27. Building People

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

27. Building People

Mt 23:39  the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

Jn 13:34,35  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Vision Focus: We perhaps need to remind ourselves we are reflecting upon what it means to have a vision for our church, trying to catch something in more general or overall terms of what the New Testament shows is upon God’s heart and which we can work towards. Without vision, we have suggested, people die from lack of hearing the word and from lack of being fed. In the last two studies we have majored on the need to be God-centred, a spiritual people, but there is another side to this coin, people. Someone, in a conversation with me about the direction of the church, recently uttered the words, “Well people don’t matter.”  I spluttered back, “But they do. They mattered to Jesus so they must matter to us.”

The Jesus Approach: It is perhaps so familiar to us at Christmas that we perhaps forget it, but part of the Christmas story – and especially as it flows out of Isaiah’s prophecies – is ‘Immanuel – God with us’. The incarnation is all about God leaving heaven in the form of His Son and coming and living as a human being (not as an angel or some other ‘spirit-being’) to share in the experience of humanity and to reveal His love to us through that channel – as a human being. Yes, it is vital that we restore the God-focus to church but equally that we catch afresh the significance of being human beings made in the image of God who Jesus came to save.

As we read through the Gospels we see Jesus calling twelve men to travel with him for three years, to be with him, learning of him, to be like him. There were also a number of women who also traveled with him, and with whom he appears completely comfortable. But then the Gospels are filled with personal encounters, Jesus interacting with individual human beings, but when it comes to references to people groups we find he was completely at ease with the tax-collectors, prostitutes, and ‘sinners’, the riff-raff of society. Yes, he ate and drank with socialites as well and so we see him with a wide spectrum of people.

Thinking about People: The Church is about people and so perhaps we should consider, in the context of vision, what we think about that we do as people, with people. Perhaps we could consider a) how we relate on a normal daily basis with one another in church, b) how we view past hurts, c) how we go about serving together and d) how we go about reaching out to others, all good valid points for consideration as we look forward and ask, “What sort of church is it that God wants?”

Daily Encounters: The ethos of the church has to be love (and we’ll consider this in detail at a later stage). Very briefly, our starting point is, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” (Jn 3:16) to which John adds in his letter, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son,” (1 Jn4:10) i.e. it starts with God’s love for us. As we experience that and are filled with the Spirit of love (for “God is love” – 1 Jn 4:8,16) we respond to Jesus command, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12) We do this by loving, caring and accepting one another, learning to be encouragers, being there for one another. This is the starting vision we would want to convey, a church for whom people are important.

The Past is Important: Now I have referred to this already in a past study, but a danger that we have is to assume that once a person becomes a Christian, everything is fine and the past is sorted out. History and experience shows that this is not always so. Why? We live in a fallen world and a world that in the past century (at least here in the West) that has strayed badly from God’s norms. Thus we have many people damaged by past relationships going wrong. But it’s not just that, there are hurts from things beyond our control, inabilities to conceive, death of babies, death of children, death of loved ones prematurely through disease, all of these things cause hurts and often leave deep scars. Over the years I have had the opportunity to be in contact with ministries that minister to all of these sorts of things and I conclude, after having watched this for many years, that in any church of any size, part of their vision must be to seek healing for their hurting members, either through regularly (perhaps once a year?) bringing in an outside ministry, or training up our own people to so minister. All part of vision.

Serving Together: We have covered this in some detail in the two previous studies on servant-heartedness, so let’s abbreviate this to creating a church where individual gifts can be discerned and encouraged and developed and given space in which to operate. A big subject we will no doubt cover again before we finish.

Reaching Out Together: To misquote Jesus’ parable (Mt 13:45,46), having found a pearl of great price we will want others to find it as well. Now let’s try and remove some guilt from church. There will be those who have the gift of an evangelist (Eph 4:11, 2 Tim 4:5) and we need to encourage them, protect them and give them space and opportunity in which to operate. But we are not all evangelists. Some of us are what I call ‘people-people’, people who are natural communicators who get on well with anyone, but not everyone is like that. Introverts (and it is not a sin to be an introvert!) are not naturals like that. Yes, Jesus does call us all to be witnesses of his, and so there will come times when in conversations we need to speak out for him, but it does require sensitivity.  “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Pet 3:15) Some of us are good at creating and making such opportunities, others of us will just be salt and light and then have people asking about us.

Preparation: Now if you anticipate having such a conversation, because a friend or family member asks you about your faith, about God or about church or anything spiritual, it is useful to prepare before hand what you are going to say. To save space, here I will simply suggest that part of our vision is to prepare our people for this, train and equip them to be witnesses or evangelists, and within that, design special services or special gatherings (or just meals) where not-yet-believing friends or family can be invited in to hear and consider the possibilities of faith. Unless we put it in our vision, it probably won’t happen.

