We’re not part of a collapsing Kingdom

A generation ago – or was it two? – Arnold J. Toynbee wrote: “Of the twenty-two civilizations that have appeared in history, nineteen of them collapsed when they reached the moral state the United States is in now.”

What Toynbee would have to say about the United States or Western Europe today, one can hardly imagine. Not, of course, that Toynbee’s opinions were infallible. However, his knowledge of history and insights into why civilizations collapse gives his assessment a bit more authority than that of many commentators.

Writing nineteen centuries before Toynbee, Paul warned the Christians at Rome about the risks of conforming to the patterns of decay in the culture of his day.

In Romans 13.11-14 he outlines some of those patterns of behaviour which are so destructive.

Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarrelling and jealousy.

Those who oppose the gospel are often quick to accuse the church of being obsessive about sex and alcohol – obsessively against, that is! They often advise the church to catch up with the times and become more “relevant” or even “more relevant to the culture”.

There are a couple of ironies in this criticism:

The first irony is that if the church talked more about sex and alcohol it might make itself more relevant to the issues of our culture and not less relevant.

Statistics released in Scotland over the last few years revealed the following:

  • There were 35059 alcohol-related hospital stays in Scotland in 2014-15.
  • There were 94630  alcohol-related primary care consultations by 48,420 patients in 2012/13.
  • Alcohol is associated with 33% of major trauma patients and 25% of all trauma patients.
  • In 6 out of 10 cases (59%) of violent crime, the victim said the offender was under the influence of alcohol.
  • In the past 10 years, half of those accused of murder were under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs at the time of the murder.
  • Two thirds of young offenders were drunk at the time of their offence.
  • Alcohol harm costs Scotland £3.6 billion a year in health, social care, crime, productive capacity and wider costs.
  • Alcohol costs Scottish employers £308 million a year.

The stats on sexually transmitted infections and sexually transmitted diseases are similarly depressing:

  • Between 2003 and 2014 sexually transmitted diseases rose by 43% all age groups.
  • Between 2003 and 2012 cases of gonorrhea and herpes rose by 133% and 116% respectively.

The second irony is that the church, namely the members of the church, often seem to think that they are immune to the pressures and temptations of the culture. As someone who has been in Christian leadership for over twenty years, I have noticed a far more relaxed attitude – perhaps complacent attitude – towards both of these issues develop within the church in general. I hope that it is merely coincidental with my time as a leader and not a consequence!

So how should we respond?

Firstly, we should recognise that this is a real live issue for us today, as much as it was for the church in Paul’s day.

If Paul felt the need to warn the church at Rome, a church he described elsewhere as full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another (Romans 15.14), then we too should take heed to his warning.

Secondly, reflect on the issues at stake in terms of light and darkness rather than just right and wrong.

Looking at the issues in terms of right and wrong can easily end up with a simple analysis that lacks any sense of empowerment. Many know what is right and wrong – and ignore it! And many want to do what is right, but find themselves tripped up over and over again by their weakness.

Paul talks about these issues in terms of light and darkness. He exhorts us to put on the armour of light (Romans 13.12). He exhorts us to put on Christ (Romans 13.14), in other words to rely on His power.

We need power to resist the influences of a decaying culture. And divine power is available.

Finally, don’t make the mistake of relegating alcohol and sex related temptation to a special category of temptation. In the same list Paul talks about quarrelling and jealousy! Sins operates in all sorts of ways. Quarrelling and jealousy can be just as destructive but far more subtle.

If Toynbee was right, our culture is in a state of collapse. If we will put on the armour of light and put on Christ, we will not collapse along with it. We’re not part of a collapsing Kingdom.

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Peopleology

For three years of my life I attended Bible College. It was a good one. I learned a lot. Like most Bible colleges, most of the curriculum was a mixture of biblical studies and theological studies plus some very good teaching from experienced pastors about pastoring and leadership.

Theology is very important. It helps us to understand God’s revelation of Himself and of His purposes. We need to grow in our theological understanding so that our ideas about God accurately reflect the reality of who He is.

And if you think you don’t have a theology, you do! Once you believe anything about God you have begun to ‘do’ theology.

Sometimes however our appreciation of theology isn’t balanced by our need to understand people.

We sometimes seem content to “do” God, whether in formal study or in the pursuit of spiritual experiences, without giving much thought about how God wants us to “do” people.

This is surprising since huge chunks of the New Testament are taken up with what we might call “peopleology”.

Romans 12.14-21 is a case in point. It’s all about people. Bringing the best out of people. Winning with people. I know that all sounds like personal development speak. Truth be told, we have often left “peopleology” to self-help gurus while we’ve got on with our quest for deeper knowledge or more impressive spiritual experiences.

So what does good “peopleology” look like?

Firstly, mercy (14,17, 19-20)

Secondly, empathy (15)

Thirdly, harmony (16,18)

Fourthly, humility (16,17)

Even the ‘heaping burning coals on your enemies head’ is about repaying cursing with blessing to such an extent that your enemy has a change of heart. In other words it’s about attempting to win your enemy not trying to engineer divine wrath!

