HAVING A HEART FOR CHILDREN

To my shame, I did not always have a heart for a children. During my bachelor years small children often irritated me, and when Melanie and I were married I expressed the determination that our children would never be allowed to behave like those I often came across on my pastoral rounds. More than once I almost sat on a piece of half-eaten toast bedecked with sticky apricot jam which had been left on the sofa by a crying toddler. Of course our children quickly shattered my lofty ideals – God does have a sense of humour.

Growing up, our three children gave us great joy and delight. Providentially my wife was able to stay at home while I attended to church business in order to ‘earn our keep.’ The moral of the story is don’t sell out your family for anything. By sheer grace our children turned out ok and today all follow Jesus, together with their spouses. We thoroughly enjoy our six grandsons, ages two (almost) to fourteen – it is of course always nice to retreat to our restful home at the end of a visit!

On leaving the institutional Church eight years ago, God laid on my heart the facilitating of organic house churches together with ministry to the poor. Somehow something was missing, until I read somewhere that approximately eighty percent of the world’s population was poor and young. Apart from ‘children’s talks’ on Sunday mornings and gelling quite well with the youth in CAWKI (‘church as we knew it’), I didn’t know much about ministry to children and I was in my sixties! When God speaks we obey, and so our house churches have always integrated children and youth in our fellowship gatherings. In addition I volunteered my services to two struggling SCO (Student Christian Organisation) teachers at a local township school in a poverty-ridden community. The fruits have been beyond my wildest dreams in terms of young lives influenced and learning from the poor.

Two news articles struck me this past week. One was about Sir Nicholas Winton MBE, a British humanitarian who organised the rescue of 669, mostly Jewish, children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War Two. The British press dubbed him ‘The British Schindler.’

The second article was an interview with author Johann Christoph Arnold about his book, Their Name is Today: Reclaiming Childhood in a Hostile World. He derived the title (the first part anyway) from Gabriela Mistral, a Chilean poet and Nobel laureate. In one poem she wrote “Su nombre es hoy,” expressing the thought “Many things can wait. Children cannot… Their name is today.” In the interview Arnold calls for a new ‘reverence for children’: “Children are not computers or robots that can be programmed according to our wishes; they have a heart and soul, not only a brain.” He grew up really poor, but with great family community. Here are some of his insights to guiding our children and youth today:

  • He challenges the standardized educational testing so popular today, maintaining that it does not take into account a child’s home life and the difficulties he or she may be facing. Measurements and testing don’t address the root problems children face.
  • He challenges the value of modern technology, in which smart-phones are an extension of our arm and toddlers use tablets, i.e. the electronic kind. While he doesn’t advocate returning to the stone age, he makes the point that those working with children see the disadvantages of kidz glued to screens for more and more hours per day: it affects their health, eyesight, hearing and weight. It also militates against communication skills: teens can interact with their phones but often struggle with loneliness and a loss of identity. They are stuck between the real world and the virtual.
  • He challenges the materialism bred by affluence: toys, gifts and activities may be meant as an expression of love, but often they burden and distract children, weighing them down with ownership and possessiveness, with a focus on having instead of being.

Arnold highly recommends two things:

  • Instead of ‘things,’ give your children time and attention on a daily basis (a tough assignment in today’s crazy world).
  • Unstructured and frequent play and contact with the great outdoors (I know what the latter does when we manage to take some of our school kidz on a camp-out or a day at the ocean: we still come across the odd child who has never been in a motorcar, or never seen the ocean though only thirty minutes’ drive away). We’re all familiar with the term kindergarten (coined by Friedrich Froebel, a German educator, in the 19th century), lit. a garden of children, where each child can be nurtured with the same love and care given to a seedling.

Arnold concludes: “Our response upon encountering a child must be nothing less than reverence… reverence is more than just love. It includes an appreciation of the qualities children possess (and we ourselves have lost), a readiness to rediscover their value, and the humility to learn from them.”

