FOR A TIME SUCH AS THIS…

A humble member of our house church in the sprawling Motherwell township of Nelson Mandela Bay sent me a scripture to read just a day or two ago. When I read it I marvelled how apposite it was ‘for a time such as this’ in the history of our young nation, South Africa, as well as (perhaps) in our personal circumstances. 

As I write this blog, the 94-year-old national and global icon Nelson Mandela is losing his battle against lung complications (exacerbated by his 27 years of political imprisonment and stone-quarrying on Robben Island) and, according to official support, is now on life-support in a Pretoria private hospital. The nation and indeed the world is on tenterhooks. President Zuma has been visiting the hospital regularly and has cancelled his planned trip to Mozambique tomorrow. The news of Mandela’s death may come at any moment now. A tide of emotional tributes via the social media and hand-written notes pinned to bouquets of flowers is flooding the hospital and immediate family.

In recent times international leaders, celebrities, athletes etc have praised Mandela, not just as the man who (under God) steered South Africa through its tense transition from racist rule to the beginnings of democracy, but as a universal symbol of justice, sacrifice and above all reconciliation (at least on a social, political and personal level). Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, has written, ‘We are all mortal… at some stage we all have to die, and we have to move on, we have to be recalled by our Maker and Redeemer. We have to create that space for Madiba, to come to terms within himself with that journey.’ I know for a fact that over many years Madiba (his clan name) was exposed to the message of Christ through ‘church services’ he attended and Christian leaders from different walks of life who spoke to him – we pray he has indeed made his peace with God, who alone is able to reconcile us to himself through Christ Jesus (Col. 1-2).

The fact and the irony is that at the moment many millions in our nation are still somehow looking to this man to recover and help us into the future! Surely, apart from the values he instilled and the example he set, such a hope is now totally unrealistic.

But read with me the words of Ps. 146 which my fellow-believer and friend pointed me to [note: Psalms 146-150 are hymns of worship. These ‘hallelujah psalms’ are anonymous, though the Septuagint preserves two traditions, variously assigning Ps. 146 to the post-Babylonian exile prophets, Haggai and Zechariah who both prophesied in a time of great national uncertainty]:

‘Praise the LORD, I tell myself. (we don’t always feel like it, do we? happiness is a choice)

I will praise the LORD as long as I live.

I will sing praises to my God even

with my dying breath.

Don’t put your confidence in powerful people;

there is no help for you there.

When their breathing stops, they return to the earth,

and in a moment all their plans come to an end.

But happy are those who have the

God of Israel is their helper,

whose hope is in the Lord our God.

He is the one who made heaven and earth

the sea, and everything in them.

He is the one who keeps every

promise for ever,

who gives justice to the oppressed

and food to the hungry.

The LORD frees the prisoners.

The LORD opens the eyes of the blind.

The LORD lifts the burdens of those

bent beneath their loads.

The LORD loves the righteous.

The LORD protects the foreigners

among us.

He cares for the orphans and widows,

but he frustrates the plans of the wicked.

The LORD will reign forever.

O Jerusalem, your God is King in

every generation!

Praise the LORD!

Just maybe this is a word for you in your personal circumstances also. It certainly is for my Malawian friend Pamly Sokota in her tiny run-down house, unemployed and eking out a living for her herself and her adopted niece. She cheers me no end. The Lord lives!

 

 

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MORE THAN INSTRUCTION

Since my teen years I have been fascinated by trumpet music, ranging from Bert Kaempfert’s Wonderland by Night to teen trumpet prodigy Melissa Venema’s hymns accompanied by the pipe organ to Wynton Marsalis’ rendition of Hummel’s trumpet concerto. Speaking of Hummel: Johann Nepomuk Hummel was born in 1778 in Hungary, the son of Johannes, an excellent violinist. Johannes very early recognised and nurtured Johann’s childhood talent, and at the age of 7 he was already a very good violinist and pianist. Recognising his son’s need for more expert mentoring, Johannes and family moved to Vienna where the famous composer Mozart was at his peak. Johannes’ and Mozart’s paths soon crossed and Johannes told the composer about his extraordinarily gifted son. Father and son were invited to Mozart’s apartment, and in spite of Mozart’s normal reluctance to take on young students, he was so impressed by the playing of the 7-year old that he insisted that Johann come and live with his family where he would be given free lessons. Apparently lessons with Mozart meant more than instruction, it was more like osmosis‘ (‘an inter-mixture and percolation of fluids separated by a porous substance’ – think of fine percolated coffee!). The boy became Mozart’s little assistant, playing his piano music, playing four-hands with the master, soaking in the atmosphere of the Mozart home which entertained many formidable musicians from all over Europe. It’s interesting that Mozart taught his students even while playing billiards or bowls! And so with the continued guidance of his father, Johann Hummel became the world-renowned pianist and composer, going on to mentor other ‘greats’ like Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelsohn.  

