FACE TO FACE FELLOWSHIP: WHERE DO I FIND IT?

491

My wife and I hadn’t seen our son and two grandsons for a while, so we arranged to meet at a children’s playground traffic park over a picnic basket for some togetherness. In this way we’d get to inter-act with dad while the two boys learned the traffic rules and had fun on their bikes. At the centre of the little traffic park there was a concrete, hexagonal seat, which served as a little table for our picnic lunch. It worked while we were lunching together but not so well (my feeling) when we were watching the boys while trying to engage each other in meaningful conversation – I think the reason was that we adults weren’t facing each other, in fact we were facing away from each other.

The hexagonal table/seat experience illustrates what often happens not only in families but in church ‘families.’ There is extremely little face to face connection, which, if neglected, works against true fellowship. As a family we made up for it the following weekend when we chatted and played mini-cricket in our back-garden while preparing a lamb-and-veggie ‘potjie,’ a low-heat, slow-cook of many hours in a cast-iron pot over an open fire. ‘Face to face!’

FACE TO FACE FELLOWSHIP WITH GOD DOES HAPPEN, DOESN’T IT?

  • Take the man and the woman in Eden and their face to face fellowship with the Creator and each other ‘when the cool evening breezes were blowing’ (Gen. 1ff). [Treat yourself to  Cheryl McGrath’s latest blog, The Magnificent Pursuit, especially the two paragraphs commencing with words from Amos. cf. Bread for the Bride]
  • Moses, a fragile saint in some ways, regularly engaged with God in the ‘Tent of Meeting.’ On other occasions he spoke with him ‘face to face, as a man speaks with a friend’ (Ex. 33:11, NLT).
  • The apostle Paul has provided us with the basis for such face-to-face fellowship: “For God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made us understand that this light is the brightness of the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ… this light and power that now shine within us – is held in perishable containers, that is, in our weak bodies. So everyone can see that our glorious power is from God and is not our own.'” (2 Cor. 4:6-7, NLT). Keeping our eyes on Jesus produces the purest faith and fellowship!

FACE TO FACE IN GOD’S COMMUNITY ON EARTH?

  • Paul, in his unusually personal Second Letter to the Corinthians Paul, defends his apostleship in the face of some false apostles among them: “By the meekness and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you – I, Paul who am ‘timid’ when face to face with you, but ‘bold’ when away! I beg you that when I come I may have to be as bold as I expect to be towards some people who think that we live by the standards of this world…” (2 Cor. 10:1-2, NIV)
  • The Apostle John, especially in his letters, loves to be face to face: “The elder, to the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in the truth… I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you soon and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 Jn. v. 1, 12). “The elder, to my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth… I have much to write to you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face” (3 Jn. v. 1, 14).
  • Check out the face to face stuff in the early Church. The believers meet largely ‘from house to house’ around the meal table (Acts 2:42ff) – the destruction of the temple by the Romans in AD 70 re-inforced this intimacy. According to v. 42 the believers “committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers” (Acts 2:42, MSG). I love Peterson’s paraphrase of koinonia as ‘the life together,’ i.e. the very life of Jesus, indwelling his followers, producing a ‘common life’ of intimate sharing. ‘Sell your shirt’ and purchase Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little gem, ‘The Life Together,’ to get an insight into the fellowship of the true Church! I have a good friend in Hong Kong who travels once a month across the border on a Sunday to teach a group of about thirty plus believers in a house church, officially prohibited from accommodating more than six – those believers look for any excuse to fellowship the whole Sunday, every Sunday, around the Word, coming back for more the following week! Try that in the West…

IT’S A FACE TO FACE FELLOWSHIP WHICH LEADS SOMEWHERE!

I’ve been reading the Letter to the Hebrews. The writer (?) calls his persecuted readers (Jewish Christian house churches in Rome?) to persevere in the faith: “Without wavering, let us hold tightly to the hope we say we have, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Think of ways to encourage one another to outbursts of love and good deeds. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage and warn each other, especially now that the day of his coming (there are many days of reckoning, including Christ’s return) is drawing near” (10:23-25, NLT). This text is not a ‘freeby’ for preachers to beat over the heads those present in their Sunday ‘services!’ Rather it is an encouragement, arising out of our hope in Christ, to give expression to fellowship and service under the headship of Christ. In 1982 already Dr. Raymond Brown of Spurgeon’s College stated, “Since in the teaching of this letter Christians are brothers in the same family (3:1; 13:1,22), partners in the same enterprise (3:14) and members of the same household (3:6; 10:21), they have a responsibility not only to ‘hold fast’ themselves, but also to encourage their fellow believers to do the same… the exhortation is not simply to the exercise of fellowship, but also to the stimulation of compassionate activity in the work of Christ…’  He then asked, ‘is this an impossible ideal in the twentieth century? Aware 0f the selfish and materialistic pressures of contemporary society, and convinced of the needs of a more distinctively Christian lifestyle, some believers have turned from the institutional churches to communities…” He cites the ‘Jesus People’ of the late 1960’s, house churches around the world, etc. For what it’s worth, having ‘pastored’ traditional churches as well as a ‘a cell church’ for 38 years in all, I believe the Acts and Hebrews kind of body life is a virtually ‘impossible ideal,’ given all our institutional red tape, machinery, hierarchies, structures and programs. I mean, how do you ‘fellowship’ week after week while staring at the back of someone’s head, unless you deliberately want to hide and remain unchanged? Or following the senior pastor’s meticulously planned cell group agenda Wednesday by Wednesday? [On a lighter note… In my last denominational congregation we replaced our pews, cracked and broken, with chairs, in an effort to promote a little more face to face inter-action. I asked the stewards repeatedly to put out the chairs in a half-moon around the ground-level lectern – on each occasion it lasted about two weeks before they were back in perfectly straight lines, facing the ‘performers’ up front!]

FACE TO FACE FELLOWSHIP: WHERE DO I FIND IT??

  • Many believers, especially in the West, with church buildings around every corner, long for this, look for this, without finding it.
  • At the same time there are pockets of believers around the world, finding it and being ‘wrecked’ for good.
  • For some in the First World the only way they can experience something of this ‘fellowship’ is on the internet, inter-acting with their unseen family across the globe who share the same heart.
  • For some it may entail sharing a monthly coffee with a kindred mind just to chew the fat together.
  • It may include just you and your family at this stage. That’s a highly biblical and good start! Prayerfully consider opening your home to others. Let it be a Spirit-led, bottom-up, serving one another thing. Often your best results will come through serving poor and broken communities, working with children and teens yearning for a spiritual father/mother, working with ‘fringe people’ just like Jesus did. Yes, it’s possible! ‘If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three gather together as my followers in my name, I am there among them.’ (Mt. 18:19-20, NLT)

 

DSC01401

 

 

 

THE FREEDOM AND THE GLORY! (DISCOVERING THE NEW COVENANT TOGETHER – PARTS 1-3)

stocksnap_l7eohbeed1

‘I believe we live in a waiting age when multitudes are convinced that something vastly deeper than they know in the present church is fundamentally needed. The land is full of seekers; the church is full of seekers… Over the horizon men dimly see something glorious, they know not what. But what they see is Christ walking again in lowly simple love, recapturing the church for Himself, rebuking the scribes and Pharisees, who sit in Moses’ seat, and tenderly leading men to share in His immediacy and enthrallment in God.’

(Thomas Kelley, 1893-1941)

Welcome dear reader to a challenging but exciting journey! It is one of discovering (or perhaps re-discovering) the new covenant of Jesus Christ together.

Very briefly, my own journey began just over ten years ago, after pastoring mainline  churches for decades. At that time God in his sovereignty put my wife and myself on ‘a road less travelled,’ outside of denominational churches. Along the way, naturally and graciously, the Lord gave us a new understanding of many things, including Christ’s new covenant with his people. (I’ve discovered quite recently how this is happening in the lives of many believers all over the world, many testifying of a new freedom and glory in Christ)

The scriptural basis for this journey is broad, so I shall highlight only a few ‘peak passages’ lest I lose my readers along the road! Oh yes, before we set out, can we perhaps agree to humbly try and set aside any ‘theological systems’ we may have imposed on the Bible, probably inadvertently, and let the text speak for itself?

