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)
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:
- 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!
- 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.
- 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!’
- 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)
(Martin Luther King Jnr, 1929-1968)
We all love our country, warts and all. I am proudly South African, and you are proudly…. (fill in the space). It is part of the Church’s mandate to respect those in authority (Rom. 13) and to pray for all in authority, national or local (1 Tim. 2). At this moment, as with most countries worldwide, South Africa is not in a good place politically, morally, socially, economically and spiritually. Politically, there is just a glimmer of light with the ANC ruling party (of Tambo and Mandela fame) replacing their president, Jacob Zuma, facing over 700 criminal charges. His personal greed has led to a ‘free-for-all,’ leaving our economy just above ‘junk status.’ I have on my desk any number of clippings, one reading ‘A dignified exit for Zuma makes me gag’ (EP Herald, 06/01/2018). Then of course there is the exaltation of the ruling party to a ‘god’ of sorts. The ANC Eastern Cape chairman stated recently, at a celebrity funeral, that his party was “the party of reverends, traditional leaders and ‘a party of Christ'” (EP Herald, 22/01/2018). He received loud applause. Thus we not only have a ‘captured state’ but a ‘captured Church!’ Of course the god of capitalism is no better: American author Frank Viola talks of that country’s gods of capitalism and consumerism. He rightly asks, what about ‘the Gospel of the Kingdom,’ ‘what king or system are we given over to?’ (my emphasis) During last year’s illness, floating in and out of consciousness, God seemed to give me a vision of this world’s many systems, capturing so many, including churches and believers. Have you and I escaped?
Some months ago one of our house church members quoted from a sermon by Martin Luther King – I loved the quote. Knowing that I also love books she got me a copy of MLK’s ‘Strength to Love.’ While not agreeing with all of his theology, I learned much about how the Church should be impacting a lost society in the name of Christ. While reading a chapter headed ‘How Should a Christian View Communism?’ the penny dropped as to where some of my country’s ethical problems derive from. Let me explain.
- Over 50 years ago now, MLK put his finger on Communism’s ethical relativism (the end justifies the means), materialism, ultimate value attributed to the state and ‘state control.’ He quoted Lenin, ‘We must be ready to employ trickery, deceit, lawbreaking, withholding and concealing truth.’ While in my youth and young adulthood our nationalist party espoused white supremacy and tried to justify it from the Bible and pulpit, Communism was blamed for all and sundry. This drove many of the oppressed into the arms of that ideology – many received military training in Russia and East Germany and were schooled in their atheism and relativism (thank God for the exceptions). Hence so many of our government leaders today tell bare-faced lies without batting an eyelid. At this moment, welcome parliamentary hearings are exposing some of the rot. In our Health Department political arrogance has led to the death of over 140 mentally ill patients farmed out willy-nilly to bogus safe houses, totally incompetent to deal with their specialist needs. A good friend of mine used to say that when you are lost at sea, you need a few good lighthouses – hint, lighthouses don’t move!
- MLK pointed out that cold atheism Communism, wrapped in the garments of materialism, has no place for God or Christ. ‘I fight alone, and win or sink, I need no one to make me free; I want no Jesus Christ to make me think, That he could ever die for me.’
- It’s interesting that Karl Marx, born a Jew, with his parents adopting the Christian faith when he was six, could never quite forget Jesus’ concern ‘for the least of these,’ championing the cause of the poor, the exploited and the disinherited. I am ashamed to say that Western evangelicalism, very often, has failed to champion that cause in the name of Jesus, succumbing to competitive denominationalism (some 60,000 today), materialism, egoism and every kind of bless-me-ism!
I would submit a two-fold way forward:
- Bowing the knee anew to King Jesus, in the light of God’s great love for us in him (Phil. 2:6-11). We have to be radical in that submission, as the old hymn says ‘I surrender all…’ For the early Church it was either ‘Caesar is Lord’ or ‘Christ is Lord.’ From a recent blog I learned that A.W. Tozer once said: one thing you know about a man carrying a cross out of the city, you knew he was not coming back! I love being alive, especially since the Lord recently gave me a second chance after miraculously surviving emergency surgery and a hospital ‘super bug.’ But I have to respond to Jesus’ loving cross by taking up my own, a cross that means certain death to ego (Mk. 8:34). Of course that death also brings Christ’s ‘abundant life!’ (Jn. 10:10)
- Committing ourselves to Christian character. Much can be learned from outstanding teacher Dallas Willard in this regard – I’ll always be grateful for a Christian friend’s gift of Willard’s classic The Divine Conspiracy (warning: if you read it, your life will change forever). The Apostle Paul in his great Epistle to the Romans, reminds them (and us) of the necessity of Christ-like character through the Gospel: ‘We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance, and endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our constant hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love’ (Rom. 5:3-5, NLT). Jesus put it a little differently when, in the Sermon on the Mount, he reminded his followers (and us) that we ARE salt and light in a rotten and dark world (Mt. 5:13-16), i.o.w. by his indwelling we must become what we already are! ‘You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? … You are the light of the world – like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead a lamp is put on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house…’ (NLT) Let me give a humble example. We have a house church in a very poor township area, where during the week children and teens drop in after school to get help with homework, literacy, life-skills and Bible teaching incarnated by the house mother. Township schools are very poor in resources and so our kidz have a tough time academically. But we are seeing some wonderful fruits. In the last two weeks one of our girls has been admitted to the University of Fort Hare for a social science degree (she loves children, and wants to become a social worker). One of our young men has just been given a bursary to study IT at our local Nelson Mandela University. Both are keen believers, wanting to impact others for God and good. Here’s another example, underlining the importance of relationship-building with consistency and perseverance. There are approx. 1 million children living in squatter camps in SA. Quinton Adams, a psychologist, gives of his time to children in one of these in the Western Cape. He develops character through games, theatre, and creative play, often resorting to old tyres and sticks. Some are excelling at school – one youth, his father a triple-murderer, is excelling in mathematics. All these examples work on the kingdom principle of a little bit of Gospel-yeast leavening the larger lump of society in a positive way.
