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Monday, 30 September 2013

How do you handle "edgy saints"?

A life in tradition
If you have spent your life in "traditional church" - no offense, just observation - you are probably subliminally programmed to reject edgy Christians. This, by the way, is not such a bad thing - provided you recognise it and learn to overcome its severe restrictions.

This is how traditional Christianity tends to think: "All Christians  - at least 'proper' ones - must fall within a certain framework, an envelope engineers might say, a box others would put it. If they have edges which stick outside the box, well, they're not in your team / group / denomination / etc."

The good side to this approach is that you're not likely to be led astray: you can spot a wacko seven holy miles away, and so you stay safe.

There are some advantages to this aspect of tradition.....

The down side
The down side is that you are likely to miss many, if not most of God's most precious - and beautiful - gems. God is Creative by his very nature, expressed in - for example - the 350,000 different kinds of just beetle he has made, the  every-one-different galaxies he has created and every single human being: no two are the same.

And it is no different in his spiritual creations. Every conversion story is different, every single journey to faith in Christ - and then to spiritual maturity - differs from every other one. Every church differs from every  other church. This is to be a source of rejoicing, not sorrow. It is the cults - and every cultist tendency - who want everyone to look the same.

The mysterious Sadhu Sundar Singh
In my sabbatical work I have come across a wonderful but mysterious Christian who worked in North India, by the name of Sundar Singh. He prefixed his name with "Sadhu" to more easily reach his kinsfolk who were seeking God.

Born in 1889, Sundar's mother was very "religious". He was fortunate to go to a Christian school where he heard the Gospel (clothed in a western garb, but sufficiently the Gospel to be understood by an Indian). 

At the death of his beloved mother, when he was 14, he took a turn for the rebellious worse and in deep despair cried out to heaven one day. If God was real would he reveal himself, or by morning Sundar would throw himself under the wheels of a train.

In his grace, Jesus revealed himself that night and from that moment all seeking came to an end (Of course, because Jesus is wisdom, not to mention righteousness, holiness and redemption). He was persecuted and forced to leave home, and so, as a single man, spent the rest of his life preaching the Gospel to villagers who had no other opportunity to hear it. He tried a western-style Bible College, but (not surprisingly) found it dull and irrelevant to his work in India and left. He spent a lot of time with God on his own, with Bible in hand, and took the dress of an Indian religious man (a Sadhu) so as to reach his own people with the Gospel.

His particular desire was to reach forbidden Tibet, and so over a dozen times he braved freezing winters and dangerous mountain passes to preach the Gospel there. No wonder he was nicknamed "apostle of the bleeding feet."

Over the course of a brief life (around 40 years) he received alot of opposition, but gladly took it for Christ's sake. He even came over to the West but was appalled at the spiritual poverty of our god-forsaken lands.

One day he went on a trip to Tibet and was never seen again.....

Why I like this guy
I like this saint because he was a one-off; a real man of God who was single-minded. When I was growing up my dad would show the film of his life to his Asian Christian friends to inspire them to do great things. You can watch "Journey to the Sky" here: 

Journey to The Sky (miss out the first bits and get to the man speaking bits, move the slider to 20 minutes)

A warning about edgy saints
Edgy saints have edges by definition, and so everything they say must be tested - as with the regular guys too - tested by Scripture. (If you want to know why edgy Christians are edgy it's because they have not spent enough time with other Christians - I mean meaningful submit-to-one-another-out-of-reverence-for-Christ time. They have been on their own too much, and so some of the rough edges that  naturally get rubbed off in fellowship with the church remain.)  Sundar is to be applauded for wearing the safron robe of a Sadhu and thus gaining a hearing no one else  would ever gain. He is to be applauded for his desire to know God more and to be dissatisfied with the spiritual status quo. He is to be applauded for his single-minded mission to the lost.

We don't quite to know what to think of the mysterious tales that follow in his wake. Some of them at least, we can be sure, are the product of over-zealous disciples of his. But camel's-hair clothes, honey and locusts shouldn't put us off any saint.

Whenever there is true wheat you're bound to find some chaff.

Don't let the chaff put you off, or you'll miss some of God's most beautiful gems.  

Friday, 27 September 2013

Churches are built by preaching

Forget the academy and qualifications....
If you have read this blog before, you will know how hostile (or at least apathetic) I am to the encroachment of worldly academic training and qualifications into the Kingdom of Christ.

