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.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

I Expect

"I expect" - two words laden with possibility. Unlike "I thirst" they are not two words spoken by Jesus on the cross, yet his reply to the thief on the adjacent cross "Today you will be with me in paradise" shows us that his expectation was very much dialled to the max!

Weeks later Peter would be walking in the temple area and encounter a lame beggar calling for attention. Peter simply offers him Jesus, and this is enough to command the lame to get up and walk. Peter's expectation levels had become similarly dialled up.

When it comes to Kingdom outcomes, are we able to say "I expect"?

It seems to me that our expectation and our hunger & thirst somehow go together. As in my previous post our desire or aspirations for growth need to be matched with an appropriate spiritual hunger & thirst. They also need to inter-lock with a Kingdom-orientated expectation. There is little point hungering after God if we do not expect much is possible (in Kingdom terms). Similarly why hanker for growth or expansion if Jesus-inspired expectation is lacking?

Let us expect that if we engage in Kingdom-work there will be accompanying Kingdom-sign. Not simply for signs sake, but resonating with a spiritual hunger & thirst nurtured in our spiritual life. As this plays out, we will then certainly need more capacity to embrace the God-given developments.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

I Thirst

"I thirst". Just two short words spoken by Jesus on the cross, yet they convey so much. Of course Jesus was thirsty - who wouldn't be when crucified in the Palestinian sunshine! But the words surely also convey a spiritual reality - Jesus continues to seek and yearn communion with God his father, even as he feels separation so acutely ('my God, why have you forsaken me?'). That basic spiritual hunger and thirst is there in Jesus throughout his life, until the last gasp and it is finished.

Jesus had used thirst/hunger and water/food imagery many times. His food was to do what he saw his father doing (John 4) - that was what nourished his life and what he hungered for. This was his mode of operation even as he declared himself as the provider of living water so that others might never be thirsty again. He would describe himself as the bread of life, but this went hand in hand with his own spiritual hunger and thirst for the Father's greater work.

The question is - do we spiritually hunger and thirst as Jesus did?

Quite naturally we want to see growth from the fruit of our mission. We may well have both desires and plans for such work to increase, adding capacity for more. All good!

But do we have the underlying spiritual hunger and thirst necessary for such expansion? Is their that innate drive-for-nourishment at work in us spiritually? Our bodies automatically tell us we need food or drink when physically we become depleted, but in spiritual terms this is something we need to pay attention to, to nurture and work at.

If the spiritual hunger or thirst is not there, then surely there would be no point in God answering our prayer for more ministry opportunity ... for we would simply not be ready and able to tackle the bigger meal He could give!

John's gospel leaves us with the expectation that there is much more mission possible for us to join in with ... but let us nurture and develop our spiritual hunger and thirst that would be necessary for taking part in the greater enterprise.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Astonishing Promises

Tucked away at the end of the first chapter of John's gospel I think is a truly astonishing promise. We often don't see it, because John 1 of course starts on spiritual steroids and chapter 2 water-to-wine quickly grabs our attention. Yet in the often skipped verses 50 - 51 is an incredible statement for Jesus to make.

Nathanael, already wowed by Jesus' knowledge of him before they had met, is told that he will see 'heaven open, with angels ascending and descending ...'.

This is understood as a reference Jacob's special dream in Genesis 28, known as 'Jacob's Ladder'. In his deep sleep Jacob saw heaven open, and a two-way staircase for angels to cross between heaven and earth. Jacob is given affirmation promises repeating those to his grandfather, and the expectation that the land he was lying on would be especially blessed.

No one before or after had experienced anything quite like this dream. It was special to Jacob.

Yet now Jesus is telling the just-recruited Nathanael and others (the Greek is plural) that they would see something of this very vision once again, though this time centred on Jesus. That is an astonishing promise for anyone to try and make. It is astonishing for even Jesus to make.

Yet that was the deal! Something to do with Jesus, where he was present, being be a place of open heaven, angels freely bridging between heaven and earth! Do we confine the Genesis passage to being a quirky incident that enthused Jacob? If so, why does Jesus adopt it and link it to himself?

Could it be that the original dream pointed forward to a greater spiritual reality that both centred on and was made possible by Jesus. Do we need to locate ourselves with Nathanael and chums and hear Jesus say 'You will see ...', no matter how astonishing that might sound to us?

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Sea of Need, Burdens and the Spirit's Direction

"The people need to hear the true meaning of Christmas", someone said to me. They had a valid point: People need Jesus, full stop. And Jesus is God come to us - the deal in the Christmas story - and so telling the true meaning of Christmas does help lead people to Jesus.

It was not that the need as stated was invalid. It was the implication that this need (relating to Christmas) might trump other needs. The reality is that there is a sea of need (or even oceans of need!). Who is to discern between them?

Now I do accept that an individual or group seeing a particular need might find themselves feeling a burden regarding that need, which they are right to express to others. Yet surely the correct path is to then hold that burden in prayer and see how things develop. Of course typically the Spirit will lead those burdened to become the very activists who do something about it (you might then suspect that it was the Spirit who gave them the burden in the first place!) - but that is a process wrestled in prayer.

We must learn to enter and embrace that process, almost stepping back from the need (and the burden we may feel), to let the Spirit properly gestate and birth in us the action we are to take. That means preventing ourselves from simply mapping the need down onto action, and instead praying and waiting for suggestions for action to bubble up.

Sometimes the Spirit will confirm ideas that match the perceived need, but this waiting process leaves room for the Spirit to lead quite differently. Take those episodes in Acts where Paul was led in a whole new mission direction (see chapter 16 for example). Its not like there was no need in Bithynia, but the Spirit in this case was leading to Macedonia!

So be careful of the word 'need', pray and wait on burdens, and in all cases keep alert to the leading of the Spirit!