DESERT TRAIL BLAZERS

Ten days ago a TIME headline reported ‘Toddler Fleeing Syria Found Crossing Desert Alone.’ Beneath was a colour photo by CNN’s Nick Gorani depicting the dramatic scene. UN staff found four-year-old Marwan carrying his wordly possessions in a plastic bag in the desolate Jordanian desert. The tiny boy, dwarfed by the desert and the officials, was fleeing the violence in Syria and somehow got separated from his relatives. No more details were given in the report, except that ‘Marwan and the family were later reunited.’ I was deeply moved by the picture and the story (I have grandsons more or less Marwan’s age).  

Over the same period I had been re-reading the ‘desert-crossing stories’ of the pioneers of our faith, detailed in Heb.11. The writer (Barnabas? Apollos? A.N. Other?) is expounding the theme of faith in the face of the unseen and the unknown. He lists the trail-blazers of faith, from Abel to Enoch, Noah to Abraham, and many others. I particularly love the story of Abraham who “said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home. When he left he had no idea where he was going. By an act of faith he lived in the country promised him, lived as a stranger camping in tents. Isaac and Jacob did the same, living under the same promise. Abraham did it by keeping his eye on an unseen city with real, eternal foundations – the City designed and built by God’ (v. 8-10/MSG). I love this story because it was through this passage that the Lord called my wife and I out of the institutional church some seven years ago, to venture into the totally unknown in terms of material provision and life direction. The road less travelled has certainly made all the difference (Scott Peck). Heb. 11 starts like this, ‘The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we cannot see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd’ (v. 1-2). 

Through such acts of faith Abraham and his company “toppled kingdoms, made justice work, took the promises for themselves. They were protected from lions, fires, and sword thrusts… won battles, routed alien armies… we have stories of those who were stoned, sawed in two, murdered in cold blood; stories of vagrants wandering the earth in animal skins, homeless, friendless, powerless – the world didn’t deserve them! – making their way as best they could on the cruel edges of the world” (v. 33-38). It’s still happening today in places like N. Korea and Libya:  yesterday the bodies of seven Egyptian Christians were found dead with gunshot wounds to the head on a beach near Benghazi (Reuters). They had been abducted from the building they lived in by unidentified gunmen who went door to door asking residents if they were Christian or Muslim.

What an advantage you and I and the Church at large have over the trail-blazers of Heb. 11: “Not one of these people, even though their lives were exemplary, got their hands on what was promised. God had a better plan for us:  that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours’ (v. 39-40). It’s about God’s great plan in Christ, God’s overall view of his mission for man’s salvation and his Son’s glorification. Donald Guthrie comments, Heb. 11 points us to the time of consummation when the sum total of God’s people will be complete. He emphasises here the superiority of God’s self-revelation in Christ which provides for a development of a faith to match its object. The word ‘better’ is a recurring theme in Hebrews – even though the exalted heroes of Jewish history had demonstrated great faith, they were still imperfect (personal comment:  think of Rahab and Samson – that’s really encouraging for you and me), and needed to be ‘complemented’ by believers in Christ. The key-phrase in v. 39-40 is ‘teleiothosin,’ lit. ‘made perfect.’ Here it is used in a corporate sense with the idea of completeness. ‘There is a strong element of solidarity behind this idea (cf. the reference to the ‘assembly of the first-born’ in 12:23), which is also evident in some of the New Testament metaphors for the church, like body or building.’

We, as followers of Jesus Christ, are all making our way through ‘desert places’ of one kind or another – sometimes of our own making, sometimes not. We exist and live and serve amid many challenges:  ill-health, chronic pain, unemployment, broken relationships, misunderstanding, slander, rejection, the indifference of many to the gospel, trials, temptations, subtle and outright persecution for Christ’s sake, etc. On the other hand, we have inherited everything ‘in Christ’ and in his body (cf. Eph. 1 & 2) [on the matter of ‘our inheritance in Christ and his body,’ please see David Bolton’s latest blog – he blogs under Christ-Centered Christianity]. The question is, will we, from this heavenly position of our gracious inheritance in Christ and all that he is in us and we are in him, live and serve as faithful ‘Desert Trail Blazers?’