One reason for this attitude is that there is no connection between qualifications and day to day practical godliness: example: I read the biography of a Christian convert from Sikhism this week, who "drops it in" that she has an MA (for the wise but unlettered, an MA is a Master of Arts degree: it's one step up from a BA and one step down from a PhD). The thing is this - she is supposed to have a good education.  And yet the book reveals a woeful lack of  spiritual understanding. She may have used her mind to learn some secular subject but she certainly hasn't used her mind to understand God and his ways from the Scriptures since her conversion. Having qualifications may actually prevent a man or woman from growing in Christ, because they might proudly think they don't need to learn, because they got a what-not after their name, and the posher the what-not the less they are inclined to be learners.

Every unlettered Christian ought to be encouraged: you do not need any kind of academic training to follow Christ and to be useful in his kingdom.

...but don't forget the mind or forget godly knowledge
A profound apathy and  hostility to a worldly attitude to the academy, however, must not be misinterpreted as an apathy or hostility to the use of the God-given mind or godly knowledge. God has given us wonderful minds and we are called to love God with them. One of the most repeated accusations of bad shepherds of God's people in the Old Testament is that they lacked understanding - they didn't have the knowledge required to shepherd. We are called to grow not only in grace but in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. The very title 'disciple' means learner.

You can't grow as a Christian without knowledge and using your mind. And a major way godly knowledge is imparted is through preaching.

No church will be built without solid regular, consistent preaching
No church which puts preaching on the back-burner as a low priority activity will ever grow New Testament shaped Christians. Look at all the preaching in Acts. Look at all the teaching-letters of the rest of the NT. The NT church was built on teaching and preaching.

A church which does not value and esteem preaching will end up looking like the world. Uncorrected by the Word of God, those Christians will simply find themselves untransformed in their minds, squeezed into the world's mould.

Why have so many churches drifted towards women pastors and "even bishops"? Because the Word has not been taught and the feminism of the world has simply shaped their thinking. Why have some even drifted towards approving homosexual relationships (the very mention of such a drift should make a Christian want to throw up, because such acts are an abomination to the male-female creating God)? Because churches do not preach the Bible.

Forget a worldly attitude to knowledge, but you can't grow a church without knowledge and a church won't mature without consistent labour-intensive preaching.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

What does Jesus mean "Do not Judge"?

To judge is human
A well-known command of Jesus is "Do not judge, or you too will be judged" followed by "take the plank out of your own eye." (Matthew 7:1-6).

What does this mean, since one of the distinctive characteristics of humankind is the ability - and tendency - to use our God-given minds to assess things, events and people?

We drive with a friend and just find ourselves making an opinion about their driving technique - we can't help it. We taste new food and make a judgement  - we like it or we don't. We try on new clothes and decide they work for us or they don't. Our minds are constantly making assessments: we are wired to judge.

Jesus cannot mean that we suspend our mind's critical faculties and make no judgements ever again!

Nor can he mean, "do not evaluate someone else's behavior or beliefs". In verse 6 of that very chapter Jesus commands us not to throw pearls to dogs - a command which requires a judgement of who might behave like a 'dog' when presented with spiritual pearls. And later in verse 15 Jesus urges us to judge a person's fruit to assess whether or not they are a true or false prophet. The apostle John urges us to 'test the spirits', and so it goes on.

We are frequently urged in Scripture to use our critical faculties when it comes to both belief and character. Not to do so would quickly lead us into serious spiritual error. 

What Jesus does mean
The clue to Jesus' meaning is in his use of the carpentry terms "speck" and "plank". Jesus is referring, not to the sins we find in each other (he deals with that in Matthew 18), but to the weaknesses and foibles we all possess. We are not to spend our lives pointing these out to one another!

We all have weaknesses and foibles that do not constitute sin, but is more about poor manners, silly mistakes or bad habits. Someone forgets to say thank you. Another is always late. Someone never turns the tap off. Another's planning is always Someone is just so slow. Another is impatiently fast. This one talks forever, that one never talks at all. And so the list goes on. None of these constitutes sins, per se, they are more specks (or planks) than sins.