Someone sent me this quote from Ken Sande, author and founder of Peace Maker Ministries in the USA: ‘What are you really living for? It’s crucial to realise that you either glorify God, or you glorify something or someone else. You’re always making something look big. If you don’t glorify God when you’re involved in a conflict, you inevitably show that someone or something else rules your heart.’ Simply by being Jesus followers, we are in conflict with a humanistic world. What are we really living for? Are we surrendered to Jesus and the pursuit of Christ-like character? Praise God, his love in Jesus empowers us!
PS. I’ve just commenced Boris Yeltsin’s autobiography, Against the Grain. A poor peasant, he rose to become the first President of the Russian Federation, serving from 1991-1999 (he was also the first head of state buried in a Christian church in 113 years). Even at this early stage of his story one realises the crippling power of the Stalinist state apparat. To quote Yeltsin in connection with ‘elections,’ ‘The presidium simply mocked the public, thinking up one trick after another to prevent them from accepting the proposal to nominate all the candidates.’ Some years ago, Juan Zucharelli, who headed up a magnificent prison ministry in Argentina, visited SA for the first time and spoke at an inter-church meeting I was privileged to arrange. He told us how when his plane was banking to land at Cape Town airport, the Lord seemed to drop one word into his spirit concerning our nation – it was the world ‘control.’ Imho that ‘control’ curses our politics, education, economy and churches to this very day.
At a recent Sunday morning house church gathering we considered ‘Vacating the House of Fear.’ This topic was partly inspired by Henri Nouwen’s resonating words quoted in my wife’s facebook: ‘How can we live in the midst of a world marked by fear, hatred and violence, and not be destroyed by it? To live in the world without belonging to the world summarizes the essence of spiritual life. Our true house is not the house of fear but the house of love, where God resides. Through the spiritual life we gradually move from the house of fear to the house of love.’
[Henri Nouwen was a 20th century Dutch Roman Catholic priest, Yale and Harvard professor, theologian and author. After many years as an academic he answered God’s call to live and work with the physically and mentally handicapped at L’Arche’s Daybreak Community in Ontario, Canada]
To be honest, I have spent most of my three score years and ten camping somewhere between the house of fear and the house of love (we’ll expound these terms in a moment). As a child and teen I felt I could earn acceptance by academic achievement. As a single ‘pastor’ of two congregations over some seven years, I was ragged by the married men as being ‘incomplete.’ In those and subsequent pastorates I worked very hard to ‘grow’ the congregations, and by the grace of God they somehow did. After eleven years in my last pastorate, caught up in the busy-ness of a very societal and mission-minded church I finally burned out, unable to sleep due to hyped adrenaline pumping through my body. With the help of medication and much prayer and a supportive wife, I was able to spend another twelve years in pastoral ministry, surer of my identity and living a more balanced life, having inched a little closer to ‘the house of love.’ Spending the past eleven years in organic house churches has been a huge help in moving more permanently into ‘the house of love.’ With the political and economic uncertainty facing us as a nation at the moment, the future seems most uncertain – however, talking to myself daily about ‘the house of love’ is proving to be very helpful in making that my chosen abode. [BTW, I have it on good authority that some registered church pastors in China are preaching three times a Sunday because their colleagues, in their forties, are exhausted and burnt out! They don’t get a western weekly ‘day off’ to re-charge. Most of their congregations are hierarchical in structure and know almost nothing about NT ‘every member ministry,’ so fundamental to the organic house church ‘structures’ I’ve encountered on my two visits to China]
Being believers and Jesus-followers doesn’t isolate us from the fears most folk face from day to day. Raising children in our postmodern era, financial concerns, the pressures of success and materialism in a hedonistic world, the many stressors of our bullet-train world, ill-health, retirement uncertainties, all these can easily drive us back into ‘the house of fear.’
Many of us, if not most of us, are yet to fully transition to ‘the house of love.’ Yes, that will include our love for God, yet infinitely more so God’s love for us in Christ! In our discussions we considered two main scripture passages:
- Jn. 20:19-23. Jesus is risen from the dead! He appears to Mary Magdalene. V. 19ff, “That Sunday evening the disciples were meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders (note ‘the house of fear). Suddenly Jesus was standing there among them! ‘Peace be with you,’ he said. As he spoke he showed them the wounds in his hands and his side (note). They were filled with joy when they saw the Lord! Again he said, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you'” (NLT). Then he breathed the Holy Spirit on them. The disciples’ ‘house of fear’ is transformed by the risen Jesus and his cross into a ‘house of love,’ which also brings his peace.
- 1 Jn. 4:13-21. John has much to say about ‘Loving One Another’ on the basis of God’s great love for us in Christ (v. 7ff). V. 18ff, ‘Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. We love each other because he loved us first’ (NLT). For various reasons, including wrong theology concerning God’s nature (he is forever angry) and our daily circumstances in an upside down world, we easily revert to ‘the house of fear’ and fail to fully occupy Jesus’ ‘house of love.’
What is the secret of staying in ‘the house of love’ or striving to do so?? There are probably many, but I agree with Nouwen that a key-secret is intimacy, i.e. understanding God’s eternal nearness to us in Christ and ‘striving,’ daily, to more permanently stay near to him and live ‘in him.’
