‘REVIVAL’ – SOME QUESTIONS & SUBMISSIONS [PART 2]

Micah 6:8 - Walk Humbly with God - Bible Verses To Go

Before proceeding, I believe many well-meaning evangelical Christians crave ‘revival’ at the expense of the Reviver. Some pray for revival so that they may conveniently escape the troubles besetting their society and avoid the challenges of daily Jesus-following. ** See footnote.

So what might ‘revival’ look like today, in this post-Christian era??

Certainly today’s Church and societal ethos is radically different to that of bygone years. The commonalities of past revivals like prayer, repentance, the Cross, transformation and mission will probably recur in contemporary situations, to a lesser or greater degree or in different forms. E.g, we’re definitely not living in the Scottish Hebridean society of the 1940’s. Mary Morrison, converted in that revival, related how as children, from their earliest days in the home and at school were steeped in sabbath observance, Bible-memorization and the Westminster Confession of the Church of Scotland. The islanders’ biggest temptation was going to the village dances and over-indulging in alcohol. By contrast, members of western churches are often biblically illiterate and exposed to very shallow and populistic preaching. In addition postmodern family-life is bombarded by public and social media dispensing amoral values.

Our local house churches recently grappled with the subject of revival, covering past revivals and then examining two very practical Bible passages. Both passages assume ‘life in Christ’ through a faith-union with him. In the NT this inward life of Christ is both vertical and horizontal (cf. 1 Jn. 1). Having focused largely on the vertical, we also need to examine the horizontal.

The first passage is James 5:13-20 (written only 20-30 years following Jesus’ earthly life and ministry). The apostle is addressing scattered churches which had become comfortable with a private ‘religion’ failing in social obligations. James exhorts his readers to true body-life: 5:15-16 (MSG), ‘Believing prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet. And if you’ve sinned, you’ll be forgiven – healed inside and out. Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed… if you know of people who have wandered from God’s truth, don’t write them off. Get them back and you will have rescued precious lives from destruction…’ Thus the life of faith demands mutual confession (a need for wisdom here), mutual sharing of pain and joy, concern about each other’s total well-being and prayer for one another. Of course we know these things but don’t regularly practise them! I recall visiting a highly-effective cell church in Abidjan, Coite de Voire – across the front sanctuary wall was written, Now That You Know These Things, You Will Be Blessed If You Do Them!’ (Jn. 13:17). That congregation was known throughout the city (and many parts of the world) for its care and concern for needy and broken people.

Now Hebrews 10:19-27 (Hebrews was written before the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 70 AD). If James addressed ‘practical religion,’ the unknown author of the Hebrews letter addressed people ‘too religious’ in terms of OT Judaistic sacrificial ritual. They needed to grasp the once-for-all-sufficiency of Christ as their great High Priest, who constantly interceded for them. Having reminded them of this ‘new and living way’ in Christ bringing assurance and hope, he underlines the importance of their social responsibilities: v. 22ff (NIV), ‘And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds… Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.’ ‘Consider’ implies ‘giving careful thought to.’ ‘Spur one another on’ in the original meant ‘incite.’ At the moment we have many poverty-stricken South Africans inciting people to violence against local  government – as believers one can sympathise with them but not condone the violence. By contrast, in our assemblies, we should be ‘inciting’ one another to love and good deeds. The word ‘love’ today is largely understood in sentimental and erotic terms – the Bible speaks of a cruciform-love that serves [Francis Schaeffer spoke of ‘practical, observable love,’ exemplified in servanthood: cf. Jn. 13]. It all boils down to fostering a caring community versus western individualism! In order to pursue these ideals believers must meet regularly, not to be pulpit-bashed, but to ‘encourage one another’ in the light of Christ’s return. There are no ‘lone rangers’ in God’s family – close and regular koinonia is not a nice idea but a divine necessity. The young Church certainly got it right: ‘They (including the 3,000 baptized converts at Pentecost) committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers’ (Acts 2:42/MSG). ***

My submission: let’s not wait for a general revival, let’s live it daily, through the Christ-life within, connecting with other serious Jesus-followers all over the world! American author Wayne Jacobsen was radically renewed when God led him and his wife out of the traditional pastorate, connecting with serious Jesus-followers world-wide. You can find my own story in my blog site’s About. American Frank Viola is another out-of-the-box pioneer. His latest book ‘Insurgence: Reclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom’ is impacting many around the world. Two couples in our house group are using it in their family-prayers with much benefit. You see, institutional churches often stifle the life out of their members through boring routine, restrictive structures, a clergy-laity divide, denominational isolation and exhausting church programs. Moving outside of the organized Church is nothing new. Think of John Wesley and his field-preaching and home class-meetings (one bishop argued that no one could be converted outside of a church sanctuary) – that awakening led, amongst other things, to the change of a nation (think of the abolition of the slave-trade). Years ago, Billy Graham saw the potential of the 1970’s Jesus Revolution, but these Jesus-freaks freaked out most main-stream churches. I’ve been privileged to visit China several times and research the Chinese house church movement at post-graduate level. Some years ago it was estimated that these house groups totalled approximately 100 million plus believers. American sociologist Josh Packard’s survey of the American Church found that some 34 million believers have become ‘dones,’ not because they had backslidden but because of their commitment to Christ. ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working’ (Jn. 5:17/NRSV).

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[Early Church Symbol]

In summary, we can still learn much from the parable of the lost sheep (Lk. 15:1-7): the shepherd left the 99 in safety to go after that one sheep that was lost. The more we get involved with the struggles of those around us, the more we shall see the living Lord at work, intervening and bringing change. Genuinely loving people is the currency of the kingdom. Agape love alone will change the world, usually one life at a time. ‘

By way of personal application, may I humbly make two suggestions to individual Jesus-followers and their groups:

  1. Instead of just rushing ahead with well-intentioned plans, consider listening carefully for the voice of the Father. This was the way of Abram, Elijah, John the Baptizer and Jesus. He will speak and show you the way.
  2. Begin in your own home, as did Joshua, Daniel, and the young Church. At the renewal of the covenant by God’s ancient people at Shechem, Joshua declared publicly: “‘Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve… But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD!’ (Josh 24:14-16/NIV).

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Footnotes:

** I suspect this is true in South Africa. This may include the national Angus Buchan prayer rallies, without detracting from much good accomplished by this man of God.

*** I urge you to get hold of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s booklet, The Life Together. You will never look at fellowship in the same way again.

**** With respect, I don’t go all the way with Jacobsen’s theology and ecclesiology, but God certainly is using him to bring healing to disillusioned and bruised ex church-goers all over the world. His network is also doing outstanding work among a marginalized tribe in Kenya, empowering crop-growing, small business enterprises, etc.

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‘REVIVAL’: SOME QUESTIONS & SUBMISSIONS [PART 1]

Prayer For Revival Clipart

 

I have many questions about ‘revival,’ don’t you? What is it, and what is it not? (many  insist they have ‘revival,’ others that it lies ‘just around the corner’) What has it looked like in the past? Are there different kinds of revivals? What is it that eventually ‘be-devils’ even genuine revivals? What are the things common to most true revivals, amid their diversity? What would revival look like today, in our post-Christian era? (I’ve seen little written on this issue, hopefully we can agree on some pointers going forward). Surely all serious believers long for a greater sense of God’s presence in his Church and in society? (at the same time doesn’t the Church need a ‘revelation’ of what we already have and are in Christ? Cf. Eph. 1).

