Monday, 24 April 2017

Thy Kingdom Come 2017

Boldness in prayer

Reading Luke 11:1-11, especially the following verses:

5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.  (Luke 11:5-10  NRSV)

One of the problems we face in prayer - meaning here the prayer of request, or petitionary prayer - is that we become so worried about offending God, or asking for a wrong or selfish motive, or a whole number of other 'wrong' meanings and attitudes, that we either become inoffensively vague or stop praying altogether. Yet what we see here in Jesus' teaching in Luke 11 is God giving us permission to let rip in prayer and hammer away at Him with our requests for an answer. We can be - Jesus is saying - as brazen and bold in our praying as we like. This is underlined by the word translated above as "persistence" (verse 8). Here is what the NET Bible notes say about the word:

In verse 8 the term ἀναίδεια (anaideia) is hard to translate. It refers to a combination of ideas, a boldness that persists over time, or "audacity," which comes close. It most likely describes the one making the request, since the unit's teaching is an exhortation about persistence in prayer. Some translate the term "shamelessness" which is the term's normal meaning and apply it to the neighbour as an illustration of God responding for the sake of his honour. But the original question was posed in terms of the first man who makes the request, not of the neighbour, so the teaching underscores the action of the one making the request. 

The basis of our shamelessness arises from our relationship with God as our Heavenly Father. As His children, He tells us that we can come to Him at any time, just as we are, in whatever mood or frame of mind we are in, and 'let Him have it' in prayer. That is the thrust of the teaching here. Confidence in God's love for us, which is boundless. This is also true of Luke 18:1ff and the story of the persistent widow. For years I have understood the parable as being about the need to be persistent in prayer, underscored by verse 1 which tells us that the reason that Jesus told the story to His disciples "to show them that they always pray and not give up". But at the conclusion of the parable Jesus says:
"However when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth." (verse 8). In other words, will their trust in God and their love for God - which led them to be confidently persistent in the first place - still be in evidence (a question that is finding itself very relevant today in Britain).

In only making the parables in Luke 11 and 18 only about persistence, we run the risk of making persistence a method or formula by which we can have a successful outcome to our praying. That is to say that if I just ask God so many times He will reward my persistence, rather than my faith in Him to answer. Can you see the difference? Every time we forget who we are praying to, and what our relationship is with that Person, we turn Christianity into a religion and prayer a religious practice rather than a conversation between Parent and child.

So in our prayers. God does not reward persistence so much as our willingness to take our relationship with Him to the very limits, only to discover that, like His love for us, there are no limits.

So Jesus teaches us to ask and keep on asking (verse 9), don't stop. To seek and keep on seeking and to knock and to keep on knocking (all three verbs are present continuous meaning they are now and ongoing. And we can do that because, as He taught us earlier about prayer, God is our Father.

In fact how much we REALLY believe that He is our Father, is tested by our willingness - or not - to pray and keep on praying. If God is scary, frightening, distant, capricious, unreliable etc then of course our prayers will peter out into nothing because we are afraid of offending Him or going to far, to worse still, overstepping the mark, the boundary of what is allowed or not. If God is anything other than our Father then our prayers will not be bold, and confident - and therefore persistent - but tentative, fearful and unsure. That is not the relationship that the Bible - or God - has in mind for us. See Abraham asking God to save some of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33), or this wonderful passage from the desert fathers which captures this audacious relationship perfectly. It concerns the great Abba Sisoes, who inherited the place where St. Anthony the first hermit had lived:

"Abraham, the disciple of abba Sisoes, was once tempted by a devil. The old man (Sisoes) knew that he had fallen, so he stood up and stretched out his hands towards heaven and said, "God, whether You like it or not, I shall not leave You alone unless you heal him." And he was healed immediately."

Simon Tugwell comments: "If this seems irreverent, it is no more so than our Lord's own parable about the widow and the unjust judge, which he told us to encourage us to persist in prayer (Luke 18:1-8). (See page 16 Did you receive the Spirit?)

So next time you go in prayer to God about something that really troubles you, remember who you are and who He is ("our Father in heaven"), and don't hold back in your praying. Your persistence in prayer will never outlast God's persistence and patience in listening to you. Unlike the friend in bed with his family, or the exacerbated and unjust judge of Luke 18, no request or manner of expression will ever stop God from listening and answering.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

How do you grow a church?

How can you take a dying church and make it grow again? That is a $64,000 question hundreds of struggling ministers would love to know the answer to. But the honest response is that I haven't a clue, even though every Church I have served in have looked to me for the answer. But I don't know. Trust me I have read ALL the books.

Gordon Strachan, current manager of the Scotland Football Team was once asked how, after a series of losses, when all talk was of him losing his job, his team had suddenly started winning again. With a customary twinkle in his eye, Strachan thought for a moment and then said suddenly, "I know what it is, we changed the coach driver!"

