Thursday, 29 December 2011

Joyful Living - a sign of Godly Character

Tom Wright has done a new translation. It’s called the New Testament for everyone. Take a look at these familiar scriptures from his fresh perspective.

The result is this: since we have been declared ‘in the right’ on the basis of faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus the Messiah. Through him we have been allowed to approach, by faith, into this grace in which we stand; and we celebrate the hope of the glory of God. That’s not all. We also celebrate in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces patience, patience produces a well-formed character, and a character like that produces hope. Hope in its turn, does not make us ashamed, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts thorough the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Rom 5.3-5

My dear family, when you find yourselves tumbling into various trials and tribulations, learn to look at it with complete joy, because you know that, when your faith is put to the test, what comes out is patience. James 1.2-3

I’m speaking the truth in the Messiah, I’m not lying. I call my conscience as witness, in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and endless pain in my heart. Left to my own self, I am half inclined to pray that I would be accursed, cut off from the Messiah, on behalf of my family, my own flesh and blood relatives. Rom 9.1-3

There is no doubt in my mind that Joy is both a means and a goal in expressing Godly character. It is second in the list of the fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5.22. Thus it is intrinsically part of the character of God. He is a joyful God. The Old prophet Zephaniah said that God would ‘joy over us with singing’, Zeph 3.10..

The apostolic writers were clear that joy was a means of developing character. Paul said he gloried or to use Wright’s translation he ‘celebrated’ tribulations. This was because he understood that something was going on through the process of every trial. Each trial was designed to produce perseverance in us and this helped to create, ‘well formed character’.

This in turn led to a genuine hope in God that did not lead to disappointment. Rather it led to largeness of heart because of the Holy Spirit poured out into our hearts. The danger with every trial is to react in the wrong way; to become bitter, angry, disappointed. So James agrees with Paul, ‘Count it all joy when you stumble into various trials’.

Like Paul, James knew that something precious or of value was happening in this process. It was producing patience so that we could be ‘complete and lack nothing’. Wow. What a goal. God is in the business of forming and shaping us so that we are ready for anything He has for us.

Now the danger with any teaching on joy is that we bury or ignore our times of sorrow. Sorrow, like joy is a powerful emotion. It is a natural part of life and often precedes real joy. Jesus spoke of the woman who travails in birth pains but then forgets her sorrow because of the joy of giving birth, John 16.21. As the Psalmist put it, ‘weeping endures for a night, but joy comes in the morning’, Psalm 30.5.

In Rom 9 Paul speaks of his continual sorrow of heart for the nation of Israel. He is emphatic. Three times he emphasizes that this is how he truly feels. This is from the same man who penned, ‘rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice’, Phil 4.6. The one who celebrated, ‘tribulations’. What is going on?

The truth is that many of us, like Paul, carry a secret sorrow. A loved one who is not yet saved; a son or daughter who is no longer walking with God; a yearning for pregnancy after so many miscarriages; a desire for healing, but carrying pain; a longing to provide well for your family but facing unemployment. All these are genuine sorrows.

And just to remind us, Jesus felt sorrow – even to the point of death, Mark 14.34. But neither Jesus nor any of the apostles allowed themselves to be overwhelmed with sorrow. Rather they chose to rejoice and exalt the greatness of God even in their time of sorrow and pain.

We see this a lot in the Psalms. In Psalm 50.23 God speaks to His people and says; “Whoever offers praise glorifies me and to him who orders his conduct (Literally, Journey in the Hebrew) aright, I will show the salvation of God”.

To praise God is to glorify Him. It is in effect saying, through our worship, that He is bigger than our problems. This kind of response positions our hearts to be able to discern the right road to take. We are all on a journey but we are not all on the right road; we are not all heading in the right direction.

Joyful praise has a way of impacting our conduct. We don’t react the way others do to disappointment or trials. Rather we seek to cooperate with God to bring about His purpose, even in the midst of distress and pain. This is the journey of seeking the Kingdom first. It’s the journey of faith. We believe that things will be different.

I have a friend who has conducted hundreds if not thousands of funerals. He has covered the full gambit from the young to the old; those who have died through natural causes to those who have died violently or through suicide. He has done memorials for believers and unbelievers alike.

What is fascinating to me is that in the twenty something years he has been providing this service he claims that in his experience there is no discernable difference to the way believers and unbelievers react to grief. This is tragic. Paul is explicit. We don’t grieve the way the world grieves. We have hope, 1 Thess 4.13. The resurrection makes a difference for us - today! The resurrection is God's vindication that He can bring life out of death. Death can give way to a new creation!

Weeping is an appropriate response to grief but remember, joy comes in the morning, Psalm 30.5. In other words we should expect to pass through the grief and come to a place of genuine heartfelt rejoicing. Neh 8,10 says that ‘The joy of the Lord is your strength’. Imagine that! Of all the qualities that Nehemiah could have chosen in the character of God he highlights God’s joy as the source of our strength.

This is not difficult to grasp. Happy people are energized people. They are motivated people. They see life as a gift and enter each day with a sense of wonder and expectation. Something deep within is then source of their strength – the joy of God.

Listen to the prophet Habakkuk on this subject:

Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; though the labour of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls – Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. Hab 3.17-18.

You couldn’t paint a bleaker picture in an agricultural society. Crops and livestock alike fail. It looks grim. It looks hopeless. It’s a depressing scene. But Habakkuk makes a decision. He is not looking at the temporal he is looking at the eternal. He is focusing on God.

Consider Isaiah in the 6th chapter of his book. In the year that King Uzziah died he saw the Lord high and lifted up. He went from a place of grief to a place of worship and awe. That’s what Habakkuk was doing. He wouldn’t let the grief overwhelm him. God is bigger. God is greater.

Psalm 98.4 says, 'Make a joyful noise to the Lord all the earth. Make a loud noise and rejoice and sing praise'. Everything in creation is designed to rejoice in the Lord and one day it will. In the mean time we can be the vangaurd of God's creation that chooses to rejoice and praise Him because we understand what He has achieved in Christ for us!

Jesus has been exalted far above principalities and powers, thrones and dominions. He truly is Lord and as we worship and rejoice in Him He can change any situation. Think of Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail. Despite their beatings they were praising God. They were joying in the God of their salvation and He sent an earthquake that loosed their chains and set in motion events that would change the city by establishing a worshipping community - a church.

This ability to joy in God is a fruit of the Spirit. We can cultivate it by choosing to rejoice in all the circumstances of life. Ask yourself this question: “What is the one thing that could happen to me that would silence my praise and rob me of joy?” Whatever it is, it has power over you until you release it to God and choose to worship and joy in Him.

That’s what Habakkuk did. For a farmer failed crops and sick livestock was the one thing that could rob them of joy. But Habakkuk is hopeful because he serves the God of Hope – the God of Joy. Listen to his closing words from his short prophetic book;

The Lord is my strength’ He will make my feet like deer’s feet. And He will make me walk on my high hills. This is a song! It’s a hymn of praise to the God who never changes no matter what happens in life. This is where our real strength lies.

Take time this week to cultivate a spirit of joyful thanksgiving every day. Your name is written in heaven and Jesus said this is to be a source of rejoicing, Luke 10.20. It is true every day. Focus on eternal realities and your life will be like a thermostat not a thermometer. You will change the atmosphere around you instead of being changed by it!

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Make Every Effort Part 5

Make every effort to guard the unity that the Spirit gives, with your lives bound together in peace. Eph 4.3 Translated by Tom Wright.

Eph 4.1-16 is a key passage of scripture. Once again the phrase ‘Make every effort’ is used. Notice that we are not asked to produce unity, only to guard it! It is not of human origin. It is based on the work of Jesus. His death on the cross has removed all barriers to God and to each other.

In Paul’s context the biggest social and religious barriers existed between Jews and non-Jews, (often called Gentiles). They simply didn’t mix. But now Paul declares that through Messiah Jesus the partition that divides them is broken down. Now they are both united in Him. Together they make up the one new man, Eph 2.14-18.

From Ephesians we can say a number of things about this unity.

1. It is organic not organizational. It may develop organizational expression over time, but in essence it’s organic in nature. In other words it is based on a shared life source. Trees have structure but its life is organic. A tree can remain standing even after it is dead. But its fruitfulness is dependent on maintaining life.

2. It is communal not common. The life that we share is ‘in the Spirit’ and we all share it in Christ. To use Paul’s language again from 1 Cor 12.13 NIV For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Our sense of community is created by this shared life in the Spirit.