I first encountered this truth of intimacy when a young seminarian. We had a thing called ‘sermon class’ which everyone hated but had to endure. Our critics were our fellow-students and our College Principle who cut to the quick and didn’t spare your feelings. My first attempt focused on Jesus weeping at Lazarus’ grave-side Jn. 11:35) – while I didn’t weep afterwards I was miserable for days! My second attempt was Jn. 15:1ff, the parable of ‘Jesus, the true Vine’ – having thoroughly done my homework this time, the reaction was more favourable. God had appointed Israel as the vine to bless all peoples, but the OT describes the nation’s miserable failure at incarnating that reality. Jesus then comes as ‘the true Vine’ to permanently ‘abide’ in his people and they in him (15:4ff): ‘Abide in Me, and I in you… I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing’ (NASB) . In my country most congregations use the NIV, which translates ‘abide’ as ‘remain’ – not good! The KJV, NASB and NRSV all use the word ‘abide,’ the MSG paraphrase is even better: ‘make your home in me.’ Through faith, Jesus ‘makes his home in us.’ He has come to feel welcome, accepted and totally comfortable in us. We in turn have to live as God’s beloved, and be assured that ‘there’s no place like home!’
How do we respond to this? By believing Jesus’ words, being in his presence, making room for him in our decisions and daily life, listening for his voice, being ‘astonished’ at the mystery of the eternal God choosing to live with/within us, living in ‘community’ with fellow-believers who encourage one another in the Lord, etc. I personally find it very useful to keep a very basic prayer diary, detailing matters for thanksgiving, worship, intercession and petition. I recently came across this gem in Phil. 4:6-7, ‘Don’t worry about anything; instead pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus’ (NLT).
God bless us in our journey from ‘the house of fear’ to ‘the house of love!’
PS. If any pastors/church leaders read this blog, I believe from careful biblical study and painful personal experience, that the traditional, institutional church prevents leaders from living steadfastly in ‘the house of love.’ One is made to feel guilty about many things, secretly fear powerful personalities and ‘democrats’ (as opposed to theocrats) in one’s flock, etc. You can feel lonely, with very few to talk to – in fact most of your fellow-clergy are so busy ‘number-counting’ they can’t offer you authentic fellowship when you need it most. Thus I am gladly a supporter of ‘smaller rather than bigger’ organic groups where every-member ministry takes place under the functional headship of Jesus. If you choose to transition, it will cost you everything, but this ‘road less travelled’ (Scott Peck) can make a colossal difference.
I’m one of those who has often struggled to get a decent handle on the Book of James – of course, Luther the reformer (1483-1546) struggled with James’ emphasis on ‘works’ to the extent that he wrote the letter off as ‘a right strawy espistle.’ Most biblical scholars would disagree with Luther for good reasons. I was recently having coffee with a professor friend of mine who made a statement, ‘The Letter of James is written to backsliders.’ I was struck by that, though at first it sounded like an over-simplification. The Letter does end with a fervent call to ‘restore the backslider,’ i.e. those ‘who have wandered from the truth’ (5:19-20).
[BTW, I trust my reader, claiming to be a Christian, reads the Bible, i.e. the Bible itself! We live in a generation of Bible illiterates, wondering why the Church is so weak. ‘Believers’ will listen to their favourite guru, read his/her books, listen to pod-cast debates, follow someone’s ‘daily notes,’ anything but read the actual Bible text. I stand by the fact that the Bible is a closed book without the revelation of the Living Word – however, that does not mean that we neglect his divine Love Letter and map for the pilgrim!’]
I think British scholar RVG Tasker was right when he claimed the Letter of James (not the apostle but Jesus’ eldest brother) is ‘a collection of sermon-notes.’ James headed up the mother church in Jerusalem, he wrote probably in the early 60’s AD, a few years before his martyrdom. The apostle Paul was at that time awaiting trial in Rome – perhaps many of their ‘disciples’ were becoming discouraged under persecution. Thus James writes to the isolated churches of Asia Minor to exhort the believers (mainly Jewish?), scattered by persecution following the martyrdom of Stephen, to persevere in their faith. He addresses random issues, urging believers not to stray from the basics of the faith.
Surely it is a general biblical truth that whenever faith doesn’t issue in love and dogma (however orthodox) is unrelated to life, whenever believers are tempted to settle down to a selfish faith, whenever they become oblivious of the social and material needs of others around them [it still grieves me that many privileged ‘white’ Christians in South Africa have never visited a ‘black’ township, never mind understand the issues], whenever they don’t live the NT creeds of Jesus (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount, Mt. 5-7), whenever they seem more anxious to be friends of the passing hedonistic world than of God, James says we are ‘backslidden’ and in grave spiritual danger. And so we are! You see, it’s so easy to respond to the gospel of grace and enjoy the assurance and joy that brings, and then gradually lapse into a life of mediocrity without applying that very gospel to the lost, poor and needy of society. ‘Religion divorced from morality, words without deeds, creeds that satisfy the head but never warm the heart, are in vain. The wisdom they exhibit is of the earth; the fire that kindles them is the fire of human pride.’ (Tasker)
Hence James’ sermons on ‘Listening and Doing’ (1:19ff):- ‘Favouritism Forbidden’ (social and economic snobs are alive and well in most churches today) (ch.2); ‘Faith and Deeds’ (ch. 2); ‘Taming the Tongue’ (we have seen recently here in South Africa our South Coast forests devasted by veld fires – such is the effect of an uncontrolled tongue) (ch. 3); James goes on to plead for the need for ‘heavenly’ wisdom instead of earthly wisdom, the need for submission, humility that doesn’t boast about tomorow, giving warnings to the rich who oppress the poor, etc. [with my many weeks of unexpected hospitalisation, all my very ordered diary events came to a stand-still for some two months, the pages blank!]
