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!

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Wake Up to New Ways of Being

Times change. And with those changes the way people associate and work together change. As Christians we need to recognise these changes, and be led by the Spirit to adapt with them rather than find ourselves stuck. Being stuck implies an innate resistance to movement - yet the Spirit is moving all the time.

In the ministry of Jesus we don't see him creating a whole lot of fixed structure. He related to his heavenly Father, gathered followers around him, and sent them with the promise of the Spirit. That was about all the structure he needed. Yet he did teach Kingdom and also work Kingdom within structures of the day - in the local synagogues, for example.

Was Jesus able to operate structure-light because he was smarter than us? Possibly!

But it was probably because Jesus was incarnational - God come in the flesh. He was therefore able to inhabit the structures of the day, teaching and working Kingdom within them. Since the Kingdom cannot be contained by any human structure Jesus was also perfectly able to teach and work Kingdom outside in the street as well!

So as we follow Jesus let us learn to be incarnational and inhabit structures that are relevant to our day. If those structures subside and new ones come to the fore, then let us not be afraid to let go of the old - led by the Spirit to teach and work Kingdom in the new ones. And let us not think Jesus is bound by either old or new structures - we can teach and work Kingdom outside in the street too ...

Friday, 2 June 2017

Mission Reformation

We know how to talk mission plans. We know how to talk about them, around them, through them, and so on. Hopefully we can also put our talk into practice, and get out there on the mission field. Otherwise we risk being all talk and no action!

Hopefully we also know that to stop and pray is a necessary component of our mission plans and activity. Yet in there may be another lurking problem ...

Our prayers might be fervent and well intended. They may well be spiritual. But in reality they may amount to little more than talk (albeit directed to God) about your mission plans. Good to pray of course, reluctant to knock it ... but take a step back?

Jesus seemed to take a step back (actually a step out, very early in the morning) in Mark chapter 1 verse 35. When the others caught up, expecting to get Jesus back on track with the obvious mission plan in the town, Jesus surprised them with an alternative venture. Jesus was still on mission, but it was curiously re-formed, leading to other destinations.

The example to learn from here is not 'pray and ditch what you are currently doing', but 'make space before God, allowing the possibility of re-forming your plans as God sees fit'. Too easily our well intended plans become the thing, whereas they were only ever supposed to be an expression of the mission of God.

It may be time to continue, tweak, or expand existing ... or it may be time for different ventures. How will you know unless you make it your regular practice to return to quiet time in prayer for potential mission reformation?

Friday, 26 May 2017

Watch and Pray

We of course encourage people to pray. Newcomers to the faith and established Christians. But do we explain how persisting in prayer can be shear hard work? Do we spell out the loneliness, the possibility of abandonment, or the potential feeling of the concrete ceiling?

"Could you not watch with me for one hour?", Jesus asked the disciples he had called to pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Three times he went a little farther to pray, and three times he came back to find the companions sleeping.

In this garden sequence (e.g. Matthew 26) we should first learn from Jesus' prayer resolve: he knew that his toughest times were just ahead, and that this was the (gruesome) task both agreed with and required by his heavenly Father. With all these thoughts and emotions flooding his human system Jesus still deliberately & purposefully chose to seek his Father and spend time with Him. No sulking, no denial, but continuing in relationship!

But in entering this zone of prayer Jesus wanted to take people with him, to have companions in prayer. Sadly this wish was not fulfilled. The disciples came with him but didn't have the capacity to see it through - they fell asleep. How lonely did Jesus feel as the minutes mounted and the realisation that he was on his own sunk in? How abandoned did he feel when he looked back to discover that the disciples were asleep again.

Praying - going deep with the Father - can be a lonely enterprise. Don't assume that everyone will go or stay with you into the process. Yet persist anyway - seek the Father, forget the additional personnel count.

His prayer naturally looked for different answers. Was there another way? Could this be sorted via a different route. That is only human, something we all do. Our anxiety triggers a thousand internal queries 'what if this, or what about that?', some of which we express in prayer. Yet as Jesus turns these to prayer maybe he was met with those classic feelings of 'is anyone listening - am I really getting through here?'. I say 'classic' because it is such a common experience for us. How many times have we felt disconnected, as if there is a concrete ceiling separating us and God?

Yet Jesus persisted, and regardless of hearing/sensing/feeling any answer he handed it back to the Father with the 'but your will be done'. His anxieties were real and valid in his humanity, but he would hold his own humanity in its proper place in relation to God.

Praying is not always easy. In fact often it is plain hard. But keep perspective - God is God and we are not. Persist in prayer even if your humanity tries to tell you otherwise.