3. It is a unity based on fulfilled righteousness that is now sealed in God’s peace. Jesus didn’t conquer armies to secure this unity. He was no Alexander. He died on a cross to fulfill the penalty of the law securing righteousness as a gift for all those who believe. Now we have peace with God and each other. So we can’t keep this unity through fighting for it! We don't fight flesh and blood! We guard against the enemy destroying it through believers that become fleshly in their attitudes and actions. More on that later.

If we unpack these sixteen verses from Ephesians 4 we can see seven things that help us to preserve the unity of the Spirit. They are seven things we must make an effort towards. Here they are as I see it:

1. Live up to your calling – Eph 4.1 This is so needed today in the body of Christ. Our calling is characterized by four things; it’s a high calling – Phil 3.14; it’s a heavenly calling – Heb 3.1;It's a holy calling - 2Tim 1.9 and it’s a humble calling – 1Cor 1.26.

Prince William in the UK has been educated differently to most people because he is 2nd in line for the throne. It is a high calling. Things that ordinary people do he can’t do. His calling demands lively differently. And he accepts it. A high call means high privilege and high responsibility.

A heavenly calling shows us the source of our call. It is from above. John the Baptist said that a man can receive nothing unless it is from heaven. This is the source of all true authority and anointing. A church can give you a salary, a car, a manse and insurance but only God can give you a calling that empowers you to fulfill His will.

Christians who get drunk are not living up to their holy calling. Something is missing. One way of making a real effort to keep the unity of the Spirit is not to grieve the Spirit by living as though we don’t know Jesus. This issue of personal holiness is important. Holy means separated, set apart for God’s use. If we learn to live with that attitude it is easier to say no to stuff that makes you an instrument in the hand of the enemy.

Finally we have a humble calling. None of us get into the Kingdom through self effort. We all have to become like little children and receive God's grace and forgiveness. Boasting is excluded.

2. Work on attitudes and actions – Eph 4.2. Paul includes four; humility, gentleness, patience and forbearance. Each one of these is both an attitude and an action.

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less! Jesus demonstrated this by washing feet. He didn’t see Himself above this task. That was His attitude. He washed the feet of the disciples, that was the action that followed. We need both. I know those who work hard on having a good attitude but are light on actions that follow through. Others are good at following through but do so with gritted teeth. Attitude is somewhat lacking.

Gentleness. I love this word. None of us like to be handled roughly either physically or emotionally. Recently I had keyhole surgery to unlock my ‘frozen shoulder’. For the first time in a year I can raise my left arm above my head. Wonderful! But I am enduring five weeks of physiotherapy where my muscles are being stretched in order to regain full movement. It’s painful at times. But the folk who work with me know what they are doing. Above all they are gentle. They understand that after invasive surgery like this I don’t need an aggressive body building maneuvers. Slow and gentle does it. We need to handle people in the same way. Too many are broken and abused. Paul tells us in Gal 6.1 that those who need restoration should be cared for by those who are spiritual and have a spirit of gentleness. Attitude and action again working together.

Patience is the ability to handle pressure without letting your blood boil. There will always be situation in life where people press your buttons. They get to you. They wind you up. The temptation is to ‘let them have it!’ But blasting people in this way seldom helps. You may feel justified, you may feel better for getting that off your chest but it does nothing to preserve the unity of the Spirit. Those who work with anger management talk about AT - Anger Threshold. Some people have a LAT – low anger threshold. They have to work at getting a HAT – high anger threshold. In other words they keep cool for longer. For the believer this is not just about keeping a lid on things then punching a cushion when you get home – however helpful that might be! It’s about an inner transformation through the work of the Spirit. Paul tells us we need to show patience to ‘all men’.

Finally we have forbearance. This is similar to patience but is more nuanced. It is the ability to let things that are legitimately irritating to us slide. To use the JB Philips translation; ‘Make a generous allowance for one another’. I like that. Most parents understand this. If you over correct a child they loose heart. The motivation to want to do better next time goes. I had to learn how to major on the majors and let the other stuff go. Some parents major on the minors and the majors and all the chords in between. It doesn’t really work as a long-term strategy for ringing about change. It doesn’t make for peace, only conformity. It doesn’t preserve the unity of the Spirit.

3. Eph 4.4-6 NIV There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. This verse had a beautiful chiasm structure that places Jesus at the centre of everything. There may be many churches that express the Kingdom of God locally but only one body. This should have a profound impact on the way we relate to other believers from other fellowships. It is not a competition. It’s collaboration. Recognising this truth gives us the motivation to make more effort with other believers who see things differently from us. Jesus died for them too. He loves them as well as us. Let’s not erect barriers He died to pull down!

4. Get to know your grace gift – Eph 4. 7 NIV But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. Each one of us has a grace gift. It is much easier to make an effort to keep the unity of the Spirit if I know who you are and what you’re called to do. Too often I have seen grace gifts defined purely in terms of Eph 4.11 and the zenith is reached when you are full time. But the grace gift of pastoral care can operate in many vocational settings. I know a businessman who is great at discipling other businessmen. His pastoral gift works in the market place looking after other businessmen. Trying to be what we are not doesn’t preserve unity, it destroys it. I read a report recently of a large church that imploded after five years. It was a church with thousands of members. 60% left over a very short period of time. An analysis was made by a Christian Consultant as to why. He did a personality profile test of the leadership and then of the members. He discovered that the members were trying to be like the leaders in personality but it was contrary to their type. They were trying to be what they were not! And after a few years of trying they couldn’t sustain the pressure. Some people are more intuitive while others are ore analytical. Some are introvert while others are more extroverts. Our grace gift will work through our different personality types.

5. Learn to receive the grace gift of others, especially those that equip you for service – Eph 4.11-13. Jesus put it like this; If you receive a prophet in the name of a prophet you receive the prophet’s reward; Matt 10.41 Receiving from others helps to preserve unity. We receive as well as give. We minister and are ministered to. That’s how it works. The ministries of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher are there to, "give God's people the equipment they need for their work of service", Tom Wright's translation. Only by receiving them within the sphere of the gift they operate in do we benefit from their ministry.

6. Aim for maturity – Eph 4.13-16. Some Christians need to grow up! The basic problem of the Corinthian church was immaturity. They acted as babes in Christ. Babies are cute and adorable but we rightly expect them to grow and mature. A child that isn’t able to talk and be potty trained by five is a worry. Here are three things Paul highlights in the text that he looks for in a maturing Christian.

Discernment. The ability to spot a wind of teaching and navigate through it so that you stay on course instead of jumping from one Christian fad to the next.

Truthing it in our relationships. I am trying to convey the force of the Greek here as Paul wrote it. Most times it is translated ‘speaking the truth’, but ‘truthing it’ is better. Again the force is attitude and action. Being truthful, not just with our words but with our life.

Being connected. Joints are the points of connection in the body. It is where two members meet and interact. Mature believers understand the importance of connection. They don’t need to be told to go to church or get into a connect group. They understand that this was how the early church organised itself in order to do life together. Who are you connected to? Who speaks into your life? Who do you go to for advice and counsel? And do those people demonstrate that they too are following Jesus?

7. Finally Eph 4.16 focuses on every part doing its share of the work. This causes growth of the body in love, ‘as each part does its work’. Taking personal responsibility for your life is crucial. Nothing significant or lasting will happen until you do. Every one of us has a vital part to play in building up the body. So play your part. Getting connected puts you into a set of relationships that helps you to know where, when and how you can serve. My hand is joined to my wrist. It is not on the end of my ankle! It knows it’s a hand through the connection of relationships it has. It’s the same with us. Our relationships are intended to help us know who we are so we can serve effectively. You can’t serve in isolation. You need the body and the body needs you.

To make an effort in anything requires us to re prioritize our life. The unity of the Spirit is a reality Jesus gave His life for. Ask for grace to apply these seven points of progress to your life so that you become a person who actively guards unity. And then watch what God is able to do with a company of people who live in this way.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Make Every Effort Part 4

But we, brethren, having been taken away from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavoured more eagerly to see your face with great desire. Therefore we wanted to come to you—even I, Paul, time and again—but Satan hindered us, 1Thess 2.17-18

This is another occasion when Paul uses the phrase ‘Make every effort’. From the account in Acts we learn that Paul had to flee Thessalonica because of persecution only two weeks after the establishment of the church. But in that short space of time he had taken them into his heart. Now he had to leave.