Jesus, while mentoring his status-hungry disciples on a certain occasion, called a small child over and said to them, “I assure you, unless you turn from your sins and become as little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who trust in me to lose their faith, it would be better for that person to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around the neck… Beware that you don’t despise a single one of these little ones. For I tell you their angels are always in the presence of my heavenly Father” (Mt. 18:1-6, 10/NLT).

Parents and grandparents, the greatest legacy we can leave to our children and grandchildren is not money or material things accumulated in our life, but rather a legacy of character and faith. That reminder, by Dr. Billy Graham, is stuck just above my computer, lest I forget.

Parents in the institutional Church, why shouldn’t you enjoy the privilege of introducing your children and teens to Jesus! They can’t just be left to the ‘Sunday School Teacher’ or ‘Youth Leader’ or even your church’s much-vaunted ‘Youth Programme’ to connect them with Christ. Mom and Dad, you are called to incarnate Christ in the home, live the life, speak the Good News of Jesus as related in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. You are called to pray them into the Kingdom.

Those of us in organic expressions of faith, let us see children and young people as vital to your group, engage them, honour them, remember their birthday, love them, pray for them (and tell them), mentor them (you can be wonderful ‘spiritual parents’ to children from a single parent home or dysfunctional home). Impart Jesus to them – teaching without impartation and revelation is dead religion (Eph. 1:15ff) (check the drop-out rate of youth from the average traditional church). Our attitude is key. In my mind’s eye I can still see our youngest daughter Lyndall, in her late teens and early twenties being a kind of ‘Pied Piper’ to the street kidz and the squatter camp children. They followed her everywhere. Her secret? She was real, authentic, and loved them (as she still does today, rearing Luke and Evan, and imparting Jesus in her kindergarten classroom). I still have on my desk a little decorated matchbox with a tiny toy car stuck on top, which Lyndall gave to church parents who helped transport kidz those years ago: it carries the words, ‘A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of clothes I wore, but the world may be much different because I was important in the life of a child.’ Today I pay tribute to my co-worker, Siphokazi, who is a constant reminder of what it means to have a heart for children as she oversees Turning Point Youth Centre in Motherwell Township.

My eyes are misting up. So much of the Christian life is about HAVING A HEART FOR CHILDREN… in fact, having the heart of a child!

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APOLOGY!

Dear blog followers, unfortunately my son’s dropbox account was hacked and somehow this found its way on to my blogsite. I have now deleted it, but sincere apologies for any inconvenience caused any of you before I managed to delete it!

Grace and peace to you,

Erroll.

THE CHURCH IS TOO STRONG

Stephen Kaung was profoundly influenced by the great Watchman Nee of China. Kaung is now in his nineties, but as sharp as ever. I watched him speak on YouTube recently on ‘The Eternal Purpose of God’ from Eph. 1, understood and appreciated by so few in the Church today. Somewhere near the beginning of his talk he explained what he considered one of the primary reasons for the contemporary Church’s weakness – he said, ‘We are too strong! Our problem is strength!’ Not only have we lost God’s eternal purpose in Christ for his people, but we are too strong in ourselves and too weak in the Lord. I could relate to that. In our Metro we have a weekly church diary setting out church events, seminars, conferences, healing campaigns, etc, the list goes on and on – I have often said, if the strength of the church in our midst was proportional to the number of meetings and conferences with overseas speakers etc, we should be in revival right now – however, often the opposite prevails. Any local church growth (numerical) is of the musical chairs type: some megachurch puts on bigger and better, and the migration begins. And the quality of believer? Largely superficial, I would say.

Evert-Jan Ouweneel, Dutch Director of World Vision, gives a window into the Church in the Netherlands. He writes that while many see the Church in Europe declining in membership due to secularisation, he personally is optimistic. ‘Christianity in Europe is not going down the drain, but it’s in a revolutionary transition. We are being forced to reinvent (personal comment: a bad choice of word? would ‘rediscover’ not have been better?) the Gospel and the Church, and to (in a way) start all over again – what is the Gospel and why is it good news to our society? Wonderful questions for pioneers.’ Agreed!

