Friday, 25 May 2018

Open Air Evangelism ... Not Quite!

The ferry across to the Freetown peninsula in Sierra Leone was an interesting experience. As we sat waiting for the boat to depart a wide variety of people started to come round selling things. From biscuits, to sweets, to DVDs, to just about anything they could carry and offer!

Then some people assembled with a big speaker and a guy stepped forward with a loud-hailer. He announced something in the local language, but we quickly worked out that he was calling on the passengers to pray with him (for the boat to get across the water safely, we wondered!). Interestingly Christian and Muslim travellers alike joined in what we recognised as the Lord's prayer.

I thought "Fantastic, we are going to have an open air service and preaching right here on the boat!", and listened intently to see how it was going to pan out.

Yet the announcer seemed to then go into a long spiel, which became punctuated by him holding up different medicine type products. His accomplices started to fan out among the passengers offering these for sale (just like the biscuit sellers and the like). It dawned on me that the whole thing was a sales exercise for over-the-counter medicines, creams and lotions (including some stuff that we looked as if it belonged at the more exotic end of the market).

So we had a curious scenario of 'spiritualised' medicine selling. I never worked out why they did it this way. Perhaps the sales-people felt it gave them credibility - to start in the spiritual and then go on to their worldly medicines. Of course for us Westerners we often do it the other way round: start with medicine and then call on God later.

It also made me think about how we do our evangelism. Though we might not want to admit it, but is our style to start with the spiritual yet in reality we are then effectively trying to 'sell' some kind of pre-prepared package?

I was disappointed that it wasn't a true open-air preaching occasion, which would have been great. But it was educational, making me thing how in an open air event we would truly encourage people to look heavenward, rather than in subtle ways be actually more like these people from the drugs company.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Faith and Beauty in the Dirt

My recent trip to Africa reminded me of two things about mission that we can learn from in the West. The first is naturally living out principles of Incarnational Mission, the second is the powerful effects of visionary social entrepreneurs.

'God made his dwelling among us' is read by ourselves each Christmas, and seen played out in the life of Jesus as he did his mission among the people, in their locations and contexts. We know it in the textbooks in the West. But in Africa they get on with it (perhaps without even knowing the term 'Incarnational Mission'!) because it is the natural thing to do - working amongst the people in their locality and context.

The projects we visited typically had a centre where people they were helping would be (by necessity of their condition) resident for a while, but that plus any outreach work in the city was the mission focus rather than a traditional church building or any kind of 'worship centre'. Instead the physical centre of worship was in the centre of their work!

Whereas we might start with a church building and then (perhaps) ask 'where might we go out from here', they instinctively go to people in need and then, if necessary, ask what physical facilities might be necessary to further this work.

The development of the projects and the facilities almost always seems to come about because there is a visionary figure who is crucial to the project. The person proves to be a social entrepreneur, willing to take risks, to enter in partnerships, to do ministry deals and so forth to overcome challenges and see genuine development. These are long term operations - one lady had been working at it for the best part of 30 years. The facilities she had were by Western standards pitiful, but in the dirt was a care for children not easily found elsewhere in that country.

Everyone who visits Africa knows that there is dust and bare dirt just about everywhere - the ground around a project building is probably yet another 'patch of dirt' ... but because these social entrepreneurs stick to their God given vision, and persist with a deep Christ rooted faith to work among the people they serve, we find that in the dirt there is not just faith but also beauty.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Wake Up to Who is our Head

Ephesians chapter 1 makes great reading, packed with all kinds of goodies that make a rich and dense introduction to the letter. It builds to the risen and ascended Jesus, far above all rule, authority, power and dominion (in other words: everything!). Whether now or the future all things are under his feet. You don't get much more superlative than that!

Yet amongst all that incredible greatness - and it is mind-blowingly incredible, we can miss an important detail that should change the way we see ourselves as a group of believers (i.e. a church).

For in v22-23 at its peak Paul writes '(and God) appointed him to be head over everything for the church ...' (NIV translation). Its the 'for the church' that struck me.

First its hard to make sense of it. Surely God was going to make Jesus above all and head over all things anyway, church or no church. Jesus deserves this status and is given it full stop. God doesn't see the church and then think 'Oh I know, I'll give Jesus authority over all - it will be a good thing for the church ...'. The NLT translation almost conveys this thought ('for the benefit of the church')!

So with a little digging the Greek wording used can mean 'given' (or even possibly betrothed), so the sentence might read something like 'God gave him as head over all to the church'.

Now we know (from these same verses and elsewhere) that the church is his body on earth, and Jesus is the head of that body. So the thing I think these verses call us to realise is that we as the church don't just have any old head as our head, we have the head, the one who is head over all with everything else subordinate to it.

Or to put it another way, as a church we relate straight to the top!

So let us wake up to who we are (as a church) - we are those that relate straight to Him who is head over all, everything else under his feet, whether rule, authority, power and dominion now and future etc. etc.!

That should kind of influence how we pray as a church shouldn't it?

In a bind or up against malevolent rule or authority in any way? Then lets to the head who is already head over those things.

Frustrated with any kind of oppressed spiritual atmosphere or anything what we perceive gets in the way? Then lets to the head who is already head over those things.

... and so on. Let us wake up to who is our head, given to us who are his body on earth, and pray accordingly!

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Identity Crises

Identity crises and/or a lack of confidence of who we are seems to be a widespread issue for many people these days. Young people with a range of anxieties, adults struggling too. Even many Christians seem to have trouble accepting that they can find their true identity in Christ - which surely hampers them in their everyday lives as well as their discipleship.