  • Our first stop-over is with our spiritual forefather, Abram, in the ancient Middle Eastern city of Ur, recorded in Gen. 12:1ff (? BC). God calls Abram to leave kin and country with the covenant promise, I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
  • Our next stop is with the OT prophet Isaiah (701-681 BC?), who repeatedly reminds God’s covenant people of their call to ‘be a light to the Gentiles and the nations of the earth.’ They would ignore this command at their own peril.
  • The next stop is with the OT prophet Jeremiah (626-586 BC, 586 being the year Israel went into Babylonian exile). “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke… this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more’ (31:31-34). [NB! unlike many today, the OT itself never divides up the law into categories, i.e. dietary law, ceremonial law and moral law. The law = the law]
  • We stop over with the OT prophet Ezekiel (593-563 BC), who speaks about God’s covenant people being given ‘one heart, a heart of flesh, a new spirit within,’ so that they may truly obey God (11:19-20).
  • Centuries later we meet up with the apostle Paul, who counters the threat of the Judaisers to the Galatian believers (48-53 AD?) by teaching extensively on the matter of ‘law and faith.’ “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian (Gr. paidagogos, i.e, a personal slave-attendant accompanying a freeborn boy, a kind of child minder-cum-informal teacher) until Christ came, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith… There is no longer Jew or Greek… for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise’ (3:23-29). We may also here recall Paul’s earlier rebuke of Peter,  Barnabas and others: “But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?'” (2:14) Why must I as an ‘adult’ Gentile follower of Jesus be pressurised by modern Gentile Judaisers, to live like a Jew? Why shouldn’t I enjoy my eggs with bacon?
  • Next we stop over with Paul as he writes his second letter to the Corinthians (55 AD?) re ‘Ministers of the New Covenant,’ to counter the accusations of false apostles among them. ‘You are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts…’ God has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, chiselled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory … how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory? … indeed, what once had glory has lots its glory because of the greater glory’ (3:1ff). Speaking about Israel, Paul indicates that whenever the old covenant was read, a ‘veil’ blinded God’s people. When one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit’ (v. 6-18). [maybe you think at this point that I am headed toward libertinism, quite the contrary, as you can check out from my blog series Cheap Grace] Over the years I have painfully learned that the most powerful restraint from sin is not fear of the law but the sheer love of Christ (2 Cor. 5:14-15). Love will lead us where fear never will. ‘God may thunder his commands from Mount Sinai and men may fear, yet remain at heart exactly as they were before. But let a man once see his God down in the arena as a Man – suffering, tempted, sweating and agonized, finally dying a criminal’s death – and he is a hard man indeed who is untouched’ (Dr. J.B. Phillips, 1906-1982).
  • We visit Paul writing to the Roman believers (57 AD?). He pens some interesting words concerning God’s ‘elect,’ ‘For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants… it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise…’ (9:6-8).
  • Our final stop-over is with the author of the Hebrews letter (prior to 70 AD). Again the problem is Judaisers, pressurising Jewish believers to return to law-keeping. The writer presents them with Jesus, the mediator of a ‘better covenant,’ “which has been enacted through better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need of a second one… ‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors… for they did not continue in my covenant… This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days… (echoes of Jer. 31 follow) I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach one another or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.’ In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.” Would you prefer a Model-T Ford or a modern 4X4 SUV for travelling over land from ‘Cape to Cairo’?? I know what I would choose.

Before we take a coffee/tea break, let’s do a reality check: what do you and I know, cognitively and experientially, of this new freedom and glory through Christ alone? What about our faith community, whether traditional or non-traditional, large or small?

 

 

vineyard

THE FREEDOM AND THE GLORY!

(DISCOVERING THE NEW COVENANT TOGETHER: PT. 2)

When making a journey it’s often exciting to look back and trace all the way you have come… why not quickly scan Pt. 1 above?

As we journey on, shall we now consult the trail-blazer himself, Jesus? As Canadian pastor and author Bruxy Cavey once put it, ‘If the Bible is God’s instruction manual on how to live life, Jesus is God’s instruction manual on how to read the Bible.’ Light shows us what shadow never will.

  • Yes, Jesus did warn his followers against ‘abolishing’ the laws and the prophets. He stated in the ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ ‘I have come not to abolish but to fulfill (Mt. 5:17ff). Let’s not rush over those words. ‘Abolish’ means annul, destroy, do away with. ‘Fulfill’ means to finish, or complete. Benjamin Corey illustrates: If I were to say that my daughter’s softball game was cancelled (abolished), it would say two things: the game is over and it finished prior to its natural end. However, if I said that my daughter’s softball game has been completed (fulfilled) it would reveal that the game was in fact over and did not finish prior to the natural end.’ Seems logical to me. In any case, when the Pharisees try to trip up Jesus on the law, Christ presents to them, in a nutshell, the very essence of the commandments as meaning to ‘love God, and our neighbour as ourselves’ (Mt. 22:34-40). As simple as that! To summarise, ‘In the old covenant, man tried to do things for God; in the new covenant, God comes to work in the place of man. The difference is incalculable.’ (Rodrigo Abarca)
  • Jesus reveals that what his people Israel were unable to be, he became and continues to do so. Isaiah’s sad ‘Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard’ reads: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a vine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes’ (5:1-5). Contrast John’s account of Jesus as ‘The True Vine’: ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower… Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me… Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.’ (Jn. 15:1-17)
  • Think of Jesus and the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus presents himself as ‘greater than’ Moses, the old covenant law, the prophets, David, Solomon, Jonah, and the temple. ‘I tell you (the disciples and the Pharisees), something greater than the temple is here’ (Mt. 12:6). Jesus was revealing himself as the new temple (Mt. 26:61), the new Israel! Irish OT scholar Christopher Wright writes, The NT presents Jesus to us as the Messiah, Jesus the Christ. And the Messiah was Israel. That is, the Messiah was Israel, representatively and personified. The Messiah was the completion of all that Israel had been put into the world for – i.e, God’s self-revelation and his work of human redemption.’ Today many recognise Anglican Tom Wright as one of the experts on Jesus and the Gospels – he writes in his must-read The Challenge of Jesus: ‘Jesus came as the true Israel, the world’s true light, and as the true image of the invisible God. He was the true Jew, the true human.’ [Sadly, this has become a rather emotive matter, especially among some Western believers. They would label the above scholars and myself as promoting ‘replacement theology,’ i.e replacing Israel with Jesus and the Church. I prefer to call it ‘fulfilment theology.’ There is a subtle but critical difference. If you see things differently, I surely respect that. I simply ask for the same respect. I would love you to finish this journey with me!]

What are some of the practical benefits of discovering Christ’s new covenant? Let me mention four…

First, this journey expands our intimacy with God. Our walk with God becomes more relational. We relate to him not so much as holy Law-giver as Holy Lover. Old covenant people are often terrified that this new covenant understanding will undermine our fear (honouring) of God, when it in fact strengthens it – that is my personal and our family testimony. Our walk with God is no longer performance and guilt-based. I’ve been saying to my friends for years that most church-goers ‘live like old covenant people rather than new covenant people’ (Frank Viola, David Gay and others concur). My paternal forebears were raised in an austere Calvinistic, Reformed denomination where the ten commandments were read at every service (by the way, I called myself a ‘Reformed Baptist’ once. I still have good friends among my Reformed colleagues). Instead of pointing them to God’s grace in Christ, the law emphasis seemed to lead largely to fear, condemnation, guilt and even despair. Here’s another confession: for many years I was guilty, like so many preachers, of preaching a kind of ‘try harder gospel’: i.e. attend more, pray more, Bible study more, evangelise more, etc. In recent visits to churches I see many church members bowed down and disillusioned. They did ‘try harder,’ but somehow it didn’t work. However, when we begin to ‘abide in Christ’ as ‘he abides in us’ (Jn. 15), things change! It’s more spontaneous, it’s organic. Why? We know from Scripture how closely Abraham, Moses, and David related to God. Those under the new covenant have an even closer relationship with God through simple faith in Jesus: ‘all these (Abraham, Moses, David, etc), though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.’ (Heb. 11:39-40).

