The Man Who Stood Alone

This is the first post in a three part series on how to biblically engage culture.  Check back next Monday for part two.

Have you ever tried a ‘Where’s Wally’ puzzle? (Or Where’s Waldo for our American readers).
They are both addictive and infuriating at the same time. Trying to find the guy in blue trousers, red and white striped jumper, red and white striped hat, and a brown satchel in amongst the hundreds of other people and all the background scenery is almost impossible. Yet, you don’t want to be beaten by it so you keep staring at the page until Wally appears.

I have a concern – not a concern about Wally, but a concern that many Christians and Churches are like Wally. I have a concern that just like Wally, many Christians are hard to see in their surroundings. Instead of standing alone, or standing out, we are happy to blend in with all the people round about us.

Recently, my personal Bible readings coincided with a talk I was to give at a school SU. My Bible readings were in Genesis and the SU asked me to talk about Noah, the man who stood alone. I was struck by one thing in my reading and meditation – Noah was a man who stood alone; he stood alone among his people and he stood alone because he was obedient.

Image by Gustave Dore [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Image by Gustave Dore [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Genesis 6, where we are first introduced to Noah, begins with God being ‘sorry that he had made man’ (v. 6 ESV). This sorrow was because of man’s wickedness and evil, and as a result God pronounced judgement on them. That judgement was a flood.

Surprisingly though, in the midst of this wickedness and evil we read this in verse 8: ‘Noah found favour in the eyes of the LORD’ (ESV). That is, he found grace. Noah is then described in glowing terms rarely used in reference to people throughout Scripture. He is described as righteous, blameless in his generation and walking with God (v. 9). Interestingly, the phrase ‘blameless in his generation’ could legitimately be translated as stood alone among his people.

Chapter 6 continues with God giving Noah very specific requests (vv. 13-21). Then in verse 22 we read ‘Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him’ (ESV). This isn’t only repeated once, but again and again (7:5; 9; 16; 8:15-19 implied). All God commanded Noah, he did.

Noah was incredibly obedient.

And it doesn’t stop in Genesis, jumping to Hebrews 11 we read ‘By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household’ (v. 7 ESV). Noah was told of things unseen, but having faith (or the conviction of things not seen v. 1) he was obedient to God and constructed the ark he was commanded to build.
Noah truly was a man who stood alone. A ‘Where’s Noah’ puzzle book wouldn’t be anywhere near as difficult as a ‘Where’s Wally’ puzzle book.

Obedience is a much maligned term in ‘modern Christianity’. In a reaction to withdrawing from the surrounding culture too much (a mistake made by previous generations of Christians), some Christians and Churches have become so involved in their surrounding culture as to be almost indistinguishable from it. They no longer stand alone.

However, we must be careful not to hold Noah up too high as our example of obedience. Noah was not perfect – there is a sordid account of drunkenness, nakedness and gossip in Genesis 9 (vv. 20-27). In addition to that Noah was not totally alone. Throughout God was with him commanding him, and alongside him stood his family.

Even Hebrews 11 makes this warning, because after telling us all about the men of faith throughout Israel’s history the author proceeds to tell us to look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who endured the cross (12:1-2). He is the only one whose obedience never failed and who truly stood alone as on the cross he cried ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ and God was silent (Mk. 15:34 ESV).

As Mark makes clear throughout his Gospel Jesus is the supreme example of obedience for his disciples, the one who forsook all to obey his Father. Yet, Mark is also careful to tell us that he is not only our example, but also our Saviour (10:45).

So, there is my concern and there is the remedy.

I have a concern that Christians and the Church are becoming a lot like Wally – blending into their surroundings. What’s the remedy? Obedience. There is no better way to stand alone in our culture than to obey God. We do this certainly by looking to fellow saints like Noah, but ultimately we do this by looking to Jesus our supreme example and our glorious Saviour.

 

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Why Does God Allow His Church To Be Persecuted?

opendoors-logo1

For several years now I have been involved in my local church’s persecuted church prayer meeting and I’m a church representative for Open Doors. I am often appalled and humbled by news reports from our brothers and sisters who are suffering for Christ around the world. And I must admit, I have asked myself the above question more than once and I’m sure others have too. Because of the terrible forms that persecution often takes it’s easy to wonder what God is doing while His church suffers. I want to be clear from the start; persecution is evil and our Heavenly Father is infinitely good. With that in mind I hope to provide three answers that will shed some light on this difficult topic.

