Friday, 28 March 2014

Praying Mothers.

One of the foundational principles given to us in the Book of 1 Samuel in order to help us understand how the Kingdom of God works, is that of the importance a praying mother has in shaping the destiny of her child. The book opens with Hannah's prayer for a male child. The answer to that prayer is the birth of Samuel, and then through Samuel's ministry there begins a transition in  Israel from theocracy to monarchy.
      One of the mistakes we make is to judge on outward appearances rather than the heart. Who would have thought a praying mother would have given birth to the first kingmaker of Israel? Who would have thought that this little boy Samuel would go on to become a man who would bring the word of the Lord to all Israel?
    Praying mothers are of priceless value in the Lord's eyes. Hannah's prayer is very similar to that of Mary's in Luke 1 v 46-55. It was a praying mother behind the birth of Samuel, and a praying mother behind the birth and nurturing of Jesus. Paul will also commend Timothy's grandmother Lois, and mother Eunice,  for their spiritual nurturing of Timothy in his developmental years( 2 Tim 1 v 5).   
    It is recorded in both 1 Samuel 2 v 26, and in Luke 2 v 52 that both Samuel and Jesus 'grew in favour both with the Lord and men'. How much of that growing in grace was because of the godly praying of their respective mothers?     
     A brief look at their two great prayers recorded in 1 Samuel 2 v 1-10, and Luke 1v 46-55 will give all of us insights into the foundations of their prayer ministry, and especially provide an inspirational model for every praying mother in the church.

1. Both had joy in the place of prayer.

      1 Sam 2 v 1, Luke 1v 46-47.  

    All great moves of God are birthed in joyful prayer. One of the characteristics of the Kingdom is 'righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit'( Romans 14 v 17). These women were characterized by joy.

2. Both knew that God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.  

1 Sam 2 v 3, Luke 1 v 52.   

   Humility is one of the foundational keys to authentic spiritual sight. These women were sensitive to what attracted the Lord's presence, and to what would grieve Him. The Kingdom of God is released through men and women of humility, not through men like King Saul who have statues built to their own honour(1 Samuel 15 v 12).

3. Both knew that God wanted justice and vindication for the poor.

(1 Sam 2 v 8, Luke 1 v 53).

Proverbs 21 v 13 says this:

'Whoever shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, Will also cry himself and not be heard'.

   As we give to the poor our money, time, and lives, then we will find a greater openness from the Lord towards us in prayer.

4. Both knew that the source of their strength was the Lord.

(1 Sam 2 v 4, 10. Luke 1 v 51, 54).      

    The story of the Tower of Babel teaches us many things, one of which is how determined men can be to build very impressive empires and portfolios without any help from the Lord. David wrote in Psalm 20 that although 'some trust in chariots, and some in horses', he would trust in the name of his God.    
    Our strength is from the Lord, and often that will be in our weaknesses. When a mother is tired and exhausted at the business end of yet another long day mothering children, those prayers spoken over their children at night carry far greater weight and strength than we realise. In our tiredness and vulnerability, the Holy Spirit can help us in our weakness. How many men and women are where they are today because of the faithfulness of a praying mother?

5. Both kept the Lord's Name central in their prayers.

     There are 22 references in Hannah's prayer, and 17 in Mary's to the Lord in one way or another. We are the Lord's servant, he is not ours. We are blessed by the Kingdom of God, but the Kingdom is not our servant. All honour and blessing belong to Him, and in our praying the Lord is the centre of gravity, not us.

6. Both knew that prophetic prayer was as much about moral formation as it was about discerning the future.   

   Both their prayers could be summarized with the words of Amos 5 v 24:

'But let justice run down like water, And righteousness like a mighty stream'.

    Prophetic ministry and prayer are built on the foundation of moral and ethical leadership in the Holy Spirit. Praying mothers can demonstrate in their words and actions how to model correct living and speaking in this 'crooked and perverse generation'(Phil 2 v 15).

7. Both of them knew how to distinguish between the righteous and the wicked.

   (1Samuel 2 v 9, Luke 1 v 52,54).     

    Both Hannah and Mary could discern between the proverbial fool and wise man. God loves all men, but some through their own choices are commended as wise, and others fools. Hannah would not have been taken in by the lifestyles of Eli's sons(1 Samuel 2 v 12-17). Praying mothers can be wonderful moral compasses in helping train their children to distinguish good from evil.
     I for one am convinced that praying mothers and listening children are essential foundations in the Kingdom of God. Often their lives are hidden ones. However, the Lord sees what is done and prayed in secret and will reward in full these champions of the faith.

Friday, 28 February 2014

The Inward Curvature of the Heart

The Inward Curvature of the Heart.

  " The beginning of love is the will to let those we love to be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them'.

                                          Thomas Merton .

      Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk who welcomed the 'four walled freedom' of monastic life. This quote from his work 'No Man is an Island' reflects part of his own pilgrimage as a Christian mystic whose writings have inspired many.
     His comment on human nature is similar to that observed by Martin Luther, who thought there was an 'inward curvature of the heart' in all of us, distorting even our best efforts with a propensity to honour the qualities that we most admire in ourselves. I find Jesus' words on this inclination of the heart very helpful and therapeutic:

  " You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' " But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, " that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for he makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and unjust. " For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? " And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? " Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect".

