his call arose from his compassion for a specific locality.  We should not underestimate the significance of how concerned we may feel for a particular people, group or place.

Philip (Acts 8:26-40), an accomplished evangelist, is told by an angel to go to somewhere specific.  When he gets there, he is prophetically given further instructions.

Paul and his team (Acts 2:6-10).  After experiencing some sort of closed doors to widening his team ministry, the nature of which is not exactly clear, Paul has a vision of a Macedonian man asking for help.  The whole team responds.

So we can see from the above that a calling comes in many forms.  It can be circumstantial, revelatory, prophetic, general, locational, compassionate, vocational, devotional, educational, adoptive.  It can be a call to a specific task or place, or something more general.  Many times there is some form of direct communication from God, but not always.  Of course, the most all-embracing call of all is the one found in Matthew 28 – Go and make disciples of all nations – which was originally given to the eleven but is commonly understood as applying to all believers for all time.

It is certainly one commandment of Jesus that the church has not yet completed.

Other aspects of discerning a calling can be found in our worksheet on this subject, which is part of the Syzygy guide on how to prepare for going.

‘Holy’ Communion?

A Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow

I recently had the opportunity to worship in a Russian Orthodox church, which has a very different practice to the informal protestant style to which I am accustomed.  The entire service was liturgical, with plenty of chanting, incense, robes and icons.  Their tradition is full of majesty, drama, and symbolism, something which many western churches with a ‘low’ tradition have lost.  Talking afterwards to the faithful believer who was my companion, she explained that she was unable to take communion on this occasion as she had not had sufficient time to prepare.

Apparently she would have had to spend about 2½ hours in private prayer following a prescribed liturgy reflecting on the gravity of her sin.  She would have had to fast for 5 hours beforehand so that she could take communion on an empty stomach, and prior to (or during) the church service she would have needed to make confession to a priest.  Only then was she ready to receive communion.

Many protestants will be challenged, or even angered, by this lengthy procedure.  They may be muttering about people putting stumbling blocks in the way of the penitent coming to Jesus for forgiveness.  They may be thinking that Jesus would have had harsh things to say about such apparently pharisaic behaviour.  Surely, they will say, the whole point of Jesus’ complete and perfect sacrifice was so that the sinner can come to him and find forgiveness easily, because there is nothing the sinner can do to earn it?

My Orthodox friend’s response to this suggestion is to point out that our sin is truly awful, and that we should take time to remind ourselves of the terrible price it cost Jesus before taking advantage of his free grace.  Only when we contemplate how our thoughts, words and actions have placed an impassable barrier between us and God which only Jesus can remove, are we ready to enjoy the fruit of this lavish forgiveness.

Perhaps she has a point.  Whether we are high church or low, sacramental or symbolist, what we all have in common is that we believe that communion is something special.  In many traditions it is specifically called Holy Communion.  Yet we often fail to treat it with the respect and awe that I saw in that Orthodox church.  It seems that the more informal our church meetings are, the less time we give to contemplate our sinfulness.  Many churches deliberately avoid reflecting on our human depravity because they prefer to emphasis the fact that we are saints by God’s grace than sinners by nature.  So we come to communion with nothing more than a quick ‘Sorry Lord’ to prepare our hearts, which can cultivate the impression that our sin doesn’t really matter.

Our sin matters hugely.  It is our sin that led Jesus to the cross on our behalf.  It is our sin that hammered huge nails into his innocent flesh.  It is our sin which caused him to surrender his life so that we can be reconciled to God and purchase our forgiveness with his blood.

Forgiveness is free, but it is not cheap.

Olympic champions?

The recent Olympic and Paralympic Games in London have certainly inspired the British, who greatly enjoyed hosting and participating in the games.  After much typically British cynicism and low expectations, we ended up surprising ourselves by not only organising the games well, but by becoming enthusiastic and cheerful participants, whether as competitors, spectators, volunteers or observers.  It was the only time in my life I have been able to smile at a stranger on the London Underground and not be regarded with utmost suspicion.

We thrilled at the drama of the games, recognising the courage and endurance it takes not only for the few moments of competition but in all the early mornings, long hours of training, struggling for funding and overcoming personal challenges needed to rise to the top of any sport, and particularly Paralympics.  We appreciated the genuine humility of the competitors, in contrast to many overpaid prima donnas who enjoy soccer celebrity.  We marvelled at their achievements: hundreds of world records fell during these games, demonstrating the extreme achievement of the athletes.  In several finals, every participant achieved at the very least a personal best, with world, Olympic and regional records being broken as well.

When everyone gets a Personal Best!