Jesus finishes ready for action 'Let us rise ... they are almost here'. He kind of sounds encouraged! The disciples duly respond and rise to meet the foe with him. From the very real loneliness & abandonment in prayer he emerges into the next episode both joined by his friends and with a Godly resolve to forge ahead.

That is where prayer leads. Not necessarily into an easy episode, but with resources and strength around you to do what needs to be done. Remember that the journey through prayer may be lonely and tough, but God is listening and responding. Time spent with Him sets things up for the way ahead.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Following the Spirit

Jesus told Nicodemus 'The wind blows wherever it pleases - you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit'.

The Spirit blows freely. It doesn't follow our set patterns, pre-conceived ideas or agendas. As such it can seem to us that it flits from one place to another. We talk of keeping in step with the Spirit ... but for us to truly do that will surely require us to walk in a way that qualifies for the ministry of funny walks!

Today I was out walking and had the pleasure of following a butterfly along the trail. It kept flitting from one place to the next, stopping and then moving on, settling and then off again. Since I was in prayer anyway, I resolved to track its movements, letting it be a guide for my own movement: when it flew forward I would walk forward, when it settled I would slow, stop and pray.

Eventually it settled on the path just ahead, so I stopped, knelt, and prayed right there. Some while later it took off, and so I set off once again.

Are we prepared to do similar in ministry? Sensing when the Spirit is going forward, to the left or right, and be sensitive to when it has settled on some place or some one? Will we stop and pray right there at the settling point for as long  as the Spirit is settled? Or do we march forward no matter ...

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Worship First

The people start to return back from exile. They assemble in Jerusalem and see the ruins, as captured in Ezra chapter 3. On coming together the first thing they do is sacrifice offerings, bringing their worship to God - picking up again a God ordained sense of celebration.

This is done without the foundation of the temple yet being (re-)laid. In other words, their first instinct is to worship. Temple in ruins - no matter. Barely one stone standing square on another - give to God in any case. Exposed to the outdoor weather - still worship anyway.

These returners had it correct: worship first no matter the circumstances. With the semblance of an altar they were able to bring their offering and open their hearts to God. You see we don't need super-smooth finished buildings to worship, nor dare I say the latest whizz-bang equipment. Just a realisation that God is God, we are not, and He is to be worshipped! That will do, that gets us started.

Whatever is set in our minds to do, be it great or small ... worship first. Do it regardless of the circumstances around you.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Witness to Freedom

Recently someone asked me the classic 'How much should I give?' question, pondering the just as classic 'ten percent tithe' approach. I think there is a simple answer:

Make it your habit to give generously, even extravagantly, as the Spirit liberates you.

If you are sitting there calculating, then you probably haven't found a liberty in the Spirit that is surely possible to discover. People seem to think that it is a percentage of their income, yet many of us in the West enjoy an excess so why not give generously from that excess and live off just what you need? For some with ample means that may translate to keeping 10% and giving 90! Again it is not the percentages that are the point, but your Spirit-enabled ability to image God's generosity in your own life.

Proverbs chapter 3 verse 28 tells you to give to your neighbour straight away rather than delay, so a further principle is to give promptly as soon as you have the money at your disposal. So if, for example, you are made redundant and receive a lump sum - then given generously from that as soon as you have received it and allow yourself to trust God for your own ongoing means.

Adopting this simplicity witnesses to the freedom that comes in becoming a follower of Jesus. You are not taking up adherence to rules, percentages or the like, but discovering the enabling liberty that God always intended. Your attitudes to these things, and the habits you adopt to work them out in practice, will be directly linked to this freedom.

It surprised me afresh that when Noah dis-embarked from the boat the first thing he did was worship through animal sacrifice. He did not calculate or hoard - for if he had then surely he would have kept the animals 'just in case'. No - he worshipped and freely gave them up, trusting in God for the outcome in the long term.

Find the same ability to 'give up' in worship, and witness to freedom!

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Snares and the risk of Ministry Trophies

Gideon does pretty well in his story in Judges. The Lord reveals to him his commissioning, which he takes on. When the Midianites up the ante, Gideon does some discerning to be sure and then goes off to do battle. He allows his army to be whittled down, understanding that it is God's strength that will win through rather the raw military might.

Co-operating with the Spirit's lead he goes into battle and wins victory, and then goes on to mop up a few others. Blood and gore aside, Gideon is the victor that the people now look to as their leader. Gideon refuses this again understanding that the people should be a theocracy, ruled by God, rather than having any human king. All good for Gideon!

There is just one flaw though. Gideon asks for a wee share of the plunder. In itself surely not a big deal - they all took some plunder and that was okay right? Yet Gideon turns his gold into an ephod which became a religious symbol and object of worship. We are told the people worshipped it and it became a snare to Gideon and his family (Judges 8:27).