At the first opportunity he writes to them, expressing both his desire to see them and explained the many failed attempts he had made to get to them. But it still stands that he had ‘made every effort’ to see their face. They were separated in presence but not in heart. That is a wonderful thought. It tells us that relationships that have real value are heart relationships. I believe they display four essential qualities:

1. You are mindful of the other person even when you are not together. You carry them in your heart. It is difficult not to pray for such people. They are present in your thinking. Paul felt snatched away from these saints and longed to be with them.

2. You look forward to the reunion - to when you can be together. Paul desired to be with this church. All of us have experienced this. Those who have been in love know exactly what is being said here. The one you love takes up your thoughts so much so that when you are separated you long to be together. To quote Shakespeare: ”Absence makes the heart grow fonder”.

3. You actively seek ways to be together. That’s what Paul was doing. He had made several failed attempts to get to them, but he wanted them to know he hadn’t given up. He wrote to them so that they would be assured of his love, that he was mindful of them and that he would make it there – one day!

4. You openly share the value you place on the relationship. This is a very vulnerable place to be. To declare love for another, whether a friend, a sweetheart or even another family member is never easy. Taking the initiative leaves you open to rejection. We all want reciprocation when we declare love for another – but there are no guarantees.

Paul had no such reservations. He openly declares his love and joy in this group of believers. He would make every effort to see them again. The enemy would not have the last word.

I love the tenacious spirit Paul displays. It shows the priority that he places on relationships, especially with other believers. Even when absent he felt connected. That’s what heart connection does. It transcends time and distance.

I have a friend who is a Doctor of Psychology. Her thesis was written on “The Absent Father”. She explored the impact that this generation has experienced through fathers who were busy building careers and were not at home much. She included missionaries and pastors, who often spend extended periods away from their children. To her surprise the kids of many (though not all) missionaries and pastors fared well, while the kids of most (though not all) businessmen suffered identity issues and problems with self worth.

After careful study she came to this conclusion: A father can be absent but emotionally present and present but emotionally absent. The degree of emotional or heart connection was the crucial factor. Letters and phone calls had value when the father returned home and was emotionally present. Without heart connection the children still felt the distance.

In the church we need to prioritise emotional presence in our relationships. I must confess I have had to learn how to do this over the years. It didn’t come naturally to me. Have you ever had a conversation with someone and you felt like they weren’t there? They were in another place. Ask them to repeat your last sentence and they couldn’t. They are already thinking about their next appointment or how to deal with that problem that keeps occupying them. That was me. But for the most part I've changed. I've learned active listening skills that have helped make make genuine connection. To really be present with a person.

Jesus knew how to be emotionally connected to people. He had heart connection. He could weep over Jerusalem for missing their hour of opportunity. He could weep at the grave of Lazarus, even though He knew he would rise from the dead. He could look at a young man who was bound by money and love him. Heart connection. You can’t fake it. People know when it’s there and when it isn’t.

When Jesus called the twelve to follow Him they literally went on a journey. ‘Follow Me’ was the only requirement. But in the process of time the nature of their relationship changed. He took them into His heart. They went from being servants to friends; a friendship characterised by openhearted sharing:

I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you, John 15.15 NIV.

He held nothing back. In doing so Jesus teaches us the importance of these kinds of friendships and these kinds of connections – heart connections. We see this later in Paul’s letter to Timothy. This was a man he had done ministry with for at least 15 years. He considered him a son in the faith; a close friend.

Remember Paul’s pastoral letters are his last words to two young pastors before he dies. They are at the end of his ministry. And at the close of this letter to Timothy listen to his heart cry:

Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica, 1Tim 4.9.

The phrase ‘Do your best’ is the same Greek word we have been studying translated in other places as, ‘Make very effort’. A co-worker has abandoned Paul; he feels the loneliness; he feels the pain. He wants Timothy. And then in verse 21 we get: "Do your best to get here before winter".

“Come quickly, come before winter”, is the cry of his heart. Twice within a few verses Paul shares his need; not for money but for friendship; for someone who is loyal and understands him. I find this very moving. To paraphrase Paul: “Make every effort to get here soon and definitely before winter”. The unspoken subtext, “I need you here, now”.

Timothy was in Ephesus leading the church; Paul was in Rome awaiting execution by Nero. Paul didn’t want Timothy to miss the opportunity of taking a sea going vessel to Rome before the winter made sea journeys hazardous. He wanted the presence of the man he felt the most heart connection to. And Timothy was a man who would make every effort.

That’s when friendship counts; when you are up against it, when you are abandoned; when you feel alone. When Jesus faced Gethsemane He asked for Peter, James and John to be with Him. Yet Jesus was surprised they couldn't manage to pray for even one hour with Him. Perhaps they needed to make more effort! When David was on the run from King Saul he took strength and comfort from Jonathan. They had heart connection. And Jonathan made the effort to encourage, protect David and speak up for him before his father.

But friendship also counts in times of celebration too. In Matt 22 we have the story of the wedding feast. The guests were invited but they refused to come. They would not make the effort. It said something about the value they placed on the relationship. There was no real heart connection.

The son who left home discovered this in Luke 15. When his money ran out so did his friends. They were fair-weather friends in it for the ride, not the relationship. When he finally came to himself he considered how the servants in his fathers house were treated and suddenly he saw things differently. They were loved and cared for, appreciated.

And on his return he got another shock. He was reinstated as a son because the father would not withhold this heart connection from his own son. Ironically the older brother suffered from the same disconnection, even though he stayed on the farm. He could not enter into the celebration of the return of his younger brother. He too needed to have a change of heart.

The story is called "The Prodigal Son” when it should be called "The Longing Father”, as in longing for genuine heartfelt connection with his two sons. Both of them had failed in different ways to appreciate what their father had to give them. In bad times, in good times we need friends around and we need to make every effort to be with them in those times.

A ten year study of people over seventy years old in Australia found that an active network of friends increase life expectancy by 22%. No friends and you die younger; that’s how important real friendships are to life and health. And like all things in life worth having it requires effort, but if we truly place value on relationships then the effort is not difficult. It is one of ordering our priorities.

Think if Zacchaeus in Luke 19.1-10. He was wealthy and a chief tax collector and short! Everyone knew him. But he was passionate about meeting Jesus and so he did a very undignified thing for a chief, wealthy, tax collector to do. He climbed a tree – just to see Jesus. While others may have been amused by this sight Jesus invited Himself to his house. He took him very seriously and that little man’s life was changed forever. He made every effort. He was prepared to look foolish. Jesus mattered more.

Think of blind Bartimeaus in Mark 10.46. When he knew that Jesus was passing by he would not stop crying out. When people told him to be silent he cried out even louder, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me”. By calling Jesus the Son of David he was acknowledging His legitimate claim to the thrown of Israel. Jesus was their King and Messiah and Bartimaeus freely confessed this. He made every effort to get Jesus attention and he succeeded. The result – he received his sight fully restored, and then followed Him.

Think of the Canaanite woman with her demonised daughter in Matt 15.21. The disciples want her to be sent away. Jesus reminds her that He is sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel – not the Canaanite gentiles. But she persists, worshipping Him, beseeching Him. And then Jesus is at His most controversial. He tells her it is not right to take the children’s bread and feed it to the dogs.

She doesn’t get offended. She is on a mission. Nothing will stop her. The well being of her daughter is at stake and only Jesus can help. She is making every effort to touch His heart. And her reply is astonishing, humble and clever. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters table”. Genius!

Jesus is impressed. "I have not found faith like this, not even in all Israel". This woman gets it and Jesus commends her faith. For that is what it is. Faith inspires us to make every effort to press in to God; to find heart connection. This is the only time in the NT where a person is delivered from a demon and Jesus is not actually present with the afflicted person. Such was the level of her faith. She made every effort and her faith was rewarded.

Think now of Hebrews 10.24-25.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Meeting together is always an effort. If you have a family it means getting up early enough for everyone to have time to get showered and dressed. I’ve done this with six kids. I know what’s involved. It often means organising what you eat for lunch the day before, even preparing it then sometimes. But if you value the church, if you value fellowship, if you value corporate worship, if you value God’s word then you will make every effort to be there.

I’m saddened by some of the excuses I hear people make as to why they don’t make it to church sometimes; a late night, a busy week, no time for breakfast, difficult children. Come on! That is the stuff of life. It wouldn’t stop us getting to work most days of the week. You find a way to make it happen. Just this past month I know of guys who get up early to watch the Rugby World Cup, but can’t make the effort to be at a prayer meeting on a Sunday evening. They are making every effort to watch the Rugby.

I have no problem with that. That's great. Now let’s make an effort to pray together. Let’s see it as a priority that can make a difference in our town, our country, and our world. What I am talking about is valuing what God values so that what we make an effort to do comes out of a sense of conviction.