This has caused me to reflect on the Biblical references to games such as these.  St Paul, unusually for a Jewish person of his time, seems to have enjoyed sport, and referenced it in his letters, often as an example of personal discipline or endurance.  Running, boxing and chariot racing are mentioned or implied in his letters.  The writer to the Hebrews does the same, and in one famous passage draws inspiration from the stadium which would have been familiar to many of his readers.  In the opening two verses of chapter 12 we find references to the spectators, training weights, baggy and inconvenient togas (ancient athletes had to compete naked because they hadn’t invented lycra), running, endurance, contest and of course, the finishing line.

These sporting references are often overlooked because they are not instantly obvious to modern readers.  But the implication is clear: the Christian life is a race which demands of us everything demanded of Olympic champions: discipline, focus, dedication, commitment and endurance.  Such characteristics are available to all of us, athletic or not, by God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  They are choices we make and attitudes we adopt.  We are not in competition with each other, but with ourselves, in our efforts to achieve a personal best.  Paul reminds us that the winning athletes only got a perishable laurel wreath to wear, whereas we get an everlasting one.  ‘So run in order to win’, he exhorts us (1 Corinthians 9:24).  If they put themselves through all that sacrifice just to get a bunch of leaves, he implies,  what will we do to earn an eternal crown of righteousness?

I wonder how many Christians bear more resemblance to chubby spectators sitting in front of the television than they do to the world’s greatest athletes.

What’s in a name?

“What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet”.  So lamented Juliet, reflecting on the fact that Romeo’s surname was a barrier to their relationship.  She felt his name should not be a significant issue.  True, the fragrance of the rose would remain unchanged if we had named it stinking bogweed, but we might not be so fond of it.

Jesus says something very interesting in his prayer recorded in John 17 – “I have shown them Your Name” (John 17:6).  We often overlook it, but which name does he mean?  They already knew the sacred name YHWH even though they might not know how to say it, because it was considered too holy for a human to pronounce.  They used the words ‘King’ and ‘Lord’, which rightly expressed that God was their ruler.  But these are not names, they’re titles, and there were many other titles which they used as well, but not names.  So what does Jesus mean?

There is one word which he used more than any other to talk about God – Father.  Not just our Father, as the Hebrews frequently prayed, sometimes the Father, but usually my Father.  This was utterly unheard of.  There is no record of anyone in the Old Testament being so presumptuous.  Indeed, the phrase only appears once on the lips of a person in reference to God, and that’s in Psalm 89 where it talks of the Messiah using it.  John records that the religious types understood exactly the implications of Jesus using it.  They accused him of blasphemy, for making himself equal with God.  And this would indeed be blasphemy, if it weren’t true.

So how does ‘my Father’ come to be considered a name?  Many of us call one of our parents ‘father’ but we recognise that it is a title and that he has a personal name as well.  But in Hebrew, ‘name’ doesn’t merely mean a label we randomly place on something.  Names are significant.  They are often prophetic, as Jesus made clear when he gave Simon the new name of Peter (Matthew 16:18).  Sometimes they reflect people’s hopes and dreams – just look at the names Leah gave her sons (Genesis 29), showing that she hoped her husband would love and value her because of her fertility.  Names encapsulate the essence of someone – Barnabas, son of encouragement (Acts 4:36), or James and John who were nicknamed ‘Sons of Thunder’ because of their fiery temperaments (Mark 3:17).  So Juliet was wrong – a name is highly significant, whether prophetic or causative in shaping the destiny of an individual.

So when Jesus chooses to say ‘My Father’, he is not merely making a statement about his own divinity – which was not lost on his contemporaries.  He is primarily making a statement about the essential character of God.  He used imagery showing how God is a good father (Matthew 7:11).  His most famous parable is about a father who loves his lost son so much that he breaks all the rules to have him back again (Luke 15).  He asserts the compassionate nature of a God who cares for his children (Mark 10:14).  By applying this name, he emphasises that God wants to be our Dad.

How does he show them God’s name?  This doesn’t really make sense in English until you’ve realised that ‘name’ is more than a label.  He could as easily have said “I’ve shown them your nature”.  And he makes the point that he hasn’t simply told people; he’s demonstrated it.  He has lived out the message, as St Francis encouraged his followers to:

“Preach the Gospel at every opportunity.  If all else fails, use words.”

Jesus encapsulated the message.  He demonstrated in his lifestyle who God is.  John gives evidence of this when he records Jesus saying “He who has seen me, has seen the Father” (John 14:9).  His incarnation, life and death showed the love and holiness of God, and the extent to which God is prepared to go to rescue his lost sheep (Luke 15:7).  What should be our response to this revelation of God’s nature in Jesus?  Go and do the same (Luke 10:37).