                                       Matthew 5 v 43-48

     Christian love is far more radical than merely 'loving our own', or loving those qualities we see in others that we admire in ourselves. We need the power of the Holy Spirit to live and love the Jesus way. The apostle Paul would comment that 'we are always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body' ( 2 Cor 4 v 10). His insights put a fresh clothing of understanding on what Jesus meant by ' picking up our cross daily, and following Him'. The degree to which the selfless, incarnational love of Christ is revealed in and through me is the barometer reading of how intentionally I am embracing the Cross of Christ. Knowledge puffs up but love builds up, and can never be a substitute for love.
      At a conference two years ago, the writer and apologist Os Guiness gave one of the most helpful answers to one of the most challenging questions facing the church today. He was asked ' How do we respond to those like Richard Dawkins who are being so aggressive and militant against the Christian faith'? His answer was 'that our love card must always stretch further than our truth card. As Christians we are first and foremost defined by our reflecting the love of Jesus. When people know they are loved, they are more likely to listen to the truth we embody'.
   It is one thing to quote, but quite another to outwork and live this simple but profound truth. The inward curvature of my heart would prefer to throw hand grenades of truth from a distance, and reserve my love for those who most reflect the morals and ethics I admire. Applying the Jesus plumbline, it is how much I love my enemies and bless those that persecute me, that reflects how deeply the cross has transformed my life.
    Alan Scott, pastor of Causeway Vineyard commented that ' We don't love our communities in order for them to become Christians. We love them because we are Christians'. This is far more than a play on words.
    In every community there are people whom we find difficult to love, perhaps even open enmity between families. Do we only love those that we think are likely to become a Christian? Do we only love those who are 'open to our message'? Do we only love those who have qualities that we admire? Do we only love those who have the means to repay us in kind?
    I find that asking these questions gets to the heart of what Merton was exposing in his reflections. Without the daily application of the Cross I quickly revert back to simply loving those qualities that I can see and admire in others. Without the Cross, my attempts to love are flawed by the inward curvature of my heart. Only by embracing the Cross can I begin to incarnate the unconditional love of Christ towards my neighbour, whoever that may be, and wherever that may take me.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Why a thorn in the flesh?

" To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong".

                             2 Corinthians 12 v 7-10.

Many have speculated on what Paul's 'thorn in the flesh' might have been. I'm not interested in doing that here, but I would recommend an excellent book on this subject written by Dr R.T. Kendall, called not surprisingly 'The Thorn in the Flesh'. He covers in detail the various thorns that many of us have to live with, and is pastorally very sensitive in lifestyle application.
   My question on why the Lord allows these thorns is answered in the earlier verses where Paul speaks about being 'caught up to third heaven and paradise', hearing in vision 'inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell'.The Lord allowed the thorn in Paul's life to prevent him from becoming conceited. There is a weakness and endearing vulnerability in any man or woman who has spiritual depth in the Lord. Like Paul, they know that whatever has been accomplished in and through their lives has been a work of grace from beginning to end. There is no place for subtle boasting or attention grabbing headlines over their life's script.
    All who have known any significant measure of grace will at some point have come to that place of self awareness that ' this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us'. Jacob is one of my favourite examples of someone who learnt this secret. After his wrestling match with God, Jacob is left with a permanent limp, and his account of the event is very clear: 'For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved' ( Genesis 32 v 30). The next verse says how 'the sun rose on him (Jacob), and he limped on his hip'. This new day of favour for Jacob would be characterized with a limp. In his weakness God's grace would begin to shape Jacob's (Israel's) destiny to be the womb that would bring forth Abraham's seed...Jesus.
    The thorn prevents us from becoming conceited and falling into the pitfall of taking credit for that which belongs to the Lord alone. There can be a subtle smugness that can creep up on us when we have known the grace and power of God flowing through our lives. We can come to think of ourselves as indispensable and irreplaceable. Eugene Peterson gives this insight of human nature in his book 'The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction'.

  ' I want to appear important. What better way than to be busy? The incredible hours, the crowded schedule, and the heavy demands on my time are proof to myself and to all who will notice- that I am important. If I go into a doctor's office and find there is no one waiting, and I see through a half open door the doctor reading a book, I wonder if he's any good. Such experiences affect me. I live in a society in which crowded schedules and harassed conditions are evidence of importance, so I develop a crowded schedule and harassed conditions. When others notice, they acknowledge my significance, and I my vanity'.

    The virus of pride is so deeply entrenched in all of us, that perhaps it does need at times something as strong as a 'messenger of Satan' to prevent conceit overwhelming us. This all seems very drastic, but the fruit that it produced in Paul's life (delighting in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties) should check any temptation on our part to relegate this episode in Paul's life to a peculiarity unique to him. In 'Mere Christianity', C.S.Lewis devotes a whole chapter to 'The Great Sin'-pride. It is worth looking at what Lewis has to say on this ' worst of all vices'.

    'It is a terrible thing that the worst of all the vices can smuggle itself into the very centre of our religious life. But you can see why. The other, and less bad, vices come from the devil working on us through our animal nature. But this does not come through our animal nature at all. It comes direct from Hell. It is purely spiritual: consequently it is far more subtle and deadly. For the same reason, Pride can often be used to beat down the simpler vices. Teachers, in fact, often appeal to a boy's Pride, or, as they call it, his self respect, to make him behave decently: many a man has overcome cowardice, or lust, or ill-temper by learning to think that they are beneath his dignity- that is, by Pride. The devil laughs. He is perfectly content to see you becoming chaste and brave and self- controlled provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the Dictatorship of Pride- just as he would be quite content to see your chilblains cured if he was allowed, in return, to give you cancer. For Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.