Second, this journey expands our understanding of church. ‘Church’ is no longer a temple, a special building where believers go to find God once or twice a week. Rather Immanuel is our temple, and those in his body his portable temples 24/7, reflecting his glory wherever they go. I have blogged much on  this subject, so won’t labour the point. Over and above the passages mentioned in Part 1, you could look at 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 1 Cor. 6:19-20; 1 Pet. 2:4-10; etc.

We’ve climbed a steep hill! Shall we take another breather on our journey, and then come back to complete the last lap?

 

 

karoo4

THE FREEDOM AND THE GLORY!

(DISCOVERING THE NEW COVENANT OF CHRIST TOGETHER: PT. 3)

Some years ago, a new couple moved in across the road. She had grown up in rural Eastern Cape (South Africa), he in England. She loved farm life, he had spent his life on boats on the English coast. They got married, and she brought him to South Africa. They motored down from the High Veldt, through the Free State, and then entered the Cape Province. They stopped on the escarpment, looking down on the Great Karoo which stretched into the distance for ever. He burst into the tears. He had never seen anything so big, so expansive and spacious in his life! That happens when we take the New Covenant road…

Third, our journey expands our experience of God’s ultimate purpose in Christ, viz. to ‘gather up all things in him (Christ), things in heaven and on earth’ (Eph. 1:10). We who are ‘in Christ’ get to be full participants in this magnificent process, beginning in Gen. 1 and concluding in Rev. 22! God’s church is not a hiccup in his saving purpose, it is vital to transforming the whole earth. God influences the whole universe through his people: ‘so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now (!) be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Eph. 3:10-11). When we read in Jn. 14:15ff of Jesus’ promise to ‘come again’ to his people, it includes his coming in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Those first recipients turned their world upside down. Jesus dwells in the world in/through his people! We carry within us the divine life of Christ. My wife and I could give many examples of this happening in the marketplace, and we are just very ordinary, ragamuffin believers. Sadly the church at large has been so brain-washed with the idea that its all just about getting to ‘heaven,’ ‘just Jesus and me,’ that they have missed the big picture. They are just biding time until Jesus comes for us on the clouds – meanwhile Jesus is continuing his life on this planet through you and me right now. Jesus is no ‘absentee land-lord!’ (Jon Zens). This gives us purpose, without which we become depressed and die (cf. Auschwitz survivor, Viktor Frankl). God’s kingdom has come in Christ, is coming in Christ, and will come in Christ. As Prof. Gary Burge of Wheaton College has said, it’s a tragedy when Western believers’ zeal for the end of the world outstrips their love for all the peoples of the world.

Fourth, this journey enables us to live lightly. Again I will not go into detail, having blogged on this under the title, Learning to Live Lightly! You remember Jesus’ well-known invitation to the weary and heavy laden to come to him for rest? (Mt. 11:28-30) We’ve quoted it, preached it, read it in gospel tracts, etc. Unfortunately we have often overlooked the context. The background includes Jesus’ dealings with the Pharisees who heaped heavy religious and law-keeping burdens on the shoulders of God’s people. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase puts Jesus’ invitation correctly and beautifully: ‘Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.’ Let’s just say that it actually works, particularly if you practise it every day.

As we wind up, a word of balance:

  • New Covenant theology embraces a theology of suffering. Few know that Dr. J.B. Phillips, quoted earlier, had a near-death experience in his twenties, laboriously paraphrased the NT for his beloved young people while hiding in bomb-shelters during the London ‘blitz,’ etc. He suffered from chronic depression for most of his life. Yet he triumphed by the grace of God, as evident from his vibrant paraphrase! Many of us reading this blog have walked through the fires of suffering: it is the massive grace of God in Christ that has enabled us to overcome.
  • As those privileged to share in God’s magnificent new covenant, we have the huge responsibility of living it out in our present world. It will affect everything: the way we conduct our family, do our work, relate to others, treat others, especially those who may be very different to us, etc. Let us shoulder this responsibility daily and gladly, for the sake of Christ and his love.

There is much more to be said. May what I have shared whet your appetite for more of Jesus, and may he bear witness in our hearts to the truth and reality of these things!

[Footnote: Walking this road may cost you, it cost Jesus, it has cost others, it has cost us. My family and I have gradually lost a number of wonderful, long-standing family friends on this issue, causing us much pain. My wife and I have good Jewish friends both locally, in the UK and in Israel. I have visited Israel for myself, and was profoundly impacted by the land and of course the Holocaust Museum. I have been privileged to study and read the OT in Hebrew. Yes, God in his sovereignty may yet have some special plan for the Jewish people, but as I read my Bible that doesn’t include ethnic and real estate guarantees: long ago God made it clear that he was the ultimate owner of the land, ‘The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants’ (Lev. 25:23). The land was conditionally promised to Israel, as long as they remained faithful to the LORD, which they weren’t, then nor presently (cf. Lev. 20:22). In any case, God ‘so loved the world!’ (Jn. 3:16). Jesus commissioned us all to make disciples of all nations (Gr. panta ta ethne) (Mt.28:16-20), so let’s get on with the job wherever the Lord has placed us!]

POSTURE AND PRAYER

prayer-postures_inner-page

We were all encouraged, growing up, to develop a good posture, standing and sitting with a straight back, and so on. While reading through the psalms recently I came across Psalm 123, and it seemed to speak to me about a proper ‘posture’ toward God, a ‘prayer posture,’ a posture of attitude. The NRSV titles the psalm ‘Supplication for Mercy,’ ‘A Song of Ascents,’ no doubt prayed and sung as pilgrims went up to the Jerusalem temple mount for worship. Here’s how it opens, ‘To you I lift my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens! As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, until he has mercy upon us’ (v. 1-2). It’s poetic imagery, essentially describing our attitude as creature to Creator, servant to Covenant God.

H.L. Ellison suggests that such pilgrims were often scorned for their faith and lifestyle (v. 3-4). The only way the psalmist knew to rise above such scorn was to fix his eyes on the living God.

The opening verses also express a deep sense of dependence on God in every way.

Shortly after reading this psalm, a family member who had been holding down a job in a rather toxic institution for years, was encouraged to apply for work more in line with his skill-set, potential and passion. In our country, a caucasian male in his late thirties struggles to find employment not only because of his age but because of work reservation for those previously disadvantaged by apartheid. The family was asked to pray with him concerning this opportunity. Somehow I was led to pray, in the spirit of Ps. 123, a single sentence ‘Lord, have mercy.’ That’s all. One particular day I was prompted to pray this prayer once every 20 minutes or so. By late afternoon I felt no more need to pray in that way, sensing God had answered my/our petitions. I think it was a day or two later that the family member called to say that, against all odds, and having competed with a number of other applicants, he had been successfully interviewed and appointed to the position. Our hearts rejoiced with him and his family! Now I am not hereby suggesting some prayer mechanism or formula whereby we can manipulate God in our petitions for selfish ends. I have learned over many years that God will not be manipulated by anyone. Although of course we are encouraged to persist in prayer concerning our needs – think of Jesus’ teachings in Mt. 7:7-11 and the story of the needy friend in Lk. 11:5-13.

Ps. 123 also suggests an unshakeable focus. It has been suggested that the author was possibly reflecting on an experience as guest in a very rich household. At the banquet, though the servants lined the walls and could hardly see what the guests required, they were always ready to serve food and drinks as they were needed. The mystery was solved when he noted that the servants were looking at the host, not the guests. He was watching his guests and with little hand signs was indicating what was needed. Perhaps his wife told him afterwards that the same had been the case in the women’s quarters (please remember the historical context!). The psalmist had learnt to look to God like this, with neither eye nor ear for those that mocked and laughed at God’s covenant people. Whatever our present circumstances, let us not lose focus because of the scornful attitudes and words of folk around us who question our ‘misplaced trust,’ or the whisperings of satan that prayer is just speaking into the air. My wife has regular contact with an elderly man who claims to be an atheist. He often mocks her faith but finds his conversations with her something to look forward to, because of her contagious joy. This gentleman’s wife secretly tells my wife that he actually looks forward to these conversations – apparently he’s a real old grump at home!