The four attributes outlined above are only a start. Read the gospels and the other New Testament epistles and you’ll find loads of “peopleology”.

“Peopleology” might not be an official discipline – though if you google it you’ll find the term is being used in the business world.

But it is an absolutely crucial discipline if we are going to build healthy, life giving communities of Christian believers.

The Monday after the day of Pentecost

No matter how good Sunday is, the next day is always Monday!

It was no different for the early church. And it was no different on the first Pentecost Sunday. Monday was the next day. The Spirit might have been poured out. Three thousand people might have been saved and baptised. But eventually the day of Pentecost came to an end.

So what was the church to do? Was Pentecost now just a memory in the spiritual scrapbook of the early church? Would it become little more than something to reminisce about when the disciples grew older – “do you remember the time when the Holy Spirit came and we all spoke in tongues and three thousand people got saved?”?

Did they try to maintain the experience that they had? Can you maintain the Pentecostal experience? In short, is it possible to keep the fire? And if so, how?

I think it is. And I think Acts 2 tells us how.

Most preaching about the day of Pentecost ends at verse forty-one of Acts 2. This verse records that three thousand people were baptised and added to the church. Seldom do preachers venture into verse forty-two on Pentecost Sunday. (I am as guilty as anyone of this, so please do not hear this as a criticism of fellow preachers).

Often Acts 2.42 is presented as what the church starts doing when the Spirit stops moving.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. What happens 2.42-47 is what happened because of the Spirit moving!

So what did they do?

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Firstly, they developed a pattern of life around the Word of God, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer.

If the church wants to keep the fire it must develop a pattern of life centred around those four components. Those four things will ensure that the church is hearing what God is saying, growing in community, Jesus-focused and bringing the rule of God into every -day life through prayer.

Secondly, they devoted themselves to these things.

Devoted themselves translates a word that is used in other places of a servant waiting on his master. It’s how Luke describes the faithfulness of Cornelius servants in Acts 10.7.

In other words, this is the language of strong commitment. We might say that they made the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer their priority.

The result? Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles (v.43).

The early church kept the fire. We can too.

And they kept the fire because they developed a pattern of life and devoted themselves to it.

If we will embrace their pattern of life and devote ourselves to it, we too will keep the fire.

Perhaps the Monday after Pentecost isn’t looking so bad after all.

Checklist for Change

Could a list ever be a work of art? If you think I am about to advance the theory that a list could be a work of art, you might think Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin are about to make special guest appearances on this blog.

Even if the aforesaid had produced lists for exhibition, some of our readers would dispute their value as art. However, a shopping list written and illustrated by Michelangelo, is a slightly different proposition. I am sure that if you were the owner of a list put together by the great artist, you would be unhappy to part with your artefact for anything less than a high art price!

Even if a list cannot be rightly described as art, it has to be said that sometimes revelation comes in what looks suspiciously like a list. And, if used wisely, can function as a kind of checklist for how our growth in Christ is progressing.

One such list appears in Romans 12:

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality.

It’s God’s word alright. But it’s not the sort of passage that will be read at a wedding or a funeral. It’s not up there with a Romans 8 or a 1 Corinthians 13 or Psalm 23. But if we are brave enough to bring ourselves under its spotlight, it can help reveal the state of our souls.

So how about working through the list?

Here goes.

1. Righteousness

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.

Are you living righteously? Where are you compromising with sin? In the last six months has your love for what is good grown or diminished? Do you have a holy hatred of sin? What do you need to stop doing or start doing to progress in righteous living?

2. Love

Be devoted to one another in love.

How’s the level of your devotion to other believers? Are you in fellowship? Has your commitment to fellowship increased, decreased or remained level over the past six months? How could you raise your fellowship level?

3. Respect

Honour one another above yourselves.

How do you treat others? Are you treating others with respect? In the last six months what has changed in the way you treat other people? Have people become a nuisance to you? List some of the good characteristics in the people you know and use them as a basis for increasing your respect level.

4. Zeal

Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord.

On a scale of 1-10 how would you rate your current level of zeal for Christ? What does your zeal look like in terms of serving Christ? How about asking God for some fresh zeal?

5. Consistency

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.

What’s your joy level like? Your hope level? How well are you handling difficulty? How’s your prayer life? Find someone you trust to pray through your findings on this topic.

6. Generosity

Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality.

When is the last time you shared with someone in need? When is the last time you opened your life to someone? What’s stopping you reaching out to others in hospitality? Who could invite / arrange to meet for coffee?

You might find some of these questions uncomfortable. However, if you are prepared to be honest with yourself and with God, your answers could open up some new doors and help you to move on in your journey of faith.

Michelangelo’s shopping list was hardly his greatest work of art, but it did keep him from going hungry as he pursued his greater calling.

This is not the most artistically satisfying blog post I have ever written, but hopefully it will yield some spiritual food for you as pursue your calling.