     If Lewis is right, and I think he is, then perhaps there are times when drastic surgery is needed on our lives to prevent the spread of this spiritual cancer. Thorns in the flesh are not appealing- Paul wouldn't have pleaded with the Lord three times for his to be removed if they were appealing! However, the self evident fruit this produced in Paul's life is surely an encouragement to any of us who are currently struggling with any thorn in our flesh.
   If pride really is the Mount Everest of sin, then perhaps it does take a thorn in the flesh from time to time to 'keep our boasting in the Lord', and not in ourselves. Lewis finishes his chapter on 'The Great Sin', with the following insights:

   'If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed'.

    My conclusion is that 'every good and perfect gift is come from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows'. Whilst the thorn was clearly a messenger of Satan, the Lord clearly gave permission for this, not unlike when the Lord allowed Satan permission to torment Job. If the fruit of this thorn is to produce a greater dependence on the Lord, a safeguard against the cancer of pride, and a harvest of grace and righteousness in our lives and the lives of those we are serving, then perhaps it is no bad thing that the Lord doesn't always answer our prayers for deliverance in quite the way we want and expect.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Seven Tests of Authenticity

    'The nature of deception is such that we don't know we are deceived until after the event. We use the past tense, 'I was deceived', rather than the present tense 'I am deceived'. Rather like sleep, we only know how long we have slept when we have woken up, a retrospective insight'.

                                            Ray Mayhew.

   The warnings about deception are numerous in the New Testament, especially of false teachers and prophets that at the end of the age 'will deceive even the elect if that were possible'. Ultimately, we recognise a teacher or prophet by their fruit, and not simply their doctrine. In Jude v 11 we read the following warning:

'Woe to them! For they have gone in the way of Cain, have run greedily in the error of Balaam for profit, and perished in the rebellion of Korah'.

   All three examples had chosen a pattern and way of life that led to their destruction. When we walk in a 'way' of life, be it a love of money, sex, or power, that is contrary to the life and way of the incarnate Christ, then the letter that people read of our lives will be smudged and polluted beyond comprehension. It won't be the incarnate humility and grace of Jesus that the world will see and read, but rather the pride and selfishness of a world system that is the very antithesis of all that Calvary models to us.

    One of my favourite authors is A.W. Tozer. He died in 1963, but his insights are still relevant today. On this subject of recognising deception, he offers seven tests to evaluate authenticity of either a spiritual experience or teaching. These are as follows:

1. How do I view God in the light of any new teaching or experience?

2. Does this new teaching or experience in any way lessen who Jesus is?

3. Do I have a greater regard and love for the scriptures?

4. Does what I experience or am taught have any precedent in church history?

5. Do I grow in humility, or do I grow in pride and self promotion as a result of what I am taught or have experienced?

6. Does my experience or teaching divide the church?

7. How does this teaching and experience affect my attitude towards sin? Does it cause me to legitimize what the Bible declares illegitimate?

    He comments that it is quite often the zealous believer that can be more prone to deception. Sincerely wanting more of God, they can be seduced more readily than the half hearted person who has long since settled for spiritual mediocrity. All the more reason why those of us who have the privilege of teaching regularly in one context or another remain fully committed to 'watching our life and doctrine closely'.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Where is your joy?

    This is a question Paul asked the Galatians ( Galatians 4 v 15) and one that I ask myself from time to time. The Galatians lost their joy through a legalistic corruption of the gospel. We may not have that problem in our contexts, but the devil will still try to rob, steal, and kill our joy in the Lord. Sadly, we are often better at doing this to ourselves and one another without any assistance.
   Joy is one of those words, rather like 'blessing' and 'grace' that has been so misused and wrongly trivialized that it is in danger of being relegated to being a Christian cliche. Definition and meaning are important, and I have found The New Bible Dictionary definition of joy very helpful:

'Both in the Old and New Testaments joy is consistently the mark both individually of the believer and corporately of the Church. It is a quality, and not simply an emotion, grounded upon God Himself and indeed derived from Him ( Pslam 16 v 11, Phil 4 v 4, Rom 15 v 13), which characterizes the Christian's life on earth (1Pet 1 v 8), and also anticipates the joy of being with Christ for ever in the Kingdom of Heaven.'

   Jesus is the dictionary to interpret and understand all things, and the presence of joy is a clear litmus test that the Kingdom of God is at hand. In John 15 v 11, the gift of the Lord's joy is promised to all those who are abiding in the Father's love. This quality is evident even in Jesus's darkest hour on the cross, something picked up by the writer of Hebrews:

'Let us fix our eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God'.

                                     Hebrews 12 v 2.

    It is in those dark moments in life that we can sometimes lose our joy and peace in the Lord, but this verse suggests that even in those dark moments there can still be access to a joy in the Holy Spirit that goes beyond our circumstances. The Book of Psalms was Israel's 'Book of Common Prayer and Worship', and provides some excellent insights into how we can be real with the Lord in life's difficulties and still remain buoyant in the Lord's joy. It is worth looking at one or two of them.

1. Honesty with the Lord.

   The Psalmists didn't hold back on how they felt about life in all its complexities. Here are just a few references to look up:

a. Psalm 3 v 7. David asking God to break the teeth of the wicked.

b. Psalm 5 v 10-11. David being less than loving towards his enemies.

c. Psalm10 v 12-15, Psalm 73 v v 1-3. David and Asaph frustrated at the apparent prosperity of the wicked.

d. Psalm 41 v 4-9. David perhaps in one of his more melancholic moments.