 

Which reminds me of Jesus and his disciples. By contrast they were very ordinary and average people, but he effectively apprenticed them over 3 years through teaching and ‘osmosis.’ Think of their instruction in Christian ethics (together with many others) in the profound Mt. ch. 5-7. At the same time the twelve enjoyed the privilege of simply being ‘with him.’ Their apprenticeship was both formal and informal – Jesus imparted his person, mind and mission over meal times, on hikes into the country-side, over a ‘fish-braai’ (barbecue), etc.  In Luke’s account of the early Church we note the conclusion of the Jewish Sanhedrin concerning Peter and John (Acts 4:13): ‘When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus…’ Their discipleship was surely a process that depended heavily on trust, intimate relationship, personal exchange, rebuke and encouragement.  

 

Consider Paul’s mentorship of Timothy (2 Tim. 2:1ff) and, even further back, that of Timothy’s mother and grandmother! (2 Tim. 1:5ff). 

 

Think of Paul’s mentorship of the arrogant Corinthian church:  1 Cor. 4:14ff (note the repeated relational and life-style terminology), ‘I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ (NLT, ‘ten thousand others to teach you about Christ), you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church…’ 

 

I.o.w. faith is both taught and caught. This principle is of vital importance in our own discipleship, as well as our discipling of others in fulfillment of Christ’s global mandate (Mt. 28:16-20). 

 

This past weekend I participated in the 26th annual Bless the Nations missions consultation in Port Elizabeth. In one session I was privileged to interview 3 seniors who over decades have been examples and mentors to many in our metro. It was a kind of informal ‘Lutheran table talk’ as they told their respective stories:  Giep Louw a veteran Dutch Reformed missionary in Africa and SA;  Babbie Jonck, a spinster who fostered a young Indian boy and nurtured him into Christian  adulthood;  and Anna Gerber, one-time bookshop manager, latterly evangelist to Muslims and Hindus in our city. In the audience of young and old were seated their ‘spiritual children,’ walking in their mentor’s footsteps. I concluded the ‘table talk’ with a challenge to us as parents and grandparents to likewise influence our children and grandchildren. I also challenged all present to likewise ‘be Christ’ in the market-place and on the foreign mission-field, wherever God has placed us at this moment. Afterward many testified as to the heart-felt inspiration of this ‘table talk’ experience.

 

Where are you and I in this process of ‘osmosis?’ Are we ‘receiving’ from others? Are we ‘imparting’ to others? That’s the challenge to young and old, in the power of the Holy Spirit! (Acts 1:8)

THE POWER IS IN THE ROOT!

Listening to a radio talk on gardening in the High Veld where frost is a problem in winter, the presenter made abundantly clear the importance of protecting one’s plants and shrubs, especially the roots. He suggested covering them with mowed grass, bark or wood chips, anything to protect the roots from the cold (in recent years I received training in organic vegetable farming, which confirmed the same – such a blanket is excellent for composting, retaining moisture and preventing soil erosion through wind and rain). What struck me was the presenter’s final axiom, ‘Remember, the power is in the root!’

It’s the same in the kingdom, isn’t it? The apostle John in the last chapter of the Apocalypse records the exalted Messiah’s declaration (22:16):  ‘I Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this message for the churches (cf. ch. 2-3). I AM the root and offspring of David.’ 

I have in front of me a vivid, colour photograph of a gnarled old vine, planted in 1882 on the farm Gevonden in the Rawsonville district (W. Cape), famous for its wines. The caption reads, ‘Gnarled old vines make fine new wines.’ The vine stem is huge, a few metres wide, with massive lower branches. It still produces between 4 and 7 tons of grapes per vintage. If the above-ground vine is so large and impressive, imagine the root system underground! It takes all this to produce a wine of extraordinary structure and quality for today’s buyers.

That’s what the nation of Israel was meant to be, a super vine and vineyard producing fruit for the nations of the earth. Do yourself a favour and read two songs from the OT, Ps. 80 (a song of Asaph) and Is. 5:1-7 (A Song about the LORD’S Vineyard) – two laments of the spectacular failure of Israel and Judah in this regard. This even though the original vines were ‘deeply rooted.’  Instead of love and justice God’s people produced only injustice, bloodshed and oppression – their destiny was judgment, barrenness and exile.

What Israel and Judah failed to be, the Messiah is. I love returning to Jn.15, ‘Jesus, the True Vine’ to his people (in the context of his promised Spirit):  v. 1, ‘I AM the true vine and my Father is the gardener. He cuts of every branch that does not bear fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. You have already been pruned for greater fruitfulness by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful apart from me!’

