1 thing I learnt from an Indian apostle

A couple of years ago I visited India. It is amazing what God is doing there and throughout the developing world. Although I was there to speak / teach, I came home feeling that I had learnt more than I taught.

Just recently I had the “home leg” of the learning experience when one of the church leaders I had visited in India visited our church. Needless to say I wasn’t disappointed by the “learning experience” from my friend’s visit. I learnt more than one thing and was moved, not to say overwhelmed by much of what he had to say. One thing, however, stood out.

So what was the one thing? My friend told us that in his movement they instilled into the children that God had called them and ordained them to lead a fruitful life. This is based on Jesus’ declaration to His apostles in John 15 that He had chosen them and appointed them to bear lasting fruit (v.16). If you want to trace the idea further, read the mandate God gives Adam and Eve in Genesis 1. Or the promise He gives Abraham in Genesis 12.

He told stories that were both amazing and very moving to illustrate how even the children in the movement he leads were passionate for Christ and the gospel. This passion, it was evident, remained into adult life, to the point that many were and are prepared to sacrifice very good careers to become missionaries.

As I reflected on the kind of church culture I grew up in – one that extended far beyond my particular church – I noticed that our approach to and understanding of our purpose in life was very different. For us, the emphasis was on avoiding sin rather than producing fruit. In fact I think producing fruit was seen more as a command to be obeyed than a promise to be believed.

There are two problems with that approach.

Firstly, a fruitful Christian life becomes a pressure rather than a promise. And it almost always rests on our ability rather than His power at work through us. In the end it produces spiritual frustration more than spiritual fruit.

Secondly, an approach that focuses on “sin avoidance” tends to end up in spiritual sterility or even a kind of paranoia about being polluted by the world.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t emphasise the need to avoid sin. In fact, we might need to rediscover that emphasis. But on its own, it will not produce fruitful people. And if individual Christians aren’t fruitful, then churches will not flourish.

I should admit that I do go looking for the “secret sauce” or the “silver bullet” when it comes to any kind of success or effectiveness in the church, or elsewhere for that matter. Having said that, I am not for one moment claiming that this is the only or even the main factor in church growth in the developing world. And I do realise that there are enormous cultural differences between the Western world and the Indian sub-continent.

At the same time there are biblical principles that transcend culture. The conviction that God has called every Christian to flourish and bear lasting fruit, to my mind transcends culture. It’s a scriptural principle, not a tenet of a particular culture. And if that is the case, it should be the conviction of every believer- Indian or Western.

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3 things Jesus teaches us about mission – that we don’t always get!

37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Matthew 9.37-38

At the end of Matthew chapter 9 Jesus spoke to His disciples about the harvest.

His words are so well known that they sometimes lose their impact or impact us in a way that they are He didn’t intend.

The harvest is huge – it is not small

The first thing to note about what Jesus said is the way He describes the harvest. The harvest is plentiful. It’s huge!

If the harvest is plentiful, we have grounds for expecting to reap a huge harvest.

The problem with the harvest is not the harvest.  It is the lack of people who will work to bring in the harvest.

Heavenly conviction about our role in bringing in the harvest is crucial to bringing in the harvest.

We need to have a real concern for people. Jesus did.

But concern in itself will not enable us to reap the harvest. We need a heavenly conviction that we have been sent into the harvest field.

It might seem unusual that Jesus simply exhorts the disciples to pray that workers would be sent into the harvest field. Especially since Matthew 10.5 records that He sent them Himself!

When we pray about the harvest in the way Jesus instructed His disciples, we develop a conviction that we are central to bringing in the harvest. In short we become the answer to our own prayers.

The harvest field is His – it doesn’t belong to the devil

Finally, the harvest field belongs to God – not the devil.

Sometimes we talk about the harvest as though we are going into Satan’s territory. Without in any way diminishing the forces of darkness and their opposition to the gospel, it is worth acknowledging that the harvest belongs to God.

Understanding that the harvest belongs to God, gives us confidence in our witness.

When the gospel turns up in a strange place

I went to see Dr. Strange last week. For the sake of my eleven year old son, of course. I made some other sacrifices for Niall’s sake as well. I helped him to eat his popcorn.

