11 July 2013

Familiar strangers

We're all aware of people we know by sight but not by name. This happens when we repeatedly see the same face in a certain context - travelling to work, having a coffee while shopping. Research shows how widespread this is; can the church make use of this idea as a missional resource?

Will I recognise anyone here?
Will I recognise anyone here?
Recent research shows that people are regularly in the same place at the same time with others they don't know.

This seems to happen because we're creatures of habit, using the same bus at the same time every day, visiting the coffee shop at the same time, using favourite shops over and over again.

Such patterns of behaviour mean that faces may become familiar to us, even if we don't know a person's name, even if we've never spoken to them. It would be easy to start a conversation with such people; if I recognise their faces they will most likely recognise mine too.

Opportunity for mission - This opens up some interesting possibilities for mission.

I'm going to try deliberately noting people that I see regularly and initiating conversations. Hopefully I can widen the circle of people I know in that way. It's going to be important to be intentionally observant so that I can find people who will feel I'm already familiar.

I'm going to pray about it and ask Father to show me the right people and guide me in the conversations. It'll be very interesting to see how this works out. This is related to the idea of a third place and using such a place as an opening for community and mission.

I don't plan to have religious conversations, just conversations about everyday things at first. As I get to know some of these people better I hope to be able to share the good news that they are loved and special in Father's sight.

Questions:

  • What places do you visit regularly? What are your daily patterns and habits?
  • Can you identify people that you see regularly?
  • Are you willing to try talking to these people?

See also:

10 July 2013

Some issues to grapple with

Leaders in the church, Part 12
< Back to front truth | Index | Gifts, prayer and needs >

Speaking to his disciples, Jesus stresses the importance of avoiding anger, lust, divorce and swearing; he also tells them how important it is to be selfless. He was speaking to leaders in training and it's important that we understand these things are especially significant when we lead.

An angry man
An angry man
Matthew 5:21-42 records some of Jesus' teaching about negative things - anger, lust, swearing oaths and retaliation. After these are dealt with he continues with some positive essentials.

As we pay attention to what he says about both negative and positive, we should bear in mind that he is speaking here to leaders in training, the followers he will later send out to work on their own.

This stuff applies to everyone, but it applies especially to anyone who leads. And if we are truly following Jesus we will do what he does (and that includes leading others into the truth).

The highest standards are demanded of people who lead others. We need to be very serious in understanding the harm that we can do, and we need to accept that we are held accountable by Jesus himself.

Anger - In Matthew 5:21-26 Jesus explains that murder is illegal and will be judged. But then he says something quite astonishing. He tells us that anger, insults and even calling someone stupid will be judged equally seriously.

He tells his apprentices that even if they're in the middle of an important and public religious act at the Temple, if it occurs to them that they've wronged someone in any way they should drop what they're doing and go and put things right straight away.

Or, if someone has a legal case against you, come to an agreement with them before the court appearance. It's just common sense really. But it's an illustration of spiritual common-sense too. We are called to love one another, and amongst other things that means keeping our relationships with one another healthy. If we let anger, differences, grudges or hostility creep in we are failing in love. That is a more serious matter than we may realise and it goes against the new, great commandment to 'love one another as I have loved you'.

Lust - Once again, Jesus' standards exceed those of the law. Even looking is condemned as adultery. It is the heart that counts, not just the actions of the body.

Jesus presses this message home by using a Hebraic figure of speech, absurd exaggeration. Hopefully nobody will take these remarks about gouging out an eye or cutting off a hand literally! But the point about lust is important enough to warrant such words.

Truly loving other people is the key to resolving this issue, as with anger. We cannot hurt those we truly love.

We don't need to list recent examples of sexual misconduct in church circles. It happens more often than we like to think. It's usually well hidden for as long as possible and it's always shocking when the truth comes out.

Divorce - Once again, Yahshua insists that the parting of husband and wife is more serious than many assume. The paper certificate is not the issue here. As with anger and lust we need to see that love will prevent this. But we'd better not mix up the different kinds of love in our minds, I don't mean romantic love here, I mean the kind of love Jesus himself calls for, sacrificial and compassionate.

Swearing - Yes or no is enough. Does this apply only to everyday conversation or does it also apply in a court of law? It applies in both cases. When asked to swear in a court of law, find out if there's an option to affirm that you will tell the truth instead. Such an option exists in both UK and USA law.

Whether or not you consider yourself a leader, remember that you are setting an example that others may follow. In this sense whenever we speak or act we are leading those who are watching and listening.

Selflessness - We must be humble, accepting injustices and giving over and above what is asked of us. This, too, is Christlike. He went to the cross without complaint and neither should we complain when harmed or taken advantage of.