The first answer is; persecution is an effective means for spreading the Gospel. I remember hearing a report a few years ago about a small region of Bhutan that had a large Christian population. Many of the families were believers and they had enjoyed a measure of peace for some time. That was not to last, however, as fierce persecution broke out. The Christian community was shattered as people fled into other regions of Bhutan or neighbouring countries to escape. It was a terribly sad report. I remember thinking how frightening it must have been for those families to leave all they had ever known, to worry about jobs and food and shelter. But then a new thought came to my mind. What an opportunity for those fellow believers to share their faith with others who have never heard the good news before.

This is, of course, not an isolated incident. We see evidence of persecution being used to spread the Gospel in the early church. Acts 8:1 says, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” This verse comes immediately after the public stoning of Stephen. Following these events we read about the miraculous conversion of Paul, who was previously Saul and a zealous persecutor of God’s church, and the subsequent mission trips that the apostles and other believers undertook in order to spread the good news. Often when we read these passages it is easy to see God at work and yet we quickly forget this lesson in the face of modern day persecution.

The second answer is; God uses persecution to perfect us. This is a hard truth for many of us. James 1: 2-4 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” For many believers it is difficult to imagine joy during times of hardship let alone in the face of real persecution. It is important to note that the joy that James speaks of here is not simply physical or emotional happiness but spiritual ‘joy’ in our sovereign Lord. But the rewards for persevering through persecution are clear. God uses trials and hardships to make us ‘mature and complete, not lacking anything’.

The ongoing civil war in Syria serves as a recent example of the church ‘considering it pure joy’. Our Christian brothers and sisters have been caught up in the conflict and are being targeted on a daily basis. But rather than flee or denounce their faith the church in Syria is reaching out to the lost. They are providing food and medical aid, taking in orphans and the elderly, and opening up their homes and church buildings as shelters. In the face of terrible persecution, our brothers and sisters are looking to Christ and remaining steadfast in their faith. It is truly humbling to read the reports that are coming out of Syria and to witness such perseverance.

The final answer is; when we are persecuted we see God. I think it is interesting that we often forget that persecution is not a New Testament phenomenon but an Old Testament fixture. Jesus speaks of this at the Sermon on the Mount, “…for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:12) We seem to forget too, that Jesus was also persecuted and ultimately killed by the ones He came to save, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.” (John 15: 18) In this situation we can so easily see God using man’s evil to accomplish His good works through Jesus death on the cross. We see His providence and sovereignty at work in the lives of the prophets. And there are countless reports from our brothers and sisters who see God at work while they are being persecuted.

For more than ten years North Korea has been at the top of the World Watch List, a list of fifty countries where Christians suffer persecution, making it the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian. It is estimated that fifty thousand to seventy thousand of our brothers and sisters in Christ are imprisoned in labour camps that are not dissimilar to Nazi concentration camps. The UN met this month to discuss the “systematic torture, starvation and killings” that are being carried out in North Korea on a daily basis. The country was described as “a dark abyss where the human rights, the dignity and the humanity of the people are controlled, denied and ultimately annihilated.” And despite this, against all the odds, the North Korean church is constantly growing. Our brothers and sisters who face the daily threat of torture, starvation and death are amongst those who can most clearly see God at work.

Persecution is a difficult aspect of our faith and one that many of us in the West have never truly suffered. But is it important to remember that God’s good plans are at work in every situation. Persecution does not mean that the church has been abandoned but entirely the opposite.

For more information check out Open Doors UK.

Fixing Our Eyes on Jesus Through God’s Gracious Means, Part 1: Scripture

The term Means of Grace is pretty old and it probably doesn’t mean a lot to most people today because it has fallen out of popular use, but I like it.I like it because it tells me that God has appointed concrete, practical, ways for us to experience more of his grace. And I desperately need more of his grace. In fact, I don’t even know just how much I need his grace so I want to do whatever I can to experience more of it.

God’s means of grace are many but I’ll limit myself to three of them: Scripture (Part 1), Prayer (Part 2), and Fellowship (Part 3). Perhaps I’ll look at a few others at some point in the future but for the time being hopefully these three will help us to follow Jesus as we take full advantage of God’s graciously given means.

Scripture

It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of reading the Scriptures, possible but not easily done.

