Being a Pioneer – Part 4

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Lessons in spiritual warfare from Harry Potter

I was watching ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’ with my kids a few weekends ago and it really struck me how many parallels there are between the situation facing our bespectacled hero and that of us as pioneers in the church.  In case you are unfamiliar with the story, Harry has seen the dark lord return but the ministry of magic refuse to believe him and are intent on doing all they can to refute his claims.  The plot to get Harry expelled from Hogwarts School is foiled but the ministry send one of their loyalist members as a teacher to ensure that students get taught the theory of magic without ever having to put it into practice.  They are encouraged to work hard and learn the information necessary to pass their OWL examinations but the actual casting of spells is strictly forbidden.  Gradually more and more rules are introduced to ensure there is less and less likelihood that students of magic will get into situations where they’ll have any reason to employ their wands.  However, Harry and his friends know that the vilest of evil fiends is on the loose and that they must do everything in their power to be ready to protect themselves and those they love in the confrontation that will inevitably come.

One of the criticisms regularly levelled against my work with spiritual seekers at new age fairs, is that I don’t take the occult seriously.  This really makes my blood boil because I have seen more than most the damage that results from dabbling in practices that the Bible forbids.  I absolutely hate how the enemy has taken the gifts God has given us in order to encourage, bless and demonstrate His love to others and created counterfeits that blind vulnerable people to the truth and enslaves them to a life journey that will ultimately lead to death.  It is one of the foremost reasons I do the mission activities I do.  I firmly believe that, like Harry Potter, we Christians are engaged in a spiritual battle with the prince of darkness himself.  If we don’t partner with God to see His kingdom extended then there will be a growing predominance of greed, selfishness, violence and injustice in our communities, which are the fruit of his rule.  Maybe the riots that we experienced in UK cities just a couple of weeks ago are an insight into what is at stake.

However, most churches seem intent on giving their members lots of teaching and instruction in how to live a life that ensures no stepping out of line without ever requiring them to venture beyond their buildings and engage in activities that will bring them into conflict with the enemy.  We know how to pray and have studied how Jesus withstood temptation.  We can quote Paul’s instruction to put on the full armour of God but have we ever actually been in a situation when we had to do it?  I should say that I am not one of those Christians that see the devil behind every parking ticket and broken glass and I really don’t want to scare anyone as I think that just gives him more power than he has.  But I do think we only test our faith and employ the weapons God has put in our hands, when we actually do what He has called us to.  And what is that?  Well to emulate Jesus in his mission as outlined in Luke chapter 4, verse 18-19, “…he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”  If I am living with this as my reason for being, I will inevitably come against the forces that cause poverty, imprisonment and despair.  But there is no need for me to be afraid, “for greater is He who is in me than he who is in the world.”  Yet you won’t really know the truth of this until you start working to see Jesus’ mission fulfilled and experience for yourself the power of our Saviour.

 

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Being a Pioneer – Part 3

“There’s more room in a broken heart…”

I am conscious in my last blog I didn’t address whether thinking creatively is an attribute that can be taught.  Well, maybe not.  However, I do think that it can be modelled and an environment can be created where risk taking is positively encouraged.  But as well as really seeing and thinking differently, a pioneer also needs a soft heart.  This is because our motivation for introducing not yet Christians to God should always be love.  This sounds obvious but in my experience Christians can be motivated by all sorts of reasons that are more about their own hang-ups and misapprehensions than a desire to reveal the God who loves them enough to die for them.

When you have messed up big time and then experience the all-encompassing love and forgiveness of Christ that can redeem the worst of our fears and failings, faith is no longer an intellectual proposition but the only reality that matters.  This is what we should be sharing with those who have not yet met Jesus.  However, I don’t think going through hard times is enough in its self.  It’s true that suffering can lead to a greater sense of compassion but it can equally cause a hardening in attitude toward others.  It is something I have to keep asking myself.  Are my struggles causing bitterness and a determination to never allow myself to get hurt again or, in the words of Carly Simon, do I ensure, “there’s more room in a broken heart”?