We are to love our enemies. This is an astonishing statement! We are to pray for them. What is this all about? It's a matter of being like our Father who is perfect. The more we are like him the better. Jesus told his disciples that if we have seen him we have seen the Father. So it's just the same as saying we are to be like Jesus.

This is what leadership is all about, becoming daily more like Jesus. Jesus is on a mission and we must follow him in that. And out of mission will come discipleship. Others will follow us as we follow Jesus - that's what it means to 'make disciples'. Jesus reveals the Father to us and we must reveal Jesus to those around us.

We can do nothing greater then lead; we dare do nothing less. All of us. And we can copy Jesus in one more thing. If we remember that he was speaking here to trainee leaders we should understand that we, too, need to be training leaders. It is the most important and effective thing we can do.

Questions:


  • Can you think of some ways in which you could become more like Jesus in thought and deed?
  • In what situations have you led others by your actions or words this week?
  • Which of the negatives and positives above do you find most problematic?
  • Are there strategies you could use to better deal with those problem areas?
See also:


< Back to front truth | Index | Gifts, prayer and needs >

24 June 2013

Those beatitudes

The beatitudes are well known and much loved by many. We try looking at the opposites of those who are blessed to see if we can throw more light on the meaning of these eight statements. If we take them seriously and personally there are some real challenges to all of us in these beatitudes.

A peaceful river scene
A peaceful river scene
Let's look at the beatitudes in a little more detail. I mentioned them in my last post and wrote that I'd revisit them in a bit more detail. And I linked to an older post that I'd now like to expand on.

The beatitudes are presented in Matthew 5:1-12, but my earlier post reversed them, stating what is not blessed as a way of better understanding the meaning.

Here are the beatitude statements again (NIV version), with the opposites that can't be blessed in italics, followed by some thoughts about the meaning.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
The opposite that cannot be blessed - The super spiritual.

The kingdom of heaven is simply not open to the super spiritual. This is astounding, most of us, most of the time, would say that to be worthy of the kingdom one would need to be very, very spiritual. But no! The kingdom is in fact open to those who are spiritually weak and lacking. Not only is it open to them, it is theirs, in some sense they inherit it and therefore own it.

Why is this so counter intuitive? It's because we don't inherit the kingdom of heaven by means of our own spiritual power and authority. Instead we need to understand our desperate lack, turn to Jesus, and receive from him the right to enter in as a gift of grace and love.

If I think I am spiritually rich and self-sufficient I will not (cannot) make the grade. It needs humility and dependence, not arrogant self-sufficiency.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted
The opposite that cannot be blessed - The ones who think everything's fine.

Mourning is not possible unless we are grieving about someone or something. If instead we think all is well, how can we be blessed? This may not refer to those mourning about the dead, but about those mourning over their own worthlessness and sin and that of those they love (the spiritually dead).

Yet in Christ there is no fear of any such thing. Perfect love casts out fear, and his love for us is indeed perfect. He is willing to comfort us in our shame and sorrow, but how can the happy and content be comforted?

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth
The opposite that cannot be blessed - The arrogant.

At face value this one seems simple, even obvious. But it's not. Look a little deeper. Very often it seems that the arrogant are the ones who inherit the earth. In their cocky, self-confident way they trample over others to get exactly what they want. It seems to be a dog-eat-dog world.

In fact, it's the meek who will inherit the earth. Why? The arrogant who think and say and do whatever they like will get what they want in this world - but no more. In their haste to have and consume they will forget that there is a King of Kings, the Prince of Peace who will have his way in the end.

The earth and everything in it belongs to the Almighty who will see justice done. The kingdom of heaven is not just in heaven, heaven rules over earth too. The kingdom is coming, is already here, and nothing is not under the King's lordship and rule. The arrogant need to be careful, someone more powerful is saying, 'Enough! I recognise neither you nor your authority'.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled
The opposite that cannot be blessed - Those who have no appetite for righteousness.

If you have no appetite you will not eat or drink, so how can you ever be filled? We need to be zealous for righteousness. We need to be like a starving person who will seek out food wherever it can be found, or a thirsty person who will drink whatever is available, even water from a river or a puddle. If you drink nothing you will die of thirst.

If you are hungry and thirsty for righteousness you will find it at any cost. You will find it in Jesus no matter what you must give up to receive it. You will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy
The opposite that cannot be blessed - The merciless

Forgive, and you will be forgiven (Matthew 6:14). Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us (Matthew 6:12). The parable of the wicked servant (Matthew 18:21-35).