The film was a strange one for me. I never really got the whole Marvel thing as a child. We were too busy re-fighting world war two. And of course, as good Pentecostals we didn’t “do” the cinema.

The Dr. Strange experience got even stranger. To begin with, I was concerned that the whole thing was a bit too occultic for comfort. And to be honest, if you wanted to make a case for it as a subtle promotion of occult / new age ideas you probably could.

Once I hung up that particular hang up, the whole thing became quite intriguing. I’ll not spoil it for you by telling the whole story. The basic plot however is that an incredibly successful young surgeon crashes his Ferrari and sustains such serious injuries that conventional medical practice is unable to fix him. He travels east, joins a kind of monastery, develops superhuman powers and then…I promised I wouldn’t spoil it for you.

What really did intrigue me was why this sort of film has such appeal. Obviously, escapism is a huge reason. A couple of hours away from the real world never did anyone any harm.  But let me give you three other– possible – reasons for the enduring appeal of the Marvel world and what that might be telling us about Western culture.

Firstly, there is always a hero.

We still look for heroes. A political landscape that is currently in such disarray, has intensified rather than diminished our quest for a hero or heroes. Whether they are local, national or global. I’ll stop short of saying that anyone in Dr. Strange is a Christ-figure, but the themes of sacrifice, servanthood and humility, are evident throughout the film.

In the gospel, Jesus embodies all of those themes in Himself and, if you like, is the human race’s true hero.

Secondly, there is an acknowledgement that materialism does not and cannot provide the ultimate answers to life. Dr. Strange had the kind of lifestyle and intelligence to go with it that would surpass the stuff of our most ambitious dreams. But when he was in real trouble his seemingly perfect world fell apart.

The strapline of Western culture for so long has been “You can do or be anything you want”. Dr.Strange indicates that a more fitting mantra would be something like “Life is wonderful as long as, well, life is wonderful”.

Western materialism is a powerful force indeed. Stronger than many an ideology. And no wonder, behind it lies the spiritual power of what Jesus called mammon.

Finally, there is the fight.

These kinds of films would never work if there was no big, world-threatening battle. And it’s that kind of battle into which Dr. Strange is inducted.

It’s a battle between good and evil, light and darkness. The battle can’t take place without that kind of moral certainty.

Despite the moral relativism of our culture, in our hearts, we still think in terms of right and wrong. And somehow we still believe that there is a battle between right and wrong, good and evil.

As Christians, we would do well to think of the good news of Jesus as a call to battle as well as a call to salvation. I think that kind of call is not only faithful to the Bible, but is also something that would resonate with those who do not know yet know Jesus.

I discovered after the event that the director of Dr.Strange grew up in a Christian home. Perhaps what he learnt as a child and young person has shaped his film making. I don’t know. One thing I do know is that if you wanted to use Dr. Strange as a bridge builder in a conversation about the gospel, you’ll have no shortage of material. The gospel turns up in all sorts of strange places.

For a far more informed Christian review of Dr.Strange, see this piece in Christian Today.

3 fears that turn up when God is at work

The dimmed lights. The chair. “I’ve started so I’ll finish”. I don’t need to add Magnus Magnusson or even John Humphrys to reveal that the subject in question is Mastermind. For a generation, or two or three, it was and perhaps is the greatest, most challenging of all quiz shows.

What you might not know about Mastermind is how it came to be.

It was the brainchild of Bill Wright. Wright had been a gunner on an RAF bomber in the second world war. His plane was shot down and he was taken prisoner. Part of his experience as a prisoner of war was interrogation. Interrogation in a darkened room. The interrogation began with three questions seeking his name, rank and number.

Not surprisingly the experience left its scars on the airman. Recurring nightmares of sitting in a darkened room being asked to provide his name rank and number continued into the post war years.

One day the story goes, Wright had an idea, an idea to turn his nightmare into a quiz show. The darkened room would remain. The intimidating interrogator would remain. But instead of being asked for name rank and number, the contestants would be asked for their name, occupation and specialist subject. The BBC liked the idea and Mastermind was born.

