PEOPLE, POLITICIANS AND PILGRIMS

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My final blog for 2019 is about PEOPLE, POLITICIANS AND PILGRIMS.

Let’s talk about PEOPLE. Irish radio presenter and ex-Lions scrum-half John Robbie, who settled in South Africa in 1981, commented a few weeks ago that the Boks’ 2019 World Rugby Cup victory overshadowed 1995’s celebration with Nelson Mandela lifting the gold cup on behalf of our young democracy. Experienced South African journalist and ex-ambassador to N. Ireland, Melanie Verwoerd, added that the nation’s response to the Boks’ most recent victory demonstrated that as a nation, despite our many current racial/social problems, we’re more united than divided: ‘I don’t believe that we are as divided as the politicians would like us to think. On a human, person-to-person level I think most South Africans not only want to get on with their lives, but also care deeply about their countrymen and women – irrespective of race… Of course it doesn’t suit many politicians and political parties to allow us to live harmoniously. As was the case under apartheid, it is far easier to create fear and hatred than to come up with workable solutions to deal with our inequalities.’ She mentions the same scenario in N. Ireland years ago. For many years, after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, parties tried to retain the politics of hatred and violence. Ultimately the people got so fed-up that they began to ignore the polarized party politicians. She concludes, ‘Even more dangerous than nuclear weapons is… hatred. Blind hatred…’ [Nelson Mandela would have agreed]. She is confident that even in these days of racial and social turmoil South Africans essentially share a common identity, values and decency.

  • The Bible commences it’s story with people. I refer to the wonderful creation-account of Gen. 1 & 2. Sadly over the years, modern evangelical individualistic ‘gospel presentations’ have invariably started with Gen. 3 and the so-called ‘fall,’ to the detriment of the Good News of Gen. 1-2 regarding human beings created in their loving Creator’s image. The divine purpose was for all people to relate to their common Creator and those humans around them in the spectacular environment of an animal and plant paradise. Our parents’ offspring still carry something of the divine stamp upon them, enabling us to harmoniously rule over creation. While the puzzling entry of ‘sin’ (severed relationships) and ‘ego’ fundamentally altered that status quo, there was enough left of God’s image within all of us to function reasonably and harmoniously within the framework of his magnificent creation.
  • At the same time the Bible is clear that world and personal problems arise when humankind chooses to exalt the creation and their selfish ego over the sovereign and merciful Creator with terribly painful consequences for us all (Rom. 1:18-21).

Let’s talk about POLITICIANS.

  • The Apostle Paul in his early (57 AD) letter to the house churches of Rome under Roman rule, makes it clear that those submitted to Christ must submit to those authorities sovereignly appointed to rule over them. This they are to do by serving their neighbour, paying their taxes, faithful intercession for their leaders, etc. (Rom. 13:1-7) The same holds for us today.  The problem of course arises when divinely appointed governors begin to rule for selfish rather than national reasons, bowing before the gods of ideology, power and materialism. Thus most of the world today, including Africa, is rife with very poor leaders. This really complicates things for believing, law-abiding citizens, and that is a complex debate in itself! [1]
  • Paul goes on to say that the only ‘debt’ believers should owe is that of love to God and others (Rom. 13:8-10) [2]. When we tire in that mission, we should of course re-call Paul’s earlier reminder of the abundant ‘flooding’ (lit.) of God’s love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit given so freely to those who believe! (Rom.5:5).
  • Early Church history records how an overwhelming minority permeated the majority as Christ’s ‘salt’ and ‘light’ (Mt. 5:13-16). Sadly, Reformers like Luther and Calvin got this very wrong: despite their recovery of the doctrines of grace, they identified Church and State with terrible consequences for fellow-believers (that’s why I’m a proud Anabaptist!). Do read Leonard Verduin’s The Reformers & Their Stepchildren: ‘The NT conceives of human society as a composite thing – i.e, composed of factions. It expects that some men will glory in the very same Cross over which other men stumble… And it assumes that such diversity does not imply cacophany on the square. It thinks that even though men differ basically and radically at the shrine they need not clash in the market place… The State demands a loyalty that all men can give, irrespective of their religious orientation; the Church demands a loyalty which only he can give who believes in the Christ.’ Personally I don’t understand how supposedly ‘regenerate’ people (Jn. 3) today in some Western countries are determined to foist Christian norms on the ‘unregenerate!’ [remember the error of Constantine in the 300’s AD, from which the Church has never fully recovered]. The better way seems to me is to daily live those norms in such a way that they attract those who see things differently and point them to the Living God.

Let’s talk about PILGRIMS. I refer you to 1 Pet. 2:7-10, penned in the early 60’s AD to believers, Jew and Gentile, scattered throughout Asia Minor by Nero’s persecution.

  • The Apostle Peter, using OT terms originally referring to God’s ancient covenant-people Israel (not all Israel was/is Israel, according to Rom. 9:6!), now uses these same terms of God’s ekklesia. He refers to his readers as ‘a chosen people… a people belonging to God…’ (v. 9). (Paul in Gal. 6:16 greets Jewish and Gentile believers as ‘the Israel of God’). What  identity, certainty and calling Peter gives God’s persecuted people, then and now! I love Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Rom. 9:25, “I’ll call nobodies and make them somebodies; I’ll call the unloved and make them beloved. In the place where they yelled out, ‘You’re nobody!’ they’re calling you ‘God’s living children.”
  • Peter calls believers ‘a holy nation’ (v. 9). Imho there is no such thing as a ‘Christian nation’ in today’s world, despite what some North American and South African Christians may claim! (cold statistics kill that mis-perception: George Barna et al)
  • Peter calls believers a royal/holy (transcendent/pure/’different’) priesthood’ (v. 9). Christ is our High Priest (cf. the letter to the Hebrews). Under him we all serve as ‘priests.’ Thus we speak of ‘the priesthood of all believers,’ confessed by so many but practiced by so few [I ‘pastored’ denominational churches subscribing to this doctrine for some forty years, and never did we quite get past the ‘senior pastor’ thing – to our/my shame. Btw, I still have many good pastor-friends in that same denomination, some even secretly agree with me!]. Let me simplify this ‘priesthood’ by breaking down the Latin word pontifex, lit. a ‘bridge-builder.’ God has built a bridge between himself and us, and now we are to build bridges between ourselves and our neighbour, with the express purpose of pointing them to the great High Priest who by the bridge of his Cross brought us ‘out of darkness into his wonderful light!’ (v. 9). Thus we balance witness by word and deed.
  • Peter next goes on to remind us of our ultimate destination: “I urge you as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against the soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us’ (v. 11-12).
  • When we grow weary (I do) in such well-doing in this world, Peter reminds us to default to God’s marvelous mercy: ‘Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy!‘ (v. 10) Oh the ‘mercy,’ the ‘steadfast love’ of the LORD that never ceases! I have come to love the current worship song: ‘There is a river of gladness, That pours from Immanuel’s veins, This sinner was plunged beneath the flood And got saved… I’m undone (‘overwhelmed’: please read Isaiah 6:1-5) by the mercy of Jesus, I’m undone by the goodness of the Lord, I’m restored and made right, He got a hold of my life, I’ve got Jesus How could I want more!’ Yes! That wakes me up every morning and keeps me going and serving in my senior years…

A little revision…

  • Because the Bible is about people, may we always recognize our humanity, in a day when so many believers espouse Gnostic, super-spiritual attitudes and lifestyles before a ‘church-alienated world.’ One of my favourite theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, often reminded his listeners that Jesus came to make us more human. We need to treasure ‘the common touch’ in all things and at all times!
  • Let us impact our politicians (rulers) and fellow-citizens by exemplary service and faithful prayer, without ever compromising Christ’s lordship.
  • And let us live very simply, modestly and unselfishly in this world, praying daily ‘May your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Mt. 6:10).

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FOOTNOTES:

[1] I commend the YouTube speeches of Kenyan Law Professor PLO Lumumba as he courageously calls out the many abusive, corrupt, life-long presidents of Africa.

[2] In the US, Wayne Jacobsen of ‘So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore’ fame has just co-authored a book with Bob Prater and Arnita Taylor titled ‘A Language of Healing for a Polarized Nation.’ It challenges all believers to ‘move outside your comfort zone with a generous heart’ and really ‘hear’ and engage with those who see things differently.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A CELESTIAL CHURCH BEFORE A WATCHING WORLD

.{This blog title is a modification of Dr. Francis Schaeffer’s book title, ‘The Church Before the Watching World’ [1]}

John17:20-23

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My three pics illustrate a biblical progression from the loving unity within the Trinity, to Jesus’ prayer centered around his divine errand of redemption, to its global import.  Some months ago I felt the need to explore Jn. 17 with a view to better understanding ‘church unity.’ Besides the text I referred only to William Temple’s (1881-1944) classic, ‘Readings in St. John’s Gospel.’ Like Dr. Schaeffer decades ago, I am concerned about the considerable ugliness of the contemporary Church in so many ways and places, when she has been called to increasing splendour in the face of an increasingly alienated world. As I chewed on Jn. 17, I wrote down some personal key-points in my prayer diary [2]. I suggest we handle the prayer a paragraph at a time (largely from the NLT), each a beautiful pearl in a string of pearls, clustered around the supreme pearl, Jesus himself!

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The first pearl, v. 1-5…

  • Jesus had already, in a way, ‘overcome the world’ (16:33) as he approached Golgotha. In the consciousness of that victory, he commends himself to the Father and the shining forth of his ‘glory,’ i.e. the excellence and beauty of his love.
  • ‘Glorify your Son so he can give glory back to you… bring me into the glory we shared before the world began’ (v. 1, 5). Do you see the trinitarian inter-face, ‘the divine dance’ (Gr. perichoresis = ‘going around’ = ‘rotation’ = ‘dance’) in display? The glory of the Father and Son are inseparable – the Father perfectly sustains the Son and the Son perfectly obeys the Father.
  • As servants of Jesus, we also come into the equation of world redemption. We reflect the trinitarian ‘dance’ on earth through an obsession with the Father’s glory. Think of this in terms of your life and mine, and our faith communities – it’s a process that comes at great personal cost, hinted at Jesus’ summons to ‘deny ourselves (egoism), take up his Cross and follow him’ (Mk. 8:34). We are called to ‘mirror’ Christ’s self-sacrificing love in his world. This will never happen by a mere cognitive grasp of the truth but by a relationship, a personal friendship with the Son (Jn. 15:12-17).

