A time of crisis can become a time of encounter

Depending on your politics, the events of the last few days might lead you to believe that we are about to cross a divinely parted Red Sea in our national exodus from Egyptian (or European bondage). On the other hand, you might believe that an ill-informed electorate has, in its anger, propelled us to somewhere between the eighth and ninth circle (representing fraud and treachery, respectively) of Dante’s depiction of hell.

However you interpret the upheaval, it still remains upheaval. Change, almost always, is accompanied chaos. Even when the change is good and necessary, departure from the unfamiliar inevitably brings uncertainty. Whether the change is restructuring a multi-national business or deciding to become a vegetarian, it has an impact on you and the people around you.

The prophet Isaiah faced an unwanted change at one point in his ministry. King Uzziah, who had reigned for fifty-two years died. Overall, he was a pretty good king. And however his reign would ultimately be assessed, he represented stability in a turbulent world. But Isaiah six verse one records his death: “In the year that King Uzziah died…” I can never read those words without feeling that the prophet is giving us something more than a time frame for his encounter with God. The words somehow carry something of grief, something of the end of an era.

It’s out of this that Isaiah has a fresh encounter with God. What did that look like for him? What could it look like for us?

Firstly, he sees the Lord high and exalted, seated on His throne. He has an insight into the eternal reality of God’s universal government (Isaiah 6 vv.1-4). And he connects this to the current situation in his nation – “my eyes have seen the king” (v.5). The king might have died, but Isaiah had now seen the king!

Even a glimpse of God in his exalted glory brings a totally different perspective on the world around us.

Secondly, the encounter brought a moment of self-awareness (vv.5-6). Isaiah became conscious of his sin. Of his need for God. In short, he was humbled by the vision.

Self-awareness should follow any genuine encounter with God. How could you have an encounter with God and not become aware of your own weakness and frailty? How could it not give you a desire for God to do something new and fresh in your life?

As new covenant believers, however, the self-awareness takes us into a new appreciation of the person and work of Christ and who we are in Him.

Finally, Isaiah hears the call of God (vv.8-13). The encounter was only complete when Isaiah had heard and responded to God’s voice.

In a time of change, Isaiah was to represent God’s kingdom and proclaim His purpose. There was no room for the kind of nostalgia that made the past seem better than it was. Neither was there a place for the kind of over optimism which can so easily accompany the beginning of a new era.

Seeing who God is gives us perspective. Hearing and responding to what is on His heart gives us direction and purpose.

May God grant us a fresh encounter with Himself in these days of change and upheaval.

Entering the discomfort zone

The call to get out of the comfort zone has been trumpeted at many a Christian conference in recent years. Oddly enough the get out of the comfort zone call has been paralleled with the offer of prayer for freedom from anxiety.

I say odd because leaving the comfort zone results in increased anxiety! One business author writing in 1995 described the comfort zone as “a behavioural state where a person operates in an anxiety-neutral position”. Leaving the comfort zone means entering the discomfort zone.

That might sound like some sort of theoretical play on words. And I suppose without thinking what that looks like in the real world, it is just that – a play on words.

Jesus knew all about the discomfort zone. His whole earthly existence was lived in the discomfort zone. From his incarnation as the son of Mary to His cruel death on the cross, Jesus experience of life was lived in a spectrum of discomfort.

One aspect of discomfort that might not always be as evident as the circumstances surrounding His birth or His agonising death, is His relationship with the region where He spent His formative years.

Jesus grew up in Nazareth in Galilee. Some of His most notable miracles were performed in the towns and villages of Galilee. And yet there were good reasons for Jesus to have cut His ties with Galilee altogether.

Galilee, as a region, had a chequered history. Its spiritual and ethnic pedigree was always considered just a little dubious. It was border territory, interfacing with the gentile world. It certainly didn’t have the status of Jerusalem or Judea. Upwardly mobile would-be messiahs would not want to associate too closely with Galilee.

Then of course there was its history. 1 Kings 9 records that Solomon decided to pay off his debts to Hiram, King of Tyre by giving him a collection of towns in Galilee. Hiram clearly was not very pleased and expressed his displeasure in the name he gave to his new territory – Kabul – meaning “good for nothing”. One can imagine how that impacted on the collective psyche of the Galileans.

Jesus knew that Galilee would not be easy territory for Him. He acknowledged that prophets aren’t honoured in their own backyard (John 4.43-45). And there was the popular prejudice that “prophets don’t come from Galilee” (John 7.52)

And yet Jesus made Galilee the centre of His world. He chose His disciples there (see Luke 5). He performed His first miracle there (John 2). And when He commissioned His disciples to go and change the world, He chose Galilee as the location for the commissioning service.

Galilee, the discomfort zone, was the place where Jesus chose to reveal His glory. It was the scene of incredible healings and miracles. And it became the launch pad for the great commission. In short, a place that was rejected, overlooked, looked down upon. A place considered to have a hostile spiritual climate became a place of incredible fruitfulness and a place where God’s glory broke into the world.

What’s your Galilee? What areas of your life seem the least spiritually promising? Where do you think God is least likely to be at work? Perhaps it is time to reconsider. Perhaps those places have unknown potential for a move of God.

And all that is needed is a willingness to enter the discomfort zone.

4 schemes the enemy uses against churches

A recent news story reported that there had been a power failure throughout Kenya. Thousands of people were left without electricity when a power surge tripped a transformer and the subsequent power surge overloaded the system.

