When God breaks your stuff

To sit back and watch your life’s work fall apart…

(Broken...I was pleased to receive this thoughtful story for the blog.)

‘I was such a good missionary. I had given up so much. Surely God would respect that. Right?’

A cross-cultural worker writes of her experience of paring down her worldly goods ready for a simple life among people much poorer than herself, and then finding that within her first 12 months the precious things she had taken from home were mostly broken or damaged by visitors to her home.

She describes her pain and anger with God, followed by brokenness at the recognition of her resentment; the resulting surrender to God and the realisation ‘that people are always more important than things. Always.’

The title grabbed my attention because I too have pondered over similar issues. Not that I have lost crockery or ornaments. Having never been much attached to goods and chattels, I would have difficulty filling two plastic barrels, let alone the 20 that this lady writes of! But that doesn’t mean that other things don’t become precious to me…

Looking back over more than 35 years in mission I have thrown myself into my work, seeking always to honour God, to build up and encourage others. By and large I have enjoyed the ministries God has led me into. These have been for the most part low-profile, with the occasional up-front speaking engagement. I have long recognised God-given leadership gifts and have often been aware of my own insecurities in this role. At the same time, aspirations and ambitions have at times risen to the surface and have had to be laid before God. In asking Him to ‘rank me with whom You will,’ I have frequently been surprised at where He has taken me.

The vision fades

For me, the breaking has come in a different way. I look back over two periods of my life when as part of a leadership team I have given of my best, often going beyond the call of duty, to get a team to the ‘performing’ stage.

In the first case, decisions began to be taken that unwound the changes we had led. Had we failed to communicate the new vision adequately? Or had people simply gone along with it at the time for the sake of peace? Slowly we watched the ministry drift, lose personnel, and forget the original vision.

In the second instance, I stepped down and the new leadership team that took over proved to be overstretched with other responsibilities. That led to dissatisfaction and drift and eventually new leaders were appointed. But they proved to be an unhappy choice, failing to gain the support of the staff.

To sit back and watch your life’s work fall apart is painful – doubly so when it happens the second time! As a former leader I felt I couldn’t interfere. There were days when I had to work hard to avoid adding my comments to the critical voices around me (to my shame I have to say, not always successfully.) As I struggled with my feelings of hurt, anger, and resentment at those who appear to be making poor decisions and ultimately at God Himself for allowing this to happen, I could only watch and pray and ponder…

Did I as a leader miss something significant? Where did I/ we go wrong? Could I have done more to prevent things falling apart? Have other parties been at fault? (Don’t we all want to place the blame at someone else’s door?) This was my life’s work – what is there to show for it? Have I wasted my days building a house of hay and straw, only for it all to come tumbling down? And then, of course, the big question: Where is God in all of this?

The God Question has been the easiest to answer. Over and over again He continues to reveal His love and His grace. He is the unchanging One and in those ongoing revelations of grace I have been reminded that God is loving and kind and altogether on my side! He tests the motives of our hearts and takes us through the refining fire. It is after all His work, not mine, and who am I to argue with Him? It is He who permits ‘men to ride over our heads’. As time has gone on Psalm 66:10-12 has enabled me to put things in perspective. I can only conclude that God has been there all along and continues to work out His purposes, even when the walls come tumbling down.

At the end of the day He will be glorified.

The same psalm speaks of God bringing us to ‘a place of abundance.’ This too is part of my story. Not only have I discovered afresh the love and faithfulness of a Heavenly Father, but I am surrounded these days by people who are choosing to follow Jesus. Playing a small part in their discipleship and practical support is an incredible privilege, with its own joys and sorrows. Through difficult days God has indeed brought me to a place of abundance.

‘For I’m building a people of power’. Fail.

We may not be cut out for it

Look left, look rightFor I’m building a people of power, I”m making a people of praise, who will move through this land by my Spirit.

Now is the time for us to march across the land.

What were we thinking of in the 1980s? When did the church ‘marching across the land’ end well? What would it even look like, the clatter of zimmer frames, the trundle of wheelchairs, the clergy in nice jumpers, overweight people looking hot and wanting to sit down, the toddlers needing the toilet?

Surely ‘marching across the land’ is not how the Kingdom of God spreads. Here’s how the experts do it:

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.1

 

Tolkien on ‘shards of the true light’

Creativity is son-light, filtered

SunlightCreativity is son-light, filtered. Some delicious verse from J R R Tolkein on how our ‘creativity’ is really a derivative of the divine creativity:

Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light

through whom is splintered from a single White

to many hues, and endlessly combined

in living shapes that move from mind to mind.1

 

For Tolkein, myth was a fragment of a truth, and a pointer to God.  (The quote also shows him to be no fan of modern technology.)

We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.” 2

The game is up for the Christian publishing industry?

I need help.

I have just thought a terrible thought.

The single biggest obstacle to getting books into the hands of eager readers is the Christian publishing industry, an industry that I love, respect and owe much to.

Here’s the problem.