Maybe imagination is the key to avoiding perfectionism that prevents the possibility of future pain.  If I can put myself in the shoes of others and imagine what it feels like to be poor, hopeless or in pain, then I will ensure my heart remains fleshy and does not easily turn to stone.   Or perhaps it is about remembering.  So much of the stories, rituals and festivals God instructs us to keep are to help us remember.  Remember who we are and what He has done to save us.  This is why we need to be in community.  We need other people to remind us of how far we have come and just how much of the transforming work God has already completed in our lives.  Yes we must forgive those who have hurt us but maybe it’s good to remember how we felt so that we can come alongside others who are suffering in humility and love.  In this way we are imitating Christ, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet without sin.  Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)

As I write this I am conscious that I am struggling with my own questions about what motivates me to do what I do.  Is it an awareness of my own inadequacy?  Do I feel I have to justify God’s love?  Am I afraid of not meeting others expectations of me and ultimately being rejected by them?  And if I am honest the answer is probably yes!  But hopefully mixed in with these by-products of my fallenness and sin there is also a desire to want to please God just because He is worthy and to see His kingdom come because I know that is our only real hope for healing and wholeness.  I don’t think anyone can be sure that their motives are 100% pure but I trust that God can work with that.  Pioneers don’t have to be perfect, just honest and faithful.  Well, if not, then I for one am stuffed!

 

Being a Pioneer – Part 2

Creative-thinking

Thinking creatively

The second attribute I think is essential for a pioneer is to think creatively.  If you are a scientist, engineer or mathematician please don’t worry and stop reading, this includes you and requires no artistic talent whatsoever.  I cannot draw a stick man and if I take a photo I invariably miss off heads or feet and even with idiot proof automatic everything, I guarantee it will be out of focus!  However, when I encounter a problem, I can usually think of half a dozen different ways to tackle it.  I used to think that everyone could do this but it never ceases to amaze me how people can do the same thing over and over again when it is obvious that it isn’t working.  Just look at most church services on a Sunday morning! 

What I am getting at was wonderfully illustrated by my younger son just before the end of term.  He had a problem with another child at school and decided he needed to do something about it.  The next morning I came across a piece of paper where he had been writing.  He explained that because he needed to speak to the teacher, he had written down what he wanted to say.  This was because when actually confronted by the situation he usually forgot the words he wanted to use so decided that if he wrote them down he would not lose them in the stress and anxiety of the moment.  I was so proud of him!  This demonstrated he had analysed previous encounters and felt frustrated that he had not been able to achieve what he’d wanted.  He had then thought through how he could overcome this in future without any input from anyone else.  This is the kind of reflective and creative thinking that is required of pioneers.  Once you have seen the problem, felt the burden of it and prayed ardently for God to show you how to respond, thinking differently is essential.

To support this assertion, I came across an incident where Jesus thought creatively.  I am quoting from ‘Luke for Everyone’ by Tom Wright on Luke 5:1-11, “One day Jesus was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowds were pressing close to him to hear the word of God.  He saw two boats moored by the land; the fishermen had gone ashore and were washing their nets.  He got into one of the boats – it was Simon’s – and asked him to put out a little way from the land.  Then he sat down in the boat and began to teach the crowd.” (p.52)  Jesus demonstrates his ingenuity in coping with the volume of people by taking to the water and using the geography of steep inlets and zigzagging coastline around the lake to make the most of a natural amphitheatre to ensure all could hear His message.

However, as this shows, thinking differently is only half the story.  Pioneers must then have the courage to act on their new way to seeing.  Taking risks is a given and will inevitably lead to making mistakes and to failure.  These too go with the territory.  A pioneer must then also persevere.  A lot of Christians seem to think that we can by-pass the unpleasant realities of mistakes and failure.  If God is in it He will tell us exactly what we should do and so protect us from blowing it and the disappointment that inevitably follows.  This is not how it is.  Human beings learn from trial and error and I don’t believe God gives us a blueprint for how we must do things.  There would then be no room for partnership with Him in His transforming work in the world and there would be no opportunity for us to display the creativity He has made us with.  Also, “we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character hope.” (Romans 5:4)  This is my least favourite verse in the Bible and in my ‘Tippex Revised Edition’ it would be omitted!  The annoying thing is it is true.  Being a pioneer is hard.  But the rewards are abundant life starting now and lasting for eternity!

Being a pioneer

Pioneers

Seeing is believing

I have been thinking recently about what makes a pioneer.  Is this something that can be taught or are you born a pioneer?  In order to get my head round this question, I thought it would be good to start with what I consider to be the essential attributes of a pioneer.  The first of these is about seeing.  When I was a child I used to love watching the Krypton Factor.  It was one of the few programmes we ever watched on ITV and I knew there was no possibility that I would ever amass more than a handful of points on such a gruelling and challenging quiz show.  The one exception to this was the observation round.  This was the one bit of the programme that I could actually do well at and sometimes even did better than some of the contestants!  This is because I notice stuff.  I don’t know why or how I developed this characteristic but for us long as I can remember I have been able to come away from a gathering of people and tell you what each one of them is wearing!