In other words, he had no idea why one minute the same team had gone on a run of losing matches only, suddenly, to start winning again. The same could be said of turning a dying church into a living one. There is no easy answer, no matter how often you may try changing the driver!

When I go along to churches which are busy and full, with lots of activities for every age group, it is tempting to think that the answer lies in such things as good organization, a new building, lots of young people and families or a contemporary music band with a gifted speaker. But then that means it all comes down to human effort and you grow a church by having the right things or hiring the right people. What about God? Doesn't He get a look in?

Jesus tells his disciples that there is only one way to build a church, and that is to let him do it (Matthew 16:18). That does not mean that we are not involved, but that ultimately He is the one who will do it and should, therefore, get the greatest glory. And after all, He has made the biggest investment.

To use an analogy, when I was a bricklayer, none of us workmen could start building until the materials had arrived and the Head Foreman had come along and shown us the plans and told us what to do. We then could get on and build houses. But once it was all finished the work of the individual workers were never mentioned. Instead, it was the firm that got all the credit. It was never Mark Williams or Joe Bloggs who built the houses, it was Wimpy or Hales or whoever the firm was.

It is the same with the church. God will build His church, and it is God, therefore, who should get the glory at the end.

How great is our God

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Take me to the alley

I am a huge fan of singer/songwriter Gregory Porter whose mother was a minister and who died when he was 21. You can see her influence in the lyrics of the following song. I am not sure if Porter has a faith but these words are spot on:

Well, they build their houses
in preparation for the King

And they line the sidewalks
With every sort of shiny thing
They will be surprised
When they hear him say

Take me to the alley
Take me to the afflicted ones
Take me to the lonely ones
That somehow lost their way

Let them hear me say
I am your friend
Come to my table
Rest here in my garden
You will have a pardon

Take me to the alley
Take me to the afflicted ones
Take me to the lonely ones
That somehow lost their way

Let them hear me say
I am your friend
Come to my table
Rest here in my garden
You will have a pardon

They will be surprised
When they hear him say

Take me to the alley
Take me to the afflicted ones
Take me to the lonely ones
That somehow lost their way

Let them hear me say
I am your friend
Come to my table
Rest here in my garden
You will have a pardon.

Bringing the gospel message to life

The message of the cross and the resurrection are not enough to win people to Christ! That statement is enough to catch the attention of any serious-minded Christian and can, at first glance, seem to deny the very fundamental heart of the Christian Faith, but before you write me off as a liberal and a heretic let me - or rather let William Law - explain. This is from the book I am reading called "The Power of the Spirit" published by none other than CLC. He writes:

"The truth and perfection of the gospel could not be realized until it became solely a ministration of the Holy Spirit. Though instructed in heavenly truths from Christ Himself and enabled to work miracles in His Name, nevertheless the apostles were not yet qualified to know and teach the mysteries of His Kingdom. There was a still higher dispensation to come which they could never have part in from an outward instruction, even from the lips of Christ Himself. Only when he, being glorified, should come again in the fullness and power of the Spirit, breaking open the death and darkness of their hearts with light and life from heaven, could they experience in themselves all that He had promised to them while He was with them in the flesh. "I tell you the truth, it is expedient for you that I go away," said Christ, thus teaching the need of a higher and more blessed state than they could know through His bodily presence with them. For He adds, "If I go not away, the Comforter will not come" (John 16:7. Therefore the real comfort and blessing of Christ to His followers could not be had except through something more than His physical presence and verbal instruction, wonderful as these must have been to those privileged few."

Many churches today are struggling despite knowing Jesus and His message having personally benefited from it themselves. They have a heart for the gospel and long to share it with others but something is missing. Could it be the Holy Spirit? I am not one for looking for quick fixes or miracle cures, and I am dubious about the benefits of another revival when the last one fizzled out like a damp squib and seemed to leave us worse off than before. However, I would say and am becoming more and more convinced, that we need a fresh outpouring of the Spirit, a New Pentecost so we can see the truth about Jesus live once again.

This is no quick fix though and it is salutary to remember that Jesus told the disciples that they would have to wait for the Spirit's coming. Waiting requires patience and we live in an impatient age. The church has caught something of this and looks to other solutions to get things going. So we have building projects and publicity stunts, whilst bemoaning the fact that nothing seems to work anymore. We must pray and wait, and wait and pray. I am convinced that nothing else will work.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Help and the helper

Years ago I remember being introduced to the person of the Holy Spirit through the writings of Catherine Marshall. In particular, I remember her book The Helper, which was written following her own discovery of the importance of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian. We need the help of the Holy Spirit in all kinds of ways, not least in reading and understanding the Bible. Here is what William Law an Anglican Christian of the later 17th, early 18th century:

"Read whatever chapter of Scripture you will, you will be ever so delighted with it - yet it will leave you as poor, as empty and unchanged as it found you unless it has turned you wholly and solely to the Spirit of God, and brought you into full union with and dependence upon him."
(The Power of the Spirit).