In the light of all these things, is your church/group backslidden?? And what about you and me?
How do we correct our backsliding and find restoration? For me James has often come across as somewhat austere, but then I guess in dealing with those who have lost the plot you can’t pull punches. In my pulpit years I used to say that my job was ‘to comfort the afflict and afflict the comfortable!’ Hence the need for ‘prophetic’ voices (in the biblical rather than popular sense) in churches today! However, closer examination of James’ Letter reveals a relational side not immediately noticed. [My blog readers will know that I’m convinced about relationality; we know and serve a relational (triune) God, Jesus the Incarnate One made flesh for us, the Holy Spirit indwelling us under the new covenant, united ‘in Christ’ in intimate, life-giving communities. [ideally, smaller and ‘organic,’ with bottom-up rather than top-down structure] Some examples…
- 1:1, James speaks of himself as the ‘slave’ of God and of Christ. We recall that as believers we have been freely ‘ransomed’ from the slave-market of sin and satan. Hence we are willing ‘slaves,’ serving out of a relationship of love as those first loved by him (1 Jn. 4:7-21).
- 1:2, James addresses his scattered readers as ‘dear brothers and sisters’ (NLT), as those belonging to a family, not only though creation but costly ‘redemption.’
- 1:12, God ‘blesses’ those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
- 1:16, God is ‘the giver of every good and perfect gift’ … we are ‘his prized possession!’
- 2:5, God has chosen ‘the poor in this world’ to be rich in faith. He has promised the kingdom to those who love him.
- 2:12, God is ‘merciful’ to the merciful.
- 2:25, God used a prostitute, Rahab, to deliver the Israelite spies in Josh. 2. (James is not necessarily condoning her ‘cover-up’ but demonstrating the grace of God).
- 4:6ff, God ‘opposes the proud but gives favour to the humble.’ If we come close to God, he comes close to us. If we humble ourselves before him he will ‘lift us up in honour.’
- 5:13ff, God plants us in a fellowship of faith and care where we may find joy, healing, humanity, restoration and answered prayer.
A glance at local church adverts highlighting ‘special guests’ and artists and performers etc in my own city cry out, ‘entertainment,’ ‘it’s all about me,’ compromise with a materialistic and hedonistic worldly system, snobbishness (they serve the best yuppie coffee in town), an almost total disconnect between profession and behaviour, a lack of common biblical ethics, a lack of concern for the poorest of the poor, etc. I am sure you have the same kind of thing in your neck of the woods! In any case, let us make sure we ourselves repent of any such evils and draw near to the Lord who will draw near to us! [even with South Africa’s struggling economy, there are ‘sneaker addicts’ who will pay R. 20,000 for a larny pair – Sunday Times,07/05/2017. Absolute madness)
Coming back to the point of reading the Scriptures, here is a helpful prayer by Danish theologian-philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855):
‘FATHER IN HEAVEN, what is man that Thou visitest him, and the son of man that Thou art mindful of him? Verily, Thou dost never leave Thyself without a witness; and at last Thou didst give to man Thy Word. More Thou couldst not do; to compel him to make use of it, hear it and read it, to compel him to act according to it, Thou couldst not wish. And yet Thou didst more. Rarely does he do anything for nothing, and if he does, he at least would not be put to inconvenience to do it. Thou, on the contrary, O God, bestowest Thy word as a gift,- and we men have nothing to give in return. And if only Thou dost find some willingness on the part of a single individual, Thou are prompt to help, and, with divine patience, dost sit and spell it out with him that he may be able rightly to understand it; and, again with divine patience, Thou dost take him as it were by the hand and help him when he strives to act accordingly,- Thou our Father in heaven.’
I am busy convalescing after major surgery and a six week gap in my life over which I had no control. In the last weeks, in my more lucid moments, I had been dipping into the pastoral letters, latterly Paul’s Letter to Philemon. So much resonated with my observations of our little fellowships and of course the wider body as they have reflected at least something of the ‘life’ Paul writes about in this little letter.
You know the circumstances: Paul writes to his friend Philemon about his runaway slave Onesimus. Paul is in prison somewhere (Rome?) and had been the means of Onesimus’s conversion to Christ. Now he is sending Onesimus back to his owner Philemon, urging him not only to forgive his servant but to accept him as ‘brother’ and fellow-saint! Talk about Christ’s reconciling death in action…
Philemon headed up a ‘house church’ in his home in Colosse, which in one way or another related to other fellowships around the city, making up ‘the Church at Colosse.’ I believe it was the intimacy and relationships of such a smaller group that would make it so much easier to facilitate Onesimus’ home-coming and acceptance as a full member of Christ’s household. I’ve had the privilege of facilitating organic-type house churches over some eleven years after decades in the formal pastorate. I have been involved in every program imaginable, discipleship groups, cell groups, etc, but never have I witnessed the kind of koinonia I am seeing in more recent years, as we have sought simply to let Jesus be the head of his body. As somebody has said, we can build God’s church our way or his way. There’s just nothing like the ‘functional headship’ of Jesus at work within a fellowship seriously practising the priesthood of all believers. I constantly stand amazed at the integration of believers from different age groups, cultures, languages, social status, etc. It kind of just ‘happens.’
And it ‘happens’ because the living Christ is the common factor. His risen life is imparted through the indwelling of his Spirit, through the understanding of Jesus’ incarnation, life, death and resurrection: ‘And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ’ (v. 6; cf. Eph. 1 & Col. 1). It is a life that binds believers together in faith and love. All these things are evident as you read Paul’s opening statements to Philemon: ‘the Good News about Christ,’ ‘beloved co-workers,’ ‘faith in the Lord Jesus,’ ‘love for all God’s people,’ ‘joy’ and ‘kindness,’ etc. Paul is convinced that since Onesimus’ conversion he will be of much greater use to Philemon and of course the fellowship in his house and city. Check out the greetings listed at the end of the letter. Were there no difficulties to be ironed out, adjustments to be made on the part of Philemon and his fellow-believers? I’m sure there were many, but Paul is confident that through the gospel of reconciliation these things would be overcome.