In John 21 we have the story of Peter who decides to go fishing. He goes back to his old trade. The chances are that after his vehement denial of Jesus he now saw himself disqualified for ministry. He had disqualified himself. So off he went and because he is a leader a group of them followed him, including John. You see your gift keeps operating in all circumstances! They all made a huge effort to catch fish. They stayed up all night. Experienced fishermen. Yet they caught nothing.

Think of how demoralised they would have felt. This was their trade. Imagine what went through Peter’s head. I’m no good as an apostle and now I’m no good at fishing either. Disaster! And then Jesus shows up and tells them to cast the net on the other side. They are tired. They are hungry. They are demoralised. But they make very effort to obey. It isn’t a huge demand but for where they were at, it took a gargantuan effort to move that net. But when they did, result!

We can make all kinds of effort and put that effort into the right thing but without Jesus, without His guidance and help, we achieve nothing. But to make every effort in response to what Jesus has said changes everything. And when they get to shore Jesus already has breakfast for them. He meets every need. He restores Peter’s dignity as a fisherman; He feeds him as a friend and then restores him as an apostle. Wonderful. Jesus made the effort to be there for Peter because He valued the man and saw beyond his failure.

And John finishes where he began; with a simple phrase that tells us what discipleship is all about, ‘Follow Me’. This is what we must make every effort to do. Follow Him. And as we do we too will find ourselves being there for each other as Paul was for Timothy, as Barnabas was for Paul, as Jesus was for the twelve. John the aged apostle calls it laying down your life for the brethren, 1John 3.16. Now that is worth making an effort for.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Make Every Effort Part 3

James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along, Gal 2.10

Like all of the other passages we have looked at in recent blogs, the Greek word for eager, spoudazō, means ‘make every effort’. What is clear from this text is that all of the apostolic leaders believed that caring for the poor was an important priority. They were eager to do it and they made every effort to do it throughout their ministries.

But why this commitment to caring for the poor? What informed their convictions? Here are some key scriptures that shaped the social conscience of Israel in the past and so would, in turn, have shaped them.

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God, Lev 19.9-10.

During a harvest there would be a group of workers that went through a field in line with sickles cutting and then others followed gathering the sheaves. Invariably there were parts that were missed between each of the reapers. These could have been caught in a second wave of reaping but God forbade this. It had to be left for the poor or the foreigner in the land. These people along with orphans and widows were the most vulnerable in any society. So God made laws to protect them.

In one sense this was an enforced generosity on the part of the field owner towards the poor. But in relation to the whole harvest, the gleanings, those parts of the field missed in the first wave of reaping, was a tiny percentage of the whole. God was tempering our tendency towards greed by making the landowners leave enough for the poor. It did not substantially effect their profit.

This is what makes the story of Ruth so beautiful. She was a poor widow who gathered the gleanings from Boaz’s field. When they meet his heart went out to her and he told the reapers who worked for him to intentionally leave handfuls of grain, just for her, Ruth 2.1-12.

The same was true for the grape harvest. Not every grape was picked on the first pass of reaping. Invariably some were missed and God legislated that these should be left for the poor and the foreigner. God was establishing laws that would help to shape a just society. The burden was not placed just on the state but on the people as a whole.

In Lev 25.4-7; 11-12 we read:
But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of Sabbath rest, a sabbath to the LORD. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.

The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.

The Sabbath rest was a weekly feature in Israeli life. But God also built this principle of rest into how the land was worked. So every seven years the land rested. There was no sowing and no reaping allowed. If anything grew up it did so from the previous years seeding. So whatever harvest appeared was a free for all, including the animals.

This was then extended to the year of Jubilee that happened every 50 years when all debts were cancelled and lands returned to their ancestral owners. Thus year 49 was a Sabbath year followed by another Sabbath year in year 50. Two years of Sabbaths. Now if were in any way disadvantaged as a citizen if Israel during that time it was wonderful for you. You had food for your family! You could live.

The spirit of all this is best captured by the verse in Deut 15.11:
There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.

God knew that the poor would always be there but He didn’t want the Israelite community to become hardened and indifferent to this reality. He wanted them to be ‘open-handed’ towards the poor and needy. On the other side of the coin God had these instructions to those who wandered into a neighbours field in Duet 23.24-25:
If you go into your neighbour's vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you wish, but do not put any grapes into your basket.25 If you go into your neighbour's grain field, you may pick grain with your hands, but you must not cut down your neighbour's grain with your sickle, NCV.

I find this amazing. There was freedom to take enough food from someone else’s harvest for yourself but no more, no matter whom you were. Again the thinking behind this was that in proportion to the harvest, this was an insignificant amount and expressed God’s heart of generosity.

All of this teaching and practice was well known to the apostles and endorsed by Jesus. In Luke 14.13-14 NCV Jesus challenged His hearers with this statement:
“Instead, when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then you will be blessed, because they have nothing and cannot pay you back. But you will be repaid when the good people rise from the dead."

Notice His reasoning here, ‘They cannot repay you’. We give to those who are powerless to give back in this lifetime. In one sense this helps us define who the poor are, those who have nothing to repay us with. Paul goes on to quote Jesus to the Ephesian elders. They are some of his parting words to them:
I showed you in all things that you should work as I did and help the weak. I taught you to remember the words Jesus said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'

There is a blessing in receiving for sure. We all like being blessed. But the truth is that it is more blessed to give than to receive. I did not understand this truth until I had children. But the joy of seeing their response when I did something for them far outweighed what it cost me to do it in the first place. I felt more blessed than they did!

When we get to the book of Acts we see how this principle of making every effort to care for the poor played out in the new church community. For a start they relinquished personal ownership of land and property in order to release money to care for the community,

The apostles were doing many miracles and signs, and everyone felt great respect for God. All the believers were together and shared everything. They would sell their land and the things they owned and then divide the money and give it to anyone who needed it. The believers met together in the Temple every day. They ate together in their homes, happy to share their food with joyful hearts. They praised God and were liked by all the people. Every day the Lord added those who were being saved to the group of believers, Acts 2.43-47 NCV.

In the midst of God’s awesome presence seen in signs and wonders the following happened:

1. They shared everything they had!
2. They gave to those who needed it.
3. They met daily.
4. They ate together, happy to share their food.
5. They praised God
6. They were liked by the people who watched them
7. Everyday believers were added to their number.

The generosity of spirit they had was as a direct result of their surrender to the Lordship of Jesus. The OT commands were now being worked out in their community spontaneously. Awesome!

This is played out further in Acts 4.32-37 and 5.1-11 where a sharp contrast is made between Barnabas and his generosity and the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira. The issue was not the reluctance of this couple to give everything. Holding back something for themselves was their free choice, their right. There was nothing sinful in this. The problem was that they lied about how much they received for the property. They left the community with the impression that they had given everything.

It is hard to know what was in their thinking when they did this. Perhaps they thought that giving all was the only option. Perhaps they felt guilty about keeping something back for themselves. Perhaps they felt less spiritual if the others knew this. Perhaps they felt they couldn’t live up to the expectations of others. Whatever the reason they lied. And it cost them their lives. This is the first case of church discipline that we read about. As you might expect fear fell upon the whole community, inside and outside of the church.

All this took place under the new covenant of grace established by Jesus! Why? I believe it was because the church was moving forward with great momentum and the Holy Spirit knew that this sin would slow the process. He did not want the hearts of the people discouraged by this deceit. Honesty before God and the people in such matters was crucial.

Notice too that Sapphira was judged separately from her husband. Saying she was submitting to his leadership was no excuse. She too had a choice and she chose to collude with Ananias. God held her accountable for her choice! They were judged as individuals unlike Achan and his family in the book of Joshua.

When we get to Acts 6 we find the first record of unrest in the church. Essentially it is a social justice issue. The Greek speaking Jewish widows were finding themselves disadvantaged when it came to food distribution. The Hebrew speaking widows were getting more! We are not told who was perpetrating this injustice. Luke records it in a way that hints it is rooted in racism similar to the problems that existed between Jews and Samaritans.

The key thing to see is that the apostles took this issue seriously and acted. They laid out criteria for the selection of a new level of leadership that could take care of this problem. And the criteria combined the spiritual with the practical. Remember that in the Bible wisdom was the ability to live life practically and well according to Proverbs. So they chose men full of the Spirit and wisdom and the apostles appointed them, Acts 6.1-6.