Some may be helped by physical prayer postures, such as kneeling or even prostration. I think the key here is our heart attitude in communing with God.

Ps. 123 is also a corrective to the extremely laid-back and casual attitude of so many post-modern believers toward God as evidenced by cheap talk of ‘the man upstairs’ and our western, individualistic, ego-centric kind of faith, where it’s all about me, finding my destiny, etc. God is at my beck and call rather than I at his. I ‘get’ the incarnationality of God, and the wonderful intimacy of an Abba Father relationship, reflecting his total love and loveability. He is a God of unspeakable kindness and benevolence. Our earthly parents may have some ‘darkness’ in them, but there is ‘no darkness at all’ in God our Father who is totally ‘light’ toward us (1 Jn. 1:5ff). At the same time a proper understanding of who God really is, holy and loving, ‘safeguards the essential distinction between Creator and creature, which sin is ever seeking to minimise or obliterate’ (R.V.G. Tasker, The Biblical Doctrine of the Wrath of God). Sin is subtle, and easily erodes our thinking about God and ourselves, even as cleansed sinners.

I think Jesus puts it all together so beautifully in the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ in Mt. 6:9ff. Jesus has already exposed the Pharisees’ showmanship and hypocrisy in prayer and the Gentiles’ empty and endless babbling in prayer. ‘Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread…’ (v. 9-11). ‘Hallowed be your name’ is an interesting phrase. One little boy got it wrong at school when he asked his teacher, “Miss, why do we call God ‘Harold’?” As a teen at a youth camp I heard a godly Bible teacher put it this way, ‘It means to be in sympathy with God’s holiness.’ We know that ‘holiness’ betokens God’s otherness, majesty, purity, awesomeness, loveliness.

Let me wrap up with Dallas Willard’s paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer, which I think of as a kind of Prayer for All Seasons (he reminds us that ‘heaven’ should be translated ‘heavens’: meaning God as far ‘out’ imaginable to right down to the atmosphere around our heads, which is the first of the ‘heavens’):

‘Dear Father always near us,

may your name be treasured and loved,

may your rule be completed in us –

may your will be done here on earth

in just the way it is done in heaven.

Give us today the things we need today,

and forgive us our sins and impositions on you

as we are forgiving all who in any way offend us.

Please don’t put us through trials,

but deliver us from everything bad.

Because you are the one in charge,

and you have all the power,

and the glory too is all yours – forever –

which is just the way we want it!’ 

(or, ‘Amen!’ or occasionally (?) ‘Who0pee!’) (And if you’re South African, ‘Hooray!’)

THIRTY SOMETHING PIANOS

e9e954579303f2700a70d7bf204889b6

 

A few weeks ago I received an A.W. Tozer quote from my good friend, Rod Lam, serving Jesus in Hong Kong (A.W. Tozer, 1897-1963, American pastor and author, is truly prophetic to our time). I had come across it before, but it was a timeous reminder of a truth which we would see demonstrated, once more, before our very eyes at our second ‘organic church’ retreat in the Southern Free State, South Africa (if interested in our first encounter, see my archives for A Baptism of Love, written a year ago, Nov. 17 2015). Here is the quote:

“Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshippers meeting together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become ‘unity’ conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship.”

Now let my brother in the Lord, Tobie, give his account of the weekend. You will find it right here on Tobie’s blog

Enjoy!

GREETINGS! FROM ‘THE CHURCH AT THE HOUSE OF MARTHINUS AND HEIDI’

‘They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people’ (Acts 2:46b-47a)

‘Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow-workers in Christ… Also the church that meets at their house’ (Rom. 16:3a, 5)

‘Greetings to the Church, local and global! From the church that meets at the house of Marthinus and Heidi in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.’ (see pics below)

A few weekends ago, on a sunny Spring Sunday morning, some believers in our city met in the large and hospitable Hattingh’s home in Summerstrand for worship and fellowship. It turned out to be inspiring beyond our expectation.

Some of our folk are better-off, many are poor, and so the shared eats and drinks around the large table, with lots of chatter and banter, set the tone for the morning. Someone had provided two huge platters of attractively laid out savouries – together with sandwiches and biscuits brought by others, I thought there would be some waste. I need not have worried!

A few of us had sensed, because we were due to baptise one of our group, we should use Acts 2 as our general theme. Young and old, from diverse culture groups, focussed on the person central to the passage, viz. Jesus Christ. Grasping something of Luke’s intention in his gospel and his story of the early church recorded in Acts, we began to worship Christ in song and prayer. What made it special was that it commenced with a Xhosa song about the the love of Christ, powerfully sung by our youth worker from Motherwell township. She had just been released from hospital after being diagnosed with acute high blood pressure and low blood iron requiring 4 units of blood. During hospitalisation she suffered a minor stroke leaving her with a weak arm and leg. Providentially, because she has almost no means herself, we managed to get her to a private doctor who was beyond kind to her, getting her into one of the better state hospitals and following her up by phone on a daily basis (rare in our country). In fact I only learned yesterday that the hospital doctor had declared her ‘walking dead’ on admission!

During the song God’s Spirit seemed to saturate the lounge, leading to spontaneous prayers of worship and ‘laying on of hands’ for Siphokazi’s full recovery. Most in the group went on to participate with insightful comments on Acts 2, getting to grips with some aspects of ‘the apostles’ teaching’ (v.42) regarding Christ’s person and work. The call to ‘repentance’ (lit. ‘mind change’) and confession of Christ featured prominently, particularly the believers’ exchanging the enforced ‘Caesar is Lord’ for a treasonous ‘Jesus is Lord!’

Because baptism features so strongly in the NT (Mt. 3:13ff; Mt. 28:16ff; Acts 2 and 8:26ff; Rom. 6; etc), it is something often talked about in our house gatherings. It was therefore no surprise when Pam from Zimbabwe (originally Malawi) asked to be baptised [a humble reminder to some of my Western readers:  Africa is not a single country but consists of some 54 nations, of which the Republic of South Africa is one]. Marthinus and I had instructed her as to what baptism entailed, viz. our union with Christ in his death and resurrection through faith, and the consequences for our daily discipleship, i.e. death to the old and risen-ness to the new.

After another quick coffee and snack, we made our way to the nearby Summerstrand beachfront to proceed with the baptism. We found a suitable little tidal pool at Pollock Beach and Marthinus and I, in quickly-borrowed shorts, had the privilege of immersing Pam in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Pam came out un-drowned and full of joy, her face glowing from ear to ear, being welcomed by her brothers and sisters at the water’s edge.

20160911_124431_resized.jpg

Now how about this? On the opposite side of the pool some folk were watching the proceedings. They included an interested young mom, her dad, and her 2-year-old daughter. When Pam came out of the water, the little toddler came running toward her as fast as her little legs could carry her. From a distance she held out her arms for Pam to pick her up, avoiding all the other on-lookers. The mother came across and related how she just couldn’t stop her little girl from running to Pam, and that they too were believers. We had a great time chatting to mom and grandpa while the toddler clung tenaciously to Pam. My wife Melanie and another in our group immediately had the same impression:  just as the Father witnessed with pleasure to his Son’s baptism by sending the Spirit in the form of a dove (Mt. 3), it seemed God had sealed Pam’s baptism through a little girl’s attraction and warm embrace. ‘A little child will lead them.’ (Is. 11:6)

20160911_124625_resized.jpg

The morning concluded with warm goodbyes and a sense of having encountered ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (Mt. 16:16). On this Rock Christ will build his church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it!’ (Mt. 16:18)

Some footnotes:

  1. I have good friends who stand in the Protestant paedo-baptist (infant baptism) tradition. It’s interesting that probably the greatest Reformed theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth, argued in favour of a more NT position (see his revolutionary lecture delivered to Swiss theological students in 1943, entitled ‘The Teaching of the Church Regarding Baptism). So does the contemporary Anglican NT scholar, N.T. Wright.
  2. One of the best sermons I have read on the significance of baptism (as a Baptist pastor of 38 years and a non-denominationalist follower of Jesus of 10 years) I recently re-discovered in Watchman Nee’s little volume, ‘Love not the World.’ The sermon is entitled ‘A World Under Water.’ If you can find it somewhere, it’s well worth a read.
  3. According to Wayne Jacobsen and others, 32 million Americans currently follow Jesus outside of formal, traditional congregations. Of 110 million Christians in America, 33 million have left the church and become ‘atheists.’ 45 million still ‘go to church.’ I am sure that, proportionally speaking, the situation in my own country is not any better!
  4. Anthony de Mello (1931-1987), Indian priest and psychotherapist specialising in spirituality, wrote: “Happiness is the natural state of little children, to whom the kingdom belongs until they have been polluted and contaminated by the stupidity and culture of society. Why don’t we experience it? Because we have to drop something.”

