Faithful to the future

In the summers from 1902 until 1904, Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin was sent by the Russian Museum of St Petersburg to north west Russia to collect items of Russian folk art. During his travels he took pictures of scores of Russian Orthodox churches.

When Prince Vladimir had converted to Christianity back in 988, he began building churches throughout Russia. Many were made of wood and some of them had survived in the area where Bilibin was conducting his researches. By Bilibin’s time the churches were fairly dilapidated. Many had lost the their gilded icons and were a pale shadow of their former glory.

About a century later when a British researcher, Richard Davies, went in search of Bilibin’s churches, his nine year investigation revealed that most of them were rotting, had been destroyed by lightning or had succumbed to neglect or vandalism; one even fell down when a farmer reversed his tractor into it.

These churches certainly told a story. A story of struggle. Of the struggle with severe northern winters. Of the struggle with communism. They also told a story of a resilient faith handed down for a millennium.

Russia is not the only place in the world where spiritual edifices remind us of the church’s glorious past. Take a look in just about any village, town or city in the Western world and you’ll find the story of faith’s past.

Telling the story of the past is one of the duties of the church. Jude exhorts his readers:

Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. (Jude 3)

But that is only half of the story. The other half of the story – perhaps it is more than half of the story – is that the church is called to write the story of the future.

In His three years of earthly ministry, Jesus came telling a different story. He subverted both the stories of Jewish nationalism and Roman imperialism. Instead, He told the people that the Kingdom of God was at hand. A different power had come to interrupt the plans and dreams of the rulers of His day.

Doctor Luke, in the first chapter of Acts, explained that he had written about what Jesus began to do and to teach, the clear implication being that the apostles and the early church would continue to the mission.

And we continue the mission in our day.

I suppose the challenge is, what story are we telling? Are we content merely to recount the glories of the past? Or are we about writing the story of the future?

How can we do our best to ensure that we are faithful to the future as well as the past? Perhaps those Russian churches can teach us a thing or two.

Firstly, stay connected to people. Those glorious Russian churches might have served a good purpose in their day, but ultimately the people moved on.

Secondly, our glorious history is no guarantee of a glorious future. In a former life I worked in the financial world. The caveat in many a transaction was past performance is not necessarily a guide to future returns.

Finally, don’t go trying to recapture the past – however glorious. Bilibin found that some of those churches had been severely damaged by botched attempts at restoration. Trying to recover a glorious past never works. The past is, well, the past. The people of Israel held on to Moses’ bronze snake through which God brought them deliverance, but it became a snare to them (2 Kings 18.4).

There is no perfect model to go back to. No golden era on which to model the future. God does new things. He works on old principles of faith and sacrifice and the like. But he does new things. And He calls us to be faithful to the future that He wants us to join with Him in bringing into being.

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Unbuilt Futures

I don’t watch much television. Occasionally, however, a series comes along that grabs the attention. One of those was Dreaming the Impossible: Unbuilt Britain, a BBC production.

A series based on architectural history is not likely to set the pulse racing for most of us, architects, of course, excepted. This series was, however, a bit different. It explored building plans and projects that, on the whole, never got any further than the drawing board. They included a scheme to dig a canal through the centre of Scotland, a covered glass walkway in Victorian London, Sir Christopher Wren’s vision of a London as a model city, and the Bruce plan to bulldoze most of Glasgow after the second world war and replace it with severe modernist concrete tower blocks.

Whether the failure of these plans was a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of debate. What it does remind us is that we have an incredible capacity to imagine and envision a different future.

It led me to think about the unbuilt spiritual futures of individuals and even whole cities and nations. What dreams and visions never got further than the imagination of God’s people? How would the spiritual landscape be different if even some of those dreams had become realities?

How would the spiritual landscape of your life or your church or town or city be changed if what the Holy Spirit has put or is putting inside of you began to be turned into reality? Indeed what would our nation look like if we paid more attention to turning vision into reality?