Yes, ‘love’ and ‘faith’ are key-elements here and in every expression of the body of Christ.
If there is no genuine faith in Jesus Christ as person and in his life on our behalf, there is no Christian life at all. During one hospitalisation I was confronted by a belligerent ‘Free Mason.’ I had no intention of engaging him but, having heard one of the nurses address me as ‘reverend’ (from old hospital records), for some three hours (5 to 8 in the morning!) he badgered me about his movement: it was just a ‘charitable organisation,’ ‘not a religion,’ Christians hated them and persecuted them, etc. It was most unpleasant. God gave me much grace to stand firm on the simplicity of Christ , and on his love for all people. Sure he had been disappointed by some local believers (which I apologised for), but I was determined to shine in this encounter. You see, ultimately it’s all about Christ! ‘It is no less significant that in John 14:6 Jesus speaks of himself primarily and predominantly as the way: not as the beginning of the way; but as the way itself.’ (K. Barth, CD 111/2, 56)
Coming to love, it is that out-poured love in our hearts by the Holy Spirit himself (Rom. 5:5), it springs supernaturally from Christ, it is not a feeling or passing emotion, it is relational, practical and caring. Francis Schaeffer used to talk about ‘practical, observable love.’ The kind of thing that amazed pagans when they observed the behaviour and attitude of the early believers and led many to follow the Way.
We come back to our original point of Christ building his Church, and how in these days this is happening inside, but more particularly, outside of traditional structures. During this time of being laid aside, I have been amazed at the folk who have ministered to my wife and children when things were critical (here let me pay tribute to my amazing biological family, who exemplified caring concern for me and Melanie during this period – as a matter of interest, all three families follow the Way). Three of our fellowship decided to set their alarm clocks for 3 am every morning (I’m not sure how they arrived at that crazy time!) to remember us in prayer. Folk my wife and I discipled years ago when they were going through domestic upheaval, having moved out of the city, have been in contact more than once, sharing how in their deep trials since then they have learned to patiently trust God in everything. They don’t belong to a formal group but are serving the Lord fervently where they are. Folk who opposed my leadership more than ten years ago, when I was heading up a denominational church, have visited and come to pray. A couple I married decades ago, having also baptised the wife, have been so supportive of Melanie – they don’t belong to any formal church group. Before my hospitalisation I had been mentoring a young man desperate for a father-figure and suffering from depression. His condition got worse, but one of the brothers in our fellowship has taken it on himself to mentor him, taking him on his professional photo shoots, all the while providing that model the young man never enjoyed from his missing dad. Dozens of believers from all over the city and different traditions prayed at my bedside while I was in an induced coma – so I was told. And so we could go on…
Onesimus’ name means ‘useful.’ As Paul indicated, he would be most useful in the kingdom going forward. But he had to humble himself, start all over, submit to his former ‘boss’ and make all kinds of adjustments. We don’t know the end of the story. There is a tradition in the early church that he eventually became an episkopos, a bishop tending a flock, maybe even in Colosse.
This morning I read a helpful blog by Wayne Jacobson on how to go about things, having left ‘church as we have known it.’ Although I think Jacobson, with great respect, defines ekklesia too loosely at times, he makes some valuable points. One sentence struck me and in many ways sums up what I am trying to say: ‘I am convinced this is what it means to pastor God’s flock. It doesn’t require a degree or a job managing an institution; it is simply the ability and the desire to help others connect with Jesus and encourage them as they learn to follow him.’
Some observations regarding Christ and his Church … I trust something of the above has inspired, uplifted or even deeply challenged you! Grace, mercy and peace…
[Other health challenges lie ahead. My wife and I look to the Lord and his saints, and are grateful for the care of our medical team]
Apologies to my blog friends and followers for my recent lack of comments, interest, etc. Unfortunately I have had some serious surgery and am very much still in recovery mode. God bless you all and the ministry you are performing. Hopefully things will improve health-wise. God is the faithful one. Luther once said, I know not the way God leads me, but well do I know my guide!
Love and blessings,
I have enjoyed listening to RSG (Afrikaans) radio for many years, and got to appreciate the input of senior radio producer and journalist, Suna Venter, whose body was discovered in her flat in Fairland, Johannesburg, very recently. Just thirty two, she had been diagnosed with a cardiac condition known as Stress Cardio-Myography or ‘Broken Heart Syndrome,’ which causes rapid and severe heart muscle weakness. Her family and colleagues spoke of her trauma and prolonged periods of unnatural stress over the past year. She was part of eight SABC journalists who were fired (seven since reinstated) for objecting to former COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s dictatorial and lunatic policy of no longer airing live footage of violent township protests embarassing the ANC government. A parliamentary Ad Hoc Committee investigation later revealed huge irregularities at the corporation. Despite reinstatement she was the victim of continued political intimidation and death threats. This pretty girl was shot in the face with pellets while leaving a restaurant, requiring surgery to remove them. She received many death threats on her phone. Her flat was broken into numerous times, her car tyres slashed and brake cables cut. She was abducted and tied to a tree at Melville Koppies (hills) while the grass around her was set alight. The police failed to respond and she was rescued by a colleague.