And So?  So there it is: vision is presenting a picture of what we believe God has on His heart for us in such a way that we can see things to work on, goals to aim for. If it is of God’s heart and we get God’s grace to share it, we should win over the vast majority of our flock to it, to enter into a future that draws us closer to God, enables us to experience His presence, His equipping, and His empowering, and gives us exciting purpose and direction for the days ahead. The excitement is in what we could become with His enabling and linked with that will be anticipation of the church changing and us bringing changes to the world around us – for good! So I guess it is time we moved on into the real stuff that thinks of what church is about in real terms. As we go into the next Part, perhaps with an eye to where we have been in this part, I want to start by considering what would we do if we were starting utterly from scratch. So take a dose of amnesia, sit down on a desert island with a Bible, and see what might happen

(Here again at the end of this Part we present an overview of this series)

Part 1 – Falling Short?

  1. Wonderings about Church
  2. Concern for People
  3. Challenged by Scripture
  4. Wondering about ‘Fitness for Purpose’
  5. Problems with Religion and Revival
  6. Appearance & Performance (1)
  7. Appearance & Performance (2)

Part 2 – A Different People

  1. Different
  2. Believers
  3. Supernatural
  4. Repentance and Conviction
  5. Needing to be ‘Saved’?
  6. A People of Faith

Part 3 – Making of Believers

  1. A Guilt-Free People
  2. No Longer Orphans
  3. Growing in Sonship
  4. The Yeast of Humility
  5. Getting on a Learning Curve
  6. The Reality of Sacrifice
  7. No Add-ons
  8. Servant-hearted (1)
  9. Servant-hearted (2)

Part 4 – Pondering on Vision

  1. The Significance of Vision
  2. More on ‘Why Vision?’
  3. The God Focus
  4. Spiritual Expressions
  5. Building People

Part 5 – Starting from Scratch

  1. Clear your Mind
  2. A New Creation
  3. Life (1)
  4. Life (2)
  5. Being Together
  6. Fellowship

Part 6 – thinking about Leaders

  1. Led
  2. Local leaders – overseers
  3. Local leaders – shepherds
  4. Local leaders – elders
  5. Local Leaders – The Nature of the Church (1)
  6. Gifts of Ministries – Introduction
  7. Gifts of Ministries – to plant
  8. Gifts of Ministries – to build up
  9. The Servants – Deacons
  10. The Nature of the Church (2)

Part 7 – Unique Ingredients

  1. Uniqueness
  2. Another quick look at ‘Vision’
  3. Power – for Life Transformation
  4. Power – for Life Service
  5. Power – for Living
  6. The Need for Faith
  7. More on Faith.
  8. Obedience
  9. Finale – the Church on God’s heart

8. Different

(We return to our previous series on the Church)

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 2 – A Different People

8. Different

Matt 16:18   I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

1 Pet 2:9  But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Approach: In this second Part we are going to be looking at the things that make a Christian different from a non-Christian, what they believe and what – initially at least – in general terms, they are. The titles within this Part are:

  1. Different
  2. Believers
  3. Supernatural
  4. Repentance and Conviction
  5. Needing to be ‘Saved’?
  6. A People of Faith

In the third Part we will go on to consider the things that the Bible says happens to believers when they become Christians, why and how they change. For now we ask the question, what makes your ‘church’ different from a social club?

Different: Very well, I will start this second Part with this idea (which is really so obvious that it should not need mentioning, but perhaps is not so clear in some minds) that ‘the Church’ is different and distinct from those who are not ‘the Church’. The word has become so confused and abused over the years that to ask any individual, “What do you think ‘the Church’ is?” will evoke a wide range of answers from the building on the corner down the road, to the national institution or even an international institution. The Greek word, ekklesia, (from which of course we get the word ‘ecclesiastical’) used in the original New Testament manuscripts, has the meaning, ‘assembly’ or ‘called out ones’, thus meaning a group of people who have been called by God (e.g. Rom 8:28, 8:30, 9:24, Eph 1:18, 4:4, 2 Thess 2:14 etc.) Buildings, organisations, institutions may demonstrate the existence of this group of people but first and foremost ‘the Church’ is people who have been called by God – as distinct from those who have no such recognizable calling.

I did wonder about trying to have different sections within this second Part, the first one headed ‘Different’ but the more I have thought about it the more I realise that everything about church is about difference from those who are ‘not church’. In the studies that are to follow, I hope we will look at those many things that make us different from the people next door who are not part of ‘church’, who are not Christians. The result of this, hopefully, will be to clarify in our minds our identity, our activities and our goals which are all quite distinct (and for good reasons) from people who are not part of ‘church’. It may sound obvious but it needs saying.