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

In the early 6th century BC, the small, independent kingdom of Judah was crushed by the power of Babylon, a huge global superpower.  The king was executed, the nobles abducted, the temple burned to the ground, and many of the population were forcibly relocated to a new home deep into enemy territory, where they were surrounded by people with different customs, religions and languages.

Psalm 137 (which made a brief but infamous appearance in the British charts in 1978 at the hands of Boney M) is a lamentation about this experience of going into exile.  It refers to pain, a desire to go back, and a lust for revenge.  Their mocking captors had asked them to sing one of their folk songs to entertain them, but this just reminded them of the home that they couldn’t return to.  ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’ becomes a shorthand reference to the challenge of living as an insignificant minority in a hostile culture, where there are multiple religious beliefs, a variety of practices which the faithful may be forced to participate in, and a complete lack of tolerance for their previous national customs.

This is a situation not unlike western Europe today, as Christians struggle to come to terms with the fact that Christendom is no more.  Christianity no longer provides a moral compass even if David Cameron himself claims that Britain is a Christian country.  There are too many competing voices now for that to be completely true.  There are Christian elements to our world, and a huge Christian heritage shaping much of our public practice and principle, but effectively now we are a post-Christian country.  Like the exiled Jews, we need to come to terms with it.

In fact, throughout most of history God’s faithful have been in the minority.  In Genesis, just eight people made it onto the ark, and the Abrahamic covenant was made with just one family among many tribes.  Throughout the rest of the Pentateuch they were just twelve tribes among the Egyptian oppressors, or wandering through the wilderness among hostile neighbours.  Under the judges they were just one nation amongst many.  Under the kings, they were battling with external threats and against internal apostasy.  Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel had to deal with the challenge of being subjects of a huge multinational empire and the whole of the New Testament takes place against the backdrop of the oppressive might of Rome.  Subsequently Christianity spread around the world but often had to deal with suffering and persecution at the hands of others – particularly in communist or modern Islamic countries.

For only one significant period of history has there been an exception to this rule: the bizarre 15 or so centuries when Christendom thrived in Europe in an alliance between church and state that ‘christianised’ nations and ‘authorised’ church.  But today Christendom is crumbling.  People of other faiths (and no faith) have a voice.  Christians are losing ours.  We are going into exile and we don’t like it.  Old familiarities are changing, old paradigms are failing.  People stronger than us have taken us into exile.  Now our challenge is to work out how to live alongside others on their terms, not on ours.

Some of the issues that face us include: keeping Sunday special, ethical issues surrounding the beginning and end of life, accommodating other faiths, the possibilities of witness in the workplace, and the church’s attitude to those who sexual and gender preferences are different to those traditionally sanctioned by the church.  When we are not Biblically literate, we struggle to determine our response to these issues.  But we can rely on different precedents to indicate how we might approach these situations, which range from opposition to compliance.

Daniel (Chapter 6) chose to react with open defiance when ordered to pray only to the king.  When Jesus (Mt 22:15-22) was given the opportunity to encourage people to revolt against paying taxes to an illegal occupying force, he chose to focus on our devotion to God.  Paul (1C10:31) would have felt it was ok for Christians to eat halal or kosher meat as long as they felt they could do it with a clean conscience.  Nehemiah (Neh 13:23) clearly thought it was wrong to marry an unbeliever while Paul said that if you’ve already done it, you should not divorce them (1C7:12).

What each of them is doing (in their own context) is determining which issues are worth fighting over, and which we can safely going along with.  Each of us, together in our church contexts, and not in isolation, needs to work this through too.  Sometimes the church fights on the wrong ground, making a stand on things that could comfortably compromised over, or giving way easily over massively significant issues.  Some guidelines to help us extrapolate biblical teaching into contemporary contexts may include asking ourselves the following questions:

Would our compliance contravene the 10 commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), or any other clear scriptural injunction?

Does resistance prevent us keeping the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:32-40)?

Does compromise help us to fulfil the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20)?

Often, Christians who make a stand on an issue can easily alienate and offend the very people we hope to reach out to with the love of God.  So we need to be careful in how we express ourselves.  We need to remember that in a post-Christian, multi-cultural world it can be evangelistically counter-productive and morally dubious to force non-believers to comply with our views, even if we believe we are right.

Jeremiah wrote a letter to the Jewish exiles .  He wasn’t popular for it, but it was good advice from God.  He said:

‘Build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat their produce… Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare your will have welfare’.  (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

In other words, get used to it.  Don’t live in a dream world; don’t carry on complaining that this is wrong.  Get over it.  Adapt and thrive.