The second pearl, v .6-8…

  • ‘I have revealed you to the ones you gave me from this world… they know that I came from you, and they believe you sent me’ (v. 6, 8). Because God is not only omnipotent but also ‘love’ (1 Jn. 4:7ff), he revealed himself to his own, for the world would not otherwise recognize and acknowledge him.
  • Here we have the purpose and climax of the Son’s mission, viz. ‘You sent me!’ And, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you’ (Jn. 20:21).

The third pearl, v. 9-12…

  • ‘I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those you gave me, because they are yours’ (v. 9, NRSV). Literally, ‘I am asking concerning them…’ This is an inquiry rather than an asking. Jesus is ‘consulting’ the Father regarding his disciples. Contrast this with our prayers of demand and clamour! Like the Son, we need a total trust in the wisdom of the Father. [Our prayers always give us away, don’t they!?]
  • ‘Now I’m departing from the world; they are staying in this world…’ (v. 9, 11): for the sake of the mission. The world remains the object of God’s redemptive love manifest in Jesus.
  • ‘Holy Father… protect (literally ‘attentively watch over them’) by the power of your name so that they will be united just as we are… (v. 11) Jesus’ prayer is not firstly for the world but for his little handful of disciples, who remain part of the world (v. 15), and through whose character and unity the world is to be won! [This unity is much more than ecclesiastical unity, though it can’t be complete without it]

The fourth pearl, v. 13-19…

  • ‘Now I am coming to you. I told them many things while I was with them in this world so they would be filled with my joy (my emphasis)…’ (v. 13). This refers to the joy of union with the Father and all those in union with him through faith. Remember these first disciples had nothing/no-one but Jesus! A good place to get to be [3]…
  • ‘I have given them your word… make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth’ (v. 14 & 17)… The gift of God’s word (written and incarnate), i.e. Christ’s ‘real’ disclosure of the Father and his love to his disciples, is his supreme service to his people.
  • This ‘word’ both cleanses and consecrates. ‘And I give myself (what more could he give?) as a holy sacrifice for them so they can be made holy by your truth’ (v. 19). Ultimately, truth (and our living it) must be beautiful and convincing [4]. What amazing grace, and at what cost!
  • The purpose of this consecration is the apostolic mission of Christ and his Church in the world, rooted in the Father’s sending of the Son.

How about a brief stretch or coffee break before the fifth pearl? V. 20-21…

  • ‘I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are onemay they be in us so that the world may believe you sent me’ (v.20-21). Christ’s divine ‘incarnation’ and indwelling in his disciples is the only way to saving the world! By the way, wherever there is a true disciple, there are others whom he/she has discipled or is discipling into God’s forever family. The institutional Church is surely failing ‘big time’ here?
  • William Temple puts it like this, ‘The way to the union of Christendom does not lie ultimately through committee-rooms but through personal union with the Lord so deep and real as to be comparable with his union with the Father… If we are in the Father and the Son, we certainly shall be one, and our unity will increase our effective influence in the world.’ A while ago a mature man, not claiming any particular commitment to Christ and his Church, was invited to join us for a day of informal fellowship over food (a South African ‘braai,’ yummy!). He confessed that he had attended many churches over the years, but never felt he wanted to re-visit them. He then mentioned that he had seen and experienced something in our group that ‘made him want to come back for more.’ To God be the glory.
  • In this divine mission lies the one hope of the world. The world’s supreme need is to discover that it’s hope lies, not in power or materialism, but in the fact that the Father has sent the Son!

The sixth pearl, v. 22-24…

  • ‘I have given them the glory you have given me (v. 22)… Father (no epithet here, signifying the personal intimacy of the Son and Father), I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see (lit. ‘behold,’ give careful attention to’) [5] the glory you gave me because you loved me even before the world began’ (v.24). Jesus longs for the eternal companionship of his friends in the Father’s presence! Wonder of wonders.
  • It is a special, unique ‘glory,’ compared to which all other glories appear tarnished and tawdry [Our beloved Springboks have just lifted the coveted Rugby World Cup against all odds; we revel in the excitement and the glory, but these inevitably pass away]. This glory is the perfect love of the Father for the Son and of the Son for the Father – which is the Holy Spirit. It is the glory of the Godhead!
  • The purpose and consequence of this ‘gift of glory is that the unity of the Godhead may be reproduced in them – in us… so through the perfecting into one of the disciples and their converts (v. 23), the world is enabled progressively to recognize the divine activity at work… it is the manifestation of God’s love in us in our mutual love which shall at last convert the world’ (W. Temple) [6]. The Church in the West is splintered into tens of thousands of ugly bits, but recent research reveals that there is a united and beautiful Church emerging in the most unexpected parts of the world, e.g. China, Iraq, Iran, North India, North Africa, etc.

The seventh and final pearl, v. 25-26…

  • ‘O righteous Father, the world doesn’t know you, but I do; and these disciples know you sent me. I have revealed you to them, and will continue to do so…’ (v. 25-26). An unbelieving world still rejects the splendour of God. God’s people have come to recognize something of his splendour, viz. his character of righteousness and love. The full picture of this splendour is yet to come!

Where do we go from here?? A few practical suggestions…

  • Read and re-read and re-read Jn. 17, until it gets hold of your head, heart and life.
  • If you’re into ‘simple church’ like me, try to network with other such groups in your town, city and nation.
  • Take opportunity, where possible, to join hands with fellow-believers who have a genuine ‘Jn. 17 heart and mission,’ even in traditional denominations.
  • Pray the Spirit to lead you into holistic cross-cultural ministries, especially to the poor. Or perhaps join hands with those fighting our polluted ecology.
  • Will you get hurt in your efforts at times? Inevitably – Jesus was. As my Scottish College principal used to quip, ‘To live above with the saints we love, that will be grace and glory! To live below with the saints we know, that is another story!’
  • Praise God and incessantly pray for Christ’s united body in all the world.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Schaeffer’s book was published in 1971. In it he addressed the desirable tension between the purity of the visible church in regard to doctrine and life on the one hand and the practice of an observable love on the other. [Some well-meaning folk totally spiritualize this unity, to the extent that there is no visible demonstration on earth. Many years ago there was a church-plant in Johannesburg (SA) called ‘The Invisible Church’ – did they gather invisible members I wonder??]

Paperback Church Before the Watching World Book

[2] To distill Jn. 17’s prayer into one or two blogs is virtually impossible. You can get a fuller handle on this passage in Michael Cassidy’s ‘The Church Jesus Prayed For.’ It’s a wonderful read, carved out of African Enterprise’s evangelistic and reconciliation quest in Africa and around the world over half a century.

[3] See my blog on the Church in Iraq, ‘When You’ve Lost Everything,’ dated 26/05/2015.

[4] I once again recommend Brian Zahnd’s fairly recent, ‘Beauty Will Save the World.’

[5] In his classic, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’ the famous Jewish psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, Dr. Viktor Frankl, vividly describes (in prison) visualizing (‘beholding’) his wife’s love in his quest for survival and future hope. Unbeknown to him, she and most of his family had already been incinerated in the ovens of Auschwitz.

[6] At our most recent annual ‘simple church’ gathering on an isolated Southern Free State farm, my room mate and I, on the last morning, way before dawn, were reviewing the weekend through a window with a brother on his way to switching on the power generator in the semi-dark. Our conclusion? ‘It’s all about love (Jesus’)… and practicing that love in the every day.’  

 

 

 

LOVERS OR PROSTITUTES?

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Dr. David Ryser was teaching at a school of ministry in the US. He quoted Sam Pascoe, ‘Christianity started in Palestine as a fellowship; it moved to Greece and became a philosophy; it moved to Italy and became an institution; it moved to Europe and became a culture; it came to America and became an enterprise.’ He mentioned that ‘enterprise’ can also be rendered ‘business.’ Martha raised a hand, ‘A business? But isn’t it supposed to be a body?’ He replied, ‘Yes.’ She continued, ‘But when a body becomes a business, isn’t that a prostitute?’ The room went dead silent and God’s presence fell on them. Dr. Ryser adds that the American Church in our time has become heavily populated by people who don’t know God, much less love him! [1]

Of spiritual prostitution there are plenty contemporary examples from around the world:

  • I live in Africa. Weekly I visit with friends in one of the poorest parts of our city. We run an organic garden supplying two soup kitchens feeding hungry children. These folk are plagued by American-style ‘prophets,’ ‘bishops’ and ‘apostles’ who take advantage of the poorest of the poor – bear in mind that in my country the bottom 10% of citizens bring home less than US $23 per month! These prostitute-churches have baskets for offertory plates, peddle ‘holy water’ and other paraphernalia all at a price. In our Gauteng Province there is one mega-church ‘pastor’ owning private planes and multiple luxury vehicles – he recently gave his very young daughter an Italian Maserati limo for her birthday. His ‘church’ can hardly cope with the thousands of devotees who worship him as ‘Daddy’ and ‘Major 1.’ [2]
  • Right now in my country top political figures who have been implicated by the Zondo Commission investigating ‘state capture’ are visiting various ‘churches’ for prayer, the clergy almost falling over their own feet to ‘bless’ them. [3]
  • A few days ago The New York Times high-lighted ‘the phonies, the charlatans who wave Bibles, the theatrically pious, and they are legion… Vice President Mike Pence wears his faith like a fluorescent orange vest. But when he visited the border this summer and saw human beings crammed like cord-wood in the Texas heat, that faith was invisible.’ President Trump tweets of himself as ‘the second coming of God.’ Brennan Manning wrote years ago that one of the greatest causes of atheism today ‘are Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world finds unbelievable.’ ‘Lord, please keep me from being among that number!’ [4]
  • More subtly, Dr. Ryser suggests that many of us came to Jesus because of what we were told he could do for us, viz. bless us in this life and then take us to heaven. And so some married Jesus for his money, and they don’t care if he lives or dies as long as they can get his stuff. Many have made his kingdom into a business, merchandising his anointing.  All this while the Church is supposed to be Christ’s bride and we God’s lovers! That’s pretty intimate stuff. How can we love someone we don’t even know? Prostitutes (male/female) and those using them pretend to love. Hyser concludes, ‘Take it from a recovering prostitute when I say there is no substitute for an unconditional, intimate relationship with God… there is no palatable substitute available to us… we must choose.’

Is the above a little ‘over the top??’