These men acted impartially so that justice in the community was restored. Listen to the consequence for the whole church in the next verse:
The word of God was continuing to spread. The group of followers in Jerusalem increased, and a great number of the Jewish priests believed and obeyed, Acts 6.7.

Not only were people saved but priests, the hardest group to win, were converted. Amazing. Later in Acts 11.29-30 the believers in Antioch learn, through a prophetic utterance, of a famine throughout the world. In response they determine to send relief aid to the believers in Jerusalem. They saw themselves as connected to that distant community and so social justice became a burden they willingly carried.

It’s worth noting that they responded according to their ability.
The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the believers living in Judea, Acts 11.29 TNIV. None gave beyond their means, but they did give.

This apostolic practice is further endorsed in the letters of Paul, James and John. Take a look at James 2.15-18, 1 John 3.16-18 (which strongly resonates with Deut 15.11). Listen to Paul in 1Thess 5.14;
And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.

Everyone needs patience and to be dealt with patiently. That’s where Paul ends. Yet three specific categories of people are listed here. The lazy and disruptive (one word in the Greek), the fainthearted (literally small souled) and the weak. With each group Paul suggests a different approach whilst all need patience.

The lazy group are able to work but choose not to. Paul says, ‘warn them’. In other words they need a kick, a challenge. He will later go so far as to say if a man won’t work he shouldn’t eat. Now there is a way of motivating someone. He even says don’t eat with such a person. They are not living up to Biblical standards and have no grasp of their social responsibility.

The fainthearted don’t need to be challenged, warned or rebuked. These people have a small capacity. They need massive encouragement, building up. This of course requires discernment. We have to be able to tell the difference! If not, we may end up rebuking the fainthearted and encouraging the lazy. Not good! I’ve seen it happen.

The final group are the weak. This term includes the poor, the sick, the lame, the blind, the orphan and the widow. These people need our support. Paul is clear that by support he means financial support. That is the context for using the word in Acts 20.35 NKJV.

All of this resonates with the words of Jesus in Matt 25.31-47 where He speaks of the judgment of the nations. Look at part of the text here:
Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’

This is Jesus speaking. We can rely on His words. Notice how unselfconscious the sheep are to these acts of kindness. It was part of their lifestyle. They did it without fanfare or hope of recognition. How amazing that when we care for the weak we are in fact caring for Jesus. Wow. I believe it’s time for the church to make an effort to care for the poor; to get involved in social justice issues. To find men full of the Spirit and wisdom who can come up with creative solutions to difficult social problems.

We cannot look to government agencies to have the answers. They need to look to us, to the church. And we need to look to the Lord and step out in obedience. Paul tells us that love is expressed by loving our neighbour. A lawyer tried to justify himself once by asking Jesus who his neighbour was. Jesus then told the parable about the certain Samaritan. You'll find it in Luke 10.25-37.

This is helpful. We cannot meet all the needs around us but we can meet the needs of those God puts in our way. Crossing over to the other side, as though we haven’t noticed, is not a legitimate option. We need to get involved. And like the Samaritan it costs us something in time, energy and money. But as we do, we have the assurance we are doing this to Jesus.

Here are a few suggestions for how you can begin.

1. In the parable of the certain Samaritan scripture tells us he was ‘moved with compassion’. The important thing is to allow yourself to feel what others are going through. Everything Jesus did came from this ability to have compassion on people in their pain and need. Pray that God opens your heart to embrace the pain of others. We must learn to weep with those who weep out of genuine empathy not as professional mourners.

2. Let this compassion be translated into action of some kind. Dare to get involved. The Samaritan did what he could; he treated the man’s wounds and then bound them up, put him on his own donkey, took him to a place of refuge, paid for an extended stay and further care (two days wages – about £200 by todays reckoning), then promised to return to settle any outstanding accounts. That is very comprehensive.

3. Involvement will always cost you something. It takes time, energy and money to make a difference. Choose a lifestyle that leaves enough for such demands. If you aim to live on 80% of your income then you will have money on hand when you need it. Too often we match our lifestyle to our full income. Remember if you have a bed to sleep in, a cupboard for your clothes and a roof over our head you have more than 75% of the people in the world!

4. The goal is to help people so that they are empowered to help themselves and others. We don’t want to create dependency on us. The idea is to see people become whole so that they can face life with faith and hope. That’s what the Samaritan did for the man who fell among robbers. He knew it would take time but he had a clear goal.

5. Dare to go on trip that takes you out of your comfort zone. There are many places in the world with great need. Don’t go on your own. Go with someone who knows what they are doing. You can easily find yourself out of your depth. And when you feel totally overwhelmed with the needs around you, remind yourself that you serve a God whose heart is so big He is able to meet all those needs through Jesus.

I pray that as a believer and as a church we are able to embrace the needs of a broken people in a broken world and bring the touch of heaven to those who need it. Make every effort to remember the poor!

Friday, 23 September 2011

Make Every Effort Part 2

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is near-sighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. 2Pet 1.5-11 NIV

Twice in this passage the phrase ‘Make every effort’ is used. The text is really important for us. Like the other texts we have already looked at this is about ordering our priorities in life and ministry so that we succeed. That’s what the apostle Peter wants; that we be fruitful Christians. He says it’s possible for us to ‘confirm’ our calling. In other words our life matches our profession.

The key idea here is adding; to make sure you add to your faith. Faith is foundational according to 1Cor 3.11. Jesus is that foundation and faith in Him creates that foundation in your own life. Without it you are lost. But with Him as your foundation you are able to build a life that can bring praise to God.

We build be adding. Peter gives us a list of things. He begins with virtue. This is moral excellence or goodness. This along with, perseverance, self control, and love are also listed by Paul as a product of the fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5.21-22.

This tells me two things in particular. The first is that the fruit of the Spirit is not meant to be an exhaustive list. In Peter’s list there are four things mentioned also by Paul. Fruit can have many expressions. It is not limited to the list of nine by Paul or seven by Peter.

The second thing is that fruit is a product of life. It is organic. Like a tree that grows and produces fruit, so we too are meant to grow and produce fruit. So when Peter tells us to ‘make every effort’ he is not telling us to try hard to produce fruit. He is telling us to order our lives in such a way that the organic process of God’s life in us will manifest in fruit.

Many Christians begin well but then something in life makes them stumble. Maybe they get offended. Maybe they drift away. Maybe the cares of this world overwhelm them and the life of the seed is choked. Peter tells us that if we are purposeful and add to our faith we will continue to grow in our knowledge of Jesus.

Now a house is built from the bottom up. First there is a superstructure, then the roof, windows and doors and then the fittings and utilities. Finally the place is decorated. This is how we are to build our lives. We add to the foundation so that a house is built.

If we don’t add to our faith we remain vulnerable. Peter implies that we eventually develop spiritual myopia. We simply can’t see clearly and without clear vision people cast off restraint, Prov 29.18. Growth and advancement are meant to be the norm for believers.

As we add to our faith we keep our vision clear. It helps us make good decisions in life, because we have established good priorities. These priorities develop our character and this in turn helps to shape our choices and ultimately our destiny. Adding to our faith is a must but where do we begin?

This is not difficult. Just be honest with what you are struggling with in your life. Are you in a situation where you feel like giving up? Then maybe you need to add perseverance to your faith. Your present circumstances often tell you what it is God is working on right now in terms of developing your character.

For the person who is newly saved but lives with a partner they need to add knowledge and virtue to their faith. Knowledge of how God sees marriage. Studying what the Bible has to say on this issue, or doing a marriage course can help with this. Virtue enables them to be able to talk to their partner in a loving way. In time something should change.

The teenager who has lived with few boundaries and so is brash and undisciplined needs to add self-control to their faith. Without it they are captive to badly learned patterns of behaving. Remember too that this is a process. It takes time. Nor do these additions to our faith need to be sequential. Some can be happening at the same time. They are often linked.

This kind of process often means coming into a relationship where someone else can hold you accountable for your progress. Wanting to change is half the battle but some people confuse desire with accomplishment. We often judge ourselves by our intentions but others by their actions. To ourselves we are gracious while to others we can be unnecessarily tough. Someone else can help us keep it real.

Adding to your faith is a life long process. That’s why I try and position myself to be a lifetime learner. Paul says in 1 Cor 8.1 that knowledge can puff up. The danger is that we think we have arrived. He encourages the Corinthians to take a different position. “We don’t yet know as we ought to know”. There is more!

There is a certain quality I find with lifetime learners.

1. They are more eager to listen than to speak. This resonates with the book of proverbs that often distinguishes the wise man as the one who will listen or take a rebuke. The proud and the foolish don’t do this. They blurt out every thought without really considering their audience or the impact they will have.