‘Western European Christianity has become morally powerless… and lacks spiritual conviction… and today’s young people have a whole new religious spectrum to choose from. There’s no longer an economic advantage to being a Christian. So… those who still attend a church do so out of real conviction.’

Ouweneel continues, ‘That brings me to the hidden strength of today’s European Christianity: we’re learning to live with our weaknesses and our failures, which gives us a whole new experience of surrender to God’s peace and grace. From a gospel of human strength we move to a gospel of humility and weakness. We know that God’s strength can only be manifested when we are weak’ (my emphasis). [Coming back to Stephen Kaung for a moment: he points us likewise to Paul’s words in 2 Cor. 12:9-10, “But (in the light of his temptation to self-exaltation because of the surpassingly great revelations given him) he said to me, ‘My grace is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”]

This also changes the Church. ‘We should stop planning and controlling the Church and jumping to the next growth formula. What matters is whether we are available for God with empty hands, so He can use us in the way He wants…’

I like that. Just last night I was reading the introduction to Nee’s classic ‘The Normal Christian Church Life,’ in which he reminds us that God has no need of a counsellor (Rom. 11:34), therefore it is not our place to suggest how we think divine work should be done, but rather to ask in everything, ‘What is the will of the Lord?’ (his premise is that the will of the Lord for his Church is recorded not only in the Pauline Letters but in the examples of the Book of Acts).

Surely we, as individual believers and as faith-communities, must begin with a deep ‘Sorry, Lord,’ a re-reading of the Scriptures concerning God’s Bride, in dependance on Spirit-given revelation from God himself. ‘But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man…’  (Gal. 1:15-16).

WHEN LEADERS NEED LEADING AND LEADERS ARE BLEEDING [PART 2]

First off, let’s clarify that there is such a gift as leadership, both in the OT and NT. The apostle Paul, having expounded the Good News of Christ in all its ramifications in ch. 1-11 of his Roman Letter, goes on in ch. 12 to outline the outworking of that Gospel, one of the things being the diversity of spiritual gifts given to the Church for community and mission (12:3-8). These gifts include the gift of leadership:  v. 6ff, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith… if it is leadership, let him govern diligently.” When the same Greek term is used elsewhere by Paul, it is in the context of eldership (mature believers), including managing one’s own family well (1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 3:4-5). To my mind such leadership would be horizontal (pastoral) rather than hierarchical, exemplary rather than controlling, persuasive rather than dictatorial.

Secondly, let’s put Christian leadership into its proper and biblical perspective:  while important, it is not nearly so emphatic in the Scriptures as in our day when the Church is largely governed by modern business and administrative models rather than the biblical servant-leadership modelled by Jesus.

Having been involved in the institutional/denominational church for decades, I gave myself wholeheartedly to books and seminars and training courses on church leadership. I attended umpteen Bill Hybels’ Global Leadership Summits, read many books on leadership, etc. I honestly believe that all those courses and books, while led and written by sincere men and women, gave to leadership a position that is not reflected in the Scriptures, the NT especially. I well recall reading some of John Maxwell’s books on leadership and thinking to myself, in my more honest moments, but ‘that’s just not me’:  i.o.w. if I led my flock like that I would not be true to the person I was as one created in God’s image and redeemed in Christ. Needless to say, while all the above challenged me in some or way or another, it also led to much false guilt and a sense of resignation, ‘Oh well, maybe it works for others but it doesn’t seem to work for me.’

Thirdly, I submit that true biblical leadership is often ‘reluctant leadership,’ and I am more than comfortable with being known as ‘a reluctant leader.’

I was intrigued recently by a short YouTube presentation by the Northern Irish writer and philosopher/theologian, Peter Rollins [ok, he’s provocative (aren’t the Irish? lol), but so was Jesus]. In the presentation Rollins defines a true leader as ‘one who refuses to lead,’ a true priest as ‘one who refuses priesthood,’ thereby forcing ‘the priesthood of all believers’ in the body. I liked that immensely! Especially when we realise that NT leadership is ‘servant leadership’:  think of that profound passage in Jn. 13 in which Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and directs them to do likewise!

