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Monday, 12 October 2020

Lives Less Ordinary - Extract 1

Sabbatical Joys

One of my tasks during sabbatical - a joyful one -  is to publish the biography of my parents, a fifteen year labour of love!

 


 Marlin and Barbara Summers spent 8 years in India followed by 12 years in Pakistan as missionaries. Then they came to Wolverhampton in 1973 and by God's grace founded the Asian Christian Fellowship there (follow this link: ACF.)

Every Monday, I plan to share a small extract in the hope that some will want to read it when it comes out - in time for Christmas, I hope!

Marlin and Barbara Summers were very ordinary people. They were not well educated, were not wealthy, were not from posh backgrounds, and yet the Lord was pleased to use them for his glory in a remarkable way.

EXTRACT 1

 Chapter 1

 

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

 

War, Depression and Turmoil

When Yip Harburg penned his lament, Brother Can you Spare a Dime? it struck a chord with millions of Americans caught up in a deep economic depression. His generation had worked long hours in the opening decades of the twentieth century to build their country into a mighty industrial giant. They had offered up sons to war. But now in 1932, caught in the grip of the Great Depression, it seemed as though their sacrifices counted for nothing, and their dreams lay shattered in the dust:

 

They used to tell me I was building a dream...

Once I built a railroad, I made it run...

Once in Khaki suits, gee, we looked swell...

Say, don’t you remember? They called me ‘Al’

Why don’t you remember? I’m your pal?

Say brother, can you spare a dime?

 

Marlin Summers was shaped by the hardships and turmoil of the Great Depression and the two World Wars sandwiched either side of it. He was born to Charles and Mary Summers on the 6th of August 1912 in the small town of Carrington, North Dakota. Younger brother Laurel and older sister Mildred completed the family of five....

Friday, 9 October 2020

The Lives of Bees - Book Review

 

Reading for Pleasure

 "Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet." Judges 14:14

On holiday this year I read a most fascinating book, "The Lives of Bees" by American bee expert - and world authority - Thomas Seeley. 

Pastors read books for pleasure - always with the squirreling hope of finding a sermon illustration somewhere.

Seeley takes us on a journey - his journey - of bee hunting and bee watching over his whole lifetime. Guess when his interest in bees began? When he was a boy. There's a sermon illustration right there - what we introduce our kids to when they are young has a deep influence on them for the rest of their lives (for weal or woe).

His main purpose in writing is to show how bees live in the wild compared to how we have "tamed" them to live in man-made beehives. Here's the famous Langstroth bee-hive which we've all seen:



And here is a natural beehive, normally up high inside a tree trunk:

Thomas Seeley's book is how the bees behave - naturally  -  in the wild.

Things I learnt about Bees!

Here's what I learnt about bees.

How new hives are formed

Just before new queen bees hatch, the existing queen bee is unsettled by the other bees to encourage her to take off and form a new hive. They feed her less and also encourage her to buzz around the hive more - she gets weaker. Taking the hint, she takes off with 10-20 thousand fellow bees - all her own offsrping - and creates a new hive somewhere else. 

Good job she leaves, because as soon as a new queen bee hatches, she kills the existing queen bee and seeks out all the other queen bee larvae and knocks them off too!

The reasons we can domesticate bees

Bees, as we know can be really dangerous, so how come we can encourage them to serve us in making honey and beeswax? Well, first of all, the size of the nest cavity they enjoy is 20-40 litres - which is a size of many things around human beings, such as large pots. So we could say that bees have domesticated humans, rather than the other way round, finding places near us just right to set up shop. Secondly, bees are not aggressive under two cirucumstances, which we've exploited. They're not aggressive when they are filled with honey or when they smell smoke. The smell of smoke is not a signal to escape the hive but a signal to hunker down and save the rest of the nest. So we can use puffs of smoke to make the bees calm down.

The difference between natural and man-made bee hives?

Natural bee hives are spread out from one another by about a kilometer. We put hives next to one another! That is silly, because some bees mistake one hive for another, and placing them all together allows a dangerous mite to spread harming the health of all the hives.

Beehive keepers should separate their hives from one another.