In the context of the believer’s/the Church’s life, the ‘fruit’ is surely that of character and life  (cf. Jn. 15:9ff, loving Jesus and each other; Gal. 5, ‘Living by the Spirit’s Power’).

The key then is living from the vine and the root, Jesus. This happens not by striving in our energy and wisdom but by simply and perpetually ‘believing in him.’ Some will never bear fruit because of their shallow roots – read again the story of the farmer scattering seed in Mt. 13:1-23. Some will bear abundant fruit because of their deep roots – compare Paul’s prayer for the Spirit-empowered Ephesian church (Eph. 3:17ff), beginning with ‘May your roots go deep into the soil of God’s marvellous love…’  (cf. also Col. 2:6ff, ‘Freedom from Rules and New Life in Christ’).

Here is the challenge for God’s new Israel, i.e. Christ and his Church. The power is in the root! We need to dig deep into Jesus himself. And into the gospel, his ‘good news’ – not the rife contemporary ‘3 simple steps’ variety but the biblical 1 Cor. 15 variety! We need to believe Jesus and his kingdom message again, not to resort to a myriad church programs, seminars, conferences, miracle-campaigns, OT ceremonies, activities (check out your bulging local/city church bulletin) etc that seem to impoverish faith rather than produce a harvest of righteousness and discipled ethnicities (Mt. 28:16-20; Acts 1:8). 

Where are you and I, and our local church community, in God’s all-consuming plan to glorify his eternal Son? (Eph. ch. 1-3; Col. ch. 1) And if we’re not where we ought to be, what are we going to do about it??

Be brave in the Lord!

Grace and peace.

 

 

DESERT SPIRITUALITY

[Took a break from blogging – my wife and I were in Cape Town to welcome our 6th grandson into the world and commune with family. What a blessing!]

I was once more stirred by an enthusiastic chat-show on Afrikaans Radio on Monday morning when the presenter, with the input of Dr. Ronel Bezuidenhout, focussed on ‘Desert Spirituality.’ Some of my childhood years were spent in the Karoo (semi-desert), and much later I had the privilege of travelling through Namibia (real desert). Deserts are places of intriguing discovery (rock formations, insect life), growth (succulents and flowers), colours (dunes and mountains), etc. Deserts can be places of wonder!

Contributors phoned in from all over South Africa, affirming their spiritual renewal and growth in ‘desert experiences’ outside of the institutional church, through trials and frustrations, hurtful criticism, etc.

Quite a few commented on the lack of young people in the organised church, one person concluded that the organised church was like a huge whale which had beached itself, powerful but useless. The latter called for identification with and input into the larger community, speaking out against injustice like the Tutu’s of this world, engaging with the poor, etc.

Dr. Bezuidenhout pointed out that some have withdrawn from ‘the church world’ as we know it in order to find themselves and as a result contribute more meaningfully to the world, quoting the mystic Thomas Merton in this regard. They have found help in:  Silence, Solitude and Simplicity. She also mentioned author Shane Clairborne, who spent time with Mother Theresa before engaging in community ministry under the guidance of the Lord – there is a mainline denominational church in Pretoria that is involved in a similar mission, at great cost but also with great fulfilment.

I can identify with much of the above, having left the institutional church almost 7 years ago. It has been a case of the rose blossoming in the desert, the eagle flying with freedom above the plains, etc. We all need times in our lives when we can strip away the layers as it were, re-discover ourselves, God’s Word and ways, and our role in his kingdom purpose. The prophets walked this road (Elijah), so did John the Baptist, Jesus, the apostle Paul, and many in church history down the centuries. 

In the organised church, in sometimes sincere attempts to renew things and methods, church leaders and members have become enslaved to renewal itself – I see examples of this in my own city. When all the time we should be enslaved to Jesus, hearing from him as to how we should be, live and serve.

And so there are a growing number of communities in our nation, in cities, in small ‘dorps’ and bigger country towns, gathering in community (early Church style) under the leadership of Jesus and with kingdom interests only. They share meals, fellowship and reach out. One brother phoned in from Oudtshoorn in the Small Karoo, another from Naboomspruit in Northern Province. I found their input encouraging and stimulating to say the least. The living God is active in his world, all we need are eyes to see him and respond with love and obedience!

Jesus, prior to his secret visit to the Feast of Booths in Jerusalem, said to family members (some of whom did not believe in him), ‘My time has not yet come, but your time is always here…’ (John 7:6. ESV)

Robert Kennedy once said, ‘Few people will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation.’

I don’t know your circumstances right now. Maybe you’re in the ‘desert’ right now discovering wondrous things. Maybe you need to get out of ‘the church rat race’ and get into the ‘desert’ somewhere/somehow. May the Lord be with you as you engage with him, in ways new and ancient!