I am preparing a talk on Revelation. I would like to read a book called ‘The Theology of Revelation’ by scholar Richard Bauckham. An internet search tells me it’s on sale at Amazon for £21 or rather less on Kindle. The same search pulls up a pdf copy of the book available for free.

I am queasy about downloading the pdf because I am cheating somehow, but I am also queasy about shelling out £20, even if I did this through my local Christian bookshop. £20 is a lot of money.

What I would really like to do, it occurs to me, is email Richard Bauckham and ask if he minded me reading the free pdf. I do not think he would mind (I don’t know him). But I also think he would say he has a contract with the publishers and they would mind.

I decide to do without the book, so I neither download it nor buy it. The Christian publishing industry made the barriers too high for me.

In the late-medieval days of yore– say 1989–the only way to get material from a fine mind like Richard Bauckham into my lesser head was to have a Christian publishing industry. And it was fantastic. It shaped the Protestant world.  The book cost £20. That was relatively expensive, but we paid it sometimes because we knew that although some money went to the author, most went to maintaining a world-spanning chain that edited, printed, marketed, warehoused, and displayed this and thousands of other wonderful books and made them available everywhere. In an analogue world, this was a modest cost for unimagineably vast benefits.

But everything has changed. Getting Prof Bauckman’s book direct from his head to mine now costs almost nothing, probably less than a penny.

So why can’t the book be available for 99p, most of which would go to Prof Bauckham? Why not? Because the publishers and the booksellers can’t live with that price, and through their contractual arrangements they stand in the way of it being available at that price.  Christian publishers and booksellers, once the friend of Christians who wish to learn, have become their enemy. This is my terrible thought. Committed to an archaic ante-deluvian distribution model, they make books needlessly, ruinously expensive and thus drastically reduce their circulation and usefulness. Bauckham should be read by his tens of thousands; but thanks to the Christian publishing industry, he only has his thousands, or indeed his hundreds. What a terrible waste! 

But, say the industry, it’s not so simple. They will tell me I am underplaying their contribution: talent-spotting, editing, marketing,  gate-keeping; that magical work of taking an MS and making it fluent, coherent, available, and hallmarked as theologically solid and well-written.

I will return and say that may have been true once but is so no longer. Editing? You jest. Developing authors? Dream on. Marketing? Authors have to  do it themselves. Typesetting and cover design? Free or cheap alternatives will do just as well for this kind of book. (See what CUP did with Bauckham’s book, below: this is intern stuff.) Gatekeeping? Proper reader reviews are worth much more than the fluff that goes on the cover. What is left? The prestige of being published by a respected house. This is true. But it ain’t worth £19, not when these very respected names are being taken over by accountants and falling off the perch like the rest of the rust-belt.

Publishing once was a world-changing industry; so was coal-mining.

Please someone help me, save me from my sins!

The Theology of the Book of Revelation (New Testament Theology)

I edited this blog after first writing it, to try to simplify the arguments. I changed the title from ‘Christian bookshops’ to ‘Christian publishing industry’. I also added the Amazon ref to Prof Bauckham’s book, which I would like to warmly recommend–but of course I  haven’t read it. 

Not sulking, just thinking hard

That’s our story anyway.

What brought this post on was hearing a lecture from Catholic historian Eamonn Duffy.

In its pre-reformation days, we were told, the Church happily contained many strands of thinking under its ample skirts. Later Reformation criticism (against dubious fundraising through selling indulgences for example) were openly discussed and campaigned against by people such as Erasmus, within the Catholic fold.

After the split, however, the Church of Rome convened the  Council of Trent, better known perhaps as the Almighty Catholic​ Sulk 1 and made a perverse point of adopting all the dodgy stuff as it had been central all along. The split hardened what once was fluid.

Nothing new here of course. The estranged halves of a split each get busy digging trenches. But it’s everywhere.

Is this what faces our Brexiteers as they try to negotiate Tessa May’s beloved Deep and Special Partnersnip with the EU? Will we, instead, find our former partners in full Council of Trent mode? Hope not.

Doesn’t it explain our own country a bit as well? In our church context, some nationalities, like the Chinese, approach the Christian faith in a rational manner: they turn up at church to learn what it is about. This keeps happening in our church.

Many of my fellow Brits, however, seem to reject even a mention of the gospel in what seems to me like an irrationally unfriendly way, like divorcees, like the bruised survivors of a split. The West, someone said, is haunted by the Christian faith.

What is the answer? It took hundreds of years for Catholics and Protestants to resume friendly relations. Let’s hope history really is moving quicker than that.

Inconvenient truth (again)

Uncool but changing things: Evangelicals in Catholic countries

UntitledFew things on earth are as deeply uncool, as heroically off-trend, as sending Evangelical Christian missionaries to Catholic Europe.

If your son or daughter has taken up this career, you probably do not boast about it at the golf club.

So what. For one thing, if a Catholic nation like Spain can embrace gays and scientologists and people with blue hair, a dash of evangelical missionaries surely only adds to the joyous mix. As soon as we evangelicals stop trying to be respectable, we can take our natural place.