2. They don’t write people off just because they disagree with them over some issues. Many believers have vilified Dan Brown because of his book, ‘The Da Vinci Code’. I’ve read it. It’s disappointing. He is not a theologian or a historian. Maybe if he were he would be better informed. But it is a piece of fiction and he has written some other great books. ‘Digital Fortress’ and ‘Deception Point’ are excellent. In my opinion they would make great movies. Lifetime learners know how to make a discerning choice. They don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!

3. They read widely. Doing a Masters Degree brought a certain discipline into my life when it came to study. It forced me to read widely around the subject I was preparing my thesis for. My professor helped to point me towards all the authors who had made a significant contribution to this field of study. I find some believers very narrow in their thinking. They read one book on an issue and think they now have the truth on that subject. It’s sloppy and careless.

Read widely around a topic and use a mentor to point you to the authors who really have something to say. I know believers whose only view of the end times is informed by the ‘Left Behind’ series of books and films. If you want to be provoked to consider a different view then read Tom Wright’s book, ‘Surprised by Hope’. He is a brilliant theologian. Try adding to that the ‘Counterpoint Series’ published by Zondervan that presents different views on several topics each held by sincere orthodox Christians.

4. They welcome critique and input from peers. This is fundamental to good research. This is why we do life together. We need the input and feedback of others. Even when it comes to interpreting the Bible we should do it as a community. We have a shared faith. Gordon Fee says the first community we are indebted to is the church in history. In other words what others have said in the past is important to know!

5. They give deference to those who have helped them in their journey. Growing up in a little Brethren church helped me understand the meaning of hospitality. They were great at that and I’m grateful for what they showed me. But it was John Wimber who helped me add the experience of worship and healing to my faith.

Peter Drucker became a great influence on my take on servant leadership. Through the writings of Henry Cloud and John Townsend I added boundaries to my life and it brought a whole new experience of freedom to me. I honour what each of them brought to my Christian experience and understanding.

6. They remain open to learning something new all the time, even in an area where, according to others, they may be an acknowledged expert. Life has taught me that the more I know about a subject, the less I fully know. It helps to create a genuine humility in me. Someone may actually be able to add to my knowledge and experience of God if I maintain that posture of heart.

7. They don’t presume what others don’t know. They begin by listening and then asking questions. The great Danish theologian and writer Søren Kierkegaard said that we couldn’t presume to teach anyone until we first learn what he or she knows. This is the attitude of a real servant. Don't presume what people need to know. Get to know them first, then you can help them.

Let me challenge you this week to reflect on your own journey of faith. Are there some missing pieces? Is there a need for you to add to your faith? Everyone should be able to answer this in the affirmative. The only real question is what do you need to add.

Take some time to think this through. Ask some of your close friends or peers what they think. Dare to listen to what they have to say. Then ‘make every effort’ to realign your life and priorities so that God can add this to you too. Remember, if you do, you will never be barren or unfruitful and your progress will be apparent to everyone around you.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Make Every Effort Part 1

This phrase is found several times in the NT. In a way it helps us to establish a set of priorities for living. When the Bible tells us to make every effort to do something it trying to help us see what is truly important. By focusing on the right things we are able to move forward in life and ministry. Success follows.

In part 1 of this series I want to start with three statements that begin with the phrase, ‘Make every effort’. The Greek word behind this phrase is Spoudazo. It is variously translated as ‘labour’, ‘be diligent’, ‘study’, ‘to exert oneself’ and ‘bend every effort’.

In 2 Peter 3.14-15 NIV we read this advice from the apostle Peter:
But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.

Peter is telling us to live now, in the light of the future. In the future there will be a new heaven and a new earth filled with righteousness, God’s righteousness. That’s what we look forward to. It’s coming as sure as the sunrise tomorrow. That should impact how we live today. So Peter says, ‘make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him’.

One word summarises this approach to life, integrity. Integrity is about how everything in life fits together as a whole. To have integrity is to have an integrated life. This is not about being perfect; it’s about being authentic in the light of the gospel.

There is a great search today for authenticity. It has produced more honesty but not more integrity. Honesty s a good thing but it can be rooted in pride. The youth who boasts in getting drunk to his friends is honest, but he lacks integrity. He carries no sense of shame. Integrity would give him that and compel him to want to change.

The businessman who boasts to others about how he evades tax is honest, but not to the taxman. He lacks integrity. Integrity takes honesty to a new level. It’s not just about admitting what is true but living in truth. There is a difference!

Job was a blameless man. He held on to his integrity even when the circumstances in life pushed him to blame God and react, Job 1.8; 2.3. He chose to worship instead, Job 1.21. But notice that it wasn’t easy for him to do this. The easy thing was for him to take his wife’s advice; ‘Curse God and die’, Job 2.9. But Job ‘made every effort’ to remain blameless – and he succeeded.

Sometimes we experience things that make us want to react, to blame God, to blame others, to choose a course of action that we know won’t help. In those moments take the apostle Peter’s advice. Bend every effort to remain spotless. Joseph could have easily compromised his integrity and allowed himself to be seduced by Potiphar’s wife. But he said no. He chose to be blameless.

And part of his challenge was accepting the false accusation that was laid against him after doing what was right. It must have taken amazing effort not to give in to despair and despondency. He drew on heavens grace and within a few years God honoured his choice. He honoured his integrity.

These statements by the apostles to, ‘make every effort’, is not about summing all of the human willpower you can muster to get through life. It is about establishing new priorities. A life of integrity is to be our priority, even when it hurts! When our priorities are in agreement with scripture there is grace to live in them. God empowers us to live in truth.

David could have killed Saul on at least two occasions. The situation presented itself and his men saw this as a divine opportunity. But David held back. Even cutting the edge of Saul’s garment brought conviction to his heart. Letting Saul live meant David remained a fugitive. It hurt. But he kept his integrity. And ultimately he became king.

What pressure are you under at present that is tempting you to let go of your integrity? Don’t. Hold on. Make every effort to be what God has called you to be.

The second passage is in Hebrews 4.11 NIV
Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.

I love this text. We labour to enter His rest. Labour and rest in the same sentence? It doesn’t seem right, but it is. Think about what happens when most people go on holiday. How long does it take for them to unwind; to really disconnect and enjoy the break? How about you?

I have a friend who is a high-flying businessman. He takes his laptop and mobile with him everywhere – including holidays. He can’t let go. For him to turn off his phone would take a huge effort. I understand this. I am wired that way too. But life and faith have taught me this is no way to live. It is in fact a sign of unbelief.

The Sabbath principle is that we don’t need to work all the time. We can rest and trust God to give us enough the other six days so we can enjoy Him on the seventh. But we must prioritise this. We must make every effort! My old Bible College teacher told me that the promises of God work best when we rest in them. It’s true.

Labour to enter into God’s rest, God’s provision, and God’s salvation. This is the place of blessing and fruitfulness. Jesus invites us to take His yoke upon us because it is well fitting, (this is what easy means in the Greek), and light, Matt 11.28.

Zacchaeus laboured to enter that rest by climbing a tree. It changed his life. Peter laboured all night and caught nothing but then made an effort to obey the command of Jesus and caught a massive amount of fish. Too often our effort is misplaced. It is directed towards selfish goals or an expression of faith in our ability to do things without God. Don’t live that way. Make an effort to live in the promises of God.

Choose to make an effort to live trusting God and entering into His rest. For the children of Israel this meant the Promised Land. That was their place of rest. Sadly few of them experienced the goal that God had for them. Unbelief robbed them of their true destiny. They died in the wilderness. But as men of faith Joshua and Caleb did enter in. They believed the promise of God and made the effort of letting that be their point of reference, not the walled cities of canaan or the giants in the land.

What is your point of reference? What promise has God made to you that you are holding on to? What unbelief is being spoken by others that is designed by the enemy to rob you of your destiny? Will you give in or will you make every effort to hold on to the promise and enter what God has for you. Remember all the promises in Christ Jesus are yes and amen, 2Cor 1.20

The third text is found in 2Tim 2.15 New Century Version
Make every effort to give yourself to God as the kind of person he will approve. Be a worker who is not ashamed and who uses the true teaching in the right way.

Various products in Britain need to be made to a specific standard of safety. Once this standard is achieved they are awarded a kite mark. It’s a sign that they have fulfilled the criteria required to earn this prestigious sign. They are approved. Wouldn’t it be great if we could see a kite mark on Christians, churches and leaders, to know that they too are approved?