Let me give a simple, everyday example that we can all relate to. I think of another child, this time a seven-year-old little girl, coming from a broken home in the sprawling, poverty-stricken township of Motherwell on the fringes of our metro. Siphokazi, a single mom in her early forties facilitates a little centre in a tiny house where children and teens can come after school with their problems and challenges – educational, social, moral and spiritual. Miraculously God made my paths cross with Siphokazi’s a year or two ago, and I now act as something of a mentor to her and assist her as she mentors and assists her young friends. A few weeks ago, the little girl together with others (at least one was sexually abused from a tender age) came to Siphokazi’s ‘ministry house’ for help with homework, discipling, and something to eat. Siphokazi (herself unemployed) bought about five loaves of bread, and served the un-buttered slices (township people prefer it that way) on her best crockery. She mixed some Oros with water to quench their thirst. On this occasion, this little girl left a slice of bread on her plate – unusual under the circumstances. When Siphokazi enquired about this last slice, she replied she was taking it home for her ‘gogo’ (grandmother) who was looking after her, to enjoy. It’s one of my greatest joys to be, in a small way, involved with Siphokazi and her youth caught in such need, ‘making their way as best they can on the cruel edges of the world” (v.38). [a passing but vital observation:  in your love of God and neighbour, look for folk on ‘the fringes’ of society, accept them and love them and serve them in simple and ordinary ways; you will never regret it, in fact you will always receive more than you are able to give]. It’s a case of walking in the footsteps of Jesus, ‘the orginator and Perfecter of our faith!’ (Heb. 12:2/NIV). All of us can be a ‘donkey for Jesus,’ carrying the Messiah into the world.

So where do we go from here, my fellow ‘desert trail blazers?’ Heb.12:1-4 answers [although I suspect my ‘hyper-grace’ and ‘libertine’ friends won’t like it]: “Do you see what this means – all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running – and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed – that exhilarating finish in and with God (my emphasis:  we don’t follow Jesus’s example so much as we live out his divine life deposited within us, according to Col. 1:27) – he could put up with anything along the way:  cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourself flagging in your faith, go over that story again… that long litany of sorrow he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls! In this all-out match against sin, others have suffered far worse than you, to say nothing of what Jesus went through – all that bloodshed! So don’t feel sorry for yourselves. Or have you forgotten how good parents treat their children, and that God regards you as his children?”

 

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LEARNING TO LIVE LIGHTLY

According to a recent BBC report, the mystery of why so many birds fly in a V formation may have been solved. Scientists from the Royal Veterinary College fitted data loggers to a flock of rare birds that were being trained to migrate by following a microlight. This revealed that the birds flew in the optimal position – gaining lift from the bird in front by remaining close to its wingtip. The study also showed that the birds timed their wing beats. A previous experiment with pelicans showed that when flying in V formation, their heart beat rates actually went down! Further findings indicate that birds flying together often change their position and alter the timing of their wing beats to give them an aerodynamic advantage, making the most of the upward-moving air of the bird in front (as the air squeezes around the outside of the wings, it creates upwash at their wing tips) – this can sometimes give a bit of a ‘free ride’ for the bird that’s following. Notice the importance of the lead bird and the relationships in this flight process – intriguing stuff!

Which kind of reminded me of ‘living in Christ,’ i.e. by faith in him, and benefitting from the up-lift of his life, substitutionary death and resurrection. He is the one who goes before us, brings us into union with himself, lives within us, and empowers us for life and service. We have been baptised into Christ, his death and his life, resulting in a multitude of blessings from his hand. It’s a matter of living from a personal and intimate relationship, rather than from a set of rules.

Now lets change the metaphor from birds and modern aerodynamics to ancient yoke-bearing oxen. I have often revelled in Jesus’ self-revelation as he engaged the well-intentioned but very religious and hopelessly legalistic Pharisees who laid a heavy yoke on themselves and any would-be disciples. In turn Jesus introduces the gift of simplicity and rest, freely offered to all who would listen to him. Here’s E. Peterson’s marevellous paraphrase of Mt. 11:25-30, “The Father has given me all these things to do and say. This is a unique Father-Son operation, coming out of the Father and Son intimacies and knowledge. No one knows the Son the way the Father does, nor the Father the way the Son does. But I’m not keeping it to myself; I’m ready to go over it line by line with anyone willing to listen. 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 ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

Why do I touch on this issue once more? Because every week I watch Christians and Christian leaders around me, sincere and well-meaning, but frenetically busy, swamped by yet another seminar or program or more meetings to attend, operating under guilt rather than grace, succumbing to the Galatian deception Paul so eloquently addressed in Gal. 3 viz that the Galatians, having begun the Christian life by faith, then return for its continuance to self-effort and performance. 

Just days ago a faithful church member of an institutional church confided in me as to how she hardly has time to share with her family and husband who does shift work. She tries to attend ‘Services’ as faithfully as she can but when she does she is often made to feel guilty because of her failure to attend all the meetings considered by the pastor to be vital for individual and church growth. Poor pastor, poor member. It’s all so far removed from the NT and Jesus’ invitation in Mt. 11. [In order to maintain some kind of relationship with pastor-friends of many years, I attend a number of ‘fraternals’ where I try to learn from my brothers and sisters and at the same time try to give input to any who might actually listen. I see how pressured they are, how driven – by themselves and by their flocks. It’s largely due to the clergy-laity heresy of course. Something the Reformation never brought about, though loudly trumpeting it, was ‘the priesthood of all believers,’ both vertical and horizontal. Small wonder pastors are bailing the church system by the thousands each year and around the world – read some of Frank Viola’s most recent blogs on this matter regarding the scenario in the USA.