CAN OLD DOGS LEARN NEW PRAYER ‘TRICKS’?

dog

Of course! Anything is possible with God.

As an older dog, from the days of my teen encounter with Christ, I had an immediate appetite for the trinity of ‘prayer, revival and missions’ (Andrew Murray). The first books I bought were Teach Yourself Preaching (which never worked) and The Man Who Believed God, the story of Hudson Taylor (which had a life-long impact). My experience of corporate prayer received a huge boost as the result of the visit to our city in the late 1980’s of an American missionary, David Bliss, who had been devouring the books of Andrew Murray and promoting David Bryant’s Concerts of Prayer based on Jonathan Edwards’ experience during the revival of the 1700’s in America. That corporate prayer awakening touched a core group in our city and led to missionaries being sent from our midst to the four corners of the earth. It also impacted my last congregation, leading to awakening and outreach locally, and to the Middle East, Europe, China and Peru. C.T Studd was right, ‘The light that shines farthest shines brightest at home.’ For years now, on my study wall there hangs the reminder of C.H Spurgeon, ‘Prayer itself is an art only the Holy Spirit can teach us. Pray for prayer. Pray until you can really pray.’

[I believe with Andrew Murray, that while we may not see many signs of true revival around us, we can, in and through Jesus, experience daily, personal revival. I also believe that ‘revival’ is being seen and experienced in new ways beyond the First World and outside of traditional church structures, e.g. in Chinese and Cuban house churches and Argentinian prisons]

‘Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old!’  (Jesus)

I humbly mention some new prayer ‘tricks’ God is patiently teaching me these days:

First, I have been helped by the re-reading of Ole Hallesby’s classic, simply entitled Prayer. I bought it as a young seminarian, started it, then put it down because it didn’t make much sense to me:  definitely not the author’s fault! I picked it up once or twice over the years, then some months ago, it really ‘kicked in.’ In chap. 1 Hallesby establishes as the basis of prayer the well-known but much misinterpreted and abused Rev. 3:20, where the exalted Christ addresses the living ecclesia in ancient Laodicea (Asia Minor), ‘Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.’ [Would it be an exaggeration to say that Jesus stands shut out from many a contemporary congregation around the world, seeking admission? Perhaps even most?]

“To pray (my emphasis) is to let Jesus come into our hearts… Our prayers are always a result of Jesus’ knocking at our hearts’ door… The air which our body needs envelops us on every hand. The air which our souls need also envelops us at all times and on all sides. God is round about us in Christ on every hand, with His many-sided and all-sufficient grace. All we need do is open our hearts. Prayer is the breath of the soul, the organ by which we receive Christ into our parched and withered hearts… He calls it to ‘sup’ with us… He designed prayer in such a way that the most impotent can make use of it… it requires no strength; it is only a question of our wills. Will we give Jesus access to our needs?”

Second, a little while back a good friend blessed me with Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy. It has hugely impacted many facets of my walk with God, as it has done in the lives of thousands around the globe. Concerning prayer, I have re-discovered the nearness of God. Especially when praying for revival and the nations, I tended to lapse into a spatial understanding of God’s presence, e.g. Isaiah’s prayer in ch. 64 asking God to ‘rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before him,’ when all the time God has come down in Immanuel, never to be away from us again! [we can be grateful for the recent re-emphasis on the indwelling Christ in the believer and his Church:  T. Austin Sparks, et al]. ‘Nearer is he than breathing, closer than hands and feet’ (Tennyson).

As Willard reminds us, we in fact ‘live in God’s house,’ i.e. the universe – which is not ’empty space’ but filled with his pervasive presence. Furthermore, ‘heaven’ is not some distant place beyond space:  heaven and God are always near us! [we catch ourselves praying loudly so that God may hear in his heaven above, lol]. In the incarnation he focused his reality in a special way in the body of Jesus, this so that we might be ‘enlightened by the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Cor. 4:6).

Practically speaking, I now love to sit at our lounge window, or out in the garden, consciously becoming aware of God’s nearness and indwelling. It is a consciousness, sometimes requiring words, but often just the quiet awareness of his ‘steadfast love that endures forever.’ The skin between the world I find myself in and heaven is tissue-paper-thin. I now love to kuier with God. Kuier is an Afrikaans word, very difficult to explain. It can be one-on-one, with little or nothing said. It can take place in a family-and- friends setting, perhaps around a braai (SA barbecue). It’s interesting:  when our son was invited to church-plant in Southern California, he soon learned that ‘to get a coffee’ is to grab a cup on your way out of the house – he was expecting to sit down in the lounge and enjoy a relaxed cup before leaving the house! In SA, we love to ‘kuier’ over coffee. So also we can kuier with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in quiet or audible prayer. There have been moments of ‘inexpressible and glorious joy!’ (1 Pet. 1:8)

Somebody else whose life and ministry was turned upside down (right side up) just 10 years ago by Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy is Brian Zahnd, American pentecostal/charismatic preacher who just yearned for something more. Read his story in his refreshing From Water to Wine. His understanding of prayer was revolutionised. Among other things he recommends praying the Lord’s Prayer morning, noon and night;  regularly praying the psalms (as Jesus did);  and so on. ‘The primary purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what we think God ought to do, but to be properly formed…  Prayer is not so much getting God to do something; prayer is more about learning how to be open and present to what God is doing.’

We try to apply some of these realities in our house church gatherings. Sometimes we will pray the Lord’s Prayer together, as well as other more formal prayers. On the other hand our prayers are also often spontaneous and, we trust, Spirit-directed.

Here’s a prayer we prayed recently, giving time for each phrase to sink in:

‘Gracious and holy Father, please give me:  intellect to understand you; reason to discern you; diligence to seek you; wisdom to find you; a spirit to know you; a heart to meditate on you; ears to hear you; eyes to see you; a tongue to proclaim you; a way of life pleasing to you; patience to wait for you; and perseverance to look for you. Grant me:  a perfect end, your holy presence, a blessed resurrection, and life everlasting.’  [Benedict, godly Italian monk, 480-547 AD]

Lord, teach us to pray – old dogs and young dogs!

A PSALM FOR TROUBLED TIMES: PS. 46

download

Most of us are now aware, via the media, of the suicide bomber at Ataturk Airport, Istanbul, who last night left behind him 36 people killed and 147 wounded. On Monday I visited a dear Christian brother whose drug-addicted son raped his own grandmother. Scientists tell us that the Arctic ice cap is melting and will lead to future flooding of coastal cities. Journalist Justice Mahala in a recent newspaper article tells us ‘SA is sitting on a tinderbox’ due to the masses of unemployed youth – 2 years ago the SA Institute of Race Relations claimed that 70.4% of black youth between 15-24 were neither working nor in training. Yesterday I was chatting with a mature Christian friend who shared how, thinking about the Church at large, he just cannot get past the image of Rev. 3:20, the Exalted Christ knocking at the door of the Church and dying to be invited in. Maybe your personal world is in turmoil: perhaps through retrenchment, marital break-up, diagnosis of a dread disease, persecution. Returning to the Istanbul tragedy, Christian activist Shane Claiborne wrote last night, ‘Heartbroken for Istanbul. And for the victims of violence. Let us pray tonight that God would heal our hearts, our streets, our world… from the contagion of hatred and violence. And let us wake up tomorrow with a renewed commitment to become the change we want to see in the world!’

