WHEN EVERYTHING AROUND YOU IS SHAKING…

 

Grayscale Photography of Crucifix

(Earthquake, Central Italy, 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POSTSCRIPTS:

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

‘The Son of God in tears,

The wondering angels see.

Be thou astonished, O my soul,

He shed these tears for thee.’

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

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

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

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

Free stock photo of agriculture, farm, horizon, fields

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

 [Mt. 9:35-38]

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

 

PRAYER: FROM PLACES OF PAIN (PART 2)

Sorry We're Closed but Still Awesome Tag

 

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

(Jesus to the Church in Laodicea)***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Painting by William Holman Hunt]

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

PRAYER FROM PAINFUL PLACES (PART 1)

Silhouette Of Child Looking On Window Blinds

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LEARNING TO ACCEPT ONE ANOTHER

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

IN THE INTERIM…

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

DEATH CAFES, MORTALITY AND IMMORTALITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Jesus of Nazareth)

COUNTRY, CHRIST AND CHARACTER

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(Martin Luther King Jnr, 1929-1968)

We all love our country, warts and all. I am proudly South African, and you are proudly…. (fill in the space). It is part of the Church’s mandate to respect those in authority (Rom. 13) and to pray for all in authority, national or local (1 Tim. 2). At this moment, as with most countries worldwide, South Africa is not in a good place politically, morally, socially, economically and spiritually. Politically, there is just a glimmer of light with the ANC ruling party (of Tambo and Mandela fame) replacing their president, Jacob Zuma, facing over 700 criminal charges. His personal greed has led to a ‘free-for-all,’ leaving our economy just above ‘junk status.’ I have on my desk any number of clippings, one reading ‘A dignified exit for Zuma makes me gag’ (EP Herald, 06/01/2018). Then of course there is the exaltation of the ruling party to a ‘god’ of sorts. The ANC Eastern Cape chairman stated recently, at a celebrity funeral, that his party was “the party of reverends, traditional leaders and  ‘a party of Christ'” (EP Herald, 22/01/2018). He received  loud applause. Thus we not only have a ‘captured state’ but a ‘captured Church!’ Of course the god of capitalism is no better: American author Frank Viola talks of that country’s gods of capitalism and consumerism. He rightly asks, what about ‘the Gospel of the Kingdom,’ ‘what king or system are we given over to?’ (my emphasis) During last year’s illness, floating in and out of consciousness, God seemed to give me a vision of this world’s many systems, capturing so many, including churches and believers. Have you and I escaped?

Some months ago one of our house church members quoted from a sermon by Martin Luther King – I loved the quote. Knowing that I also love books she got me a copy of MLK’s ‘Strength to Love.’ While not agreeing with all of his theology, I learned much about how the Church should be impacting a lost society in the name of Christ. While reading a chapter headed ‘How Should a Christian View Communism?’ the penny dropped as to where some of my country’s ethical problems derive from. Let me explain.

  • Over 50 years ago now, MLK put his finger on Communism’s ethical relativism (the end justifies the means), materialism, ultimate value attributed to the state and ‘state control.’ He quoted Lenin, We must be ready to employ trickery, deceit, lawbreaking, withholding and concealing truth.’ While in my youth and young adulthood our nationalist party espoused white supremacy and tried to justify it from the Bible and pulpit, Communism was blamed for all and sundry. This drove many of the oppressed into the arms of that ideology – many received military training in Russia and East Germany and were schooled in their atheism and relativism (thank God for the exceptions). Hence so many of our government leaders today tell bare-faced lies without batting an eyelid. At this moment, welcome parliamentary hearings are exposing some of the rot. In our Health Department political arrogance has led to the death of over 140 mentally ill patients farmed out willy-nilly to bogus safe houses, totally incompetent to deal with their specialist needs. A good friend of mine used to say that when you are lost at sea, you need a few good lighthouses – hint, lighthouses don’t move!
  • MLK pointed out that cold atheism Communism, wrapped in the garments of materialism, has no place for God or Christ. ‘I fight alone, and win or sink, I need no one to make me free; I want no Jesus Christ to make me think, That he could ever die for me.’
  • It’s interesting that Karl Marx, born a Jew, with his parents adopting the Christian faith when he was six, could never quite forget Jesus’ concern ‘for the least of these,’ championing the cause of the poor, the exploited and the disinherited. I am ashamed to say that Western evangelicalism, very often, has failed to champion that cause in the name of Jesus, succumbing to competitive denominationalism (some 60,000 today), materialism, egoism and every kind of bless-me-ism!