Bees eat pollen and honey

This was new to me. Bees collect three natural products: nectar, pollen and tree sap (and water). They use the sap to waterproof the chamber, they use the pollen and honey as food. Why so much honey? Well, bees are rare - they live throughout the winter and they use the honey to live on during the winter months (and rainy season too - no foraging possible when the rain is tipping it down).

Bumblebees by contrast, do not survive as a hive over the winter. Their hives are much smaller (around 300 bees) and only the queen bee lives over the winter. Just before winter she adds antifreeze to her blood and hibernates! But honey bees live all year round thanks to that delicious stuff called honey! (A hive needs around 20kgs to survive the winter).

Hive organization

A few little points here. When the bees return from collecting pollen or nectar they are met by other bees who take it from them and store it. In the case of the nectar, the collector bees add compounds to it which thicken it up from watery nectar to sticky syrup.

Hard working Bees

On average during one summer the bees of a hive, all together:

  • make 4 million foraging trips 
  • travel 12 million miles 
  • cover an area of 40 square miles
  • each trip is the equivalent of a human 360 mile trip! (since they fly at about 18mph and each trip takes on average 12 minutes, each trip is about 40,000 body lengths)

During the winter to increase the temperature of the hive, the bees exercise wing muscles - without moving their wings - and this generates lots of heat. An olympic athlete generates around 20 watts of power for every kg of weight. But a bee can generate 500 watts of heat for every kg! (No wonder they need all that honey!)

Bees use hexagonal cells rather than circular ones because by doing so they save around 50% building material (beeswax). 

They prepare a brood in the winter so they will have plenty of workers for the winter. 

What amazing creatures!

How much is there left to know about bees?

Seeley is an unsual scientist! Most scientists tell you they know everything, but on page 290 Seeley lists all the things we do not know. There are lots of mysteries about bees left to be discovered. 

A human being can spend all his or her life learning about one of God's creatures and still never get to the end of the knowledge. 

So there is lots to do in heaven.

The difference between Seeley (and Attenborough) and Christian

The problem with all unbelieving commentators on nature such as Seeley  - and Attenborough - is that they fail to glorify God, the Creator. I know to criticise David Attenborough is to touch a modern saint, but whenever I have watched one of his wonderful programmes, I have always been left profoundly empty. 

Why? Because Attenborough does not go far enough. He stops at the creature, rather then ending with the Creator. 

None of "nature's" wonders, including the humble honey bee, came about by themselves.  All of them are the handiwork of God.

Every time we observe a wonder of creation we should end by saying - or singing - what an amazing God made all of this. 

How great Thou art!

                                              

Saturday, 3 October 2020

Saying good bye to Karl Barth!

 

 Clearing out Stuff!

No-one should complain about a pastor continuing to blog during his sabbatical! I can't help writing, sometimes it helps me clear my own head, other times I hope it helps others.

One of my tasks during Sabbatical is to clear up my study (well over 2000 books, I'm afraid) - it's not been done for 14 years! 

And part of the "clearing process" is to get rid of those books for which I have no real purpose any longer....

...which brings me to Church Dogmatics by Karl Barth - 14 volumes I bought in 2013.

Karl who?

Karl Barth (1886-1968) began life as a Swiss pastor but after around ten years became a professor. 

I have heard it said that he was the greatest theologian of the 20th Century, but  my guess is that another "theologian" made that accolade up.

I was not surprised when someone on FaceBook who saw me selling up Barth asked me "Who is Barth?" To the vast majority of ordinary Christians around the world he is completely unknown.

I read the first half of Volume 1, back in 2013, and gave up. Why?

First because it was frankly boring. This was no Calvin or Spurgeon or Bullinger, no, these were the dry and arid writings of a "skolar" (I fink that's what dey call dem: them dudes what sit in ivory palaces writing long complicated "papers" 'n stuff.)

Secondly it was just pure human logic, one logical line after another. For good reason we should mistrust human logic. For the ways of the Lord are far beyond our ways.

Thirdly, and most significantly, there were few references to Scripture. I have a rather big problem with that one. (Karl Barth is a neo-liberal which means he does not have the high view of Scripture which he should).

So without a qualm, regret, misgiving or second thought, I'm selling off Mr Barth.

A symbolic "throwing out"

But getting shot of "Church Dogmatics" (the ordinary man in the street might wonder if the books are about the experience of church vet with a title like that) is also a symbolic act.