Image by Sias van Schalkwyk
Image by Sias van Schalkwyk

The 66 books that make up our Bible have been graciously given to us by God as his means for revealing himself, and more importantly his Son Jesus through whom we are able to come to know God in a deeply personal relationship (Hebrews 1:1-4). No other book compares with the Bible because the Bible authoritatively reveals to us the Creator God who fashioned all we see, hear, taste, touch and smell. This same all-powerful, self-sufficient Creator God refused to give up on his creation even when we rejected him in favour of pursuing deification on our own terms. Instead he relentlessly extended his unfailing love to us culminating in the sending of his Son to die our rightful death for our treasonous rebellion against him. The story ends in resurrection. As a foreshadowing of what is to come Jesus rises from the dead and promises his followers that one day they, and the whole of creation, will rise from the death of sin to everlasting glory and joy in his kingdom where sin and death are undone. In the meantime we have these very precious promises and the Holy Spirit who gives us faith, grace and strength to persevere (2 Peter 1:3-4).

The Scriptures essentially form the backbone of our faith because without them it would be almost impossible for us to say anything about God with any degree of certainty. As Christians we are able to read the Scriptures and on the basis of what it says we are able to make certain assertions about who God is and what he is like. This makes it absolutely imperative that we become well acquainted with God’s self disclosure through Jesus in the Scriptures. This means we need to read, and re-read, the Scriptures. However, mere reading won’t cut it. We need to go beyond simply reading the Scriptures to imbibing it, incarnating it, making it a part of ourselves. This requires that we read the Scriptures and then meditate on them “day and night” (Psalm 1:2 NIV).

Meditating on Scripture is pretty simple in theory but much more demanding in practice. Meditating is really just thinking about how what your reading from Scripture relates to what God has done for us through Jesus. It’s about connecting the small picture (whatever chapter/s you happen to be reading) with the big picture (God’s overall story of salvation in Christ). Listening to good preaching and reading good books will help us to develop this means of grace in our lives. Personally, I find writing out my thoughts in a journal to be a great aid to my own practice of meditation, however, I would encourage you to find out what helps you to meditate on the Scriptures. Maybe that will be through keeping a journal but perhaps listening to music helps you or discussing what you’ve read with a housemate, friend or spouse. Experiment and see what works!

The goal of meditation is to meet with God through his Word. It’s about an experience of grace which changes us from the inside out. I know for myself that meditation often becomes more about amassing more knowledge about God than about actually meeting with God through an encounter with Jesus as I revel again in all he is and has done for me. For the record, I love learning new things about anything but especially about God so I’m pro-learning but all our knowledge needs to serve some greater purpose. Our knowledge of God needs to lead to deeper love for God otherwise it’s all for nothing (cf. 1 Corinthians 13).

This week please allow me to encourage to read the Scriptures with a renewed desire to not only learn more about God but to meet with him as you meditate on who he is and all he has done for you in and through Jesus.

Jesus, Not Gentrification

I have just finished reading an excellent book by Tim Chester called Unreached: Growing Churches in Working-Class and Deprived Areas.

unreachedIn his book, Chester shares a comment by another pastor in a working-class/deprived area, Andy Mason.  Mason says ‘the first thing many middle-class Christians see on council estates are the social problems…[but the estates’] fundamental problem is not social policy, but sin.  And the solution is not gentrification, but Jesus’ (pg. 17).

This kind of comment reignites the social action versus proclamation debate, and to be honest I was surprised by Mason’s forthrightness in stating that gentrification isn’t the answer.  However, that is not to say he wishes to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The social action versus proclamation debate is excellently tackled by Chris Wright in his book The Mission of God.  Wright offers this answer to the debate: ‘ultimately we must not rest content until we have included within our own missional response the wholeness of God’s missional response to the human predicament’ (pg. 319).

For Wright the answer is both/and – it is not a question of which do we do.  In fact, for Wright it is not even a question of which is more important.  He steers clear of the primacy designation arguing that neither is more important.  Rather, he desires to speak of ultimacy; that ultimately the gospel must be proclaimed and everything else must work to that end.

This is how Wright states it, ‘[m]ission may not always begin with evangelism.  But mission that does not ultimately include declaring the Word and the name of Christ, the call to repentance, and faith and obedience has not completed its task’ (pg. 319).

