Warner's TheoBlog

Thoughts from a disciple who writes


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Love

In recent times I have heard of a friend of mine who is suffering from rather advanced cancer. They did not have any hint that it might be there and simply found a lump one day. Within just a few weeks, they have found themselves in hospital, too ill even for chemo therapy. My heart breaks for them and their family.

This friend has many Christian friends who have been made aware of the situation and it has been wonderful, in a melancholy manner, to witness the outpouring for love and concern for my friend. Believers have been fasting and praying, committing themselves to pursue God for my friends healing and wholeness. I too have committed myself to fast and pray for my friend, in the hope that they will be healed and we will witness a true miracle of God.

The Bible reassures us that we will see healing in Jesus’ name and there also have been many words of prophecy and encouragement for our church and for Braintree, telling us that we will see an outpouring of healing in Jesus’ name and to Jesus glory. I believe. We believe. And we pursue God for the life and the healing of our friend, claiming the promises of God. “You have said… so please, we want to see it!”

Praise God for this move and passion for healing in our church and in Braintree, and for our friend who we hold before God. It is utterly correct to do so and the outpouring of love is brilliant and fantastic to witness. More, Lord, more.

Yet… it has raised a question in my heart that is an itch that I think too serious to overlook.

What about the stranger? What about the struggle of the person that I and my friends do not know personally? How do I feel when I hear of a stranger’s struggle, illness, hurt or pain? What is my response when I am not their friend and they are simply another stranger among thousands that I see every day? Does my heart break for them? Do I feel the motivation to fast and pray and fall to my knees before God on their behalf as I do for my friend?

No. I am sorry to say that I do not.

For my friend I am driven to my knees to pray and seek God on their behalf. For the stranger… I feel sorry for them, compassion for their struggle, but no heart break or desire to fall to my knees and pray! No drive to pursue God on their behalf with the intensity and passion as I do my friend.

What about God? Does God care more for my friend than for the stranger? No. I know that the answer to this questions is a simple and resounding NO! God loves them both. Equally, sacrificially, overwhelmingly, passionately; God loves them both so much that he sent Jesus to die in their place. My heavenly Father’s heart breaks at their struggles and his love is boundless for their circumstances. When my Father God hears of the cancer of my friend and the cancer of the stranger, I believe that my Father is moved to heal and transform.

Yet, I have to admit that I have far less passion to pray and pursue God’s healing for the stranger than I have for my friend. Oh yes, I want to them to be healed because I want to see a miracle… but I am not sure I want the stranger healed out of a sense of overwhelming love for them. Who will ask for their healing and weep for their circumstances and bang on God’s door for their rescue? If not me, who?

I am ashamed to say that it is unlikely to be me, because I simply do not beat with the heart beat of God for the lives of the people I do not know. My friends and family… easy. I love them and want to see God move with a passion that overwhelms me in prayer. For the stranger… I just don’t feel it. I am ashamed that I simply do not love them as my Father God loves them.

Jesus said in Luke 12:31, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and all of the other things will be added to it.”

Somehow, I have to seek the heartbeat of God for His Kingdom. I have to know God and move to the beat of His heart. Loving the people he loves, whether I know them or not. I have to pray for my friend… but I also have to pray for the stranger with the same love, passion, intensity and commitment as I pray for my friend. How? That I am not sure of, other than to seek Father God with all my heart.

If I am honest, I find it hard to write such a confession of shortcoming. And it may be that my fellow believers pour scorn on my struggle and callous lack of love for others… but I am not alone. Where is the heart of God in the people of God? If we move so closely to the beat of the heart of God… where is our self-sacrificing, passionate, overwhelming love for the people that God loves. Even those who we do not know?

What are your thoughts?

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How can I be more fruitful?

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5)

This verse has been speaking to me a great deal in the last week. It comes from Jesus wonderful metaphor of the vine and the branches.