     David and the other Psalmists were real about how they felt, and had no problem expressing that to the Lord. If you look at some of Jeremiah's laments the language is even more striking, on one occasion even accusing God of deceiving him! (Jeremiah 20v 7). This is spiritual therapy.
   Rather than burying our anger, hurts, and frustrations, we take them to the Lord first. When I am feeling angry or negative about something or someone, I have found that praying and talking it through with the Lord privately has been of enormous value. Once offloaded, you are then able to see more clearly and remain in the Lord's joy. As I pray and wait on the Lord, the reassurance of his presence becomes the foundation to my thinking again. I begin to see things and hear things from a heavenly perspective.
    This was the experience of Asaph in Psalm 73. Having offloaded his frustrations about the apparent prosperity of the wicked, he then enters the Lord's rest, and sees things from heaven's perspective their eventual end- Psalm 73 v 12-24. When we see things from heaven's perspective, joy and peace are restored to our troubled souls. Sometimes we may need a trusted friend to help us rediscover the joy of the Lord's presence, but we need to be careful that we aren't using friendship in an inappropriate way to wallow in self pity.

2. Valuing the Lord's presence more than anything or anyone else.

    It is the Lord Himself who is our source of joy. When David's sin with Bathsheba was uncovered, his primary concern was that he would not lose the Lord's presence in his life. The Lord's presence meant everything to David. After being confronted by Nathan, he comes out with this amazing cry from the heart:

'Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me'.

                                 Psalm 51 v 10-12.

   David knew it was the Lord's presence in the Holy Spirit that brought the joy of salvation, and he didn't want to lose that at any cost. Sadly, if you read the account of Saul having his sin exposed by Samuel, you will see that Saul was far more concerned about what people would think of him than how the Lord felt..see 1 Samuel 15 v 24-30, especially verse 30.    David wanted the Lord's presence as priority. Saul was more concerned with saving face before people. David wanted the joy of the Lord's presence to remain, and to help others learn from the error of his ways (Psalm 51 v 13). Saul was only concerned with receiving the continued honour of the people.
   We lose our joy when, like Saul, we are more concerned with how people see us than how the Lord sees us. When we are wanting and striving for the affirmation of people over and above the Lord's presence, we lose our source of joy. All of us have to watch this. It may be our marriage, our parenting, our performance at work, our church service, our friendship groupings. We can all be tempted to be more concerned at what image we are projecting for the people audience, than desiring the Lord's affirmation and presence.
   Some of the most insecure people are church leaders, desperate to tell you how well their church is doing, how many people they have baptized, and who they know in the national church scene. When these words are in the mouth of one like David, it is a real blessing. When in the mouth of one like Saul they are toxic.

3. Not taking ourselves too seriously.

    'My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.' Psalm 131 v 1.

   David is the 'man after God's own heart', Israel's greatest King, one who was promised 'a house and kingdom that shall endure for ever', author of over seventy psalms, and ultimately a pattern of the Christ who was to come. For David to say that he didn't concern himself with great matters is a terrific understatement. He did concern himself with the Lord's matters, but in making the Lord his preoccupation David was able to put his life and insights into their proper perspective. No matter how great the experience or insight that David had, they were as nothing compared to him knowing and intimately enjoying the Lord's presence.
     The same is true of Moses who had some many shock and awe moments with the Lord, but his advice in Psalm 90 v 12 seems a little bit of an understatement in the light of those experiences:

'Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom'.

    Moses, like David and any man or woman of God, knew that no experience or revelation could ever be a substitute for personal intimacy with God Himself. When we have a glimpse of the Lord's greatness we begin to take ourselves a lot less seriously. As one wall poster pointed out in my university days, 'There is a God....and you aren't Him'. When we learn to not take ourselves too seriously, the joy of the Lord's presence becomes a greater reality.

4. Delighting in our salvation.

a. Psalm 16 v v 8-11.

     Fullness of joy is only found in the Lord's presence. We are the Lord's servant first before we are the servant of men. One of the primary causes of joy leakage is when we allow other people, projects, and purposes to be promoted before the Lord's presence in our priorities.

b. Psalm17 v 15.

An eternal perspective on life puts everything into its proper place. Seeking the Lord's face and not just the hand of His favour was David's priority. He knew significant favour from the 'Right Hand of God', but it was no substitute for the longing in his heart for face to face intimacy with the Lord. His hand had been trained for battle (Psalm144 v 1), but that was no substitute for delighting in the vision of one day seeing the Lord's face.

c. Psalm 37 v 3-4.

    Our salvation is past, present and future. We have been saved (Titus 3 v3-7), are being saved (Phil 2 v 12-14, 2 Peter 1 v 10-11), and will in the future be fully glorified in resurrection ( Romans 8 v 18-30). As we delight ourselves in the Lord's salvation today, we are thankful for the initial act of salvation in our past, and excited about the prospect of future glory. As we delight ourselves in the Lord, his desires become our desires, his priorities become ours and we never lose sight of our amazing and thoroughly undeserved salvation.

d. Psalm 84 v 1-2.