Not everyone is able to turn their fear into a successful quiz show. The Mastermind story is, however, a reminder that fear can be turned to our advantage. In fact, the gospels give the distinct impression that when fear is around it is frequently a sign that God wants to or is about to do something. The fear is evidence of His closeness not an indication of His absence (Matthew 10.28, 31, 14.27, 17.7, 28.10; Luke 5.10, 8.50, 12.32).

How do we apply that to our lives in practical terms?

Firstly, you can feel afraid because you feel unworthy.

When Simon Peter and his friends brought in a miraculous haul of fish because they obeyed Jesus’ command, Simon Peter’s reaction was perhaps not one we would expect:  “Go away Jesus – I’m too sinful to be associated with you”.

Jesus’ response? “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.”

Don’t let the fear of your own weakness keep you from the mission to which Jesus calls you.

Secondly, you can feel afraid when you face opposition.

When Jesus sent His disciples out on mission, He knew that they would face opposition.

How did He teach them to handle the fear of opposition? Fear God more than people (Matthew 10.28). And remember that your heavenly Father will look after you (Matthew 10.29-31).

Thirdly, you can feel afraid when your future seems uncertain.

The story of the disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee in stormy weather while Jesus slept is well known. Jesus stills the storm and then asks them why they were afraid. They were no doubt afraid because they thought they didn’t have a future! But when Jesus is in your boat you always have a future. He’s started His work in you. And He’ll finish it.

 

A tale of two kingdoms

By the end of this week we will have a new government. It might end up being a different party or parties in power. Or it might be more of the same. In fact, it might even be more of the same whoever is elected!

Whatever the outcome, the new government is unlikely to be as oppressive as the Roman government of Jesus’ day, or their local puppet, Herod.

Herod, according to Mark 6.14-29, had, albeit unwillingly, agreed to the execution of John the Baptist. It seems that John’s untimely and unjust death played on his mind. At least that seems to be the most plausible way of explaining his reaction to the miraculous exploits of Jesus and his disciples. He thought that somehow John the Baptist must have been raised from the dead.

However one understands Herod’s explanation of the outbreak of the miraculous, one thing is clear; at a time of political pressure and potential persecution, Jesus determined not only to continue to bring the Kingdom of God to the people, He multiplied His ministry. Mark 6.7-12 records how He launched His disciples into a ministry of preaching, healing and miracles.

The account in Mark 6 reminds us that whatever the political climate, God’s priority is always that of advancing His kingdom amongst the “ordinary” people. The rulers of the kingdoms of this world will make their policies and enact legislation. It is important in a democracy that we as the church play our part. What is even more important is that we do not forget that advancing the kingdom of God is always our main priority. We should neither be distracted nor intimidated by what unfolds in the kingdoms of this world.

What we might also learn from the tale of two kingdoms in Mark 6, is that Jesus decided to multiply His ministry at a time when the greatest prophet up until that time had been beheaded.

There is no doubt that Christians are being persecuted all over the world. It is also true that in our own country there is great concern about the increasingly strident anti-Christian rhetoric and application of the law in the public square.

It would be a mistake however to conclude that we have before us the limited choices of fight or flight. It is important to make our voice heard on issues that concern us. That in itself will not advance the kingdom. Nor, I believe, will it bring a return, at least in the short run, to a society based on Christian values. At the same time, retreating into our Christian shells and allowing, to use the well worn cliche, the four walls of the church building to contain our message, is not an option either.

Times of uncertainty are times not only to continue doing what we have always done. They are times to multiply ministry.

I believe that the days in which we live demand not only a church that stands faithfully for the gospel. They demand a whole army of believers who are prepared to proclaim Christ and release His healing and miraculous power into needy communities. If Jesus saw the need to multiply His ministry through releasing His disciples, how much more us?

Whatever is decided in the United Kingdom this week, the Kingdom of God will not be threatened. And whatever happens, the church should take it as a cue from God to stay focused on raising and releasing disciples into mission.

From Mess to Mission

Most good Christians have at some time in their life sang that famous Christmas song Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Of course, there is nothing specifically Christian about it, but it is famous. One recording sold twenty-five million copies. Up until the 1980’s it was the second best-selling record of all time.

