Rewriting your future

In 1978 Harry Haslam, then the manager of Sheffield United, went to Argentina on a scouting trip. On one occasion he saw a teenager in action whom he considered incredibly talented. His club were prepared to sell their precocious youngster for £200,000. Haslam was desperate to sign him. However, the deal fell through. Sheffield United were in the old English second division and could only find £160,000. No deal. So instead they used the money to purchase another talented player. And the other teenager? Well, by 1986, Diego Maradona was considered the greatest player in the world.

Just think what might have happened if Haslam had been able to find the extra forty thousand pounds. Think of how history could have been re-written: “Sheffield United, European Champions – again” or  “Sheffield United double winners”.

Isaac, in Genesis 26 wasn’t in quite the same position as Harry Haslam. He wasn’t chasing the most talented player of his generation or a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. He found himself having to re-dig his father’s wells just to ensure the survival of his family and his flocks and herds.

Eventually he seemed to find and dig wells without much trouble wherever he went. But it did not begin that way. He had a lot of grief in the early stages of his well digging career. One of the earliest “digs” ended in a very tense engagement with the resident Philistines. The very next one resulted in a dispute which drove him to search for water elsewhere.

The events made such an impact on Isaac that he named the wells dispute and opposition (Genesis 26.20-21).

People who are serious about seeing God at work in and through them usually have one or two “well stories” to tell. Some well stories, if you will excuse the unintentional pun, do not end well. To see lives changed, churches grow, the kingdom come with power, carries a price tag.

What is that price? Sometimes it is just the price that Isaac had to pay. Spiritual conflict is a given if you are after spiritual breakthrough and blessing. It’s just the way it is. It’s the way it was for Jesus. One moment He was basking in the sunshine of His Father’s love (Matthew 3.16) the next, He is being led into the desert to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4.1). Once you pull on the uniform of the kingdom of God, you are a target. If you are going to be a successful well digger, learn how to battle in the unseen realm.

And there are disputes. One of the biggest dangers of disputes is the potential for offence. People get offended for all sorts of things. And people give offence by being insensitive or just plain rude. The key to overcoming offence is to reduce our capacity for taking offence and raise our awareness level of what might give offence. Whether we can ever reach the place where we  are “offence proof” – either in taking or giving – is hard to say, but we can at least keep ourselves steeped in grace.

Isaac pressed through his contention and his quarrelling and eventually breakthrough came. The price that he paid in those early escapades became a downpayment that secured his future.

Not for one moment should we downplay the demands of spiritual conflict or the emotional price of working through offence, but there are rewards at the other side. Perhaps, like Isaac, it is just a case of survival. Then on the other hand, it might just be the possibility of re-writing your future.


The Battle For Your Mindset

Eldar Shafir, an American psychologist, has extensively researched the impact of scarcity on the way a person thinks. Whether that scarcity is the grinding material poverty that people experience in the developing world – and increasingly in the Western world as well – or the scarcity of time, which Westerners seem to struggle with, the effects are the same; lack leaves us vulnerable to making poor decisions. In one experiment Shafir and his colleagues measured the IQ of sugar cane farmers in India before they harvested their crops and then measured it again after harvest and found that their IQs were significantly higher after harvest!

Both Abraham (Genesis 12) and Isaac (Genesis 26) faced one of the most extreme experiences of scarcity: famine. Both faced the temptation to go to Egypt. Abraham succumbed. Isaac listened to God. They both discovered an inner fear surfacing in the time of difficulty, the fear that someone would kill them and take their respective wives because they were so beautiful. And they both succumbed.

Whether or not Abraham and Isaac provide ancient proof for Shafir’s twenty-first century psychological theory is  debatable. What it does remind us is that scarcity, whatever way it manifests itself, can reduce your capacity – or narrow your mental bandwidth, as Shafir might say – for making good decisions. Time scarcity. Money scarcity. Affirmation scarcity. Love scarcity. Encouragement scarcity. They can all play mindgames with you to the point that they actually take captive your mindset.

The record of Isaac’s brush with famine records that in the midst of the pressure he had a fresh revelation of God. A reassuring revelation of God. God spoke into Isaac’s heart the promises He had spoken to Abraham. Isaac was open enough to God to stay where he was. And he was bold enough in faith to do something that his father had never done – at least if he did, the Bible does not tell us about it: he planted crops.

When scarcity threatens to kidnap your mindset, there is nothing quite so powerful as a fresh encounter with God through His word. Promises that have blessed and sustained people for generations are promises to bless and sustain us. They weren’t just for Abraham and Isaac. Or the disciples. Or the last generation of faithful Christians. They are for us. Today.

Like Isaac, God has promises for us. Like Isaac, God wants to bless us where we are. And like Isaac, he wants us to take steps of faith. To do something new and bold.

Like Isaac He has given us keys to unlock His provision in the time of famine, and one of those keys is sowing and reaping.