Having over the last months read a psalm a night, I was freshly impacted by the perhaps over-familiar Ps. 46, truly ‘A Psalm for Troubled Times!’ This Song of Korah seems to reflect that period of Israel’s history when Assyrian King Sennacherib’s tide of war against Judah, under the rule of Hezekiah, was divinely and wonderfully rolled back by God himself. Three things shouted for my attention as I read Ps. 46…

Firstly we (those trusting in the God of the Bible) have a  REFUGE:  v. 1ff (NRSV), ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present (well-proved) help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.’ Mountains have always symbolised all that is fixed and unchangeable – but here they shake in the heart of the ever-changing ocean. The image of a shelter and stronghold has always been significant to the Hebrews – think of the scorching sun (48 degrees in the shade at Tiberias when we visited Israel a while ago in autumn), the constant onslaught of invasions, war and destruction, etc. The song-writer revels in the fact that when troubles come, the LORD is the refuge and strength of his people. Of course Judah often looked for help and protection elsewhere, through political alliances with pagan powers, instead of trusting in God alone  (repeated 4 times in Ps. 62) – a perennial temptation for God’s people in every age, when we easily trust our bank account more than the one we owe our very life.

God no where guarantees that trouble will not come to those who trust in him, but he does guarantee that when trouble comes, he will be the rock that saves them and the fortress that frustrates their enemies! Oh, the confusion sown by a largely compromised Church today with her message of physical health and material prosperity for those who simply ‘claim’ it, that of a trouble-free life for his own despite Job’s story, the unbiblical ‘secret rapture’ when the going really gets tough, and so on. Then here in my country we have so many sycophantic clergy appearing on national television donned in Santa Claus-like garb, falling over one another to lay anointed hands on our ancestor-venerating leaders, promising for the umpteenth time ‘a better life for all.’ Swiss theologian Karl Barth once exclaimed: ‘At my lowest, GOD is my hope. At my darkest, GOD is my light. At my weakest, GOD is my strength. At my saddest, GOD is my comforter!’

Secondly, Ps. 46 declares we have A RIVER:  v. 4ff, ‘There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns…’ My wife and I recall walking knee-deep in the refreshingly cool water of Hezekiah’s tunnel under the city in Jerusalem, the tiny fish nibbling at our feet in the tranquil Jordan River where two confessed Christ in baptism, the beautiful desert spring of Eingedi near the cave hiding David from King Saul, determined to kill his successor. Long before, the prophet Ezekiel envisioned a river flowing from the temple in Jerusalem, becoming deeper and deeper, bringing life to the trees along its waters and abundant fish for the fishermen on its banks (Ezek. 47). Then Jesus comes as the fulfilment of that ancient promise, declaring in Jn. 7:37ff (on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, celebrating harvest), Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart (belly) shall flow rivers of living water…'” To quote Jurgen Moltmann, where Jesus is, there is life. There is abundant life. There is life-before-death. Moltmann is dismayed at our having become so accustomed to death, death of the soul, death on the street, death through violence, death-before-life when Jesus is life-before-death!

I tell you what, you can’t even find Jesus in much of the Church today. Thank God for the millions around the globe who are seeking and finding the biblical Jesus outside of institutional church walls (Jesus has always been an excellent wall-breaker) and then taking him into their community and across cultures! A good friend of mine used to say that the institutional church has taken the River of Life and turned it into swimming pools of different sizes and shapes – some with swimming lanes, all with costly maintenance, filled with dead water no one can drink and flowing nowhere! [in my writings over the years I have consistently argued from Scripture, like many others, that Jesus and his Church constitute the ‘true Israel of God’ (Gal. 6:16). Jesus inhabits his people and they incarnate his presence in the world]

Third, Ps. 46 declares we have a REGENT:  v. 8ff, “Come, behold the works of the LORD… He makes wars cease to the end of the earth… ‘Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth’…  the LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” God says to his people, ancient and modern, stop your frenzied activity, think, trust, worship and make your King known among the nations for he is exalted in the earth! Jesus Christ is not merely Lord of the Church but King of the world. There is a world King, whom an unbelieving world has never affirmed with certainty. God’s people Israel were blessed to be a blessing to the world (Gen. 12) and a light to all nations (Is. 42, etc). It is a charge Israel never delivered. Today believing Gentiles and Jews constitute one body called to ‘disciple the nations,’ so that all the earth may own Christ as King. You and I and our communities of faith have a responsibility to know Christ and to make him known to the ends of the earth, in the power of his risen presence.

Read Ps. 46 often – it certainly is a psalm for the troubled times in which we live!

‘God is the Ruler of His mighty creation. There is no reason to despair, because He holds in His hands the whole world, while His Spirit is able to fill the void in man’s heart.’ Billy Graham.

KUMBAYA MY LORD, KUMBAYA

For more than thirty years I have been a part of the Western Suburbs Ministers’ Fraternal in Nelson Mandela Bay. Over those years there has developed a mutual respect and loving fellowship second-to-none among the local ‘ministers’ (I use a small ‘m’ to reflect the function of ‘service’ rather than church office as commonly used). They have served the Lord and one another through thick and thin, pastoral heartbreak and joys. Though I broke from church institutionalism and denominationalism over nine years ago, I have still been the recipient of love and respect despite quite radical ecclesiological differences between me and them.

Just over a week ago we had our regular coffee and muffins gathering in a local church hall. For me at least, it was one of those occasions when Jesus seemed to draw especially close. There were several features to the gathering that morning (as seen through my eyes):

  • We hosted two young visitors from the OM ship Logos Hope, presently in our harbour. They told us their story of sharing the evangel and the discipleship mandate with all and sundry around the world. George and Kim, from England and South Korea respectively, shared stories of many lives touched by the ship’s visit around the globe, including when berthing in Muslim countries where hundreds queued to buy books and Bibles, seeing and hearing the Good News demonstrated in one form or another. Heart-warming stuff!
  • At our previous Fraternal we had neglected to appoint someone to bring a short ‘word,’ and so when no one was forthcoming, I found myself sharing something somewhat personal (I am essentially introvert!). I had just recently read an article on Daniel ch. 9 by a new-found friend, a professor from our local university. It was along the lines of recognising the current ‘kairos’ moment in our country and world, and being able like Daniel in his day, to fulfill the role of ‘post-modern mystics,’ reading and interpreting God’s unchanged purpose in and for our times. ‘We need those who through many years of study and fellowship with God have learned God’s wisdom through His Word, who have brought up children and grandchildren, who truly know the human soul, and have become reservoirs of God’s wisdom so that they can guide the community of faith.’ The intention is that the Church can once more begin to shine as a beacon of hope and give answers to the confusion and pain of our world. This demands we enter the world of interpreting the signs of the times, dreams, symbols, intuition, etc, that lead to authentic spirituality. Now as a Baptist pastor for thirty-eight years I have never been into ‘dreams’ and their interpretation much (lol), although perhaps I’m now a little more open because of my journey with God the last nine years! All my life my dreams have been generally nonsensical, and I have envied those mature believers who have experienced otherwise. Recently I have been dreaming a particular kind of ‘dream’ (I qualify as one of the ‘old men’ in terms of Joel 2:28ff and Acts 2:16ff), sharing a common thread:  I’m in a large church gathering of sorts made up predominantly of children, teens and young adults and a scattering of older saints fervently worshipping God and serving one another in witness, song, dance and acts of power reminiscent of Joel 2 and Acts 2. My ‘interpretation?’ that it may be a picture increasingly being realised in our time, viz that of young and old, male and female, visions and dreams, breaking through traditional church barriers to express Christ and his love in a new ‘kingdom way.’
  • The leaders present seemed to identify with the picture. A local city intercessor related how many hundreds of our township youth are gathering regularly for worship, fellowship, prayer and sharing Christ’s love tangibly in the community.
  • A local Methodist pastor shared how Lk. 7:11-17 had been burning in his heart and he hoped to preach on it that Sunday. It is the well-known story of Jesus raising a widow’s only son, at Nain. The pastor explained from v. 13 how when Jesus saw the widow’s heartbreak he ‘had compassion’ on her, told her to dry her tears, touched the bier, and raised the young man from the dead to the astonishment of all, the word spreading throughout Judea and the surrounding countryside. The original for ‘had compassion’ is ‘esplanchnisthe,’ the word for intestines, the bowels (African culture gels with this), the ‘heart.’ It wasn’t a head thing but a gut thing! The lesson? Those who follow in Jesus’ footsteps, as they act with gut-compassion in the face of need, will see divine life springing forth! Someone suggested that if this could happen across our metro, by the doing of the Lord’s hand, how blessed we would be as Church and community!
  • Again prompted by our Methodist friend, the group began to sing a capella Kumbaya, my Lord, kumbaya (loosely translated ‘come on by, my Lord’). Song gave way to fervent prayer:  for the Logos team, the local pastor, and one another. There was such a spirit of unity, love and grace among us! [more about Kumbaya below]