  • Yahweh commanded the 8th century BC (?) prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute to illustrate Ephraim and Israel’s spiritual condition: “‘I know you, Ephraim, inside and out. Yes, Israel, I see right through you! … Ephraim, you’ve played your sex-and-religion games long enough. All Israel is thoroughly polluted… Every breath they take is a whore’s breath, They wouldn’t recognize GOD if they saw me.” (Hos. 1:2ff; 5:3ff/MSG)
  • The prophet Jeremiah prophesied much later against his beloved Judah’s adultery with idols: “A long time ago you broke out of the harness. You shook off all restraints. You said, ‘I will not serve!’ and off you went, visiting every sex-and-religion shrine on the way, like a common whore. You were a select vine when I planted you… And look how you’ve turned out…” (2:20ff/MSG; cf. 3:1ff) (Jn. 15).
  • Following on Jeremiah, Ezekiel issued the same rebuke (Ezek.16:26ff; 23:1ff; 23:27).
  • By contrast, the apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian Church, holding up the beautiful Bridegroom-and-Bride theme of the Bible before all husbands: ”He (Christ) gave up his life for her (i.e. his Bride), to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word. He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without blemish…’ (Eph. 5:25-27)
  • In his Apocalypse John addressed the Church in Sardis: “‘Yet there are some in the church in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes with evil. They will walk with me in white, for they are worthy'” (Rev. 3:4-6). And again, “I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband… ‘Come here. I’ll show you the Bride, the Wife of the Lamb…’ (21:2,9/MSG).

So how do we as individuals and assemblies [5], transition from spiritual prostitution to lovers of God?? Ultimately there can only be one answer, by encountering afresh the agape of God (nothing sentimental here, nothing superficial, no easy-going love on the part of Christ). Only the Spirit can realize this in our hearts. That’s why Paul prayed for the Ephesian Church to experience ‘the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God!’ (Eph. 3:16-19/NLT). When I need re-assurance of God’s love for me, I often turn to Brennan Manning [6]. He described God’s love in terms of an intense, ‘furious longing’ for us. That love is totally unconditional: God loves us as we are, not as we should be, because nobody is as they should be!’ ‘My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it. In admitting my shadow side I learn who I am and what God’s grace means.’ Where do we start? ‘We must go out into a desert of some kind (your backyard will do) and come into a personal experience of the awesome love of God’ (Manning). Why don’t you and I do just that at first opportunity and trust God for the outcome?!

At the end of the day a choice lies before us and all communities of faith, the Lord enabling us: to live the life of religious prostitutes or authentic lovers of God. What will I choose? What will you? Today is the day…

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[My Jesus I Love Thee by Go Fish]

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Down-sizing my library several times, I regret giving away Francis Schaeffer’s out of print The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century.’ It included a special section on the apostasy and adultery of the Western Church.

[2] ‘Mixing Christianity with party politics is like mixing cyanide with grape juice… you cannot be wrapped up and consumed with today’s political system and be useful in the kingdom of God. You cannot embrace nationalism and embrace God’s kingdom.’ Frank Viola’s Insurgence, p. 390.

[3] Malawian ‘Pastor’ Bushiri and his wife are currently appearing in a South African court on various commercial charges. Our South African ‘Public Protector,’ whose competency and political motives are questioned by many across the land, is also doing the church-round.

[4] I attended a missions conference recently where the plenary speaker, David Broodryk, quoted research by Christian Schwarz to the effect that the longer people (in the West?) are Christians, the weaker their spirituality.

[5] I have pastored traditional churches for 38 years and facilitated organic house churches for 13 years. I can tell you that spiritual ‘prostitutes’ expose themselves and heal more rapidly in small, simple ekklesiae. One can comfortably hide for a lifetime in ‘Church-As-We-Know It.’

[6] Brennan Manning (1934-2013) was an American author, laicized priest and public speaker. His best-known work was The Ragamuffin Gospel. Manning confessed to a life-long struggle with alcoholism, his ‘shadow side’ (don’t we all have our ‘shadows?’) – his vulnerability seemingly added to his credibility.

EARLY ONE TUESDAY MORNING [The Wondrous Ways of God]

Bed, Bedroom, Blanket, Books, Cover

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An old hymn reads, ‘Once heaven seemed a far-off place, Till Jesus showed His smiling face; Now it’s begun within my soul… Oh, hallelujah, yes, ’tis heav’n, ‘Tis heaven to know my sins forgiv’n; On land or sea, what matters where? – Where Jesus is, ’tis heaven there!’ [1] Well, a tiny bit of heaven visited me one recent Tuesday morning between 2.30 and 6.30 am. Normally wild horses wouldn’t move me at that hour. The prospect of a good cup of coffee helped the resurrection process. The Lord seemed to drop 4 words into my mind in those wee hours, fairly unusual for an earthling like me. I jotted them down and shared them with Melanie over breakfast. The 4 words are distinct yet share a common thread, summed up by Isaiah’s words to God’s errant people plus minus 2,600 (?) years ago: Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts…” (Is. 55:7-9). ‘The wondrous ways of God’ indeed!

The first word was ‘SMALL.’

  • My mind leaped to Zechariah’s post-exilic words to Zerubbabel, part of a small company of Jews allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. God reminds this little remnant,“‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘What are you, O mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground… the hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it… Who despises the day of small things?'”  
  • My mind jumped to Jesus’ words concerning his ekklesia on earth, “‘I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them'” (Mt. 18:19-20). For the past 13 years my wife and I have been facilitating small house-fellowships with great joy. They’re comprised of ragamuffin believers of all ages, cultures and backgrounds [2]. You see, truth seems to flourish in a smaller, relational atmosphere. A South African friend of mine, Tobie, recently wrote a gem about ‘The Wisdom of the Little People:’ ‘I foresee a return to the wisdom of the little people, emboldened and enlivened by the presence of Christ in their midst, when they meet in twos and threes or more. I see a hunger for truth that is true in the moment of relational encounter, never contrary to one jot or tittle from Scripture, but always as the pouring forth of that life that breathed out Scripture in the first place. And I see a disenchantment with the formulations of the super-apostles and religious ideologues and denomination-makers, the manna of yesteryear, the searching and categorizing of the Scriptures apart from Christ’s presence in our midst’ (cf. Jer. 31:33-34). I told Tobie I would consider it my highest privilege on earth to be numbered among so rich a remnant! [3]

The second word was ‘STEADFAST.’

  • Individual disciples and simple churches are called to steadfastly continue in the life of Christ, i.e. loving God and our neighbour as ourselves. Dallas Willard often spoke of ‘a long obedience in the same direction.’ Paul addresses the Corinthian believers along similar lines: ‘So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless’ (1 Cor. 15:58) (note the preceding v. 57’s ‘But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ!’). ‘Enthusiastically’ literally means ‘in God.’ Yes, we ‘labour’ in our service for God, yet we do so in the life and energy of Christ himself, who endured the Cross and received his reward (Heb. 12:1b-4).
  • It’s steadfastness in the ‘small things’ that counts. To quote the celebrated Helen Keller, ‘I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.’

The third word was ‘SUBMISSION.’

  • Following Jesus is essentially about character (Dallas Willard). That magnificent Early Church hymn quoted in Philippians points to Christ’s ‘self-emptying’ for our sake. It is prefaced by ‘Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others too’ (Phil. 2:3-5). In some mysterious way Christ gave up his divine privileges, taking the humble position of a slave to serve others (v. 6-7) and to set an example for all who dare follow in his footsteps!
  • Having served as a denominational pastor for 38 years, I can assure you that many pastors are tempted to yield to the sense of power, influence and self-importance their ministries offer them. They need to win the argument, have the final word, listen but not hear, etc. Recently God challenged me again to make peace with dying in obscurity if necessary.

The fourth word was ‘SILENCE.’

  • Following Queen Jezebel’s threats, the hitherto brave prophet Elijah flees in fear to Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19:1-7). There Yahweh appears to him. Elijah feels forsaken by God despite his ‘zeal for Israel’ (v. 9b-10). God encounters him on the mountain: not via hurricane or earthquake or fire but ‘a gentle whisper’ (v. 11-12). In our noisy world, silence is critical to hearing God’s voice, both as individuals and communities. Often we’re too busy ‘serving the church’ to hear him, too caught up with the voices in our heads, too busy talking to hear him speak (how we love our own voices!), not really hearing what he says, etc. I remember as yesterday the release I felt on leaving my final denominational pastorate with all its laws, demands, machinery and maintenance. My view since is that most pastors are so busy sermon-preparing, preaching, visiting, organizing and keeping the factory going that there’s hardly time to hear the Spirit’s gentle whisper. One mega-church pastor in our city confessed that it took about 160 people working flat-out over the weekend to make a morning service ‘happen.’ Folk in the pews (from the latter, may the good Lord deliver us) haven’t digested the last sermon before they’re bombarded by the next sermon or Bible study or seminar or discipleship program. One of our enthusiastic house church participants recently confided with us over dinner the sheer exhilaration, amid the many demands of life, of his inner sanctum with God in the early hours of the morning when all is quiet!

And so dawn broke that Tuesday. The day went by. But I believe those 4 key-words regarding God’s wondrous ways with us will live on, in some hearts at least, for a good while… please pray with me that they do!

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FOOTNOTES:

[1] Charles Butler, pub. 1898. [many believers still think of heaven as ‘up there,’ when heaven actually came down to stay in Jesus (Jn. 1:14). Of course we still look forward to God’s ‘heaven on earth’ come in perfection!]

[2] I have in a small way witnessed and studied the exploding under-ground house church movement in China. More recently news has broken of the exploding Church in Iran, North Africa and parts of India. Praise God!

[3] Tobie van der Westhuizen blogs under naturalchurch. Worth following!

‘TABLE TALK’

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'Bloody redemption' by Charlie Mackesy

[See my previous blogs on Communion: ‘Communion’ re-discovered… (part 1)]

You recall Luther’s famous ‘Table Talk,’ a collection of his sayings around the dinner table, circa 1531-1544. Today a little ‘Table Talk’ around the Lord’s Table...