A Lasting & Resistant Church: From our starting verse above – “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it,” we see Jesus taking ownership of this ‘church’ these ‘called-out ones’ but warning that it (they) will have opposition, but he will ensure that it (they) will stand and not be overcome. That is encouraging, but to enter into the fulness of that assurance we will have to see what else the New Testament says about us, the Church, to live it, experience it, and enter into all that is said about it. Our starting point, therefore, is to see ourselves as a people who are what we are because we have been called by Jesus, called to be a different people, a distinct people, from those who have not been so-called. We’ll see something more about that calling in the next study and then see the differences in subsequent studies. In the meantime, you might like to think about your own experience, your experience of being called, what it entailed and what has followed to make you a different person, a Christian, part of a different group of people.

Not a Club: “But”, someone might ask, “what is the fuss all about? I belong to a bowls club and we the members are different from those who don’t play bowls. We have skills others don’t have, we play the game that others don’t play, and so on; what’s the big deal?”  Or someone else might say, “Well, I belong to a ladies’ group that does charitable work. We are very respectable, we do very good things to help the community, and in this we are different from those who are not community minded and not at all like us. What is the fuss?”  Or perhaps you may come across a third person who says, “Well, I belong to a yoga group; not one of these exercise groups that might just go by that name, but we enter into all the spiritual aspects of it that come from the East, as well as doing the exercises. We are very spiritual, and we’re disciplined and so in that we are quite different from many other people.”

Not a nice religious group: In the UK we have lots and lots of very old stone buildings with spires and towers and beautiful stained-glass windows. In some of them you may find very nice and very respectable good people who come together at certain set times to go through ancient rites led by a man or woman in black robes wearing a stiff white circular collar. Clearly very distinguished, and by that, I mean distinguished from other people who don’t wear black robes and stiff white collars. Their congregation tend to wear suits (the men) and nice dresses (the ladies) and they tend to be very nice people – and some of them are Christians. But are they collectively ‘church’?

Back to the definition: The Greek word used in the original New Testament manuscripts, ekklesia, we said, has the meaning, ‘assembly’ or ‘called out ones’, thus meaning a group of people who have been called by God. Looking at the two paragraphs above, clearly those clubs in the first of those two paragraphs have not been called into being by God and they certainly make no mention of God. In the second paragraph the activities of the people mentioned there tend to focus on a building and specific ‘services’ and both contribute to what they feel about their religion. In fact, if their building was demolished one night and their services were abandoned, they would feel rather naked and their identity under question.

For the true Christian, building or ‘services’ or liturgy or ritual should not be what defines them.  They may all be acceptable add-ons but they are not what defines us, and that, perhaps, is what so often confuses the onlooking world. The danger is almost certainly accentuated by ‘mega-churches’ with their large buildings and car parks, great facilities that compete with the best the world can provide, and a mega-sense of being a ‘big people’ grouping. Unfortunately this sometimes means that the growth of an individual and growth of their relationships with other people can be stunted, as we will see when we come to focus on some of the specifics of what it means to be a part of ‘the body of Christ’.

A Voice from the Past: To focus the distinction between the social club church and the real thing, listen to the writing of an early twentieth-century devotional writer, Oswald Chambers, in his famous devotional, ‘My Utmost for His Highest’: “The experience of salvation means that in your actual life things are really altered, you no longer look at things as you used to; your desires are new, old things have lost their power… If you are born again, the Spirit of God makes the alteration manifest in your actual life and reasoning.”

As you read that, are you uncomfortable with such words as ‘salvation’ and ‘born again’? If the answer is yes, then there is clearly some Bible reading to be done and some serious thinking to be followed through. They are not obscure, irrelevant or hardly mentioned words. Instead, I would suggest, they go to the heart of what ‘church’ is all about, not what I think it is all about but what the New Testament says it is all about, not grabbing at a few random verses to make a point, but catching the entire drift of the New Testament, Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels, and the apostles in the ‘Acts’ and letters, and ‘Revelation’ that follow. Those are the fields into which we are going to wander in these days ahead. Stay with me if you will and let’s ask the Lord to open our eyes to see afresh what His word will say to us.

2. Concern for People

The Wonder of the Church:  Part 1 – Falling Short?

2. Concern for People

Matt 16:18   I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

Jn 13:34,35    A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’

Recap: In the Introduction, I reflected on a need to look afresh at ‘the Church’, sharing how part of my motivation (and it was only part) came, as well as in praying, through reading a book by Francis Chan about the church which resonated with my own spirit. I acknowledged our need to approach this subject with humility and an absence of a critical spirit, noting my approach would be very basic, focusing on Bible teaching from a very fundamental standpoint and asked you to hold on to the word ‘basic’. I went on to plead for grace and not legalism so that we can respond graciously to the vison of the Church that is portrayed in the New Testament.