I would submit a two-fold way forward:

  1. Bowing the knee anew to King Jesus, in the light of God’s great love for us in him (Phil. 2:6-11). We have to be radical in that submission, as the old hymn says ‘I surrender all…’ For the early Church it was either ‘Caesar is Lord’ or ‘Christ is Lord.’ From a recent blog I learned that A.W. Tozer once said: one thing you know about a man carrying a cross out of the city, you knew he was not coming back! I love being alive, especially since the Lord recently gave me a second chance after miraculously surviving emergency surgery and a hospital ‘super bug.’ But I have to respond to Jesus’ loving cross by taking up my own, a cross that means certain death to ego (Mk. 8:34). Of course that death also brings Christ’s ‘abundant life!’ (Jn. 10:10)
  2. Committing ourselves to Christian character. Much can be learned from outstanding teacher Dallas Willard in this regard – I’ll always be grateful for a Christian friend’s gift of Willard’s classic The Divine Conspiracy (warning: if you read it, your life will change forever). The Apostle Paul in his great Epistle to the Romans, reminds them (and us) of the necessity of Christ-like character through the Gospel: ‘We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance, and endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our constant hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love’ (Rom. 5:3-5, NLT). Jesus put it a little differently when, in the Sermon on the Mount, he reminded his followers (and us) that we ARE salt and light in a rotten and dark world (Mt. 5:13-16), i.o.w. by his indwelling we must become what we already are! ‘You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? … You are the light of the world – like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead a lamp is put on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house…’ (NLT) Let me give a humble example. We have a house church in a very poor township area, where during the week children and teens drop in after school to get help with homework, literacy, life-skills and Bible teaching incarnated by the house mother. Township schools are very poor in resources and so our kidz have a tough time academically. But we are seeing some wonderful fruits. In the last two weeks one of our girls has been admitted to the University of Fort Hare for a social science degree (she loves children, and wants to become a social worker). One of our young men has just been given a bursary to study IT at our local Nelson Mandela University. Both are keen believers, wanting to impact others for God and good. Here’s another example, underlining the importance of relationship-building with consistency and perseverance. There are approx. 1 million children living in squatter camps in SA. Quinton Adams, a psychologist, gives of his time to children in one of these in the Western Cape. He develops character through games, theatre, and creative play, often resorting to old tyres and sticks. Some are excelling at school – one youth, his father a triple-murderer, is excelling in mathematics. All these examples work on the kingdom principle of a little bit of Gospel-yeast leavening the larger lump of society in a positive way.

Someone sent me this quote from Ken Sande, author and founder of Peace Maker Ministries in the USA: ‘What are you really living for? It’s crucial to realise that you either glorify God, or you glorify something or someone else. You’re always making something look big. If you don’t glorify God when you’re involved in a conflict, you inevitably show that someone or something else rules your heart.’ Simply by being Jesus followers, we are in conflict with a humanistic world. What are we really living for? Are we surrendered to Jesus and the pursuit of Christ-like character? Praise God, his love in Jesus empowers us!

PS. I’ve just commenced Boris Yeltsin’s autobiography, Against the Grain. A poor peasant, he rose to become the first President of the Russian Federation, serving from 1991-1999 (he was also the first head of state buried in a Christian church in 113 years). Even at this early stage of his story one realises the crippling power of the Stalinist state apparat. To quote Yeltsin in connection with ‘elections,’ ‘The presidium simply mocked the public, thinking up one trick after another to prevent them from accepting the proposal to nominate all the candidates.’ Some years ago, Juan Zucharelli, who headed up a magnificent prison ministry in Argentina, visited SA for the first time and spoke at an inter-church meeting I was privileged to arrange. He told us how when his plane was banking to land at Cape Town airport, the Lord seemed to drop one word into his spirit concerning our nation – it was the world ‘control.’ Imho that ‘control’ curses our politics, education, economy and churches to this very day.

 

 

 

 

 

VACATING THE HOUSE OF FEAR

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At a recent Sunday morning house church gathering we considered ‘Vacating the House of Fear.’ This topic was partly inspired by Henri Nouwen’s resonating words quoted in my wife’s facebook:  ‘How can we live in the midst of a world marked by fear, hatred and violence, and not be destroyed by it? To live in the world without belonging to the world summarizes the essence of spiritual life. Our true house is not the house of fear but the house of love, where God resides. Through the spiritual life we gradually move from the house of fear to the house of love.’