This is what Jesus means, when commanding us not to judge as we relate to our brothers and sisters:

(1) Avoid a judgmental spirit fullstop (because if you don't you'll get it in the neck, back). If you constantly judge others for their foibles, you will find they judge you back. It's a law of life. A wise man will allow many faults and weaknesses of others to pass by without any comment. "It is in the glory of a man to overlook an offense." (Proverbs 19:11) So if people are constantly judging you, ask yourself: is it because you are constantly judging them? And if so, stop it (!)

(2) Focus on your own foibles, rather the weaknesses of others. The only way to avoid the hypocrisy of constantly pointing out others' faults is to work on your own faults. If we worked on our own considerable planks we would scarce have time to bother with the small weakness-specks of others.

The supreme Example
Jesus' training of the Twelve gives us the supreme example. With twelve rough blokes he must have been surrounded by a thousand specks and planks.

And yet it is only "big stuff" sins that Jesus rebukes. Such as prayerlessness, faithlessness and pride.

Isn't this what love looks like?

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Why we are passionate about Home Groups / Small Groups

The R-TF Scale ("Religion" to "True Faith")
If there is a scale between "Religion" (= ritual, law, have-to-do-this, safe, do it because we always do, cold heart, distance, etc.) and True Faith, how would you know where you stood, or for love's sake, where someone else stood? What indicators would reveal whether someone was at one end of the spectrum or the other?

First and foremost would be a heart that loves God, longs for more of Him and lives for his glory, for that is the first commandment. But since the movements of the heart are impossible for anyone but the owner to know (and even there, deceitfulness prevents certain knowledge), how can someone on the outside discern where that soul stands on the  R-TF scale?

By their fruits you shall know them, says Jesus. And among those fruit, says his apostle John is love for brothers: How can you say you love the God you can't see if you don't love his people who you can see? (1 John 4:20, Summers' paraphrase).

[The first letter of John is much about the cast-iron connection between vertical love (love to God) and horizontal love (love to brothers and sisters): they stand or fall together.]
The test of fellowship = the test of Love for God
So a big test of spiritual vitality is a love for the brothers. And how do we know we love our brothers? One test is that we want to meet with our brothers and sisters, share our lives with them, and carry their burdens. We understand that the church is a 'body' - that we are an ear they so desperately need and they are an eye or hand which we can't live without.

You don't see yourself as a foot walking solo down the street on your own, or an ear all on its own, you see yourself as part of a body, part of a world of other parts.

You meet with your brothers and sisters, you invite them into your home, you call them up during the week, you serve them, help them, love them, pray for them.

Test yourself
On the R-TF scale, you are at the R end of the scale if all you do is "come to church on a Sunday" without any other living, meaningful connection with brothers and sisters in the church. If on the other hand you give yourself to a fellowship group and are in your brothers and sisters' homes and hearts, it's a good sign that you have the love of God (which always manifests itself in love for his people) in your heart and you are at the TF end of the scale.

Test yourself.

The strange case of Mr. A
I once knew a man who would read his Bible and pray xhundred hours a week and be ever such a close obeyer of the commands of God. I would feel a spiritual pigmy and a godless sinner every time I visited him. He was up there and I was - I knew - down here.

Back then I thought he was a godly man - but I don't any more.

Why the change of opinion? Mr A had virtually no fellowship with other believers, he would move from one church to another (when they did or said something he disagreed with) and was for ever critical of the church.

I have come to see, over the years, from Scripture that such a man is at the R  end of the spiritual spectrum (at least towards P for Pharisee). A safe, but very dangerous place to be, because without the accountability and correction of his brothers and sisters he will continue to spiral further away from God (though he himself thinks he's getting closer to God, such is the delusion of Pharisaism).

Why Home Groups are so important
This is why, at Manor Park Church, we consider fellowship at home group / small group an essential part of discipleship. Jesus did not call twelve men to hang out with him for a sermon on a Sunday, he asked them to follow him in the grit and grime of ordinary life. And in that grit and grime to become more like Jesus.

It's discipleship - not numbers - that matter
It's another reason why we as a church have no interest in numbers. Numbers signify absolutely nothing.  A church of 500 is not one bit more impressive than a home group of 5. Numbers reveal nothing whatsoever about whether God is at work or not. Almost any church leader can get up the numbers (by a variety of methods including good preaching or its opposite, lowest-common-denominator preaching, by manipulation, by entertainment, and what not).

Strange though it may seem from a pastor - it gives me no joy when someone new comes along on a Sunday.