She was involved with humanitarian organisations in various visits to Libya, Gaza, Egypt and Syria. She took unpaid leave to report from Syria. She was especially passionate about the welfare of children, having trained as a teacher. The country stopped to salute her for her sense of justice, compassion and above all courage. Her story touched my own heart in a profound way, and I simply had to blog her story. I have no idea as to any profession of faith on her part, simply that she was buried from a Dutch Reformed congregation.
What struck me and others was the report of a small tattoo on her arm, Were You Brave? Now that stirred something in me, as I took a quick review of my life…
- I recalled my primary school motto (from Shakespeare) To Thine Own Self Be True, my high school motto Vivite Fortes i.e. ‘Live courageously.’
- I recalled my ‘induction’ into my first pastorate. My College Principal preached on 2 Tim. 2:3, ‘Share in suffering like a good soldier of Jesus Christ.’ An unusual text!
- I recalled a fair share of personal and family suffering during thirty-eight years of denominational ministry, until the Lord’s release almost eleven years ago to engage in organic church expressions and ministry to the poor.
- I’m certainly not competing with Suna, simply asking, have I been a good soldier of Jesus Christ? Only the Lord knows the answer.
You see we live, as believers, in a time of unprecedented church compromise, materialism, consumerism, individualism, ego-centricity, hunger for power, identity preservation and many other diseases. Recently I found an article by Brian McLaren, whom years ago I was privileged to have preach from my pulpit. It’s about Millenials departing the ranks of the churched. A young pastor, Clarke, wrote to him recently: ‘The longer I work in the church the more I wonder if the church has any impact in our world. I often feel the church caters to the expectations and needs of insiders who have lost sight of our call to be radical change agents charged with advocating for and with people who have been pushed to the margins and to fight against the walls that keep them there. It seems all too often, the church has become a comfortable place where we learn about God but the not the place where we expect to actually wrestle with and be transformed by God.’ She goes on, ‘Worship is safe, service projects are safe, Bible study is safe, talking about bulletin size is safe. I don’t think passion is ever found in the safe and I don’t think change comes from there either and so we have become passionless and barren.’ She concludes, ‘As a church I believe we have an opportunity to be inventive and creative, curious, questioning and impactful… But we have to stop being afraid… insecure… and we have to stop being religious over being followers of Christ.’ Eish! (a South Africanism for ‘frustration’ or something like that) One organic church leader in the USA put it this way in his most recent newsletter: Jesus offers his would-be disciples a yoke, a cross and living water! Are we prepared to settle for that?
In a recent house church gathering one of our women mentioned re-reading The Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr, renowned Baptist pastor and social activist. In one section he focuses on Jesus’ command to his disciples in Mt. 10 to be ‘as wise as serpents and harmless as doves’ (v. 16). King challenges believers to combine the toughness of the serpent with the softness of the dove, i.e. we need tough minds and tender hearts.
- Tough minds (rooted in faith) are characterised by incisive thinking, realistic appraisal and decisive judgment. Believers generally don’t like to engage in hard and solid thinking (perhaps thinking it ‘unspiritual’ to do so), often being happy with easy answers and half-baked solutions. My own observation is that so many believers are amazingly gullible and even plainly superstitious, fearing Friday the 13th and black cats! Small wonder many mega-congregations swallow hook, line and sinker the pontifications of the popular gurus of our time. Tough minds also don’t fear change, they put their security not in the status quo but in Christ. They aren’t afraid of the findings of science, for they know that ultimately such findings will endorse God’s divine revelation. I was reminded of this anew when attending a recent apologetics conference in our city. Often honest Christian thinkers are more in touch with our world than many atheists and agnostics peddling outdated arguments and hopeless generalisations.
- King reminds us that the gospel also requires tender hearts. Hard-hearted people never truly love. They ‘use’ people. They don’t enjoy the beauty of close friendships, they are too cold to feel affection for one another and too self-centred to share in the joys and sorrows of others. They give with cold hearts, but not from their spirit. They are essentially pharisees at heart, and we know what Jesus thought of pharisaism!
Of course this bravery we are called to is not a humanistic ‘whistling in the dark’ or being ‘good to granny and kind to the cat.’ It is deeply rooted in Christ and his risen life. Driving back recently from Cape Town through the magnificent Boland with its mountains and valleys, we witnessed its renowned vineyards on either side of the winding road, being readied for next year’s harvest of fruit and wine. It reminded me of Jesus’ profound teaching on the Vine and the Branches (Jn.15): ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing’ (v. 5). That’s the bedrock of all true discipleship! The apostle Paul had the same understanding: he spends more than half of his Ephesian Letter expounding what it is to be ‘in Christ’ by faith. Before exhorting his readers to put on the Armour of God (Eph. 6), he lays down the foundation: ‘Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power’ (v. 10). It’s the kind of thing that took Jesus through Gethsemane and on to the Cross, to die for us all.
Such bravery demands some hard choices: perhaps turning our back on a ‘church’ almost totally compromised with worldliness; perhaps choosing ‘a road less travelled’ with a few ragamuffin believers determined to be/serve Jesus in our world; perhaps speaking uncomfortable truth to power and society, e.g. exposing political corruption and fighting ‘abortion on demand;’ perhaps identifying some marginalised people, and being Christ in their midst; perhaps facing a dread disease with the fortitude and cheer of the Lord…
Ultimately it’s about bravely ‘filling the world with love,’ remembering that for believers its a tough and cross-shaped love. All glory to Jesus!
A few months ago some very good friends, career missionaries in Hong Kong, invited me to a local one-day ‘silent retreat’ on a section of the Song of Songs. Judy, a widely- researched and experienced spiritual director, uses the Song of Songs with insights from missionary pioneer to China, James Hudson Taylor, as penned in his Union and Communion.