I'd love to read everything Barth wrote while he was a church pastor, because that is an office recognised by the New Testament. But the moment he became a university professor, he entered an "office" that has no place in the New Testament church, and zero relevance to the church (And that's where he wrote Church Dogmatics).

The church has no duty to listen to "professors" or to acknowledge them or bow to them for the New Testament knows of pastors and deacons and evangelists, but no professors.

The only teachers we should listen to are those who are at the coal face of church life and spiritual warfare (pastors, evangelists, deacons...): the Pauls, the Calvins, the Grebels, the Sattlers, the Spurgeons, and the Kellers. 

The moment a teacher moves out of the real world and into the academy he has lost all authority in the church and we should be wary of what he says. For sure we are not bound to pay him any attention.

So ditching Barth has been therapeutic for me. 

The older I grow, the more I limit my Christian reading to those who actually serve(d) in the kingdom of God on the ground. The less I read academics (unless it is to know what not to believe, or how not to write or preach - which is a valuable excercise sometimes).

What the church needs is not more "skolars" but more men and women of faith who will go out into the world and make a difference for the kingdom of God. Not ivory palace thinkers but fishermen and fisherwomen of fearless holy faith.

My guess is that in  50 years no-one will have heard of Barth except the poor souls who are forced to read his boring stuff in dry and dusty academies. But we will be reading Spurgeon and all the other real human writers far beyond this century.

So saying goodbye to Barth is a sign post on the spiritual journey I am making...

The other plus about throwing our Barth is this: the 14 volume set has increased in value 10 fold in seven years! This must be because in 2013 everyone was getting shot of printed works in preparation for the online world where books would be history. An over-reaction, for many people still love the feel of a book in their hands...

Anyway, if you want to read Church Dogmatics by Karl Barth, head right over the Facebook marketplace.... but you'd better have a pretty penny in your hands.

Monday, 24 August 2020

On Sabbatical!

Bilbo Baggins

A line from Bilbo Baggins comes to mind: "I feel thin, sort of stretched like butter scraped over too much bread. I need a holiday a very long holiday....."

Many pastors and full-time Gospel workers and missionaries - and their wives - feel like Baggins from time to time, but in the place of the word "holiday" they would put "sabbatical."

The Old Testament is filled with work - and rest. The Lord's people worked hard because they had God as their model. As he worked six days, so did they.

But they also rested, once again, because the Lord was their model. Just as the Lord rested on the Seventh Day and hallowed it, so they rested on the seventh day.

The word "sabbath" means rest.

But in additon to the weekly Sabbath, Jews enjoyed feasts all year long, four in Spring (Passover, Unleavend Bread, Firstfruits, Pentecost) and three in Fall (Trumpets, Day of Atonement, Tabernacles). Some lasted seven days. 

Which means the Lord wanted his people to rest.

In the church I serve, and in many similar churches, full-time pastors are given sabbaticals of around 3 months, every seven years. 

Pastors and Sabbaticals

The reasons for this are many. For one, a pastor's work is a calling, not a job. Many jobs occupy 37 hours a week. Rarely will a pastor work less than 60 hours a week.

Pastors can be called upon at any time of the day (or night). 

Pastors never "leave their work at the office" but carry the burdens of ministry 24/7, 365. 

Pastors, perhaps above all else, are at the forefront of Satan's attacks on the church. Satan's logic is "strike the shepherd, scatter the flock." So pastors are attacked like no-one else. Because if Satan can undermine a pastor, he scatters the flock. So pray for your pastors.

For all these reasons, and more, pastors need regular breaks to be rested, restored and revived.

Sabbatical Plans

Sabbaths are not extended holidays. (I know of no genuine pastor who would want to sit on the beach for 3 months!) No, Sabbaticals are about rest through change. Since I am just about to go on Sabbatical myself (September-November 2020) let me tell you what I will be doing, God-willing.

Rest

Not sleep or beach stuff, but taking time off from the daily and weekly pressures of ministry - that will be rest in itself.

Reading

A large part of those three months will be given up to reading. I have a long list of books to read, from one on the latest books about how bees and bee hives are organsised "The Lives of Bees" to books written about and by the Anabaptists. (The Anabaptists are my favourite 1500-1600s reformers. They came from the ranks of ordinary folks, and were concerned to restore the church not only to pure doctrine but just as importantly to pure practice).

