I am the vine, you are the branches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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.

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

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.

A picture of the church – migrants not settlers?

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.

The Significance of Sacred Space

Sacred?

Sacred space is something that many western Christians are not particularly aware of, yet it has an important place in our history and culture, and overlooking it can be to ignore a key tool in our missional toolkit.

Sacred space is where the divine intersects with our experience, where the transcendent becomes numinous, typically but not necessarily in a sanctuary or shrine of some sort.  It can also be in an unspoilt natural feature, such a hilltop, spring or seashore, but many sacred sites were ‘validated’ centuries ago by the construction of a religious building on them.  Our experience of God in such places is the reason why many of them have become a place of pilgrimage, and the value we place on these sites contributes to the ongoing spiritual power they have.  So for example, once one person was healed at Lourdes, others went there in the anticipating of meeting with the power of God which was already at work in that place, and this faith fuelled their anticipation even more.

Evangelical Christians have tended to play down the significance of such locations, partly as a reaction to what they have perceived as a superstitious belief in the power of holy sites or relics rather than a living faith in God, and partly because the significance they place on meeting God personally in our day to day lives, which can render a specific location redundant.  Yet in a simple way, any location can aid our faith.  My mother felt that praying in her local Anglican church was more effective than praying at home, since she felt that the cumulative weight of the prayers that have been said in that building for the last 800 years was added to hers.  That’s the significance of a sacred space for her.

Sacred?

A biblical example of a sacred space might be Bethel.  We don’t know why Abraham built an altar there (Genesis 12:8), but just a couple of generations later Jacob was sleeping rough there after he had fled from his home, and had a powerful encounter with God in a dream.  His verdict was “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it… This is none other than the house of God” (Genesis 28:16-17).  The place continued to have spiritual significance throughout the period of the judges and became a centre of idolatry in Israel when Jeroboam placed a golden calf there for cultic reasons (1 Kings 12:28-29).

Another example would be Zion, the place where God said His ‘Name’ would dwell.  This builds on the significance of the Tabernacle, which God commanded the Israelites to build so that He could dwell among them (Exodus 25:8).  That was God’s initiative, expressing a desire to live not set apart in heaven, but among humanity.  This, accompanied by the visual manifestations of God’s presence, led to sense of God literally dwelling in the temple, and subsequently in the church building – the house of God – and which will be eventually fulfilled when there is no temple at all because the Lord and the Lamb dwell among humanity (Revelation 21:3, 22).

So how does this understanding of sacred space help us with our missional endeavours?  Firstly, we can learn that we don’t need to be afraid of buildings, but can use them creatively to draw people into an encounter with God.  They don’t even need to be ‘religious’ buildings.  My own church is responsible for running the community centre in which we meet, and by our constant prayer, worship and incarnational service to the community in every part of the building we have invaded what might otherwise be considered ‘secular’ space to such an extent that people who come into the building remark “There’s a lovely sense of peace here”.  They may not recognise it, but it’s a sense of the presence of God.  The building has become a sacred space.

Sacred?

The other way in which we can use sacred space is to think about the messages we send with our buildings to those who are not yet Christians.  In many cultures, you can see the vestiges of a European definition of spirituality in pictures of a blue-eyed Jesus in India or church buildings with steeples in Indonesia.  Do the architecture, décor and furnishings in church premises speak of something that local people do not identify with sacred?  What can be imported from their culture which they would find familiar and would speak of sacred to them?  Would it be inappropriate, for example, to build a minaret on a church in a muslim country, or to have pictures in which Jesus looks like the people we’re working among?  Does the music we use for worship reflect our own cultural tradition when it might be more appropriate to use that of the local people group?

In my own city, one group is grappling with these issues as it seeks to create a culturally appropriate sacred space for a minority people group to engage with Jesus.  It uses furnishings, religious symbolism and music that would be found in their home culture.  They engage with the religious festivals of that community and embrace their culture.  In consequence, these people have found a safe and sensitive place to worship.  They do not have to cross a cultural divide in order to cross a religious one.

What excuse can we give?