Another Motivation: And yet I have a further challenge that goes beyond prayer and reading; it is listening to and watching various people I know who are struggling with ‘church’. Let’s look at them and then consider what Jesus teaches us about them.  Take a relatively young couple I know, who used to be youth leaders. Their situation concerned me because, to use the jargon, they were not covered, they had no one watching over them, guiding them, guarding them, correcting them, encouraging the church to pray for them, encouraging others to serve with them, and the net result was they burned out. He had a nervous breakdown, and no one in the church leadership contacted them to see how they were and ask how they may help. Help and loving concern were never forthcoming. Subsequently they are looking for another place to worship and serve.  They have a heart for God but are not so sure about His church.

Another couple I know went to a different church where heavy authority made decisions without any reference to the church, asked for money for a project but then didn’t do it. They felt uncared for and started looking for a new spiritual home. They went to another well-known and flourishing church where no one spoke to them the whole time they were there. OK, it’s a two-way street and they could have reached out to others, but they were feeling vulnerable from past experience. They are now feeling less than enthusiastic about ‘church’.

A third couple I know attend a good evangelical church where the routine is guaranteed week by week, but they feel uncared for and unfed.  They keep going because that seems the best in their area and the children’s work seems good. Yet they have yearnings for something more. They also are not enthusiastic about church where life and love are largely absent.  I could continue on and tell you about various friends we have who have also been burned by church and feel less than excited about attending an institution where words are uttered but love and life are absent, but the more stories we tell, the more depressing it can become, so I don’t think this is a good path to follow.

My end concern: I have wondered and prayed and thought and talked into all these situations at some length, but I am left with two feelings: anguish and concern. I genuinely anguish that so many expressions of ‘church’ that we encounter are simply organised formalities and rituals and far from the power houses of the teaching of the New Testament (although the early church had its problems!) with the result that so many of us perform for an hour or so a week and go away little fed, little challenged, little equipped, little empowered and little changed. I can only believe that we grieve the Lord of the church – the Lord who had strong words to say to the seven churches of Asia Minor – with what we are doing, or not doing!

My concern is for those people I see in ‘church’ who are struggling, who want relationships, who want reality, who want to worship in a real and meaningful way, want to know and serve the Lord and yet find it almost impossible to see past the organisations, the programmes, the planning, the rituals and the rites that seem to have lost any semblance of life.  So, by praying, by reading, by watching and listening to the people I encounter, I am prodded into stopping in my tracks and, starting from scratch, looking afresh at what ‘church’ is really all about or, at least, what the New Testament says it should be about. Your frustration may be that I appear to go too slowly but I have the feeling that it will only be as we pick up each brick of teaching in the New Testament about the church, and examine it thoroughly, will we get anywhere. The challenge will then be, what will we do with it? Pray and stay with me if you can.

To Conclude: Ponder the second of our opening verses: “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  Put aside for a moment everything else you might know or think about ‘church’ and consider this instruction of Jesus to his disciples before he left them to go to the Cross. He was about to lay down his life for them – and for us – and he gives them this basic building block. Whatever else they might become, this was a fundamental calling, not to be religious, not to have great worship or great sermons, but to love one another with the same sacrificial love that he demonstrated to them.

Do we have that when we allow those who serve in the church to burn out, do we have that when someone in our church suffers bereavement and nobody at all enquires after their well-being (as someone only the other day told us about), do we have that when new people appear at the door, is this at the heart of our teaching and planning, are we so structured that love can genuinely grow between individuals, do our gatherings operate in such a way that this love can be expressed and grow, because if it isn’t, we really do have some serious thinking to do, and some serious changes to make.  And that’s just the starting place!  But love has to start with me: will I come to the gathering of God’s people with an open caring heart that will reach out to the needy in the congregation and love and accept them as Jesus does, will I start with those nearest to me and express His love and concern to them? Theory must be practical.

9. Human Glory

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.9.  Human Glory

Isa 40:6   A voice says, “Cry out.”  And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.

The significance of the passing of time in Scripture is fascinating.  For instance, there are periods of waiting, waiting for seeds to grow, waiting for the right time, waiting for time to pass. Sometimes when we are waiting we think it is the end. Israel must have felt that when they went into the Exile.  Israel might have wondered about it in Jesus day when there has been silence from heaven for over four hundred years. The disciples thought it when Jesus body lay in the tomb until the third day.

One of the things about time passing is that it is so easy to forget what God has said when His word comes, or even to be led into doubt that we have heard aright. That must have been the case when Sarai urged Abram to take the servant girl, Hagar, to use here to continue the family line (Gen 16:1-4). Time passing challenges our faithfulness.