So much has been written recently on this matter of ‘living by grace,’ that perhaps I can leave with you a few pointers from my own recent inter-action with the subject:

  1. I commend Steve McVey’s ‘Grace Walk,’ because it springs from his own personal journey as a pastor from legalism to liberty. ‘You were married to the law before you were a Christian. But when you died with Christ, the marriage was dissolved. Then you were born a second time. In this new life you have a different husband. It’s Mr. Grace Himself, Jesus! Mr. Law was a demanding husband who was never satisfied, regardless of how many right things you did. He didn’t just claim to be perfect; he actually was perfect and he demanded the same from you. He wouldn’t help you to do anything right, but was quick to point out when you did wrong. Mr. Grace is very different. Whatever he wants done, He just does Himself. Any burden He asks you to carry is light. In fact, whenever he asks you to pick up a burden and carry it, He carries you! He’s such a gracious Husband. You might say He is always full of grace and truth.’ 
  2. I commend Luther to you, particularly his commentary on Galatians. We had such fun with him in a recent house church gathering when talking about law and grace. Luther reminds us that being dead to the Law means to be free from the Law, so what right then has the Law to accuse us? [look around you and see the many guilt-ridden and shame-ridden believers, when all the time Christ died to deal with both – my comment]. Says Luther, ‘”Blessed is the person who knows how to use this truth in times of distress… He can say: ‘Mr. Law, go ahead and accuse me as much as you like. I know I have committed many sins, and I continue to sin daily. But that does not bother me. You have got to shout louder, Mr. Law. I am deaf, you know. Talk as much as you like, I am dead to you. If you want to talk to me about my sins, go and talk to my flesh. Belabor that, but don’t talk to my conscience. My conscience is a lady and a queen, and has nothing to do with the likes of you, because my conscience lives to Christ under another law, a new and better law, the law of grace.'”
  3. For years I have read Andrew Murray (1828-1917), that godly South African pastor, example, writer, moderator, educationalist, apostle, missions mobiliser and much more. I have researched his life and, together with my family, explored the places in the Eastern and Western Cape where he ministered and experienced genuine spiritual revival – a revival that initiated a powerful missionary movement into Africa that continues to this day. I lectured from his books for years to Missions School students in my city. I have served with Bless the Nations East Cape from its beginnings over 20 years ago – it is a fellowship of mission-minded believers, churches and groups that continue Murray’s legacy of prayer, revival and missions. At present I am re-reading his ‘Waiting on God,’ this time with new eyes! I no longer focus only on our obligations as believers to fulfill the Great Commandment (Mt. 22) and the Great Commission (Mt. 28), but now as a result of my journey outside of the institutional church (for the last 7 years) I recognise that if you miss CHRIST himself in it all, you miss everything and obedience becomes a burden and well-nigh impossible. In everything we operate from Christ and his divine life within us:  he is the Vine and we are the branches and the life-giving and energising and fruit-bearing ‘sap’ flows only as we surrender to the Vine, as we ‘abide/remain’ in the Vine (Jn. 15). I hope to re-read some of Murray’s classics again, but now with a new mindset and perspective, and so be refreshed and challenged all the way.
  4. Never under-estimate the transforming power of talking about these things face-to-face in your faith community (preferably a small one – I prefer house groups) and sharing your experiences with one another in an honest way. It can be exhilarating to one and all (Acts 2:42-47; Heb. 10:24-25).

For a change then, let’s listen to Jesus and ‘learn to live lightly’ from the Master himself!

IF I HAD TO EXPLAIN, YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND

Collecting my car after a repair, I noticed a motorcycle badge and slogan on the counter. It was a Harley Davidson badge and the slogan read ‘If I Had To Explain, You Wouldn’t Understand.’ Having owned Japanese Honda’s all my life, I probably wouldn’t!

At the same time I had been reading T. Austin Sparks’ Stewardship of the Mystery’ Part 2 [cf note at end of blog]. Sparks explains how God in his sovereignty can put us into a certain life/ministry situation – in my own case, pastoring denominational churches for 38 years, going ’round and round the mulberry bush’ as a missionary couple in China put it to me concerning their previous institutional ministry. Then he sovereignly and graciously intervenes and gives a new understanding of things and puts us into a new situation closer to his heart – in my case, facilitating Christ-led organic churches, which directly touch the poor and lost. All this comes via a divine revelation and new understanding of God’s ultimate purpose which is to exalt CHRIST in his universe (cf. Eph. 1-3; Col. 1-2) [so many churches are so busy exalting themselves and their own ministries and kingdoms that they miss God’s ultimate intention completely]. Sparks reminds us of Abraham leaving Chaldea, Moses leaving Egypt, Saul of Tarsus leaving his prescribed Judaism – God sovereignly moved these figures on through deeper revelation and understanding concerning his saving purposes.