[Henri Nouwen was a 20th century Dutch Roman Catholic priest, Yale and Harvard professor, theologian and author. After many years as an academic he answered God’s call to live and work with the physically and mentally handicapped at L’Arche’s Daybreak Community in Ontario, Canada]

To be honest, I have spent most of my three score years and ten camping somewhere between the house of fear and the house of love (we’ll expound these terms in a moment). As a child and teen I felt I could earn acceptance by academic achievement. As a single ‘pastor’ of two congregations over some seven years, I was ragged by the married men as being ‘incomplete.’ In those and subsequent pastorates I worked very hard to ‘grow’ the congregations, and by the grace of God they somehow did. After eleven years in my last pastorate, caught up in the busy-ness of a very societal and mission-minded church I finally burned out, unable to sleep due to hyped adrenaline pumping through my body. With the help of medication and much prayer and a supportive wife, I was able to spend another twelve years in pastoral ministry, surer of my identity and living a more balanced life, having inched a little closer to ‘the house of love.’ Spending the past eleven years in organic house churches has been a huge help in moving more permanently into ‘the house of love.’ With the political and economic uncertainty facing us as a nation at the moment, the future seems most uncertain – however, talking to myself daily about ‘the house of love’ is proving to be very helpful in making that my chosen abode. [BTW, I have it on good authority that some registered church pastors in China are preaching three times a Sunday because their colleagues, in their forties, are exhausted and burnt out! They don’t get a western weekly ‘day off’ to re-charge. Most of their congregations are hierarchical in structure and know almost nothing about NT ‘every member ministry,’ so fundamental to the organic house church ‘structures’ I’ve encountered on my two visits to China]

Being believers and Jesus-followers doesn’t isolate us from the fears most folk face from day to day. Raising children in our postmodern era, financial concerns, the pressures of success and materialism in a hedonistic world, the many stressors of our bullet-train world, ill-health, retirement uncertainties, all these can easily drive us back into ‘the house of fear.’

Many of us, if not most of us, are yet to fully transition to ‘the house of love.’ Yes, that will include our love for God, yet infinitely more so God’s love for us in Christ! In our discussions we considered two main scripture passages:

  1. Jn. 20:19-23. Jesus is risen from the dead! He appears to Mary Magdalene. V. 19ff, That Sunday evening the disciples were meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders  (note ‘the house of fear). Suddenly Jesus was standing there among them! ‘Peace be with you,’ he said. As he spoke he showed them the wounds in his hands and his side (note). They were filled with joy when they saw the Lord! Again he said, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you'” (NLT). Then he breathed the Holy Spirit on them. The disciples’ ‘house of fear’ is transformed by the risen Jesus and his cross into a ‘house of love,’ which also brings his peace.
  2. 1 Jn. 4:13-21. John has much to say about ‘Loving One Another’ on the basis of God’s great love for us in Christ (v. 7ff)V. 18ff, ‘Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. We love each other because he loved us first’ (NLT). For various reasons, including wrong theology concerning God’s nature (he is forever angry) and our daily circumstances in an upside down world, we easily revert to ‘the house of fear’ and fail to fully occupy Jesus’ ‘house of love.’

What is the secret of staying in ‘the house of love’ or striving to do so?? There are probably many, but I agree with Nouwen that a key-secret is intimacy, i.e. understanding God’s eternal nearness to us in Christ and ‘striving,’ daily, to more permanently stay near to him and live ‘in him.’

I first encountered this truth of intimacy when a young seminarian. We had a thing called ‘sermon class’ which everyone hated but had to endure. Our critics were our  fellow-students and our College Principle who cut to the quick and didn’t spare your feelings. My first attempt focused on Jesus weeping at Lazarus’ grave-side Jn. 11:35) – while I didn’t weep afterwards I was miserable for days! My second attempt was Jn. 15:1ff, the parable of ‘Jesus, the true Vine’ – having thoroughly done my homework this time, the reaction was more favourable. God had appointed Israel as the vine to bless all  peoples, but the OT describes the nation’s miserable failure at incarnating that reality. Jesus then comes as ‘the true Vine’ to permanently ‘abide’ in his people and they in him (15:4ff): ‘Abide in Me, and I in you… I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing’ (NASB) . In my country most congregations use the NIV, which translates ‘abide’ as ‘remain’ – not good! The KJV, NASB and NRSV all use the word ‘abide,’ the MSG paraphrase is even better: ‘make your home in me.’ Through faith, Jesus ‘makes his home in us.’ He has come to feel welcome, accepted and totally comfortable in us. We in turn have to live as God’s beloved, and be assured that ‘there’s no place like home!’