Now Israel are in a ‘desert state’ or ‘wilderness state’ as the word of the Lord comes to comfort them. No doubt time has passed but now the Lord has said He is coming’ it seems their period of waiting is coming to an end, but for God to be rightly received there needs to be a right perspective, a right way of thinking about Him, and that right thinking always has to start with a recognition of what we are. In comparison to the Lord we small and insignificant and in the verses to follow in this chapter we are going to be reminded of something of the Lord’s greatness, but before we do that we have to see our smallness, and our frailty. Humility requires right understanding.

That is where I got to as I approached these verses but then I realised something. There is a difference between verses 6 and 7. If verse 7 was absent, we would think that verse 6 is really good; it is only when the balance or counterpart of verse 7 comes that we find our aspirations dashed. So think again. The truth is that there are two sides to revelation about mankind and the way God thinks about us, and it is important to consider them both and so we will take verse 6 here and verse 7 in the next study.

The prophetic word rolls out: A voice says, “Cry out.”  And I said, “What shall I cry?” (v.6a) Isaiah hears the word, the instruction to call out to his people and his instinctive reply is to ask what he is to call. It could be anything. It could be about their sinfulness, it could be about God’s greatness, it could be about judgment, it could be about blessing, it could be about another nation or people, but instead it is a general declaration about mankind: All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.” (v.6b)

Right, stop right there. Think about this description as it stands. We are like grass. Grass? Grass covers a lot of this earth.  God must like grass. Grass is useful for feeding cattle and when it turns into straw it has other uses. There are also many sorts of grass, and some of them are purely ornamental (we have at least five different sorts of ornamental grasses in our garden apart from the grass on the lawn.) Grass is quite a good picture.

But then he speaks about “the flowers of the field”. I don’t know if you have ever observed a ‘meadow’   Listen to Wikipedia’s definition of a meadow: “A meadow is a field habitat vegetated by grass and other non-woody plants. Meadows are of ecological importance because they are open, sunny areas that attract and support flora and fauna that could not thrive in other conditions.” Those ‘other non-woody plants’ are either flowers or other plants we often refer to as weeds. There is a big thing in the UK about growing ‘meadows’ specifically because of the wild flowers that grow in a meadow. There is something quite special about the wild flowers that grow in the midst of grass.

Now, there is a key word in the midst of picture language, ‘faithfulness’ and we said above that the passing of time challenges our faithfulness. Some versions have the word ‘beauty’ instead but incorporate a note about ‘constancy’ or ‘faithfulness’.  The versions that lack ‘faithfulness’ have just half the picture, I believe, because it is not only about frailty, it is about faithfulness and when we go on into verse 7, frailty shown in failing faithfulness. We will consider some more about that aspect in the next study, but for the moment consider our faithfulness as a flower that stands out in the midst of a field of grass. It is beautiful in the eye of the Lord.

Elsewhere in Scripture we find, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honour” (Psa 8:4,5) and the writer to the Hebrews takes that quote and slightly extends it: “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you care for him? You made them a little] lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honour and put everything under their feet.” In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them.” (Heb 2:6-8) Before we let the enemy put us down, let’s remember this is how God sees us, this is what He designed us to be, and in the present prophetic picture our faithfulness (when it is there) is something beautiful to behold, something that blesses the Lord. Let’s make sure we hold on to it.

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord help me remain faithful to you in every area of my life. Thank you that you have a plan for my life, you are blessed by it and yet have more for me. Open my eyes to your possibilities for me.

4. Problems with People

Lessons in Growth  Meditations: 4. Problems with People

Jn 13:34,35   A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

To Love is not Natural: Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to love one another is not a natural one and if it were among the list of verses that are spoken about but struggled with, I suspect this rates near the top of the list. We may say we do it and think we do it, but I wonder how real it is?. I would suggest that it is a real struggle to love sometimes and it really does require the grace of God.

Now we are in a Part where we are considering the call to die to the past and die to the things of the past, and especially die to self, and this command is, I would suggest, one that so often hinders Christian growth or rather, to be more accurate, it is the struggle with this command that hinders growth. You think I am exaggerating? Let’s check it out.

Pre-Christ Relationships: Before we came to Christ our life was focused on what I wanted to do, what I felt, what I thought and, often, what I thought about other people. There were probably people we loved (our close family) and people who were good friends. Then there were the people near us that we tolerated (probably neighbours and people at work), and then there were people we positively disliked and probably spoke against.