There's a simple principle at work here, as far as mercy and forgiveness are concerned expect to receive what you mete out to others.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God
The opposite that cannot be blessed - The impure in heart

Impurity gets in the way. The Almighty is holy, so to stand in his presence we must be holy. We must be set apart for his use and his use alone. If there is anything impure in my heart, part of my heart is not available for his use. Therefore I am not holy. So I cannot stand in his presence. I cannot see him.

We don't have pure hearts through our own efforts of will. It's just not possible for fallen people living in a fallen world. So what hope do we have? Why, every hope in Christ who not only cleanses us but also gives us new hearts, new life and a new future with him.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God
The opposite that cannot be blessed - The peace destroyers

We usually think in terms of peace makers and peace keepers, but rarely if ever of peace destroyers. If those who make peace will be called 'children of the Most High', perhaps those who destroy it will be called children of the 'most low'. And who is the lowest? The enemy, the one who fell from heaven, who creeps along the ground on his belly.

But to fully understand we need to know what peace is. It is not just quiet and absence of conflict. Peace in Hebraic thinking is wholeness, completeness, it is health of body, mind and spirit, utter wellness. It is blessing. We could rewrite this beatitude, 'Blessed are those who create holistic blessing because they will be recognised as the children of the Most High'.

Because the Father blesses, his children will bless also. The nature of the Father is in his children and we will be named with his name. If we cannot or will not bless, if we are not peacemakers, we have no part in him.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
The opposite that cannot be blessed - Those who are not righteous enough to attract persecution

Have you been persecuted yet? If not, why not? If you are righteous you will be persecuted by almost everyone.

You will be criticised by church leaders who fear you may undermine them. You will certainly be persecuted by the enemy who knows you speak the truth and fears it spreading. In some countries you will be persecuted by the civil authorities who think you will cause social unrest or spark religious violence.

John the Baptist was executed, John was exiled on an island, Paul was hounded out of Ephesus. And Jesus himself was arrested and executed because of his life and teachings. Religious and civil authorities will fear the things you do and say and the light you shine into places they might prefer to remain dark. If you are righteous, persecution is inevitable.

Questions:

  • Which of the beatitudes is your favourite? Why?
  • Do you find the reversals useful in understanding the meaning?
  • Have you been persecuted, even in subtle ways? Be prepared to share your story with others.
  • What does it mean to you, personally, to be a peacemaker?

See also:

21 June 2013

Back to front truth

Leaders in the church, Part 11
< Jesus makes a start | Index | Some issues to grapple with >

Jesus gets away from the crowds and begins to teach his closest followers. There are strong hints here, and more than hints, that leading is going to be costly. It will require great humility and self sacrifice, hard labour, unpopularity and persecution, and (not least) righteousness.

Galilee with hills on the horizon
Galilee with hills on the horizon
Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Matthew's Gospel show us Jesus teaching his close followers. It is his apprentices that he speaks to here, his disciples, not the crowd. Matthew 5:1 explicitly says that when he saw the crowds he went up on the mountain and while he was sitting there his disciples came to him.

In terms of leadership there are several things to pay attention to here. Yahshua has been travelling throughout Galilee speaking about the good news and showing it in action by healing the sick. As a result he is now being pursued by large crowds, he has become famous.

Heading out - Leaving these crowds deliberately, he goes to a remote spot involving a steep scramble that many of the sick would not have been able to tackle. He sits down on a hillside far above the lake and away from the towns and villages. Only the most determined would have followed him there. He wants to train those who will continue the work of the kingdom after he has returned to the Father.

Leaders all need to do this, at least some of the time. It's essential to reach the crowds, that is the purpose of the mission. But it's every bit as important to pass on the method and the foundational truths to the core followers. What is unique about Yahshua is not that he teaches his followers; all Jewish rabbis did that. He is different because he also goes direct to the crowds. The Pharisees and Sadducees taught their disciples in great detail, but they didn't touch the lives of ordinary people very much.

So here, in Matthew 5:1-20, Jesus comes away from the crowds and does some standard rabbinic teaching. As you read it, remember that he's speaking to leaders, those he will soon be sending out on their own. He needs them to understand some basic truths. And these truths are all back to front. Did the Pharisees think the weak would be blessed?

The beatitudes - These famous sayings of Jesus are very intriguing. Most people are puzzled by them at some level and it's likely the disciples were too. One way to get to the bottom of what seems to be a conundrum is to reverse the individual statements. I outlined this idea a couple of years ago and I have just revisited it in more detail in another post.