This argument is not without biblical evidence.  Indeed, throughout John’s Gospel it appears that Jesus approaches his mission in this way:

  • In John 4:1-45 Jesus encounters the woman at the well.  This woman very clearly has a social problem; she is an outcast in her society.  Jesus takes this social problem as his way into conversation with her but does not rest content until he proclaims the Word and name of Christ (4:26).
  • In John 5:1-17 Jesus encounters the man at the pool of Bethesda.  This man has a physical problem; he had been an invalid for 38.  Jesus takes this physical problem as his way into conversation with him but does not rest until he proclaims the Word and name of Christ (5:14).
  • In John 6:1-15 Jesus encounters not just an individual, but a crowd of people.  They have a physical problem, there is no food for them to eat.  Jesus uses this physical problem once again to proclaim his Word and name (6:35).
  • In John 9:1-41 Jesus encounters the man born blind.  This man has a physical problem, which had impacted not just him but his family too.  Jesus uses this as a way into conversation with him and continues to talk to him until he has proclaimed his Word and name (9:35-38).

Jesus does not always use this method though.  In Mark 10:17-31 we read of Jesus and the rich young ruler – this time Jesus speaks directly to the spiritual issue by proclaiming his Word and name.  We do not always need to begin with social action and work toward proclamation.  Sometimes proclamation can and should be engaged in first.

Naturally, Jesus actions should speak to us as we consider the social action versus proclamation.

Mason is right, the problem is not social policy but sin.  The answer is Jesus, not gentrification.  However, this does not mean that social action unnecessary.  The gospel is big enough to incorporate social action because, as we have seen, Jesus himself didn’t ignore the physical and social problems of people but joyfully met their present needs as a bridge to meet their greater need of salvation from their sin.  But, proclamation is ultimate; our evangelism is not complete until the Word and name of Jesus has been proclaimed.

The answer is indeed Jesus, not gentrification.

~

For those involved in social action ministries, consider:  Are you using this not as a proclamation, but a bridge to proclamation?

For those who are struggling to find opportunities to proclaim Jesus effectively, consider: Could you be using social action ministries to provide opportunities to proclaim?

Friday Freebies!

Happy Friday!

how people changeWe have two great freebies we’d love you to check out this weekend. The first item is a free kindle eBook How People Change by Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp. If you don’t have a kindle you can still get this book and read it on your smartphone, tablet or even your computer/laptop using the kindle app that is also available for free on all devices!

The second item we’d love you to check out this weekend is a 7 part video series by Timothy Keller called Questioning Christianity. These videos are excellent and will help you as you share your faith with others and will be hugely beneficial to your own faith too!

We hope these items encourage you as you follow Jesus.

Yours in Christ,
The Gospel Convergence Team

Selfies and the Son of God

Last year the word selfie – (noun, informal) “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website” -became the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year and while it is not yet included in the OED it is being considered for future inclusion. All of this because both the term and the practice skyrocketed to the higher echelons of popularity in 2012. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and a plethora of other social media websites have since been inundated with selfie after selfie as people compete with one another for likes, retweets, favourites and shares.

Image by Ameily Radke
Image by Ameily Radke

There is nothing inherently wrong with taking a selfie, remember those old-school photo booths we use to get passport photos at ridiculously exorbitant prices? That’s a selfie! They were providing selfies before the iPhone came along.

But it’s not all fun, games and the occasional selfie. There is a dark impetus in our hearts to be self-centred; to be overly concerned with ourselves: how we see ourselves, how we want others to see us whether that be physically, emotionally, intellectually or spiritually. Most of us care deeply about what others think of us. It’s not just that we want to be loved and approved of but that we need to feel the love and approval of others. This is a legitimate desire because we were made for unfailing, unchanging, unending love and approval. The problem is that we look for it in all the wrong places: from our family, our friends, from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. The difficulty with trying to find unfailing, unchanging, unending love and approval in these places is that they are incapable of providing love and approval in these measures because we know that we ourselves are incapable of giving love and approval in such quantity and quality so why should we expect others to do what we ourselves cannot?

Before Jesus began his public ministry he went to the river Jordan to be baptised by his cousin, John. Afterward, he was praying when heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended, resting on him in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven proclaimed:

“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

In this moment, God the Father was publicly reaffirming the unfailing, unchanging, unending love and approval he had shared with his Son from all eternity. But he was also doing something profoundly subtle. As Christians we have been adopted into God’s family, made sons and daughters, through faith in Jesus and because of this we too share in Jesus’ Sonship and consequently God’s declaration of unfailing, unchanging, unending love and approval toward us.