Change & Realisation: And then we came to Christ and all was well until we either read the above verses or we heard a preacher speaking about them, and then there was a shadow cast over our life. “Love,” he said, “means thinking the best of people and desiring the best for people, all people,” and that made us feel uncomfortable. And then it got worse. Our preacher started talking about gossip, speaking about others behind their backs in an unloving way, and again we felt uncomfortable.

The Difficulty: Then we looked around the church and we realised there were people we’re not particularly fond of and, if we were honest, we found a real pain. To love them? And then there were people at work who were really trying. Love them? We realised we had a whole pile of negatives about people – because they deserved them! And we were being called to give up all these negatives – but they still deserve them! That’s a good excuse and I’ve got another – I can’t cope with these people, let alone love them! So I might as well not try. And growth comes to a halt.

The Reality: Yes, this is the problem: people are imperfect, people are difficult, people can be a drain upon us, people can be speaking against us and, even worse, people can be harming us, physically or emotionally. And Jesus says love them? Yes, this is one of those areas where the ‘death to self’ thing rings loud and true and is uncomfortable, and it can be a real source of hindrance to spiritual growth.

But How? Let’s think about some of the issues. What is love for others? As I said above, thinking the best of people and desiring the best for people, all people. How can you think the best of someone who speaks against you, actively seeks to harm you or puts difficulties into your life? How can you feel good about those closest to you who don’t show care and concern and love for you and appear utterly self-centred? Well start at the hard end. Jesus taught, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt 5:44) How can you do that? One or two suggestions.

Pray that the Lord will show you what they are really like. That bully who upsets you is really a lonely little inadequate boy inside. Jesus would love to change him but he’s looking for someone who will stand in the gap to intercede for him. Pray for grace to bless this person and maybe say something nice to them. Realise you are not perfect and are not the best one to cast the first stone (Jn 8:7). Pray for grace to a) see yourself as child of God who has an all-powerful loving heavenly Father on their side and b) the ability to smile, laugh and praise while you wait for changes to take place.

Sons? Jesus followed up that 5:44 verse with, “that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (v.45). The idea of ‘sons’ in the Old Testament carried with it the idea of the young person growing up to understand the heart of the father and his work, and getting ready to join his father in his work and one day take it over. That was all about growth and so the way we see ourselves in this sort of situation, rather than be a heavy negative thing, can be part of the growth process.

Me, Difficult? Another thought: this is a two-way street. There may be people in church who find you or me difficult.  The only way I can overcome this is to work on the following strategy: every Sunday morning when I go into church, I go praying, “Lord help me to be a blessing to at least two or three people this morning,” and I look around when I get there and ask, “Lord, who can I bless?” It’s surprising how he answers that prayer sometimes. But the big thing is be proactive about loving others. Whenever we pray for difficult people or difficult situations I believe part of our prayer, when we ask Him to bless them or it, should be, “and Lord, show me what you might want me to do to be part of the answer to this prayer.”

If we can do the “dying to self of the past” thing, and put others before ourselves, I believe we will not only be overcoming the obstacles to growth, but we will be growing. We can’t do it without Him, but if we are willing to face the problem, He will enable.  Now I am aware there is one other really big area to do with personal relationships that can be a hindrance to growth and so I will deal with that tomorrow as a separate subject.

10. Is this it?

Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith’ : 10.  Is this it?

Heb 11:9   By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.

This is the second of four ‘faith’ things in respect of Abraham that the writer to the Hebrews covers. It is easy to miss it but the fact that Abraham “made his home in the promised land” is quite amazing; we’ll explain as we go along. To get to his new home he has had to leave his old home. It’s rather obvious but important. Home had been Ur. He had grown up there and it was familiar. The thought of going somewhere else is challenging. Will it be similar to here? Will I like it? What will it be like?

Going and being “a stranger in a foreign country” for the first time raises questions in the mind. It is easier today with the Internet able to show you images of that country and there is always plenty of information about whatever country it is you want to find out about. I remember the first time I flew out to Malaysia to teach, part of a team. I really had no idea what to expect. A friend of mine went on a similar ministry trip to Nepal and suffered with culture shock for the first week; it is a very real thing.

So God has told him to go and he set off, stopped at Haran but eventually carried on and he arrives in Canaan. Is this the place God meant for us or have we got to travel some more?

When we talk about God leading us by faith, what are we expecting Him to lead us into? What do we think we are going to find ‘when we arrive’? Do we have expectations, good or not so good? Some things are very simple and so we simply hear and do and that it is and we move on to the next thing, but suppose it is something bigger. Suppose it is moving on to a new job or a new career or, like Abram, a new place that we feel the Lord is leading us to? What were you expecting?  Suppose you find something different from what you were expecting? Consider what happened to Abram. There were three things that would make him wonder.