It was not terrorist sabotage. It was not human error. Nor was it a result of the nation switching on too many kettles at one time. It was all the work of a monkey. A monkey had fallen off a roof onto a transformer and sent the system into overload. The damage one monkey can do!!

In the spiritual realm, Satan is the master of the “monkey on the transformer” strategy. The apostle Paul calls these “monkeys” schemes:

Anyone you forgive, I also forgive. And what I have forgiven – if there was anything to forgive – I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, 11 in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes. 2 Corinthians 2.10-11

So what sort of schemes does Satan use?

One scheme Satan uses to attack the church is corporate unforgiveness.

The church in Corinth had to discipline one of its members for serious sin. In the passage quoted above it seems that Paul was concerned that some might be withholding forgiveness, even though the issue had been dealt with. Unforgiveness is a major tactic Satan uses to damage individuals and churches. It’s one monkey that can trip the power in any church or life.

A second monkey that threatens the flow of power in a church or life is that of compromised morality.

Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.’ 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did – and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 1 Corinthians 10.7-8

How sad it is when a Christian leader who has stood for family values becomes embroiled in an adulterous relationship.

No-one, however spiritually mature or spiritually gifted is immune to sexual temptation.

A third scheme that Satan uses is that of criticism, complaining and murmuring.

 And do not grumble, as some of them did – and were killed by the destroying angel  (1 Corinthians 10.10)

This verse refers back once again to Israel’s experience in the desert. As they faced the tests of desert life rather than trusting God, they defaulted to complaining and criticising.

Often we feel that we have a right to complain or criticise. Jesus clearly states that if you have an issue with someone you go and talk to them about it (Matthew 18). Sadly, many Christians completely ignore what Jesus teaches and backbite and gossip their way through life. What they don’t realise is how destructive their attitudes and actions are – for themselves as much as anyone else.

Paul took this issue so seriously that he addressed it in the same context as that of sexual immorality.

A fourth scheme Satan uses is one that is exceptionally subtle – and exceptionally deadly. It is that of conceited spirituality.

In most of his letters, Paul had to deal with spiritual pride. Sometimes it was legalistic and connected with the Jewish law- the kind of outlook that was so opposed to Jesus during His earthly ministry.

Sometimes it was pride that resulted from spiritual experiences.

You can see both strains in the Christian world today. A professed love for the Word of God can mask a desire to set ourselves above those who don’t have the knowledge we think we have. And spiritual experiences can lead people to feel superior to those who they think are not as enlightened as they are.

As one who has been in the Pentecostal / Charismatic world all his life, it saddens me that in our circles spiritual experiences – genuine ones! – have frequently been the basis of superior attitudes. How astonishing that what God has given to us to enable us to build people up is so easily used to put people down.

We would do well to reflect on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 8.1:

Knowledge puffs up while love builds up.

Unfortunately spiritual monkeys will be around until Jesus returns. But we can make sure they don’t trip the power in the church.

3 crucial elements in a culture of welcome – and why it’s really important

Research suggests that people make a judgment about us within four seconds of meeting us. Within thirty seconds they have analysed and finalised the judgment. So much for “these things take time”!

However accurate the above statement is, it does remind us of how important people’s first impressions are of us as Christians, especially in the context of our church gatherings. I wonder how many have made up their minds about the Christian faith because of the welcome they received when they attended a church service?

Paul was concerned not only about how we make that initial welcome, but how a culture of welcome and acceptance is developed within the life of a church.

In Romans 15.7 he says: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”

The NRSV translates: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

Paul was writing to the church at Rome. Clearly there were some tensions between the gentile and Jewish believers. Paul was calling the church to extend a level of welcome and acceptance that transcended the boundaries of culture and the contours of theological understanding.

What did this kind of welcome / acceptance look like? What could it look like for us?

Firstly, it was a modelled on Christ Himself.

True openness towards each other is based on the welcome that God extended to us in Christ.

That very thought is worthy of hours of reflection and meditation. The question “What would a church look like that zealously sought to implement a vision of welcome and acceptance based on Christ’s self-giving on the cross?” might yield answers that would help any church become irresistibly attractive to outsiders.

In the context of Romans 15, the application of this principle is simply that Christ did not please himself, and therefore we should please others and not ourselves. Simple, though not always easy (vv.1-3).

Secondly, the manner in which we do this is that of support for those who are weak.

In Romans 15.1, Paul says: We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.

No doubt you can apply this broadly. However, this might be a little tongue in cheek. Some of those in the church at Rome considered others to be weak because they saw things differently. Paul was saying that they had to “bear with” their “weaker” brothers and sisters.

Paul uses very strong language here. “Ought to” does not mean “it would be a good idea if”. The original word translated “ought to” was used of owing a debt. It is used this way in Matthew 18 in the parable of the unmerciful servant.

We have an obligation to welcome and accept those who are weak by bearing with their failings, whether real or perceived.

Finally, the motive of acceptance and welcome is not simply to tolerate people and therefore keep the peace. It’s more than that. It’s to build people up:

Each of us should please our neighbours for their good, to build them up (Romans 15.2).

If it was only the growth or health of the church that was at stake, that would be serious enough. But it’s much more than that. It’s God’s glory: Accept one another just as Christ accepted you in order to bring praise to God.

A true concern for God’s glory should produce a culture of welcome.

I’ll leave the last word to the Message :

So reach out and welcome one another to God’s glory. Jesus did it; now you do it! (Romans 15.7 MSG)