So what is ‘revival’? Can we agree on what it’s not? On the one hand, neither ‘soul-winning’ campaigns, nor cheap ‘prosperity gospel’ platforms, nor purely social campaigns around valid societal issues. What is ‘revival?’ A simple definition, based on biblical and historical evidence, would be an ‘awakening’ of slumbering believers to God, his holiness and his cross-shaped love. E.g. I have listened to Duncan Campbell’s sermons during the Hebrides revival of 1949 and heard Mary Peckham’s testimony (way back as a young adult in the early 1960’s in my home-city) – they both  mentioned an overwhelming sense of God’s manifest presence, poured out on praying people and the subsequent transformation of society.

How has revival been manifested historically? May I suggest we limit ourselves to the 19th and 20th century ‘awakenings’ – most of us are aware of the great 18th century revivals in England and North America under Charles Wesley, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards:

  • As a South African I’m fairly familiar with a revival outbreak in the Western Cape town of Worcester, 1860-1864, under the leadership of the renowned Dr. Andrew Murray. For some years a small group of intercessors had gathered in the town to intercede for its citizens, one of them beating a regular path to a nearby prayer ‘koppie’ (hill) overlooking Worcester. One evening, while Dr. Murray was preaching in the main sanctuary, a group of about sixty young people were singing and praying in a nearby hall. They heard the sound of a strong wind, and all of sudden everyone was on their knees praying and crying, totally unawares of an elder and Dr. Murray himself calling them to order. The result? Fifty young people immediately volunteered to serve the Lord wherever he should call them; farming communities were transformed through prayer around the kitchen table; Dr. Murray began to mobilise missionaries to different parts of the world, including  Malawi in Central Africa (my wife’s forebears were part of that missionary thrust). [BTW, as a result of Dr. Murray’s teachings, there was a missions awakening in my home city in the 1980’s, resulting in local churches sending career-missionaries into Africa and many parts of the world]
  • Then there was the famous Welsh revival of 1904-1905, under the leadership of a young Bible College student, Evan Roberts, who had given himself to prayer for his native Wales. The first impact was on the youth who crowded out church buildings. There was minimal oratory from Roberts but his face visibly shone with the glory of God. People cried out for mercy, sang, prayed and repented. Collieries were transformed, even the underground ponies were left confused by the miners’ loving attitudes and lack of cursing. Pubs and jails were emptied. I recall as a young boy hearing the aged and white-haired Rev. David Matthews, converted during that revival, preach in a little Baptist church down the road from where I stayed. He could recite the NT by heart and wrote ‘I Saw the Welsh Revival,’ of which I have a treasured copy. God gave Evan Roberts a vision of the figure 100,000 – it is estimated that at least that many were converted during those few years.
  • Something different happened at the Los Angeles Azusa Street revival of 1906. God’s instruments included William Seymour and Frank Bartleman [I remember my son driving me down the famous Azusa Street to do some post-grad research at Fuller Seminary]. This revival didn’t impact LA as much as sparking a global outbreak of Pentecostalism centering on ‘the baptism of the Spirit’ and ‘tongues.’
  • A ‘rushing wind’ also accompanied an outpouring of God’s Spirit in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 1907. Presbyterian missionaries like William Blair and others had unwittingly fallen into racial prejudice, and confessed this to the people. In turn the local believers confessed their dislike of these foreign missionaries, especially their sense of superiority. Many were awakened and converted, even amid terrible persecution by the Japanese occupiers and idol worshipers. Sadly, today the North Korean underground church is one of the most persecuted in the world.
  • I’ve already mentioned the Hebrides revival of 1949. Two old ladies persistently prayed for the their fellow-believers, one blind and the other crippled by arthritis. Young men met in a barn to pray and repent around Ps. 24. Many homes were affected, young people flocked to the gatherings in the cottages and public spaces. The sense of God’s holiness and presence was overwhelming. Villages were transformed and even hardened fishermen around the coastline were affected.
  • A particular aspect of the East African revival in Rwanda and parts of Uganda during the years 1929-1970’s, has always fascinated me. As a young believer, searching for something deeper in my relationship with the Lord and confused by some who taught a kind of holiness perfectionism, I was greatly helped by Norman Grubb’s little booklet, ‘Continuous Revival,’ based on his exposure to this move of God’s Spirit in E. Africa. Under the Rwandan Medical Mission, local revivals took place from time to time, touching many, including the renowned Festo Kivengere, author of I Love Idi Amin.’ People practised regular confession, restitution and neighbourly love. The Cross was central, bringing personal conviction of sin, brokenness, confession, cleansing, and then ‘cups running over.’ BTW, these things seem common to most revivals of the past.

Andrew Murray once observed that while most believers may not witness a general or national revival, we can pursue daily, personal revival. The apostle John helps us here in 1 Jn. 1: it’s about a constant ‘walking in the light,’ with God and one another. True revival is both vertical and horizontal. In his Gospel, ch. 15, John taught the importance of the indwelling Christ, our daily abiding in him, with resultant on-going fruit for all to see.

What are some of the dangers besetting spiritual revival movements? I suggest a few:

  • Lapsing into to self-effort, ‘control’ if you like. I tried to find out what happened to Evan Roberts after he went into self-imposed exile with the Penn-Lewis’s. Obviously there must have been some level of physical and emotional burn-out. One writer has suggested that things went wrong when Evan started taking responsibility for the revival’s results rather than leaving them in God’s hands. After starting off so charitably, he apparently became harsh and condemning in his preaching. Did he also fall into introversion? There is always the danger of an unhealthy, rigid introspection among believers. My old Scottish college principal used to say, ‘A healthy person doesn’t walk around all day with a thermometer in his mouth!’
  • Lapsing into legalism of different sorts. E.g. obsession with externals like dress, certain phenomena and leaders rather than the message. This goes right back to Jonathan Edwards’ time. It’s very much with us today.
  • Lapsing into imbalance. A pastor-friend of mine told me years ago of Dr. Maxwell’s dictum (head of Prairie Bible Institute, Canada, whose student-body experienced a powerful prayer-awakening), ‘The hardest thing in the world is to keep balanced!’ I’m thinking of balance between teaching and emotions, head and heart, the objective and the subjective. Let’s face it, God’s heightened presence during revival times cannot be contained by mere mortals for ever – sooner or later life itself has to go on. I think we see this progression in the Acts of the Apostles.

May I ask you to please re-visit this topic, continued in Part 2, where we’ll be asking the all-important question, ‘What might revival look like today?’ Will Jesus and the Bible surprise us?

 

JESUS EATS AND DRINKS WITH US!

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LUKE 22:14-20 (NIV)

I’m convinced Jesus personally eats and drinks with us, each time we as his followers ‘break bread together’ and amid all our celebrations of God’s goodness and kindness in this world! It was said of the saintly Dr. Andrew Murray (renowned South African preacher, author, revival witness and missions mobiliser) that a meal at the Murray’s was like a Communion Service.

Turning to Lk. 22, Jesus’ grace is surely magnificent! Ch. 22 opens with Judas’ sell-out of Jesus to the temple officials, who had been plotting his death all along – hence his secret preparations for the Passover meal with his nearest and dearest (v. 7-13). At the beginning of the meal Jesus declares his ‘eager desire’ (double emphasis in the Greek) to share it with his companions, before his Calvary. ‘You’ve no idea how much I have looked forward to eating this Passover meal with you before my time of suffering!’ (MSG) He’s aware of Peter’s imminent threefold denial (22:31ff) as well as his friends’ squabble as to who would be the greatest in the kingdom (v. 24ff). Nevertheless Jesus enthuses over this last opportunity of table fellowship. So is his grace toward us also, undeserving and broken as we are.

I was also intrigued by Jesus’ linking of the Lord’s Supper with his kingdom. For I tell you that I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God… I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes’ (v. 16 & 18). Note also Jesus’ earlier response to the Pharisees’ question as to when the kingdom would come: The kingdom of God does not come visibly, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within (or, ‘among’) you” (17:20-21).