On account of our adoption through faith in Jesus God the Father is able to say to us, “You are my son/daughter, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” And through this same faith we are able to believe this declaration about ourselves to be true.

Our new relationship with God through Jesus is a reality we need to continually reaffirm in our hearts and minds because it is so easy for us to forget when we are bombarded by our natural proclivity toward fixating on what we think of ourselves or what others think of us. The sad truth is that our hearts and minds naturally gravitate toward our self-perception instead of the new identity and relationship we have received from Jesus.

As we consider whether our selfies are really just a form of self worship let’s remember Jesus: God’s selfie and that the world is his stage, not ours.

We are not the hero, Jesus is.

As we learn to “fix [our] eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2 NIV) instead of ourselves we will be able to say with Paul,

“I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.” (1 Corinthians 4:3-4 NIV)

The weight of others’ opinions, and our own opinions of ourselves, will fade as we relinquish the belief that this is our story and instead enter into Jesus’ story wherein we can experience the unfailing, unchanging, unending love and approval of God. We are enabled to do this as we incarnate Jesus’ story in our lives through reading, and meditating on, Scripture, prayer, and sharing in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We will consider these practical means of grace in more detail next week because further elaboration is necessary in order for us to really benefit from them.

Justice: Blind, Mute and Lame?

Justice is most certainly a buzzword in Northern Ireland.  We have been consumed with the idea of justice, pursuing it for my lifetime and longer.

Image by David Weekly
Image by David Weekly

This has only been heightened in the previous few months with Richard Haass’ challenge to deal with the past and the more recent controversy over the ‘On The Run’ letters distributed by the British government in Westminster.

Time and time again, in Northern Ireland, it seems those who deserve to be brought to justice escape it, and those who deserve justice for what they, and/or their relatives, have suffered are denied it.  Repeatedly, it seems, justice is not only blind but mute and lame to the evils that befall the innocent.

This has been the case with reduced prison sentences as a result of The Belfast Agreement in 1998, the Attorney General for Northern Ireland’s call for a line to be drawn, Haass’ impossible task of dealing with the past in just six months and most recently the ‘On The Run’ letters fiasco.

That Christians are interested in this pursuit of justice is only natural.  After all we are the children of the just judge (Gen. 18:25), and this just judge has been explicit in calling us to follow in his footsteps by likewise executing justice (Micah 6:8).  Indeed, the men of faith from Hebrews 11 ‘enforced justice’ by their faith (v. 33 ESV).  Therefore, it cannot be denied (and to be honest I don’t think it really is), there is a call for Christians to pursue justice.

However, the reality is that we live in a fallen and broken world which is groaning under the weight of sin (Rom. 8:22).  Due to the sin that pervades our world justice is not always executed.  That has been evident from the above examples from the very recent past in Northern Ireland.

But, in the midst of this injustice there is comfort.

The comfort is that God will execute perfect justice in the end.  There are a plethora of verses which tell us this, in addition to many narratives and themes which illustrate God’s justice throughout Scripture.  So I will refrain from referencing them all and encourage you to do so yourself some time.

Yet, I will take time to offer one example which is very clear.  We are told twice at the end of Ecclesiastes God will bring every deed into judgement (11:9; 12:14).  Above we made reference to Genesis 18:25, this verse tells us that God is the judge of all the earth.  When we add to this the truth that God sees all that takes place (Heb. 4:13) we find the judge of the entire world sees all that takes place.  Therefore, nothing will be missed when he executes his judgement.

There will be people who avoid justice here on earth – but eternity holds a justice which is infinitely more fitting than anything we can execute here and now.

This is the comfort in injustice – God will bring every deed into judgement in the end.

Lest we become self-righteous about this, it is necessary to remind ourselves that this judgement will involve every human being – perpetrator and victim alike (and all of us are perpetrators to some extent).  And so we turn our gaze to the cross, because here we see perfect justice executed and yet much grace extended.

For those of us who are Christians a contemplation of God’s perfect justice, judgement of every deed and correction of all injustice in the end should evoke praise in our hearts.  Praise of Jesus because he took the punishment our sin required so that in justice we could be pronounced innocent.  We have perpetrated great sin both against God and against others, but we find forgiveness in Jesus.

The offer of forgiveness also stands for those who have escaped justice here and now, because Jesus’ sacrifice was enough for their sin too.  Isn’t this unjust though?  No, because their sin has been punished in Jesus that they too may enjoy forgiveness.