Now Gideon lived long and prosperous, but the ephod thing was unhealthy for him and all the people. How easy is it for us to inadvertently collect ministry trophies, which might become a snare to us? We don't need to say that we can never celebrate victory or success, but we must recognise that the line between God given success and something that actually replaces God in our worship is so very thin.

If in doubt, don't cast an ephod!

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The saddest verse in the Bible?

We all have our favourite verses in the Bible. I bet you could quote yours straight away. But do we stop to think what hits us as the saddest verse? Each year, when in Exodus, I can't help lamenting when I get to Exodus 20 verse 19.

Moses has his first mountaintop experiences and the people are called to gather to share in it, at least in part. Back in chapter 19 they were to prepare and then approach to a certain limit, keeping a respectful distance because God was going to come down among them. It was a quite a deal, with thunder, lightning and trembling!

Moses gets to enter, the rest stay back. Later Aaron is called up too. We then get the ten commandments spelt out, before returning to the thunder and lightning scenes (at 20:18). The people are now trembling with fear. Sensibly they stay at a distance, but then they say to Moses 'Speak to us yourself ... do not let God speak to us or we will die'.

How sad is that? The caution is sensible, a sense of 'holy' fear is appropriate, but to be so fearful that you shrink back from having God speak to you seems to me to be a great sadness. I am convinced it is not what God wanted, even with the limitations of the unholy approaching a holy God.

Surely God wants to call us out and speak with us direct, as in the Genesis garden scene (even after the fall) and so many times since. For the whole people to be a prophetic nation, wouldn't it be better for them all to learn to listen to His voice and go with His directives?

To be a prophetic people today in contemporary society, we too must rise above the wrong kind of fear and be pleased to hear His voice directly, knowing and declaring His voice ... and encouraging others that they too can be included in the same privilege.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Embracing OIKOS

There can be something special when families come together. Very special. Perhaps you had that experience at Christmas with relatives? It can also be an experience we can nurture and benefit from as churches. It can also be both a base and place for mission.

The Greek word 'oikos' basically means house, home or household. It crops up in the New Testament a few times, sometimes literally meaning a house or family. Most likely a household would not be the "couple + 2.4 kids" we have today, but a larger unit with a granny, perhaps an uncle or two and possibly even others!

In 1 Corinthians we see how Christians like Paul may have started to re-use the word as some kind of unit of church. In chapter 16 Aquila & Priscilla have a church in their house (using the 'oikos' word). In chapter 1 some 'from Chloe' are mentioned. Whilst the word 'oikos' is not used here, some read the Greek text as shorthand and translate it as "Chloe's household", which might not be her biological family but rather people in her church unit.

Presumably young and old met, ate, worshipped and learnt together. As in any good extended family, young and old can not only learn together but learn from each other. Since God calls us into radical community, and Jesus talked about 'little ones such as these', it is not hard to see how these family principles should usefully translate across.

An extended family (oikos) unit also has a greater resilience - the diversity and range of people can pull together to overcome the suffering of an individual amongst its number. And with radical discipleship taken on by its members it will look outwards, being a base for mission. Different members may be involved in different mission initiatives, or the whole family may adopt & own a project together. Their support and base learning can be provided by the household unit, fuelling them for their mission.

And of course such community will be counter-cultural and attractive in its own right, making the extended family (oikos) unit not only a base for mission, or potentially also a place for mission - as others are invited & attracted in, taking their first steps towards and with Jesus.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Belt Up

Get a sturdy belt, fasten it around your waist, walk out in confidence. The belt keeps your clothes together, things in place, enabling you to stand fast.

Paul advised wearing the 'belt of truth' (Ephesians 6) - the sure knowledge of God and Lordship of Jesus to hold it all together as you stand and go out. Get centred on Him and then add the rest of the armor around you.

The promised Anointed One himself was to go out with righteousness as his belt (Isaiah 11), together with faithfulness as a sash. Truth and Right naturally associate - you cannot have right living without being based on the truth, and you cannot be properly fastened in the truth without then desiring to live right.

Yet Jeremiah is told to buy a linen belt (chapter 13). He was to wear it - around the waist as normal. Yet then he was to take it off, to hide it away. Later it was to be dug up again, where it would be discovered to be ruined, useless, not fit for purpose.

For Jeremiah and his audience this was to be a picture: Even a whole people can metaphorically belt up - be usefully and purposefully bound together with the truth of God. Properly belted up the people collectively would be able to stand tall and confident, secure in Him. This would be a positive example, a people to be like, a nation whose ways are those for others to aspire to. The spin-off of such example would lead others to God, bring praise and honour to Him.

Yet if those people abandon their fastening to the truth of God, if they let it drop and even hide it away ... then ruin naturally follows. The people will prove to not be fit for purpose, of no use.

Time to belt up ...