30 May 2014

Finding Carol

Sometimes Jesus just surprises us. Sometimes we surprise ourselves. Perhaps both of these things happen more often when we are open, and actively so. Something like this happened recently to a couple of friends and, although I came late to the action, I did get to play a small part.


At the Catalyst event
At the Catalyst event
Last Sunday I had driven from St Neots, where I live, with two friends from the group that meets at Caffé Nero (but that's another story). We were day visitors at the New Frontiers' Catalyst event at Stoneleigh in the Midlands.

It was almost time for the evening meeting when Dave Devenish would be speaking.

I'd agreed to meet Kevin and John in the restaurant area just outside the meeting venue, but found them at a picnic table outside chatting with a lady I didn't know.

Her name is Carol and she had seen them there and decided to speak to them. By the time I arrived they were talking about what it means to be a Christian and she was sounding a little anxious and confused. She is a very new follower of Jesus, just beginning her journey and we talked around that idea for a while.

Hearing the call - Jesus' twelve disciples were not Christians when he called them to follow him, yet they followed [Tweet it!]. Something about him was compelling or attractive or especially fascinating. Perhaps it was his simple, yet very stretching way of teaching, or just the fact that he was a rabbi and had invited them to follow him. As humble and unlearned fishermen, tax collectors and other ordinary folk, this offer was as promising as it was unexpected.

At first they followed in ignorance, but they began to learn right away. Not only did Jesus teach them, he also showed them healing and the throwing out of demons and the need to love above all else. And he sent them out to do this work on his behalf in the surrounding towns and villages.

They probably didn't fully believe until after Jesus' death and resurrection, perhaps when the Spirit fell on them in the upper room at Pentecost. But they followed him in partial understanding, and eventually they believed, and they carried on following him and growing in wisdom and grace and love.

How do I know I'm a Christian? - I wanted to explain this to Carol. I wanted her to know that it was OK for now to be just following Jesus without understanding everything. A time will come in her journey when she realises that she believes in him and that she is eternally safe in his hands. And afterwards she will continue to follow him but with a deep understanding of what that means. But it is a journey, a process, and Jesus is both the way and the destination.

He guides us and prepares the way for us - Our time at Catalyst was a good day on many levels, but the icing on the cake (Kevin's words) was meeting Carol and having that conversation with her. Kudos to Kevin and to John who were ready to seize the moment and help Carol through her uncertainty. And thanks be to Papa, who set the situation up. He's so good at that.

As a result, Kevin and John were in the right place at the right time. They meant to arrive earlier and wait for me inside. But they got lost on the way and had to retrace their steps. Being late brought them to the restaurant at the right time. Deciding at the last moment to sit outside put them in the right place. And Papa did what he had intended to do from the beginning!

Carol, wherever you are we bless you. He will guide your steps in the same way, every day of your life. You will follow and follow, and at the right time you will realise that you believe, and you will follow and follow some more. Enjoy your journey in the company of the King!

Questions:

  • Have you noticed how the Almighty prepares things in advance for us?
  • Why is this significant?
  • Can you think of some examples from your own experience?
  • How ready are you to seize the moment as Kevin and John did?

See also:

23 April 2014

Jesus in trouble

We take a look at hunger, thirst, loneliness, nakedness, bad health and imprisonment. Jesus suffered all these things, helps people with their specific problems, and expects us to do the same. He identifies with us and we really do need to identify with him and with one another.

At last night's Small Group meeting, Donna led from the introduction to Just Lyfe, a great resource from the Bible Society. We read Matthew 25:31-46 and I had a new insight that I'd like to share here on the blog.


Nothing to eat or drink
Nothing to eat or drink
In this section of Matthew, Jesus says, 'I was hungry... I was thirsty... I was a stranger... I was naked... I was sick... I was in prison...'. He strongly identifies with 'the least of these my brothers and sisters' (verses 40 and 45), so what I do for them I do for Jesus himself. Jesus came into the world because of his great love. He came to be with us and live this life as it was originally intended to be lived. And in coming he suffered these six issues himself and he also touched people troubled by these same six issues.

He identifies with us in the deepest possible way. And that should change us very profoundly.

I was hungry - One of the very first things Jesus did as he began his work was to go out into the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-2). And he became hungry. He knows that life is not possible without food, and he explains that spiritual life is the same. Spiritual life demands spiritual food, the Word that comes from the Most High.