So as we look at the injustice that surrounds us what should we do?

  1. Contemplate the comfort of God’s perfect justice executed in its fullness at the end of time.
  2. Remember that we are only justly proclaimed innocent because of Jesus bearing our punishment.
  3. Pray that the Holy Spirit would use the conscience of those who escape justice here to drive them to repentance in Jesus.

How Can You Tell If Your Church Is Growing? by Alan Wilson

Image by Mars Hill Church
Image by Mars Hill Church

One seemingly obvious answer to that would be a head count. You could even get one of those airline flight attendant clickers and walk up and down the aisle when the doors are closed and the service is about to begin. Keep the records, take the monthly and see how it’s g(r)o(w)ing. When there are no more empty seats, you know you’ve grown to capacity and it’s time to think of a bright idea!

Numerical growth is one way a church grows – and it should be fairly easy to measure (even without a clicker).

Numerical growth can happen through transfers (anyone thought of a church transfer window where you can only change churches at designated times of the year), but surely more significant numerical growth is the kind that Luke talked about in Acts:

And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

But there is another kind of growth – and this is not as easy to measure: spiritual growth. How can you tell if your church is growing spiritually? How can you tell if you are growing spiritually, for that matter? If you are a leader, how can you tell if the members of your church are growing spiritually?

In the New Testament, it was not always a given. Hebrews addresses people who ought to have been much further along than they actually were but they needed someone to remind them of the basics.

Elsewhere Paul, in Ephesians 4, talks about the Church and its progress. He highlights growth in unity – specifically unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God; maturity – which he defines as growing to the measure of the full stature of Christ; and stability – by which he means that they will no longer be blown about by any and every doctrinal fad.

Growth comes about as every member plays a part. The chapter certainly emphasises prominent word-related gifts: apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers; but the body grows as each member plays a part.

Exciting: you have a part to play in someone else’s spiritual growth.

It’s not that Paul would have been content for churches to be theological classrooms where information is imparted, and nothing more. In another letter (2 Thessalonians) he notes the increasing faith and love in a congregation:

Your faith is growing abundantly and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.

Growing in faith and growing in love.

Those are a lot harder to measure with a airline clicker. But they are vital signs of spiritual growth.

Questions

Is your church growing in faith? Does it display a greater degree of trust and confidence in God than it did 5 years ago? How can you tell? Is it because of a bold new initiative that you’ve started? Can you tell by the tone of the prayers in the various prayer gatherings? Are you seeing some big answers to prayer? Is there less panic when problems arise?

Is your church growing in love? Do its members love each other more today than they did this time two years ago (even though they may be more aware of each other’s foibles)? Is there a greater degree of tolerance of difference on things like musical taste? Are there fewer grudges? Practically, does your church enjoy spending time together at things like church lunches? Does the men’s group laugh a lot together just because they enjoy their meetings? Are there fewer lonely people?

What Do You Think?

~

Used with permission from Time For Thought | Reflections from Alan Wilson.

A native of Northern Ireland, Alan Wilson spent several years as a language teacher before moving to Switzerland in 1990 to pastor a new International Church on the shore of Lake Geneva –Westlake Church, in Nyon. He was there for 17 years during which time the church grew to the point where a satellite congregation was started close to the university of Lausanne. In 2007 Alan moved back to Northern Ireland where for four years he pastored Portstewart Baptist Church. He is now working towards a Doctor of Ministry degree via the Irish Baptist College and the University of Chester: the theme of his research is ‘the significance of crucible experiences in the formation of Christian leaders.’ Alan has been married to Pauline (see her Tales of Taughlumny blog) for almost thirty years and they have two adult daughters. He is also involved in some itinerant speaking, teaching and preaching in various settings. And in his free time he enjoys running and manages regular visits to the gym and the (very) occasional round of golf. For most of his life he has had a soft spot for Everton Football Club.

Becoming More Than Who You Are

Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “become who you are.”

Maximise on your natural proclivities and gifts.

Develop. Grow. Find your niche.

He was right.

Myers and Briggs (1962) formulated the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment, a psychometric questionnaire which measures psychological preferences in individuals specifically focusing on how they perceive the world around them and make decisions. From their research Myers and Briggs determined that we each fit into one of sixteen personality types and these categories are still used today to help people understand themselves better so they can grow in their strengths and shore up their weaknesses. Now, of course, as with all research it has been subject to criticism, however, what we can take away from the research as a whole is that we don’t all think or behave in the same way and by understanding ourselves better we can maximise on our natural dispositions and talents while at the same time becoming more aware of the areas in which we are weak so we can then improve on them or at least make sure they don’t interfere with our strengths.