In grappling with ‘the kingdom’ today we have to bear in mind over a century’s ‘brainwashing’ of the Western Church by the unfortunate ‘dispensationalism’ and ‘futurism’ of J.N. Darby (1800-1882), C.I Schofield (1843-1921) and their successors. Thank God that presently, across the globe, countless thousands of serious Jesus-followers have, after wrestling with the text, come to a more biblical understanding of ‘the gospel of the kingdom’ (Mk. 1:14-20, etc). Here’s a brief synopsis of that more biblical understanding…

G.E. Ladd (1911-1982) of Fuller Seminary was one of the first American theologians to seriously challenge the dispensational status quo in that country (‘not much to quo about’?). He did so through his lectures and books which are still in print today. I was introduced to his writings in my seminary days, and I owe him much. Here are some basic definitions by Ladd: “The kingdom is primarily the dynamic reign or kingly rule of God… and derivatively, the sphere in which this rule is experienced.” “The end times were inaugurated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and thus there are both already and not yet aspects to the kingdom of God.” (my bold emphasis)

  • South African theologian Dr. Derek Morphew, built on this – he sees the kingdom as encompassing ‘signs and wonders and social justice.’ The ‘last days’ began with Jesus and Pentecost (cf. Acts 2) and will culminate in his personal return at the end of the age.
  • Influential American pastor Brian Zahnd has also put it simply, “The kingdom of God doesn’t look like… Rome in the 4th century, Byzantium in the 6th century, Spain in the 15th century, France in the 17th century, England in the 19th century, America in the 21st century. The kingdom of God looks like Jesus! Jesus healing the sick, feeding the poor, forgiving the sinner, raising the dead.” 
  • While in no way detracting from Christ’s climactic second coming, the fact is, if we are honest with Scripture, Jesus has ‘come’ to his own in a number of ways since his resurrection. He shared two post-resurrection meals with his disciples (Jn. 21:12ff, a fish-barbecue on the beach); Lk. 24:30ff, a simple supper with Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas in Emmaus Village). This was followed by his ‘coming’ through the Holy Spirit’s person at Pentecost (Acts 2). Jesus’ Olivet discourse on ‘Signs of the End of the Age’ (Mt. 24) is complex, but it assumes an over-lapping of such ‘signs’ and their fulfillment, some signs ‘already’ fulfilled and others ‘not yet’ fulfilled. I’ve often used the childhood game of skidding a flattish pebble across a smooth surface of water – the pebble bounces several times before finally sinking away. Prophecy may be fulfilled a number of times, to a lesser or greater degree. In Mt. 24 many verses were fulfilled with the terrible Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD (v. 1ff, v. 15ff). See my footnote for more details** Other sections have been fulfilled down through Church history, others are yet to be fulfilled.

Back to my opening sentence. ‘Jesus eats and drinks with us each time his followers break bread together, each time they celebrate some or other aspect of God’s goodness and kindness in this world!’ Why? Because he is the King of the kingdom, a kingdom that has come, a kingdom that is coming right now through prayer and obedience, a kingdom that is still to come in full glory at the end of time. Despite the whole world being under the control of the evil one at this time (1 Jn. 5:19), the Lord reigns! My sage old College principal used to say, ‘The devil may have his finger in the pie, but remember God has his hand on the devil’s finger!’

By way of application, Dorothy Day (1897-1980), renowned Catholic social activist among the poor, helps us in the right direction: “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.” There are some imperatives here…

  • Loving God and our neighbour as ourselves (Mt. 22:34ff).
  • Regularly gathering for ‘breaking of bread,’ preferably in a group small enough to really get to know one another and with maximum participation of those present (1 Pet. 2:9-10) (the greater the cultural and social mix, the better).
  • The development of true companionship within the body and beyond.
  • Celebration of God’s many goodnesses around a table, e.g. a birthday, wedding anniversary, etc.
  • Celebration of Communion in public space. I’ll never forget breaking bread with a terminal cancer sufferer, who had just come to faith, in a tea garden. It deeply impacted the four of us plus the young waitress. What about couples celebrating Communion in a park or on the beach front? I have been privileged to celebrate Communion with fellow-believers at the gates of a very poor township school in my city and as far afield as at a Buddhist monastery door in Central China – I believe both occasions were a witness to the curious onlookers and the unseen spiritual powers of Eph. 3:8-11 and 6:10-12.

So c’mon, let’s celebrate in the assurance that the King of love eats and drinks with us at each banqueting table, both in this world and the one to come!

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[Footnote:

** The Siege of Jerusalem (Encyclopaedia Brittanica & Wikipaedia) was certainly a partial fulfillment of Mt. 24. The fall of the city marked the conclusion of a four-year campaign against the Jewish insurgency in Judaea. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus gives detailed information on Jerusalem’s siege and fall. The Jews had rebelled (AD 66ff) because of creeping polytheistic pressures on their monotheism, oppressive taxation and unwanted imperialism. In response Roman Emperor Nero sent his general, Vespasian, to destroy the Jewish forces. By the time Vespasian followed Nero, the former had pushed most of the rebels into Jerusalem. At the time of Passover in April of 70 AD, the Roman general Titus surrounded Jerusalem, allowing pilgrims in but not out. The historian, Josephus, tried to negotiate a peace treaty but failed. The siege depleted food and water supplies within the city, starving many of the pilgrims and inhabitants to death. By August 70 AD, the Romans had breached the final defenses and massacred the remaining population. They destroyed the Second Temple, central to Judaism. Titus was determined to transform the temple remains into a sacred place dedicated to the Roman Emperor and pantheon. According to Josephus (some have criticized his statistics as exaggerated), 1.1 million non-combatants died in Jerusalem, as a result of the violence, ravaging fires and famine. Everywhere was slaughter and flight. Most of the victims were described as peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed, but butchered wherever they were caught. Round the Altar heaps of corpses grew higher and higher, while down the Sanctuary steps poured down a river of blood. The bodies of those killed at the top slithered to the bottom. Horrendous but historical fact]

 

 

WHEN EVERYTHING AROUND YOU IS SHAKING…

 

Grayscale Photography of Crucifix

(Earthquake, Central Italy, 2017)

Everything around us seems to be shaking. A few weeks ago we read of a devastating earthquake in Indonesia, a week ago of a 7.3 quake in Venezuela which saw buildings sway and people pour on to the streets. Here in my own country, South Africa, we have physical and other shakings: sinkholes (due to mining) in built-up areas; a staggering economy due to ‘state capture’ and ten years of gross financial corruption; polarising right-wingers and left-wingers, drowning out the voices of reason and solidarity; criminal violence with some fifty seven murders every day (News 24, 11/09/18); etc.

And what about people’s personal lives? Stress levels are soaring, marriages dissolving among ‘Christians’ at a faster rate than non-believers,’ etc. Everyone of us has a story to tell. A few days ago my wife and I listened to a senior pastor in our city tell us of his early church-plant successes and feeling like a rock-star; the next moment he and his young family hit rock-bottom when dad found their two-year old son dead in bed one morning, cause of death unknown. I’ve been involved with a poor, township school for a decade or more – a few weeks ago I officiated at the funeral of a twelve-year old boy who died within  hours of a suspected fit/stroke, leaving the young parents devastated.

It’s not much better in the ‘Church world,’ is it?