Jesus fed people when they were hungry (Matthew 14:15-21), demonstrating his understanding of our need for sustenance. And he himself is the spiritual nourishment we need (John 6:35). Don't starve yourself spiritually, but grow in stature and in energy by feeding on the Bread of Life.

It follows, if we are like Jesus, that we will provide physical and spiritual food to anyone who is hungry.

I was thirsty - Jesus was thirsty while he was dying on the cross (John 19:28-30). And he knows that just as we need spiritual food, so we also need spiritual drink to survive. He doesn't just provide a little, he gives us rivers of living water (John 7:37-39). Just as our food is Jesus (the Word sent by the Father), so our drink is the Holy Spirit (the Spirit sent by the Son).

In Hebrew thinking, the blood of an animal is its life. In the same way, Jesus' blood is our life and the Passover wine is a reminder of that (Luke 22:17-20). Jesus provided wine when it ran out (John 2:1-10). So receive spiritual refreshment every day, let the Holy Spirit flow abundantly from within you, pouring himself out through you into a very thirsty world.

I was a stranger - Jesus visited us here where we live. The Father sent him and he obediently came to live among us and to die among us and to show us that life is more than merely existing. His home is not here in the physical, he is a stranger to sin and wickedness. He came to redeem us and to redeem our world and bring us back into relationship with the Father.

And so often Jesus touched the lives of strangers, think of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:4-26), Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50), the Roman Centurion (Matthew 8:5-13), or the tax collector Matthew (Matthew 9:9-13). Let him touch you too. If you are not affected by him, do you even belong to him? If he is willing to touch you, how much more should you be willing to touch others? Invite people in, get to know them, don't hold back. How will they meet Jesus if you don't welcome them into his presence?

I was naked - This is a harder one for us to grasp. When was Jesus naked? He was naked on the cross; the soldiers divided his clothes (Matthew 27:35). Crucifixion was not only a painful death, it was intended to degrade and humiliate even as life ebbed away.

Sin also degrades and humiliates. Have you noticed how often Jesus said to people, 'Your sins are forgiven'? Have you ever really thought why? He came to restore us, to remove our shame, and to clothe us in robes of righteousness. His plan is that we, too, will begin to restore and rebuild. He wants us to re-make the world we live in, to restore and mend and redeem.

Learn the value of covering shame and humiliation for the people around you. Sometimes we do the opposite. But we need to learn to be more like the Master in this area too. Let your heart be filled with compassion and forgiveness and grace.

I was sick - When was Jesus ever sick? We don't know if he was affected by bacteria and viruses, and he wasn't in the world long enough for the effects of old age to set in. However, he died. He was fatally wounded by a sick and broken world, just as we are.

Jesus touched the sick and allowed them to touch him (Matthew 8:1-3, Matthew 14:36). Normally, the result of this was healing or wholeness. This is just another way in which Jesus redeems, reclaiming fullness of life from the damage that is everywhere around. We must follow him in this. We can pray for healing, apply medical knowledge, help the ill and the handicapped in practical ways and be generous with our time to comfort and befriend those who struggle with long term physical or mental conditions.

I was in prison - Jesus had a short spell in captivity, first at the hands of the Jewish authorities, and then with the Romans under Pilate. He knows what it's like to be a captive; he's felt harsh oppression and the crack of the barbed Roman lash. He knows what it means to be nailed to a piece of timber.

Jesus released people from all sorts of bondage - demonic possession (Matthew 8:28-32), judgement (John 8:2-11), grave wrappings (John 11:43-44). He came to set us free from the law of sin and death and he says to us, 'If the Son has set you free you are free indeed' (John 8:34-36). And Paul wrote, 'For freedom you have been set free'. In other words, Jesus truly wants us to live free. Like Lazarus, not only must we receive life, we must also respond to the call, 'Come out!'

Jesus did not release us from the shackles of sin without having a plan for our future lives. We are his ambassadors, those who know the difference between captivity and freedom. We are sent out to tell those around us, to share the good news of freedom with those who only know captivity and shame.

What now? - So the question that remains is, 'What now?' Jesus suffered these six severe hardships, he touched people who were struggling with each of them, and released them. He has released us from them too. He has done this with purpose and with authority. He has the right to say, 'Come out!' And he also has the right to say, 'Go in my name'.