I am the vine, you are the branches

Photo by Chi Le from FreeImages

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you tell what it is yet?

When I was a child, one of the regular programmes on the BBC at Saturday tea-time, along with The Generation Game and Basil Brush, was The Rolf Harris Show.  The Australian performer, who at the time was better known as a comedian and singer (anyone remember Two Little Boys?), told jokes, sang songs, and did sketches on his show.  But the bit I always looked forward to was the finale.

Rolf’s tour de force was to close the show with an apparently extemporised painting on a massive scale.  Using a decorator’s paintbrush and a giant board, he would make huge, apparently random strokes using just a few colours.  Pausing regularly to turn to the audience and say with a grin, ‘Can you tell what it is yet?, in as little as five minutes he would produce a painting which only in the final seconds resolved itself into a recognisable picture.  The audience would gasp, clap and cheer on realising that all along he’d been working to a plan which resulted in a masterpiece, but which none of us had been able to identify in advance, despite the fact that we all knew exactly what he was up to.

I wonder if you sometimes feel that what God is doing in your life looks more like a few random brush strokes than an unfinished masterpiece.  It is so easy to fail to discern God’s plan, and to wonder why we’re in this ministry, if what we’re giving our lives for isn’t some cataclysmic mistake.  Particularly in the hard times, when something has gone monumentally, tragically wrong, and our belief systems are shaken to their very foundations.  Our faith in God’s benevolence can be sorely tested.  That’s the time when we need to trust that God, like Rolf, is working to a plan which will amaze us once we finally see the beauty that he’s created in us.

For there is ample evidence that God does work to a plan, despite our own periodic uncertainties about this.  The lives of many Old Testament saints – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Job – show that they go through trials and tribulation as well as blessing, but somehow it works out alright in the end.  God tells Jeremiah he has a plan (29:11), and Paul reminds the
Philipians (1:6) that God is still working on it but won’t leave it unfinished.  For some, that plan didn’t appear to work out that well (Acts 7:57-60, 12:2, Hebrews 11:35-38, but we do have the comfort that after our death God can still put the finishing touches to it (Revelation 21:3-4).

In the years since I was watching The Rolf Harris Show, Rolf has been forgiven for his didgeridoo, the Stylophone and Two Little Boys – cultural faux pas which helped make the 1970s The Decade That Style Forgot – and has been accepted as a serious artist, who has even portraited the Queen.  While he hasn’t done so well that anyone seriously thinks Rolf Harris is God, he may have something to teach us about the master plan of the Creator.

You can make me clean

Mark starts off his gospel in a unique way – it’s all action.  He doesn’t use genealogies, birth narratives or theology to tell you who Jesus is.  He uses stories.  It’s very postmodern in that respect.  But the stories aren’t just random events:  they’re carefully selected illustrations of Jesus’ power and identity.  Mark systematically builds a narrative out of healing, deliverance, forgiving, and other miracles which lead to the pregnant hanging question in 4:41 – Who is this guy?

The story that finishes chapter 1 is often unnoticed in this accelerating sequence, or if it’s mentioned at all it’s to show the compassion that Jesus has for the socially marginalised.  But that’s not what it’s really about.  It’s not about healing at all.  Mark’s already told us about Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, so why do we need another healing story?

The clue is in the request: You can make me clean, if you want to.  The man wants to be clean.  Leprosy (and other skin diseases lumped together with it by the ancient Israelites) resulted in the victim being ritually unclean.  This meant he could not pursue his relationship with God, because he had no access to the temple to make the appropriate sacrifices to restore and maintain this relationship.  This man’s biggest concern was not his disfiguring disease, or his resulting social isolation, but his inability to draw close to God because of his uncleanness.

In Hebrew thought there were three classes of purity: holy, clean and unclean.  If you wanted to move up the scale there were complex rituals for purification involving the blood of a bird sacrificed over a bucket of ‘living’ water (Leviticus 14:5), but it was very easy to move down again.  Just eating a prawn or touching a dead body made you unclean.  So people went to great lengths to avoid touching lepers, or even gravestones.  So in this instance, something utterly amazing has happened.  Jesus touched the leper and not only did he not become unclean, the leper became instantly clean!  In our culture we have lost the impact of this, but it is in fact an indisputable allusion to the divinity of Jesus.  It’s an interesting verse to use (say) with muslim people, who have retained in their culture an understanding of uncleanness.  This verse amazes them.