NietzscheI find all of this very interesting. Maybe I’m just a narcissist but I really enjoy learning about how my mind works and trying to improve because there are a lot of areas in my life which require improvement! But what has this got to do with Jesus or the Bible or the church or anything remotely related to Christianity? I’m glad you asked!

These personality types are great. They are really helpful at developing self-awareness so we can grow in our strengths, fix (or hide) our weaknesses, and find our place (to some degree) in the world. However, they do pose a significant danger: they threaten to define us by shaping our identity around 4 letters. Once we learn we are ESFP or INTJ or whatever combination we happen to be according to the MBTI assessment it is very easy to fall into thinking that is who we are. As we read the descriptions of each personality type we may have many Ah! moments as we resonate with what Myers and Briggs have said about us, and we should take that on board, but we shouldn’t allow that to be all we are. We shouldn’t think 4 letters are the sum of who we are in some kind of fatalistic determinism, as though we can never exceed the expectations of a psychometric questionnaire. Certainly we all have natural dispositions and gifts but Jesus came to give us life to the full, a life that is more than what we are naturally (John 10:10).

Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12 NIV). We are not all hands or feet or eyes. We are not all ENTJ or INTP or ESFP. We are not all Counsellors or Greeters or Sunday School Teachers. And that is something to be celebrated because where then would the body, the diversity of personality, or the Church? God has not called us all to be the same. He has given us all different personalities and gifts to steward, to develop and mature, as we follow Jesus and serve others.

So Nietzsche was right. In Christ we should become who we are, who God has made us to be. But that’s not the whole story. We have to become more than who we are if we are to experience the fullness of life Jesus promises us because no one, if left to their natural tendencies, will pursue fullness of life in every area of their lives. I know I wouldn’t. I’d rather just become who I am; stick to my strengths and minimise my weaknesses. But that isn’t the life Jesus has called us to. He wants us to rejoice in our weaknesses so his strength can be perfected in us, so we can experience fullness of life in and through him:

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10 NIV)

We are not all gifted at, or naturally disposed toward, serving others but we are all called to love and serve our neighbours (Mark 12:30).

We are not all gifted at, or naturally disposed toward, being generous with our time, our money or our lives but we are all called to be generous in these ways (2 Corinthians 9:7).

We are not all gifted at, or naturally disposed toward, teaching the Bible but we are all called to share the gospel with others through our words whether with a co-worker, a family member, a friend, or even to encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ by reminding them of who Jesus is and all he has done for us (Matthew 28:18-20; Hebrews 3:12-15).

In what ways can you become who you are in Christ by growing in the gifts and natural disposition God has given you? And, as importantly, how can to become more than who you are? How can you become the person God has called you to be in the fullness of life Christ has promised and called us to through our weaknesses?

Come Fly With Me

davy‘The more you travel, the richer you are.’

This is the tagline to a Fly Emirates advertising campaign.  Obviously they are not giving away free flights, nor do they pay you to fly with them.  Rather, this is an advertising campaign for air miles – the more you travel, the richer you are in terms of air miles collected.

However, I have found this tag line to be true in a different way.  I have found that the more I travel, the richer I become personally.

Although, I am speaking of a particular type of travel – short-term mission trips.

I have been on three significant (for me) cross-cultural mission trips in the past eight years (Peru, Morocco and Zimbabwe), and wish to share some lessons I learned.

Lesson 1: I am more materialistic than I care to believe

I am unsure as to whether or not the three countries I experienced would be classified as Third World countries or not.  The capital cities, and many of the larger towns had wealthy people living there and business seemed good.  However, beyond the urban areas the poverty could not be hidden.

Throughout all these countries I saw: people wash clothes in rivers, people wear cement bags as shoes and hats, people own one set of clothes, large families living in one room homes, elderly widows care for orphaned grand-children with no finance at all, a lady dance with joy because she was given a blanket (and not even a particularly nice one).  In other words, the people I spent time with had little to nothing – materially speaking.

Just to see some of these things highlighted the materialism in my heart.  I often had more in my suitcase than most of these people had ever owned.

