Friday, 30 July 2010

The way up, is down

Jesus' teaching about true Christian greatness is very simple. The way up is down. To get higher, you must descend. The true honours of the kingdom belong, not to those who have raised themselves to great positions of authority, but to those who have lowered themselves into self-less service. The very greatest of all, is the one who has become the servant of all (Mark 10:44).

It is right to be ambitious. God made man ambitious. But like every other thing, godly ambition gets corrupted by the sinful selfishness. Godly ambition means wanting to get lower, get humbler - to where we can do more to serve for Jesus' sake. Even as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his very self as a ransom for many.

I read a lovely example of this in Steve Saint's book which I mentioned a couple of months ago. Rachel Saint (Steve's aunt, sister of the martyred Nate Saint) has a very strong impression when she was converted that God was saying to her, that if she was faithful, then he would give her the privilege of serving a bunch of brown people who were still living in the stone age. If the word "privilege" just made you wince, then it's time to do some more learning in the school of Jesus.

Only by putting together the pieces in the book did I realise that it was some decades later that Rachel Saint became a Bible translator and live-in missionary amongst the jungle Waodani tribe - the tribe that murdered her brother. She became the one who taught them the Scriptures and the way of salvation, or "God's trail" as it is touchingly described, patiently, and slowly over a number of years.

In the worldly way of thinking, that is madness. But in Jesus' thinking, this was true greatness. She passed the tests, proved faithful, learnt how to get down lower and lower - until aged 46 she had descended far enough and was ready to be given the prize of spending the next 36 years being a nobody in this present world, but a great favourite in heaven as she served that jungle people. Awesome.

I think I see the same spirit too at work in this paragraph penned recently by a missionary wife:
Last week we visited two of the poorest families in the Church.  One family are relocating to the village because they cannot afford the 3 pound a month rent!  They had no money to transport their things so I offered a storing space we have, as they were going to leave all their things!  However when chatting it appeared that there would be nothing to leave - one stool.  No bed, no mattress, no chair, no nothing.  A young couple with a dear 9 month old.  We met in their hut, the 2 families had had nothing to eat for two days and the children were sitting in a daze, quietly resigned, no fuss.  Of course when we heard of the situation we made sure they had plenty of food.  What a sad, sad life some of these people live, the eldest child sent home from school as there was no money for fees.  One of these families is with us on a Sunday and last Sunday was just one of those days.  The smallest child pooped three times on the bathroom floor  (tmi!) as he never uses a toilet.  The mother is struggling with incontinence since the birth of her last child and the odours in our lounge last Sunday were not good.  (Another lady suffers the same!) The cushions soiled, soiled women, soiled children, manky house... these are really the times when we are called to love with that great compassion that the Lord Jesus has towards us!  To hold one's tongue and to take time to gently teach, to ignore smells, to value people, to accept their help with the dishes, to encourage and build up, not to belittle and make ashamed.  To do the opposite of Kenyan Society and to love... How I pray for a more genuine heart of love in THESE situations, not one that grumbles and 'fudder fudders' about the unpleasant job of sorting the loo etc etc.  That is what I am called to do, but only with God's enabling do I stand a chance of making progress.
Perhaps you have a good load of qualifications, career's going well, etc., and you're really making it. Very good; all these things are good in their place.

But never forget that in Jesus' kingdom, the way up is down. How are you really doing?

Saturday, 24 July 2010

The way of the cross

Tomorrow, God-willing, I am resuming preaching from the gospel of Mark on Sunday mornings. (You can download some of the previous sermons here).

One of the repeating emphases in the gospel of Mark is teaching about the true nature of Jesus' kingdom. Jesus' kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world. Going the way of Jesus means going the way of the cross. Glory does not come now, but after taking up one's cross to die - again and again. The Master sets the great pattern; for our salvation, he shunned earthly glory and chose rejection, suffering and damnation at Calvary, before he rose again the third day.

In this setting, one of Mark's repeated refrains is to show us how little the disciples understood - even though it was spelt out in the clearest terms, again and again. The problem was not that Jesus' teaching was not plain enough; it was that it clashed with the road to glory that was in the disciples' hearts. And on this theme, Matthew Henry has some great words:
[Note] the confusion that the disciples were hereby put into. This [way of the cross] was so contrary to the notions they had had of the Messiah and his kingdom, such a balk to their expectations from their Master, and such a breaking of all their measures, that they understood none of these things, v. 34. Their prejudices were so strong that they would not understand them literally, and they could not understand them otherwise, so that they did not understand them at all.
What teachings are there that you or I don't understand - not because we can't understand them, but because we don't want to?

Friday, 23 July 2010

An antidote to materialism

When Jesus died, he had two - and only two - things to give away.

He had nowhere to lay his head (Luke 9:58), and no written will or solicitors were necessary. His clothing was divided amongst the soldiers (Matthew 27:35). And his mother according to his human nature, he bequeathed to the apostle John (John 19:26).

And then, rising from the dead, he inherited eternal glory, becoming the heir of all things in the heavens and the earth (Matthew 28:18), the reward of his perfect obedience to his Father.

He had nothing, but gained all.

That's a great encouragement to the poor people in my church, if by the Spirit of God we can drive it into their heads and hearts.

And a great antidote to but African and Western materialism, if we would just look beyond the few moments of this present life into what lies ahead in eternity for those who are in Christ.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Amen and amen

This from the Daily Telegraph; amen and amen. It's not so much about Bob Geldof, but about the whole approach he represents: Africans don't rate Bob Geldof, so why should we?