Before I can preach love, mercy, and grace, I must preach sin, law, and judgment. - John Wesley

Some while ago I came across an old tract entitled What excuse can we give? It envisages a scenario of us arriving in heaven and finding a lot of empty seats.  They had been prepared for people whom God wanted to join him, but they had never accepted Jesus because WE had never told them about Him.

It may be an outmoded paradigm, but nevertheless this is a serious question we should ask ourselves.  How many people won’t make it to heaven because we never passed on the vital information?  And how do we justify that to God?  We were too busy?  We had important things to do?  We didn’t want to impose our religious beliefs on others?  I should imagine that such excuses will feel very shallow when we realise how many people have missed out because we didn’t consider the message important enough.

Perhaps the reason why we don’t spend every waking minute talking to the lost about Jesus is that we don’t believe any more that they really are lost.  We like the idea of heaven, but we have airbrushed hell out of the picture because it’s just too distasteful to us.  Can we really believe that a loving God will vindictively punish for all eternity those people who didn’t worship him in this life – just because they didn’t know who he is?  Surely a merciful God would just annihilate them, or even find a way to let them in the back door?

Yet this is not what the New Testament teaches us, no matter how much the likes of Rob Bell try to persuade us that we’ve misunderstood it.  It paints a vivid picture of a terrible doom that awaits the unsaved.  We may legitimately debate how much that picture is literal or figurative, but whichever way we interpret the message, we cannot get away from the fact that the future looks extremely unpleasant for the lost.  Why else would Jesus talk about weeping and gnashing of teeth?

This is the traditional impetus behind mission, whether at home or abroad.  We reach out to the lost not merely so that Jesus can help them in this life, or make them feel better about themselves, but so that he can save them from the wrath of God.  Mission builds not merely on Jesus’ instructions to his own disciples – ‘Go into all the world…’ (Matthew 28:19) and ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you…’ (John 20:21) and the example of the New Testament church – but on an Old Testament image of a God who seeks (Genesis 3:9), sends (Jonah 1:2) and warns (Jeremiah 26:3).

We don’t do much warning these days.  We do a lot more enticing.  Our Gospel is no longer ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand’ so much as ‘God loves you and can solve all your problems.’  I’m not suggesting that we should go back to the days of trying to scare people into heaven by preaching hell and damnation.  But I am painfully aware that on the day of judgment an entire generation could stand up and accuse us: ‘You never warned us!’

God told Ezekiel that he was like a watchman on the city wall (Ezekiel 33:1-9).  If an enemy came to attack the city, and the watchman didn’t warn the people, and they died, it would be the watchman’s fault.  If however he warned them, and they died because they didn’t take any notice of him, it would be their own fault.

As we set out into a brand new year, let each of us resolve to take personal responsibility for warning those in danger.

 

 

The Light of the World

Jesus does not often share his titles with others. There is no reference in the Bible to other people being Prince of Peace, Bread of Life, Logos or the Lamb of God, so when he does, we should listen carefully.

Jesus himself is the Light.  John’s gospel makes this clear in six separate but related passages*, most notably in the first chapter, and in the powerful statement of Jesus I am the Light of the World (John 8:12, 9:5).  This imagery, echoed in the writings of Peter and Paul as well as John’s letters, builds on the famous Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah, which are often read out at Christmas, such as:

The people who walk in darkness will see a great light;

those who live in a dark land, the light will shine upon them (Isaiah 9:2)

These prophecies feed powerfully into the birth narrative in Luke’s gospel as well, and light is an essential part of the Christmas imagery – the star, the angels, God’s glory shining – which we now express in candles and Christmas tree lights.  The light comes into the world, exposes the darkness, and shows people how to live.  Literally appropriate in the dark heart of a European winter, figuratively light has both an intellectual aspect and a moral aspect – we understand better and we behave more responsibly.  In the New Testament letters, ‘walking in the light’ thus becomes a metaphor for both theological learning and ethical  living.

This capacity to reform the world makes Jesus utterly unique.  Nobody else is associated with bringing light into the world.  It is an attribute of God alone, and underlying the imagery of light in the darkness is an implicit statement of the divinity of Jesus – only he is associated with God – is God – dwelling in unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6:16).