  • Top leaders, Protestant and Roman Catholic have succumbed to immorality, pedophilia, financial greed and power trips.
  • In 2015 already American sociologist Josh Packard called attention to the 32 million ‘dones’ in the USA – those done with ‘church as we know it.’ They have left their institutional congregations not because of a lack of commitment but for personal survival, despairing of real change in their local churches. Many of them are younger members, at the other end of the scale I ‘bailed’ after thirty-eight years of ‘successful’ denominational pastoring.
  • Further back, in 2008, George Barna (American church statistician) and Frank Viola co-authored Pagan Christianity, based on detailed research. They concluded that much of Church belief and practice has been based on pagan tradition (especially post-300 AD) rather than biblical teaching. It caused a huge stir, shifted some church leaders (including myself) and yet by and large the Church in the West continues to stumble on the same old path. I know of pastors in my city who read the book, paused, and then simply continued with their mega-church merry-go-round. It seems that most pastors are just not willing to pay the price, for popular, self-propagating and economic reasons.
  •  A week ago theologian Scot McKnight referenced a N. American survey finding that 50% plus of Protestants prefer to ‘worship’ with people who share their political views, the remainder believing they already do so. Pathetic! Unity and diversity are surely not in opposition? And how can we restrict ‘worship’ to what Christians do on Sunday mornings, isn’t it a 24/7 lifestyle in union with the risen Christ?

Where do we turn for sanity and stability? Hebrews 12:25-28 may be a good place. The unknown author is exhorting scattered believers under pressure of Roman persecution and on the other hand Jewish religionists, punting a deadly ‘Jesus plus’ message (‘God is enough. That is the root of peace. When we start seeking something besides Him, we lose it’ –  Brennan Manning). Their faith was being shaken. Our text provides four key-pointers in such times of shaking:

  1. Listen to Jesus. V. 25, Be careful that you do not refuse to listen to the One who is speaking. For if the people of Israel did not escape when they refused to listen to Moses, the earthly messenger, we will certainly not escape if we reject the One who speaks to us from heaven! When God spoke from Mount Sinai his voice shook the earth, but now he makes another promise: ‘Once again I will shake not only the earth but the heavens also.’ This means that all of creation will be shaken and removed, so that only unshakable things will remain.” Cf. Heb. ch. 1 & 2:3, ‘So what makes us think that we will escape if we ignore this great salvation that was first announced by the Lord Jesus himself and then delivered to us by those who heard him speak?’ We must listen to God in the Bible, in creation, in the Cross and in our personal circumstances. C.S. Lewis warned of God’s megaphone of pain when ignoring the whispers of his love.
  2. Run into his unshakable kingdom. The ‘gospel of the kingdom’ (see 1** below) is infinitely more than personal salvation and a ticket to heaven. It calls us to repent concerning Jesus and bow to his lordship, participating in God’s great purpose of summing up all things in his Son. His kingdom is the only thing that stands firm when all is shaking: v. 27, we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable…’ The apostle Paul says that kingdom is built on a solid foundation: 1 Cor. 3:10-11, Because of God’s grace to me, I have laid the foundation like an expert builder. Now others are building on it. But whoever is building on this foundation must be very careful. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already we have – Jesus Christ.’ Ps. 46 chants God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So we will not fear when earthquakes come and the mountains crumble into the sea… The LORD of Heaven’s Armies is here among us; the God of Israel is our fortress…’
  3. Give thanks to the Lord. V. 28, ‘let us be thankful…’ For what? We could begin with the overall theme of  Hebrews, i.e. the magnificent supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus as revealer of God and mediator on the Cross. We could continue with the glorious praise hymns of Eph. 1-3, Col. 1-2 and Phil. 2:5-11. We could thank God for the purifying effect of our circumstances (1 Pet. 1:3-12). Those of us who are older can use the phrase ‘I get to’ to get up in the morning, make breakfast, embrace a new day and serve King Jesus in my family and society.
  4.  Worship him. V. 28-29, ‘please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe. For our God is a devouring fire!’ Yes, He’s the devouring fire of majesty and holiness and white-hot love. Bede Griffiths wrote, ‘The love of  God is not a mild benevolence but a consuming fire.’ I love G.K. Chesterton and Brennan Manning’s phrase, ‘the furious love of God’ which pursues us no matter what. See 2 ** below.

Amid temptations to materialism, immorality, strange fire and other upheavals of all kinds, there is one great constant and solution to the shakings of our world, 13:8, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.’ Why not, right now sing/pray the old hymn, What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear…’ Put your sweaty palm in his cool hand, walk the road with Christ within, ‘the hope of glory’ (Col. 1:27). Star 20th century theologian, Karl Barth, wrote, ‘I am not certain about my uncertainty; I do not believe in my own faith; rather I believe in that which God has done in Christ. This is the great wonder, namely, that I am permitted to believe in something that stands high above me, something that came from God to me, never something that I have in my pocket. I can orientate myself always and only on the cross on Golgotha.’ Praise our mighty God!

POSTSCRIPTS:

  1. ** I love Frank Viola’s simple definition of ‘the gospel of the kingdom’: ‘The gospel of the kingdom is the good news about the universal kingship of Jesus of Nazareth in the earth.’ (Insurgence)
  2. ** Brennan Manning, ‘I have a word for you. I know your whole life story. I know every skeleton in your closet. I know every moment of sin, shame, dishonesty and degraded love that has darkened your past. Right now I know your shallow faith, your feeble prayer life, your inconsistent discipleship. And my word is this: I dare you to trust that I love you just as you are, and not as you should be. Because you’re never going to be as you should be.’ (Manning was an American RC priest who served in many places, left the priesthood, got married and then divorced, and spent the rest of his days as a recovering alcoholic and mentor of many who could identify with his vulnerability)

HE SHED THOSE TEARS FOR THEE!

 

My slow working through the Good News according to Luke over the past eight months has been fascinating. A week ago I was busy with 19:28ff…

  • It’s a coronation journey, not on a warhorse but a donkey. The crowds, so impressed with his miracles and teaching, greet him with shouting and singing: ‘Blessings on the King who comes in the name of the LORD! Peace in heaven, and glory in highest heaven!’ At last the Messiah had intervened to defeat their oppressors and be enthroned in Jerusalem.
  • The unpopular temple clergy rebuked Jesus for not challenging the riff-raff praise-singers. Jesus in turn rebukes the leaders for totally missing the point: if they didn’t praise him the stones along the road would! (v. 40)
  • Jesus heads to Jerusalem not with sword but palm branch.

 

Free stock photo of black-and-white, art, vintage, statue

 

Getting to the point: 19:41, ‘as he came closer to Jerusalem and saw the city ahead, he began to weep.’ In this instance ‘weep’ doesn’t refer merely to tears welling up in eyes and rolling down cheeks (cf. Jn. 11:35) but to a heaving of the bosom, the sob and cry of a soul in anguish. Note the startling contrast: the ecstatic laughing and shouting of the crowds and Jesus’ gut-wrenching sobs. [it wasn’t the only time Jesus had wept over Jerusalem: Mt. 23:37, ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. And now, look, your house is abandoned and desolate’] Why Jesus’ broken-hearted sobs??

  • God’s chosen and beloved Israel, after millennia of God’s covenant love out-poured, again just didn’t get it! They didn’t grasp the Father’s way of peace for them and all mankind: 19:41ff, “‘How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes.'” In short, they preferred the sword to the Cross. My goodness, nothing has changed – two thousand years later witness N. American politics, the conflicts in the Middle East and in my own continent! Have we forgotten how Jesus disarmed his disciples and us in the garden? (Lk. 22:47ff). **
  • His people didn’t realize that it was too late. They had had countless opportunities to accept God’s free offer of salvation in Christ. Jesus affirms that before long their enemies would encircle Jerusalem and crush one and all, including children (horrors! cf. Mt. 27:24-25). We know what happened in 70 AD.