Why is it that, given the importance of dreams and visions, in many cases they never get further than our own minds or a discussion with friends or a church leaders’ meeting?

At least three elements conspired to scupper some of the greatest dreams of the greatest visionaries of the architectural world, and they have their spiritual counterparts.

Firstly, cost. Some of the unbuilt futures never happened simply because there wasn’t enough money.

It costs to bring about a different future, either personally or collectively. Jesus made this point in Luke 14.28:

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?”

The cost might not be wholly financial. It might be the currency of time and energy that is demanded. Nevertheless, vision costs.

Secondly, sometimes the failure of a project was down to a lack of political will. The decision makers just couldn’t see the point, or they could see the point, but were unwilling to prioritise the project.

Making vision reality requires focus. Paul, the man who described himself as not disobedient to the heavenly vision also said:

13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, 14 I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3.13-14)

Finally, sometimes it was just circumstances. Just life. Joseph Paxton, who designed the Crystal Palace, had a plan for what was called the Great Victorian Way. It was a glass covered walk way that extended for over ten miles throughout London. It had the approval of the decision makers, but unfortunately a heat wave hit London that summer and Paxton’s scheme was shelved in favour of a plan to develop London’s sewers.

The realities of today can very easily shelve our visions of tomorrow.

Jesus said as much in the parable of the sower:

22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. (Matthew 14.22).

If we can count the cost, keep our focus and manage our worries, we have the potential to change the spiritual landscape.

Let’s hear it for the corporals

Much of history and much of military history tends to revolve around the top brass army officers and naval commanders alongside the premiers and presidents of the day. They are usually the decision makers and what they determine affects the life of every soldier in the field.

Modern warfare, however, is a lot more complicated. Modern weapons and modern communications mean that the shape of the arena of conflict can change very rapidly. There is also a different expectation placed on soldiers in today’s world. The ability of the press to send battle footage back to the civilian world almost immediately means that the conduct of a campaign comes under more public scrutiny. Consequently, within the space of a few square miles a squad of soldiers can find themselves attacking the enemy, conducting a peacekeeping operation and distributing humanitarian aid.

An American general, Charles Krulak, talked about this in terms of a three block war and highlighted the importance of what he called the strategic corporal.

The rank of corporal is the lowest rank of non-commissioned officer, yet, Krulak acknowledged, on the ground the corporal is often making life and death decisions. The corporal is a key person in the successful conduct of modern warfare, but usually an unsung hero.

The early church was full of unsung heroes. We read about the leaders who might be considered generals in God’s Kingdom. Peter, Paul, John, James, Stephen, James the Lord’s brother, and so on. There is no doubt that these people played a pivotal role in the development of the early church. But there were a lot of other lesser known characters.

In Romans 16 Paul lists and commends people who have served with honour who are not that well known: Phoebe; Priscilla and Aquila; Mary; Andronicus and Junia; Ampliatus; Urbanus; Apelles; Tryphena and Tryphosa; Persis. If you turn to 1 Corinthians 16 you’ll find Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus.

Why did Paul commend them? In most cases simply because they worked hard. In some cases they risked their lives or just “stood the test”. They will never have tv documentaries dedicated to assessing their contribution to Western civilization. No-one will ever write a PhD on their theological genius. However, even though they might seem like a footnote in the progress of the Kingdom of God, they are in truth its foot soldiers, corporals, even.

There are loads of people in churches all over the world who are like those on the rolls of honour in Romans 16 and 1 Corinthians 16. They work hard. Serve faithfully. Lead small groups. Organise ministry. Make war against the devil. Keep peace amongst the saints. And distribute liberally the spiritual aid of encouragement and exhortation. They don’t complain. They aren’t looking for profile. They work hard at trying to balance family, church and a busy working life. Often they give when it seems they have nothing left to give. They are the kind of people the church is built on. The strategic corporals of God’s kingdom.

So celebrate them. Encourage them. Honour them. Let’s hear it for the corporals.