We have lost out by neglecting these precious reformers, so I plan to drink from that stream for a while.

Scripture

I plan, God-willing, to study Ezekiel in my daily Bible studies. It's a book I know little about and am looking forward to exploring what God is saying through this great Old Testament prophet.

Meditation

To help me meditate and pray I am taking AW Tozer's The Christian Book of Mystical Verse. Don't be put off by the title - it's just a book of ancient hymns.

Fisherman's Press

And then, God-willing I am hoping to start a new Christian Press, which will focus on simple and practical and tested material for ordinary churches.

Report Back

Perhaps I shouldn't have started with Bilbo Baggins. For he goes on to say, "And I don't expect to return!" I plan to return, and report back to my church and on this blog a progress report, God willing, on my sabbatical.

But this will be one of my last posts until December.

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Three Score - Reflections on Turning Sixty

 

 My Favourite Birthday Card

A month or so ago, I turned the grand old age of sixty. A few weeks earlier, I asked my wife if she would help me turn off my age data on Facebook - a platform I do not use all that much anyway - so that my birthday could pass by unnoticed. 

This was not because I wanted to avoid the facts of the case, it was because I notice in the Scriptures that Birthdays don't get a good rap mainly because they are opportunities for excess - Pharoah and Herod both chop off heads on their birthdays. Job's children, he fears, will have sinned through excess on their birthdays. We never find the apostles taking a day off because it's their birthday. Birthdays are non-entities in New Testament Christianity.

Following this global and universal trend of excess, we must confess that we make far too much of a fuss over birthdays. I doubt if anyone thought of birthdays in the persecuted yet beautiful Underground Church of former communist USSR. Our zeal for birthday celebrations is a direct consequence of living in an age of ease: we simply have too much time and too much money on our hands.

(Notwithstanding, I appreciated every token of kindess shown to me on my sixtieth!)

A Pslamic Approach 

The first thing I notice about the passing of the years comes from Psalm 90, the reflections of Moses in the late winter of his life.

Moses is sober about the turn of the seasons. He starts with the eternity of God, to set our few three score and ten years in context. "From everlasting to everlasting you are God." 

He ponders the utter sovereignity of the Lord over life and death. "You sweep men away in the sleep of death."

He reflects the sinfulness of our present lives and the consequent discipline of the Lord, "all our days pass away under your wrath."

He remembers that he has no home in this world, for the Lord has been his "dwelling place throughout all the generations."

And he utters the note of passionate longing that marks every Spirit-born saint, "Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love."

I make three short observations on my sixtieth year...

 Contrast

The first is how little I have accomplished for the Kingdom of God in my life thus far. I do not say that to attract symapthy. I was brought up in a missionary home, by parents who were sold out for Jesus in a way I have never witnessed anywhere in anyone. And I know that their zeal and accomplishments and sacrifices for the sake of the Gospel far outstrip mine. 

Without models around us, we tend to think we're doing OK. But having lived with humble godly sold-out parents, I know that I have done little by contrast.

Thanksgiving

I am profoundly thankful to the Lord for his amazing mercy to me over these six decades. He has showered gifts on me that I do not deserve. He has given me a lovely godly wife who is both my best friend and my kindest critic.

The Lord has given me four wonderful sons. I often marvel how well they have turned out considering their dad!  I thank the Lord for the precious gift of children.

The Lord has granted me wonderful health. People have said to me "I can't believe you are sixty years old!" If that is true, I put it down to the grace of God. Perhaps I have inherited good genes. Perhaps the example of my dad who walked every where every day has inspired my daily walking habits. Perhaps the copied custom of my parents to fast regularly has helped my body to repair itself. I don't know, but all is of grace, not me.

The Lord has given me the opportunity to serve his people - a high calling which I so enjoy, though it is often exhausting. I am particularly thankful for the loving and supportive church it has been my privilege to serve for the last 14 years, and especially the godly leaders who have been by my side through calm as well as storm.

So I look back with deep and profound thankfulness.