Now it's up to you and me. Will we come out from the place of death or will we smile our 'thank you's and settle down comfortably in the grave?  Will we go and redeem the world around us as he leads us day by day, or will we stay sitting at his feet? [Tweet it!] Will we be obedient in our freedom? Like the men in the parable, will we make use of what we have been given so as to make more, or will we be afraid and bury it in the ground for safekeeping? Nothing is safe and nothing can be kept safe. We serve an unsafe Lord who expects something of us. He has given us a precious treasure - his own life. We can do so much with that gift. Dare we do nothing?

Questions:

  • What could you do today to help someone who is hungry or thirsty?
  • Plan to respond positively to every request for help and to every need you notice tomorrow. Jot down some notes on what happens. Did anything surprising happen? If so, what? Tell someone about it.
  • Find someone on their own (perhaps at a bus stop or coffee shop) and start a conversation. How did it go?

See also:

31 March 2014

The Black Swan Effect - A new book

Felicity Dale is a woman and a church leader; in some circles that combination would be a real no-no. As part of her busy life, Felicity is an active author and a blogger at Simply Church. Her latest book, 'The Black Swan Effect', examines the arguments around women and church leadership.

Felicity Dale
Felicity Dale
Here are some questions about the book, with great answers from Felicity.

The Black Swan Effect is an unusual title. Why did you choose it?
The title comes from a story in the introduction to the book. Back in 16th century London, people had never seen a black swan, and so the term came to mean something impossible, a bit like a unicorn. Then in 1696, a Dutch explorer discovered a whole species of black swans in Western Australia. So the meaning of the term changed. It symbolized something that once was thought impossible but is now known to be possible, even commonplace.

All it took was one black swan to change people’s minds forever. Similarly, all it takes is one Phoebe, one Junia, one Deborah, one Esther to prove that God uses women in his Kingdom in all kinds of roles, including leadership.

Who wrote the book?
There are 14 contributing authors, both men and women. They come from many different backgrounds and church traditions. Between us we have written more than 50 books. Each of us writes from his or her own passion and expertise into a specific area. The whole is woven together to form a single narrative.

What do you hope to achieve through the book?
For too long women have been held back because of church tradition and a few challenging Scriptures that stand against the general tenor and trend of the Bible as a whole. We long to see men and women working together, as equals, side by side, for the sake of the Kingdom [Tweet it!]. This will take men being willing to champion women as they boldly break through the barriers that have held them back. And it will take women daring to step out and follow the Holy Spirit as he leads them into roles where they’ve never gone before.

Who might be interested in a book such as this?
We think three different groups of people would have a specific interest in this book:

Many Christians—both men and women—have come to the conclusion that there is no better way to double the size of God’s missions workforce than to fully deploy women to use their spiritual gifts and God-given capacities.

Others are asking theological questions. They are investigating how the Bible portrays women, especially women leaders. Were the New Testament writers—in particular, the Apostle Paul—misogynists? Are there alternative interpretations for some of the really difficult passages of Scripture? 

Still others who enter this discussion are drawn to it because of issues related to justice and human dignity. They want to know why some religions undermine the worth of women, why many churches are not equal opportunity employers, and why Christians are not engaging more with issues such as sex trafficking and global female infanticide. As they study Scripture, they can’t even imagine a God who would discriminate against women.

What kind of questions does the book raise?
We are not afraid to ask the right questions with a right heart at the right time. That’s not the same as saying we come up with answers to all of them!

Here are a few of the questions we air:
  • Does God like men more than women?
  • Has God ever used a woman to change the course of history?
  • What about those troublesome verses?
  • Who leads better—men or women?
  • Are women ever their own worst enemy?
  • Why is gender such a big deal in many cultures?
How can people get hold of the book?
The book is due to be published on 5th April. You should be able to find it on Amazon and elsewhere from that date.


Questions:

  • What are your personal views on women and church leadership?
  • Have you read any of Felicity's earlier books?
  • Which of her answers above do you find most interesting - and why?

See also:

24 February 2014

Museveni and the bill

Today is a very sad day, especially in Uganda.

The Ugandan bill
The Ugandan bill
Monday 24th February 2014 is almost certain to the be the day that President Museveni of Uganda signs his country's new law on homosexuality.

There is already a Ugandan law prohibiting sexual acts between men, but this is now being extended to cover women as well and the penalties are being greatly increased. Read the BBC's article for fuller details.

Originally, the new law would have included the death penalty for some activites, but mercifully (and wisely) this has been dropped. Heavy prison sentences remain (including life) and the law even makes it a legal requirement for all citizens to report people they believe to be gay.