     We worship a living God who speaks and answers prayer. We enter into the joy of prayerful communion with the living God (Isaiah 56 v 6-7), into the joy of heaven's priorities (Luke 15 v 7, 10, 32), and the joy of Jesus's victory over Satan, sin and death (Luke 10 17-20). The Kingdom of God is righteousness, joy and peace in the Holy Spirit (Rom 14 v 17).        When we prioritise seeking first the Kingdom of God, joy will always be the hallmark of our lives. That joy is the Lord's presence with us, God Emmanuel, in every season of our lives. That joy is not first and foremost an emotion, feeling, or light hearted approach to life, but a person- Jesus Christ.
    His presence will bring laughter and light heartedness. He will also be the anchor of hope joy and peace in our grieving, hurting, fears, uncertainties and pain. In those more sorrowful moments, we can still know joy when we know that it is Jesus with us who is our ultimate source of comfort.
   I will finish with a personal testimony to that end. Some time ago the Lord revealed to me how he felt about something that had happened in my life. The pain, tears, and agony of soul came like waves of the sea throughout the day. I did not feel any joyful emotions at that time. However, by the evening the Lord had lifted this burden. The lightness and joy of the Lord's presence was so tangible that it was difficult to believe it was the same day.
   The Lord's presence was my joy. I can remember the day because it was so extraordinary, but also because we had a small fall of snow. The snow was significant, because I was under deep conviction of sin in my attitude to another brother, and when breakthrough finally came, the Lord used the snow to remind me that 'though my sin (my attitude toward this person) was like scarlet, it was now as white as snow' (Isaiah 1 v 18). On the back of conviction and repentance came a greater release of the Lord's presence, and with that His joy, in my life.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Jesus Is Our Theology.

   When Fiona and I were involved on the Ichthus Network programme in 1990/1, we had the privilege of sitting under some very inspired teaching. One principle consistently taught was the importance of seeing everything in the Bible through the lens of Jesus. I have recently been reading articles and listening to online teaching from Ray Mayhew, who was one of those who taught us back then. Alongside his insights and other reading material, I have put together in my own words a short and simple outline of why I still feel as strongly about this interpretive approach today as I did when first introduced to this back in 1990. I hope it is helpful.

1. All theological systems are flawed.

Systematic theological systems like Calvinism and Arminianism have their place, but Christology for me is the primary lens through which these systems need to be seen. We are converted to Jesus, not the Bible or a theological system.
    So, for example, the Calvinist can overplay the scriptures that indicate 'once saved always saved', but will often underplay the clear warnings and dangers of abandoning our faith. The Armininianist can overplay the warnings without giving sufficient attention to the promises of security. Jesus seemed to apply both the promises and the warnings in equal measure, according to the pastoral appropriateness of the moment.
     So in Matthew 5 v 22, Jesus warns that unbrotherly love can put us ' in danger of hell fire'. Likewise a similar warning is given in Matthew 5 v 29-30 in relation to adultery. It can be too easy to spiritualize away these warnings, as some do, as Jewish literary hyperbole. To balance the books, Jesus also speaks in John 10 v 28 of 'none being snatched from my hand'. If it is the Lord's hand that has a grip on us, then who can come against us?
     My point is that the circumstance should determine which truth is applicable for each occasion irrespective of our theological system. So, for example, if a man in church leadership deliberately commits adultery and is not repentant, then perhaps the warnings of passages like Matthew 5 will be far more pastorally relevant than the security promise of John 10. Promises of eternal security may encourage him to remain in sin, where as the warnings, gently applied, might awaken his conscience and bring him back to repentance.
   Equally, a young Christian struggling to come to terms with their sexuality wouldn't initially need to hear the warnings of Matthew 5, but rather the comfort of John 10. Growing into a secure knowledge and experience of God's love and faithfulness could inspire a desire to change.
  The warnings and promises are of equal weight, and need to be applied through the lens of Christ's wisdom to whatever the individual pastoral situation merits. Whatever our preferred theological system, without Jesus as the interpretive lens, we can very easily create a religious system that has the very opposite of being good news to the world.
   In his book 'Let's Start With Jesus', Dennis Kinlaw quotes William Temple, former Archbishop of Canterbury, on the importance of having a right concept of God in how we do life.

   'If our concept of God is wrong, the more religious we get and the more dangerous we are to ourselves and others. Our concept of God must be a true representation of the One Who Is, the God with whom all of us ultimately will have to deal. In fact, nothing is more important for anyone or for any society.'

    Bill Johnson puts it this way: 'If your theology about God doesn't look like Jesus, then try again.' This is not a simple cliche, but profound truth made simple. On another occasion, Johnson is on record as saying that 'Jesus is perfect theology.' Jesus said himself to the Jews of his day:

'You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they that testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.'   John 5 v 39-40.
Jesus is the key to understanding 'the inside of God.' On the Emmaus Road, two disciples encounter the risen Lord Jesus and what is opaque in the Scriptures comes to life when interpreted for by the Lord:

' Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight. And they said to one another, 'Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?'
Luke 24 v 32-33.

   When Jesus is doing the interpretation our spiritual eyes are opened and we get heartburn from the Scriptures. Where Jesus is absent as our interpretive lens, a veil remains over our hearts. We will become progressively more religious in our thinking and outward behaviour, but lack the reality of inward transformation that personal revelation of Christ brings.
          The incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ is the prism through which we understand all the Scriptures. Jesus is the exegesis of God ( John 1 v's 14-18, 10 v 30, 14 v 5-7), the visible image of the invisible God (Colossians 1v 15, Hebrews 1 v 3), and the power and wisdom of God ( 1Corinthians 1 v 18-2 v 5). When you have seen Jesus, you have seen God. If you haven't met with Jesus, you haven't met with God. If our theology and practice doesn't point to Jesus, we are in danger of falling into the religious trap that William Temple spoke about.