Jn. 6:52-59 follows Jesus’ ‘feeding of the five thousand’ and his bold declaration that he had come into to the world as ‘the Bread of Life’ (v. 25ff). As he expounds this statement, his Jewish synagogue audience in Capernaum grumbles about his provocative claims and teaching. ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ (v. 52). In some ways their puzzlement is understandable against the backdrop of Moses’ ancient warnings against eating animal meat containing blood (Dt. 12:23-25). Then Jesus adds his own warning, “‘I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you… For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink… the one who feeds on me will live because of me… Our forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live for ever!'” (v. 53-55)

A few clarifying comments:

  • Jesus is obviously speaking metaphorically here (a characteristic of John’s narrative), otherwise he would seem to teach some kind of cannibalism! He is also not teaching ‘transubstantiation.’ With great respect to my RC friends and mentors [see footnote 1], and as a fairly well educated but essentially simple Jesus-follower, I just don’t get ‘the magic of the mass.’ I recently attended a requiem mass in support of a grieving family. At a given moment, the tinkle of a man-activated bell and the incantation of a fallible priest, the wafer and wine were trans-substantiated into the body and blood of Jesus. Is this not human manipulation of divine grace? At this service, it was also made abundantly clear that eating the wafer and drinking the wine was reserved for members of the local parish alone, excluding even faithful RC members of another parish. Not that Protestants are not guilty of some of these things – Calvinists have often talked about ‘fencing the table.’ Surely a plain reading of the Bible doesn’t indicate ‘special hoops’ for broken sinners to jump through before being licensed to partake in ‘the means of grace?’ Imho Communion unites rather than divides! (note, the 1 Cor. 11 passage must be carefully studied in its general and specific context, lest it be mis-applied!)
  • Jesus comes as one fully human in every way, hence the repeated reference to his ‘flesh’ and ‘blood.’ The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us…’ (Jn. 1:14). That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim…’ (1 Jn. 1:1ff). I emphasize this in the face of classic Gnosticism and Dualism (most of the NT Letters addressed these issues), Charismatic ‘super-spirituality,’ etc.
  • This passage’s connection with the practice of Communion is acknowledged by most established NT scholars and theologians.

Now for some Communion basics and newer insights:

  1. Communion is for sinners. The Pharisees simply couldn’t stomach that. ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven?'” (Jn. 6:42). That’s how ‘religious’ and ‘good’ people often react to Jesus. I recall a story concerning ‘Rabbi Duncan,’ when his elders were passing the Communion cup around the congregation. He had noted a ‘broken’ woman at the back refusing the cup. He proceeded to take the cup from the serving elder and gave it to her saying, ‘Take it woman, it’s for sinners!’ [2] Surely a comforting reminder, knowing our own hearts.
  2. Communion is a gift. Henri Nouwen, the RC academic, preacher and author, has enriched me no end [3]. In a marvelous mini-series, ‘Being the Beloved,’ he asks ‘Who Am I?’ He explains that identity is not found in what I do, nor in what others say about me, nor in what I have. Rather, my true identity lies in the affirmation, ‘I am His beloved!’ We worked through this in our house church recently with great joy, the outline stuck on our lounge wall as a constant reminder. Btw: the first three identities lead to death, the latter identity to life!
  3. Communion is a divine embrace. It renews our relationship with God. We enter union with Christ not by works but outrageous grace and faith alone (cf. Eph, 2:8). Jesus has entered into intimate and permanent relationship with us. By ‘eating and drinking’ we, in a mysterious and precious way, are embraced by Father and Son. Ron Rolheiser tells the story of a six-year old Jewish boy, Mordecai. When he was old enough for school, his parents accompanied him to his classroom. Unfortunately, Mordecai kept on absconding from class. His parents reasoned, cajoled, pleaded, bribed him, but to no avail. In desperation they took the matter to their Rabbi. When they brought their son to him, he didn’t say a word. He simply picked him up, held him warmly to his heart for quite a while, then put him down. Everything changed. The boy happily went off to school the next day and in fact excelled throughout his school career. Will we (especially self-sufficient males) surrender to the warm embrace of Father and Son?
  4. Communion reconciles. Jesus touched on this in Mt. 5:23-24 [3], 6:12 (‘Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…’) and 18:15-20 [4]. The apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthian ekklesia, calls all saints to ‘the ministry of reconciliation,’ inspired by God’s magnificent act in Christ (2 Cor. 5:11-21). Corrie ten Boom [5], Ravensbruck survivor and global evangelist, was preaching in Germany on an occasion. One of her ex-Nazi camp guards came up to her afterwards and sought her forgiveness, stating that he had recently come to faith. She panicked, paused, prayed ‘Lord please help’ and then stuck out her hand woodenly to her former persecutor. At that precise moment she felt a warmth from shoulder to hand and her heart flooding with the love of Jesus. ‘I forgive you brother, with all of my heart’ she responded. Will we follow her brave example in forgiving all who have sinned against us? Especially in the light of Jesus’ white-hot love for us…
  5. Communion crucifies. His followers heed their Lord, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself  (i.e. his/her selfish ego) and take up his cross (an instrument of death) and follow me'” (Mk. 8:34). The apostle Paul wrote along similar lines in his classic Gal. 2:20 statement. Each believer has to undergo a personal Calvary. It changes everything.
  6. Communion transforms. Physically it’s true that ‘we are what we eat!’ ‘Feasting on Jesus’ in our hearts by faith changes us bit-by-bit in our all-important character, so rare in communities today. Furthermore, from the early Church we learn to ‘break bread’ not once a month or quarterly as generally practiced but regularly, even as part of a daily meal. This affects our families and society around us for good (cf. Acts 2:42ff). Organic house churches testify to this around the world. Surely we have been called to be a loving, ‘alternate society’ in a world torn-apart by so many man-made social and political barriers? [7]

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[50 years ago]

Enjoy this song, and consider a family love feast sometime!

Footnotes:

[1] I have a number of RC friends, who count among some of the nicest people I know. I’m also deeply appreciative of RC writers like Hans Urs von Balthazar, Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, et al. [sometimes I’m criticized by sincere Protestant friends accusing me of condoning the RC church system. I don’t. Furthermore, I value all truth, no matter the source. ‘There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true’ (Soren Kierkegaard)].

[2] John (‘Rabbi’) Duncan, 1796-1870, a Free Church of Scotland minister, missionary to Hungarian Jews and professor of Hebrew at New College, Edinburgh.

[3] Mt. 5:23-24 recently compelled me to meet with a Christian brother who had seemingly withdrawn his friendship from me. We talked frankly, and our relationship has been wonderfully restored.

[4] Mt. 18:15ff became very relevant to our family thirteen years ago, when we were confronted by a minority but vocal ‘concerned group’ in our congregation asking me to step down as senior pastor (for totally non-ethical reasons). The elders called in a denominational facilitator who, though sincere, only complicated things. Looking back, I’ve often thought if only the concerned group had followed Jesus’ counsel in Mt. 18. By God’s amazing grace we were able to part company amicably, having resorted to Mt. 18 ourselves. The sore issue became a blessing as it helped us transition from institutional church to organic church with great fulfillment.

[5] Corrie came from a Dutch family giving shelter to Jews during World War 2. The family was betrayed, and she and her sister Betsie were imprisoned in the notorious Ravensbruck death camp. Betsie sadly died in the gas chambers. After the war Corrie returned to Holland to care for the mentally disabled and travel to over sixty countries proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

[6] See Wolfgang Simson’s classic Houses That Change the World.’ It was largely this book that inspired me to take my present ecclesiastical and missional journey.

[7] Cf. F. Viola’s Insurgence, p. 336-338.

NO ORDINARY WAR! [PARTS 1 & 2]

The Roman Centurion, Soldier, Armor, Military

War, Refugees, Children, Help, Suffering, Poverty

 

There are wars everywhere, conventional and unconventional. I have just finished Duncan Larcombe’s biography on Prince Harry which describes his participation in the Afghanistan war against Taliban insurgents and the latter’s use of ‘Improvised Explosive Devices’ and anti-tank mines which at times wreaked havoc among the British forces. On an unseen spiritual level, believers and Jesus-communities world-wide are waging no ordinary war, defensively and offensively [1]. This is no church-picnic, but an ‘armed struggle’ against the most powerful and evil forces in Jesus’ name.

Why this topic? For one thing, in our local house churches, individually and corporately, we seem to have recently suffered one vicious blow after the other. However, by grace, we are coming through it all ‘more than conquerors’ through Christ our King, testifying of God’s hesed, i.e. ‘steadfast love.’ In the view of this local onslaught, and much worse suffered by believers around the world, we decided to take another look at Eph. 6:10-20, one of the classic passages on spiritual warfare. Our mutual discussion brought much revelation and encouragement.

Before we get to Eph. 6, we need to peruse its OT context. The OT is clear about the fact that, in this universal war against evil, GOD himself is the triumphant Warrior-King. He himself has put on ‘the full armour’ and taken up the sword, and therefore the outcome for his people is assured! [2]. In his fight against Israel’s enemies (Babylon, etc), he ‘donned’ the ‘breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation’ (Is. 59:17). He had his ‘feet shod’ with the Good News of Redemption (Is. 52:7) and took up the ‘sword of his Word’ (Is. 49:1ff). Prov. 30:5 in turn describes God as a ‘shield’ to those who take refuge in him. This was and is one innately omnipotent and loving God!

Next we note the general context of Paul’s circular Letter to the Ephesian and surrounding ekklesiae of Asia Minor. The NT Jewish and Gentile world addressed by Jesus and the apostles was saturated with religious traditionalism, legalism, idolatry (Ephesus hosted the renowned virginity-goddess Astarte), the occult and emperor-worship. Imagine the cost of the early Church’s baptismal confession, JESUS is LORD!’ Furthermore, one can’t understand Eph. 6 and the call to warfare without recognizing the amazing foundation Paul laid in chap.’s 1-3. Those chapters are all about Christ, believers’ union with him by faith, their ‘position in Christ,’ and much more. So much so, that Paul prays for already-enlightened believers to be enlightened even more, in order that they may grasp just ‘something’ of the fullness of Christ’s person, life, death and risen-ness. Any reading of these chapters should have us marching up and down, belting out ‘All hail the power of Jesus’ name! Let angels prostrate fall; Bring forth the royal diadem, And crown Him Lord of all!’ (Tune Diadem). In short, we need to be saturated with Eph. 1-3 before we can tackle 6:10ff…

To Eph. 6:10ff and ‘The Armour of God’ then. Paul, God’s beloved jail-bird, writes from a Roman prison, probably chained to a Roman centurion, hence his detailed battle-dress description. I love JB Phillips’ paraphrase from yester-year: ‘In conclusion be strong – not in yourselves but in the Lord… Put on God’s complete armour so that you can successfully resist all the devil’s methods of attack. For our fight is not against any physical enemy: it is against the unseen power that controls this dark world, and spiritual agents from the very headquarters of evil… you must wear the whole armour of God (my emphasis) that you may be able to resist in the day of evil power, and that even when you have fought to a standstill you may still stand your ground. Take your stand then…’ (note all the ‘stand’s!’). You see, we’re in a battle to the end. I recall old cassette-tape versions of the renowned Welsh expository preacher of Westminster Chapel, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Eph. 6:10ff. With biblical anointing he reminded his audience of this ‘battle to the death,’ and that the devil would ‘fight us to our very last breath!’ As to the reality of the devil, William Barclay quoted R.L. Stevenson, ‘You know the Caledonian Railway Station in Edinburgh? One cold, east windy morning, I met Satan there…’ I recall similar experiences over the years, one in a KwaZulu-Natal town near an old Hindu temple and the other in a Central China city saturated with Buddha statuettes for sale and a huge Muslim mosque erected in 700 AD [3].