Hope

But finally, since I am trying to be brief, I look forward with hope. My father, in whose long shadows I often find myself, began his greatest ministry at the age of 60, retiring at the age of 84 (much as Moses began his at 80, retiring at 120). So if the Lord provides health and strength, I sincerely hope I can serve the Lord and be of some use in his kingdom in the summer and autumn of my life.

Perhaps at the age of "18" I can use my "42" years of experience to bless other!

Nothing terrifies me more than the secular idea of retirement - the idea of living a  new lazy selfish life, simply playing golf or visiting the grandchildren or wasting both time and money on travel. That would be utter purgatory to me!

My greatest hope is to go home. This world is emphatically not my home. To be honest I often feel a stranger in the west, for I was born and shaped by a poor missionary life in Pakistan.

Many missionary kids (MKs) refer to themselves as "third culture" kids. Not at home where they were born on the missionfield, not at home back in the west, straddling two cultures, happy in neither, a kind of third culture nomad. 

Well, I'm a fourth culture kid, for nowhere here is my home. And the older I get the more I long to depart and be with Christ which is better by far. 

But the Lord may have work for me to do here. And I have children who still need me (they never really 'leave home!') and a wife I dearly love and want to grow old with. So we mustn't be selfish about leaving, must we?

In the 60s, on the shores of the Aabian Sea each summer, the Summers' Family would spend ten days or so in a clapped out wooden beach hut. There in the cool of the evening shadows, we sang what I have always felt is the true song of my heart:

This world is not my home, I'm just a passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue;
The angels beckon me from heaven's open door,
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore.

O Lord, you know I have no friend like you,
If heaven's not my home, then Lord what will I do?
The angels beckon me from heaven's open door,
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore.

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Should We Disobey the Government? Is John MacArthur Right?


 John MacArthur, Grace Community Church Sun Valley
 
 A Great and godly Pastor
 
I have long admired the ministry of John MacArthur, the 81 year old pastor of Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, California.

I have been blessed by his preaching, profitted from his books, and above all else, admired his uncompromising stand on the key issues of our day.
 
(My appreciation of MacArthur, by the way, has got nothing to do with the size of his church, for in God's eyes, according to the Scriptures, numbers are irrelevant to the way the Lord views both churches and their leaders. Not one New Testament church is commended for being large, not one reproached for being small).

We thank the Lord for John MacArthur!

But we question his decision to open up Grace Community Church against the commands of the local authorities. 

You can hear his reasoning HERE and HERE
 
Should we in the UK follow his lead? There are four reasons, as far as I can see, for not following MacArthur on this one - and let's remember that it is a secondary issue, not a primary one.

The American Scene

The US is not the UK. The pioneering can-do attitude which enabled the pioneers to advance across inhospitable terrain transmutes to a fierce individuality and  independency which is just not British. We have seen these differences during lockdown - Americans have been far more outspoken than their British counterparts.

The Big-Building Issue

And then you have the natural pressure that any institution which owns a building feels when it is not used. Something needs to be done! When it comes to churches this can easily translate into a faulty view of the church. Church is a group of people; where they meet is irrelevant. But we can imagine the pressure on the megachurches to open up again for all sorts of reasons, including financial. 
 
The church is alive when folk meet in homes, in gardens, in outdoor spaces. They don't all need to meet together in a building for church to be "real." 

So Grace Community Church, and indeed any church, could simply encourage their people to make better (and more New Testament) use of their homes, gardens and basements. That could have been their response to the pandemic - let's get ourselves a more biblical ecclesiology. And perhaps that is happening.

What Governments are not Saying

No government in the world (exceptions excepted) are telling churches "you may not meet for worship any more." If they were, we'd all have to ignore their instructions, as the believers in Communist Russia did, and meet in secret, in basements, attics, forests, wherever.

Governments are saying "don't meet at the moment because of the risk to health." That is a world away from "stop meeting." And they are saying this to all religious groups, and all festivals and all large gatherings. Christians are not being targetted.

The Archilles Heel

The fundamental flaw in the decision of Grace Community Church is this: they have made the assessment that the risk of the pandemic is far less serious than the Government are making out. It is largely, as far as I can see, this argument that is propelling their move to re-open.
 
There may be some truth in it. My own guess, for what it is worth, is that governments are looking at how they will be judged. If their policies result in more deaths than the country next door, then ammo is given to their political enemies.