Goethe described Song of Songs as a medley, on the one hand extolling the preciousness of human love, on the other suggesting that greater love between God and Israel, or between Christ and his Church. Traditionally the authorship is ascribed to Solomon, the reputed lover and poet. By the way, have you ever heard a sermon on the Song of Songs? I haven’t. And to my shame I’ve never preached one on it in over forty years!
I was a little on edge on the retreat day, not because I’m uncomfortable exploring silence on my own. The retreat was in a group setting with report-back times and that made me feel a tad vulnerable. In the end I was thrilled to have participated. At Judy’s suggestion we didn’t hectically scribble down notes as she introduced themes but rather wait to hear from God about the one or two things he would bring to our attention.
The portion for the day was entitled Contemplation: Let My Beloved Come Into His Garden, based on 4:9-16, ESV.
“You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride; you have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice! Your lips drop nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue; the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.
A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a spring locked, a fountain sealed. Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits … a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon.
Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, let its spices flow. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits.”
My first impression was that I was still very much tied to my South African macho man image. Judy at one point said to the men in the group, ‘You are beautiful!’ I succumbed to a nervous cackle… surely not me! And yet to God my Creator and Saviour? to others who may just see something of Jesus’ nature in me? My wife saw something in me, but that was long ago!
My second impression was that at least, for the last ten years since leaving the organised Church, I was in fact pursuing ‘being’ the Bride, in however small a measure. I had begun to take care of my own garden – through times of silence, meditation, reading and prayer. God knows, having ‘pastored’ traditional churches for decades, how busy I had been trying to take care of the thousands of members’ gardens under my care! When my wife and I commenced a ‘simple house church,’ we made it clear: everyone pushes his/her own wheelbarrow! We could/would no longer do that.
My third impression, by far the most powerful, was of the beauty of the Lord, i.e. the Heavenly Bridegroom, the ‘lover of my soul!’ There, I said it! As I sat in that beautiful, Summerstrand guest house garden, thinking about God and his wondrous love for sinners and for me, I was deeply impacted by Hudson Taylor’s comments given us by Judy [by the way, the first Christian book I ever read as a teen-convert was The Man Who Believed God, the story of Hudson Taylor – it shaped my life then, it still challenges me today]: “There is nothing sweeter to the Bridegroom or to the bride than this hallowed and unhindered communion…
Well it is when our eyes are filled with His beauty and our hearts are occupied with him. In the measure which this is true of us we shall recognize the correlative truth that His great heart is occupied with us… It is in His presence and through His grace that whatever fragrance or beauty may be found in us comes forth. Of Him is its source, through Him as its instrument, and to Him as its end, is all that is gracious and divine. But He Himself is better far than all that His grace works in us.
Herself His garden, she does not forget to tend it, nor keep the vineyards of others while her own is neglected… what she was (by grace) was more important than what she did, and that she did not work in order to earn favour, but being assured of favour, gave her love free scope to show itself in service. The bride knew her relationship to her Lord, and His love to her… Her vineyard was herself, and she desired for her Lord much fruit.” How deeply, deeply I was touched in the garden that Saturday: “His great heart is occupied with us… with me…” Unforgettable!
My fourth and final impression: Judy mentioned, in passing, the metaphor of Beauty and the Beast. She added that our vision needs to be illumined by divine beauty. We need to engage more with beauty than beastliness. For if we are blinded by the beast, we lose sight of the beautiful and all we see is ugly.
The unbelieving world, in the hands of the devil, is in many ways beastly – we see it daily in the media and all around us. I’m a news-junkie, and often that beastliness gets me down. Let me look far more at beauty – the beauty of creation, the beauty of God’s grace at work in humankind, the beauty of poetry, of great music, above all the beauty of God himself. The news-junkie must be transformed, through beauty, to a Jesus-junkie! Thank God for the ‘rediscovery of Jesus’ within and outside of traditional Church forms in these days! Long ago the Psalmist David confidently sang, amid wars and fears: “One thing I have asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27:4, NRSV). That song is even more beautiful when we grasp that ‘the temple of the LORD’ is not a building in Jerusalem but Christ himself, and that he makes us his temples in the world. The apostle Paul, in his Second Letter to the Corinthian church, points to the transforming effect of beholding Christ’s face: “But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil (under the old covenant) is taken away… all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord – who is the Spirit – makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image… For God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 3:16-18, 4:6; NLT). Man alive!
I confess I always found American Charles Austin Miles’s hymn, In The Garden, too sentimental for my liking. But I tell you what, I can identify with the refrain even if its last line is somewhat presumptuous:
And He walks with me, and he talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
- Paul T. McCain (First Things), on a recent trip to Japan, learned how J.S. Bach’s music is powerfully influencing that most secularised of countries. Listening to Bach’s sublime music, some have been converted, others are thinking deeply about the roots of Christianity. This is true particularly among the Japanese elite and young people, disillusioned by materialism and activism. Apparently the Japanese don’t even have a good word for ‘hope.’ True beauty is powerful.
- I haven’t touched on the ‘beastliness’ of so much masquerading as ‘Christ’s Bride’ today. In 1970 already Francis Schaeffer wrote of her ‘ugliness,’ adultery and apostasy, lovelessness and division. All the more important that I learn to gaze far more often on Christ’s true, magnificent Bride as revealed in the Bible and glimpsed in some of the most unexpected places around the world today!
- Judy Lam is currently working toward her Ph.D with the University of the Free State in the area of Spirituality.