If you feel like what’s going on around you is beginning to shape your outlook and expectation in an unhelpful way, it’s time to fight back. You might experience some setbacks, but with God’s help you can win the battle for your mindset.

Second Generation Faith

In 1901 German author, Thomas Mann, wrote a novel entitled Buddenbrooks. It tells the story of a family that grew very wealthy and then, over three generations, went into decline. So powerful was the story in describing generational decay that some economists talk about the Buddenbrooks effect when they are describing a family or institution that has gone into decline. History is littered with examples of families, businesses and even empires that have succumbed to the Buddenbrooks effect. Somewhere along the line, someone is tempted to cash in the family silver instead of stewarding it for the next generation.

Stewarding the spiritual family silver is just as big a challenge – if not bigger – as stewarding its counterpart in the natural realm.

Isaac was someone who faced that kind of challenge. He was a second generation of faith. He inherited a material fortune from his father Abraham; Abraham had been blessed in every way, the Bible explains (Genesis 24.1). He was a man of faith. A pioneer. He had seen the hand of God at work. And Isaac himself was the result of God fulfilling His promise in a most extraordinary way.

The time came, however, when Abraham died. Isaac was now left to carry on what his father had begun. How did he do that? How would he steward the spiritual family silver? How should we?

To steward faithfully and effectively the spiritual inheritance he had received, Isaac had to make his father’s faith real for himself. A number of incidents show how God gave him the opportunity to work an Abraham like faith into his life – and those opportunities were in the shape of challenges his father had faced.

Firstly, he had to discover God as the God of breakthrough. According to Genesis 25.21, Rebekah was barren, just like Sarah. If the family line was to continue and God’s promises fulfilled, Isaac needed a child. He prayed and Rebekah became pregnant. Isaac had breakthrough. You can inherit examples of breakthrough from another generation, but you cannot inherit the experience of breaking through in believing prayer. You have to learn that by experience. There is no short cut.

In Genesis 26.1-6, we find another area of challenge, again one that his father faced: the challenge to believe God in a time of famine. Abraham failed this test. He went to Egypt instead of believing God. Isaac stayed put. In a time of difficulty, he believed God. What you do in a time of difficulty, you will only know when you have a time of difficulty! Do we believe – like Isaac? Or backslide – like Abraham?

Genesis 26.7-11 reveals a third area of testing. Life’s circumstances sometimes reveal our own brokenness. Sometimes that brokenness is a carbon copy of our parents’ brokenness. That was true of Isaac. On two occasions Abraham had pretended that Sarah was his sister, because he was afraid that a foreign king would kill him and acquire Sarah as his wife (Genesis 12.10-20 & 20.1-8). It was quite a tribute to Sarah that Abraham should consider her so beautiful! In Genesis 26 Isaac does exactly the same thing out of fear.

We are all a highly complex combination of nature, nurture and grace. If Isaac had leaned more on grace than the weakness of his human nature, he would have avoided some trouble. In the end, God preserved him and Rebekah. If you want to be an effective steward of spiritual riches, you have to learn to lean on grace and take your weight of your own fallible nature. 

The Buddenbrooks effect is not an inviolable law. It’s not set in stone. And if we are prepared to take a steer from Isaac, we will find it is not an unalterable spiritual effect either. If we will make our spiritual forefathers’ and spiritual parents’ faith a reality in our own lives, the spiritual family silver will be preserved  for a future generation.

If our own weakness is what threatens our inheritance, then most assuredly it is God’s grace that protects it: My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness (2 Corinthians 12.9, The Message)

Explanation versus Expectation

I was asked recently to speak at a church on the subject “Power to heal”. I don’t know if they thought it would be particularly appropriate for a pentecostal  minister to speak about healing or whether my visit just happened to be scheduled on the Sunday that healing was the subject matter. In truth, if I had been asked to pick the subject for myself, I would have chosen something different. That’s not because I don’t believe God heals today. I do. I have seen Him do it. In my own ministry I have seen people restored to health in a way that is best explained by the release of God’s healing power. In my family background there have been significant healings in years gone by.

So why would I not choose to speak on it? Firstly, it hasn’t been the main emphasis of my ministry. Although I am convinced that inside every pentecostal minister there is a healing evangelist screaming to get out, the youthful dreams of being a healing evangelist have had to be reshaped in the reality of my own gifting and ministry.

Secondly, preaching on healing in another church context different to your own, could almost be explained in terms of a theological kamikaze act. However sincere or biblical you think you are, you are likely to end up upsetting people; the healing talk becomes the hurting talk!

So anyway, I followed orders and duly delivered the talk. It was – surprisingly – well received. One conversation afterwards defined what, in my opinion, is one of the obstacles to the acceptance and practice of healing ministry in the wider church, namely, the desire to provide explanations for why people are not healed.

Let’s be honest, anyone who has ever prayed for people who are ill, has not seen everyone of those people restored to health. Our natural reaction is often to ask “Why?”

My very brief study for my talk left me with a couple of things to think about with respect to this question.