At our house church this past Lord’s day, I sensed that I should relate the above events. During the week we had decided to focus on the Joel and Acts passages, put them in historical context, and draw out their import for ourselves as a community. There was immediate resonance from the folk present, followed by participation around the reference to a ‘remnant,’ etc. After sharing the Luke 7 passage and the message emerging at the Fraternal, one of our women read some lines from Susan Lenzkes that she had meditated on that very morning:

‘Compassion invites the honesty that voices the unspeakable and brings healing!’

Wow! Is it possible to act again with this specific kind of compassion in the face of specific need? And why not? It will take a little courage and faith on our part, as a believer, as a community – the outcome is assured, for the living Christ is in us and among us and he has promised! Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya! Come on by, my Lord, come on by!!

A little about Kumbaya, and a prayer suggestion…

The song seems to have originated in the mid 1920’s as a traditional spiritual of the South Carolina area, possibly deriving from the creole spoken by the former slaves of South Carolina and Georgia. The revival group, the Folksmiths, thought it originated from Angola in Africa, and popularised the song during the early to mid-1960’s. It was also sung by Joan Baez in 1962 and became associated with the civil rights movement of that time. The lyrics differ, but here is one version you may want to pray/sing with us:

 

Someone’s singing, Lord, kum ba ya (x 3)… O Lord, kum ba ya.

Someone’s praying, Lord, kum ba ya (x 3)… O Lord, kum ba ya.

No more war, my Lord, kum ba ya (x3)… O Lord, kum ba ya.

Someone’s laughing, Lord, kum ba ya (x3)… O Lord, kum ba ya.

Someone’s crying, Lord, kum ba ya (x 3)… O Lord, kum ba ya.

Oh I need you, Lord, kum ba ya (x 3)… O Lord, kum ba ya!’

[Now if you prayed/sang those words with us, perhaps let us know below (under ‘Leave a Reply’) in which country, and let the song go round the world!]

GONE MISSING! THE ASCENSION OF JESUS

Processed with VSCOcam with e1 preset

Whatever happened to the Ascension of Christ and its celebration in the Christian Church? Here in South Africa, since it fell away as a national holiday, its significance has largely gone missing!

And this when the Ascension trumpets the fact that ‘Jesus Is King!’ He is Lord of the universe, supreme above all powers, the one who ‘is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church…’ (Col. 1:15ff). As English theologian N.T. Wright reminded us recently, the ascension is virtually the only Christian festival that has no pagan analogue and has not been taken over by the pagan, materialistic forces that have wreaked havoc with Christmas and Easter. The shops don’t fill up with ascension gifts and cards saying, ‘Happy Ascension, Dear Granny!’ Wright suggests that perhaps we should be celebrating it more explicitly, although that might be risky in some instances.

Well, we did in a small way celebrate Jesus’ Ascension here in our city’s Western Suburbs, largely due to long-standing relationships between congregations and leaders. They even asked me to preach (for the second time in three years – they have short memories) despite my known stance on the institutional church!

For what it’s worth, let me leave with you some of the things I shared last Thursday from Acts 1:1-11 and more specifically John 14:15-21. Convinced that many believers in church pews around the globe are populated by spiritual orphans, I chose as theme ‘WE ARE NOT ORPHANS!Yes, millions are orphans because the church system has left them un-mentored and un-discipled. At the same time millions of believers have never clearly understood the message of the Ascension! They have been fed a terribly futuristic diet of ‘pie in the sky when you die;’ boarding ‘the gospel gravy train to heaven’ and nothing happens in between (no discipling, no character change); a dispensationalist ‘boxed-in-Jesus’ who is so firmly seated at the Father’s right hand that he cannot possibly be in two places at once; and an ethereal heaven ‘up there’ where we’ll be forever polishing door knobs and strumming harps! (the NT seems clear that in Christ’s kingdom heaven largely ‘comes down’ to earth:  Mt. 6:10, etc)

You see, in celebrating one who is absolute ‘King and Lord,’ we celebrate an eternal, relational, ever-present God. He relates within himself and to us as a trinitarian Being. Jesus himself declares ‘I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you for ever – the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; before long, the world will not see me any more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day (of Jesus’ resurrection) you will realise that I am in my Father and you are in me, and I am in you’ (Jn. 14:16-20/NIV). As the waterfall feeds the forest (see pic at top of blog), the Ascension feeds the Body of Jesus.

We are not orphans because we have a Father (v. 16a)… a Father better and unlike any human father at best. His fatherhood is individual and communal. The apostle Paul writes  in Rom. 8:15-17 (Life Through the Spirit) that by the ‘Spirit of sonship’ we cry “‘Abba, Father’ (a middle eastern term of intimacy and endearment akin to ‘Dad’or even ‘Daddy’). The Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children… heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings (note all ‘gravy train’ passengers), in order that we may also share in his glory!’ Believe it or not, as a Jesus follower for over fifty years, I still have to remind myself every morning ‘Erroll, your Father loves you & is very fond of you,’ to use the terminology of Brennan Manning in his Abba’s Child recently worked through. The proverbial cherry on the cake was the Friday evening after Ascension Day, when an orphaned, octogenarian, long-standing neighbour who in times past has mixed her denominationalism with a solid dose of ancestor worship (and maybe still does?), appeared at our front door to say ‘Thank you Erroll for the message last night… I always told my family I was an orphan, but you made me understand that I am not an orphan because I have a Father in heaven.’ How great is his grace.

We are not orphans because we have a Counsellor… v. 16-17. With people’s lives as dysfunctional and messed up as they are, few think of approaching a professional counsellor, never mind one who is divine, all-wise, and totally understands. The problem with most believers and church leaders is that we are never still enough for long enough to actually hear the Spirit’s whispers and feel his promptings. Got the t-shirt…

We are not orphans because we have a Saviour, crucified and risen, residing in us. Jesus made clear that his disciples, after his resurrection, would see and know that he was in the Father, his followers in him, and he in them (v. 18-20). William Temple, commenting on Jn. 14, reminds us that Jesus’ ‘going’ is also a ‘coming.’ The apostle Paul, writing to the Galatian Church (pressured by legalistic performers), declares ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I (the old, sinful Saul) no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20). He reminds the Colossian congregations (threatened by ‘New Age’ teaching) that God had specifically chosen them to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory!’ (Col. 1:27) Brennan Manning has also helped me, in recent days, to live in ‘the present risenness of Jesus.’ Every morning I recall the words of George Muller, ‘there came a day when George Muller died, utterly died…’ And then I rejoice in the risen Jesus within me:  you may not believe it, but it’s months now since I last invoked God’s white-hot fury on the infamous taxi drivers of our nation who heed neither road law nor frailty of life (of course, my readers have probably never had such a temptation?)…  Many of us are glad that this astounding truth of the risen and indwelling Christ is receiving fresh impetus among his followers around the world!