The apostle goes on to exhort us, individually and corporately, to put on each piece of armour:  including the ‘shield of faith’ with which we can ‘extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one,’ ‘the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God’ (an instrument of defence and attack), etc. Note, my purpose in this blog is not to go into the detail of the individual armour-pieces but rather just to put some broad brush-strokes on the canvas of spiritual warfare. Suffice it to say, ultimately our best counter to evil is to ‘put on Christ himself ‘ (Eph. 4:17ff), i.e. to exchange all that is selfish and destructive in our life for Christ and his character ‘by faith.’ In this way we are sure to conquer! Two things need to be noted here, but why not take a quick coffee break, or come back tomorrow while the first part of this blog is still fresh in your mind, or just push on right now… I plan to conclude briefly with some experiential and practical pointers…

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Two important points, then some practical applications…

  • First, we need to distinguish between biblical triumphalism (i.e. ‘we are more than conquerors through Christ who loved us’ – btw, this is the theme of John’s ‘The Revelation!’) and populist triumphalism. The NT is replete with statements that Christ has triumphed over the powers, via his cross and resurrection. ‘You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross (Col. 2:13-15; cf. Rom. 8:38-39). Years ago we had the ‘spiritual warfare’ movement headed up by all kinds of ‘prophets’ and ‘generals.’ Soon their histrionic foot-soldiers adopted the habit of screaming at every enemy in sight in ‘Jeeeezus name,’ the louder the better, declaring their downfall here, there and everywhere! (sadly, it’s still common practice today – note Jude’s caution in v. 8-10 against ‘false teachers’). At that time the congregation I was pastoring (btw, I’m no longer into ‘church as we know it’) sent church-planters to an unreached tribe among the Peruvian Quechua’s. When the missionary couple asked for advice from a sage and experienced leader in spiritual warfare as to how to approach their mammoth task, he advised them to ‘just preach the Gospel!’ Wasn’t that Jesus’ approach?? (cf. Lk. 4:18-19). I like that! And I’m not minimizing the critical role of intercession in mission in any way.
  • Eph. 6:18-20 uses the word ‘pray’ and ‘prayer’ repeatedly, hence its importance in the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. Such intercession must be ‘in Christ’: constant, intense and community-based. One of the best missionary biographies I’ve read is ‘Mountain Rain,’ the story of J.O. Fraser, missionary to the animist Lisu mountain tribes of Yunnan Province, China. It tells how he gave up a promising engineering and music career, as well as great family riches at age 22, to plant a church among the unreached Lisu. In doing so, he had to overcome monstrous physical, emotional and spiritual battles – at the beginning and along the way. Despite these hardships he prayed on, with a strong support-base of prayer back in England. Just as he was about to give up and leave the tribe, God intervened miraculously and the Lisu experienced a powerful and lasting revival!

Five, practical ‘knows’ in summary…

  1. Know your enemy. I recall a house church brother who, against advice, insisted on engaging in ‘deliverance ministry’ on his own (I believe you need a team of mature and prayerful believers for such encounters, which, btw, you don’t go looking for!). At more or less the same time he was engaging in his power-trip, his wife ‘fell’ for a business colleague, their marriage broke up, he re-married and then sadly (though a fitness fanatic) died of a heart attack in his early fifties. Now I’m not into ‘fear mongering,’ but simply remind us all that our enemy is extremely cunning and will take advantage of any obvious ‘chink in our armour,’ in this brother’s case a wobbly marriage. The enemy is no easily-recognized boogey-man but parades as an ‘angel of light’ according to 2 Cor. 11:14-15 (Paul exposing false apostles), who will exploit any armour-chink to further his destructive cause on earth.
  2. Know your Christ. Know him better and better. Ultimately the Christian life is not a set of rules or even principles (as many popular preachers would have us believe) but a life ‘in Christ!’ Our faith is in the risen Christ who has joined us to himself and indwells us as his temple on earth. So let’s get the balance right. The saintly Scottish preacher, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, used to say, ‘For every one look at sin take ten looks at Christ!’ (my down-to-earth Scottish College Principal often quipped that a healthy Christian doesn’t walk around all day with a thermometer in his/her mouth!). T. Austin-Sparks, the English author and evangelist once went to see F.B. Meyer, the renowned British Baptist pastor and promoter of the ‘deeper life.’ When he arrived, Meyer was not immediately available and so asked him to wait in his study. Austin-Sparks noticed a plaque with two golden words, LOOK DOWN. When Meyer arrived, his visitor asked if the plaque shouldn’t read, LOOK UP? The pastor replied, ‘It’s all a question of position. If you are in Christ, you are seated with him in heavenly places (Eph. 1:3) and you look down. But if you are under the situation, the only thing you can do is look up…’ Know your Christ and your position in him.
  3. Know yourself. It’s helpful to know your personality type, quirks, strengths and weaknesses. Seek to be as transparent as possible with God and your fellow-believers [3]. Dr. Lloyd-Jones also preached passionately about the importance of the believer’s ‘inner man’ (Eph. 3:16/KJV). By that he meant that quiet, unruffled place deep within, where Christ rules with peace that passes understanding.
  4. Know your ekklesia. ‘Church’ is a misnomer. Multitudes across the globe are discovering small, organic house ekklesiae or micro-communities. In these learn to know each other well (impossible in larger groups), pray for one another, encourage one another, exhort one another, forgive one another [4].
  5. Know your Bible. Remember how Jesus triumphed in the desert over his arch-enemy (Mt. 4:1-11). At this time we daren’t assume biblical literacy among most ‘evangelical Christians.’ May we prove exceptional!

Thanks for your great patience, dear reader, and may God Almighty use us all to his glory, as his kingdom comes here on earth as it is in heaven. And remember, the ultimate outcome of the battle is assured!!

[If you have a moment more, please peruse the footnotes below]

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FOOTNOTES:

[1] ‘While those who follow Jesus primarily to show the world what it looks like when Jesus is Lord by taking care of one another in the ekklesia, Jesus-followers are also to demonstrate the kingdom by doing good works for the lost. To remove this aspect of the kingdom turns the ekklesia into a bless me club, a holy huddle of those who care only for their own and are dismissive towards the rest of the world for whom Jesus died. Whenever this happens, the ekklesia replays the sin of ancient Israel… Israel retained God’s blessing for herself, turning it’s windows into mirrors.’ (F. Viola’s Insurgence, p. 334) PS, today’s war-mongering ‘Christians’ horrify me. Let’s learn from the Anabaptists, ‘the Reformers’ Step-Children.’

[2] This assurance came to me very powerfully yet sweetly one recent morning from 2.30 am (when under normal circumstances a few cups of coffee and wild horses wouldn’t wake me) until 6.30 am! God is so gracious…

[3] If you’re somewhat taken aback by my thinking on demonology, I can only say that I live in Africa where demon-possession and oppression are perhaps more overt. I found the same in South America, the Far East, etc. On another note, I’m part of a nation-wide network of organic house churches in South Africa, and a well-educated and mature believer indicated in a recent chat that it’s her experience and conviction that behind much of racism, in our country (!) and world-wide, sit powerful demonic forces. Think of it, if you were the enemy, how would you go about destroying societies and nations, tearing them in tatters? I submit that one of our satan’s favourite tools in his rather large toolbox must be hatred and racism. How desperately the Church-universal needs to have her feet shod with the Good News of Peace in these momentous days! (Is. 52:7; Eph. 6:15). Reading the hopeful autobiography of Anglican archbishop Thabo Makgoba, ‘Faith & Courage,’ reminds me of how far we still have to go in my beloved country. The wise Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber (1878-1965), advises one and all: Stop relating to others as I-It, but as I-Thou. We must learn to recognize the image of God in ever person.’

[4] There is a secular, psychological model known as Johari’s Window. It depicts our personality in terms of a window made up of different window panes. Some are transparent, some darker, and one is opaque. Watch out for the latter. Though extremely painful, ask a trusted and mature believer to gently (!) expose your ‘blind spots.’ I have seen the evil one exploit that dark pane, bringing great pain. Returning to Buber, ‘It is also true that we must learn to recognize our own potential for evil… so we can recognize those behaviors in ourselves and others. It is possible to critique observable behaviors without demonizing the sacredness and potential for good.’

[5] I hesitate to share the following, but just maybe, it’ll help some fellow-leader somewhere in the world? In my last traditional congregation, I had to do with a heavily demon-possessed young adult who had indulged in Neo-Naziism and other occult practices. On his request for release, as we prayed, he would often present as a vicious wolf, snarling and salivating, charging at me and our prayer-team. His deliverance took a year or two of emotionally-draining counseling and prayer. His principal demon would threaten to tear apart our congregation (that’s what ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’ does). Our team responded that he couldn’t do that. Sadly some years later, there was a division within that congregation, and I often wondered why? A thought crossed my mind:  while the team was walking closely with the Lord, some immature believers in the congregation were not (a few ‘Jezebels,’ male and female?). They had apparently become ‘lightning-rods’ for the devil to strike (pardon the mixed metaphors). I’m not being dogmatic here, and theologically it puzzles me [cf my blog archives, The Case for Good Theology]. Was/is this a feasible explanation? Just wondering…

 

 

CHRISTIAN CONFIDENCE IN AN AGE OF ANXIETY [1 & 2]

[‘My heart is confident in you, O God: my heart is confident!’ Ps. 57:7, NLT]

I was struck by this verse in my meditation on the Psalms recently. It led me to thinking about ‘Christian Confidence in An Age of Anxiety,’ surely relevant to us all. I’ll treat it in two parts, because the topic is wide-ranging.