Jesus is the vine, the source of nourishment and that which is rooted in the soul. We are the branches, attached to the vine for our flourishing. Without the vine we can do and produce nothing. God is the gardener, managing and caring for the vine so that it is a fruitful and productive as it can possibly be. He cuts off branches that do not bear fruit, so that they do not take valuable energy away from fruit giving branches. He prunes those branches that bear fruit, cutting them back so that they can become even more fruitful.

This passage in John 15 warrants plenty of time. It is one that, I have found, needs to ferment and mature in order for it to become more clear.

There are several things that are swilling around my brain.

First, the branch MUST be attached to the vine. No branch can produce fruit if it is not firmly and healthily attached to the vine. A branch can survive for a short time in a vase, but it will die. The place for a branch to be is attached to the vine, so that it can be fed and grow. Verse 5 is very clear. “Apart from me you can do nothing”. It is in our closeness and attachment to Jesus, the vine, that ALL of out ability to flourish as Christians depends. Without it we can do nothing. Without it we are nothing.

Second, fruitfulness is the natural result of being a healthy branch. Branches do not produce fruit if they are separate from the vine, but when they are healthily attached they cannot help but produce fruit. Fruitfulness comes from Jesus. It is a consequential response to real intimacy with God. ‘Apparent’ intimacy will not produce fruit. Fruitfulness is the purpose of the vine and the branches, it is what the gardener desires. So fruit should be our purpose, but only as a response to closeness to the vine.

Third, pruning bloody well hurts. I am sorry to put it so crudely, but it is what I have found. I do not like bits being cut off of me and, if anyone has witnessed an expert gardener pruning a plant, pruning is a violent and surgical activity. BUT, and this is really, really important, pruning works. It is the best and, as far as I know, only way to nurture a plant to greater and better fruitfulness. Pruning hurts, but it is worth it to increase the yield of good fruit.

Fourth, a good vine takes time. It is over seasons that the fruit multiplies. Only with time can the gardener train and nurture a plant to excellent fruitfulness. With time, the link between the branch and the vine becomes stronger and more effective to enable the branch to flourish and produce fruit.

Finally, we should not pray for more fruitful lives. We should pray for a closer relationship with Jesus. It is only and always our closeness to the vine that will increase the quality and quantity of our fruit. If we want to see more evidence of the presence and power of God, then we need to be in the presence of God.

If I want to be more fruitful as a disciple of Jesus, then I need to be more firmly and closely attached to the vine. Apart from Him, I can do nothing.

 


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Paying the price

I wonder if, for too long, the Christian faith has been presented as an easy option?

Let me start by stating that Jesus has paid the price for our salvation, once and for all. We are saved by grace, not as a result of our own righteousness. In this way, the price that we simply cannot afford has already been paid, fully and unequivocally, and salvation is free. BUT…

However, it is not salvation that is at issue, so much as it is the life of a disciple.

To paraphrase Bill Hybels, if the Christian faith is only about salvation, why are we still breathing? Why is it that we are not, as soon as we believe, taken into heaven? What happens after salvation? It is after we are saved that God asks us to pay a price. We don’t have to pay it, but we are given the opportunity to do so over the rest of our life on Earth.

Richard Taylor, at #RMLC2014, talked about an aeroplane where the ones who are in first class are simply those who are willing to pay the price expected to upgrade from standard seating. All of the passengers are heading for their destination, but some have paid more and so find more on their journey. The difference between standard and first class is not where one travels, it is how one travels.

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27)

These words of Jesus do not say that there is a cost to salvation. Anyone can hear the words of Jesus, comprehend the meaning and believe in the truth. Yet, there is a difference between those who believe and those who follow. Following Jesus costs more, but it means more too.