Now, I am not particularly rich in western terms.  But materialism is not the possession of goods, but the desire for them.  I desire a better car, a newer phone, a bigger house, more fashionable clothes, etc.  Indeed, the longer we spend cocooned in our culture the more materialistic we let ourselves become.

So, my first lesson was I am more materialistic than I care to believe.

Lesson 2: Be truly grateful

It is a strange sensation to walk into Tesco again only a matter of days after finding yourself in a situation where people struggle to find food, never mind a certain brand of food.

However, it is not just food that I became grateful for.  I think of groups of believers, maybe only five or ten of them, and no other Christians to meet with – anywhere.  I think of churches without Pastor’s.  I think of the political leadership in some of the countries I visited.  I think of the lack of law, or the unjust implication of law in certain places.  I think of the vulnerability of children, women and the elderly in some countries.

I came back to Northern Ireland where I live in a town with 20 odd churches in it.  My church has a faithful pastor, elders, deacons and ministry leaders.  My political leaders are not perfect, and are not always concerned about the issues I wish they were concerned about, but the country is run pretty well.  The law is executed justly and fairly in most instances across Northern Ireland.  While children, women and the elderly are still vulnerable here, we also have social services, NHS, nursing homes, home help, women’s aid, foster carers and a number of other facilities and service which care for those who are vulnerable.

The second lesson I learned was to be truly grateful for all that I have.

Lesson 3: The benefit of other cultures to my character

I am a very task orientated person.  I work through tasks, devoting my attention to the task I am completing now, before thinking about anything else.

Therefore, it was of great difficulty to travel to somewhere like Peru where time, in all reality, does not exist – for example Church meetings take place 3 hours after they were scheduled.  It was a challenge to be somewhere like Morocco or Zimbabwe where people come first, and no matter what you are supposed to be doing, if someone needs you to sit down with them you do.

These were the difficulties which helped develop my character.  They helped me to realise the importance of spending time with people and caring for them in addition to completing tasks faithfully.  Of course this is something I still need to work on.

This may not be your weakness, but travelling to other cultures exposes our cultural snobbery where we glorify some traits and demonise others.

The third lesson then was the way in which other cultures benefited my character.

Lesson 4: Brothers and Sisters across the world are both an encouragement and a challenge

On my travels I have spent time with both missionaries and indigenous believers.

Many of the missionaries have given up so much, and embody Jesus words ‘let him deny himself’ (Lk. 9:23).  Some of the missionaries I met had been working in an area for ten years and were only aware of two people committing their lives to Christ because of their work.  Other missionaries had been sent used tea bags from their home country as a treat!  Still others had left comfortable lifestyles to serve God in very different contexts across the world.

Some of the indigenous believers had been disowned by their families for professing Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.  Others devoured their Bibles, like a child on Christmas morning with a new toy.  Many endured hardship and difficulties just to meet with Christ’s people.

One Pastor in Zimbabwe walked for four or five hours every other Saturday evening, then slept on the ground inside a mud hut (see picture, the green mat is his bed), so he could open God’s word for a small congregation (who could not pay him).

Spending time with these people challenged me immensely.  However, it was also a great encouragement to see Christ’s church growing around the world, to see people’s lives changed by the same gospel I heard in Northern Ireland and to join them in worshipping our God together.

Lesson four then was experiencing both the encouragement and challenge that our brothers and sisters across the world are to us.

Lesson 5: Cultural exposure helps my biblical understanding

Connected to the previous two lessons is lesson five.

Standing in Peru, unable to communicate (except through a translator) with people who desire so much to talk to you, helps us appreciate the frustration and confusion that took place at the tower of Babel (Gen. 11).

Sitting/lying round a table in Morocco, eating out of one bowl, with your hands, brings alive the image of Jesus and his disciples observing The Last Supper (Lk. 22:14-22).

Singing hymns in Zimbabwe, with dancing Africans singing in Shona and me standing poker straight upright singing in English was only a little glimpse of Revelation 5 and 7.

Lesson five was that experiencing these other cultures helped me understand the Bible better, and to imagine and experience just a little of what the biblical culture was like.

Maybe it has been a while since you went on a mission trip, or maybe you have never been!  Either way I hope the lessons I learned and have shared whet your appetite a little.

It is only early March and so there is lots of time to organise something for the summer (or any other time that suits you).  Short-term mission trips open up another world – so can I encourage you to come fly with me?

Because the more you travel, the richer you are.