Monday, April 24, 2006

Easter and Christmas

As I prepared for Easter Sunday I remembered something I heard Arsene Wenger (the manager of Arsenal footballl club) say in an interview. He said, "Christmas is significant, Easter is decisive. "He was, of course, talking about winning the Premiership, but what a good statement about our faith too.

Christmas is significant. At Christmas we celebrate an amazing event in history. God came into the world as a human baby. No sudden arrival fully grown-up, or heavenly appearance, just a natural birth into a normal world. So normal, hardly anyone noticed. The only visitors where a group of shepherds who'd been told what was going on, and much later a mysterious group of travellers from the east.

Yes, Christmas is significant. But Easter is decisive.

Easter changes everything. The birth of Jesus initiated a sequence of events that met their fulfilment in the cross of Jesus Christ and the empty tomb three days later. His death changed everything. As Max Lucado says, there are important events in history--—the turning of the first wheel etc. But when it comes to redefining history nothing compares to the cross.

Without the events of Easter there would be no Christian faith, no Christian hope no possibility of forgiveness. Bu tbecause of the cross God has once and for all decisively rewritten history.

Weird things happening with text

Just to say...

I've noticed that every so often I get weird and wonderful characters appearing in my posts. I guess it's got something to do with the text editor and the fact that I copy and paste from my word processor most of the time.

Also, from time to time, sentences seem to get rearranged—words moved or added or deleted. This means some things don't make sense.

I'm sorry if you're trying to read the posts and they don't make sense. I'll try to keep a check on things, but it seems to happen even after I've checked everything.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The legacy of Jim Elliot

Yesterday, on the train home from Paris (I thought I'd just drop that in!!) I finished reading The Shadow of the Almighty. So how do I feel now I've read the book?

The first thing to say is that in all honesty there were parts of the book that were quite tedious to read. I think that's because I mostly expected the book to be about Jim Elliot's life in Ecuador and all the excitement and adventure of his albeit short missionary life. In fact the book is far more about God's work of preparation of Jim (over two thirds of the book is pre-Ecuador) for that comparatively short-lived experience. Perhaps the biggest challenge of the book is the way it squares up to the reality of preparation. Too much of my time, perhaps too much of most Christian's time, is spent treading water, waiting for something to happen, instead of preparing for God's purposes to be worked out in our lives.

I remember thinking at University that when I got a job, I'd develop a routine and I'd have regular devotional time with God and regular study time too. When I was working, I thought this would become a reality when I got to Bible College. And when I was at college I thought that it would happen when I got into ministry. Then, I thought, the day will be mine to structure around my relationship with God and his ministry through me. (Now I'm in ministry and have been for 15 years. If I can't work it out now, it will have to wait for retirement!)

I was wrong of course. The slow day, the quiet day never came, and doesn't look like coming any time soon. Over all these years I've learnt one simple truth. Unless I choose to do it, it doesn't get done. Unless I timetable study and prayer, I don't study and I don't pray. Even when I do, it's never easy. I'm tired and concerned about many things. Focusing on God is never easy. If someone as committed as Jim Elliot found it tough, why do I think it should be any easier for me?

What I've learnt from Jim Elliot, is that I'm not alone. Perhaps more importantly, I've also been reminded that my feelings are not the measure by which I test these things either. In a paraphrase of Jim Elliot: It's just a matter of focused obedience. God's will in my life. It's an echo of the pattern of prayer Jesus taught his disciples:

"Your will be done..."

Jim Elliot was no missionary hero, he was just an obedient follower of Jesus Christ, but it didn't happen overnight.

Another Car Wash

Another Saturday, another free car wash. I wonder what impact this is having on the church community?

The whole impetus behind doing these free services is the principle of Servant Evangelism, a principle I read about in the Autumn of 2005 for those who don't know the journey so far. I hope that we will extend our acts of kindness beyond a simple programme of things we do, and towards a new culture for the way we do church, particularly evangelism. Let me explain.
I came to the conclusion some time ago that one of the reasons we don't engage in evangelism is because we've made it so very difficult for ordinary Christians to do. We've asked everyone to be an articulate and winsome evangelist. We've told them that the reason they can't do evangelism is that they don't know enough, that they are not brave enough or that they aren't committed enough.