But the thing to notice right now is that these statements would have made the disciples think. They would have understood that this Jesus was not motivated by power or wealth, but by humility and compassion. And they would begin to realise that he wanted them to have the same approach to life. This is the underlying philosophy that all church leaders need to have. If not, church becomes an oppressive and hurtful place instead of the place of peace and welcome that Jesus intended.

Trouble, salt and light - In verse 11 Jesus makes it very clear that leaders can expect to suffer in a variety of ways because of him. Why because of him? Simply because anyone who says what Jesus says and does what he does will attract the anger of those holding worldly authority. The scribes, law teachers and Pharisees handed Jesus over for execution. The prophets suffered in the same way. The newly arrested John the Baptist was a very fresh example if one was needed!

And he explained that leaders are responsible for providing flavour and illumination. Those who do not provide these things are of little or no value as leaders in the kingdom. We often read these chapters as if they are written to all believers - and to some degree they are. But specifically they are for the disciples, then and now. Of course, we are all disciples and we are all called to lead and show one another the way. Also, we are all called to the mission of going and making disciples and teaching them everything Jesus taught us. Disciples follow and lead others so that they in turn will become disciples.

And what of the Law? - Jesus explains how his coming affects the Law. Again, it's all about leaders. Those who are obedient and teach others the same will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Do you want to be called great? You will need to become more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees (who attempted to obey the Law in minute detail). How can any man or woman become righteous? It's only possible by believing Jesus, and if we believe we'll teach others to do the same.

Clearly, the standard for leaders in the church is very high indeed. Not in terms of paper qualifications or head knowledge (the Pharisees had all the learning and theology anyone could wish for). Not in terms of appointed authority (the High Priest had that in spades). But in terms of Christ-likeness.

If you aspire to lead, begin by reading Matthew 5, 6 and 7. Then consider what it means to 'follow Jesus up the mountain'. It is hard and dangerous work but very rewarding.

Questions:

  • Are you a leader? What do you think defines a leader?
  • Are you following Jesus? If so you are a disciple, doesn't that make you a leader?
  • Why do you suppose Jesus wanted to spend so much time with his disciples (rather than the crowds)? Surely the more people he could reach the better.
  • Is it better to go wide or deep? Jesus went wide with the crowd and deep with the disciples.

See also:


< Jesus makes a start | Index | Some issues to grapple with >

20 June 2013

Jesus makes a start

Leaders in the church, Part 10
< Jesus is tempted | Index | Back to front truth >

Matthew tells us how Jesus began his ministry by moving to a new town. Like him, we need to find the right time and the right place to proclaim the good news. Like him it's essential that we demonstrate good news as well as speaking about it as widely as possible.

Walking on the shore of Galilee
Walking on the shore of Galilee
Jesus leaves Judaea following John's arrest and returns to the region of Galilee.

He moves away from his home in Nazareth and goes to live in Capernaum instead, then he begins to preach his message about the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 4:12-25).

Isn't it striking that until this time he has done nothing but construction work for thirty years?

Often described as a carpenter, it's likely his work included more than that. He was a constructor and a repairer; if you think about it those were very appropriate tasks for someone who would later construct and repair relationships between the Creator and his creation.

A time and place for everything - At the right time and in the right place he begins his work as a leader. And what a leader! Here is the King of Kings beginning to speak into the world and reveal the redemptive purpose of Yahweh in an altogether new and more dynamic way.

How often do we speak and work in the wrong place and at the wrong time? Usually we will speak whenever and wherever we have the chance. But if we are truly going to be like Christ we must learn to be much more cautious, listening to the Spirit for guidance and doing and saying what he shows us at the time and place of his choosing.

But there's more here for us as leaders. How is it that in verse 16 the 'people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light'? Like Jesus, we must live among the people. It's difficult to reach people who are strangers to us. Jesus goes, moves to a new town, and lives there. If we are going to lead we need to first get in amongst the people we need to reach and allow our light to shine there.

Missional and incarnational - Alan Hirsch considers we need a missional impulse (going out from where we are), and an incarnational impulse (living amongst those we are sent to reach). Only when these are in place can we expect to reach the hearts of the people in meaningful ways that they can accept. Isn't this exactly how Jesus began his service, in Galilee, after John's arrest? He came with a mission and he came to live among us to do it.

And in living there and walking by the sea he sees Simon (known as 'Rocky') and Andrew and comments on what they are doing in such a way that they accept his invitation to follow. He collects James and John in the same way. Now they are a band of five.

And at this point he begins to travel throughout the region, teaching in the synagogues, sharing the gospel, healing the sick, and becoming famous. His ministry is under way! Notice how he has gone out from his home locality (Nazareth) responding to a missional impulse and then settles in Capernaum (responding to an incarnational impulse).