Personally, I am strongly opposed to the new law. More than a year ago I signed one of the online petitions calling for the law to be abolished. But public petitions, religious leaders and foreign governments have all been ignored in their pleas and demands that the law be abandoned. Of course the pressure will not stop now, nor should it.

On the other hand, there are powerful political, public and religious pressures within Uganda backing the signing of the bill.

My personal plea to President Museveni (if he is paying attention to public comment) is to think again. Signing the bill is sure to lead to more difficulties internationally for Uganda. Turn back from the brink. Do not sign the bill. Resist the voices in Uganda demanding the signing of the bill.

15 February 2014

Heart of a strawberry

The strawberry crown is the heart of the plant; all the other parts (such as the leaves and roots) grow from the crown and remain attached to it. In the same way, Jesus is at the heart of the church. In him we grow and through him we are attached to one another.

A strawberry crown
A strawberry crown
What is at the heart of a strawberry? I don't mean a strawberry fruit; I mean the plant that bears the leaves and the flowers and the fruit.

If you examine a strawberry plant carefully you'll notice leaves and roots, flowers and fruit, and the runners with young plants on them. But notice something else.

Unlike many plants the strawberry has no stems and no branches. From the deepest root to the tallest leaves and the longest runners, every part is joined together in the centre.

Does this sound familiar? It should do!

The centre of church life - What is at the centre of the church? Jesus is! The heart of a strawberry plant is called a 'crown'. The leaves, the roots and the rest all spring direct from the crown. The strawberry crown rests at ground level and planting strawberries too high or too low will cause them to grow poorly or even die.

Jesus needs to be at 'ground level' in the life of the church, and everything about the church springs from him [Tweet it!]. We all inherit his nature; we all need to stay in touch with him. And being in touch with him implies that all of us will be in touch with one another also because we will all be where he is. The different parts of a strawberry plant stick out in different directions, but they are all joined to the centre. And that's exactly how we are in Christ.

And that's why, in the context of church, we must always focus on Jesus and recognise that his proper place is at the centre of everything we are and do.

Questions:

  • Is Jesus at the centre of all you think, say and do?
  • If not, who is?
  • Having everything joined to the centre keeps a strawberry plant small. Does this affect your view of church?

See also:

14 February 2014

How does a strawberry grow?

Strawberry plants reproduce vigorously by means of runners. Each year a plant can produce several more which will root themselves in the soil before the connection with the original plant is lost. If strawberry plants didn't die we would soon be inundated.

Strawberry runners
Strawberry runners
The humble strawberry is a powerful example of the explosive growth of movements [Tweet it!].

A strawberry plant is not very large. It is not tall like a tree, and it's not wide like a bush. You will rarely see a strawberry plant wider than about 30 cm or higher than 20 cm.

The plant has a small root system and a central growing point with anything up to about thirty leaves.

It is not protected by spines or thorns or poisonous compounds, it carries small flowers with white or pale pink petals, and it produces the beautiful fruit that most of us love to eat with cream in the summertime. And that's more or less it.

Oh, it also produces runners...

Here's what happens when a strawberry is planted and left alone to grow.

Runners - In late summer, strawberry runners appear as little shoots growing from the centre of the plant. At first they grow upwards, but soon begin to bend under their own weight. At the end of each runner, a small strawberry plant begins to form. Eventually the runners are long enough to touch the ground, looping up and out and down. By this time the little strawberry plants at the end of the runners have started to grow roots. These take hold in the soil and the baby plant grows. Finally the runner shrivels and dies and the new little strawberry is on its own.

And strawberry plants are very good at making runners. It's not unusual to find a runner making another runner, even before the first baby plant has taken root. In fact, this can happen several times so that the mother plant has a daughter, a granddaughter and a great granddaughter all at the same time! Not only that, the original mother plant will probably produce three or four runners, or maybe more.

Twelve months later, all these young plants will have rooted, become independent and will be producing strawberry fruit (and more runners).

Can anyone spot a parallel here with the way the church grows? It might not seem at all obvious, but it's there. Maybe there's little resemblance to church growth in terms of the institutional, denominationl systems that are all around us, but what about the early church as represented in the New Testament? Think about it!

Questions:

  • Assume a strawberry plant makes eight new plants each year. How many plants will there be after two years? (Each of the new plants and the old plant can produce eight more.)
  • How many plants will there be after three years?
  • Why doesn't church grow like a strawberry? Or does it? Can it? Should it?

See also:

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