And of course, governments are on a steep learning curve themselves! So they may well be over-egging the dangers and erring on the side of caution.

But is it right, on a matter of a secular judgement "how serious is this pandemic" for churches to act as though their own judgement is more accurate than that of the Government's?

A simple analogy, I think, settles the matter. As a driver I constantly disagree with the judgement of the road authorities on what speed limit they set on each road. Most of the time I think it's too low, but sometimes I think its too high.

So near me, thet've set the speed limit on the Oldbury Road at 30mph. There are stretches of that road where it could easily be 35 or even 40 - at least that is what I think.

Do I then have the right to drive at 35 or 40 on those stretches? Emphatically not. I am called upon by the Lord to obey those in authority (Romans 13). 

My judgement does not count, theirs does.

If a government comes to the conclusion that it is unsafe for large gatherings to take place, we must obey them. They are not stopping Christians from meeting - for we can meet anywhere. They are not stopping worship, for we can sing in our homes or in the countryside.

They are not asking us to disobey any rule of Christ. And therefore we are bound to obey them.

Summing it Up

If we really believe the judgement of the goverement is wrong, we should spend our energies lobbying them, persuading them where they are going wrong. Hopefully they will listen. Once a vaccine is ready we'll be able to meet up anyway. 

But there seems no compelling reasons to disobey the law of the land, and in the process chalke up a $1000/day fine.

Let's wait and see what happens.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Explosive Christianity in China


The Souls of China

If you are looking for a book about religion in  China after Mao, you probably couldn't do better than the one by Ian Johnson. But let me spare you from wading through 450 pages!

Most of the book needn't be read, for it is about different false religions in that land. The worthwhile chapters are the first and last along with all the chapters about the Early Rain Church in the 16 million city of Chengdu, where Wang Yi is pastor.

The Revival of All Religion

This book makes a good case for the general religious nature of mankind. The communists could not rid their people of the God-given natural religious impulse of mankind. Idols to every god is how the Athenians expressed this nature.

Mankind is incurably religious.

So it was inevitable that when Mao clamped down on religion it would merely go underground, and when this was impossible, that the Communist Party would seek to adapt its attiude to religion to take into account this fact. Document 19 expressed their new but still controlled attitude towards religion.

After the death of Mao in 1974 the nation went into crisis. Their god had died. As they became richer they realised that their unhappiness was not tied to their poverty:

“We thought we were unhappy because we were poor. But now a lot of us aren’t poor any more, and yet we are still unhappy. We realize there something missing and that’s a spiritual life.”

And so they began to seek for answers:

“..hundreds of millions of Chinese are consumed with doubt about their society and turning to religion and faith for answers that they do not find in the radically secular world constructed around them. They wonder what more there is to life than materialism and what makes a good life..”

So that now, Johnson says,

“It is hardly an exaggeration to say China is undergoing a spiritual revival similar to the Great Awakening in the United States in the 19th C.”

The result has been a dramatic increase in all religious activity, but especially a turn to the true and living God.



More people are Christians than belong to the Communist party and the rate of growth of evangelical Christianity is around 7% per year!

Reflections

My sad  guess is that this book (2017) probably contributed to the arrest and imprisonment of pastor Wang Yi in late 2019. The author, who does not appear to be a believer, just writes - as journalists think they must - all the truth without any idea of its consequences. So many details about Wang Yi and the Early Rain church should have been left out. Why the members of that church trusted a secular journalist is also strange.

Jesus, especially in Mark's Gospel, continually kept good news out of the public eye so that he did not bring forward his arrest and death.

We learn so much about the white-washing of history by the communists. One of the truths that led Wang Yi to Christ was the way missionaries to China had done such good and been responsible for many of their best institutions. All of this he had to find out for himself!

We learn how Wang Yi is able to use the massive positive influence of Christianity on China as a major tool in his evangelistic outreach.

We learn that faithfulness to the Gospel will result in persecution. Wnag Yi and his wife were imprisoned. His wife has been released but he has been given a nine-year sentence and his 13 year old son has to live under surveillance.

We learn above all else that Christ will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against him or his kingdom.

So let us double our efforts at reaching out to the lost and pray that the Lord will grant to us a harvest of disciples.