We are not orphans because we have an Equipper, who gives us significance (v. 15, 20-21). We are equipped by Jesus and his constraining love to obey his commandments:  v. 21b, ‘He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show (lit. ‘manifest’) myself to him.’ Amazing, isn’t it!? After the resurrection Jesus greets his disciples with his missionary mandate: “‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.‘ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit'” (Jn. 20:21-22). In Acts ch.1 Luke ties up Jesus’s Ascension with the Spirit’s empowering to be his witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth!’ (v. 8) In these days of cheap, three-step evangelism we need to be aware that our mandate is intensely incarnational (cf. Jn. 20:21). Disciple-making doesn’t take place in the church gathering place (ignore the ‘church growth’ experts) but in the market place. Ultimately our witness means nothing if not underwritten by who we are and what we do. And our calling is to all people, those we like and those we don’t!

I’m simply astonished at the Ascension! I hope you are too. Our ascended King is coming soon in consummate fulness… in the mean time we are not orphans!

********************************************

[after the message at our Ascension gathering, we unitedly prayed an old hymn by Charles Wesley – maybe you would like to take a moment to do the same, right now, wherever you are in the world, and let us know (under Comments) which part of the world, should you feel free to do so!]

Jesus! the Name high over all,

In hell, or earth, or sky;

Angels and men before it fall,

And devils fear and fly.

Jesus! the Name to sinners dear,

The Name to sinners given;

It scatters all their guilty fear,

It turns their hell to heaven.

Jesus! the prisoner’s fetters breaks,

And bruises Satan’s head;

Power into strengthless souls it speaks,

And life into the dead.

O that the world might taste and see

The riches of His grace;

The arms of love that compass me

Would all mankind embrace.

His only righteousness I show,

His saving grace proclaim;

‘Tis all my business here below

To cry: Behold the Lamb!

 

A REVELATION OF ROMANS: THE BIG PICTURE

wp-1460905128849.jpg

[Autumn Sunrise, Summerstrand, Port Elizabeth: Venue of Romans Weekend, Pic by Justin]

Brian Zahnd, a pentecostal preacher who doesn’t sound like a pentecostal when it comes to content, has a favourite phrase for Christian folk who really don’t get the gospel:  easy cheezy cotton candy Christianity!’

In stark contrast, let me share a little of our recent ‘Romans Weekend’ with an organic church brother from the Free State, Tobie van der Westhuizen. He and his lovely wife Revien taught so accurately, graphically and powerfully ‘the big picture’ view of Paul’s Letter to the Roman church. For a few years now I have appreciated Tobie’s blogs under naturalchurch. Then in August 2015 some of us were invited to a game farm retreat facilitated by our brother (see my blog, ‘A Baptism of Love’) which was a little taste of heaven. Indicating his willingness to share his ‘big picture’ take on Romans, we were privileged to host this seminar toward the end of March this year.

After the weekend I invited a few folk to reflect on it:

Siphokazi, heading up our little youth centre in Motherwell township, said Oh! Wow, what a superb weekend… my screws are tightened to God. I see no reason to turn back, dead the ‘me’ and living is ‘Christ in me.’ I really appreciated the weekend.”

My wife Melanie wrote, “The thought that struck me was this:  we are made for God, not God for us… God’s plan was always to have a people he could indwell, and thereby glorify his Son.

To know and love God should be our life’s desire:  our all-consuming desire. This is a daily and present experience. God has intended us to be one with him through Christ. We are indwelt by the same Spirit who indwells Christ, so we are able to have a daily, intimate relationship with the Lord of lords, calling him ‘Daddy.’ I love this about my Father!”

Monde, ex-Marxist turned radical for Christ, wrote “To me Romans chapter one has been broadened in the sense that, after the introduction of who God is, and what we are as his creation, I am first of all a ‘son,’ and therefore a representation of my Father here on earth. My Father is the source of the overflowing ‘life’ revealed in his Son, which is to be shared with others. This source of ‘life’ is so satisfying, that once having tasted it, you will lack no more and thirst no more. Three further things I learned from brother Tobie are:

  • ‘Desire,’ by its nature, seeks it own and always takes. On the other hand, ‘life’ from God our Father seeks the benefit of others and always gives!
  • The only image we should always grope for or look intently to, is Christ our Saviour. No other thing should take his place in our lives forever.
  • God’s wrath does not come from an angry God – it is from a decision we have taken against him, and as a result God has given us over to our own ‘desires.’

Fundile, who co-ordinates organic groups with social outreaches in the sprawling townships of Cape Town, attended with his wife Nozuko. Unfortunately they missed the last morning having to travel back to Cape Town, but expressed much gratitude for the weekend. Fundile appreciated Tobie’s thorough treatment of Romans 1 as an essential ‘foundation’ for understanding ‘the big picture.’

Justin, an educator, wrote ‘I was really blessed, inspired and encouraged by Tobie’s teaching. I love how honest he was, how he shared his own struggles and then how he shared his triumphs too. I could really connect with him.

His insights into the image of God and the false images we create, as well as his explanation of how ‘desire’ works in particular, were profound and life-changing!’

Speaking for myself, I knew I would learn much from the weekend – I didn’t realise just how much, having studied Romans for a life-time from the original and with the help of great biblical scholars. Herewith a brief survey of  truths I found ‘different,’ refreshing and revealing in new ways…

  • I appreciated the way Romans was put into the context of the whole Bible, e.g. starting with the ‘two trees of Genesis 1-2,’ i.e. the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. He pointed out that it is the latter that is the key to any true relationship with God. Ultimately Jesus is the fulfilment and expression of the very life of God. Paul thoroughly knew his OT Bible, which in turn influenced his understanding of God’s message of ‘life’ as sketched in Romans.
  • Romans 1 is ‘foundational’ – it addresses the core problem of man’s sin and self-centredness, his innate idolatry. Man focusses on self-effort in relating to God rather than trusting in Christ’s free gift of life (cf. Rom. 10 and the impossibility of mankind ‘ascending into heaven’). “Faith is simply total dependence on the ‘Tree of life.'”
  • Rom. 5 reveals the ‘perfection of Christ’s blood’ shed for sinners. It is by the cross that God delivers the sinner from himself – see Rom. 6.
  • Rom. 7 reflects the pre-conversion struggle of Paul the Pharisee. Cf. Phil. 3:7ff.
  • Romans and the NT letters highlight the core-problem of mankind, viz. that of ‘desire.’ Tobie really gave me new insight into this key-word in the OT and NT – e.g., now I fully understood Jesus’ dealings with the rich ruler in Lk. 18:18ff – he had kept all God’s commandments since boyhood except the 10th, which deals with (you’ve guessed it!) selfish ‘desire.’ Any law-keeping in order to reach God is torpedoed by our heart’s ‘desire’ or ‘covetousness.’
  • Rom. 8 conveys the magnificent message of freedom in Christ:  v. 2, ‘through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit set me free from the law of sin and death! (something the law of Moses was absolutely powerless to do) It is by this same Spirit that we are able to cry, ‘Abba, Father’ (v. 15). It’s about relationship!
  • The key to Rom. 9-11? ‘Jesus is Lord!’  Rom. 10:13, Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,’ i.e. Jew or Gentile. ‘All Israel’ = ‘the seed of Abraham’ by faith.
  • The cure for ‘desire’ is ‘love,’ i.e. the love of Christ, who is the fulfilment of the law:  see Rom. 12-16. These chapters are essentially about Christ-transformed relationships lived out in this world.
  • In summary, believers are to aspire to what they already are in Christ, i.e. to ‘be what we are!‘ Therefore we do not live in the past or in the future, which lead to a false self-image and idolatry. We live in Christ’s present! [Brennan Manning writes of living in the ‘present risenness of Christ’ –  my ref. This has helped me so much in recent days]

 

Marthinus and Heidi who hosted Tobie and family had the benefit of long conversations about Jesus, even deep into the night. A little bird told me that at 10 on Wednesday morning, the day of their leaving, Marthinus and Tobie were still so busy chatting about these things that the latter was still in his pyjamas while Revien and Oliver patiently (?) waited in the packed car!

At the end of it all the focus fell not on a dear family from the Free State, but on the sheer magnificence of CHRIST himself, the very essence of the gospel of life! All praise be to his name!

[Some of the approx. 25 adults attending the weekend:  Pics by Marthinus & Heidi Hattingh]

PS. I’m hoping that Marthinus will give some of his impressions under comments!