Mellow fruitfulness?

Autumn is a time of fruitfulness in the UK.  On a recent walk in the countryside recently I found blackberries, rosehips, elderberries, haws and hazelnuts within a short distance of each other, along with a variety of cereal crops and of course wild flowers setting their seeds.

The objective of all this fruit of course, is to feed a variety of wildlife ahead of the winter, and in the process, to reproduce the species as the seed is dispersed.  Squirrels create caches which give seeds a chance to move away from the parent plant, and birds eat seeds along with the fruit, allowing for random dispersal in the bird droppings.

Some fruit fail to achieve either objective.  Often the fruit, for no discernible reason, gets left on the plant where it will dry up and remain, achieving nothing.

What sort of fruit are you?  It can become easy for mission workers to stay in their place, working hard but gradually drying up.  They feed nobody, and they don’t reproduce themselves.  But the alternative is not attractive to us – “Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24).

Jesus teaches his disciples – immediately before his own death – that sacrifice is the way to fruitfulness.  I believe that this is not only the one-off final sacrifice that many of us may be called on to make as we follow in Jesus’ footsteps to the grave, but in the daily dying to self that we are called to as we take up our cross (Matthew 6:24).  We mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking that our sacrifice of leaving home and family and travelling to a foreign country is the end.  So what does that mean in our daily life?

  • The daily stress of living, speaking and working in a different culture can be hard. Recognising that it’s a choice we make for Jesus helps us cope with the fatigue of cross-cultural living.
  • We submit to one another in love (Ephesians 5:21). Sometimes relationships with other characters in our team can be tense, particularly if they’re from a culture which does things differently to us.  Deferring to one another and giving preference can ease tensions.
  • Developing character instead of ministry skills can help us become better advocates for the gospel, as who we are is of more significance than what we do.  In doing so we become the sweet aroma of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:15)
  • Laying aside our own sense of calling to a particular activity, church or role for the sake of the team can be a particularly effective way of bearing fruit, even though the cost to us personally may be high.
  • Sharing our lives with others (1 Thessalonians 2:8). It can be easy for us to compartmentalize our work and our private lives – and some element of this is important in maintaining our own well-being, but we are at our most effective not merely when we serve, but when we love, build relationship, and open our hearts and our lives to others.

If, like the fruits mentioned above, we commit our lives to putting others before ourselves as we follow Jesus, we will not be unfruitful, and our fruit will yield a big harvest for the kingdom.

Sowing in hope

Shoots of hope?

Officially, winter starts next week in the UK.  Yet at the end of November, when branches are bare, flowers have died, and leaves are turning to mud in the gutters, it feels like it’s already here.  Days are short, temperatures dropping and our moods drop too as we brace ourselves for the cold and damp.

But even in the midst of such gloom we carry out small acts of hope.  Autumn is the time for planting bulbs.  In November, before the ground freezes, we plant the bulbs which will start growing roots ready to burst into flower in the spring.  We know that in a few months our hearts will be lifted by the snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils and tulips which will turn our drab winter gardens into a riot of colour.  We plant in hope.

Mission workers are no stranger to this feeling.  Most of us work in environments where we see little response, yet we carry on sowing the seed of the word of God.  As Alex reminded us a couple of weeks ago that this can often take years to come to fruition but we keep sowing it in faith anyway.

Sadly our supporters sometimes expect the harvest to come quickly.  “How many people have you led to the Lord this year?” they might ask.  Churches may threaten to withdraw funding if there is no evidence of people turning to Christ as a result of our labours.  This can put us under pressure, make us worker harder, pray harder, preach harder, even succumb to the temptation to coerce people into coming to church.

There is a short parable in Mark’s gospel which can encourage us in this situation.  Tucked away between the more famous parables of the sower and the mustard seed, this one is about the growth of the seed.   It’s short enough to repeat in full:

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground.  Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.  As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.

(Mark 4:28-29)

He does not know how.  The growth of the seed is not dependent on the farmer.  He plants it, waits patiently, and reaps the crop in due time.  Let us not worry about the mechanics of what is going on in people’s hearts.  That’s God’s job.  We plant the seed, he makes it grow.  And we are privileged, in partnering with him in his mission, so be called his fellow-workers (1 Corinthians 3:6-9).  So let’s concentrate on our part of the work, and leave him to do his bit.

What we can learn from daffodils

DaffodilsAt this time of year, daffodils are bursting into flower all over northern Europe.  In parks and gardens, fields and verges, their bright yellow heads bring cheer, and the promise of warmer, sunnier days after a cold, dark winter.  Year after year they poke their heads up, sometimes through snow, sometimes into golden sunshine.  Always welcome, they bring some joy into everyone’s life, whether in a drift of colour by a lake, or in a simple vase on the windowsill.