My wife and I have in the past years and months faced several crises: acute clinical depression (1993), near-death experiences (September 2017 & June 2018), and most recently down-scaling from our spacious family home of 36 years to a one-bedroomed cottage. Each trauma has resulted in a loss of personal confidence, even as committed Jesus-followers. No doubt many of you have been there and experienced worse: bereavement, retrenchment, divorce, dread-disease, etc. I recently re-read Murdo McDonald’s little gem, The Need to Believe. It was first published in the 1960’s and the opening chapter is entitled ‘An Age of Anxiety!’ Even more so now! Every second country is facing political upheaval, economic crisis, gun-violence, societal problems, subliminal guilt issues [1] and questions about the purpose of life (our youth especially). Anxiety abounds in the lives of sports and other celebrities. British Lions rugby superstar Jonny Wilkinson, after booting England to World Cup success, was left totally depressed. The All Blacks’ Sir John Kirwan had to grapple with huge anxiety at the height of his playing days. In my own country just about every other month we read of some music or stage star committing suicide.

Ps. 57 is a fairly typical David-song, composed for worship purposes. This particular song was sung by him and his motley crew while fleeing from King Saul of Israel. They sheltered in mountain refuges: the cave of Adullam in Judah (1 Sam. 22) and Engedi west of the Dead Sea, etc.

  • Verses 1ff exult repeatedly in ‘the mercy of God,’ a common theme in David’s writings. He sees ‘God Most High’ in terms of a great mountain, providing safe shelter from the physical and verbal attacks of his enemies (v.4).
  • Verse 7 echoes David’s confidence in God alone: My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast…’ (NIV). As a result he’s able to sing and make music from his heart (v. 8-11). He writes of ‘awakening the dawn’ with song: in my own case only a strong cup of coffee or two will perhaps persuade me to do the same! David continues, ‘I will praise you among the nations, O Lord… I will sing of you among the peoples (not just Israel)… For great is your love, reaching to the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth!’ Wow!! [2]

Ps. 57 very naturally connects with Moses’ song in Deut. 32, reciting God’s goodnesses to Israel even in the face of her repeated rebellion and idolatry. The OT as a whole is replete with Yahweh’s tender love over against the pagan idols’ extreme cruelty: consider the prophets of Baal hysterically cutting themselves in honour of their sleeping idol (1 Sam. 18) or Molech’s flaming mouth devouring the bodies of infants cast into it!

  • Deut. 32:1-4 recall the LORD’s ‘loving teachings which fell on his people like gentle dew, watering the grass and tender plants.’
  • V. 3ff echo Ps. 57’s theme: ‘I will proclaim the name of the LORD, Oh, praise the greatness of our God! He is the Rock, his works are perfect, & all his ways are just.’
  • V. 5-6 record that, despite God’s overtures, Israel had ‘acted corruptly towards him; to their shame they are no longer his children (wow!), but a warped and crooked generation. Is this the way you repay the LORD, O foolish & unwise people? Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you & formed you?’ I’m reminded of the Messiah’s passion-lament concerning the arrogant religionists as he approached his divine destiny, “‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets & stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look your house is left to you desolate…'” (Mt. 23:37-39).

All this begs the question of God-followers, then and today: is our confidence mis-placed or God-faced?? Let me explain…

To a greater or lesser extent we have probably all been influenced by Norman Vincent Peale’s ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ written in the early 1950’s. Please note I’m not denying the physical and mental benefits of a positive outlook on life. I am simply pointing out that much of today’s populist, ego-centric and superficial ‘Christianity’ has simply re-christened Peale’s philosophy and peddles it as ‘gospel.’ I have fellow-pastors urging me not to speak ‘negatively’ about the Church because I’m thereby cursing God’s cause! Frankly I refuse to heed their call because I’m too much of a realist. Let me give you two further examples of mis-placed faith.

  • A sweet, upright lady, professing the faith, recently sent me a scenic picture of a beautiful sunrise with this message: ‘Speak to yourself every morning: I’m the best, I can do it, I’m a winner, today is my day…’ Sounds good, doesn’t it? We take it as normal, because we’re bombarded by this kind of thing every day via pulpits and the media. Now we are created in God’s image, and therefore have great worth and potential. However, no amount of ‘rah… rah… rah’ will cut it in facing our daily struggles in a confusing world.
  • A lovely ‘Christian’ lady who a few years ago courageously battled her way through cancer with the help of chemotherapy and the prayers of many, claimed her restored health was due to her positive mindset. Very recently her husband contracted cancer and she assured us the outcome would be the same because she had ‘great faith.’ Sadly, he passed away a few weeks ago. ‘Faith in faith’ is mis-placed faith and is followed by huge guilt when things don’t work out as anticipated.

By contrast, the psalmists and Jesus himself commend a God-faced confidence. The God of space and time, the ‘Infinite-Personal God’ of the Bible (Francis Schaeffer) is surely the only proven basis for our faith and hope. I’m reminded of Moses’ words, ‘Lord, through all the generations you have been our home! (the place where we kick off our shoes and relax) (a reality now and not just ‘in heaven’). Before the mountains were born, before you gave birth to the earth and the world, from beginning to end, you are God.’ (Ps. 90:1-2, NLT). God-faced confidence is vital for the individual believer as well as every true ecclesia.

Time for a coffee break before we apply these scriptural insights?? Or perhaps a re-visit tomorrow while our theme is still fresh in your mind??

 

Image result for Free pic of a delicious cup of coffee

 

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[Fountain of Eingedi Today]

Now for some practical applications for God’s people, going forward…

You recall how the apostle Paul in his first Letter to the proud Corinthian assembly brought them back to earth: “few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God’ (1 Cor. 1:26-29, NLT). When grappling with his ‘thorn in the flesh’ the apostle had to learn the painful lesson that ‘God’s power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Cor. 12:8-9). What about Jesus and his disciples? Cheryl McGrath, a respected blogger from Australia, puts it powerfully: ‘The raw material God works with is weakness, foolishness and ordinariness. Jesus chose the twelve for their deficiencies, not for their strengths. Jesus could work with their human failings and flaws. What he couldn’t work with was human goodness, human strength, or human morality… the reason God chooses the foolish, the weak and the common above the wise, the strong and the elite, is simple. It’s so ‘no flesh can boast in his presence!'” Stephen Kaung, once mentored by Watchman Nee, preaching in the USA said ‘The Church is too strong!’ You see, in the West we have a surfeit of programs, seminars, equipment, etc – yet the Church is largely failing in the proclamation and living of the Good News of the Kingdom! This past Sunday we celebrated Pentecost, but where is the radical testimony and life of the early Church that turned its world upside down? The prophet Zechariah declared 500 years before Christ, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel (re-builder of the Jerusalem temple), ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘What are you, O mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground!'” (Zech. 4:6-7, NIV). In 1962 Bob Dylan sang, The answer my friend is blowing in the wind…’ The Church today has put the Spirit in boxes, packaged him, and the truth is you can’t keep the wind in a box. May the Spirit of Christ awaken us to a total reliance on the Father and the Son in the work and witness of the Kingdom.

Some succinct, practical guidelines…

  1. Look often within. Personally and congregationally, is our confidence mis-placed or God-faced? Moses in Deut. 32:15 reminds us that, after experiencing God’s goodness in so many ways, Israel ‘became fat and unruly; the people grew heavy, plump and stuffed! Then they abandoned the God who had made them; they made light of the Rock of their salvation.’ Today’s plump, stuffed church members and leaders must repent! God’s kindness demands it (Rom.2:4).
  2. Look often at God. Imho most Christians no longer read their Bibles (the text itself) and are biblically illiterate [3]. We must re-focus on the God of the Bible: his majesty, sovereignty, power and mercy. As we behold our world’s magnificent mountains, we should look at the God of the mountains. I love the mountains of my country, they renew my vision of creation and the Creator himself. Ascending to Jerusalem the pilgrims of old sang, ‘I look up to the mountains – does my help come from there? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth!’ (Ps. 121:1-2, NLT). [4]
  3. Look back often. Trace the story of God’s loving dealings with Israel in Deut. 32:1-14 and find encouragement therein. The story is told of a monk who rode a donkey to his destinations in the valleys and mountains. Sometimes he rode the donkey looking backwards, in order to view all the way God had safely brought him. Often look back at the Cross. As Jesus, also on a donkey, progressed toward his inevitable destiny, he said to his disciples and the crowds, ‘If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross (an instrument of death), and follow me’ (Mk. 8:34). Every Jesus-follower must have their own Calvary where self-centredness is dealt a death-blow and he/she is resurrected to new life. ‘I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ (Gal. 2:20, NRSV).
  4. Look forward often. To those crucified with Christ Paul gives this logical encouragement: ‘If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else?… I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. Neither death nor life, neither angels or demons, neither our fears for today or our worries about tomorrow – not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love…’  (Rom. 8:31ff). Followers of Jesus in my own country with all its political, economic, social and moral challenges, do take hope from this blessed assurance!
  5. Look around often. David never fought his battles alone. He had his friends with him on the road, any one of whom would surely have laid down his life for his leader. He had that closest of friends, Jonathan. During my 1993 burn-out I was out of action for six months: I was suffering from social anxiety, panic attacks and deep depression. For those six months I could not read my Bible or pray but ‘floated’ on the ocean of the loving prayers of family and friends. That’s why I subscribe to smaller organic church groups (rather than large congregations) where we can be ‘weak’ and yet remain accepted and loved. Nothing quite like it!
  6. Look often to God. Read Ps. 57:7-11 again. Paul reminds the saints in the Roman garrison city of Philippi, ‘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’ (Phil. 4:6-7, NLT). My wife and I literally live by these verses every day, and what a difference it has made. I heartily recommended keeping a simple prayer-diary, itemizing blessings and petitions. It will bless you heaps!

Whatever our anxieties, let’s pray right now for a God-faced faith, in Jesus’ strong name!

Footnote:

[1] In my years of counseling with mothers who underwent abortion for non-medical reasons as well as folk facing gender uncertainty, I have witnessed the devastation of guilt until the Lord has graciously brought healing and direction to broken hearts.

[2] Many get it all wrong when they think that Israel’s purpose was self-serving. Don’t we read the Book of Isaiah?? Don’t we read our Bibles??