We've also made the failure of our evangelism a virtue. When people reject our message, we say it's not our technique that's lacking, but rather it's their fault, or the devil's fault. Now there is probably some truth in this, but we can't absolve ourselves that much. We are, after all, part of the evangelism equation.

So, to get back to my question about the church community. My hope and prayer is that by introducing simple acts of kindness as a part of our evangelistic strategy (not our whole strategy), we'll begin to build evangelistic values into our culture as a community of faith. Not values of conversion, but values linked to sharing God's goodness as we experience it. Out of this, by the grace of God, people will begin to see what we've always proclaimed——God changes lives.

If servant evangelism is only a programme in our church, it only ever be a programme and eventually it will go the way of all programmes. It will either become institutionalised (we do it, but we can't quite remember why we do it?) or it will die through lack of interest and commitmentt. If it becomes part of our culturee, we will do it because it's the most natural thing for us to do.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Recovering grace at the heart of the message

I'm not the first person to observe that people outside of the church have a far better idea about we stand against than what we stand for.

We've just spent a week at Spring Harvest, but I'm not suggesting that this is the problem! No, it's some of the things that get onto the evangelical agenda that worry me.

Take the whole science versus creation debate. In the blue corner we have the extreme creationists, and in the red corner we have those who see rejecting evolution as some form of intellectual suicide. As someone who's worked and studied in both the theological sphere and the secular realm of research and development, I've sorted lived in both worlds. I've had the opportunity to look at things from both points of view. And the truth is, there's never been a debate for me. If God wanted to create the world in an instant, I have no problem with that. I'm rather more interested in why he did. But that's not the only potential red herring in the pack.

I feel saddened that we're sometimes in danger of getting hot under the collar about things that, in the end, won't matter a great deal at all. They may appear to matter now, but they are just a distraction. I don't want to use my short life crossing "t's" and dotting "i's" of correct doctrine whilst missing all the important stuff of helping people connect with God.

I just can't get excited anymore about a good argument about who's right and who's wrong. I live in a community of around 1000 people I think. I'm not sure many of them are too concerned about these things. I'm guessing that most of them are more worried about why life doesn't appear to be working properly for them or for their families or for a friend at work who is a 'really nice person' but is dying from cancer, or facing another major life challenge.

So thanks Spring Harvest for helping me to remember that grace it at the heart of our message; that we're imperfect beings who are trying hard to live as God intended us to live; and that I'm not alone on this planet.

Favourite moment from Spring Harvest? Has to be when Adrian Plass shared his map reading story and when he pointed out that an anagram of fundamentalist was "snail fed mutant".

Being good news

As I dragged myself out of bed at 5:50am this morning and stood outside the church wondering why I get up so early on a Sunday morning and offer to cook breakfast for anyone else who's willing to get up that early, I realise that I'm a bearer of the best news the world can ever hear.

I just wish that I was better at it than I am.

Yesterday we did another free car wash. If you're new to the idea of doing something for free, then you'll have to read one or two other posts to get a flavour of the reasoning. Once again things were quite slow to start and we ended with a flurry. The last car we washed was so dirty, no one was sure what the real colour was until we'd washed it! It actually was that bad.

The thing is, that washing someone's car fro free is worth it just to see their reaction both when you tell them it's free and when they see the difference you've made.

I wonder what they talk about afterwards? Maybe they don't talk, or maybe they wonder why we were doing and then again maybe they are still trying to figure out what the catch actually is. And then there's the people that drive past and look. They don't come in, sometimes they smile, but they don't come in. Do you think they say the themselves, or their passengers, "There must be a catch, it can't possibly be free."

Strange isn't it that a simple four letter world like 'free' can be so misunderstood.

Here's another interesting thing, they were all differentt people compared to last time. No repeat customers. It's a passing trade, so I guess it's unlikely that the same people are going to be driving past at the same time. It many ways this is a good thing. I means we've touched more lives with the kindness of God. If you count our little outing with the stamps, we've connected over 300 people with God's kindnesss through these simple acts.

Now, I know that there is far more to evangelism than washing cars or giving away stamps. But I have a sneaky feeling we're changing some people's mind about what the church is all about. I hope we're beginning to break down some of the barriers that have built up over long periods of time between the church and the people on the outside.