2. Humility is our hallmark.

   Humility is the incarnational attribute of Christ that we are called to imitate (Philippians 2 v's 1-11) as the prerequisite to accessing God's grace. Interestingly humility isn't recorded as one of the ninefold evidences of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 v 23-23. However humility is the soil in which the ninefold fruit of the Spirit can grow. Without this foundational soil there will be no authentic and lasting spiritual fruit on the surface. God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
   The author Joyce Baldwin commented that Israel's history could be summarized in four words- Chosen, Privilege, Presumption, and Rebellion. Israel was chosen for a purpose, and given the privileges that accompanied that election. In time, Israel became at 'ease in Zion', taking privilege for granted, and not living out their responsibility to be 'a light to the nations'. Presumption of God's grace took root, and the slide into rebellion and exile was the inevitable consequence.
   In the same way, as chosen people, we can enjoy the privilege of living in our little piece of land here in Southampton. However without that foundation of humility we too could fall into the presumption and pride that sadly characterized Israel's last days before exile.
   This humility principle is particularly important in seasons where we are experiencing significant levels of grace and favour. In the Philippians passage quoted above, Paul is at pains to press home the importance of walking in humility in every context of blessing and favour.

'Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship in the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfil my joy by being like minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.'  Phil 2 v's 1-3.

    When we are experiencing significant seasons of grace and favour, the need to press deeper into the humility of Jesus is of even greater importance. It can be tempting in seasons of marked grace and favour to credit any success and fruitfulness to ourselves, rather than to the Lord. We can begin to slip into a prayerlessness and reliance on ourselves, rather than a daily dependence on the grace of God. Learning to 'stand in the gap' is one of our safeguards. Despite all the demands on his time, Jesus remained intentional in prayer, and that is to be our pattern for life as well.

3. What does it mean to 'stand in the gap'?

  'So I sought for a man among them who would make a wall, and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found no one.'

  Ezekiel 22 v 30.

     One of the more helpful definitions I have come across is that of prayerfully bridging the gap between where we are now, and where we believe the Lord wants to take us. No matter how great our experience of the Lord, there is always more of Him to know and enjoy.
  Isaiah thought he was doing pretty well, until he had a fresh life changing encounter with the Lord, that most of us are familiar with in Isaiah 6. Likewise John, as intimate with the Lord as any of the early disciples, was struck to the floor in wonder and worship when receiving a fresh revelation of the Lord on Patmos. No matter how great our experience of Jesus, there is always more of Him to know and worship.
  It is important to put this Ezekiel scripture through the lens of Christ to understand what it might look like to stand in the gap today. Jesus has now bridged the gap between man and God. Through his incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension, he has now become the 'mediator between man and God', a mediation spoken of in verses like Isaiah 52 v 10:

' The Lord has laid bare His holy arm In the eyes of all the nations; And all the ends of the earth shall see The salvation of our God.'

   Jesus as the exegete of God, reveals God as Father, with nearly two hundred references to the Fatherhood of God in the gospels. The other great emphasis in Jesus' teaching and practice is that of the Kingdom of God. These twin themes of Fatherhood and Kingdom come together of course in what we call the Lord's Prayer.
   Taking Jesus as our model for standing in the gap between fallen man and God, we pray 'Father in Heaven....,Your Kingdom come.' These two themes are like knitting needles that knit together and bridge the gap between where we are now, and where we want to be in the Lord.
    Back in the late 1980's, I became increasingly aware of the credibility gap between what I read in the gospels in relation to Jesus' authority over demons, and the distinct lack of that reality in my own life.
   It was being exposed to a radical Kingdom of God theology and practice at Ichthus that helped begin to narrow that particular gap in my discipleship. Needless to say, 'standing in the gap' the Jesus way was part of that transition.
   The writer to the Hebrews gives us a unique insight into the prayer life of Jesus. It is the exact opposite of some of the cold, pious, formulaic repetition that is so often the characteristic of the religious spirit that William Temple warns about.

'So also Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He who said to Him: " You are My Son, Today I have begotten You." As He also says in another place: " You are a priest forever According to the order of Melchizedek", who in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which he suffered."

Hebrews 5 v's 5-8.

   I find these windows into the prayer life of Jesus both inspiring and challenging. There were five things that moved Jesus to compassion, prayer, and then action. These were:
Death - (Luke 7 vs 12-24)
Hunger -(Mark 8 v's 1-3)
Sickness-(Matthew 10 v 14)
Lostness -(Mark 6 v's 33-34
Loneliness- (Mark 1 v's 40-42)

  These five windows of human suffering are all around us. For the loneliness and isolation that the leper felt in Jesus' day, read today in the face of the involuntary single parent, widow, and many young people out of work. I could give countless other examples to illustrate the other four windows of compassion.
  It is also interesting to note in the Ezekiel verse that the Lord was also looking for someone to stand in the gap who would make a wall. Why a wall? What was the significance of walls?
  Nehemiah is the book most associated with wall reconstruction. Walls seperate, and there has to be a clear seperation between the people of God and the world. That seperation is not exclusivity. The Jerusalem Walls rebuilt by Nehemiah still had gates in them for people to enter the city.
  In the same way, Jesus is the gate today for anyone to enter the Kingdom of God. There is still a clear wall of seperation between the narrow road that leads to life, and the broad road that leads to destruction. Jesus is the only gate through which anyone can enter to change lanes from the broad road leading to destruction, to the narrow one leading to life.
   One of the buzz words doing the rounds at present is 'inclusivity'. At it's heart is a belief and commitment to include everyone in the purposes of God. The Inclusivity manifesto reads something like this-

'No one must feel excluded on any grounds of sexual orientation, gender, race, or class from the Kingdom of God , and the language of 'them' and 'us' must be abolished.'