Often it takes time to see whom God has truly approved. Like the fruit on a tree it’s the last thing to appear. Paul was telling Timothy to make this his priority. That’s what David did. He was obedient to God because he sought God’s approval. Saul on the other hand sought the approval of the people. He became a slave to their desire and he disobeyed God. It cost him the kingdom.

David on the other hand had a heart after God. It was His approval he chased. Even when he sinned he returned to the Lord and trusted in His forgiveness. This is vital for us to get right. In our culture we are obsessed with approval from every corner except heaven.

TV producers determine the success of a programme based on ‘approval ratings’. No matter what intrinsic value a program may have it is cut from the schedule if it doesn’t hit the targets set by the station managers. Light entertainment has for the most part replaced serious documentary or news coverage.

The same is true for music, films and theatre. Sometimes A class actors will put their names to a project because they know the film will not be made if they don’t. Peer pressure works on the same basis. We get approval from others and it is important to us. We bend to the expectations of others, often to our own hurt.

But at the end of the day we will not stand before a TV audience or our peers or any human court. We will all stand before God. Ultimately it is His final verdict that makes all the difference. So Paul advises Timothy to live life in the light of that reality. For Timothy this meant pursuing excellence in ministry.

All of us are aware of when someone is performing well and when a job is under par. When a singer hits a bad note we all hear it. When a carpenter makes a window that won’t fit the hole it’s meant to go in, it becomes obvious. Remember a skill is a practiced ability.

What skills do you have that need to be taken to another level? Can you point to what you do with a sense of pride that it’s your best effort and it will gain a kite mark? Are you happy for others to look at and critique your work? A skilled craftsman is never afraid for their work to be inspected.

But today we have ‘cowboy builders’, ‘knock offs’ and ‘pirate videos’. Quantity has become the substitute for quality. I think we are missing something. Now the danger is that we take this attitude into our churches and ministries. It will show in time. You can paper over the cracks but eventually they will show through.

If you are involved in worship then you need to know the songs that you sing or the music that you play and know them well. The best way to learn them is by heart. Then you are free to minister while singing or playing without focusing on reading the words or music. They flow from your heart. And there is a flow.

If you are a preacher then you need to prepare well. Use every opportunity to write down a good quote or a good illustration. Like any journey, know you destination. Read widely, pray fervently, prepare well and then deliver your message without apology. If you have to apologise before speaking it’s probably not worth even talking.

My point is simple. Excellence attracts excellence. Skill is always admired. Seek to get God’s approval for all that you do in life and ministry and you will not feel ashamed when you stand before Him. Your work will be tested, 1Cor 3.13-16. If you’ve built with gold, silver and precious stones you will get the title AUG – Approved Unto God. There is no better accolade.

Now developing skill takes effort. Yet when we connect with our passion the effort is a joy. I have a friend who is passionate about art. Her idea of fun is spending a day in London going around all the art galleries. When she paints time flies. She is making a huge effort but if you asked her she would say it is effortless. You see it’s her passion.

Find your passion in life and ministry and then pursue it. David was a worshipper so when he wasn’t fighting battles he was writing songs and gained the title ‘The Sweet Psalmist of Israel’, 2Sam 23.1 NKJV.

Make every effort to live a life of integrity, to enter into God’s promise for you and to pursue excellence. It will be worth it in the end. And heavens smile will be on your life.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Making Transitions

Change is inevitable. A person can start a new job, get married, move house, be made redundant or find they facing a tsunami. We’re never quite sure what tomorrow will bring. Change tends to focus on the external factors. The objective reality of what is happening to us; what we are going through.

But there is a subjective side to change; the internal process that determines how we feel about the change and our ability to embrace it. This side of change is best described as a period of transition.

Transitions signify the passage from one chapter of life to another. They can be marked by times of celebration or grief depending on how we choose to interpret what is happening to us.

The nation of Israel went through some very specific transitions. Five stand out in particular. Egypt, the wilderness, Canaan, Captivity and the return of the remnant. The wilderness was a special time for Israel. It was only an 11-day journey from there to the Promised Land – God’s objective for the people. Yet the nation spent forty years in this barren place. Why?

Deut 8.2-3 gives us some insight:

And you shall remember that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.

The wilderness was a test; a place where Israel was humbled. There is nothing more humbling than to realise you are in a situation you have no power to control. God did that to the nation to teach them to depend on Him and look to Him. But this period is characterised in several places as being a time where they murmured and complained. They failed the test. They were not able to make the transition even though they had made the change!

And that is my point. Making a change is one thing. Making a transition well is quite another. This is why I believe that God ordained for Moses to be brought up in the house of Pharaoh. He did not grow up with a slave mentality. To be sure he needed to be delivered from self-sufficiency but he did not have a poverty mentality like the slaves in Egypt. God protected him from this crippling mind-set.

The Israelites were trapped in their thinking. Years of slavery had made the promise of a homeland too distant for them to embrace. But that is what faith does. It embraces the future now. Notice the emphasis of the Deut 8 text. They had to learn to live ‘by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’. Moses phrases this sentence in the present tense.

God had spoken a promise in the past but now He was active in fulfilling that promise. He had come down to deliver them through Moses, Ex 3.7-10. He had a new word for them to embrace. A now word. Transitions work best when we embrace what God is saying now. Seven times in revelation 2-3 we are told to hear what the Spirit is saying (present tense again) to the churches. God speaks and He wants us to listen.

Think of one of the most important transitions in the Bible. Jesus has risen from the dead but is going back to heaven. How would the disciples cope? Walking with Jesus for three years, knowing Him personally, having Him there to rescue you from all your mistakes. That is what they had known. But now He was leaving.

Jesus anticipated their sorrow of heart. Listen to Him as He speaks to them in the upper room just before His death, John 16.5-7:

But now I go away to Him who sent Me, and none of you asks Me, ‘Where are You going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you.

They were sorrowful but Jesus knew it was to their advantage that He left. He wasn’t abandoning them. He was preparing them for ministry that would more than multiply everything He had done through the empowering presence of the Spirit. It was a good thing He was leaving!

In Acts Luke records key events that help us understand the birth and mission of the church. Jesus spent forty days teaching the disciples things concerning the Kingdom. This was a post resurrection intensive training program! It culminated with the command for them to wait for the promise of the Father, Acts 1.1-9.

I notice two things about this time. He gave them information with the promise of an impartation. We need both. Good information helps us order and frame reality. It is rooted in knowledge, knowledge that was birthed in revelation. This is what we have in the Bible.

But Jesus also reminded them of a promise, first spoken of by John the Baptist four years earlier and now finding fulfilment in Jesus through His ascension. The promise was no longer years, months or weeks away. It was days ahead! He built their sense of anticipation. And so over the next ten days their faith grew.

They had heard about the Holy Spirit but now they were about to experience Him. He had been with them. Now He would be in them. Jesus left them in no doubt that this would be a power encounter and equip them for effective ministry, as if He were still personally present. Wow. This gives us all hope because we are 21-century believers. We haven’t walked with Jesus but we can be filled with the Holy Spirit and do the works of Jesus.

What was there response to this information and the promise of impartation? “They all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication….” Acts 1.14. They prayed into the promise – together. Personal private prayer is important. But this was together. It was corporate prayer to see the fulfilment of a promise for the whole church. They made it a priority. They came to together. There were no ‘Lone Rangers’ on this team.

Transitions always work best when we have a promise to hold on to. Joshua and Caleb were different from the other spies who witnessed the same thing as them in Canaan. These two men were guided in their vision by the promise that God had already given them the land – long before any battles were fought. They nurtured the promise in their hearts and it was manifest in their confession.

Acts 2.1 tells us that when the day finally arrived, ‘they were all with one accord in one place”. The one accord continued over the ten days of waiting for the promise. And now Luke emphasises that they were all in one place. Transitions always work best when we do them together. Proverbs 18.1 says: A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; He rages against all wise judgment.

The church is a body. We function best together. Of course you can have a personal relationship with God on your own but you can’t have church alone. It’s where two or three are gathered together. We need to be in one place. Thomas was not with the disciples when Jesus showed up the first time so he refused to believe He had risen, John 20.24.

The early church loved to gather together because they knew that God would show up in unusual ways when they did. And that is the consistent testimony of Acts. Some of the most difficult transitions I've had to make were made easier when I met to together to worship with other believers. It lifted my spirit. I was encouraged to move ahead in faith - and I did!