Dr. J. Norval Geldenhuys writes thus of Jesus’ tears [Benjamin Beddome, publ. 1787],

‘The Son of God in tears,

The wondering angels see.

Be thou astonished, O my soul,

He shed these tears for thee.’

A few years ago my wife and I toured the Holy Land. My personal highlights were tracing Jesus’ footsteps in beautiful Galilee, and then the heaviness of the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane below. I recalled Jesus’ prayer from the gut: Lk. 22:44f, “‘Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine’… He prayed more fervently, and he was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood…” I paused on my own for a while, surveying the tomb stones and ancient olive trees below, and thanked my Saviour for doing all this for me… for all mankind (cf. Jn. 3:16ff), but also for me! Later, in the beautiful sanctuary in the valley, one of our tour members sang from a pew in crystal-clear soprano voice, ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ I wept grateful tears.

The lessons of Jesus’ weeping for us are many, I select a few:

  1. It’s a call to rediscover Jesus himself. Thank God, masses are re-discovering the authentic Jesus, not the popular plastic pulpit one.
  2. It’s a call to rediscover repentance. Stanza 1 and 3 of Beddome’s hymn say, (1) ‘Did  Christ o’er sinners weep, And shall our cheeks be dry? Let floods of penitential grief Burst forth from every eye.’ (2) ‘He wept that we might weep; Each sin demands a tear; In heaven alone no sin is found, And there’s no weeping there.’ In the 1980’s I heard American evangelist Sammy Tippet relate the Good News coming to Romania in a new way – soon Romanian Christians were nicknamed ‘the repenters.’ When last did you hear the word ‘repent’ from a pulpit? [‘repentance’ means a radical change of mind resulting in a radical change of character. As my College professor would say, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it!’]
  3. It’s a call to rediscover the good news of the kingdom. I won’t expand but note Jesus’ definition in Lk. 4:18-19. Also Frank Viola’s latest book, Insurgence, hugely challenging to the Church in North America and beyond (my copy arrived today).
  4. It’s a call to rediscover evangelism (Mt. 28:16ff). We tend to beat ourselves up concerning the need to witness – our beginning point should be God’s love for us in Christ. ‘Confidence in evangelism begins in the love of God’ [Dr. Jerry Root, Wheaton College. Dr. Root suggests from student interviews that our greatest fear of witness is ‘what will others think of me?’ (a kind of idolatry?)] Blame it on an older man’s sentimentality perhaps, but I recall our young men’s evangelistic outreaches in our city and the words of an old chorus (publ. 1917) (before my time!), ‘Lord crucified, give me a heart like Thine! Teach me to love the dying souls of men, And keep keep my heart in closest touch with Thee, And give me love, pure Calvary love, to bring the lost to Thee.’ Such witness, anchored in God’s love, becomes natural and spontaneous.
  5. It’s a call to rediscover The Cruciform Church (cf. Leonard Allen). Recently I was shocked anew by Jesus’ words to his would-be followers: Lk. 14:25ff, “‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate (by comparison) his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.'” As there was for Jesus a Jerusalem and Calvary, so there is for each of us. A quote from English evangelist-philanthropist George Muller (1805-1898) says it all, ‘There was a day when I died, utterly died, died to George Muller, his opinions, preferences, tastes and will, died to this world, it’s approval or censure, died to the approval or blame even of my brethren and friends, and since then I have studied to show my self approved unto God.’ Have you been to the Cross, dear friend? (praise God the Cross leads to abundant life!) How many church groups and leaders have been there? [In 19:45ff we read of Jesus turning the temple upside down/right side up. NB: he did this at the commencement and conclusion of his ministry (Jn. 2:13ff; Lk. 19:45ff), he’s doing it again today. Cf. Mal. 2:17-3:5]

And when it all seems just too idealistic and too hard today, let me recall ‘He shed those tears for thee…’ What a calling, honour and grace is ours!

Free stock photo of agriculture, farm, horizon, fields

“Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. He healed every kind of disease and illness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. He said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is great but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest, ask him to send more workers into his fields.'”

 [Mt. 9:35-38]

** Maybe we can learn from the Chinese Christian woman who invited her would-be burglars inside, prepared a meal for them and saw them off at the door as friends. As Brian Zahnd has said, at least let’s ask God what we should do in a similar situation.

 

PRAYER: FROM PLACES OF PAIN (PART 2)

Sorry We're Closed but Still Awesome Tag

 

‘Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.’

(Jesus to the Church in Laodicea)***

 

We move on to Part 2 of Prayer: from Places of Pain, doing so from an unexpected perspective perhaps, viz. the Revelation of John, 3:14-22 and especially v. 20 (quoted above from the NLT). [It may help, if you haven’t already done so, to quickly scan Part 1 to pick up the thread]

The exalted Lord Jesus is addressing the churches of Asia Minor, from a place of incomparable pain, viz his rejection as Messiah by Israel, his beloved covenant people. For him it meant terrible sufferings here on earth, culminating in his atoning death on Golgotha’s Cross, as Saviour of Israel and all nations. It’s important we start here.

The aged apostle John, Christ’s spokesman in this instance, also speaks from a place of pain. He is in exile on the lonely Aegean Island of Patmos for preaching the Good News of the kingdom. He addresses seven local churches in Asia Minor, including the one in Laodicea, a prosperous city known for its banks, medical school and textile industry.

The local church is also under pain, especially those members loyal to Christ and all he stood for. The governing Romans enforced emperor-worship, leading to Nero’s terrible oppression of Christians (or Domitian’s, depending on the dating of the Revelation).

Christ, and his servant John, weep over a church community being sterilized by creeping materialism and complacency.

  • In their relationship with ‘the Amen and Lord of all,’ these believers had drifted into spiritual ‘lukewarmness,’ to such an extent that the exalted Lord is about to ‘spit (lit. ‘vomit’) them out of his mouth!’ (v. 14-16/NIV). Maybe John had the nearby hot medicinal springs in mind as a familiar metaphor to the Laodiceans…
  • Sadly, the church imagined themselves to be ‘rich,’ not recognizing their spiritual wretchedness, poverty and nudity – hence John’s counsel to buy from Christ lasting riches and clean dress (v. 17-19). Remember Laodicea was known for its clothing industry…
  • Worst of all, the church imagined they had spiritual insight when in fact they were ‘blind,’ needing the Spirit’s eye salve to make them see once more. As noted earlier, Laodicea was famous for its medicines and ointments, but these ‘blind believers’ needed more than that. Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the total anomaly of ‘blind Christians and churches!’ ‘Christ have mercy!’

light-of-the-world-william-holman-hunt

[Painting by William Holman Hunt]

Part of Christ’s rebuke and discipline of the Laodiceans includes a call to earnestness of heart and penitent prayer. [I recently re-read the story of the godly John Wesley, 18th century awakening leader and founder of Methodism. I was once more impressed by his earnestness in everything, especially the disciplines of Bible reading, prayer, godliness and the reaching of the lost. What’s become of his tribe?]