To follow Jesus we must give up our own preferences and life choices. We must choose to submit our future to him, living in a way that is consistent with his teaching, even if it is different to what we have always known. This might mean that we strain, or even lose, relationships with family and friends who do not agree with us or understand our faith. It might necessitate a change in our priorities of time and effort. Following Jesus will almost certainly mean that we have to sacrifice our need for control over our own destiny, choosing to live by faith instead of knowledge.

Following Jesus ALWAYS leads to change. We will change, our lives will change, our relationships will change and our view of the world that we live in will change.

The Cost of following Jesus is simply that we have to follow Jesus, wherever he leads us… even when it results in derision, persecution and, possibly, death.

Why? Because Jesus Christ is the only way for the people of the world to be reconciled to the God who created them. He is the only way to be forgiven from sin and the only path into the presence of the living God. Further, the people of this world NEED to see the truth that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. It is through the lives of the disciples of Jesus that they will find the evidence of the truth of salvation by grace. We are the body of Christ!

To be saved does not mean that I need to be a disciple of Jesus. I don’t have to pay that price. But, because I am saved, how can I not follow? How can I not dive into God? The question is this… am I willing to pay the price so that my fellow men and women of the world might taste and see that Jesus is the way to full and wonderful life?

“Where else can I go? With you, Jesus, are the words of eternal life”

End Note – This blog is the result of my thoughts following the @RMChurches Leadership Conference in Norwich (#RMLC2014).


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The Parable of the Treasure (a retelling)

It has been a long time since my last Theoblog post, but now it is time to start posting again. If you like what you read, please share it around. There are also a great many posts in the archive so please take a peek. Comments are more than welcome as are retweets, shares, and the like.

I am going to start off this new era with my take on a parable of Jesus…

There was once a man who, whilst he was working in a field, found a treasure of immeasurable worth. From the moment he found it, he knew that this treasure was of greater value than anything else in the world. Greater than anything he had, would or could ever possess. So, he buried the treasure once more and went off with the firm intention of selling everything he had so that he could buy the field and gain the treasure for himself.

Whilst he was hurrying to do so a pretty young lady caught his eye and he stopped to talk to her. He thought, “I will sell everything later to buy the treasure” and took the pretty young lady for a drink. The man and the lady got talking, time passed and the man still firmly intended to sell everything and buy the field… later.

In time, the man and the lady married, found a house to share together and had a few children. He often thought about the treasure and, every time it came to mind, he firmly intended to sell all that he had to buy the field where he had found the treasure. He even went as far as to go to the auction house where he could sell everything, and was surprised when they offered him a job. The treasure would come a little later, he decided.

The man worked hard, smiled, was patted on the back, celebrated, enjoyed his children, house, pet dog, food, drink, holidays in the sun, sadness, fun and a cottage on the continent for dreamy days and family gatherings. All safe in the knowledge that the man knew where the treasure was.

When, eventually, as a much older man, he got around to being able to afford the time to be able to buy the field the old man handed over the money, took his spade and dug down to find that the treasure he had found all those years ago was still where he had left it. And he wept as he looked on its beauty and was overwhelmed once more at its immeasurable worth. He wept for all of the time he had lost without the greatest treasure in the world.

The man fell down dead and went to heaven, leaving the treasure in the field where he had first found it. Unused.

 


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The temptation to ambivalence

This blog is not really a Bible study. It is more in the line of a reflection that comes out of where I find myself in recent months.

I used to watch people slip away from church and wonder how it could happen. I would believe that if they had a passion and faith like mine, then they would not be able to slip away.

In the last month or so, it has become very real to me that there is a temptation to simply fall out of church. I would call it, ‘the temptation to ambivalence’.

It is not that anyone has said anything, or that the church where I go is teaching heresy. It is most certainly not that I have lost my faith. I BELIEVE! It is simply that I am tempted to give up caring. There is something missing, either from me or the church, and I feel increasingly disjointed and utterly discouraged. The only word I can use to describe it? Meh.