For another thing, whatever the spiritual vitality or otherwise of the Catholic church, masses of people in Catholic countries are finding spiritual renewal through movements started by evangelicals and Pentecostals. They are more than 10% of the population in Argentina, for example, more than 20% in the Philippines.

And for a third, Christ’s evident habit of championing the outcast, the laughed-at and the dispossessed has turned builders’ rubble into cornerstone and capstone.

The people who listened

The mission I work for, WEC International, was sending missionaries to Spain from the 1960s onward. They had a difficult time of it. When they did presentations of the gospel in the public parks, hardly anyone listened except the drug addicts.

After much soul-searching, and probably trying every other alternative,  in 1985 one or two single male WEC missionaries starting opening their apartments to these same addicts.

Somehow all the ducks lined up and something wonderful happened. This small start evolved, through God’s blessing, into a movement called Betel that now runs 60 homes for recovering heroinistas in 23 Spanish provinces and has spread to 25 other countries.

More than 200,000 of the neediest and most despised people of the earth have passed through Betel’s doors in the past 30 years and of those who stayed, many have turned their lives around. Awards and accolades have followed.

I’ve met graduates of these schools. When I stand praying next to these big, beautiful, scarred, tattooed people my watery Anglican spirituality feels like some distant relative of authentic Christianity — genetically a bit similar but lacking in sap or blood.

Betel, this child of evangelical mission to Spain, has rediscovered the gospel. From the most obscure of beginnings, the authenticity and power of what they have achieved has altered the landscape. Wonderful.

Horrible hype

‘I’m getting old,’ I complained to my wife. Old enough to see some much hyped Christian things crumble and fall. So sad. Today I was reminded of two.

Years ago I’d visited my publishers for a day of interviews and publicity shots. They’d shown me an exciting book they were hyping:  Taming the Tiger. A few years on, large parts of it were revealed as sham- after its author scooped prestigious awards, spoke widely, and distributed 1.5m copies.

After the original publisher withdrew it (and also went into administration, though that was probably from publishing me rather than publishing Taming the Tiger) another took it on, reluctant to waste a good bestseller.

Second, in a few days time from today, a pastor called Kong Hee, whom I spent an hour interviewing back in the 1990s in Singapore when he was pastor of ‘City Harvest Church’, starts a three-year prison sentence. He is guilty of misdirecting some $35m of church funds, largely in an attempt to launch his wife as a crossover Christian-maintream singer. I liked him when I met him.

Yesterday I read in my beloved Psalm 45 the prayer to the Messiah-King: ‘ride out on behalf of truth, humility and justice.’

 

The real problem with praying to God for healing: he has an agenda

We might not like the medicine

You probably know the old joke about a person who fell off a cliff but managed to grab hold of a branch halfway down. As he swung, he called into the mists below him, ‘Is there anybody there? Can you help me?’

A voice came from the mist. ‘Trust me, and let go the branch.’

The person thought about it and then said, ‘Noted. Is there anybody else down there?’

Involving God in our healing exposes us to the risk that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways.

We may come to him with the hope of a quick fix to a medical problem. But in coming, we open ourselves to the fact that God may have a view on what is really wrong with us and what needs to be put right.  

We may point out the mote in God’s eye (he let me suffer toothache!), he points out the plank in ours. We bring our agenda to him; he brings his agenda to us. It is like when you have to speak to your wife about something.  It’s unpredictable. You don’t know what avalanche will be unleashed as you remove the first boulder. 

Unfortunately I know of no way round this. Once we bring our problems to God we are in the same position as the king with an army of 10,000 discovering that the opposing king has an army of 20,000.  By the end of the day there will only be one king left standing. One agenda will survive the meetup. And it won’t be ours.

Our options at this point are limited. We could take the ‘Henry V’ option (‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…’) Or, since it is God we are now facing, God and his agenda for us, we could take our army to one side and say, ‘Lads, it’s like this. We either face certain death in battle or we surrender and hope for the best.’ We come to him: we submit to him. We want his touch; the only thing offered is his outstretched arms, his deep embrace. It’s all or nothing, all of him or nothing.

Our only way out of this dilemma is to take our medicine as soon as possible. We want healing if possible please; if so, we first need to surrender ourselves, body, mind and schedule, heart and soul and hopes, to the Healer.

 

The beautiful joy of criticism

It separates wheat from dross, and cuts rough diamonds

Ufology sign
By ‘criticism’, I don’t mean saying bad things about people, of which I think we do way too much.

I mean holding something up, looking at it in a fresh light, considering an alternative view, listening to the opposite argument, assessing and weighing the evidence. 

Sceptical skills do not come naturally to us and I think we should practice them. Argue with yourself against some deeply-held opinions for a few minutes each day, perhaps. 1

I think we should cultivate the friendship of the smart, good people who despite being smart and good, believe all the wrong things.

We should celebrate when we change our mind or arrive at a fresh perspective. These are moments that don’t come round so often. It’s much more common, apparently, only to really latch on to the fresh information that digs us deeper into the rut we have already chosen.

And finally we should train our sceptical gunsights on those who who are on our side, who are bravely fighting our corner. It isn’t wrong. It’s breathing clean air.