Think about some of the transitions that you are facing. Do you understand the topic? Have you read around it? Do you have all the information you need? Do you know what scripture says on this issue? Is there a promise that you are holding onto? A 'now word' from God that you expect to be fulfilled, not many days from now? Are you in ‘one accord’ with other believers? Finally do you take the opportunities you have to come together with others in ‘one place’?

If you do you will be far better positioned to handle any changes that come. Your heart will be ready to make more than a change. You’ll make a transition and do it well.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Largeness of Heart

Look at 1Kings 4.20,29
Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand by the sea in multitude, eating and drinking and rejoicing.
And God gave Solomon wisdom and exceedingly great understanding, and largeness of heart like the sand on the seashore.

This is a summary of the establishment of Solomon as the new King of Israel. The people were happy. They were eating, drinking and rejoicing. It was a time of celebration. They were a numerous people, a multitude like, ‘the sand by the sea’.

Then later in the same chapter we read of God’s endowment to Solomon of wisdom and exceedingly great understanding and largeness of heart is also like ‘the sand on the seashore’.

A multitude of people needs a leader with a heart big enough to care for them and lead them. Solomon knew he was called to be King. It was his inheritance, his calling, and his destiny. But he was also acutely aware that he lacked experience and maturity, things that bring wisdom, 1Chron 22.5. In His prayer to God he cried out for the ability to judge and lead Israel well.

God answered his prayer by giving him largeness of heart. I am convinced that we need to learn to develop a multitude mentality. Jesus had compassion on the multitudes. He was never overwhelmed by the size of a crowd. Rather He demonstrated unflinching confidence in the Father’s ability to provide for them whatever they needed.

Sometimes His compassion moved Him to pray as in Matt 9.36. He saw that the people were like sheep without a shepherd. Here He was as the good shepherd but he knew that he needed others to care for the flock too. This was His commission to Peter in John 21 – feed my sheep.

And so in this text He told the disciples to pray to the Lord of the Harvest to send out labourers into the harvest. He wanted more shepherds who could care and feed the flock. The people were scattered and the heart of God is always to gather and include others.

Jesus said ‘How I longed to gather as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings but you were not willing'. A scattered flock is not God’s heart. Further Jesus had a heart that could receive all. It was large enough for all. John 3.16 says; 'For God so loved the world’. He had room in His heart for everyone.

Sometime Jesus was moved with compassion and He healed the multitudes as in Matt 14.14 In Mark 8.34 His compassion moved Him to teach the multitudes and then later in the same chapter He fed them. The Compassion of Jesus motivated each of these acts. It moved Him to action. His heart was stirred and He did something. He did not remain passive. He prayed, He healed, He taught, and He miraculously fed them.

This challenges me. I am persuaded that most churches are small because the heart of the leader is not big and in turn the heart of the congregation is small too. Imagine being part of the early church. You are part of the 120 disciples in the upper room. People who for the most part you have been with for three years. Others, like the siblings, James and John and Peter and Andrew you have known all your life.

Suddenly there is a mighty rushing wind and God comes. 3000 people are saved. Now your nice little group of people is ruined. Each person becomes responsible for caring for 25 new believers. But their heart was large enough to embrace this. They didn’t turn them away. Like Jesus they received them and cared for them – even if it meant selling houses or lands. Wow. Largeness of heart. It’s what helps us reach the world.

There is a lot written about revival these days. Great. I’m for that. But my observation of many believers is that they are clueless as to what revival will mean for them if it comes. It will mean you have to open your home to more people. People who may not be like you. People you may not normally choose to associate with. People outside your social network. People whose needs may mean you need to make significant sacrifices for. Do you really want that?

Too often we focus on programs. These are good. They have their place. But people run programs. And Jesus focused His prayers on labourers for the Harvest. In the context of Matt 9 he is looking for those who have a heart to care for the sheep. Those with a desire to lead the way He does, fearlessly, confidently with the good of the people in mind. Leadership that gathers. The very word church means gathered assembly.

In 2Cor 6 Paul speaks to the Corinthians about their attitude of heart Listen to his words:

O Corinthians! We have spoken openly to you, our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted by your own affections. Now in return for the same (I speak as to children), you also be open.

Paul had a big heart. It was wide open to these people. But they were not reciprocating. Their hearts were closed. JB Phillips puts it like this: “We are hiding nothing from you and our hearts are absolutely open to you”.

Think of John 3.16. 'For God so loved the world…' What a heart. Big enough to take in all the peoples of the world. And the heart of Jesus is like that. He never turned people away. He received all who came to Him. His heart is big. And if we are to be like Jesus then our hearts need to be enlarged too. But it is a choice!

John talks of those who see a brother in need and shut up their heart to him. He asks a question. “How does the love of God dwell in him?” 1John 3.17. Largeness of heart creates generosity of spirit. Without it we become miserly, self-serving, isolated and fearful of others.

Largeness of heart enables us to do the uncomfortable and the inconvenient without complaining. Largeness of heart increases our capacity for wisdom and understanding. We become more discerning. People are afraid that they will be ripped off if they are generous. But Solomon had great wisdom. Nobody got the better of him. He ruled with wisdom and Israel flourished under his leadership. They became a multitude.They grew.

This is God’s heart for the church. He wants it to grow. He wants to add to the church daily. But we need hearts that are big enough to work together with God for the good of His purposes; to embrace what He wants to do.

Largeness of heart is never threatened by the success of others. Think of John who saw someone delivering people from demons but he wasn’t part of Jesus company of followers. John forbade him. He wanted to protect Jesus’ franchise. Listen to the generosity of spirit coming from Jesus:

“Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is on our side”, Luke 9.50.

Imagine that. Someone else doing what Jesus and the apostles did but not part of their company and Jesus affirmed his ministry. That’s largeness of heart. What would happen if pastors in a local area began to cheer one another on when a new church was planted or someone else was having success?

Instead of being jealous or insecure about loosing people pastors rejoiced and blessed what God was doing. But my experience tells me this is the exception not the rule. Why? Smallness of heart. Something needs to change!

People with largeness of heart are discerning without being judgemental. In Luke 9 a Samaritan village refused to accept the ministry of Jesus because He had set His face to go on to Jerusalem. Perhaps they wanted Jesus just for themselves. Perhaps the animosity between the Samaritans and Jews made them resentful that He would go on to minister to them too. Whatever the reason they said no.

James and John got mad. The sons of thunder went into judgement mode. Not only that, they used scripture to justify their judgmental attitude towards these Samaritans. Listen to them. We are talking genocide here, all in the name of Jesus.

“And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” And they went to another village, Luke 9.54-56.

Jesus is straight. 'You have the wrong spirit guys' - my paraphrase. Largeness of heart keeps you from being offended by others. Jesus wasn’t. He respected their decision and moved on. How do you handle it when people don’t respond the way you would like them to? Do you get offended and then find a Bible verse to justify your ‘righteous indignation’?

Jesus is on the business of saving people not condemning them. That is another spirit, one the Pharisees were well practiced in. Self-righteousness does not produce largeness of heart. Only responding to God’s compassion can do that. I have read some very disingenuous statements abut Mother Teresa from evangelicals because she was a catholic. But I have been to Calcutta. I have read her journal. I was impressed by her love and devotion to Jesus. It manifested itself through her love for homeless children. She took in thousands because she had largeness of heart. I admire her.

Why not pray a dangerous prayer this week. Ask God to give you largeness of heart like the sand on the seashore. Ask Him to take you on a journey where your capacity is increased. Dare to do something this week that takes you out of your comfort zone. Something that shows your heart is getting bigger.

I have a retired couple in my church. They are amazing. Their son is a pastor and has planted churches in Africa. They have a nice home. I asked them to take in an intern from our church. This is a young man who has recently graduated from Bible College but was looking for ministry experience. I asked them to give him board and keep. They did it for a whole year, willingly, unselfishly, and joyfully. I call that largeness of heart.

And we as a church have been richly blessed, by them, by him, by God. They weren’t sure at first but they took a step of faith. They have largeness of heart. Give me a hundred more people like that and I could build a church of a thousand.

Smallness is good – as long as we don’t stay small. In life we begin as single cell, but we don’t stay that way. When we are born we are tiny, but we don’t stay that way. When we plant an acorn it is small but it doesn’t stay that way. Life brings growth – with all its associated problems.

The Kingdom of God begins as a mustard seed. Small and apparently insignificant. But it grows. It becomes a mighty tree that even the birds of the air can nest in Matt 13.31-32. We should celebrate this and welcome it and prepare our hearts to embrace it. How big is your heart? Who is God challenging you to embrace? What will you do to become a big-hearted person? Dare to ask the Lord to give largeness of heart.