   There is a lot I would endorse in this manifesto. No-one should feel excluded from the Kingdom of God for any of those reasons above. However, whilst the manifesto of Jesus is an inclusive and universal invitation, there is a very clear condition that all must enter through the Narrow Gate. Jesus is the Narrow Gate in the wall that all can enter, but few choose to do so ( Matthew 7 v's 13-14).
   There is a distinction the Lord makes between sheep and goats, wheat and tares, those on the Way and those who are not. Without conviction of sin, regeneration by the Holy Spirit,and repentance and faith in Christ, you cannot , in Jesus' own words, see let alone enter the Kingdom of God.
  In following Christ's example of standing in the gap, not only do I want to identify with those things that moved Him to compassion, but I also want to ensure that the clarity of the gospel is not lost in a well intended but misplaced understanding of inclusivity. Perhaps the final words on this can be those of Jesus Himself in Matthew 23 v's 37-39:

'O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! "See! Your house is left to you desolate; " for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.' "

  The invitation to the people of Jerusalem is universal and inclusive of all.... but the blessing is dependent upon their willingness to respond to that invitation. The Lord will not include anyone who doesn't want to respond to Him. Tempting though it might be in some quarters to 'remove the wall', preach a social gospel, and wrongly believe that everyone deep down wants to love God, we must resist any such deception. Incarnational love, revealed in Jesus, gives everyone the dignity to freely receive or reject the Gospel of Christ. Jesus doesn't condemn anyone. We condemn ourselves by rejecting Him- John 3 v's 17-21.
  As those committed to seeing people through the lens of Jesus, we do not condemn anyone on the basis of their skin, race, gender, or sexual orientation. We seek to model the life of Christ in self giving love and humility. Those who are condemned, are those who have condemned themselves by rejecting the narrow gate that leads to life.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Recognising the Fat Cat of Legalism.

  Then He said, "To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we picture it? It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade."

                                            Mark 4 v 30- 32.

    We are fortunate to have a small wood backing on to our garden. Different birds will often be seen resting in the branches of the trees. When the neighbour's cat joins the party, the birds take flight. Birds rather wisely don't rest in branches alongside cats.
  The picture in this parable is of the birds of the air resting securely in the branches of the tree that grew from a mustard seed. There are no unfriendly cats lurking in the branches. As Christians, we are called to rest in the branches of the Kingdom of God, finding in Christ that 'yoke that is easy and burden that is light.'
   Why do so many Christians live outside that place of rest? Why do so many of us live in the branches of the Kingdom of God with agitation, insecurity, and unhealthy activism as the characteristics of our lives? What cat has got amongst the pigeons?
   I would like to suggest that the fat cat of religious legalism is the most destructive spirit which the devil has used to rob many of us of the joy and peace of resting in Christ. Many of us are more the slave to religious piety and human tradition, rather than the 'doulos' of Christ.
   At its heart legalism is the exaltation of law, formula, and red tape as a doctrine of justification by works, rather than a justification through faith alone in Christ. I have listed a number of ways in which this legalism appears, and some of the spiritual insights that can help us catch this cat and keep it off the back of our lives.

1. Promotion of knowledge over love.

     There are five references in the New Testament to 'knowledge puffing up, but love building up.' These are 1 Corinthians 4 v 6, 4 v 18, 8 v 2, Colossians 2 v 18, and 1 Tim 3 v 6.
      Knowledge is not a substitute for love. We can have great knowledge of the Bible, and have had great personal insights in the Holy Spirit, but without love we gain nothing. One of the characteristics of a knowledge or experience driven legalism, is the desire to impress others with what we know or have experienced, rather than inspiring people into a greater passion and personal revelation of Jesus for themselves.
    True spiritual knowledge is the fruit of love, and will in turn inspire others in their pursuit of Jesus. In the Colossians 2 v18 reference, the issue is a false parading of spiritual experience as a sign of the Lord's approval. If the temptation in more conservative circles is the displaying of Bible knowledge in a wrong way, in charismatic circles it can be the wrong displaying of experience and inappropriate use of spiritual gifts as a means of securing our authentication.
   A measure of true spirituality is how much is concealed, not how much is displayed. What we share needs to be the tip of the iceberg, not the hidden roots. The hidden life is the rewarded life, but the legalism cat will often tempt us in an opposite direction, that of performing and displaying our knowledge and experiences to win the approval of men. When we do this, our motive is not love, and we can become 'sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.' Birds won't rest secure for long in these type of branches.

2. Misunderstanding of covenant.

      The basis on which God accepts us is unconditional covenant grace. If the story of the Prodigal tells us anything, it is that we can't earn our passage or ticket to grace and favour. Even when we are in ' the distant land', far away from the Lord, His love for us is not based on our getting our act together. The Prodigal returns with a pre planned script of intent, only to see it effectively ripped up in the loving embrace of his father.
    The 'ifs' and 'thens' of scripture in relation to covenant are there to help us grow in the quality and depth of our relationship with the Lord. They are not contractual obligations that need to be kept in order to secure God's grace and love, but rather our invitation to respond to, and live in the benefits of, that love and grace.
    Take the verse in 2 Chronicles 7 v 14, often used as a rallying cry for prayer and revival.