In the early 1970’s already the great Welsh preacher Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones, in an interview challenging the ‘rationality’ of the Church, declared that it was in fact ‘the world’ that had become ‘irrational’ and ‘gone completely mad.’ Over forty years later, would any serious disciple of Christ differ? Think of the present American and North Korean war-mongering, the Manchester terrorist bombing at a pop concert a few days ago, leaving scores seriously injured and twenty-two (mostly young people) dead, including an eight-year old girl. Think of our own country (South Africa) – many, even in our ruling party, now freely speak of ‘state capture,’ a ‘mafia state’ and a nation which has lost its moral compass. We bleed when we hear of yet another toddler raped, murdered and disposed of in a shallow grave. Violent protests over governmental non-service delivery as to basic housing, water, electricity, health-care and education have increased by 80% in the past year.
Also over forty years ago, renowned Christian apologist Dr. Francis Schaeffer of L’Abri fame published his thoughts on the rise and decline of Western thought and culture in a masterpiece, How Should We Then Live?’ That’s the question we posed recently at a Sunday morning house church gathering. Given a nation and world gone mad, a largely nominal Church paralysed by institutionalism, how should we then live?? We had great inter-action on the subject. We had also invited a good friend, Prof. Rob Snelgar, to introduce the topic, and with his blessing I share just a little of his input.
Rob took us to Psalm 11, written by David amid great national wickedness, aptly drawing our attention to v. 3-4, “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do? The LORD is in his holy temple; the LORD is on his heavenly throne.”
- We need to think biblically rather than ideologically (i.e. according to a system of thought that justifies certain group-interests over against others). The biblical idea of crisis is captured in the Greek word kairos, i.e. a merciful, God-given opportunity in the face of judgment and disaster. South Africans had a kairos moment in 1994, we have one once more. At such a time as this we must choose truth over corruption, good over evil, and action over passivity. We were reminded of Hos. 10:12ff, “Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of unfailing love… break up your unploughed ground; for it is time to seek the LORD, until he comes and showers righteousness on you.”
- We need to fix our eyes on Yahweh, the Creator-God of the nations, who is on his throne, still in charge of the universe. This means that we don’t panic, that we call out what is evil, face reality full-on (vs the modern Church’s gnostic, head-in-the-sand, ‘positive confession’ nonsense), and look up to see God on his throne and things from his perspective.
- We need to pray, not only re-actively for the downfall of evil but pro-actively in the pursuit of justice (v. 11). We must live our prayers daily, speaking up and standing up for the truth. As South Africans have been doing of late, we can pour into the streets and besiege parliament in the hundreds of thousands, NOT in the name of a political party but in the name of Christ and his justice and righteousness. The Koreans recently dethroned their corrupt president and so can we. To pray is to trust God and live in peace. If we pray for principled leadership and good government as commanded in 1 Tim. 2:1ff, God will give those to us.
- We need to re-discover God’s Word. Rob mentioned Josiah, King of Judah, who reigned from c. 639-609 BC. He became king at eight, sought God at fifteen and cleansed the temple in his twenties. In the process he found the dusty volume of the law of God, long missing and forgotten. Note the law was lost in ‘the house of God.’ When that happens today, there is no clear message nor divine authority. We have in fact lost God (Jesus) in the ‘temple!’ We have ‘domesticated God,’ diluted his Word and made him our servant and that of our culture. [Noting King Josiah’s actions, I couldn’t help thinking of William Wilberforce. At age fourteen he wrote to a York newspaper about the evils of slave trade. Encouraged by John Newton and others, he gave his life to lobbying the upper class and parliament until the slave trade was abolished. Among other things, he helped found the British & Foreign Bible Society and the CMS]
- The Church needs to obey God’s Word, bringing people together as a multi-cultural, multi-lingual group of people in order to reconcile and unite. [here Erroll notes Paul’s great reconciliation mandate in 2 Cor. 5:11ff, a reconciliation both vertical and horizontal through the cross of Christ]
We concluded the morning with a reference to the prophecy of Micah, 6:6-8, c. 700’s BC. Israel is the defendant, accused of exploiting the under-privileged and the poor, imagining that God would protect Jerusalem irrespective of her social conduct. God is the prosecutor and judge, judging his people in the light of their gracious redemption-history from the exodus to the present: “With what shall I come before the LORD & bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? … he has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly before your God.” He requires that his people walk in the ‘good way:’ by way of righteous actions, merciful treatment of others and a humble relationship with God. God calls not so much for ‘gifts’ as the giver, in the the totality of who we are. This involves three life-areas: (1) our standards of conduct [note the almost total disconnect today between believers’ profession and conduct]; (2) our personal relationships; (3) our innermost spiritual life. God requires these three things in balance. How do we, and our faith community, measure up to these requirements? Recently an estimated one million believers (!!) converged on a Free State farm to repent before God and pray for divine intervention in our nation. One has to commend such an action – however, unless professions made at that remarkable event are not translated into changed hearts and lives on a daily basis, our nation will continue as it is. I love the writings and ministries of Shane Claiborn who recently challenged American Christians, ‘Let’s get our hands dirty… doing something good together… something concrete to help somebody.’ When we get involved with the poor and the outcasts of society, abundant opportunities and blessings will open up for those who dare!
Last but not least, lest we default once again to eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (‘the gospel of trying harder’) rather than the Tree of Life, let’s look to Jesus alone. Let’s abide in Jesus as he abides in us. Let’s live in the power of the new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 8:7-13; Jn. 15:1-17) which changes us inwardly. We desperately need today, in the Church of Jesus Christ, a fundamental return to Jesus as revealed in the Bible.
So, as the old hymn, so beloved by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, puts it,
‘Stand up, stand up for Jesus!
Stand in his strength alone;
The arm of flesh will fail you
Ye dare not trust your own.
Put on the Gospel armour,
Each piece put on with prayer;
Where duty calls or danger,
Be never wanting there!’
(George Duffield, 1818-1888)