How do we respond to this? By believing Jesus’ words,  being in his presence, making room for him in our decisions and daily life, listening for his voice, being ‘astonished’ at the mystery of the eternal God choosing to live with/within us, living in ‘community’ with fellow-believers who encourage one another in the Lord, etc. I personally find it very useful to keep a very basic prayer diary, detailing matters for thanksgiving, worship, intercession and petition. I recently came across this gem in Phil. 4:6-7, ‘Don’t worry about anything; instead pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus’ (NLT).

God bless us in our journey from ‘the house of fear’ to ‘the house of love!’

PS. If any pastors/church leaders read this blog, I believe from careful biblical study and painful personal experience, that the traditional, institutional church prevents leaders from living steadfastly in ‘the house of love.’ One is made to feel guilty about many things, secretly fear powerful personalities and ‘democrats’ (as opposed to theocrats) in one’s flock, etc. You can feel lonely, with very few to talk to – in fact most of your fellow-clergy are so busy ‘number-counting’ they can’t offer you authentic fellowship when you need it most. Thus I am gladly a supporter of ‘smaller rather than bigger’ organic groups where every-member ministry takes place under the functional headship of Jesus. If you choose to transition, it will cost you everything, but this ‘road less travelled’ (Scott Peck) can make a colossal difference.

‘A STRAWY LETTER’ TO A BACKSLIDDEN CHURCH?

 

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I’m one of those who has often struggled to get a decent handle on the Book of James – of course, Luther the reformer (1483-1546) struggled with James’ emphasis on ‘works’ to the extent that he wrote the letter off as ‘a right strawy espistle.’ Most biblical scholars would disagree with Luther for good reasons. I was recently having coffee with a professor friend of mine who made a statement, ‘The Letter of James is written to backsliders.’ I was struck by that, though at first it sounded like an over-simplification.  The Letter does end with a fervent call to ‘restore the backslider,’ i.e. those ‘who have wandered from the truth’ (5:19-20).

[BTW, I trust my reader, claiming to be a Christian, reads the Bible, i.e. the Bible itself! We live in a generation of Bible illiterates, wondering why the Church is so weak. ‘Believers’ will listen to their favourite guru, read his/her books, listen to pod-cast debates, follow someone’s ‘daily notes,’ anything but read the actual Bible text. I stand by the fact that the Bible is a closed book without the revelation of the Living Word – however, that does not mean that we neglect his divine Love Letter and map for the pilgrim!’]

I think British scholar RVG Tasker was right when he claimed the Letter of James (not the apostle but Jesus’ eldest brother) is ‘a collection of sermon-notes.’ James headed up  the mother church in Jerusalem, he wrote probably in the early 60’s AD, a few years before his martyrdom. The apostle Paul was at that time awaiting trial in Rome – perhaps many of their ‘disciples’ were becoming discouraged under persecution. Thus James writes to the isolated churches of  Asia Minor to exhort the believers (mainly Jewish?), scattered by persecution following the martyrdom of Stephen, to persevere in their faith.  He addresses random issues, urging believers not to stray from the basics of the faith.

Surely it is a general biblical truth that whenever faith doesn’t issue in love and dogma (however orthodox) is unrelated to life, whenever believers are tempted to settle down to a selfish faith, whenever they become oblivious of the social and material needs of others around them [it still grieves me that many privileged ‘white’ Christians in South Africa have never visited a ‘black’ township, never mind understand the issues], whenever they don’t live the NT creeds of Jesus (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount, Mt. 5-7), whenever they seem more anxious to be friends of the passing hedonistic world than of God, James says we are ‘backslidden’ and in grave spiritual danger. And so we are! You see, it’s so easy to respond to the gospel of grace and enjoy the assurance and joy that brings, and then gradually lapse into a life of mediocrity without applying that very gospel to the lost, poor and needy of society. ‘Religion divorced from morality, words without deeds, creeds that satisfy the head but never warm the heart, are in vain. The wisdom they exhibit is of the earth; the fire that kindles them is the fire of human pride.’ (Tasker)