First he encountered different people: Abram travelled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.” (v.6) Faith so often has to do with people and the question that arises is how will these people respond to me? These are Canaanites and they have different gods, in fact they have gods and I have the One true God? Faith for us so often means interaction with people and the same sort of questions will arise in us. How will these people respond to me? What are they like? Who or what are their gods? How will they respond to my God?

Whatever the questions they ultimately boil down to the same fundamental question – am I in the right place, but somewhere along the line the Lord will bring reassurance: “The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him. “ (v.7) Ah, that’s not quite what I expected – my offspring? Well yes, the Lord works on a long-term plan and our part is only a part, there is more to follow always. This step of faith may seem big for us but I have to tell you it is only A step and there are more to follow, but you’re in The Plan and God is with you!

So he’s apparently in the right place and has built an altar to worship the Lord, a sign of permanence, but am I to stay here or move on? Is there more to take in this experience: “From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.” (v.8,9) i.e. he kept going. The second thing about faith here is that we don’t settle! This may have been an amazing experience and I am truly blessed having come through it, but this is not a placer to settle. Faith can grow, our experiences can multiply, our lives can mature, we move on!

So far so good, but, “Now there was a famine in the land.” (v.10)  What? It has suddenly gone pear-shaped. This placed that seemed so good initially suddenly seems to be putting pressure on us. We have a problem. What do we do with it? How do we cope with it? Yes, that is precisely the problem and it is a learning situation we have been presented with. The third thing about faith is that so often the Lord leads us into a learning situation and that may be in the very act of faith or in the circumstances resulting from your act of faith.  The sensible thing at this point would be to ask God for wisdom but Abram is only in the very earliest stages of his relationship with the Lord. He has yet to learn that, and its absence is going to get him into trouble which you’ll see if you read on in Genesis.

For Abram this is only the first part of the fulfilment of God’s words to him. He’s stepped out and followed the leading and left his home land and journeyed to the new land. In the new land he has been exploring what is there but in the course of that he finds himself in trying circumstances. The good news is that although he doesn’t do very well in those trying circumstances the Lord doesn’t give up on him and He doesn’t give up on us as we sometimes stumble around in the waters of faith.

12. More on Relationships

Meditations in Romans, Ch.12: 12:  More on Relationships

Rom 12:13  Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another

We move on to the next block of what I have called mini-exhortations because each one s short and pithy, and there are a lot of them. As with verses 9 and 10, these are verses about how we respond to other people, and there is so much here. Each one is a mine of truth waiting to be explored, a variety of facets for Christian living.

Paul starts this block with Share with God’s people who are in need.” (v.13a) In the sixth of this series we noted the following but it is worth repeating: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 Jn 3:17) Jesus used meeting material needs as an indication of spiritual life and relationship: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Mt 25:35,36)  So there we have the New Testament Church teaching first from the apostle John and then from Jesus. We are a body and members of the body care for one another but Jesus took it further to imply that we care for all who cross our path and are needy – the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the poor, the sick and the prisoner. Today, in the UK at least, institutional society meets all these needs, yet there is still room for the Christians to bless others.

Yet Paul’s focus here is specifically on the Christian Church – “God’s people” – where if we see needs we meet them as we are able.  It was a mark of the early church that they cared for one another: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” (Acts 2:44,45)  As they grew in numbers and they set up ‘programs’ to meet the needs of the needy among them, they had difficulties: “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” (Acts 6:1) and thus they had to organize more carefully (Acts 6:3-6).

Sometimes we can get institutional in our thinking and we need freeing from that. I once had a lady in the church come to me as its main leader and share her concern for another lady who did outreach lunches from her home and who was short of tea towels. Couldn’t the church buy some for her, was the question asked of me. Of course, I replied, but what a lovely opportunity for you to bless her personally by getting them for her. ‘Need’ can be a very varied thing and a person ‘in need’ may simply be someone who doesn’t have the resources you do and doesn’t feel able to spend on a particular thing in their life. Over the years I am aware that I have given money to someone who need to go to Agricultural college, money to someone to have a holiday, someone money to go on a Bible retreat. None of those things are ‘basics’ of life but they were things that became ‘needs’ in the light of the will of God for that person, what He wanted to do to bless their life. Yes, as a church we gave to people with more basic needs, on one occasion we took a young man to a supermarket when he was out of work and told him to totally fill up the trolley with food for his family. Needs can be many and varied and our means of meeting them equally so.