They flower for just a few weeks each year, but no gardener begrudges the space they take up.  Nobody thinks about what the daffodils do for the rest of the year, but most of their lifetime is spent underground, unseen and inactive.  In the summer their soil is parched by long hot days.  In the autumn they are drenched by rain.  In winter the soil around them freezes hard.  Yet despite these demanding conditions, they come up again in the spring and do their thing.

The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that life is rhythmical in the famous passage that starts “For everything there is a season” (Eccl 3:1).  The daffodil has a season for flowering, and three seasons for dormancy.  It seems to me like the farmer in Mark 4:26-29, who works hard during the season of sowing, then waits patiently for harvest, when he again works hard.

Which is completely at odds with our western, protestant work ethic view of fruitfulness.  We expect to be hard at work day after day, week after week, with little time taken to recharge the batteries except the occasional, scrambled holiday – when we’re often keeping up with work by email or social media.  Small wonder that many of us are stressed!  Spending nine months of the year sounds unproductive even to the laziest of us, but there is a good principle of regularly stopping and resting, to gain strength and vision for the next stage.

At Syzygy we advocate the practice of cultivating a rhythm of life.  It helps us to break the domination of a work-orientated mindset and allows us to restore the relationship with God which we may have lost through our business – rather like Martha beavering away in the kitchen for Jesus, when she could have been with Jesus.  So we suggest you look at the following areas:

  • Regular prayer.  Whether you consciously turn your face to God once an hour, or every three hours at the traditional monastic hours of prayer, it’s good to take active steps to remind ourselves of God’s presence with us throughout the day.
  • Sabbath.  How much do we make of the one day of rest each week?  Do we use it for worship and family?  Is the computer off?  Do we leave the emails unchecked?  And if we have to work on Sunday, as many of us with church responsibilities do, do we take a day off in lieu during the week?
  • Day of prayer.  Have you thought of taking one complete (working) day out every month to rest, reflect and pray.  And we don’t mean taking one Saturday off a month!  We mean in addition to other rest days, but this one has the specific purpose of reconnecting with God.
  • Retreat.  We’ve talked a lot about retreat before.  Every three months it’s good to take a few days away, to let go of the busyness which wraps itself around us, tune our hearts in to God and hear what he has to say to us about our relationship, and not our work.

Practising regular times of rest may seem crazy when we have so much work to do, but I am sure that the daffodils would not be so spectacular if they found themselves forced to flower all year round!

A new spring?

WP_000678Spring is a beautiful time of year in northern Europe.  Its early signs come well before its culmination in all its vibrant colours.  Snowdrops peep out of the frozen ground, followed by crocuses, daffodils, primroses and bluebells.  Deciduous trees grow bright new leaves and the dull grey clouds break apart to allow patches of blue sky and bright sunshine.  A wide variety of shrubs and flowers burst into blossom.  The days lengthen and the air grows warmer.

This season lifts the spirits of those of us who have toiled through a long, dark winter, and the joy is expressed in ancient festivities which have become Easter and Whitsun (Pentecost).  The drama of this transition embedded itself deep in the psyche of the Europeans who have recycled it in art, literature and religion.  C S Lewis used it to good effect in describing the change on the landscape that came when the frozen winter kingdom of the White Witch thawed into the realm of Aslan.

Statue of Aidan at Lindisfarne

Statue of Aidan at Lindisfarne

We even use this imagery in our history – The Dark Ages is the name we give to the period following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, when the pagan winter engulfed ‘Christian civilisation’.  Areas we now know as France, Italy, Spain and Britain were occupied by Franks, Goths, Vandals and Saxons – the names of some of them passing into posterity as those hostile to ‘civilisation’.  The so-called Christian empire was overrun, leaving just a few isolated monastic communities to keep the light of faith burning in the sea of darkness.  But those communities did not retreat into their bunkers and look inwards; they went out to their hostile neighbours and spread the word of God, often paying with their lives.  Men like Boniface, Aidan and Columbanus ensured not merely the survival of Christianity, but its dominance, as pagan Europe turned into Christendom.

A thousand years later, the process was repeated.  Christendom, already a decaying empire, fell to the ‘barbarian’ hordes.  Humanists, secularists, nihilists and many other tribes overran it, leaving the population confused and vulnerable.  By the 20th century many had consigned Christianity to history.  It was just another primitive civilisation which had collapsed.  Yet the faithful continued to keep the flame burning brightly.

The 21st century is a second missionary era, when the saints once more are called to go to the postmodern ‘barbarians’ and take the message of God to them.  People come from across the world to bring us the truth that so many have forgotten.  All across Europe missionary endeavour is bringing enlightenment to the lost.  Many churches are experiencing significant growth.  People are turning to God in numbers not seen for centuries.  A new spring is upon us.

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

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

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

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

Falling leaf 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

White as snow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?