I am a passionate man. I am not used to feeling ambivalent. I want to see things happen and I love to make stuff happen, yet… nothing is happening. I believe in the Gospel with a passionate zeal. Jesus is Lord! The world needs to know it! I love Jesus with all my heart and want nothing more than to see the people I love, and the people of the town where I live, come to know Him. I want to see the power of God move.

Yet I can understand how easy it is to simply fall away. Not deliberately. Not out of a fit of pique. Certainly not because I have lost my faith in Jesus. Simply, because… Meh!

It would be so easy to take a week off. And I know that the week would soon turn into a few. In the end, it would be easier to not go to church than to face the questions and the smiles where I to return. Without a doubt, my faith would suffer and before long I would have less faith in Jesus and… Devil’s job done. I would be taken out by the enemy. Not with violence… but with ambivalence.

“Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:25)

I will not slip away! I will hold on. Somehow, I will hold on.

So I pray! I pray for God to speak… where am I supposed to be? I pray for God to move in power… fill me Holy Spirit! I pray for my church, my family, my friends, my leaders, my colleagues… God’s will be done! I pray for encouragement.

There is nothing else for me to do. I hold on and pray!

Speak Lord, your servant is listening. And when God speaks… Boy will I jump to action!


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Jesus who? – Another Christmas cogitation

My children have a wide range of skills and gifts, and I am very proud of them. Not all of them, however, are as positive as I might hope. One of their remarkable skills, that in this case I can only hope they grow out of, could be best described as ‘selective blindness’.

Let me give you an example.

One of my sons will want to wear his favorite sweater. He will ask where it is and my wife or I will tell him that the sweater he requires is in his bedroom, in his sweater drawer. My son will then race off to look, only to return 20 seconds later to say that his sweater is not in his sweater drawer. We will assure him that his sweater is, in fact, in his sweater drawer and send him off to look once more. A mere 25 seconds later, our son will stand before us, speaking with great vehemence, to tell us that the sweater is not in the drawer. We will tell him once again where the sweater is (in the drawer) and he will have. what can only be described as, a ‘strop’, shouting that we are wrong and flinging his foot towards the floor with a passion that can only be felt by a child insistent that his parents are ‘wrong’ and ‘being unfair’.

Any parent will know what happens next. We go with him into his room, to the drawer in question, and find, sitting on top of the pile of clothing inside his drawer, the very sweater that was required. He will then insist that it was not there only a few moments before.

This exchange contains an everyday miracle. The miracle is not that we have found the sweater which our son insists mystically appeared in between his searches. The miracle, as far as I am concerned, is that my son did not find the sweater that was on top of his clothes, in plain sight, in exactly the place we said it would be!

“He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:10-11)

Where is God? In a beautiful world that is wracked with pain, loss, disaster, disease and more, the cry goes out. Where is God? Why does God ignore us? We are told that there is a God, yet we cannot see Him.

The accusations follow.

There is no God. We have looked and He is not there! We have been lied to. If God is there, why can’t we see Him?

The truth is simple, yet profound. God is with us. He is in the midst of this beautiful, suffering, struggling, dark and painful world. Born in a stable, to live and die and rise again. He is right out in the open where all can see him… yet so many people miss him. It seems that the majority of the world suffers from ‘selective blindness’.

We may stamp our feet and shout our frustration, because we cannot see the presence of God in the world, yet… there he is. Right out in plain sight. Just where he has been declared to be for the whole of our lives. Jesus is God’s presence and rescue for a lost world. God is right there in plain sight for all to see, yet so many simply do not see him.

The miracle is not that God is in the world. The miracle is that we fail to see him! He is right there in plain sight.

It is for this reason that those of us who are Christians and can see God’s presence in the world right in front of us, must not get frustrated with the people who cannot see Jesus. Just as it is a waste of time and energy shouting at our children when they cannot see a jumper that is in plain sight, neither should we scream our frustration at the world’s selective blindness in their faces. Accusing the world of willful ignorance is a waste of energy and in no way displays the love for the world that Jesus exemplifies and calls us to. It might well be that Jesus is right in front of them in plain sight, but they genuinely cannot seem to see him.