[3] I’m neither fundamentalist nor bibliolator. I love reading the written Word with due reference to sound hermeneutical principles and historical context, through the lens of the Living Word.

[4] It is a known fact that a visit to the ocean or the mountains, even for an hour or so, can work wonders for our emotional and spiritual upliftment. Fortunately we are 20 minutes drive from the ocean. Music works for many. On the topic of anxiety and depression I recommend literature by Christian psychiatrists, Dr.’s Minirth and Meier.

‘CHURCH CAPTURE’ [The Challenge Of Systems]

prison cells

In my country, South Africa, ‘State Capture’ often tops the list of news bulletins and court cases these days. Our past-president, with a lot of help from his amoral and super-greedy friends, has been found to have had both hands in the SA economic cookie jar for a decade, leaving it empty. At last our present president, Mr. Ramaphosa, appointed the Zondo commission to examine these allegations, the outcome thus far confirming the worst and more. The commission will continue for a long time yet, and all South Africans (except the cookie thieves) long and pray for a just outcome.

At the same time, I believe (with many others) that the institutional Church in our land has been by captured by charlatan ‘prophets’ on the one hand as well spineless leaders who refuse to speak truth to power on the other hand. To muddy the waters even more, well-meaning but biblically naive fundamentalist church leaders are loudly proclaiming the lie that we are a ‘Christian Country’ chosen by God: we are apparently a ‘Kingdom Nation’ that will take our country, Africa and the rest of the world for him. Have we not learned from the history of ancient Israel and the Apartheid Church-State? (‘the  Nationalist Party at Prayer?’) (1)

A fortnight ago I came across a News24 article by Craig Baillie on the South African Church and government politicians. He correctly points out that many South Africans, including the poorest of the poor, continue to view the ANC as their ‘saviour’ and that this ‘God-appointed movement’ will still deliver them from their dire poverty and unemployment after 25 years of failed promises (2). Politics trumps faith and we bow before the same political idol as the Dutch Reformed Church during the Apartheid years.  Once again we have prostituted ourselves with populist politicians. Think of Bishop Vusi Dube’s key-role in the ‘Hands off Zuma’ campaign and Bishop Timothy Ngcobo who has likened this criminal facing 400+ charges to ‘the biblical shepherd on earth.’ Bishops fall over each other in order to lay hands on these political ‘messiahs.’ Baillie maintains that if Christians in SA hope to see real change in the country’s morally contested political landscape, we have to engage the realm of politics from the vantage of biblical values. We have to equip our flocks to engage political affairs through truly biblical lenses. We have to speak truth to power.

It’s a problem of systems once more. We need these in life in order to keep some kind of order, e.g. your early morning shower, breakfast, getting kidz ready for school, etc. But when systems, for all their good, begin to shut us in prison cells, secular or spiritual, we’re in trouble! Eighteen months ago I had an hospital emergency involving six weeks of an induced coma in order to heal. I experienced both drug-induced hallucinations and, I believe, a God-given vision. Normally my dreams are nonsensical  (the kind Dr. Graham Scroggie put down to ‘too much pork for supper’). This particular dream was, I believe, rational and insightful. In it I was being highly pressured by New Age type believers to achieve success by all means – to go out there and ‘get success,’ ‘to make it happen,’ until all my ambitions have been achieved (at best a dangerous thing). God seemed to say to me, ‘My son, the world is run by systems of all kinds, be discerning, and don’t let any one of them imprison you!’

My wife and I have been working through Frank Viola’s Insurgence, chapter by chapter. Just at the time when I was giving thought to this blog, we read pp. 255ff with their powerful insights into systems in general and the world system in particular:

  • The tentacles of the world system extend everywhere and have infiltrated modern education, entertainment, technology, economics, justice, religion, etc.
  • If you pull back the curtain, you discover a greater system, a throne and our Creator God is not sitting on it. Our enemy’s chief goal is to lead us away from Christ and to tempt us to find our security, enjoyment and provision outside of his presence. ‘Unless you tread softly you will be caught up somewhere in Satan’s snares and will lose the liberty that is yours as a child of God!’ (Watchman Nee) (3). On the matter of ‘worldliness’ and evangelism we need the biblical balance of F.F. Bruce: “The Christian is sent into a godless world to reclaim it for its rightful Lord, but while it remains the ‘godless world’ it is an uncongenial environment for the Christian; he cannot feel at home there… This emphasis on being in the world but not of it, involved but detached at the same time, can be found in many parts of the NT.”
  • So, for example, in using our current educational system, be aware of a malicious mind behind it [writer’s point: we are blessed to have in our house church a newly-retired Professor of Industrial Psychology. After a life-time in academia, he strongly affirms this point]. If you’re going to engage in the arts, be aware of a deceptive personality behind that system [writer’s point: I recall a young pastor years ago, trained as a ballet dancer, who chose to quit his career because of the worldly values and moral pressures of his profession]. Changing metaphors, the ocean has been created beautiful for God’s and our enjoyment, but do guard against a treacherous side-wash or rip-tide!

woman on body of water during daytime

How do we avoid being captured by these man-made and often evil systems?

  1. The short answer is ‘through JESUS,’ who came to release the captives and set the oppressed free, because the time of the LORD’S favour had come in him! (Lk. 4:18-19, NLT) He alone can transpose us from the systems and kingdom of darkness, not to another system, but a personal and liberating relationship with him! Do take the time to read Col. 2:6-23 at this point. He lovingly saves us by a simple faith/trust-union with himself. I love Karl Barth’s reported statement-cum-question, ‘The answer is Jesus! Now what’s the question?’
  2. It also comes by a radical decision on your/my part to abandon every man-made system for the Lord and his kingdom’s sake. It won’t just happen! I recall, after pastoring 4 ‘successful’ institutional churches over some 38 years how liberated we felt when my wife and I decided to cut all our ties with that church-system after months of careful consideration and painful prayer. We felt as free as an eagle, soaring the skies! If you like millions of serious believers around the globe [30+ million ‘dones’ in the USA alone] rise to the challenge, it will be very, very difficult, but the ‘road less traveled by’ will make all the difference! (Scott Peck)

The hymn-writer George Matheson (1842-1906) wrote long ago:

‘Make me a captive, Lord,

And then I shall be free;

Force me to render up my sword

And I shall conqueror be!’

Image result for Free pics for prisoners set free

Footnotes:

  1. I respectfully (!) mention the names here of farmer Angus Buchan and economics lecturer Dr. Arno van Niekerk, whose book I’ve read, with whom I have met in person to listen to his ‘vision’ for the nation. [cf my blog on Lighting Matches in the Dark below] One can be absolutely sincere but wrong in one’s reading of the Bible. I know that from personal experience…
  2. Not that other political parties would have fared much better. Personally I believe in the separation of State and Church. We give to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to him. I recall a Church leader from Rwanda, where in 1994 a genocide between Hutu and Tutsi tribes claimed almost a million lives, using the the metaphor of a fire:  you can cook on it and use it for warmth, but get too close and you get horribly burnt!
  3. I heartily recommend Watchman Nee’s Love Not the World. [it includes one of the best sermons I’ve heard on baptism, ‘A World Under Water’]

 

THE AUTHENTIC JESUS

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[Compilation of a Typical Jewish Man at the Time of Jesus of Nazareth]

Recently some in our house church network felt the need for ‘church leaders’ and ‘members’ to re-focus on THE AUTHENTIC JESUS. This arose out of a desire to see Jesus reign in/over his body not merely as ceremonial head but as functional head. Leaders, i.e. servant-leaders rather than hierarchical leaders, are called to constantly submit themselves to Christ’s lordship together with their flocks.

You would surely agree that many false ‘Christ’s’ abound today: political ones, humanitarian ones, sentimental ones, traditional ones, Gnostic ones, Western blond/blue-eyed/pale-faced ones, plastic ones, prosperity ones, etc.

After some focused prayer our house church leaders, in tandem with a suburban inter-denominational fraternal (men & women) I have fellowshipped with for more than 30 years, invited a suitably qualified and traveled speaker to lead us in our meditations. In answer to prayer, he turned out an inspired choice, addressing the subject knowledgeably, empowered by colossal research on 2nd Temple Judaism, the Gospels, non-Christian sources and the best contemporary NT scholarship on the topic, etc [1]. He taught powerfully, humorously and humbly (rejecting his clerical titles). Our aim was to focus not on any church celebrity, guru or prominent person but on Jesus himself.

What follows are my personal and ‘organic church’ [2] observations, not necessarily reflecting those of our guest speaker, although there are many similarities. After careful consultation with our busy fraternal members as to the best format that would work for them, we went ahead with their blessing and implied support. Our conference goal was that of personal intimacy and face-to-face fellowship, with a target of between 30-50 people. We’ve learned over the years that in these days of mega-churches and mega-everything, smaller is often better (cf. Jesus and his 12 disciples). In the end our session attendances averaged about 40 folk with a group of 60 on the Sunday evening when some of the local church youth joined us (they were back for more on Monday!). As to the fraternal, out of approximately 20 invited, only two women-pastors and the local youth pastor turned up (does that sound familiar? women last at the cross and first at the tomb), with a good representation of their leadership and committed members. With the exception of two pastors who offered apologies beforehand because of prior denominational commitments, most did not even bother to send their apologies. (note, 10 days before the conference we had also advertised the event at our city fraternal, attended by 100 plus, and on local Christian radio). Of course I should have known better, having become convinced over 38 years of leadership within denominational churches and 12 years outside, that it is virtually impossible to change the ‘system’ from within, in fact it tends to change you! But then I’ll always be an optimist. I am also aware of the danger of an ‘us and them’ syndrome and an isolation mentality like Elijah’s in 1 Kings 19. One of our house church leaders captured the experience well by referring to Jesus’ ‘Parable of the King’s Wedding Banquet for His Son’ in Mt. 22:1-14. V. 3/NRSV, “He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves saying: ‘Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business… Then he said to his slaves, ‘Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests…” And so the ‘hoi polloi,’ God’s ragamuffins came to the conference and feasted at the King’s table! (btw, we concluded the conference with an intimate and inspiring ‘breaking of bread’ at our coffee tables, the proverbial ‘cherry on the cake’) Am I being too critical and judgmental? Perhaps. Changing metaphors, I do know that excellent seed was sown in our gatherings which, under God, will bring a certain harvest!

Image result for free pics of jesus parable of the great banquet

Let me now briefly share some of the teaching high-lights concerning the real Jesus

Firstly his humanity.