On one occasion, as a church we were planning to take the church away for a weekend retreat but we knew that we had many people living on state benefits who just could not afford the cost of such a weekend. As we prayed about what to do, the Lord gave us the wisdom. We went to the church and told them in two month’s time we would take a one-off free-will offering. All we asked them to do was, in that two months, ask the Lord how much He wanted them each to put it. It could be nothing, it could be one pound, five pounds, fifty pounds or whatever He said. When the day come, without any fanfare or winding people up, we simply took the offering in the middle of the Sunday morning service. It came to twice as much as we actually needed to cover every man, woman and child in the church – including a couple of unsaved husbands who had trouble believing it.  The extra we put away for the next retreat. The needs of ‘the poor’ were met.

In this day of state benefits and institutional caring, it is so easy to dismiss this exhortation and we say, “We don’t have the needy with us any longer,” but that is so untrue and especially so in days of financial difficulty in this second decade of the twenty first century.  Needy people mean anyone who is struggling to make ends meet and whose lives are restricted because of it. If we have more resources than they do, this word comes to us.

But the key issue is what does God the Holy Spirit say to us? It is also so easy to become guilt-ridden because of these things and He doesn’t want that. Why not enter into a new faith dimension where you ask the Lord to put on your heart people He wants you to bless in this way – and then how He wants you to bless them. Sometimes it is right to give anonymously but sometimes it is right to give face to face to bless the person and build your relationship with them. It’s who HE wants to bless and HOW He wants you to bless. Why not ask Him now.

20. The World

Meditations in 1 John : 20 : Beware ‘the World’

1 John  2:15    Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

John now issues an instruction that really needs thinking about. World, in Scripture has at least three different meanings. The first meaning is the planet on which we live. For example, Tremble before him, all the earth! The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved,” (1 Chron 16:30) or “you loved me before the creation of the world.” (Jn 17:24).

The second meaning is the people on the world: “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech,” (Gen 11:1) or “Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel,” (1 Sam 17:46) or “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16)

So is John saying don’t love the planet or the people on it? No, definitely not, for a number of the laws of Moses clearly indicate a respect, care and wise use of the world on which we live. Similarly God wouldn’t instruct us to love our neighbour and then tell us to hate them. So what is the sense that John uses here for the word, ‘world’?

The clue to the answer comes in the following verse: For everything in the world–the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does–comes not from the Father but from the world.” (v.16) There he describes, “everything in the world” with three things. Those three things are vital to our understanding.

First there is “the cravings of sinful man” i.e. the yearnings of the self-centred, self-pleasing mankind that is just concerned for personal pleasure. Also sinful mankind is not overly concerned whether it is good or bad, just that it brings pleasure. Thus drug or alcohol abuse is an extreme example, but then so  is unrestrained eating, or sexual activity outside marriage. “I like it, and I want it” becomes the arbiter of sinful man, with little thought to the consequences.  It’s a way of ‘the world’.

Second, there is “the lust of the eyes”. Which is expressed as, “I see it, I like it, I want it”, again often with little thought of whether it is good or bad or of the consequences. No wonder advertising is such a massive industry! The result is often bulging wardrobes, as a result of a fashion industry that tells women how they look is all important and you cannot look the same this year as last. Another result is homes bulging with goods that we rarely ever use. Yet another result is bank balances heavily in debt. It’s another way of ‘the world’.

Third, there is “the boasting of what he has and does.” Self worth has come to be measured by possessions or experiences. Conversations are often made up of tales of new things bought or new places visited. Pleasurable buying and pleasurable experiences have become the measure of a person. What is sad is that these things in themselves are not bad. God has given us a wonderful world to enjoy and He’s given us the ability of make, to invent, and to explore, and so much of the fruits of this are the things we have today and the places we are enabled to go. In themselves they are good, but if our self-worth is only achieved by these things and experiences, we are poor indeed. Our danger, even as Christians, is that in the midst of this God-given enjoyment of life, we can forget those who do not have these things and who actually struggle to stay alive. This self-centred focus on personal pleasure must be tempered for Christians by God-awareness and thankfulness, and a care, compassion and giving for those in need.

But, John goes on, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”  Again and again we have used the words self-centred and that is opposed to God-focused. A godly person is not self-centred, but seeks the will of the Father, including how to spend their money and how to reach out to the rest of the world.

To conclude the paragraph John adds, The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.” (v.17)  It is a reminder to us that all ‘things’ pass away. Many of our goods ‘pass away’ into Charity Shops as we try to make space for more clothes or more goods. But the bigger truth is that as we age, these things pass away from interest. How many elderly people have clothes they no longer wear, and things they no longer use?  And an even bigger truth – you can’t take any of these things with you when you die. If we could only see our families emptying out our homes when we’ve gone!  All the things we once held dear, now just being dumped in a skip!

I suspect that for those of us who live in the Western world and who are tolerably well off, these are uncomfortable verses when we think about what they say. They could trigger a whole new approach to life if we let the Spirit speak to us through them. Reread this meditation and see what He says.