Perhaps he lived there for a period of time, we don't know how long. He might even have taken on construction and renovation work. So Simon, Andrew, James and John were not strangers when he called them to follow him, they lived in Capernaum and would have seen him and spoken with him before, perhaps often.

Speak and act in ways that bless - Matthew 4:23-25 fills in the detail on what Jesus did as he travelled around Galilee. He taught, proclaimed, and healed the sick and the oppressed. People came from miles around, from Judaea, and the Ten Towns and from beyond the Jordan too.

Just as Jesus made disciples out of the people around him, so can we. Potential disciples surround us, all the time. But we must speak to them. And, just like Jesus, we need to bring good news, not only talk about it. Jesus brought good news in the form of healing, freedom and grace. He blessed people. He was kind.

If you aspire to lead, follow his example!

Questions:

  • Are there people in your area with needs? (eg Elderly, sick, struggling to manage, poor)
  • Can you think of ways you might bring something good to such people?
  • Who is more likely to listen, someone who knows and likes you, or a stranger?
  • Jesus hung out with people, where could you go to do that?

See also:


< Jesus is tempted | Index | Back to front truth >

13 June 2013

True worship

Worship is more than a ceremony and it's more than singing songs, it demands sacrifice, a journey and a lifetime of dedication. Three verses clarify this as we look at the worship of Abraham, the Magi and Anna. Can we offer less than they did? 

Dog daisies in a meadow
My wife works with our friends Roger and Carolyn to lead a Small Group, part of Open Door Church here in St Neots. Although I'm not a member of Open Door, I am part of the Small Group.

I was asked to manage the worship part of yesterday's meeting and felt I should share some thoughts about worship before we began to sing and praise together.

If we won't worship him the very stones will do it, the trees of the fields will clap their hands, the meadow flowers will praise him.

Here's an extended version of my notes. There are three verses I'd thought we should consider on the subject of worship.

Abraham - The first one is Genesis 22:5 - "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you."

Here is Abraham, full of faith as he goes to sacrifice his son Isaac, telling the servant that they will both return. But think for a moment about what is happening here. Abram and Sarai are elderly, so old that when they are told they will have a child, they both laugh at the very idea.

Yet here he is, Isaac is their son, impossible in every way yet an undeniable fact. There can be no doubt that Isaac was Abraham's most precious possession. No-one and nothing could be worth more to the old man. Yet he was prepared to give up his own son.

If you want to worship, you must give up the most precious thing you have for the Almighty's use.

What is most precious to you? Think about it carefully.

The wise men - Matthew 2:2 - "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him."

Having arrived at Jesus' birthplace, how did the Magi worship? Did they perform a ceremony of some kind? Not as far as we know. And how long did they stay?  Possibly quite a short time, perhaps just long enough to present their gifts of gold, fankincense and myrrh.

The account in Matthew tells us very little, however it is clear that these three men had made an extremely long journey to see this new 'King of the Jews'. And having arrived and then quickly left, they had the same journey to do again to get home. They were probably on the road for weeks each way.

The gifts they brought were precious and were a form of worship, but their real worship was the long and arduous journey they had made in order to see the infant king.

Anna - Luke 2:37 - "There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying."

What was her worship? It was her devotion day after day, year after year. She wasted her life on Yahweh. She could have remarried, had a family, and enjoyed a full and successful life. Yet she gave it all up to serve in the place where Yahweh's Presence rested.

And us? - We must worship 'in Spirit and in truth'. (John 4:23) We must give him the most precious thing we have, it's not about a ceremony or singing songs, it demands a long and arduous journey, it means wasting our lives on him.

There is nothing wrong with singing songs together, especially if they're songs that remind us of the Lord and draw us into his presence. But what he wants from us in worship is much more than songs and a reverent heart.

Two stories - And then I shared two short stories. Both were taken from Steve Addison's book 'What Jesus Started' (an excellent read, by the way). I asked everyone to see if they could spot the worship in the two true stories.

The first is about how Steve met a man on a train and shared the good news about Jesus with him. The second is about a stranger in a Muslim country, going to the imam with questions about the Qur'an concerning Isa (Jesus). One of the men listening to the conversation searches out the stranger later to learn more. In both cases the worship involves taking a risk, obedience, and reaching the lost. There is sacrifice here, giving up the safe and comfortable for the unknown.

And finally, we sang some awesome songs, finishing with Christy Nockels and 'Waiting here for you'.

Questions:

  • What is your own understanding of worship? Is it more about praise or obedience?
  • Can you identify areas in your life where you might worship the Almighty more fully?
  • What is the most precious thing you have?

See also:

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