I hope I am polite to them and kind to them but until they are incorporated into the body, via home groups / small groups, I have no joy. Only when they are integrated into the body can we be assured that they have a fighting chance of growing in their faith, with the help of the rest of the body. I know they cannot grow listening to a sermon every week. I know there is no way I can make them grow - the notion that Christians grow by listening to preaching alone is nowhere found in Scripture (it's one of the unReformed legacies of the Reformation and one of the consequences of the church aping the academy, where you learn primarily by attending lectures - listening to stuff).

Pastors are called to make disciples - not waste their time with pew-warmers. That's strong, but it's also true.

Only when a believer is connected to the body (= only when they are serious about growing in Christ) do they give us joy. 

Monday, 16 September 2013

Do we need "trained counsellors" in the church?

The Aping of the World
"Monkey see, monkey do" is the moto of all too many 'Christians'. The world appoints women leaders - so should we, thinks the Church of Wales. The world approves of homosexual relationships - so should we, says Steve Chalke et al. The list gets longer by the day.
"The Church needs professional counsellors"

One item on that list is the idea that in order to counsel someone you need "professional training". It is unthinkable that, for example, you should counsel someone going through a marriage crisis unless you have sat behind a desk and taken notes from so-called experts, then sat an exam and got yourself some letters after your name. 

This idea in the world is driven by the following secular pressures:

(1) Knowledge pips wisdom. You have a certificate which says that you crammed your head once upon a time with knowledge that equips you to help someone else: we live in a knowledge-crazy, qualification-mad culture.

BUT, what's needed when you counsel is not knowledge but wisdom. And there is no necessary connection - whatsoever - between knowledge and wisdom. I'd prefer being counselled by a godly binmen ("Technical Hygiene Operative") who doesn't even know what a BA is (or who thinks it stands for Born Again) than any letters-after-my-name 'professional'.

(2)  You'll get sued. A second driving force behind training mania is the litigious culture we live in. We dare not do anything unless we are protected by something  - in this case a certificate and insurance paid to a professional body - in case the counseled turns on the counselor.

BUT, counseling in the church is  not a legal contract between Professional and Client, it's a relationship between two saved sinners in the same family who love each other - between brothers and sisters -  who sit down to open God's Word together in a spirit of humility and prayer.

(3) No-one knows the truth anyway. Who'd want to be a worldly counsellor? All you are allowed to do is bounce ideas back to the counseled - why? Because the world frankly doesn't have a clue. It's in the dark. It does not know how a marriage should work. It doesn't know how a parent should bring up a child.

BUT, children of the light do have answers to all of the problems and questions of life. We have the Scriptures which are lamp and light, we have the Holy Spirit within us, and the experience of our walk with God.

Thank God for Jay Adams
Some decades ago ago Jay Adams wrote a helpful book, "Competent to Counsel" in which he argued that every Christian should be able to counsel any other Christian. He was and is absolutely right.

In the church we don't need a new priesthood of "professional counsellors", who so often are trained more in Jung than Jesus.

All we need is ordinary godly Christians who read their Bibles and walk with God. In the church of Jesus Christ, a counseling expert is a godly man or woman with a Bible in their hand and the Holy Spirit in their hearts. 

                   "I myself am convinced my brothers,
                        that you yourselves are full of goodness, 
                              complete in knowledge 
                                 and competent to instruct one another." 
                                                  (Romans 15:14)

 Next time you need counseling, save your pennies, and phone a (godly) friend.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Sabbatical Lesson #1: Learning often starts in a fog

The fog of facts
Most learning experiences - in their early stages - are like 'walking in fog'. You are surrounded by facts of all kinds and cannot yet see the wood for the trees. If you are learning a new language, for example, you are surrounded by a new alphabet, a new grammar and new vocabulary. You can't yet read and you have so many unanswered questions. You could easily give up and many do....

At the moment I am surrounded by hundreds of documents of one kind or another. There are old
photographs from the foothills of the Himalayas, letters written by hand on China-paper "Air Letters" or "Aerograms", prayer letters and information forms, all spanning some 60 years.

It will take two weeks just to read them all, digest them and make notes. Only then will it be possible to write.

The process of writing itself clears the fog. Someone once said something like this (even Google doesn't know the exact quote):

   Reading maketh a broad man
   Writing maketh a clear man

(The quote also said something about the effect of speaking "Speaking maketh a ...... man" but I can't remember now what). 