Firstly, even when there might have been an explanation for a person’s illness in terms of their moral choices, Jesus healed the person before he addressed any moral issue. “Stop sinning” (John 5.14) was a post healing comment rather than a pre-healing condition. I can’t find Jesus anywhere demanding repentance of sin before he healed the sick. Does that mean that lifestyle or diet or moral choices have no bearing on health? Of course not. Too much research and too much pastoral experience – and too many cakes and pizzas! -prove that they do.

Secondly, it follows that we should therefore turn to the scriptures in order to build an expectation of healing rather than to find an explanation for sickness.

Explanations, after all, are on the whole our own opinions – albeit pentecostal opinions. The difficulty with opinions is that they can easily degenerate into judgments and leave the person who needs God’s touch feeling too condemned to come to Him for what they need. How ironic! You might think that this is overstating the case, but believe me, I have seen this pattern play out in pastoral ministry over twenty years in different churches and in the context of different issues. Explanation is no sbstitute for intercession. Or supplication. Or petition. Or edfication. Or exhortation. Or encouragement.

When you are in trouble, health wise or otherwise, you need to hear something like this: Be brave. Be strong. Don’t give up. Expect God to get here soon. Psalm 31.24 (The Message). It certainly beats an explanation.


The Great Uninvited

A number of years ago Tearfund conducted a survey on church attendance in the U.K.. It revealed amongst other things that some people who used to go to church or never went to church were open to attending church, “if given the right invitation”. Based on their findings, they estimated that around 5-6% of the adult population of the UK was open to the “right invitation” to attend church. That translates into about three million people.If the same is true of Scotland, it works out at about four hundred and fifty thousand people.

And if you live in the U.S., the stats are even more stunning: about 82% of the unchurched would consider attending church if they were invited!

Whatever way you look at it, that’s a lot of people. A lot of people just waiting for the “right invitation”. 

Of course statistics are just that – statistics – and the realities of the spiritual battle that rages for the hearts of those who don’t yet know Jesus is another thing. However, the possibility that so many people are “open” to coming to church is worth at least thinking about.

If there is any solid foundation underlying the results of this research it means that there are people you work with, people you are friends with, people in your family who are just waiting to be asked to go to church. 

You will notice that I used the term “right invitation” above. That is lifted from the study itself. And perhaps that is one of the keys to reaping what appears to be a ripe harvest on our doorstep.

What could a “right invitation” look like? 

No doubt there is the opportune moment in which to invite someone to church. If, for example, a person is preoccupied with some big life event, it might not be the right time to invite them along. And there is the right kind of event. To take an extreme example, a full on all night prayer meeting might not be the most appropriate meeting to invite your seeking friend to attend. Having said that, I have seen people come to a “chandelier swinging” prayer meeting and get converted as a result, despite the fears of some of those leading the prayer meeting! God will not be boxed in!

One way to think about the “right invitation” is to think of it in terms of where the person is at, what their concerns are.

In the gospels, Jesus reaches out to different people with different felt needs in different ways. I use the term “felt needs” because the real need is always the same – the need to have our sins forgiven and to find relationship with God.

In John 3, Jesus reaches out to Nicodemus. Nicodemus has questions, theological questions. Jesus dialogues with Him and leads him into truth. Some people are like Nicodemus. They have questions. No matter how much you want to try and convince them about how God heals the sick or answers prayer, they still have big questions that need to be tackled. A “right invitation” for them will entail at some time or other discussing those questions, whether one to one or in a group setting like Alpha.

On other occasions, Jesus did not enter into dialogue, He simply challenged people to follow Him. Jesus was bringing change, the implications of which most people did not see. His challenge therefore, was one to be part of what He was doing. One person Jesus challenged to follow Him was Matthew or Levi the tax collector (Mark 2.13-17). Some people need a call to change their direction in life. They are ready for it. They are ready for a challenge. They need purpose and direction.

Some people are simply craving acceptance and forgiveness. They know they have messed up in life. They don’ t need you to take them through Romans 3 to prove that they are sinners. They need the hope of forgiveness. Think the woman caught in adultery (John 8) or Zacchaeus (Luke 19).

All of these sorts of people live in your world and my world. The challenge for most of us is to take the time to get close enough to them to find out what’s going on in their hearts. Sometimes it’s obvious who those people are who are just waiting for an invite. Sometimes, it’s surprising who those people are.

I’ll end with a story. A few years ago a lady from my church asked if I would meet with her boss. She worked for a firm of solicitors. Her boss wanted to make me aware of a service her firm was providing to people who were unaware of or could not afford legal representation in a particular area of law. We had our meeting and a few days later, I spoke to the lady from my congregation. She said her boss had felt very welcome and enjoyed meeting with me. There was one thing however that disappointed her – I had not invited her to church. Why? I suppose I just did not think she would be interested.

Don’t make the same mistake as me. Assume everyone is interested! And let’s reduce the numbers of the great uninvited.