  • When Jesus was born of Mary, while he came into our world as the God-Man, he came as one fully human. We have been brain-washed into thinking that when, e.g., Jesus was tested in his earthly life, he had some secret advantage over us mere humans because of his deity. A careful study of the Gospels makes perfectly clear his humanity at all times. It took time, for example, for Jesus to become aware of his ‘different’ mission on earth: remember when, as a 12-year-old, he got so caught up in discussions with the temple leaders in Jerusalem that he forgot to inform his family as to his where-abouts. ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s (not Joseph’s) house?’ (Lk. 2:41ff/NRSV) (cf. v. 51, his mother ‘treasured’ these things in her heart, perhaps more so than Joseph?)
  • His humanity is underlined from the very beginning in his cave-crib birth (Lk. 2).
  • In his childhood escape to Egypt for safety reasons (Mt. 2:13ff). Do we even begin to understand the plight of refugees in Europe, the Middle East, the USA, and in my own country?
  • In his societal ‘illegitimacy’ (Mt. 2:18ff) as ‘an out of wedlock child.’ He was often shunned as ‘that bastard’ child of Joseph and Mary. And so we could go on.

Secondly, his obedience. The Hebrews Letter describes Jesus’ physical and spiritual growth, ‘In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered…’ (Heb. 5:7ff). I.o.w. throughout his earthly life Jesus learned obedience through hard daily choices, in the light of his Scripture memorization, and through his daily submission to his earthly and heavenly Father. So much more to be said…

Thirdly, his beauty. As our speaker filled in the gaps in the story of Jesus, I was intellectually and emotionally overwhelmed by the over-all beauty of Jesus! It was a ‘rainbow moment’ for me, as I thought of his firm but gentle interaction with all kinds of people at all times in all kinds of places, especially in his dealings with the broken and rejected.

  • Think of the social mix of his first chosen disciples, which included a ‘terrorist’ like Simon the Zealot, a big mouth like Simon Peter and a somewhat spineless Judas Iscariot (Mk. 3:13ff).
  • His gracious kingdom invitation to the crooked and hated tax-collector Levi (Mk. 2:13ff).
  • The calling of the ‘small man syndrome’ Zacchaeus (Lk. 19).
  • His treatment of the ‘bastardized’ and broken Samaritan woman of Sychar (Jn. 4).
  • The woman caught in adultery (Jn. 8), etc. I’m reminded of Isaiah’s prophetic Servant Song, ‘Look at my servant, whom I strengthen… He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle. He will bring justice to all who have been wronged. He will not falter or lose heart until justice prevails throughout the earth’ (Is. 42:1-4/ NLT). How maimed and scarred is our Saviour, yet how beautiful beyond description! [3]

I conclude with the inspiring words of Pedro Arrupe [4], ‘Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything!’ [5]

Footnotes:

[1] References included J.P. Meier, JDG Dunn, NT Wright, Craig Keener, et al.

[2] I see Francis Chan speaks of ‘missional micro-churches.’

[3] See N. American Brian Zahnd’s excellent Beauty Will Save The World: Rediscovering The Allure & Mystery Of Christianity. (imho, Christ would have served better than Christianity, simply because the latter carries so much baggage!)

[4] Pedro Arrupe (1907-1991) was a Basque priest who served in Japan during WW2, was sentenced to solitary confinement on false espionage charges, survived the Hiroshima bombing and then served the poor in Latin America until a debilitating stroke took his life. He inspired the world by his personal suffering and commitment to justice.

[5] In light of our topic, I decided to re-read an old copy of Malcolm Muggeridge’s (1903-1990) Jesus Rediscovered.’ It came alive to me more than ever before. Muggeridge was a Cambridge graduate, renowned journalist and satirist, and BBC presenter. He famously converted from Communism to Christ. He was critical of institutional Christianity. He was one of the first to promote Mother Theresa of Calcutta. If you can find an old copy, you’ll find it interesting though perhaps not agreeing with everything he said and wrote!

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‘LIGHTING MATCHES IN THE DARK’

Flame, Fire, Match, Beautiful, Hot, Burn

 

In one of our house church gatherings a member was sharing from Isaiah 50. He focused on v. 4ff, ‘The Sovereign LORD has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He awakens me morning my morning, wakens my ear to listen like someone being taught. The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious…’ [The Prophecy of Isaiah is a ‘salvation symphony’ in three movements, viz. judgment, comfort and hope. Chap. 50 depicts Israel’s failure as ‘the servant of the LORD’ (the nation was rotten to the core with sham religion and pagan idolatry) and announces an alternative obedient servant’ who would bring ‘good news’ to all people]

While he was finishing up, I browsed through the latter part of Is. 50 which reads (v. 10ff), ‘Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the word of his servant? Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God. But now, all you who light fires and provide yourselves with flaming torches, go, walk in the light of your fires and of the torches you have set ablaze. This is what you shall receive from my hand: You will lie down in torment.’ Ouch!

When we as humans turn from God’s loving call [in Creation, our conscience, history and the Bible itself], we develop deaf ears to his ‘gentle whispers’ (e.g. the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19:12). When we become self-sufficient and clever in our own eyes, when we start building our own towers and empires (national or personal), we resort to ‘lighting matches in the dark.’ In my country we’ve experienced power outages from time to time. We have to resort to matches and candles. While helpful, one can hardly read or work by their inferior light.

Herewith some moral and spiritual pointers for society, the Church and our personal life:

  • While shopping during the Christmas holidays, I took special note of people and their behaviour around me. It seemed so many were in a bubble, unaware of anyone else. As a child and teen I was taught to be aware of people around me, to take note of others’ personal space and to be courteous. These days, some people will walk right over you unless you jump out of their way! It’s as if they’re the only people on the planet and the universe revolves around them. Maybe I’m too jaundiced in my outlook: or are most people more ego-centric today? One is reminded of the apostle Paul’s words in 2 Tim. 3:1-5/MSG, ‘As the end approaches (in the Bible, ‘the end’ begins with Jesus’ first advent), people are going to be self-absorbed, money-hungry, self-promoting, stuck up, profane… allergic to God…’
  • My wife and I have been asked to pray for a number of younger folk in our family-and-friends’ circle. Two claim to be atheists, the one is suffering from acute anxiety despite many positives in his life. Another young man has recently ‘come out of the closet’ and committed to a gay relationship. Over the years my wife and I have been privileged to walk a long road with at least a dozen folk struggling with sexual identity. We have at all times tried to be understanding, sensitive and compassionate (we remain good friends to this day). In my research on this topic I have read of many LGBTIQ folk who, on advice (from renowned apologist Ravi Zacharias, et al) have seriously asked their Creator to reveal to them their true sexual identity. This exercise has been challenging to the core but enlightening and even transforming. Having exegeted the Book of Romans over a life-time, I am yet to be convinced that our Creator is himself confused and/or caught off guard by these issues and that he condones what is being peddled on every hand as ‘the new normal.’ If you take a slice of cake, you don’t ask the cake what variety it is but the baker. Again, referring to Zacharias, God purposes every believer’s body to be his holy ‘temple’ in this world, in order to honour him who redeemed us (1 Cor. 3:16; 3:19). That’s not always a convenient truth, even for heterosexual believers, for we all wrestle with powerful sexual urges and impulses. However, in and through Christ, we are able to discipline our bodies in order to remain as pure as we can possibly be (cf. Rom. 6). I have always admired the writings of Henri Nouwen, the brilliant Dutch theologian who gave the latter part of his life to serving the disabled at L’Arche Community in Canada. Toward the end of his life he confessed an attraction to men rather than women. Despite this he took an oath of celibacy, ‘for Jesus’ sake.’ He did so, compelled not by church rules so much as by the love of the Father welcoming the prodigal (Lk. 15:11ff). Sure, we must rid the Church of legalism, but equally from libertinism (‘anything and everything goes’).**
  • I also recall, with regard to the Church, someone suggesting that, in the absence of genuine awakening in the Body, some will resort to lighting matches rather than relying on God’s fire from above and within. We see this particularly in so much contemporary, up-front performances with sound, smoke and lighting effects trying to evoke ‘worship’ from those looking on from pews in the dark. These are largely man-made efforts bringing no lasting change. (cf. the frantic false prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:25ff… LOL!)
  • Some of my readers may be truly searching for God. You’ve been burnt by ‘Church-as-we-know-it,’ you’ve been hurt by well-meaning ‘Christians,’ etc. You may at this point be a sincere and well-meaning atheist. May I humbly suggest you read up on the brilliant C.S. Lewis’s journey from atheism to faith in his ‘Surprised by Joy!’ You may also enjoy listening to the contemporary testimony of the bright young atheist-turned-apologist, David Wood. cf. his ‘Why I am a Christian’ on YouTube.

Two final applications from Is. 50:

  1. God’s saints are urged to rely on his wisdom and grace, especially in dark days (v. 10). Sometimes we may feel like we’re abandoned to darkness***, but he is not far-off and will surely come to light our candle in those seasons. When the psalmist David was being hunted down by his enemies he exclaimed, You, O LORD, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light! With your help I can run through a barricade; with my God I can scale a wall!’ (Ps. 18:28-29).
  2. Those so caught up with themselves that they don’t grasp their dependence on God are warned not to trust in themselves! We so easily default to our own righteousness and incense. Many seek happiness in themselves, ‘reason,’ subjective (often hedonistic) experience, possessions and human achievements rather than in God himself (they’re like puppies chasing their tail – ignore the tail and behold it follows). Ironically, they are urged to ‘walk in the light of their own fire!’ Their day of utter darkness draws near, for God ultimately grants us our wishes! (cf. C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Great Divorce’)

May I gently call you to Jesus****, who declared to the religious establishment (‘Church’) and common folk of his day, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life!’ (Jn. 8:12) May we as individual believers and ecclesiae all over the world respond by following Jesus and being surprised by his incomparable joy!

Footnotes

** I’m aware that many Christians will not agree with my outlook here. I respect your sincerely held views. I simply ask that you will do the same with mine. Thank you.

*** My wife and I and our family have ourselves been through some dark days, including acute depression, near-death (both of us), the gang-rape of our daughter, the suicide attempt of our son, etc. The sun does shine again!

 

'We are the sheep of His pasture....'

**** Unfortunately we have been conditioned by the Church’s and our world’s false images of God. See my recent blogs on ‘What Does God Look Like?’ and glimpse something of his beauty and glory!