The point is that as you write, the fog of facts in your mind has to come out linearly and sequentially and so the very act of writing begins to clear the fog.

Of course more is at work when you are trying to write a book whose main aim is to edify and challenge the church. It must be a prayerful work as much as a clear one.

The lesson is....... perseverance in all things.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Sabbatical Hopes and Fears

Sabbatical Hopes
From today I am officially on a writing sabbatical for three months. A 'sabbatical' is not a holiday, it's an opportunity to change gear, be refreshed and see things from a distance a little more clearly. My main writing project is a biography of my missionary parents who founded the Asian Christian fellowship in Wolverhampton in 1972 after 20 years service in India and Pakistan. This is going to be challenging - and exciting.

Some Sabbatical Fears
My greatest fear is not that my fellowship will discover they don't need me anymore! If that happens, no-one will be more delighted than I, for the role of a pastor is to equip the church to do its part.

My greatest sabbatical fear is that some of the weak Christians and the young Christians won't be there when I come back. There is something in every (true) shepherd that roots for the weakest and most vulnerable in the flock. This instinct is a pale reflection of the Good Shepherd's heart, which loves the weak enough to leave the healthy 99 behind and chase the 1 lost sheep.

How to care for the weak and young
So here are some tips for caring for weak and especially young Christians.  Young Christians are like babies; spiritually they are weak and vulnerable. This earthly/spiritual parallel is a great help to understanding how the young in faith must be treated. Our data is the four Gospels, the way Jesus treated the Twelve:

(1) Love them don't burden them
When a baby comes into a family we surround the baby with love and affection. We shower a thousand kisses and smiles upon the child. We do not burden a baby with a list of dos and don'ts or a list of jobs to do! We surround them with love and leave the dishes and car-washing till they are older. This is how we must treat young Christians too. A young Christian will have 1000 errors in thought and 1000 errors in practise to sort out, and we, having been around the block a few times will easily notice these - and here is the rub - be tempted to correct them. We must resist that temptation with all our might remembering that sanctification was a long process with us and so it will be with them. Don't continually correct a baby Christian's doctrine or life. And don't burden them with service - not quite yet.

(2) Change for their sake, don't expect them to change for you
When a baby enters a family, everyone from parents to siblings change to accommodate the wonderful new life. So too must a home group change to accommodate the young believer, feeding them milk and patiently answering all their 'foolish' questions and putting up with all their wrong behaviour. If you read the Gospels you will find that Jesus corrects his baby disciples only when their sins are Big Time sins (prayerlessness "could you not pray with me?...", pride "what were your quarreling about?" and lack of faith "O you of little faith"). Smaller-fault corrections are absent from the Gospels.

(3) Example means more than you will ever know
A young Christian is all ears and eyes. They are absorbing everything in this new world. That's what a baby does as soon as it opens its eyes. And what a baby sees, a baby copies and knows. If a baby Christian is surrounded by bad examples, they will stunt his or her growth.  If you older Christian come to church or home group when you feel like it, a baby Christian will soon pick up the message "these meetings don't matter at all" and they will turn out as erratic as you are.  If they are taught some wacky "fifth importance" doctrine when they are a babe, that is what they will think is important in ten years time: and instead of concentrating on big truths, they will so easily waste time on genealogies and old wives tales. On the other hand if you walk in newness of life before them, they too will be encouraged to walk in newness of life.

(4) Babies die without food - quickly
Nothing is more important for a baby than pure milk - regularly. So if a baby Christian is not joining in with other believers and not being fed, soon they will soon grow cold. It doesn't take long. We who have built up faith-fat reserves over many years can go a little longer, but not a babe-in-Christ.

The supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in bringing new life is not in Scripture set in opposition to the care of young believers a local church needs to exercise. They go together, the latter is one means of the former.

Jesus warned in the strongest terms against those who would stumble a 'little one' - it would be better if they were dead, he said. This shows us the seriousness of caring for the weak and young in faith.

So walk softly in the fold, and especially beside the young in faith. Love them, overlook a million faults in doctrine and life, pray for them and set an example of love and patience: the sort of love and patience you have been personally been shown.

My fears relieved
At Manor Park Church we have a loving and caring network of home groups and home group leaders, not to mention good undershepherds. So I should not fear.....

May the Lord use them all to protect and love the weak and young.