Believe it or not, Rev. 3:20 speaks to the very essence of prayer [sadly much evangelicalism has restricted this verse to leading individuals to Christ]: ‘Here I am! (Christ is never far away) I (the Amen/faithful and true Witness/Ruler of creation) 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’ (NIV). We know the significance of meals in the Orient:  they signified covenant, fellowship, friendship, celebration and joy! [Please bear in mind that Rev. 3:20 is addressing not only individual Jesus-followers but in the main local churches] I’m sure most of us have seen Holman Hunt’s famous picture of Jesus at the door, noting there is no door handle on the outside. I.o.w. we have to open that door into our hearts and local assemblies. How many people and churches are busy with worship and prayer and service and entertainment of members when all the time Jesus, the head of the Church, is himself shut out! If the cap fits, let’s at least wear it and repent…

Many years ago during my formal theological training I came across a little paperback simply entitled Prayer, penned by Prof. Ole Hallesby (1879-1961). He was an evangelical Norwegian Lutheran theologian with a heart for God. I have read and re-read it – I am ever grateful to him for opening my eyes to the essence of Rev. 3:20. Here are selected snippets from this little gem (chap. 1):

  • ‘To pray is to let Jesus come into our hearts… It is Jesus who moves us to pray… Our prayers are always the result of Jesus’ knocking at our hearts’ door.’ cf. Is. 65:24/NLT (Judgment & Final Salvation), ‘I will answer them before they even call to me. While they are still talking about their needs, I will go ahead and answer their prayers!’
  • ‘From time immemorial, prayer has been spoken of as the breath of the soul… The air which our body requires envelops us on every hand. The air itself seeks to enter our bodies and, for this reason, exerts pressure upon us. It is well known that it is more difficult to hold one’s breath than it is to breathe. We need but to exercise our organs of respiration, and air will enter forthwith into our lungs and perform its life-giving function to the entire body… Prayer is the breath of the soul, the organ by which we receive Christ into our parched and withered hearts… All he needs is access… He enters wherever He is not denied admittance.’
  • Jesus wants so badly to sup’ with us. In biblical language the common meal is symbolical of intimate and joyous fellowship.’ While meditating and teaching recently on Rev. 3:20, together with Jn. 1:1-5, Jn. 6:35, 6:53ff and 1 Jn. 1, it seemed to me that Jesus came to give us ‘three inter-related l’s’ (I’m not being trite here): LIFE, LIGHT & LUNCH!
  • ‘To pray is nothing more than to let Jesus into our needs… To pray is to let Jesus glorify His name in the midst of our needs.’
  • ‘The results of prayer… are not dependent upon the powers of the one who prays.’ [My comment: this in a time when believers are badgered into believing that their prayers are ‘not answered’ because of ‘insufficient faith,’ etc. What did Jesus say about the size of faith??]
  • Jesus ‘knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust. That is why he designed prayer in such a way that the most impotent can make use of it. For to pray is to open the door to Jesus, and that requires no strength; it is only a question of our wills.’

I trust the above opens some doors (pun intended) to you and me in the vital matter of prayer, especially when praying from places of pain! May I suggest you make a note of some of these points made by Hallesby for further meditation?

 

[*** I’m not sure what we picture when talking about a/the ‘church?’ A building, perhaps with a cross or steeple, clergy leading in one form or another, pews all facing the stage where ‘things happen’? (BTW, that only became the norm when the Church was institutionalised and professionalised by Emperor Constantine in the early 300’s AD) One thing is for sure, the ‘church in Laodicea’ probably consisted of a relatively small group(s) of repentant and baptized believers, relating to Jesus 24/7 and meeting in ordinary homes. They included rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, young and old. Essentially they gave themselves to community and gossiping the Kingdom. ‘All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper) and to prayer… And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.’ (Acts 2:42, 47b/NLT) [Hence my blog theme, Conversations About Jesus & Community] The good news is that today such ‘organic, simple church’ has been/is happening around the world!

 

 

 

 

PRAYER FROM PAINFUL PLACES (PART 1)

Silhouette Of Child Looking On Window Blinds

 

We’ve all been there, in one way or another, haven’t we? Listening to people’s stories in our house church gatherings and at a recent thanksgiving tea, most believers seem to have come from places of pain. And, as the saying goes in Afrikaans (a major language in South Africa), ‘Die nood leer bid,’ i.e. ‘distress teaches us to pray!’ Currently, dark forces are gathering all over the world and in our own nation, calling God’s remnant to prayer. World-mission (Mt. 28:16-20) requires prayer, the persecuted Church has learned to pray (complacent Western Church, look east!), people in stressful circumstances learn to pray, etc. Recently my wife and I each had a major health crisis, a re-location and down-size of our home of 36 years and a total re-orientation of our life and future ministry – we have had to lean hard on the Lord in new ways of pervasive praying.

While the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Philippian church is known as ‘the epistle of joy’ (the word ‘joy’ appears 16 times in this short letter), it arose from places of pain.

  • Paul wrote from house arrest in Rome (circa 61 AD). His crime was testifying to the good news of Jesus (1:1-6).
  • Philippi in Macedonia was a prosperous city and renowned military base. The local believers found themselves pressurized by at least three groups:  Roman officialdom which worshiped Caesar as Lord; Judaizing groups lobbying a return to legalism; and affluent antinomians loud-hailing libertine lifestyles (ch.’s 1-3).
  • While the local ekklesia had some great co-workers, more recently two of them had sharply disagreed, threatening the unity of the body (4:1-3).

Paul addresses some of these needs in his final exhortations to the Philippian assembly, calling the faithful above all to the regular (and practical!) practice of prayer:  4:6-7 (NLT), ‘Don’t worry about anything; instead pray about everything’ [in the last months, my wife and I have made that our daily dictum in a new way, diarising the outcomes as a record of God’s faithfulness]. ‘Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. If you do this, you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus’ (as a military HQ, there was of course the constant reminder of guards everywhere).

From these very well-known/quoted words, we Jesus-followers, as individuals and communities, can learn much:

  1. The enemy of peace (and joy) is often our own self-centred and counter-productive anxiety. We worry about our health, well-being, finances, the past, the future, enforced changes, ministry pressures, etc. [At this point we need to distinguish between ‘normal anxiety’ and ‘acute anxiety.’ In 1993 my wife and I went through the hell of acute burnout, due to family circumstances and pastoral leadership responsibilities. My wife recovered within three months, mine dragged on for six months because I tend to ‘live in my head’ much more. For many months I couldn’t pray for lack of emotional energy and concentration – I ‘floated’ on the gracious prayers of many in our caring and prayerful congregation. Such ‘acute clinical depression’ is related to chemical imbalances in the brain, making anxiety virtually uncontrollable at times, except by medical means and the prayers of others. My wife and I benefited from both. More normal anxiety can be relieved and even cured, as explained in my next point. BTW, we were both Spirit-filled believers at that time and trust we still are! In our humble opinion drastic mental break-downs have nothing to do with ‘spirituality,’ so we counsel folk not to listen to their ‘super-spiritual’ advisors (found in every congregation) – they mean well but are really ignorant!] **
  2. Paul’s antidote for such anxiety includes three elements:  prayer; thanksgiving; and biblical thinking. Believe me, prayer about everything helps, and so can diarizing it, however simply. Thanksgiving helps us to be less self-engrossed and puts a more positive spin on life. Focusing our thought-patterns on ‘what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely and admirable… excellent and worthy of praise’ (v. 8) can be life-transforming. Of course this is a skill to be practiced until habitual (v. 9), even when it is hard. [Psychologists call it ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’ – it was popularised in the 1960’s by, among others, American psychiatrist Aaron Beck). ** Talking about a thought-focus, I came across this lovely quote from Karl Barth recently: ‘Where Christian love arises, self-seeking love can only sink to the ground. When the sun arises, the shadows and the mists in the valleys can only yield and disperse… (Christian love) is grounded in God’s love for humanity and not in our love for ourselves’ (CD IV/2, 747).