Ritual purity is not a recognised concept in the West, so we have no real mechanism for understanding it, but the awareness of it is still there.  Like Lady Macbeth, frantically trying to wash the illusory blood from her hands, deep inside we know that we are unclean, but we don’t know how to deal with it.  Perhaps this is why we are so obsessive about hygiene – at least we can clean the outside of the cup!  Sometimes Obsessive Compulsive Disorder manifests as a paranoia over cleanliness – it’s even nicknamed ‘Lady Macbeth syndrome’.  People who have been sexually molested often scrub themselves vigorously to get rid of the inner contamination as well as the external, and it has been suggested that sometimes self-harm can be a way of trying to deal with this, as bleeding lets the ‘inner dirt’ out.

Sometimes Christians suffer from a similar problem.  We’ve been told over and over again that our sins are forgiven, and we know that as soon as we repent our sins are blotted out by God, but we don’t always feel forgiven.  We want to keep saying sorry, or earn our forgiveness.  That is because we still feel unclean.  We aren’t taught that Jesus cleanses, so we can’t appropriate the ritual purity before God that enables us to feel clean.  We are like Isaiah, in that we know we are people of unclean lips (Isaiah 6:5), but we don’t experience the cleansing.

500 years before Jesus was even born, Zechariah prophesied about him, that through him God would open up a fountain for ‘sins and impurity’ (Zechariah 13:1).  Unless we fully appreciate this dual aspect of Christ’s accomplishment on the cross we do not fully enjoy the grace he has poured out on us.  This Easter we can stand before God not only forgiven but spotless and without blemish because we are washed with the blood of the Lamb.

Moving Staircases?

‘Keep an eye on the staircases – they like to change!’

Recent years have seen much change in the world of missions, and for nearly all of us it feels like the change is relentless.  Factors affecting this include the current financial situation, the changing relationship between agencies and churches, new paradigms of mission, technological innovation, the rise of Generation X and now Y, the decline of the West and the change of the centre of the global church’s gravity towards the south/east, and indeed many more.  It feels stressful just to list these things!

Many of us don’t feel at home in this fast-paced and rapidly developing world.  It shakes our security in the way we’ve got used to doing things, and it can be disturbing when the mission field becomes flooded with people who do things very differently.  Some of the changes afoot at the moment threaten our own long-term futures in mission unless we are able to adapt, and even the survival of some well-established mission agencies may be in doubt if they cannot embrace the necessary change.  This is, quite frankly, alarming.

It reminds me of the scene in the first Harry Potter movie (is it ok to reference Harry Potter in a Christian blog?) where the children discover the staircases can move by themselves.  All of a sudden, they can’t get back to their rooms, and have to find a different way.  They have to duck quickly as several tons of hardwood comes flying over their heads to a new destination.  They have the challenge of working out how to get to their lessons by a new route.

For some of them it is a, well, magical experience, full of awe and wonder at this marvellous spectacle, but for others  it must be bewildering and frightening, as they find their security challenged and their assumptions about life questioned.  I wonder if you can sympathise with them as you see the change going on around you in the mission field.

Yet, when the staircases have settled down, it’s still possible to find your way to your destination.  It may take a bit of time to explore, experiment, and come back from dead ends, but in fact many of us will already be experienced at doing that.  For most of us, that’s part of life, and part of our calling.

The church, despite often being conservative, and preserving many practices and traditions handed down from its earliest days and even before the time of Christ, is no stranger to change, and the first generation of believers must have had the hardest time of all, adapting their worldview to believe first that Jesus was the Messiah they were waiting for even though he wasn’t what they were expecting, then having to cope with his suffering and death, followed by his resurrection and ascension.  Then they had to face ejection from the synagogues and hostility from Rome.  Just when they thought they had it figured out, and that he’d return within their lifetimes, he didn’t come to rescue them when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans.

So what might they have to say to us about change?  Peter tells us that we are aliens and sojourners (1 Peter 2:11), not citizens or residents, but migrants who won’t be staying around.  John warns us not to get attached to anything in this world (1 John 2:15) because it’s only temporary – and so are we.  They were very much aware of the transient nature of our existence, and chose to focus instead on our eternal heritage.  Peter reminds us that we are looking for a new heaven and a new earth (2 Peter 3:13).  Paul tells us that our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20) and the Hebrew writer challenges us to emulate the saints of old who lived by faith, and walked away from all this world has, seeking a better country (Hebrews 11:16).

In the midst of their changeable, temporary, transient world, they looked to the One who is the sole source of stability, Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8), who will one day take us to a home of unchangeable glory.  We cannot do better than to follow their example.