'If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.'

     This promise is given to a people who are already redeemed. Israel had been set free from Egypt, not because they had kept the law ( it was given after their deliverance), but on account of the Lord's grace and mercy towards them. Promises like the one quoted in 2 Chronicles are given to an already redeemed people. Even if the Israelites ignored the Lord's word, (and they frequently did), it would not change the basis on which He loved them, beautifully defined in Deuteronomy 7 v 7-8:

' The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the Lord loves you, and because He would keep the oath which he swore to your fathers, the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.'

     The foundation of our relationship with the Lord, is unconditional grace. We embrace the 'ifs' and 'then' clauses of scripture to grow in the depth and quality of that relationship, but not as a means of trying to earn our ticket or right of passage. God's love for us is not conditioned on whether we read the Bible, attend church meetings, pray, fast, tithe and so on. The subtle cat of legalism tries to convince us to the contrary. It is because God loves me unconditionally, that I can and want to change. I don't change in order to secure God's favour; rather His unconditional favour inspires me to want to change.

3. Preoccupation with externals.

   'Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations- "Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle," which all concern things which perish with the using- according to the commands and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.'

                           Colossians 2 v 20-23.

   Legalism preaches external conformity and behaviour, without internal transformation of the heart by the Holy Spirit. Man looks on the outside, but God looks at the heart. Legalism will disciple people into a system of living, but not into the Author of Life. The Psalmist cries out to the Lord, 'With you is the fountain of life, in your light we see light.' Legalism sheds light on our behaviour, but does not impart the life that brings true light to all men.
   It is too easy to point a finger at outward behaviour and habits, and ignore the appalling pride and covetousness that can be hidden in our own hearts. We can forget how patient and gracious the Lord has been with us. We can easily fall into the trap of 'straining out a gnat, and swallowing a camel.' We can strain out a gnat on dress code in church, for example, but ignore the camel of injustice that endorses a theology that silences women from participating fully in the life of that church. The birds of the air will not rest in peace alongside these sort of cats in the branches.

4. The finger in every pie syndrome.

    One of the motives behind legalistic drive is the desire to be in a position of control and influence over people. Sometimes this can be insecurity; we simply want to be needed as 'God's Fixers', putting things right in a way that no one else can. Our identity is driven by the need to make ourselves indispensable, the very opposite of what we should be doing.
   Two of the signs of this syndrome are the inability to say 'no', and the inability to delegate to others who are better equipped to do the task in hand. Self protection often lies at the heart of the 'finger in every pie syndrome.'
   Why were the Jewish leaders so afraid of Jesus? What motivated Herod to have put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under? What motivated David's brothers to pour scorn upon him when he went to confront Goliath? What motivated Tobiah and Sanballat to ridicule Nehemiah? Why were Darius' officials so angry with Daniel? It was a combination of fear, self protection and insecurity.
    Fear that someone more important, or more graced than them was now on centre stage. Defending their own self interests, rather than promoting the interests of others. Insecurity, in that they would not necessarily know where they would now fit in to the overall scheme of things. We are the Lord's servant first, and only secondly the servant of men. The finger in every pie syndrome turns this principle on its head. We become a slave to what people expect of us, rather than prioritising what the Lord has called us to. We become more concerned with what others think about us, rather than how the Lord sees us. Saying 'no' becomes impossible, and delegating to others is seen as a potential risk too far.

5. Rose tinted view of history and tradition.

   Do not say, "Why were the former days better than these?" For you do not enquire wisely concerning this.

                                   Ecclesiastes 7 v 10.

   This is one that I particularly have to be careful of. In a nostalgic way, I often look back on the past through rose tinted glasses remembering all of the selective Match of the Day highlights, but conveniently overlooking the less attractive elements of history.
    It is only very recently that I took the plunge into social networking, emails and mobile phones. First class letters and landlines were my primary means of keeping in touch with anyone outside a one mile radius from my home. That has now changed. My regret is that it took so long to make the change.
    The primary reason I backed out of doing school assemblies back in 2005, was that all the schools I went into were replacing the old fashioned overhead projectors with laptops and projectors. I was intimidated by technology, and reasoning that the old ways were the best ways, I bowed out, and let others go in.
     I would justify not having a mobile phone, or not using email with all kinds of silly nostalgia. The reality is that I was getting caught in a time warp of my own tradition, and I needed to change. The rest is now history. I've even found myself going back into one or two schools to take assemblies with YouTube clips and the like.
   The reason I give this personal example is to illustrate how powerful and stubborn we can all be in resisting change, citing history and tradition as our convenient get out clause for change. You wouldn't be reading this short paper if I hadn't thrown off the shackles of my own prejudice against technology... I write these blogs on my smartphone during the in between moments of the day. If we are not careful we can become a slave to our own little institutions and mindsets, rather than be a servant of the Holy Spirit.
     What self made institutions and mindsets are perhaps preventing you from being a more fruitful servant of the Holy Spirit? Legalism is defined as the exaltation of a formula or red tape at the expense of life and grace. One of my potential red tapes and formulas is 'the past is best.' Getting progressively freed up from this is helping me to sit more comfortably on the branches of the tree. The legalistic cat of 'the past is best', is slowly being starved to death.... I hope!

PS.   This will be the last blog until September. Thanks.