How does this all work out in practice? Let me share two more perspectives…

Years ago, through a well-known missions conference in our city, our family was privileged to host one of the overseas speakers, Dr. J. Christy Wilson (1921-1999). He and his wife had been veteran missionaries in Afghanistan, later he became professor of missions at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in the USA. He was certainly one of the most godly and Christ-like men I have met. Dr. Christy Wilson’s students could testify, and so could I even from that brief visit, that you were never quite sure whether he was chatting to you or to God. The two seemed to blend almost seamlessly. The story goes that he prayed through Gordon-Conwell’s student directory daily, and that he knew your name and family background before you walked into class. He became a mentor to many! I recall he and I driving past a gypsy fortune-teller and her caravan. One moment he was talking to me about her, the next moment to God. For myself, I strive after that ability to be ‘anxious about nothing and to pray about everything.’ I believe such a lifestyle derives from a spirit totally surrendered to Jesus. Ultimately, it arises from Christ’s indwelling Spirit in our lives and communities, flooding our lives and others’. It’s one of the most natural and spontaneous processes on earth! (cf. Rom. 5:5; Jn. 15:1-8)

A few weeks ago, one of our house church members who has been going through years of almost unbearable stress as a younger widow and businesswoman, shared with me how, encouraged by Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, she has been learning, in absolutely everything, just to ‘come to Jesus’ and to ‘look to Jesus.’ Remember Isaiah’s invitation in chap. 45:22 (KJV), ‘Look unto me, all the ends of the earth, and be saved.’ Remember Matthew’s account of Peter walking on the water:  he was fine while keeping his eyes on Jesus – when he glanced at the mountainous waves, swept up by the wind, he began to sink (Mt. 14:22ff). My fellow-traveller, under great pressure at the moment (for whatever reason), why not practice this constant ‘coming to Jesus’ and ‘looking to Jesus’ in everything?’ You may just find that somehow you’re able to cope and experience God’s supernatural peace amid it all.

In Part 2 of PRAYER FROM PAINFUL PLACES we’ll look into probably the most important aspect of our individual and corporate prayer-journey with Jesus.

** Believers suffering from clinical depression may also benefit from reading ‘Happiness Is A Choice,’ by Drs. Frank Minirth and Paul Meier, two Christian psychiatrists. It is easily read and grasped. To my knowledge the book is unfortunately out of print, however you may find a second-hand copy in a bookshop somewhere or on-line.

LEARNING TO ACCEPT ONE ANOTHER

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[House Church Seminar on ‘The Roman Way,’ Port Elizabeth, South Africa]

 

Years ago I came across a statement, ‘The church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners!’ Or something to that effect. I think it confirms the testimony of Scripture and Jesus.

For a few months now I’ve been reading, I must say with much pleasure, the Gospel of Luke. The introduction to the well-known story of ‘The Lost Sheep’ (Lk. 15:1-7) reminds us of Jesus’ constant battle with the religious establishment of his day in getting it to grasp that his mission was not to ‘righteous’ people but to the ‘unrighteous.’ For the umpteenth time, as he reached out to despised ‘tax collectors and sinners’ (v. 1-2), the Pharisees and law-teachers (the so-called ‘covenant people’ of Israel) were heard muttering ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ But that was his mission! The previous chapter, Lk. 14, relates the story of ‘The Great Banquet’ (v. 15-24), making the same point. After his general invitation to dinner resulted in excuse after excuse, the master of the house ordered his servant to ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled and the lame’ (v. 21), and when there were still empty seats, ‘Go out to the roads and the country lanes and make them come in, so that my house may be full… not one of those men who were invited (full of excuses) will get a taste of my banquet’ (v. 23-24).

The NT ekklesiae we’re also reminded of the apostle Paul’s exhortation in Romans 15:7, ‘Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted  you (including you and me, sinful, self-centred, ‘warts ‘n all’), in order to bring praise to God.’ 

  • This exhortation was preceded by Paul’s masterful exposition of the ‘Good News,’ in all its fullness and beauty – creation, justification by faith alone, sanctification by faith alone, the gift of the Spirit, the sovereignty of God in his saving purpose for mankind, etc (ch. 1-14). What a motivation!
  • Paul proclaims this gospel of grace to the small, scattered house churches in Rome (1:7) and beyond.
  • He exhorts his readers to show respect both to the ‘weak’ and the ‘strong,’ those still struggling with dietary issues and special days, and those who had worked through those peripheral issues and experienced the liberating grace of Christ (ch. 14).
  • Paul addresses the perennial issue of Jew vs Gentile, with the Jews seeing themselves as the chosen ones and the Gentiles as untouchable. In ch. 15, on the Jew-Gentile issue, he quotes from the prophet Isaiah, ‘Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand’ (Is. 52:15; Rom. 15:21). Right from the start God’s people were intended to be ‘light to all the nations.’ Somehow most modern Jews in their spiritual blindness have failed miserably in this high calling.
  • It’s wonderful when we today begin to see ourselves as people complete in Christ, ‘a new creation in Christ’ (2 Cor. 5:17), perfectly accepted in him through simple faith. It’s just as great a thing when we see Christ’s corporate body as a new creation in Christ, entrusted with God’s ministry of reconciliation everywhere on earth! (2 Cor. 5:11-6:3) I like to think of Jesus’ little ekklesiae, wherever they are, as places of acceptance. Forgive me if I have my sources wrong, but I seem to recall reading about Jim Cymbala, church-planting in down-town Brooklyn New York, inviting a prostitute to the Services, only to be told that a church would be the very last place she would visit and feel accepted. [Thank God for Jim and his wife who persevered in that difficult church-plant, whose ministry and famous choir has gone on to be greatly blessed and used of God]

Some time ago I was inspired by the words of Jurgen Moltmann,* taken from The Passion for Life. I recently shared the following quote at one of our house church gatherings: ‘Congregation is no longer the sum of all those who are registered on church rolls. Congregation is a new kind of living (I love that. My words) that affirms:

  • that no one is alone with his or her problems;
  • that no one has to conceal his or her disabilities; (aren’t we all ‘disabled,’ in one way or another? My comment)
  • that there are not some who have a say and those who have no say; [recently here in my city a church member was prohibited by the rector from serving communion to his bed-ridden mother because as a layman he was ‘not licensed to do so.’ My comment]
  • that neither the young or old are isolated;
  • that one bears with others even when it is unpleasant and there is no agreement;
  • that we can also leave each other in peace when the other needs it.’ (I love that! I enjoy community but also my privacy. My comment)

Another of my favourite theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer,* had this to say:

  • ‘Where a people pray, there is the church, and where the church is, there is never loneliness.’
  • ‘God wants to see human beings, not ghosts who shun the world.’ [We live in a day of  ‘Gnostic Christianity,’ with believers aspiring to escape the real world into some super-spiritual world where ‘Christianese’ prevails, refusing to be ‘salt and light’ where it really matters and among the lost of the earth. Cf. Mt. 5:13-16. Own comment]
  • ‘Christ has been exiled from the lives of most Christians – we build him a temple but we live in our own house.’

Of course, ‘learning to accept one another as Christ has accepted us’ is a process, a journey, a long road. I have often, too often, stumbled along that road! That’s why I changed my blog caption to LEARNING To Accept One Another. Let’s all, as Jesus’ humble disciples (Gr. mathetes, i.e. learners/apprentices), learn to walk in his footsteps in utter dependence on his indwelling Spirit. And may all our faith-communities become gracious places of acceptance!

* Jurgen Moltmann, now in his nineties, is a renowned German Reformed theologian, who has specialised in eschatology (study of the last things), ecclesiology (study of the church) and ‘a theology of hope.’ He was drafted into the German Air Force in 1944 at the age of 18, surrendered to the first British soldier he came across at the end of WW2, broken and disillusioned by German culture at the revelation of the Nazi atrocities at Auschwitz and the other death camps.

* Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a brilliant young German theologian who received his PhD at the age of 22. He defied Adolf Hitler and joined the Confessing Church in the 1930’s. He was imprisoned and executed by the Nazis at the age of 39, just 2 weeks before armistice in 1945. [Quotes from Bonhoeffer’s biography by Eric Metaxas]

 

IN THE INTERIM…

We have entered winter here in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. I haven’t gone into hibernation but will probably not blog for a few more weeks, the main reason being a major move from our family home, where we’ve been so happily living (and gathering ‘clutter’) for 36 years! My health-scare last year and one for my wife about a fortnight ago (she developed bi-lateral pulmonary emboli which came within a whisker of taking her life – praise God, she is doing so well since her discharge, in answer to our/your prayers) forced us into a reality-check. Furthermore, with no financial income from Melanie’s side due to retirement, we have thought it wise to downscale for economic reasons and a simpler lifestyle (seeing we believe in ‘simple church!’). Instead of moving into a town-house for the time being, we have applied for a retirement village cottage in a convenient part of our city, Port Elizabeth, aiming not to vegetate in that environment but to keep pioneering as long as the Lord enables! While we await a vacant cottage, we shall be renting temporarily elsewhere. We are both totally at peace about the move at this time while we have health and energy on our side. Sorry to bore you with the personal details, but it does help those blog-followers who know us a little more intimately. God willing, I would love to continue blogging and perhaps even more frequently once we have settled domestically. In the mean time we enjoy receiving those blogs to which we have subscribed and will try and respond from time to time. With warm greetings in Jesus from a cooler South Africa and praying God’s grace and peace for you all, especially those going through some rather drastic lifestyle and ecclesiastical changes! Under much more difficult circumstances the apostle Paul reminded the Roman house churches ‘And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them’ (Rom. 8:28, NLT). Heartfelt thanks for your interest and prayers. God is indeed the one ‘who raises the dead’ and can be trusted to the uttermost! (2 Cor. 1:9b-11a, NIV)

DEATH CAFES, MORTALITY AND IMMORTALITY

graves_at_normandy-P

 

Imagine my surprise when reading about a ‘Death Cafe’ in Cape Town (South Africa), where folk gather over tea and cake to discuss mortality! (EP Herald, 12/03/18) They come to discuss their fears about our inevitable death, the logistics of death, what should happen to their bodies, etc. Apparently 5,000 such cafes have popped up in 55 countries since September 2011.

Recently the world took note of the passing of famed jazz trumpeter, Bra Hugh Masekela. In his last days, dying of prostate cancer, he wanted no-one to talk about death. “It was breaking his heart that he was leaving us and was leaving this world. He never admitted the thought that he was going to die – for him, he was going to get better and he was going to live forever.” (EP Herald, 2018) Sad in a way…

Having had a grade 1 cancer diagnosis and a near-death experience through unrelated emergency surgery in September 2017, I have become more conscious of my own mortality. No one is Superman!

Creation, the Bible and Jesus speak much of our mortality, even as believers. Creation decays and global climate changes are a fact – some have suggested we begin to die soon after birth. What is also true is that the God of the Bible alone has immortality – we derive that immortality only as we share in Christ and his life.

  • In Ps. 90 Moses poetically contrasts God’s eternity and human frailty. “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn us back to dust, and say, ‘Turn back you mortals.’ For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.’ (v. 1-4, NRSV)
  • The apostle Paul reminds Timothy and his readers of the good fight of faith, concluding ‘he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords… It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can ever see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.’ (1 Tim. 6:15-16)

I grew up as a teen believer being taught that humans innately possess a ‘never-dying’ soul.’ That is more Greek philosophy than good theology. God alone is deathless. In Hebraic/biblical thought we cannot rigidly isolate body, mind and spirit. We also note that the concept of immortality is expressed directly only in the NT: in his 2nd Letter to Timothy Paul exults in ‘our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.’ (1:10) Paul expounds that ‘gospel’ more fully in his first Letter to the Corinthians chap. 15 (all of it): the person, death and resurrection of Jesus; the resurrection of the dead in him; their resultant transformed body. What a gospel!!

Which radically changes our view of death. I was considerably helped on this issue by Prof. Dallas Willard’s classic, The Divine Imperative. Let me distill some of his points:

  • Once we have grasped God’s full world and the full gospel, the early disciples’ almost startling disregard for physical death begins to make sense. Jesus ‘abolished’ death for his followers.
  • Jesus made it clear to the religious establishment, which was accusing him of possessing a demon, that those who trust in him will neither ‘see’ nor ‘taste’ death (Jn. 8:51-52). They simply never stop living. At a certain point they merely move house.
  • Willard cites an illustration by the famous Scottish preacher, Peter Marshall, of a child playing in the evening among her toys. Gradually she grows weary and lays her head down for a moment of rest, lazily continuing to play. The next thing she experiences or ‘tastes’ is the morning light of a new day flooding the bed and the room where her mother or father took her. In like manner, we never remember falling asleep, but we do recall waking up.
  • Heaven will not consist of sitting around looking at one another or God for eternity but of joining the eternal Logos, reigning with him and continuing with him in the endless and on-going creative work of God. A place in God’s creative order has been reserved for each one of us, his plan is for us each to take our position in the ongoing creativity of the universe. As the apostle John reminds us in his Apocalypse, the risen Lamb has made us to be ‘a kingdom of kings and priests, serving our God and reigning on earth.’ (Rev. 5:10)

For myself, working through some of these issues in the last months, I came to the conclusion that, in the matter of our life and death, we need a careful balance:

  1. The gospel is much more than avoiding hell and going to heaven. My son reminded me of the more biblical perspective of Scot McKnight and Brian Zahnd: in the 8 sermons in the Book of Acts where the gospel is preached, not once is there a reference to the after-life, i.e. getting people ‘saved’ in order to escape hell and enter heaven. The common thread is that of ‘life’ in Christ, through simple faith. It involves all of our life, living in and from Christ!
  2. We must not become so obsessed with our mortality that we collapse into a heap and a perpetual pity-party. I still enjoy my life on the whole and am not quite ready to say ‘goodbye to it all.’ I think of my children and grandchildren, my marriage, my lovely faith-community and a 101 other simple joys! How about investing in our relationships:  some years ago, a businessman believer, cut down in his 50’s by cancer, urged me at his funeral to underline the importance of relationships, which he felt he had not given priority due to his overly busy lifestyle.
  3. We must recapture that ‘new life’ to be had in Christ, which influences all of our life on this earth and culminates in God’s new heaven and earth. Let us live and serve with perennial hope, even if suffering and pain overwhelm us at times. I recall our Scottish College principal asking us what we would do if we knew for certain that Jesus was coming the next day. Then he added, ‘I can tell you what I’ll be doing, I’ll be lecturing you students!’
  4. We must live in dependence on God in everything. The apostle James warns the scattered churches about the danger of presumption concerning ‘tomorrow.’ “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town, doing business and making money. Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that. As it is you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.” (Jam. 4:13-16). I love singing along to Robin Mark’s rendition of “Jesus, all for Jesus, All I am and have and ever hope to be… All of my ambitions, hopes and plans, I surrender these into your hands. For it’s only in your will that I am free… It’s only in your will that I am free!”

In passing, my attention was drawn to Prov. 9:10-11 recently, ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. For through wisdom your days will be many, and years will be added to your life.’ Wise living can indeed add to our days here on earth.

The adored theoretical physicist and atheist, Prof. Stephen Hawking, died aged 76 on Wednesday 14th March:  a man of amazing intellect, courage (he overcame motor neurone disease for 49 years) and wit. Yet science and reason at their peak could not come up with a unified theory of the universe nor circumvent the final enemy. Isaiah, the good news preacher of the OT, wisely urges one and all to ‘Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near…’ (Is. 55:6)

So how about our organic faith groups becoming Life Cafes??

‘You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?’

(Jesus of Nazareth)