I think many of the leaders in the Bible were ‘reluctant leaders.’

  • Take Moses. Read Ex. 3 and 4, where Moses tries every trick in the book to avoid leading God’s people Israel: ‘Who am I?’… ‘What shall I tell them?’… ‘What if they don’t believe me or listen to me?’… ‘I have never been eloquent… I am slow of speech and tongue, O LORD, please send someone else to do it…’
  • Take Jeremiah. In ch. 1, in response to God’s call to become a prophet to the nations, Jeremiah objects ‘Ah, sovereign LORD… I do not know how to speak; I am only a child…”
  • Take Jesus. I have been working through Jesus’ story from the perspective of the evangelist Mark:  again and again, when people wanted post haste to make him their messiah-leader, he stalled the process. It was only when there was no other way, as evidenced in Gethsemane, that he rose to the occasion of open leadership, only to be judged and crucified of course.
  • Take Paul. While a brilliant and forceful personality, he deliberately refuses to baptise believers (bar one exception) in the early Church so that he might not be the cause of schisms in the body (1 Cor. 1:10-17), and then goes on to relate his weakness, fear, unpersuasive preaching and servanthood to Christ and all people (1 Cor. 2-4). In 2 Cor. 12 he thanks God for a humbling ‘thorn in the flesh’ (a physical affliction of some kind?) to counter the ‘surpassingly great revelations’ given him by God, so that he exclaims in v. 10, ‘For when I am weak, then I am strong.’

Fourthly, I maintain that one of the main reasons for so many mis-conceptions of Christian leadership can be laid at the door of the ‘church system,’ i.e. the institutional, denominational church system we see and experience all around us on a weekly basis. Since the days of Constantine (300 AD), the Church has been institutionalised and professionalised, from which the greater part of the Church has not recovered. From Constantine’s day we have inherited several evils:

  • The clergy-laity divide.
  • Hierarchical leadership.
  • Since the Reformation, the one priest/preacher/pastor/teacher model for local church leadership, with elders and members playing an inferior role. In my own denomination, while we prided ourselves in holding to ‘the priesthood of all believers,’ I was in a way forced into the ‘senior pastor’ mould. If a church member or my assistant pastor visited someone in hospital, it was not considered a proper visit by many. If I was absent from the pulpit and an elder preached, people felt cheated (wasn’t I paid a salary to preach?). When other congregations around us flourished, I felt the pressure to perform and achieve the same results. I remember one of our senior elders saying to me in a leadership meeting, ‘Pastor, you are the chief visionary in this church – go get a vision from the Lord, share it with us and as elders we will support you.’ I complied, but my ‘vision’ was almost immediately rejected by those same elders who, together with their families, held the power in the congregation. I can recall, on leaving that pastorate, saying to a fellow-pastor ‘That’s the system for you, it will use you and spit you out.’ He agreed, but to this day is giving his all to the very same system, which I think is rather sad. At this moment I could name a number of ‘senior pastors’ in my city who are being abused by the same system. As Peter Rollins pointed out in his presentation, church members want you to lead, but will blame you when (according to them) things go wrong – they won’t blame themselves. Here is some handy counsel from Rollins:  ‘we have to listen for ourselves and take responsibility for ourselves;’  “we must refuse to ‘colonise God,’ because his name is above every name!”

Personally, while God has graciously gifted me with some of the gifts mentioned in Eph. 4:11, I see my calling as using these gifts in a horizontal (vs hierarchical) servanthood, edifying the body to perform its Christ-ordained function in the world. I wouldn’t exchange my current ministry of ‘facilitating’ organic house churches in our city, under the functional headship of Jesus and constrained by his love alone, for the biggest mega-church or traditional church going. No way, Jose!