It is only such revelational encounter and understanding that brings the forward-move in God’s kingdom. Think again of Paul and his Damascus road encounter, his retreat into Arabia (the Damascan country-side) – God removed Paul from negative religion to proclaim Christ and plant vibrant ecclesiae in the Near East, Asia Minor and far-flung Europe. Only after such revelational encounter and understanding can we live and serve with divine authority and direction. If you are perhaps at a crisis point in your life, at a place of apparent contradition between reason and faith, it might just be God beginning a new, deeper thing in your life for the coming years. I mean think of Paul, born a Jew, ‘of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews… a Pharisee,’ now preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ to all nations including the despised Gentiles!

Try and explain your new-found revelation of Christ and his ultimate purpose to others (Col. 1:24, ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ – note, ‘the glory’ relates very much to the present). Try and explain to the average believer or the average leader in the average institutional church, as I and some of my dear brothers and sisters have tried to do – at best there is a tiny glimpse or recognition of the truth on the part of one or two, but generally folk ‘don’t have a clue’ as to what you’re talking about. Like the time I was invited back (under some duress) to preach at my previous congregation which I had pastored for 23 years – I was warmly welcomed because of the deep relational ties of many years, but most in the gathering that morning just could not grasp my message to the effect that essentially ‘church’ is not something we ‘go to’ but what we are (24/7), individually and corporately.

Austin Sparks puts it this way, “We cannot make too much of this matter of revelation, illumination, seeing. It is basic in salvation (Acts 26:18). It is essential to effective ministry (2 Cor. 4:6) and it is indispensible to full knowledge and full growth (Eph. 1:17). Jesus made a tremendous amount of spiritual seeing, as a reading of John’s Gospel will show. ‘Eyes’ were – in His teaching – a criterion of life or death. Indeed, a fundamental and pre-eminent work of the Holy Spirit has to do with spiritual enlightenment as to the significance of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. It is all in the Scriptures, but still our eyes are holden.’ Take for example Jesus’ words to Peter in Mt. 16:16-18 on his confession of Messiah:  “‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven… I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.'”  [Steve McVey in Grace Walk puts it like this, ‘A deep knowledge of God won’t come by biblical education alone (the mistake of much Sunday School teaching? my comment), but through divine revelation as He chooses to open our eyes to understand Him more.’]

Sparks suggests that the next time you are asked what denomination or association you belong to you, you reply ‘[please, not in some super-spiritual or self-righteous way – my comment], ‘Oh brother, I have seen Jesus the Son of God, and in seeing Him I have seen the Church, and in that only true Church there is not this mix-up of nationalities, colours, names, social or cultural differences and distinctions… ‘ Perhaps then point them to Gal. 3:26-28, ‘You are all sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.’

You object ‘But I know all this… I’m a mature believer…’ Listen to what Paul prayed for those well-taught believers in Ephesus (Eph. 1:15ff), ‘Ever since I heard about your faith and your love for all the saints [somewhat of a head-start on much of our contemporary Christianity, wouldn’t you say?], I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit (or, spirit) of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe… God placed all things under his (Christ’s) feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fulness of him who fills everything in every way!’

So where do we go from here? I guess, indwelt and empowered by Christ’s divine life, we:

  • keep on being ‘obsessed’ with Christ and his ultimate purpose…
  • keep on ‘explaining’ the mystery of Christ, in total dependence on the Holy Spirit for his revelatory work in the minds and hearts of those within the daily circle of our influence (cf 2 Cor. 4:1-6)…
  • keep on praying that we may all receive the Spirit of wisdom and revelation with regard to the mystery of Christ… [some time ago a fellow-blogger asked that we regularly pray for each other Paul’s prayer in Eph. 1:17]
  • keep on ‘obsessing,’ ‘explaining’ and praying, in the sure and certain knowledge that the Christ, the Son of the living God will build his church and be glorified in all the earth!

Any one out there with a Harley? I might just understand and be converted!!

[T. Austin-Sparks (1888-1971) was a British pastor, teacher and author who set up a conference and training centre in S.E. London. He engaged in teaching throughout Britain, Europe, the USA and Asia over a period of many years. In more recent years his writings have been ‘re-discovered,’ to the help and blessing of many]