What we have to do is simply walk alongside them and show them Jesus. Point to him, right out in plain sight, and hope that next time they will see him for themselves. Because, once a person sees Jesus for themselves, they simply cannot fathom how they were able to miss him for all the time that passed before.

Simple, yet profound. Do not get angry that others cannot see Jesus when he is right there in front of them. Rather, walk with them and show them where he is. Perhaps next time they will see Him for themselves.


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Burned out on Religion

In my work as a funeral celebrant, the phrase that I hear most regularly is, “we are not religious”. In fact, almost all of the funerals I officiate at are understood, at least by the families whom I serve, to be non-religious. Yet they request prayers, Bible readings, a brief message of hope in the grace of God, and a hymn with words that give honour and glory to God.

When families tell me that they are “not really very religious”, they do so with a sense of apologetic determination. As if they are saying, “we are not really very religious and we are not going to be persuaded otherwise”. As I dig a little deeper during our discussions, I find that people have often been put off of the church, by their experience as children or by a kind of assumed cynicism. They may not be ‘religious’ but they have a suspicion of faith in God.

 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Matthew 11:28-30 (The Message)

As I sit with them, I tell them the truth. I am not very religious either.

I believe that religion sucks the life out of faith in Jesus. To be religious is as helpful to faith as making formal rules for the conduct of love. As if a love affair can only be a ‘real’ love affair if one uses specific words, visits particular venues and involves only prescribed movements to acceptable pieces of music.

We all know that pretty much every love affair involves certain elements: words that declare love, dates where couples hold hands, sofas where they canoodle, physical touches that send shivers down the spine, all done to a soundtrack that, when one hears it years later, engenders sharp memories of a time of sweetly sharp love. Love affairs do not need to be formalized and controlled, they need to be given space and minimal boundaries.

Religion is rubbish! It is the codification of our relationship with God. Religion turns our relationship with God, that would otherwise be a love affair, into a stuffy meeting over afternoon tea. It takes all of the vibrant reality out of faith in Jesus, telling us that it is only the prescribed methods of spending time with Him that are unacceptable. Religion makes the love of God into something that it should not be… a contract.

Faith in God is supposed to be unfettered, unrestricted, and wonderfully real. We should not dread and avoid our encounters with Him. We should be excited to be early, so that we waste none of the time we spend in His company as possible. Our desire to be with God should be a reflection of the overflow of a forgiven soul. We are the recipients of His grace, welcomed into union with Him by His open arms, desperate to squeeze every moment out of our joyous time together.

Going to church, praying, singing, reading God’s word; none of these should be a bind or a chore. They should be a wonderful overflowing pleasure. And it is almost impossible to make them so, unless one has a very specific taste, through codification and formalization. My time with my beloved wife is not characterized by our prescribed words of devotion and strictly timed liaisons, but by our sheer pleasure in simple having opportunities to sit, laugh, talk, touch and love.

That is not to say that there are not boundaries in both love and faith. The boundaries of a love affair have to do with restricting the expression of passion so that it does not become destructive to ourselves and those who are witnesses to our love. The boundaries of faith expression are similar, having less to do with what we practice and more to do with what might be destructive.

I am not Religious. I am deeply, passionately, breathlessly, sincerely, seriously, amazingly, desperately in love with Jesus who, when I was lost in destructive sin and far away from my Father Creator, paid the price so that I could be reconciled and reunited with Him. I love Him. And I want to tell Him that I love Him. I want to be with Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit and close to my Father. I don’t need prescribed words and movements to do that, although there are times when it is a little help, I need space and opportunity and desire. I WANT to spend time with God, so that is what I do. Freely and lightly, as an overflow of my very forgiven, renewed soul.