Until he shares this with us. You are the light of the world, he says to his followers in Matthew 5:14.  He calls us children of light (Luke 16:8, John 12:36), thereby making us partakers in the divine nature and participants in the divine mission.  Our identity is wrapped up in his.  We are instructed not to hide this light but let it shine in front of people, something we are often reluctant to do in this politically correct generation.

How we live our lives will determine how effective we are in spreading this light.  The light has shone in our hearts and we are lights in the middle of this world (Philippians 2:15).  We are called to let this inner transformation inform our choices and impact our behaviour.  Let us therefore consider how we may go into the world, as the Father sent Jesus, to bring light to the people who still walk in darkness.

* John 1:4-9, 3:19-21, 8:12, 9:5, 12:35-6, 12:46

Harvest – festival?

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

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

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

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

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

Generating personal financial support

Source: www.freeimages.com

Raising financial support is something that most of us working in the missions sector have to do, and yet few of us find it easy.  It is always a challenging issue.  It’s something we all need, and everyone knows we need, and yet it’s something we can find it difficult to talk about.  Options range between not talking about it at all, via aggressive fundraising, to self-supporting.  There isn’t necessarily a best option, or a right one, but the answer may depend on your theology or the attitude of the organisation you’re serving with.

There are three principal approaches to bringing in funds from outside (other than generating them yourself).  The George Müller approach involves telling nobody what is required, simply relying on God to provide, since he already knows your needs.  Müller built a massive orphanage complex in Bristol housing 2000 orphans using this approach, but it’s not for everyone.  Hudson Taylor, who was inspired by Müller, set a precedent for his organisation of answering questions about the needs, but stopping short of asking directly for money.  D L Moody was quite happy making a direct appeal to people for funding, and raised large amounts by this method, which remains popular in the USA and in US-influenced organisations.

It is important to realise that all of these methods are based on our trust in God, even the latter, which though requiring our active participation in the process, still recognises that the funds come from God motivating other people to give.  I personally have trusted God for my income for over 10 years (sometimes through paid employment which God provides) and I have never lacked for anything I needed.  Perhaps if we find our funds don’t stretch far enough, we should start by reassessing what our needs really are.

In Matthew 17:24-27 we find that Peter had a problem.  He needed to pay tax but he didn’t have the money.  So he goes to discuss the matter with Jesus.  But Jesus already knew what the problem was, even before Peter said anything.  He told Peter to go fishing.  Peter could do that.  He was used to it.  So he went and did what he was told to do.  He didn’t worry about the problem.  He just got on with the job.  As he did so, Jesus provided the money.

The significant points of this story are, for me:

  1. Jesus knows what the problem is
  2. Jesus might want us to learn a lesson in the process, but he provides what we need
  3. We participate in the solution (whether you interpret that as by prayer, or by working)
  4. We get on with our work

These are incredibly difficult times for mission workers financially.  Churches are cutting back on support, individuals are reducing giving as they feel financially squeezed, the pound has lost a lot of its value and inflation in many host countries is high.  I know many of us whose income has fallen by almost 50% in real terms in the last few years.  The outlook is gloomy, from this perspective.

Yet one has to wonder how small our God is if he cannot overcome a financial crisis.  Even in these challenging circumstances there are many stories of God miraculously providing.  As we and our supporters make sacrifices, God is able to use us.  As I discovered with my recent mission trip to Brazil, God provided every penny I needed, and more, so that I could generously bless the children I went to work with.  All thanks to the generosity of my supporters, and the generous God who motivates them.

So when we approach the challenge of fundraising, let us start by stirring up our trust in the generous God who loves us, called us, equipped us, and will provide for all our needs, and (as we learn in Philippians 4) all the needs of those who give sacrificially to support us.

A fuller discussion of fundraising methods is found as part of our online guides to doing missions well: click here.