The Rocky Road to Glory

A little book with the title Nine Things Successful People Do Differently, listed one of those things as being a realistic optimist. To back up the claim, the author cited research that indicated the role of an optimistic / pessimistic mindset amongst people who were dieting.

The research concluded that those who believed they were going to lose weight were more likely to lose weight than those who weren’t so optimistic. However, optimism in itself didn’t guarantee the best results. Amongst those who really believed they would succeed in sticking to their diet, there were some who were much more successful than others.

What the researchers found was that those who were most successful believed they could lose weight, but that it wasn’t going to be easy. They had tempered their expectations of success with the prospect of the temptation of that donut or those chocolate biscuits in the tea break or whatever their particular temptation might be. They were realistic optimists.

If any bunch of people in the world should be optimists, then it must be Christians. We have the hope of eternal life. We know we are loved by God. We know that we have been given all things in Christ. We know that the Holy Spirit is given to us to be our friend and guide. There really is very little room for pessimism. Even in our darkest hours we have a hope that the world does not have.

Having said all of that, we know that setbacks happen. Circumstances hit us that puzzle us. Things happen in life that seemingly challenge the goodness of God. We step out in faith and sometimes things seem to get worse instead of better. And of course in some parts of the world believers are persecuted for their faith.

In Acts 14 Paul and Barnabas revisited the churches they had established in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch. Verse 22 summarises their message as ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.’ The road to glory is a rocky road.

It is good to be filled with faith and hope. The early Christians were. Look at how Paul commends the believers at Colosse and Thessalonica (Colossians 1.4-5; 1 Thessalonians 1.2). Faith and hope, however, need to be tempered with the reality of life, the weakness of the flesh, the heat of temptation, the probability of opposition and the spiritual law that states that true faith is subject to testing. Jesus never did promise a trouble free life. It’s realistic optimistic believers who make a difference not just optimistic ones.

Believe the best. And don’t be deflated when a spiritual donut appears to try and undermine your resolve.

Rainmakers

Rainmaker is a term that has entered our vocabulary to describe someone who has outstanding ability to bring new business into a company or organisation. The word has come down from the Native American tradition of someone who would dance and sing songs in a drought in order to bring rain. You can imagine how important a person was considered who was thought to have these powers.

The idea of someone having a connection with deity that was strong enough to affect the weather is also found in the biblical tradition. Most famously, perhaps, Elijah is credited with both bringing about drought and then bringing about rain some three and a half years later through his prayers. James the Lord’s brother, referring to the events of 1 Kings 17-18 comments:

Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. (James 5.17-18)

Elijah was a rainmaker. His earnest prayers changed the atmosphere – literally.

Good for Elijah, you might say! James’ point, however, is not to celebrate the prayer life of one of Israel’s greatest prophets. His reference to Elijah is simply to illustrate the assertion that he made in verse 16: The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. His main point is that we should pray for one another for healing and that this happens because the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. Elijah was one such righteous person who prayed to great effect. And we are righteous persons through what Christ has done and therefore we should expect our prayers to have Elijah-like potential. We are potential rainmakers. In fact, we are actually called to be rainmakers.

James further strengthens the link between us and Elijah by saying that Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He was just like us! The King James Version brings this out in a more poetic and, I think, more powerful manner: Elijah was subject to like passions as we are. How true that was. Read 1 Kings 19 and you’ll find the great prophet not only in a physical wilderness but in a spiritual and emotional wilderness as well. Depressed. Tired. Fearful. Wanting to quit. Subject to like passions as we are.

If James is right, and lets’s face it, if we believe the Bible is God’s Word then he must be right, our humanity, specifically the weaknesses associated with our humanity, does not trump our calling or the possibility of effective prayer.

Elijah changed the physical and spiritual atmosphere with his praying:

Then he prayed that it would rain, and it did. The showers came and everything started growing again. James 5.18 MSG

Elijah was a rainmaker. We are too. Let’s start changing the atmosphere.