Hence James’ sermons on ‘Listening and Doing’ (1:19ff):-  ‘Favouritism Forbidden’ (social and economic snobs are alive and well in most churches today) (ch.2); ‘Faith and Deeds’ (ch. 2); ‘Taming the Tongue’ (we have seen recently here in South Africa our South Coast forests devasted by veld fires – such is the effect of an uncontrolled tongue) (ch. 3); James goes on to plead for the need for ‘heavenly’ wisdom instead of earthly wisdom, the need for submission, humility that doesn’t boast about tomorow, giving warnings to the rich who oppress the poor, etc. [with my many weeks of unexpected hospitalisation, all my very ordered diary events came to a stand-still for some two months, the pages blank!]

In the light of all these things, is your church/group backslidden?? And what about you and me?

How do we correct our backsliding and find restoration? For me James has often come across as somewhat austere, but then I guess in dealing with those who have lost the plot you can’t pull punches. In my pulpit years I used to say that my job was ‘to comfort the afflict and afflict the comfortable!’ Hence the need for ‘prophetic’ voices (in the biblical rather than popular sense) in churches today! However, closer examination of James’ Letter reveals a relational side not immediately noticed. [My blog readers will know that I’m convinced about relationality; we know and serve a relational (triune) God, Jesus the Incarnate One made flesh for us, the Holy Spirit indwelling us under the new covenant, united ‘in Christ’ in intimate, life-giving communities. [ideally, smaller and ‘organic,’ with bottom-up rather than top-down structure] Some examples…

  • 1:1, James speaks of himself as the ‘slave’ of God and of Christ. We recall that as believers we have been freely ‘ransomed’ from the slave-market of sin and satan. Hence we are willing ‘slaves,’ serving out of a relationship of love as those first loved by him (1 Jn. 4:7-21).
  • 1:2, James addresses his scattered readers as ‘dear brothers and sisters’ (NLT), as those belonging to a family, not only though creation but costly ‘redemption.’
  • 1:12, God ‘blesses’ those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
  • 1:16, God is ‘the giver of every good and perfect gift’ … we are ‘his prized possession!’
  • 2:5, God has chosen ‘the poor in this world’ to be rich in faith. He has promised the kingdom to those who love him.
  • 2:12, God is ‘merciful’ to the merciful.
  • 2:25, God used a prostitute, Rahab, to deliver the Israelite spies in Josh. 2. (James is not necessarily condoning her ‘cover-up’ but demonstrating the grace of God).
  • 4:6ff, God ‘opposes the proud but gives favour to the humble.’ If we come close to God, he comes close to us. If we humble ourselves before him he will ‘lift us up in honour.’
  • 5:13ff, God plants us in a fellowship of faith and care where we may find joy, healing, humanity, restoration and answered prayer.

A glance at local church adverts highlighting ‘special guests’ and artists and performers etc in my own city cry out, ‘entertainment,’ ‘it’s all about me,’ compromise with a materialistic and hedonistic worldly system, snobbishness (they serve the best yuppie coffee in town), an almost total disconnect between profession and behaviour, a lack of common biblical ethics, a lack of  concern for the poorest of the poor, etc. I am sure you have the same kind of thing in your neck of the woods! In any case, let us make sure we ourselves repent of any such evils and draw near to the Lord who will draw near to us! [even with South Africa’s struggling economy, there are ‘sneaker addicts’ who will pay R. 20,000 for a larny pair – Sunday Times,07/05/2017. Absolute madness)

ADDENDUM:

Coming back to the point of reading the Scriptures, here is a helpful prayer by Danish theologian-philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855):

‘FATHER IN HEAVEN, what is man that Thou visitest him, and the son of man that Thou art mindful of him? Verily, Thou dost never leave Thyself without a witness; and at last Thou didst give to man Thy Word. More Thou couldst not do; to compel him to make use of it, hear it and read it, to compel him to act according to it, Thou couldst not wish. And yet Thou didst more. Rarely does he do anything for nothing, and if he does, he at least would not be put to inconvenience to do it. Thou, on the contrary, O God, bestowest Thy word as a gift,- and we men have nothing to give in return. And if only Thou dost find some willingness on the part of a single individual, Thou are prompt to help, and, with divine patience, dost sit and spell it out with him that he may be able rightly to understand it; and, again with divine patience, Thou dost take him as it were by the hand and help him when he strives to act accordingly,- Thou our Father in heaven.’


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