We love because…


"He had compassion... go and do the same"

…He first loved us (1 John 4:19).  I never really understood this verse until a woman I hadn’t really noticed began to pursue me.  Slowly, I responded to her persistent overtures until I realised she had provoked in me a sentiment that resonated with the love she had for me.  And then I understood that I do not love God out of my own resources or efforts; I simply respond to God’s lavish love for me.

In his first letter, John writes a lot about love.  For him, it is proof of how genuine our salvation is.  An ancient story tells that he endlessly repeated his injunction ‘Little children, love one another’, to the exasperation of some of the younger members of the Christian community.   The Apostle of Love had come a long way from being a Son of Thunder (Mark 3:17).  I am sure many of us working in the mission field often feel more like calling down fire from heaven (Luke 9:54) on those who don’t receive our message than persisting in faithful love for them.

And therein lies our challenge: we are called to love the unlovely, the hostile and antagonistic, the corrupt, the uninterested and indeed all the different types of people that we come across in the police stations, immigration offices, shops, schools, farms and churches where our work takes us, yet we so frequently run out of love.  We give so much that the well runs dry, and a relationship is damaged as a result.  We end up breaking down from exhaustion.

In the discussion preceding one of his most famous parables (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus makes it clear that we fulfil the greatest commandment by loving our neighbour as ourselves.  Our devotion to God is expressed in our compassion for humanity, of which the Good Samaritan was a prime example as he rose above racism and hostility to care for his enemy even at risk to himself.

The ability to live like this can only come from God.  As the Holy Spirit lives in us, so does the love of God, inspiring us and equipping us to love others (1 John 4:16).  It should not be something that we have to force or fake – since we are born of God, it is only natural that the children should bear the family likeness, and do just what they see the Father doing (1 John 4:7).

When we find ourselves ill-equipped to express this compassion, when our resources have run out and we feel we have given all we have left to give, then it is time to read again 1 John chapter 4 and remind ourselves how much love God has given us…. and then pass some of it on.

 

This is the first in what we hope will become a devotional series, aiming to provide some spiritual input to complement the practical and pastoral support Syzygy provides for mission workers.

 

The Power of the Timid Prayer

Effective prayer?

I was struck recently by a video I saw of some Christians in Denmark who roam the streets looking for sick people to pray for.  Their approach was unassuming, they didn’t make a big issue of it, but lots of people were being healed.  There were lots of shots of people throwing away crutches and walking unaided without pain.  There was no prior explanation of who Jesus is, how he saves, how he heals.  They just asked if they could pray.

What struck me most however were their very simple prayers.  They didn’t shout, command healing, rebuke Satan, or use any of the other spectacular techniques that we have come across.  They prayed a simple prayer: Jesus, we thank you that you can heal.  We ask you to heal this person now and take away all the pain.  Thank you.

This of course, is not a new approach.  Jesus told his disciples not to pray like pagans, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words (Matthew 6:7).  He taught them that God will answer quickly (Luke 18:6-8) because he is a good father who knows how to look after his children (Matthew 7:7-11).  Hudson Taylor remarked that he never forgot that his children needed food to be put on the table for them, and he had no reason to assume that God was any different than him.

Max Lucado observed, in a sermon called The Power of the Timid Prayer, that when Jesus found his disciples unable to cast out a demon, he subsequently taught them that only prayer could cast the demon out  (Mark 9:29).  Yet the only prayer recorded in this passage is the one of the boy’s father – if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us. Did he have great faith?  No, he even asked Jesus to help him believe.  Was he eloquent?  No, his prayer was a pitiful plea.  All he had in his favour was that he had asked the right person.

Have pity, he pleaded.  The underlying Greek word is much stronger than pity or compassion, closer to ‘gutted’ in modern English.  It is used selectively in the Gospels: only of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:33), the father of the lost son (Luke 15:20), and of Jesus on the numerous occasions when he had compassion on the lost, the poor, the sick and oppressed.  It tells us a lot about Jesus.  As the creed says, his nature is always to have mercy.

Effective prayer depends not on our faith or our eloquence, but on the mighty and compassionate God who has pity on us.

Join the Syzygy prayer network to pray for mission workers worldwide, or visit the World Prayer Map for up-to-date prayer information on specific countries.