For me Jewish rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it brilliantly when he says 'The face that is truly ours is the one we see reflected back at us by God' (Not in God's Name, p138). He asserts that this is the meaning of the Aaronic blessing 'May God turn His face towards you and grant you peace' (Numbers 6:26).

On this logic, discovering ourselves therefore lies in gazing on God, and discovering that He is gazing on us. In that way our faith and salvation is more than a mere transaction. It is an intense and prolonged look into the one who created us, the who who has died for us, the one who now lives and intercedes for us ... and realising the 'for us' is not some doctrine that is generically applied, but is actually personal and direct to you as an individual fearfully and wonderfully made.

Mary was struck by this personal significance when in the garden outside the tomb (John 20). At first she looked at Jesus without realising who he was. It took just one word: "Mary", for her to look again and realise. Jesus was looking at her, and called her by name. Immediately she was affirmed and could walk away confident.

Let us invest ourselves in gazing on God. The return gaze will change us for ever.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Justice in the Long Haul

One of the frequently asked questions on Alpha courses in the session on 'Evil' is 'why does God allow bad regimes to remain in power'. Of course it is a good question, with plenty of examples of dodgy regimes to cite through history and in the current day.

My own remarks in response would be to point to the examples that show regimes suddenly collapsing, noting the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of apartheid as two examples. Both happened after years of heartache and campaigning, but eventually seemed to end as if overnight.

The Old Testament prophets suggested this as well, looking to and predicting God's justice that would see wicked regimes fall away. How many of those prophets didn't see the full outcome in their lifetime, or only after some considerable years of waiting?

The underlying point is of course that God sees and acts in the long haul - acting in timescales that sometimes span generations compared with our 'why not this year?' approach. Our lives are but a breath, but we seem to expect everything to happen in our breath! God is at work in the bigger picture, the long haul. That is hard for us to understand, and the implications leave us with many screams of 'why?' and 'how long, O Lord?', but surely we have to learn to trust that when comparing us as finite with God everlasting who sees generations come and go, that He surely knows better.

History demonstrates that as well as generations passing, regimes also come and go. Bad regimes do end! Perhaps some years beyond the point at which the majority of the world (or ordinary decent people) figured they should be over, but nonetheless they do end. Events in Africa this week will surely be added to the list of examples to give in response to that legitimate question by a faith-enquirer ...

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Priestly Role

We know the Old Testament pattern of appointed priests (from the tribe of Levi) who served at the Temple, the focal point of God's presence, on behalf the Israelites. The whole people were in covenant before God, and within that the priests had a special role.

What is typically less understood is that the whole nation in covenant with God collectively had a priestly role for the whole world. Exodus 19:6 spells this out - a calling on the whole people to somehow serve before God on behalf of the world

As Christians we should know that Jesus made it clear that access to God is direct for any who would turn, without needing any human mediation. With Jesus there is no need for any kind of special or professional minister to mediate on our behalf - simply turn to Jesus.

Yet there is still a sense that those who do turn to follow Jesus then find themselves in a priestly role for the rest of the world. Peter describes a priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9), fulfilling that Exodus promise. Paul also describes a priestly role in Romans 15:16. Somehow we are called to mediate God's presence to others, who would otherwise remain far from God in their everyday lives.

5 years ago my colleagues staged a celebration banquet. It was the Queen's jubilee year, and so we decided to throw a meal for people on the margins in the city. We cooked, we laid out tables with union jacks, and we sent word out for people to come.

Only about 10 came, but we ate together and had fun - singing favourites like 'Land of Hope and Glory'.

For me that started a ministry-friendship with a guy who was in and out of struggling with alcohol addiction. He had bounced in and out of churches, he sofa-surfed, and generally struggled along. Myself and others talked and prayed with him through his many ups and downs. In recent years his spiritual life had some positive developments, although he still cycled in and out of addiction.

Sadly this year his health failed, and he passed away. It was then that we discovered just how many people across the city both knew and loved this one man. The funeral was held elsewhere by his family, but it quickly became obvious that we needed to offer a focus for grieving and remembering locally - so we organised this at the church building.

Some 75 came - from very diverse walks of life. Some were in addiction recovery, others still in the grip of addictions of unhealthy life patterns ... but nevertheless they came for sharing and spiritual moments. Myself and my fellow Jesus-followers had a priestly role that day, welcoming and enabling a focal point of God's presence for people who would otherwise likely be far from this benefit.

We will likely never know what the long term outcome might be for any of the friends who came - but we continue in the priestly role given to us.

Friday, 18 August 2017

I Proclaim

I have recently argued that we need to nurture our spiritual hunger and thirst - a desire for spiritual food & drink, the presence of Jesus and the work of the Father. Accompanying that we need to look to Jesus and His Kingdom possibilities, which when He is present among us are surely imminent, and thus raise our expectations accordingly.

With that brewing in us, and a greater openness to the Spirit and His work in us, we will surely develop in one direction: an inescapable urge to proclaim the Kingdom of God. This was Jesus' starting point (see Mark 1:15), and His promise to His disciples upon receiving the Spirit (see Acts 1:8 'You will be my witnesses').

In other words a hunger for God plus a Kingdom expectation rooted in Him, will move us to be Kingdom proclaimers - witnessing to the resurrected Jesus and therefore the 'even greater works' of the Kingdom possible around us (see John 14:12).

Proclamation may take different forms, from the outright verbal intrusion to the quiet demonstration, but they will all point to the resurrection reality that He is risen, and His order is now coming about. Note that we do the proclamation bit, while the Spirit confirms it with Kingdom action and outcomes (e.g. Acts 14:3).

Nurture hunger & thirst, raise expectations, and grow as a Kingdom proclaimer.