A big problem is that the people who profit from aid are the ones that the donors with warm-and-fuzzy-feelings get to see most. Those people, of course, tell him that the ever-increasing hand-outs are necessary and not to listen to the hawks. And not having real life experience of the effects on the ground of perpetual, indiscreet hand-outs, the donor, wanting to feel good and not mean, forks over - and the problems are perpetuated.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Grace Magazine (Kenya) PDF available

You can download the (free) PDF of Grace Magazine (Kenya) for printing here:

(The articles can also be read on-line - but I mentioned that before; the PDF was uploaded today).

Friday, 9 July 2010

Whatever he ordains is right

What should we desire in life?

The Bible's answer is simple: to know, love, serve and please God. To fulfil his will.

But it's a plain fact that only One man was ever born with that always central in his heart. The rest of us spend our lives struggling against our own desires - our plans, our way - and getting frustrated, saddened and angry when they go wrong.

Of course, some of this may not be wrong. God gave us the "cultural mandate", to advance in every area of human existence. And when that does not work out, there is a right kind of disappointment.

But often, our frustration is simply ungodly - it is because we had our plans, and we value them more highly than we do God's. Our plans were not part of God's plans - but we wanted them without any further conditions, regardless.

"Thy will be done" is the first petition for ourselves that we are taught to pray. It is a fundamental of all true prayer, and will be until we cross the river. It is a lesson that we will never have learnt fully, until all sin has been purged from us.

I can't be happy when I preach the word without seeing fruit, in and of itself. I can't be happy to see sin, disappointment, failure or disaster, for their own sakes.

But there is a rejoicing which should always be with us; because if we are walking with God and obeying his commandments, then the outcome is all part of his plan - that plan which is infinitely holy, infinitely wise and infinitely loving, with the gift of Christ for our sins right at its heart.

This is why Paul could tell us to "rejoice in the Lord always" (Philippians 4:4). The words "in the Lord" are crucial. Whatever happens, it is part of God's eternal will which progresses without delay or diversion from Calvary to Consummation. Even the pain is meant to be joyful pain. Nothing can separate us from Christ's love; and the "deaths" we are called upon to die in taking up the cross and serving Christ are only temporary. "Whatever he ordains is right" is not a hymn-line to be sung with dreary resignation, or Stoic fortitude - but with gladness and joy.

It's such a basic lesson - but oh, what a different witness we would present to the world if we learnt it better!

Grace Magazine (Kenya), issue 3

Issue 3 of Grace Magazine (Kenya) is now available for free reading here (and so are issues 1 & 2):

The PDF for downloading and printing is not there yet, but in a few days, God-willing.

The theme of this issue is Christ's resurrection, and here is the table of contents:
  • The resurrection: our comfort and confidence
  • Umuhimu wa kufufuka kwa Kristo Yesu
  • Love in the family: mothers
  • Do Christians “Keep the Sabbath”?
  • Christ's resurrection for his people
  • How to use the Lord's Day
  • The church's attitude to homosexuals
  • Christian books about the resurrection of Christ
  • The book of 1 Thessalonians: An overview
  • Announcements

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

A lesson learnt...

Today after our prayer meeting, one of the regular attenders asked about how we gain salvation.

My response was to ask him a few questions to find out what he means by that. Round here, it often means "how to get rid of the problems of this life".

He seemed to have a proper understanding, so we moved on to explaining the gospel. This is in a very basic way, as he was much more comfortable in Swahili, and mine is rather crummy. Thankfully another church member was involved! It is thrilling to explain the gospel, even at a very basic level, in another language. And my hearer was not very educated, so very basic was what was needed.

Anyway, after we had talked for a bit and there was nothing more to say except for him to go away and hopefully digest and respond to it all in the presence of God, I offered to pray for him.

Even as I offered, I was a bit concerned that he might have the common Kenyan understanding - that the "pastor"'s prayers were what would now bring him salvation. Then he might go and tell people he was saved - because I prayed for him! But, I figured, I could make it clear in the prayer that we were praying that God will help him to find Christ, not that we were actually somehow wonderfully bringing Christ to him - which, as I say, is what people think pastors have the power to do. (And, once the prayer is over, now assume is actually done, with the predictably disastrous results of "churches" full of unsaved people).

My really big mistake was to ask God to give him help by the Holy Spirit.

What was that I just said?

Mmmm, that sounds a bit heretical. Don't quote me! Anyway, you see, as soon as those words had departed from my lips, there was a crash. We opened our eyes... to find the fellow lying on his back on the floor. He'd fallen over backwards.

Because in Kenya, people generally believe that when you receive the Holy Spirit, you fall over backwards. Really.

I'm not sure which Western con-man to thank for originally bringing that doctrine in, but I only wish we could spread the Biblical doctrines quite as effectively as his followers have. I really hope that by now anyone who's been attending our church for a while realises that we think such teachings are ridiculous and dangerous tosh. But again and again I am humbled by realising how slowly spiritual light dawns, no matter how clear we try to be on what the truth about salvation is.

Did our friend think he had to fall over to show us that he was believing the things that were spoken, i.e. sincerely? Or was his whole expression of interest phoney, and he thought we'd be impressed or taken in when he fell over? I'm too far separated from the thought-world of people like our friend to be able to make a guess about what he was thinking.

The floor was concrete, and our friend did not seem very compos mentis after that. I'm not sure which bit he landed on, as I had my eyes closed - but given the crack, I wouldn't be surprised if it was his head. We tried to explain to him that the real work of the Holy Spirit is in making people hate their sins and trust in Jesus alone - nothing to do with strange phenomena like falling over! And then I had to dash home, because it was almost dark and it's not safe to stay out after that.

Acts 14 shows us what Paul thought when the people of Lystra started to make sacrifices to him. I felt today like I could understand a little bit - you try to make the gospel plain and simple, and people yet have something quite different in their heads. How we long that God would dispel the darkness in their minds and shine his light!