Over and over I have discovered the truth of this observation as I have met people for whom the Bible meant nothing, while for others it was the richest book in the world. And the difference between the two? The Spirit of God. Once the Holy Spirit indwells within you then the Book of books comes alive when once it was dead.

Slow work

Growing a church is a slow business, painfully slow, and requires great patience, perseverance, and prayer. I was much encouraged recently by the following quote from Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire by Jim Cymbala. He writes:

"There will come a day, Paul says when all our "work will be shown for what it is because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work" (1 Corinthians 3:13). The gold, silver and precious stones will endure while the wood, hay, and straw will go up in smoke.

Paul doesn't say that the quantity will be tested. He says nothing about attendance totals. Everything will focus on quality.

Warren Wiersbe made an interesting observation about this passage to the Brooklyn Tabernacle staff.
"What's the difference between these two materials, besides the obvious - that one is fireproof while the other isn't?

"I think it's significant that wood, hay, and straw are abundant...right outside your door, or only a few miles away at most. Any forest, any farmer's field has an abundance of these.

But if you want gold, silver, and costly stones, you have to dig for them. You have to pursue with great effort. They're not just lying around everywhere. You have to go deep into the earth."

To me, says Cymbala, these words are profound. Spiritual "construction" that uses wood, hay, and straw comes easy - little work, little seeking, no travail, no birthing. You just slap it up and it will look adequate - for a while. But if you want to build something that will endure on Judgement Day, the work is much more costly.
Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire pages 135-136

More on the Kingdom of God

Brian Zahnd is the founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a nondenominational congregation in St. Joseph, Missouri. Writing about the Kingdom of God he says:

"....The revolutionary insight that’s been central to my theological journey is a deeper understanding of what the kingdom of God actually is.

I remember telling my church eight years ago that seeing the kingdom of God has given me “new eyes.” Reading the Bible with “kingdom eyes” made Scripture brand new to me. I came to realize that the kingdom of God was virtually the sole topic of Jesus’ teaching ministry. The gospel of the kingdom is what the apostles were announcing in the Book of Acts. And even though Paul doesn’t use the term “kingdom of God” often in his epistles, I came to understand that what Jesus tends to call the kingdom of God, Paul tends to call salvation, but they’re talking about the same thing!

Back in 2006, I worked on a single question for several months: What is salvation? I finally concluded the best answer is this: Salvation is the kingdom of God. Our personal experience with the kingdom of God (including forgiveness) is our personal experience of salvation, but the kingdom of God is much bigger than our personal experience of it.

The problem we have today is that the term “kingdom of God” is archaic and obscured under layers of religious veneer. “Kingdoms” went out with the Middle Ages, and we tend to think of the “kingdom of God/heaven” as privatized Christianity experienced in our personal spiritual lives.

But Jesus was announcing that the government of God was at long last being established in the world through what He was doing. The apostolic gospel was a proclamation that Jesus is now the world’s true King; in light of this, we need to rethink our lives and begin to live under the administration of Christ. "

The above is part of an online interview with Brian. To read the rest go here.

Monday, 10 April 2017

What are you filled with?

This week - Holy Week - I am reading through the last chapters of Luke which tell the story of Jesus' Passion. Today is Luke 22:1-23 and my thoughts settled on verse 3 today where Luke tells us:

"Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve." 

It is not wrong to feel pity for Judas. As the saying goes "there for the grace of God go I" and so who knows what we would have done caught up in the same circumstances? However Satan does not enter or gain access to our thought processes and manipulate our wills unless he is given an opportunity, which is why the advice of the Bible is always to watch and pray, using the prayer Jesus gave us in the Lord's prayer which, as you remember, says "lead us not into temptation but deliver from evil" (the actual wording is more correctly translated "from the evil one"). Judas, despite his very close proximity to Jesus, let his defenses drop and Satan "entered" and gained access to him and the rest, as they say, is history.

But here is the question. Laying aside the more extreme understandings of our text to one side (did Satan possess him etc), what are we allowing to fill us? What are we filled with? That which is good or that which is evil? That which will lead us upon ever darkening paths, or that which will lead us towards the light?

In the letter to the Ephesians Paul admonishes his readers not to become drunk with wine but be filled with the Spirit (see Ephesians 5:18). The context is Paul warning the Ephesians to be on their guard against "the fruitless deeds of darkness" (5:11) and to "wake up" (5:14) and take every care about that they live their lives "not as unwise but as wise" (5:15) "making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil" (5:16). He tells them to avoid being filled with wine, "which leads to debauchery" (5:18) but instead to be filled with something (or someone) which will lead them in the right direction. The presence of God Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit.

