Removing the rocks

Source: www.freeimages.com

I have blogged before about sowing in hope and about sowing what we will not reap.  As mission workers we sometime need these encouragements when it seems that ours is a thankless task bearing little fruit. Some of us are working hard and faithfully in places where it is hard to be in faith for even one person to express an interest in the gospel, let alone a mass movement to Christ breaking out.

Recently a retired mission worker told me that in his youth he had met an elderly mission worker who was hard at work but apparently achieving little.  As young enthusiastic recruits are liable to do, he asked the old man what he thought he was achieving.  “I’m not even planting the seed of the word,” came the reply.  “I’m still moving the rocks out of the field”.

We need to be aware that wherever we are ministering, we might inadvertently be placing rocks rather than removing them.  If we do not live like the locals, dress like the locals, eat like the locals, we may be unintentionally building barriers rather than bridges.

So what does removing rocks look like?  We should be asking ourselves – and our local contacts – what we communicate about Christianity that might actually put them off listening to our testimony.  So if we can address those issues, we may stand more of a chance of being seen as religious people they can engage with.  Part of their misconception about Christianity will be that they assume what they see in western media is Christian.  We ourselves are only too aware that television and movies seldom present Christianity well, but Christians are often perceived as decadent or immoral by others for whom this is their principal way of seeing the West.

Some of the things we could think about doing which might remove some rocks could include:

Prayer.  We pray so constantly and naturally that we hardly notice it.  We hold regular prayer meetings which take place in the privacy of a home or office so others don’t see it (Matthew 6:5).  But in some cultures where prayer is much more obvious or regular, they don’t necessarily realise we pray.  So if we very obviously and regularly stopped to say a prayer, they may well realise that we too are a people who take prayer seriously.  Moslem people might be more impressed with our faith, for example, if they knew we stopped to pray 5 times a day!

Fasting.  Some cultures, notably Islamic ones, make a big thing of fasting at certain seasons.  They do not see us fast, even if we do, because we try to keep it secret (Matthew 6:16).  But if we made more of an obvious effort to keep Lent, it would be a great opportunity to show people that we take fasting seriously.

Giving.  In line with the passage in Matthew quoted above, we try to keep our personal giving quiet as well.  But our giving is not only financial, but in our support for the needy.  Jesus also taught us to let people see our good deeds so that can glorify God (Matthew 5:16).  We are understandably reluctant to trumpet our acts of charity like Pharisees, but we do need to let them be seen.

Furnishings.  I have blogged before about how western architecture and décor don’t necessarily communicate spirituality to people of other cultures.  Even something as simple as having book stands to keep our Bible off the floor will show that we are people who treat it as sacred rather than just another book.  Removing our shoes when entering a place of worship might communicate something about reverence as well.

Clothing.  Much debate has taken place over how we should dress in order not to give offence, but just fitting into a local culture is a start.  This is the reason Hudson Taylor wanted the CIM missionaries to adopt Chinese dress.  I am known for preferring shorts to trousers, but in the Moslem community in which I currently live, I never wear shorts outside even for a quick visit to the shops.  Similarly, when I worked in Thailand, I shaved off my beard because Thai people don’t grow them, but grew it longer when living among people who do grow beards.

Attention to such simple things as how we appear to and behave with the people around us is the first step in removing the rocks.  St Paul summarises this strategy as:

I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I can save some.

(1 Corinthians 9:22)

Come, follow, go

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

These comforting words are said by Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30) as he calls all society’s outcasts to him: the hungry, the weary, the sick, the stressed.  Those who are needy, marginalised and downtrodden.  He offers them relief, comfort and provision.  When John the Baptist asked him to authenticate himself, Jesus responds by telling him how he has met people’s needs (Matthew 11:3-5).  This continues today.  Many of us initially responded to Jesus when we found him meeting specific needs.  Some of the fastest growing churches today are the ones getting their hands dirty: they run foodbanks, debt advice centres, street pastors, pregnancy advice clinics, healing ministries.  Not just because these are effective evangelistic tools; they are places where Jesus meets needs.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  Once our needs are met, he starts to move us on.  “Follow me” he says (Mark 1:17), asking us to leave behind family, homes and finance to begin a pilgrim life on the move, walking in his footsteps, going where he goes, often in some fairly dubious or dangerous company.  That’s not always easy to do.  Some of us figure we have too much to lose (Luke 18:23).  Others give up everything and follow Jesus (Luke 5:28).  Where else can we go? asks Peter after everyone else had found Jesus’ teaching too difficult (John 6:68).  As Jesus plainly says, what is the point of gaining everything, and losing one’s soul? (Matthew 16:26)

But following Jesus isn’t the last word.  There comes a time when he sends us off.  As he sent out his disciples (Matthew 10:5), he sends us.  It’s not that he is no longer with us, but that we strike out from the safety of the nomadic community which has become familiar to us, to take further risks, to leave more behind in the task of spreading his word.  For some of us this means going to the other side of the world, and for some it’s the other side of the street.  But the going is there for all of us as we go on in our journey with Jesus.  Failing to go is not only disobedient, it means missing out on a key stage of our development in Christ.

Come-follow-go is not a consecutive sequence of events in the life of a believer, but three interwoven strands that feed into each other.  As we follow Jesus he sends us into a given situation and we come to him with our needs in that situation.  It’s a daily ebb-and-flow of coming, following and going that meets our needs, develops our souls and gives our lives in service.  Many Christians will not practise all three elements.  They will come but not go, wanting needs met continually.  Others are only too keen to go, but burn themselves out by not coming.  And those who do not follow do not stay close enough to Jesus to avoid becoming self-indulgent or legalistic.

Only by balancing the three do we truly become his disciples.

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.