The song was based on a story written by Robert L. May. The story is, as you might guess, about a misfit reindeer who saves Christmas with a glowing nose that turns out to be a better guide for Santa than any satnav.

In writing the story, May was drawing on his own childhood experiences of being teased because he was shy and small. Perhaps Rudolf was his revenge!

The nativity stories found in the New Testament, record the story of a man who really did fit in, but who was made to stand out. In some ways he is the unsung hero of Christmas. I am, of course, talking about Joseph.

According to some biblical scholars, Joseph was very likely a respected member of the community in Nazareth and was perhaps expert in the Torah, the law of God. It’s not hard to imagine then how he must have felt when he found that his wife to be was pregnant and explained her pregnancy as a “God thing”. It must have appeared to him that she was simply adding dishonesty to her infidelity. The whole thing was just a mess and divorce was, in Joseph’s eyes, the only option (you needed a divorce to end a betrothal in Jewish culture). Until, well, you know the story. An angel appears in a dream and gives Joseph a whole new take on his situation. What seemed like a huge mess, becomes a doorway to a great mission.

This Christmas you might be facing a set of painful circumstances that you had never chosen to bring about. And it is easy, like Joseph, to seek to bring closure in some way or other. However, what we think of as a mess can be the gateway to a mission.

How can we move from “mess” to “mission”?

Sometimes we have to push through our pain (Matthew 1.18-21). Joseph had to push through his pain. The pain of misunderstanding and apparent infidelity would give way to the social pain that he would feel because of questions raised about Jesus’ parentage. But in His pain, Joseph met with God.

Joseph also revised his perspective on God, Mary and himself (Matthew 1.24). As a man described as righteous, he was no doubt familiar with the word of God. Now he was about to learn the ways of God. The ways of God would take him to Bethlehem and then to Egypt for a couple of years and then back home. None of this was in his original plans! To see the shape of mission in the shapelessness of difficulty we need a fresh perspective. Consider this thought for a moment: what if you are where God means you to be?

And Joseph allowed God’s purpose to have priority over everything else in his life (Matthew 1.25). We are told that he did not consummate his marriage to Mary until after Jesus was born. He put a brake on his emotions and desires. Life didn’t revolve around him and his desires but around God and His desires.

This Christmas, like Joseph, God calls us into His mission – whether where we’re at is “messy” or not. 

Syncing with the heart of God

The term “sync” has entered our vocabulary in recent years as a short hand way of describing how we align or synchronise the information or data stored on one device with that stored on another – or something like that!

Recently, whilst thinking through why we reach out to our society in the way we do, I made a discovery. I had always known that what we did was meant to reveal God’s love to the people around us. What hadn’t hit me so powerfully before was that God wants to sync our hearts with His.

Our ministry to the world isn’t just some sort of detached way of showing God’s love. We do what we do because it is something deep within His heart. Mission is in the very nature of God. He is the God who has always been reaching out. Revelation 13.8 describes Jesus as the the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world. The cross was in God’s heart from eternity.

The disappearance of Madeleine McCann from her bedroom while on holiday with her parents in Portugal in 2006, is a story that made headlines all across the world. It’s not that she is the only child who has disappeared in this way – not the first and, sadly, probably not the last; children all over the world are abducted every day and others are sold into slavery.

Somehow, though, Madeleine’s story and the story of her parents pain has almost come to symbolise the heartbreaking agony of every parent who loses a child.

Reading the account of the days and months that followed Madeleine’s abduction, I couldn’t help but think how deep the pain is in God’s heart for His lost children.

Sometimes, because we are so familiar with the biblical accounts of the fall of humanity, the calling of Abraham and the establishment of Israel as a nation, not to mention the stories of Jesus, the impact is lost on us. What God in any other religious tradition goes seeking his lost children in the way that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ does?

Skin coverings for Adam and Eve, blessings for Abraham, a land and laws for Israel, the Word becoming flesh in Jesus, all signal God’s attempts to come close to us and bring us close to Him.

Sometimes we need to go back to those biblical stories with fresh eyes and allow them to touch our hearts again. The whole story of the Bible is one of God reaching out to a lost humanity to mend what has been broken and stolen. And God wants us to reflect His heart. He wants us to sync our hearts with His.