The point here, in both texts, is that we can be 'filled' with that which is good and beneficial or we can be filled with something that is the opposite. What are you and I filled with? Who is it at the centre of our life and existence? If it is the Lord, who is the Spirit, then we will move and walk in the light. Anything else and we run the risk of being like Judas. We will betray the Lord and be filled with a darkness that eventually leads to death and destruction. Judas gave in the devil and this led to the crucifixion of Jesus.

I admit everything is not as black and white as I have painted it. People cannot be divided into good and bad as easily as that and most, if not all, are a mixture of both. But the point I am making is that we nevertheless have to be careful about what we dedicate ourselves to, and what path we follow in light. There are, ultimately, says Jesus, only two paths. One is narrow and challenging but leads to life. The other is broad and easy and leads to ultimate destruction. Our choices are important. What 'fills' us is important.

We don't have to look far to see contemporary examples of this today with the atrocities of Isis across the globe and the recent suicide bomb attack in Egypt in a Coptic Church. How many today have opened their hearts to darkness and bring destruction on others?

Today is the funeral of the policeman PC Keith Palmer who was killed in such a violent and senseless way by Khalid Masood. Masood, like Judas, appears to have given up his life to the darkness and let it rule him. The result was devastation and the loss of innocent lives. So be on your guard. What fills you will control you. Be filled with the Spirit, the same Spirit Paul tells the Galatians, which will produce nothing but good fruit in those who yield their lives up to God (Galatians 5:22-23). Such people will see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control grow in their lives.

What - or who - are you filled with? Be filled with the Spirit.

Friday, 7 April 2017

The dangers of religion

Bill Johnson in his book "Face to face with God" has an interesting definition of religion. He defines it as "form without power". This ties in with St. Paul's words to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:1-5

"But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people." 

Looking at forms of liturgy, liturgical dress, processions, incense, icons etc, this is not a criticism of them per se (you could equally talk about worship bands, waving hands or churches that avoid using names that have any 'religious' connotations to them), but a criticism of the kind of religiosity that says that these ALONE are what the Christian faith are about.

Jesus makes this point over and over again, as does the rest of the New Testament. Take, for an example, the story of the Good Samaritan, which was in the news recently as it was read by a member of the Royal Family in Westminster Abbey at a memorial service for the victims of the recent attack on Westminster Bridge. In the story, Jesus paints a painful contrast between religiously correct Jews - the priest and Levite - and the religiously, theologically incorrect and heretical Samaritan who stopped to help the injured man when everyone else passed by.

Of course, the inference of this is not that all outward forms of faith expression are bad, but if they become a substitution for the 'real thing' without any real spiritual life within and alongside them, then this is where Bill Johnson's definition (and St. Paul's) hits home. And we can all point to stretches of time when the church has fallen into to woeful habit of getting its services right, arguing over fine points of practice and correct use of words and liturgical niceties, while at the same time failing to pray with purpose, reach out in mission and live out in loving service to others. And this becomes particularly pronounced as the church fights for survival in an aggressively secular age where it has, frankly, forgot its way, its true identity and what it is here for.

Not only that but personally, when times have been tough, and I have hit a brick wall in preaching etc, or have been under spiritual attack, it has been all too easy to retreat into the safe confines of going through the religious motions, maintaining the status quo and just surviving. Doing church is so much easier, hassle free and causes the least amount of problems, personal or otherwise, when you do things by the book (the 'church' book, not THE book). But it then results in spiritual; dryness and a feeling of guilt and loss which is only assuaged when the Spirit moves and life returns, for a time, back to "normality" The kind of normality where God's presence is real, prayer is powerful and the Spirit of God is active in your life and the life of the Church.

Of course, when things are going as they should and God is at work, the enemy pops up and says that this is not supposed to happen all the time and I should not to expect it to. So the foot is taken off the gas, the vehicle slows down and the ensuing lull becomes a concern leading to panic and a return to the religious default position of maintaining services again in order to feel as if you are doing something right. In other words, religion.

So what is the key to circumventing all this? Prayer. Constant, regular, persistent, wrestling (at times) prayer. Seeking God's face, and His presence, at all times and at every opportunity. It is only our constant relationship with Him that prevents and protects us from falling into mere 'religion' again. And that is true of every church and not just the ones where folk dress up and process. Religion is a danger across the board. We must, says Jesus, "watch and pray".

So next time you struggle, don't go to the forms but to the Father. And remember, forms may help in your relationship with God but they must never become a substitute for it.

Thy Kingdom Come 2017