Only time will tell, but in the meantime there a few more clean cars on the road and a few more drivers who can't get their head around why a dozen or so people would give up a Saturday morning to wash cars for no other reason than to show God's love.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Asking for a miracle

This an extract from a letter Jim Elliot wrote to his sister from Ecuador.

We also wanted to find out if there was any truth to the possible friendly contact the southern Quechua might have with the Aucas, the one really savage tribe down here. There isn’t. They have just killed five in the area. We were looking for Auca homes as well, but found nothing… More and more that tribe is brought before as a possible field of labour for my life. They are utterly untouched. And so far they are inaccessible. It would take a miracle to open the way to them, and we are praying for that miracle.

Shadow of the Almighty p221-222

Is it too simplistic to say that God answers prayers, but not always in the way we expect him to answer? For Jim Elliot the miracle came after his death. The door that opened, and that eventually led to members of the Waorani tribe (the Aucas) finding faith, was truly a miraculous answer to this prayer, but could anyone have predicted it to be so? Jim Elliot certainly knew the risks that faced them as they sought to reach this people, but he was willing to face that risk, to do all that he could do in offering himself for God’s purposes.

We can’t speculate how things might have been had Jim Elliot and the others not died on that riverbank. I’m sure that God could have and probably would have reached into that group of people another way, but I wonder. It’s one of those interesting questions.

Sidestep for a moment into science or history. We assume that if Newton had not “discovered” gravity then someone else would have done so. But is that a reasonable assumption? There is at least one school of thought that suggests that this might not be so.

Step back into the realm of following God. What is God waiting to do if you only you will walk in obedience to his call? Jim Elliot spoke about the Auca Indians as a possible field of labour for my life. I guess God achieved exactly what he wanted to achieve through Jim’s life.

The question is—is he being allowed to achieve what he wants to achieve through your life because you are submitting it willing to his purposes?

Friday, April 07, 2006

Back with Jim

I'm still working my way through Shadow of the Almighty. I guess I thought it would be the story of Ecuador and Ecuador alone. In fact it's 200 pages before Jim Elliot sets sail with Pete Fleming in February 1952. This in itself is a lesson about how God takes his time preparing us for service. I remember the first time someone drew my attention to how long God takes with some lives. Moses, for example was 80 when he began to lead the people, Abraham was in his seventies when he set out for Ur, Joseph spent 13 years (I think) in prison and Daniel spent many years in Babylon.
This aside, here's the reason for this entry:
From a letter written to Pete Fleming about the possibility of his joining Jim to go to Ecuador.
To me, Ecuador is simply an avenue for obedience to the simple word of Christ. There is room for me there, and I am free to go. This of course is true of a great many other places, but having said there is a need, and sensed my freedom, through several years of waiting in prayer for leading on this very point of 'where?', I now feel peace in saying, 'I go, sir, by grace.' (Shadow p185)
I'm challenged by the simplicity of obedience. It's clear from the book that Jim Elliot's desire was to be obedient in every area of his life. He saw a bigger picture than a single country. While the place was important, the opportunity to obey was paramount. He'd spent many years asking God for a destination. He wanted to be sure that he was serving in the "right place".
I don't want to read too much into his comments, but to be able to describe Ecuador as a simple avenue of obedience after all he went through getting to this point sets me thinking about my own call.
Too many Christians tread water waiting for some revelation about what to do next. Perhaps what Jim Elliot is saying is to take the opportunity before you to serve God wholeheartedly. Personally my call is to serve God in ministry. My current setting is simply the avenue to do that, it doesn't define me, God does that as he shapes and reshapes my life.
I love my current setting. And I have no doubts at all that this is where God has placed me and where he wants me to be. But this is not the whole picture, the bigger picture is serving God with all my heart, soul, strength and mind. It's to "put first the kingdom of God". This must be my perspective.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Cynicism and the Generous Life

I suspect that the one of the things that most undermines our ability to live generous lives is our cynicism. We believe that everyone will be suspicious of our motives, and that no one will receive our generosity. We buy into the, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” mentality and it stifles our open-handedness.
If we are going to live truly generous lives, then we must begin to believe that generosity will not always be rejected.