While studying for a recent assignment on the Pioneer Ministry Leadership Course with CMS, I came across a quote by John Stott who says in his study of Acts regarding chapter 17 verses 16-23, “…he (Paul) saw, he felt, he spoke.  It all began with his eyes…The Greek verb used three times (16, 22, 23) is either theoreo or anatheoreo and means to ‘observe’ or ‘consider’.  So he looked and looked, and thought and thought, until the fires of holy indignation were kindled within him” (p.290-1).  In my pioneering ministry to spiritual seekers it has been the same.  I remember surveying ‘the healing field’ at Kingston Green Fair, where we had pitched our tent for the first time, and just being overwhelmed with the sight of all these people who were searching for meaning and a touch from the divine. My reaction was similar to that of Paul in Athens – I felt righteous anger.  I was angry that the church had withdrawn to leave these searching people in ignorance and hopelessness and I felt angry with the enemy for deceiving them with a pale imitation of what God offers them.  But I also felt compassion.  It was as if God was saying to me, “Look at all these, ‘like sheep without a shepherd.’” (Matt. 9:36) 

In my experience any pioneering starts with seeing.  There is then an emotional response that leads to a crying out to God.  He is then faithful to show you what He wants you do.  Can this be taught?  I guess you can develop a sensitivity to God and His Holy Spirit that helps you to observe what is on His heart.  However, it does require one to open your eyes!  This may seem like an obvious point but the majority of Christians seem to wander around like the three monkeys, concerned that they will see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.  Even in church when we sing songs asking God to open the eyes of our heart, we have our eyes glued shut presumably lost in wonder and praise.  If you want to see, you have to start looking, I mean really looking.  But this should come with a health warning!  You may not like what you see.  It will disturb you and lead you into unknown territory.  It is the first step on a wild ride that is exciting, painful and terrifying.  It will involve criticism from others and the accompanying soul searching but is also fulfilling beyond anything this life can offer.  So go on take the blind fold off and jump!  Don’t worry, the outstretched arms will catch you and He will never leave you or forsake you.  This is actually what He saved you for!  So, go for it!

My 3-dimensional God

Lighthouse

JEHOVAH-JIREH – The Lord provides (Genesis 22:13-14)

 

I have been on holiday for the last couple of weeks.  It was not what I am used to, two weeks in the sun doing very little except for reading, swimming and soaking up the rays.  We went to Whitley Bay on the North East coast and I was anticipating a fortnight of rain-soaked, family outings!  However, as usual, I was surprised that despite my preconceptions it was just what I needed and a real blessing from God, and Lesley who kindly loaned us her house.  I was able to relax, spend time with my family, as well as enjoy the beauty of God’s creation and experience healing and revelation in the most unexpected of places.  The other thing that was different is I don’t usually have any contact with friends while I am away.  On this holiday, though, I really valued their occasional news updates and brief words of love and encouragement.

 

This has caused me to acknowledge how much I impose on God what I think He should do to meet my needs.  Then when He doesn’t do what I want, I am disappointed and do a more rationally justified equivalent of a toddler tantrum or adolescent sulk.  The truth is God meets all my needs but not in the ways I expect.  This was always true of Jesus.  Tom Wright says in ‘Luke for Everyone’, commenting on Luke chapter 2, verses 41-52, “Jesus doesn’t do or say what Mary and Joseph or the two on the road (to Emmaus), were expecting.  It will be like that with us, too…Discipleship always involves the unexpected.” (p.29-30) Taking my friends as an example then, I can see He has given me different relationships that feed and nurture the many-sided facets of my personality and provide stimulation for the variety of interests I have.  God is not just my provider when I have a bill to pay or an event to staff.  He is the God who knows me inside and out and is constantly surprising me with the multiplicity of ways in which He cares for me. 

 

I have been wondering if the same is true of church.  We expect one expression of worship to meet all our varied and complex needs for intimacy with God and desire for fellowship.  However, I have discovered that I can experience a rich diversity in God and the community of faith by engaging with different expressions of worship and interacting with groups of Christians who emphasise alternative aspects of witness and service.  I have felt vaguely uncomfortable with this, wondering if I am just pandering to our “pick’n’mix” culture, choosing the bits I like and opting out of the bits I don’t get anything from.  But maybe if I am genuine, committed and willing to go the extra mile for the relationships in these different contexts, then I will not fall into this trap.  And actually I will have a greatly enhanced picture of God.  It is as stark a contrast as having had a flat, one-dimensional image and now seeing Him in magnificent 3-d! 

 

So on returning from my holiday, I am resolved to curb my natural inclination to tell God how to do His job.  Rather, I want to spend time marvelling and rejoicing at all the creative and unexpected ways God is truly my provider, especially when His provision also challenges my prejudices!  For, as Isaiah 55 verse 8 says, “’…my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways’, declares the Lord.”